Friday, September 9, 2022

Review of Inventing the Enemy by Umberto Eco

This review was written by Eugene Kernes 

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Sociology
Book Club Event = Book List (03/11/2023)
Intriguing Connections = 1) Why Conflict Occurs And How To Resolve Them?

Watch Short Review


“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth.  So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one” – Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy, Page 2

“No one could seriously include Einstein’s theory of relativity under the label o relativism.  To say that a measurement depends on the conditions of movement of the observer is regarded as a valid principle for every human being in every time ad place.” – Umberto Eco, Absolute and Relative, Page 33

“Of all the elements it is the one most liable to be forgotten.  We breathe air all the time, we use water every day, we continually tread the earth, but our experience of fire is in danger of gradually diminishing.  The role once played by fire has slowly been taken over by invisible forms of energy.” – Umberto Eco, The Beauty of the Flame, Page 44



The essays are united in their randomness.  Provoking curiosity in a variety of topics, that otherwise might not have been provoked.  Encouraging reflection on otherwise ignored topics.  Each topic has ideas in contrast with others, as ideas identify their value in contrast to other ideas.  By being challenged in the presence of opposition, can the errors of the ideas be identified.  By overcoming the errors, do ideas become better. 

To learn about contradictions within the ideas requires individuals to be willing to learn information that is not yet believed.  To interact and acknowledge the differences.  To try and understand the complexity of information rather than just the stereotypes.  Conflicts arise when being challenged, but to overcome the conflict would require communication.  Communication depends on listening, and having silence to hear others.  But the ubiquitous constant distractions prevent silence that is needed for communication.


An enemy provides a contrast to one’s own values, which define an identity.  Enemies behave differently, and have different values.  An enemy provides a challenge to values, in which not only do the values becomes measured but also demonstrate their worth in overcoming the challenge.  As the identity is built in the presence of others, differences are found even if they do not matter.  Enemies are invented even when there are no enemies.  Although others are needed, they are also in some way intolerable because of their differences.  Turning the other into an enemy creates conflict that can lead to self-destruction.

Threats to one’s own values are the real threat.  What becomes threatening is the differences between one’s values and the oppositions values.  The different sides view the other as a homogenized group, and obtain negative characteristics.  The opposition becomes evil and characterized by negative attributes such as ugliness.  Alternatively, everyone identified as supporters become defined as good and have positive attributes such as beauty.  Civilization seems to depend on having enemies.  If not a human object, then the threat comes from nature or social force that needs to be defeated. 

When dealing with the enemy, morality facilitates an understanding of the enemy, rather than pretending that there are no enemies.  An even greater challenge than the challenge posed by the enemy, is to understand other people in their complexity rather than by stereotype.  Complexity that acknowledges and interacts with the differences.  Normal behavior tends to simplify the opposition into a homogenous caricature, while seeing supporters are complex.   

War depends on having an enemy.  There are those who claim there are benefits to war, as there are features of war that facilitate a harmonious human society.  War enables effective governance, and reduces supply pressures.  Nations develop their identity through war, and the legitimacy of its governance.  Creates an equilibrium between classes.  Provides a validating reason for exploiting antisocial elements of society, and direct delinquents to effective behavior. 

Absolute, and Relative:

That which does not depend on something else is usually referred to being absolute.  The absolute has motivations and reasons without external influence.  While cognitive relativism sees objects as being determined by human faculties.  Which creates an interesting irony as the theory of relativity would not be labeled under relativism because motion would be valid for everyone in every time and place.  Without absolutes, there are only interpretations.  Which would also require interpretations of interpretations, but cycle of interpretation would require something to begin the process. 



The essays have varying qualities.  The essays have very little connection to each other and are random curiosities.  Curiosities that can inspire further consideration of the topic, but that would depend on the reader’s interests.  

The essays usually make a claim, and then provide a variety of examples.  The amount of examples can be overwhelming, and might not add much addition content to the claim other then as further proofs of concept.   

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•Why invent enemies?
•What is the purpose of the enemy?
•How are values defined and their worth declared?
•Why is it difficult to consider complexity of information? 
•What impact can a war have on social life? 
•What is the absolute, and the relative?  How are they connected? 
•Among the elements, why does fire need an explanation? 
•Why is there an interest in treasure hunting and finding secret islands? 
•How to go about using astronomy?

Book Details
Publisher:         Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Edition ISBN:  9780544104686
Pages to read:   224
Publication:     2012
1st Edition:      2011
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          3
Overall           3