A rigorous exploration for able academics.

Like a collection of TED talks on philosophy and literary history, these 12 dazzling texts explore grand themes of intellectual curiosity such as beauty, secrecy, the invisible, and the sacred.

Each essay was originally presented as a lecture at the Milanesiana Festival in Milan, where Eco (Chronicles of a Liquid Society, 2017, etc.) spoke yearly from 2001 to 2015. They represent “a rough and ready semiotics,” but they maintain a sense of familiarity and oral tradition that aligns the book with works like Plato’s Symposium and other ancient philosophical texts. Eco explores big ideas, some of which were prompted by the festival’s organizers, and with a staggering bibliography of sources, he playfully meanders from the writings of Thomas Aquinas to Alexandre Dumas to Dan Brown. In a 2004 lecture on the sublime, he explores the medieval understanding of beauty in terms of proportion, luminosity, and integrity, all while invoking the golden ratio and the splendor of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. The following year, Eco delivered a lecture on ugliness that drew on The Tempest’s Caliban, Cyrano de Bergerac, and even a bevy of grotesque Bond villains from Ian Fleming’s novels. It’s a thrill to connect ideas between lectures: Eco’s thoughts on ugliness, beauty, and kitsch return in a 2012 talk on imperfections in art and literature, where he explains, “what we look for in a work of art (at least these days) is not a correspondence to a canon of taste, but to an internal norm, where economy and formal consistency regulate the text in all its parts.” In other words, context is key. But how to contextualize this book, with its heightened erudition and limited accessibility? With philosophical citations that span pages at a time and Eco’s penchant for using the original Latin whenever he can, this book’s “internal norm” is situated in the college-level classroom or the special collections wing of a university library.

A rigorous exploration for able academics.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-674-24089-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019



This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955


A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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