On the Shoulders of Giants gathers the 12 lectures that the late Umberto Eco gave between 2001 and 2015 at Milan’s annual Milanesiana festival. Seeing him deliver them must have been like going to a concert these days by Van Morrison or Bob Dylan. Sometimes, he’s on top form, all the old magic thrillingly intact; often, he seems to be going through the motions. And while Eco can always be relied on for a generous smattering of greatest hits — conspiracy theories, William of Ockham, the Rosicrucians, Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite — these too are performed with variable feeling and effort.
The best essay is the first, which includes a thorough history of the book’s title phrase, complete with typically airy references to any number of obscure medieval thinkers. ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,’ Isaac Newton famously declared in 1675. It transpires that the same idea had been expressed for centuries by (among others) Sven Aagesen, Gerard of Cambrai, Raoul de Longchamp, Gilles de Corbeil and Gerard of Auvergne. But, Eco wonders intriguingly, is this remark modest or boastful? All these thinkers are acknowledging their forebears’ greatness, but all leave us in no doubt as to who see furthest now.
All this is really only an aside to the essay’s main concern: the cultural ‘parricide’ with which each generation rejects the ideas of its fathers, normally by conscripting and developing the ideas of its grandfathers. Impressively, Eco traces how this has worked from Ancient Rome to the present in around 20 pages –– or almost to the present because, as he notes with some sadness, the glory days of parricide appear to be over. In our digital world, the generations either share the same tastes or are perfectly happy to accept different tastes. This leads to an ‘orgy of tolerance’ and an ‘absolute and unstoppable polytheism’.
The next essay, on changing concepts of beauty in art, is good too — as well it might be, seeing as Eco published an entire book on the subject in 2005. Even so, his conclusion is perhaps the first sign that he’s coasting. Nowadays, he notes with some sadness, there’s an ‘orgy of tolerance’, an ‘absolute, unstoppable polytheism of beauty’.
From there, things take a turn for the distinctly patchy. ‘The Invisible’, on the weird reality of fictional characters, makes a mischievously convincing case that the most ‘undoubtedly true’ things we can ever say about people are about people who have never existed: ‘Superman is Clark Kent’ for example, or ‘Sherlock Holmes lived in Baker Street’. By contrast, ‘Hitler died in a bunker in Berlin’ is still open to revision if say, Russian documents emerged, showing that he didn’t.
Too many of the other essays, however, fall into one of two categories. The first is the exhaustive but oddly pointless taxonomy. In ‘Paradoxes and Aphorisms’, Eco divides scores of Oscar Wilde’s one-liners into true paradoxes (good), obvious aphorisms and interchangeable aphorisms (both bad). He concludes that it is ‘right not to require of Wilde a strict distinction between (true) paradoxes, (obvious) aphorisms and aphorisms that are interchangeable’. This is not a good paradox.
The second and more common category is a series of thoughts and quotations. Many are undeniably interesting in themselves, but most end up feeling random, despite Eco’s shameless use of faux-linking devices like ‘Therefore…’ and ‘Which brings us to…’.
Which brings us to another aspect of the book I should probably warn you about: parts of it, particularly in the middle section, are very hard. Few essays pass without that moment familiar to the lay reader of a work of supposedly accessible philosophy — the moment when a self-congratulatory sense of following fairly complicated ideas suddenly gives way to total bafflement: ‘For the Aristotelian tradition, at least until Thomas Aquinas, the sign immediately referred to the concept, which was in its turn an image of the thing. For Ockham, on the other hand, the true signum of the thing is the concept, not the word that refers to it.’
Eco, a philosopher lecturing at a philosophical event, can’t be blamed for such levels of difficulty. Less forgivable is that his publishers should present this book without indicating that at least a third of these essays have appeared in earlier Eco collections. The new book is lavishly if, again, somewhat randomly, illustrated. Still, if you’re going to charge 30 bucks, it might be worth mentioning that, at least some of the time, Eco is standing on his own shoulders.