On the Shoulders of Giants consists of 12 essays that the late Umberto Eco gave as lectures at the annual Milanesiana festival of culture between 2001 and 2015. Judging from the book, 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; quite often he seems to be rather going through the motions. And while he can always be relied on for a generous smattering of his greatest hits — conspiracy theories, William of Ockham, the Rosicrucians, Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite — these too are performed with noticeably varying amounts of feeling and effort.
The best essay is the first, which includes a thorough history of the book’s title phrase, complete with Eco’s usual airy references to any number of obscure medieval thinkers. In 1675, Isaac Newton famously declared: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ As it transpires, though, 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 it a modest remark or a boastful one? On the one hand, these people are all acknowledging their forebears’ greatness. On the other, they’re leaving us in no doubt as to who can see further now.
Nonetheless, this is really only an aside to the essay’s main concern, which is with cultural ‘parricide’: the way each generation rejects the ideas of their fathers, normally by conscripting and developing the ideas of their grandfathers. Impressively, in around 20 pages, Eco traces how this has worked from Ancient Rome to the present. 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 different generations either share the same tastes or are perfectly happy to accept each others’ different ones, leading to an ‘orgy of tolerance’ and an ‘absolute and unstoppable polytheism’.
The next essay, on the 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, the conclusion he reaches is perhaps the first sign that he’s coasting a bit here. Nowadays, he notes with some sadness, there’s an ‘orgy of tolerance’, an ‘absolute, unstoppable polytheism of beauty’.
And from there, things take a turn for the distinctly patchy. ‘The Invisible’, about 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 emerge 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) — before explaining that ‘It is right not to require of Wilde a strict distinction between (true) paradoxes, (obvious) aphorisms and aphorisms that are interchangeable.’
The second and more common category is a series of thoughts and quotations, many of which are undeniably interesting in themselves, but that end up feeling pretty random, despite Eco’s shameless use of such faux-linking devices as ‘therefore’ and ‘which brings us to’.
Which brings us to another aspect of the book I should probably warn you about: parts of it are very hard. Particularly in the middle section, not many essays go by without supplying those moments familiar to most lay people when faced with a work of supposedly accessible philosophy — where a self-congratulatory sense of being able to follow some fairly complicated ideas suddenly gives way to total bafflement. ‘For the Aristotelian tradition,’ we learn,
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.
Of course, as a philosopher lecturing at a philosophical event, Eco can’t be blamed for such levels of difficulty. Less forgivable is that his publishers should present this book to the world without any indication that a good few of these essays have appeared in earlier Eco collections. The new book is lavishly — if, again, somewhat randomly — illustrated. Yet, if you’re going to charge £30 for it, the fact that at least a third of the material is already available might be worth a mention.