Benedetto Croce: The “Soul” of Italy
“Unless a capacity for thinking be accompanied by a capacity for action, a superior mind exists in torture.” – Benedetto Croce
Benedetto Croce was born in Pescasseroli in the Abruzzi region in the ruins of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on February 25, 1866. The disaster which befell his homeland did not have much of an impact on his family, as they were people of considerable wealth. The Croce family had so much wealth, in fact, that from the day of his birth to the day of his death, Benedetto Croce never had to engage in any form of manual labor in order to survive. In that, he differed considerably from most of his countrymen.
Devout Roman Catholics, his parents sent him at an early age to Naples to be schooled in the tenets of their religion. By the time he reached mid-adolescence, however, Croce had decided he had no use for Catholicism, or any religion, for that matter, preferring instead a type of spiritualism of his own making to which he adhered for the remainder of his life. In 1883, while on vacation with his family in the village of Casamicciola, Ischia, a strong earthquake struck the area, destroying the home they were living in and tragically killing his parents and sister. He was buried (severely injured) under the rubble for several hours until rescuers were able to free him.
After inheriting the family estate he traveled to Rome with his brother Alfonso to pursue a career in Law at the University of Rome. While at the university, he reacted positively (and strongly) to the lectures on moral philosophy by Prof. Antonio Labriola, a prominent Italian Marxist theoretician. Deciding against pursuing a career in Law, Croce left the university in 1886 to return to his family’s palazzo in Naples. It was at this time he began to pursue a career as an independent scholar, buttressing his personal research with trips to places such as England, France, Germany and Spain.
Starting out as a historical writer, his books and articles were noted for transcending simple Positivistic philosophy by inquiring into the nature of art and history. He became heavily influenced by the writings of Georg W.F. Hegel and Giambattista Vico. He shared the latter’s view that history should be written by philosophers. Though initially (largely through the influence of Labriola) a dilettante Marxist (1895-99), he ultimately rejected this philosophy, and socialism itself, in his works Historical Materialism and Marxist Economics (1900). While he shared Hegel’s preoccupation with the nature of spirit, as revealed in historical and artistic activity, he was careful to distance himself from the Hegelian notion of the nation-state as the organic unity responsible for the development of the spirit. Instead he found understanding in the self-conscious, free exercise of historical enquiry.
In 1896 Croce began a long and productive collaboration with the Sicilian philosopher and educator Giovanni Gentile, the man who would later come to be known as the philosopher of Fascism. With Gentile, Croce edited such works as Classics of World Philosophy, Writers of Italy and The Library of Modern Culture. In 1903 he founded the bimonthly magazine La critica, an influential journal of cultural criticism which he edited until 1937 and to which he extensively contributed.
In 1908 Croce began his long and legendary debate with Sicilian dramatist and novelist Luigi Pirandello on the subject of the aesthetic sources of humorism. This debate would last many years, growing increasingly vicious (on both sides) as time progressed. Though it started as a philosophical dialogue, it eventually assumed a decidedly personal dimension. Both men made it unmistakably clear they disliked the other.
As Croce’s fame increased, he was pushed by friends and colleagues into politics, much to his opposition. He was made Minister of Public Education for a year, then in 1910 was appointed a lifelong member of the Italian Senate.
When World War One broke out in 1914 he vehemently opposed Italian entry into it, considering the conflict a suicidal trade war. His popularity suffered as a result. After the war’s end in 1918, however, his fame reignited and he eventually became a well-loved public figure.
In 1922 Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, became Prime Minister of Italy after his “March on Rome”. Croce was subsequently sacked as Minister of Public Education by Mussolini and replaced by Giovanni Gentile. Though initially supportive of Fascism, Croce quickly drew away from it…and Gentile. In time he became a vocal opponent of the totalitarian policies of the regime; a position which put him in some personal danger. He received death threats; his home and beloved library were raided by Fascist “Blackshirts”. Though his popularity in Italy kept him out of prison (or worse), he was officially blacklisted by authorities, who refused to publish his works. He was also kept under close surveillance by the Fascist OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police. This harassment would last the whole of the Fascist tenure of Italy.
In 1943, with the restoration of parliamentarianism in Italy, Croce became Minister without Portfolio of the new democratic government and member of the Constituent Assembly, and from 1943 to 1947, he was President of the reconstituted Liberal party. In 1947, after retiring from the politics he disdained, Benedetto Croce established the Institute for Historical Studies at his palazzo in Naples, where he kept an extensive library. He died in Naples on November 20, 1952.
Almost as interesting as Croce’s life was his “fall from grace”, so to speak, after his death. In his lifetime Benedetto Croce was unquestionably the leading intellectual of the country of Italy, and by the 1940s was one of Europe’s best-known public figures. His literary journal, La critica, can be found to this day in almost every American research library, along with many if not most of the 80 books he authored on such topics as philosophy, history and aesthetics. His ideas on political liberalism were discussed in American circles until well into the 1960s. Proponents of democracy throughout the world respected him for his outspoken opposition to Fascism. In 1937, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, an influential Sicilian writer and expat living in the United States, called Croce: “…the most famed Italian abroad, at least in the scholarly world, since the days perhaps of Galileo."
Yet in spite of all this, by the 1970s Croce had been almost completely forgotten in American intellectual circles. No less a personage than the late René Wellek pointed out, shortly before his death in 1995, that in movements influential at various points since Croce's death…from Russian formalism and structuralism to hermeneutics and deconstruction…Croce "is not referred to or quoted, even when he discusses the same problems and gives similar solutions."
The question begs: why? Part of the problem lies in the fact that when Croce (and Gentile’s) ideas were first introduced to the American scene in the 1920s, both men were immediately typed as neo-idealists and neo-Hegelians by Anglo critics. In truth, Croce was neither (though Gentile was certainly both). Nevertheless, this typing made it difficult for Croce’s innovations to penetrate American thought, and it is partly to blame for his never garnering a significant American following.
Another factor no doubt was Croce’s opposition to egalitarianism. In the decades following the fall of Fascism (and Nazism), many if not most Western intellectuals promulgated it and the Anglo brand of liberal democracy. Croce, on the other hand, had mixed feelings about democracy. A proponent of constitutional monarchy, Croce supported democracy in principle, yet he also wrote: “"Sound political sense has never regarded the masses as the directing focus of society…" According to Croce, if democracy had any value, it was in allowing free intellectual discourses. The masses would ultimately benefit from this, but they lacked both the cognition and erudition to understand and appreciate them.
Though Croce was the leading anti-Fascist intellectual in Italy, ironically, here in America he was bitterly criticized by Italian émigrés such as Giuseppe Antonio Borgese and Gaetano Salvemini for (at least inadvertently) laying the groundwork for Fascism.
Finally, there can be no doubt a thread of anti-Italianism, that wonderfully ubiquitous Anglo tradition, had a hand in Croce’s passing to obscurity. By the end of WWII, Benedetto Croce had become the leading moral authority in Italy. Though Croce was arguably the most cosmopolitan European intellectual of his day, many Anglo-American intellectuals regarded him as a local Italian phenomenon and not really part of the European mainstream. Even “sympathizers” such as John Crowe Ransom viewed him and his work as part of a “provincial” Italian culture. That Croce had been heavily influenced by German intellectuals such as Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and in turn had influenced noted German scholars such as Erich Auerbach, Rudolf Borchardt, Eugen Lerch, Karl-Julius Schlosser and Leo Spitzer, as well as British philosopher Robin G. Collingwood and Anglo-American philosopher John Dewey, was of no importance.
Unlike his contemporary (and intellectual adversary) Luigi Pirandello, who inherited his parents’ everlasting loyalty to i Due Sicilie, Croce “forsook his people” and instead embraced the pan-Italian philosophy of their conquerors. For this reason, it is tempting for this writer to dismiss him out of hand, or worse: ignore him. To do so, however, would be to perpetrate an egregious injustice against an intellectual giant who helped shape the modern world. Whatever I or anyone else may feel about him, no one can deny he truly was a “Titan of the South”.
1) Myra Moss: Benedetto Croce Reconsidered, (1987), UPNE
2) Fabio Fernando Rizi: Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism, (2003) Univ. of Toronto Press
Note: for a more in depth reading of Benedetto Croce’s philosophy (too voluminous to cover in such a small article):