When the Other Appears on the Scene

By Eco, Umberto | Cross Currents, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

When the Other Appears on the Scene


Eco, Umberto, Cross Currents


This article is derived from an exchange of four letters with Cardinal Martini. The following letter is Eco's reply to a question the cardinal had asked him: "What is the basis of the certainty and necessity for moral action of those who, in order to establish the absolute nature of an ethic, do not intend to appeal to metaphysical principles or transcendental values, or even to universally valid categorical imperatives?"

The Editors

Dear Carlo Maria Martini,

Your letter has extricated me from one serious dilemma only to leave me on the horns of another that is equally awkward. Until now it has been up to me (through no decision of mine) to open the debate, and he who talks first inevitably puts his questions and invites the other to reply. My predicament springs from my feeling inquisitorial. And I very much appreciated the firmness and humility with which you, on three occasions, exploded the myth that would have us believe that Jesuits always answer a question with another question.

But now I am at a loss as to how to reply to your question, because my answer would be significant had I had a lay upbringing. But in fact I received a strongly Catholic education until (just to record the moment of the breach) the age of twenty-two. For me, the lay point of view was not a passively absorbed heritage, but rather the hard-won result of a long and slow process of change, and I always wonder whether some of my moral convictions do not still depend on religious impressions received early in my development. Now, in my maturity, I have seen (in a foreign Catholic university that also employs lay teaching staff, requiring of them no more than a manifestation of formal respect during religious-academic rituals) some of my colleagues take the sacraments without their believing in the Real Presence, and therefore without their having taken confession beforehand. With a tremor, after so many years, I felt once more the horror of sacrilege.

Nonetheless, I feel I can explain the foundations on which my "lay religiosity" rests--because I firmly hold that there are forms of religiosity, and therefore a sense of the Holy, of the Limit, of questioning and of awaiting, of communion with something that transcends us, even in the absence of faith in a personal and provident divinity. But, as I see from your letter, you know this too. What you are asking yourself is what is binding, captivating, and inalienable in these forms of ethic.

I should like to approach things in a roundabout way. Certain ethical problems became clearer to me on considering some problems in semantics--and please don't worry if some people say that we are talking in a complicated way: they might have been encouraged to think too simply by mass-media "revelations," predictable by definition. Let them instead learn to "think complicated," because neither the mystery nor the evidence is simple.

My problem hinged on the existence of "semantic universals," or in other words, elementary notions that are common to the entire human species and can be expressed in all languages. Not such an easy problem, given that many cultures do not recognize notions that strike us as obvious: for example, that of substance to which certain properties belong (as when we say that "the apple is red") or that of identity (a=a). However, I am convinced that there certainly are notions common to all cultures, and that they all refer to the position of our body in space.

We are erect animals, so it is tiring to stay upside down for long, and therefore we have a common notion of up and down, tending to favor the first over the second. Likewise, we have notions of right and left, of standing still and of walking, of standing up and lying down, of crawling and jumping, of waking and sleeping. Since we have limbs, we all know what it means to beat against a resistant material, to penetrate a soft or liquid substance, to crush, to drum, to pummel, to kick, and perhaps even to dance as well. …

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