There are people who proudly call themselves Eco-istas or Ecoheads. And no, they’re not a new butterfly-defense league. They’re the cult of Umberto Eco. For unexpected theories of leadership and power, he’s their man. A brilliant philosopher and best-selling novelist, Eco, 70, writes long and difficult books that expose the reality behind the age-old quest for knowledge.
His first novel, The Name of the Rose, is a 500-plus page murder mystery that takes place in a medieval monastery where monks are being killed to suppress the knowledge found in one book. His second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which also tops 500 pages, is about three men who are searching for a human power that’s greater than atomic energy. Both books have each sold millions of copies.
Eco’s books have a way of touching a pulse in people: They’re intellectual thrillers where storytelling serves as a source of power. And you can count on Eco to throw in tidbits of useful information that are essential to any modern slave — like the history of ass-kissing, which, Eco says, began as a ritual among the original Organization Men (the Knights of Templar) “to wake up the cosmic force that dwells at the base of the spinal column.”
Eco has a new book out this month, and it too takes big risks. In Baudolino (Harcourt Inc.), he spins a tale of imagined history, one in which a general turns out to be a pussy and a peasant turns out to be a seer. At a time when the United States is on a collective witch-hunt for the truth, Eco is off in the opposite direction, celebrating lies and self-created futures. Simply put, Baudolino is intellectual comfort food for the power hungry.
Philosophically, Eco’s books tell us that we have a completely wrongheaded view of power. With Baudolino, he challenges our belief in great men, good leadership, and the truth. If you’re willing to travel to Italy and listen to the great man speak, Eco is willing to say more. Power, he says, while sucking down yet another Gitane cigarette, is the most banal commodity of modern life. If you want to change the world, get over this fascination with power in the hands of leaders.
“There aren’t any leaders,” Eco says. “Power is in the structure, in the lowest-paid prison guard — that is, in the system. Even big revolutions are not acts of force, but rather symbolic gestures — theatrical ends to changes that had already been spreading in a grassroots way.” Take the current crisis of capitalism in the United States. CEOs topple instantly and easily, not simply because they are bad guys but because “leaders, never powerful in themselves, no longer have big organizations to prop themselves up.”
Another lesson Eco teaches: Strategy is fraud. I’m in Italy, home of Machiavelli, the greatest strategist of all. But at the mention of his name, Eco grows exasperated. “Think of a chess game,” he offers. “I can elaborate my strategy because you, my adversary, share the same rules. Strategy says that I can put myself in the shoes of my enemies and then do the opposite or the same as they do. But who is the enemy today? What are his intentions? What are the rules? The answer is that there is no precise enemy, and there are no clear intentions. Machiavelli was still thinking that there were great men. There are no great men.”
Where does power reside? Who has it? Eco’s answer: “Fakes.”
“Fakes change the world,” he says — which is why he loves them. “Ptolemy created a false idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth, an idea on which people based their lives for several centuries. Columbus is said to have falsified certain maps, perhaps to convince himself that crossing the ocean was possible. You have America as a result. Who knows how many false ideas we entertain today? Lying about the future produces history. Lies about the world being flat, or small, or the center of the universe — those were all consoling myths. Baudolino is a sort of a trickster god who has the power of imagination. He’s a visionary.”
In Baudolino, the title character is a simple peasant with two major gifts: a talent for learning languages and a skill for telling lies. Baudolino becomes an honored adviser to the real-life 12th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. History remembers Barbarossa as a fearless leader, but in Eco’s novel, the power figure is the peasant. By making up lies — or consoling myths — Baudolino invents the future. According to Eco, it has always been that way.
Truth, for Baudolino — and for Eco — plays second fiddle to faith. Truth, Eco implies, is a highly unreliable category. For example, one day, you think that the world is safe; the next day, you’re sure that it isn’t. There is no truth. There is only faith. “Fidelity” is the word that Eco prefers to “truth.” How faithful are you to your beliefs?
Instead of being coerced by some big truth or following a powerful leader who happens to sit in the corner office, a person without the trappings of leadership can create wonderful fictions and live as if they were true. Over time, they will become true. Says Baudolino, echoing Eco: “The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most-trivial things, and it rewards poets who lie only about the greatest things.” The lesson: “We need people who stimulate our imagination and our physical reactions. We need those people more than we need a sublime voice or a brilliant strategy.”
“Dream,” Eco says “is a second life.” With that, he sucks down one last Gitane cigarette — and then disappears into a real cloud, a puff of thick, white smoke.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company senior writer, has written two books on power. Find her columns on the Web (www.fastcompany.com/keyword/rubin).