Benedetto Croce: Philosopher and Humanist of Modern Italy



THE first occasion on which I heard of the existence of Benedetto Croce was not a very creditable one to my schoolteachers. It was in 1920. I was fifteen, and in my school in Rome no teacher had ever mentioned him. One day a school friend of mine told me, “You must read Croce; he is a better writer than Carducci, and more intelligent.” I had a great admiration for that friend, and followed his advice. I began to read Croce.

The fact that I had been made to read him by a school friend and not by a teacher was not at all unusual. By 1920 Croce was a man of fifty-four, whose cultural leadership was widely acknowledged. But this recognition came more from students than from their professors. Croce himself, heir to a rich family from the old Kingdom of Naples, was not exactly in love with the academic world. He had left Rome University without taking a degree, and never wanted to become a professor. So it took some time before academic circles became used to considering him a professional authority, instead of merely a sort of high-powered journalist who had somehow contrived to be more successful than they. When I had to write my thesis, I explained to my Professor of Greek that I wanted to do a critical examination of Pindar’s poetry, using the method of aesthetic criticism which had been so successfully applied to modern poetry by Francesco De Sanctis and Benedetto Croce. He cut me short, telling me that Croce was corrupting the minds of the young.

Without realizing it, this professor of Greek was saying about Croce much the same thing that many Athenians had said about Socrates twenty-four centuries earlier. The fascination which Croce exerted over the new generation of Italian scholars was almost uncanny. Socrates had charmed his young followers by defeating, through the dialogue, the most celebrated debaters of his time, one by one; Croce quickly acquired a reputation all over Italy when in 1903 he started his review La Critica, with the clear purpose of submitting Italian cultural life to his critical judgment. Thus he became a kind of champion of the mind who defeated every opponent; young people gazed at this spectacle in a pleased and applauding mood, trying to follow his methods in order to get similar results. His favorable judgment was eagerly sought as a sort of knightly investiture on the field of literary and philosophical criticism.

Normally Croce lived and worked in his old palazzo in Naples, according to a very strict timetable and with plans fixed well in advance. But from time to time he ventured forth to visit the archives or the library of another town, or just to see friends, and this invariably turned into a social event for whichever town his journey look him to. In fact, interest in his travels grew steadily the more the hostility of the Fascist regime prevented the newspapers from writing about him. To all those who saw in him the champion and symbol of the fight against Fascism, his arrival became something like the visits of St. Paul to his fellow churchmen.

To be Croce’s host was a special honor, and invitations to meet him were eagerly sought. In such gatherings a strange scene was often repeated. It reminded me of Plato’s famous descript ion of people listening to Protagoras, eager to get a closer position every time that the sophist turned round in his walk up and down the courtyard of Callias. Everybody’s sole interest was to listen to Croce, who was, indeed, a brilliant conversationalist and a formidable teller of anecdotes and witty stories, through which he liked to express many of his judgments and even some of his theories. So a thick crowd of standing onlookers would mass around the small figure of Croce, those furthest away pretending to make light conversation among themselves, while at the same time trying, by quick and adroit movements, to get closer and closer to Croce himself until, suddenly, Croce would move to another part of the room to avoid the congestion, and the same process would begin all over again.

The morning after one such gathering in Florence, we left for San Gimignano in two cars. The party included Croce, his eldest daughter Elena, and a number of his closest Florentine friends. To see Croce getting into a car was amusing and in a way illuminating. He did not adopt the usual device of entering it sideways; he simply approached the door frontally in the same way as he might enter the wide gate of his palazzo in Naples. Naturally any car seemed too small for him, who was so small himself. Indeed, he completely lacked any interest in the technical side of things, in machines or inventions. He neither hated them like D. H. Lawrence, nor despised them like Plato, but probably went on, all through his life, considering the expanding world of modern technology with the same humorous detachment with which, in his younger years, he had fought his philosophical battle against positivism. He used to scorn the shallow assuredness of the positivists by pretending to believe in superstitions and by wearing apotropaic charms against the evil eye. Towards the end of that day, walking along the narrow lanes of San Gimignano, we lost sight of him completely. We searched and searched for him, and when at last we found him he was standing by a small fountain holding one foot and then the other under the jet of icy water. His daughter rushed to the rescue, but he said calmly, “You know we are dining vvilh the Marchesa So-and-So, don’t you? Now, how could I go there with such dirty shoes? Let me wash the mud off.” Obviously a man who could do things so simply had not much use for elaborate techniques.


FOR all his truly astonishing intellectual aptitudes, Croce’s basic mental process was simple, almost homely in an era of such excruciatingly complex philosophies. He always went straight to the heart of any matter, and for him the heart was the man. Those first pages of Croce that I had read as a schoolboy had been a reconstruction of the life and work of a seventeenth-century saint. I had often seen (he effigy of that saint reproduced, in a pious attitude, in some of those little paper images which are so common especially in Southern Italy, and which are called santini. Of course, no devotee, even if he had a special inclination to worship that saint above others, would expect his portrait on that piece of paper to correspond to the saint’s appearance during his life. What painter ever thought that his, say, St. Sebastian resembled the original? Saints were perfect beings, with some perfect attributes and characteristics; it would have been useless to consider them in the human surroundings in which they had passed their lives.

Now the historical interpretation, such as Croce gave of that saint of the seventeenth century, brought him back to the human level and problems of his life; all that he had achieved had been achieved not by the simple operation of a superhuman power, but through that process of continuous struggle which lends its significance to all human greatness as well as to its opposite. And what was really fascinating in that process was the fact that it did not seem to diminish the human value of all the great figures whom tradition had turned into saints or heroes, or their extreme opponents. Saints as well as demons emerged from the historical reconstruction of their activities far more interesting and instructive than they were when they only exemplified something other than human. Formerly, they were interesting only to those people who sought their help or were afraid of them. Now they became interesting to people who tried to understand the ordeal of their lives.

Of course, nobody could say that Croce was the first to introduce this method of historical interpretation into Italian culture. But I think one can say that no one else devoted himself more eagerly and effectively to this task. From the beginning to the end, most of Croce’s life was dedicated to the understanding of the lives of other men; this was the true humanistic bent of his historical interest. Italian history and tradition were full of saints and devils, heroes and their opponents. Croce devoted most of his working time to bringing saints and devils back to earth, to their native ground, and to understanding their conflicting motives. To quote only one point, the history of the Italian Risorgimento, in its traditional picture, was populated by only two kinds of characters: those who had worked for Italian independence and unity, and were the elect, and those who had fought against them, and were the reprobates. Croce studied, with great human sympathy, the actions and the failures of the Neapolitan revolutionaries of 1799 as well as the civic merits of some of those functionaries of the Bourbon regime who had considered it their duty to remain loyal to their sovereign. Both had their reasons: both had to be understood.

This trend toward what could be called the personal individuation of historical experience was also favored by the fact that the largest part of Croce’s historical work was devoted to literature. And here Croce had clearly stated the point that every work of art had to be understood and evaluated in connection not with general tendencies or schools or movements in the literary world, but only with the individual personality of its author. Through it, the conceivable influence of those tendencies could be seen in its proper framework.

The general justification of this approach was given by Croce in the first and most widely known of his philosophical treatises, the Aesthetic, as well as in various subsequent essays on the nature of art and criticism, up to the book on Poetry; and most students of his work are inclined to consider this group of writings as Croce s most important contribution to philosophy. But I wonder if they would have exerted their enormous influence on Italian literary and art criticism — an influence which has lasted half a century and still continues — had they not been accompanied by the very extensive examples which Croce himself provided of his own method of literary criticism, first of all through a wide survey of the Italian writers of the nineteenth century, and later on through essays on the central figures of modern European literature, from Ariosto and Shakespeare and Corneille to Goethe and Maupassant and Mallarmé — and very many others from the Cinquecento down to our time.

I think, indeed, that this actual work of literary criticism was far more influential in our culture than its philosophical foundation. The latter could be much debated; many aspects of Croce’s aesthetic theory might appear not fully consistent, or still too dependent on old views of Hegel and Vico and De Sanctis, although they represented a great improvement on the shallow aesthetics of the end of the century. His actual work of criticism could be less easily challenged; even if one felt like questioning his judgment on a particular author, one would be brought to accept his general method of criticism, and to apply it even while trying to correct some of its results. Moreover, here was a philosopher who did not content himself with giving his theory on art, but who was really so interested in art and poetry as to read poets and writers all his life, carefully recording his judgments upon each one of them. Confronted with the idea of poetry, Croce could be challenged; confronted with poets, he easily outstripped all others, who could only follow him a long way behind, if judged by their actual work in the field of literary criticism.


IN HIS general approach to moral and political philosophy, too, Croce was primarily the humanist. Both in its philosophical theory and in its application in the various historical essays which he wrote, the best work consists — in my opinion — of what bears on individual interpretations of human experience. Confronted with general conceptions of historical trends, Croce did his best when he submitted them to sharp criticism, as for instance when, still in his youthful years, he showed the theoretical fallacies of historical materialism in his book Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx, a pioneer and probably one of the best criticisms of Marxism ever to appear. Similarly, he was so ruthless in his fight against the shallow generalizations of the positivistic sociology of his youth that sociological studies in Italy have still to recover from the discredit to which he brought them in the common opinion. But—again, a personal view— it was Croce’s marvelous series of essays on individual political figures throughout European history that contributed most to twentieth-century intellectual development in Italy. Always Croce’s insight into human motives was his primary weapon, barbed keenly for his enemies, but wonderfully revealing to his friends.

One might say that Croce tried always to find, in his historical characters, the common humanity, which was not so great as their alleged greatness, and not so bad as their alleged wickedness. Heroes became less heroic, but devils less diabolical, through the reconstruction of their opposing motives, which brought all of them to a sort of new equality and brotherhood — the brotherly equanimity of historical understanding. In this connection, Croce liked to repeat the famous French formula tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, and he even added to it that in that case there was no more need to introduce the idea of forgiveness, because he who tries to understand can neither condemn nor forgive.

This is not to say that Croce’s philosophical edifice was perfect. On the contrary, it contained weak points, and his critics have not failed to point them out. I myself have tried to show, in some of my books, how the best of Croce’s philosophy acquires a fuller meaning and justification if it is removed from its Hegelian context and based on different epistemological foundations.

In his own active life Croce was not given to doubt. A staunch anti-Fascist, he continued to publish his works through the time of the Fascist regime, and although he was an old man when the Second World War broke out, he remained the spiritual and often quite active leader of the Resistance. All of us who worked in the underground turned to him often for advice and help; his fine mind contributed much to our plans and our manifestoes. After the War, he took an active role in the Government, lending his counsel to the officers of the democracy. His mind and his demeanor were invaluable.

But always, above Croce’s works, there was his way of working; above his theories, his peculiar frame of mind. He was a rich man; yet he worked day after day, unremittingly, until the very last minute of his life, as hard as the humblest laborer on Ids estates. He was a sad man — his early adult life stood under the shadow of the sudden extinction of his whole family in the earthquake of Casamieciola, and even the fragment of his diaries which has been published reveals a melancholic mind; yet his view of the world was frequently permeated by a keen sense of humor, which found its most typical expression in his masterly skill in story telling. He had a great fund of anecdotes; but he always took pains to avoid hurting unnecessarily the feelings of others. I shall always remember an occasion just after the liberation, when Croce was one of the most influential members of the new Italian Government. I can still see the little old figure slowly descending the big staircase in a Roman hotel, chatting animatedly with a group of friends. Suddenly he stopped and looked carefully around, to make sure that nobody else could hear him. How lovely to see the grand old man — whom we called in Italian the venerando vegliardo — enjoying himself in telling his friends a rather unorthodox story about the private life of a King of Naples, but being very careful at the same time that nobody outside his little circle could understand his Neapolitan dialect!

It would not be true, however, to leave the impression that the great man was a wholly benign genius. Croce himself would have been the first to object to such an unhistorical view! His enemies have more than once criticized him for intolerance and a degree of crotchetiness where his own intellectual rightness and consistency were concerned, He had a fine memory, and he could use it cruelly. Once during the War, I brought him the draft of a clandestine manifesto. Croce was not happy about the pamphlet. In particular, he objected to the notion that social justice was no less essential to political freedom than political freedom to social justice. From the philosophical point of view, he maintained that freedom could never be subordinate to any other idea or ideal. In his own political views he certainly no longer believed, with the old Italian liberals, that land ownership was the only sound basis for the formation of an impartial and public-spirited ruling class; but at the same time he could not help remembering that all the quiet and comfortable work of his life had been made possible by the rent from his estates. Theoretically, he was not against social reform; practically, he feared its being adopted in a hurry.

I certainly did not deny the necessity of all this, but I took the view (which later on, I think, proved correct) that many Italians would turn to Communism if a liberal type of socialism failed to give Italy what Great Britain, for instance, had enjoyed: the development of social equality within the framework of political liberty. The argument grew heated. Suddenly Croce asked me, “Tell me, how did you develop such a strong interest in politics? When you came to me sixteen years ago, you told me that your most ardent desire was to get on with your studies in Greek philosophy, even if the political struggle following the advent of Fascism might not allow such philosophical idleness. At that time I had to warn you that no man could escape politics, lest politics disturb him in the very heart of his private life.”“Well,” I could only answer, “this means, at least, that I have learned something from you.”I had forgotten my earlier words, He had not.

This way of nailing men to their past was regarded, even by some of his friends, as an aspect of what could be called a kind of feudal intolerance, a shrinking from even the possibility of admitting error. Throughout the sixty volumes of his works, he certainly corrected and changed some of his views, but he always considered these changes more as a necessary development of his previous thought than as a correction of mistakes. When, in the very last period of his life, he openly admitted that he had had to correct his judgment of Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, the event appeared so exceptional that literary critics are still discussing it in the newspapers. Croce, the leader of liberal thought in Italy, was himself, in that sense, not a very liberalminded man. But in saying this, one has to remember that Rousseau’s contributions to the theory of education are not necessarily invalidated by the fact that he himself was a very bad father.

And so we have the figure of a truly great man, a living and working personality in a particular milieu. In Italy, of course, he is a cultural giant. More than anyone else, Croce, the liberal and humanist, gave new structure and depth to the Italian tradition of humane thought. Outside Italy, Croce’s place in European and, indeed, world culture seems assured. His influence on literary theory has been very wide, as can be seen particularly in the work of American critics during recent decades; and now there are distinct signs of increasing attention to his philosophical and historical studies. And within the work stands the man. In intellectual history certain reputations, by virtue of their great integrity and goodness, have achieved well-nigh mythic powers — such as those of Socrates or Erasmus. It is far too soon to say whether or not such an outcome awaits Benedetto Croce, but — in Italy at least — it is clear that the possibility exists.