Umberto Eco—The Celebration of Folly
Humanism is a living intellectual tradition in the west; one that many of our greatest luminaries have abandoned in frustration. It is a natural project—the kind of thing that serious scholars tend to fall into once they realize that most of their colleagues are more interested in accolades rather than truth; in placing the glory of the institution above the people that it serves. While strands have emerged across cultures and times, the European version of this found its voice in the churning chaos of the Reformation and the wild discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries. The need for less-orthodox interpretations of a suddenly expanding world forced encouraged men like Desiderius Erasmus (a name you should consider for your next child) to step back from the traditional institutions of European life and face the confusing plurality of human experience. In response, he wrote The Praise of Folly; a book dedicated to laughing at the efforts people make to deceive themselves into accepting their lot.
The argument goes something like this: people believe really crazy things. They have millions of reasons to believe these things, and cannot, strictly speaking, be help at fault for their failings. For many scholars, this has typically been a source of immense concern. The world was complex and prone to considerable nuance. To these elitists, there danger of too much knowledge was as dangerous to the public as too little. Religious authorities had long ago decided that the best way to “educate” people was to limit their access to ideas, and simply provide what everyone knows is best. Our modern solution has been to abandon the pretense of objective reality entirely, and instead sink into a mire of overlapping and conflicting ideological distortions. As Erasmus noted, this would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. But tragedy is depressing. Just ask John Stewart.
Umberto Eco knew this and dedicated his life’s work to helping people see not just the thing itself, but the humor of it. He was most famous for The Name of the Rose, a story about an elder monk willing to kill on account of his peculiar beliefs about laughter. But his other work echoes similar themes: Baudilino follows a young scholar as he hunts for the mystical kingdom of St. John while on the run from the fearsome, and very real, Emperor Barbarossa. Foucault’s Pendulum was a tale of sophisticated frauds who find themselves victim of their invent occult conspiracy. The Prague Cemetery attempts to construct the mind that could invent the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In each case, the hero’s knowledge fails once it reaches its own, natural limits.
And Eco was smart. In fact, he was unabashedly joyful about knowledge. His books were treasuries of obscurantism, and one would be forgiven for believing that he must have known everything. Of course, this was part of the trick: he chose his anecdotes with incredible care. In many ways though, his body of work stand as parables for our modern intelligensia: don’t believe what you read. It can control you. Yet Eco offered hope: his work also suggests that diligent curiosity will always be rewarded. What explains this paradox? Eco’s work took great pains to both punish and reward curiosity: his protagonists always came away with more and less than they’d hoped for. The quest for truth, as I think Eco understood it, was a quest that needed our active attention at all times. Even when it leads us astray, it is almost enough to have simply participated. The search itself is the thing, and is necessary for the well-lived life.
His novels also took pains to punish cynicism. He reminded his readers that knowledge was a sacred right, and that to abuse the credulous would always earn a reckoning. This kind of casual elitism might not be popular in America, but the damage done to our national dialogue in recent decades points to their truth. Words have a power over people. We rely upon them to make sense of the world beyond our doors, and that the writers of those words have a grave responsibility. Sometimes, to reflect to hard on this is to risk paralysis. Sometimes, that’s okay.
I will miss him.