Umberto Eco

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The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.

Umberto Eco (born 5 January 1932) is an Italian philosopher, semiotician, essayist, literary critic, and novelist, most famous for his novel The Name of the Rose (1980), an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory.

See also:
Foucault's Pendulum (1989)
The Island of the Day Before (1994)


A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for hypnosis.
Wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded in a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else… ~ Foucault's Pendulum
Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry.
  • Not long ago, if you wanted to seize political power in a country you had merely to control the army and the police. Today it is only in the most backward countries that fascist generals, in carrying out a coup d'état, still use tanks. If a country has reached a high degree of industrialization the whole scene changes. The day after the fall of Khrushchev, the editors of Pravda, Izvestiia, the heads of the radio and television were replaced; the army wasn't called out. Today a country belongs to the person who controls communications.
    • Il costume di casa (1973); as translated in Travels in Hyperreality (1986)
  • Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used "to tell" at all.
    • Trattato di semiotica generale (1975); [A Theory of Semiotics] (1976)
    • Variant: A sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie.
  • A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for hypnosis.
    • "Can Television Teach?" in Screen Education 31 (1979), p. 12
  • I started to write [The Name of the Rose] in March of 1978, moved by a seminal idea. I wanted to poison a monk.
    • Quoted in Myriem Bouzaher's introduction to the French version of The Name of the Rose, Postille al Nome della Rosa, Page 18 (1985)
  • The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else. If it had been possible he would have settled the matter otherwise, and without bloodshed. He doesn't boast of his own death or of others'. But he does not repent. He suffers and keeps his mouth shut; if anything, others then exploit him, making him a myth, while he, the man worthy of esteem, was only a poor creature who reacted with dignity and courage in an event bigger than he was.
    • "Why Are They Laughing In Those Cages?", in Travels in Hyperreality : Essays‎ (1986), Ch. III : The Gods of the Underworld, p. 122
  • To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative — the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.
    • Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994) Chapter Four: "Possible Woods"
  • Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters.
    • Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994) Chapter Six: "Fictional Protocols"
  • I don't even have an E-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages,”
    • Quoted in Anthony Haden-Guest: "Of Eco And E-mail". 26 June 1995, The New Yorker[1]
  • After all, the cultivated person's first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopaedia.
    • Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998)
  • I don't miss my youth. I'm glad I had one, but I wouldn't like to start over.
    • "On the Disadvantages and Advantages of Death" in La mort et l'immortalié, edited by Frédéric Lenoir (2004)

The Name of the Rose (1980)[edit]

It is only petty men who seem normal.
Il nome della rosa (1980); The Name of the Rose (1983)
  • There are magic moments, involving great physical fatigue and intense motor excitement, that produce visions of people known in the past. As I learned later from the delightful little book of the Abbé de Bucquoy, there are also visions of books as yet unwritten.
  • A monk should surely love his books with humility, wishing their good and not the glory of his own curiosity; but what the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks.
  • Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means...
    • William of Baskerville
  • Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.
  • "That man is … odd," I dared say to William.
    "He is, or has been, in many ways a great man. But for this very reason he is odd. It is only petty men who seem normal."
  • The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.
    • William of Baskerville
  • The hand of God creates; it does not conceal.
    • William of Baskerville
  • Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.
    • Adso
  • There is only one thing that arouses animals more than pleasure, and that is pain. Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but towards hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him.
  • Temi, Adso, i profeti e coloro disposti a morire per la verità, ché di solito fan morire moltissimo con loro, spesso prima di loro, talvolta al posto loro.

Baudolino (2000)[edit]

  • "A sack," Baudolino explained, like a man who knows a trade well, "is like a grape harvest: you have to divide the tasks. There are those who press the grapes, those who carry off the must in the tuns, those who cook for others, others who go to fetch the good wine from last year.... a sack is a serious job,"
    • Chapter 2, "Baudolino meets Niketas Choniates"
  • "The emperor of the Latins -- who hasn't been a Latin himself since the days of Charlemagne -- is the successor of the Roman emperors -- the ones of Rome, I mean, not those of Constantinople. But to make sure he's emperor, he has to be crowned by the pope, because the law of Christ has swept away the false law, the law of liars. To be crowned by the pope, the emperor also has to be recognized by the cities of Italy, and each of them kind of goes his own way, so he has to be crowned king of Italy -- provided, naturally, that the Teutonic princes have elected him. Is that clear?"
    • Chapter 3, "Baudolino explains to Niketas what he wrote as a boy"
  • "The Poet had, who had made a show of attaching no importance to this literary game (though it gnawed at his heart that he himself had not written such beautiful letters, provoking replies even more beautiful), and having no one with whom to fall in love, had fallen in love with the letters themselves -- which, as Niketas remarked with a smile -- was not surprising, since in youth we are prone to fall in love with love.
    • Chapter 7, "Baudolino makes the Poet write love letters and poems to Beatrice"
  • "There, Master Niketas," Baudolino said, "when I was not prey to the temptations of this world, I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds. ... There is nothing better than imagining other worlds," he said, "to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn't yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one."

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