Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Dec. 2002
"a few others" added July 2022

1. Benedetto Croce
(1866-1952)      2. A Few Others (below)

You have to know a lot about philosophy, history, literature, aesthetics and various theories of criticism in order to do justice to the topic of Benedetto Croce. I, then, will clearly have to start somewhere else, such as telling you what fascinates me most about this man. 

It is this. When Croce died in Naples in November, 1952, his funeral procession was an outpouring of popular emotion and affection. Thousands of common citizens  spilled into the streets to say farewell to one who has been called the most important Italian philosopher and historian of the twentieth century, and who, they say, blew a hurricane of freshness into the stagnant hot-air that had been implacably settling over the Italian intellectual landscape for centuries, perhaps since the Renaissance. 

How is it that Croce had such an appeal among the people? Maybe the key is in the word "intellectual". There is in the word, itself, a nasty undercurrent of arrogance, which holds that the life of the mind and the life of —well, the life of life, itself— are separate, and that those things worth knowing in life must be couched in terms that cannot be readily understood. It is as if the mind were a separate kingdom ruled by only a select few. Among such people you will find at least a few of Croce's detractors, who view him as a great "popularizer," or, to use the Italian phrase, a "vulgarizer" of culture. Perhaps we should be wary of intellectuals who are wary of vulgarizers. They might well have felt the same way about Dante, who chose to write the most sublime poem in Western literature, La Divina Commedia, in Italian, the language of the people, and not in Latin, the language of the select.

If that is a fair description of at least some intellectuals, than that is what Croce was not, and therein lies his appeal. There is undeniably something in us throughout the ages and across cultures that loves, respects and identifies with very simple and intelligent persons, those whom we call "wise".

Croce was just such a simple person. His early life was struck violently by tragedy when his parents and sister died in the great earthquake on the island of Ischia where they were staying in 1883. He, himself, was buried beneath rubble for hours before being rescued. His parents' estate left him enough money to live and to write. He dropped out of the university to pursue education on his own, and wound up as Italy's Minister of Education, a scholar respected the world over, one whose collected works comprise seventy volumes over a mind-boggling array of disciplines. In literature, he wrote about Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, virtually all of Western literature. He wrote histories of Naples, of Italy, of Europe, and he wrote over a broad spectrum of philosophical and general cultural matters. Croce may almost single-handedly have been the cultural version of the risorgimento (the political movement to unify Italy.) Massimo d’Azeglio, in referring to the unification of the nation in 1861, said "We have made Italy. Now let us make Italians." Croce helped to "make Italians" culturally, providing them with a broad unified cultural background. His journal, La Critica begun in 1903 for 41 years published his own writing and reviewed European history, philosophy and literature. He said of his own magazine that "La Critica was the most direct service I could render to Italian culture, uniting the role of a student and of a citizen."

We may simply note here that Italian philosophy had never been through the paradigm-wrenching experience of a Reformation. As such, Croce had to create his own internal Reformation, divorcing himself from the medieval nitpicking that still plagued even 19th century Italian philosophy. (It is true that he took an almost Germanic delight, alà Hegel, in subtle distinctions and classification, but, alas, there may be some truth in Spinoza's warning, "That which is excellent is difficult"!) Yet, his language is approachable, and the term 'utility' crops up so often in his writings, that even if 'pragmatic,' (as a technical philosophical term) does not apply to Croce, at least he moved Italian intellectual thought away from religious scholasticism into mainstream European humanist philosophy. 

This human approach is nowhere clearer than in his definition of history. 

Historical judgment is not a variety of knowledge, it is knowledge itself; it is the form which completely fills and exhausts the field of knowing, leaving no room for anything else.

This idea that everything happens within history rings true. History doesn't run along beside you, "doing history," as it were, while you do something else. All of these 'something elses' that you do —write, paint, work— are history. The soldier who dies in a war makes the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of some historical process or other, just as the woman who waits in line three hours for bread is part of larger macroeconomics. Yet, this commonsense view of history has not been clear to those who view their searches for truth, for God, for music, for art, for whatever, as something that transcends life instead of being part of it. This view of history as being all-encompassing leaves no room for the transcendental, and Croce, from a devout Catholic family, was an atheist, feeling that "philosophy removes from religion all reason for existing."

There is a story about Mozart that sheds light on Croce's view of the age-old question in aesthetics: What is beauty? Mozart used to sit in pubs, eating, drinking, chatting and writing music, surrounded by the hubbub common to such places. How could he compose music with all that racket? Mozart said his music was already composed in his head and that he was merely copying out the parts! There is a school of aesthetics, of which Croce is a leading member, that holds that art and beauty exist in their perfect and complete form the minute they are conceived by the artist. The actual sculpting, writing, painting, etc. is just "copying out the parts". The opposing view says it is absurd to think that Michelangelo's mere thought of David is beauty. It is the manifestation of the idea that is beauty! You need the statue! If that makes sense to you, you're not alone, but ask yourself why you even go to see the original in Florence when there are copies to be seen elsewhere that are indistinguishable from it? Are you not going somehow to see, to be in the presence of the original idea, which can only inhere in the original work? Yes, you can look at a copy and like it —ah, but behold the original! Is there anyone at all who would say there is no difference? Even Croce's critics who scoff at such Idealism?!

There is in Croce's writing a certain melancholy at his own lack of the intuitive lyricism from which he felt true artistic beauty springs, yet he insisted that art and beauty were for all. Everyone, creative or not, has the intuitive ability to at least tune in to the original creative idea by tracing back to it through its physical manifestation as a painting, a poem, a piece of music. That, he felt, was the essence of appreciating beauty: our ability to approach the Idea. 

Croce's view of the individual in history makes him important in 20th-century Italy. Croce has been called the Historian of Liberty, one who saw history as a stage upon which the struggle for freedom is played out. Under Fascism in Italy, Croce was the anchor of the intellectual resistance, and after the war, he assumed his place as a sort of Grand Old Man of Liberty, one upon whom even the president of the Italian Republic came calling when in Naples. 

And that is the Grand Old Wise Man the people of this city turned out to say good-bye to.

[Click here for a wartime episode involving Croce.] 

[Also see The Fascist Plot to Kidnap Croce] plus these two items: here and  here.]

[And here for an article based on Croce's article in the journal Napoli Napolissima about "faking art history."]

2.  A Few Others - Croce's ideological foes

Fascist philosophers   The link directly above, "The Fascist Plot to Kidnap Croce" is informative.

There are no images of Lorenzo Giusso, but this    
image of Rodin's The Thinker comes close in spirit.

Lorenzo Giusso (Naples 1900 - Rome 1957) was a Fascist philosopher and perhaps of greater interest in looking at Croce's ideological foes because both were from Naples. Giusso was born into an aristocratic family: his father was count Antonio Giusso. His family had a lot to do with the political and cultural development of Naples. His grandfather, Girolamo Giusso, was one of the founders of the Bagnoli quarter and its mayor for a time. Between 1917 and 1924 Lorenzo was a student at the University of Naples and took his degree in Letters and Philosophy.
debate among yourselves:  The Thinker is wondering (1) where he left his clothes, or (2) why there are no copies of this statue in Italy. 

  Giusso had broad interests in history and philosophy, but he had other serious interests in literature, music, painting, and poetry. He was eclectic and followed what interested him. He was an enthusiast of the Fascist philosopher, Giovanni Gentile.*
*Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944), philosopher, educator, and politician, called himself the "philosopher of Fascism" and provided an intellectual foundation for Italian Fascism. He ghostwrote part of The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) with Mussolini. Gentile was loyal to Mussolini even after the fall of the Fascist government in 1943. He supported Mussolini's establishment of the "Republic of Salò", a puppet state of Nazi Germany, despite being critical of its anti-Jewish laws, and took a post in its government. In 1944 he was assassinated by Communist partisans.
Giusso was a member of the Fascist party and a strong contributor to the pages of the journal Gerarchia (Hierarchy).* By the age of 20 he had developed into a full-fledged writer. This brought him into conflict with Benedetto Croce, the anchor of anti-Fascism in Italy. At first the arguments were political, but later broadened into Giusso's attack on Croce's idealism. Giusso was a fatalist. He accepted the pessimism of the poet Leopardi, the Nietzschean übermensch (superman)** the historicism of Dilthy, and even the nihilism of Spengler, perhaps even the need for both good and evil.***
* Gerarchia (Hierarchy) was a monthly journal published from 1922-1943, founded by Mussolini.
The translation of übermensch as "superman" comes from the grand überpedant G.B. Shaw in his 1903 drama Man and Superman.

Juxtaposing good and evil is chilling in Yeats' "The Second Coming":
"...Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! / Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun...
...what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Giusso's focus on Spengler and his view of Vico's New Science, put Giusso on a collision course with Croce, who wrote a withering review of Giusso in his (Croce's) own La Critica in 1940. (I know nothing of the claim that Croce and Giusso once duelled by throwing books at each other!) The Croce-Giusso collision makes sense.
   Idealism in philosophy says that mind and spiritual values are fundamental. Realism says that mind and spiritual values emerge from
and are reducible to material things. Croce was an idealist. Giusso was a realist. They are not going to get along. It's as simple and as complex as that. Historical persons that Giusso felt close to were Giordano Bruno and G. Vico.  Giusso studied Spanish and German philosophy and culture and learned both those languages as well as French. His works, in Spanish translation were popular in Spain, where he lived and worked for a while. He taught at the Universities of Salamanca and Madrid, and he was a friend of both José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, Spain's two towering philosophers of the 20th century.
Between the World Wars, if anti-Fascism was given breathing room at all, it centered on Benedetto Croce, who wandered out of his home whenever he felt like it, knowing he was being tailed by Fascist goons. Giusso was a "Romantic idealist" Nietzsche, Spengler, etc., in short, a Fascist. He was indeed a person of precocious intelligence. He set himself up in advance for a teaching tour in Italy: lectures in philosophy, the literature of Italy, France and Spain, and the history of religion, by publishing vast amounts of material in important Italian news outlets of the day such as Il Popolo d'Italia, Il Secolo, Il Mattino, etc.

After the war, his "side" (Fascism) had lost but you feel that all he ever really cared about was the life of the mind, his freedom to think. The rest? Well, you win some, you lose some. From 1950 to 1957 he was active and broadcast programs on the Italian state radio (RAI) about Spanish literature. He was not persecuted for having been a disciple of Fascism. They were left alone to indulge their nostalgic fantasies and even pursue legal political activities. Lorenzo Giusso turned to projects to write and interpret the history of Italian thought from the Renaissance to the Baroque, to write a synthesis of the views of ancient Greece and Rome and relate them to Christianity. He, himself, became more interested in Christianity. And he was a tolerant person, enthusiastic about discussion. At some point he must have thought how great it was that we all believed so many different things and that he got to write it all down. He had just come back from his beloved Spain when he died in Rome on 11 April 1957. He was 57. Shortly after his death the city of Naples named a street after him. A very short street.

A list of his main works read as if written by a dozen different authors. You don't have to
understand Italian. Just look at the titles of some of his books:

    Le dittature democratiche dell'Italia (1927);
    Leopardi, Stendhal, Nietzsche, Napoli (1933);
    Tre profili: Dostojewsky, Freud, Ortega y Gasset (1933);
    Idealismo e prospettivismo (1934);
    Leopardi e le sue due ideologie (1935);
    Osvaldo Spengler (1936);
    Cadenze di Sigismondo nella Torre (1939);
    G. B. Vico fra l'Umanesimo e l'Occasionalismo (1940);
    Wilhelm Dilthey e la filosofia come visione della vita (1940);
    Nietzsche (1942);
    Lo storicismo tedesco: Dilthey, Simmel, Spengler (1944).
    Bergson (1949).
    L'anima e il cosmo (1952);
    La tradizione ermetica nella filosofia italiana (1955)

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