Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Benedetto Croce

The reviews in the New York Review of Books are so long and so well-written that we can usually convince ourselves that they make an adequate substitute for reading the books themselves. But I occasionally come across a review that describes a volume (usually a collection of disparate essays) that I am sorely tempted to purchase, and such was the case with the review of Worlds Made of Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West, by Anthony Grafton. I was stopped short when it suddenly occurred to me that Grafton had studied with A. D. Momigliano, and I already had a book of Momigliano’s essays on the shelf that I’d never much looked at. Opening that long-forgotten collection, I noticed at once that it contained an essay with the title “Reconsidering Benedetto Croce.” Now, Croce is one of my favorite thinkers. I immediately got down to business.

Momigliano’s critique of Croce is well-informed and fair-minded, and it contains quite a bit of incidental information that I’d either forgotten or never knew. He deftly illuminates how Croce drew upon local Neapolitan history, Marxism, and aesthetic theory in developing his worldview, and offers a shrewd account of the role played by misunderstanding in Croce’s popularity in Italy before the rise of Fascism. He underscores Croce’s commanding position as Italy’s most outspoken liberal once Mussolini and his cronies had taken over, and he addresses the issue of Croce’s conservatism (as Italy’s minister of education he introduced the Catholic catechism to elementary schools) his blatantly nineteenth-century tastes, and how easy (and important) it was for the Italian intelligencia to break away from him.

In short, Momligliano has done about as well any anyone could be expected to in ten pages, in providing us with an accurate overview of a man whowas fully engaged in both public and scholarly life for a half-century and more during perhaps the most tumultuous time in history. The most important thing he has failed to do is suggest how intimately Croce’s philosophical and historical concerns were intertwined. It’s clear, in fact, that Momigliano has no real grasp of Croce’s metaphysics. He refers to the period during which Croce wrote his four-volume Philosophy of Spirit as a “phase,” and suggests (erroneously) that Croce derived many of his philosophical positions from his young collaborator Giovanni Gentile.

There is no reason why any of us should care whether one largely-forgotten Italian historian (Momigliano) has misconstrued the import of a long-forgotten Italian philosopher (Croce) except that Croce’s ideas are well worth reflecting on even today, and Momigliano’s analysis can provide us with an avenue of ingress. Here are a few key sentences:

“The liberalism Croce now put before his readers was the liberalism of Constant, Guizot, and Cavour…” Momigliano means this as a criticism, yet on the next page we read:

"But the liberty Croce spoke about was not just a philosophic notion. It was the liberty our fathers had won for themselves in the revolution and on the battlefields of the Risorgimento. Croce represented a constant reproach to Fascism, a constant reminder of what we had lost—freedom and honesty of thought, especially in matters of religion, of social questions and of foreign policy, tolerance, representative government, fair trials, respect for other nations and consequently self-respect."

What Momigliano is describing here is the liberalism of Constant, Guizot, and Cavour. It doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

Nor can such “nineteenth-century liberalism” be categorically differentiated from the “philosophical notion” of liberty that Croce describes in his more formal and systematic works. In Croce’s view, liberty is indistinguishable from creativity and development, which can only manifest themselves within the historical milieu. (In the abstract, such concepts mean nothing.) Croce insisted that philosophy and history are the same thing, because there is no way that we can explore the reality of liberty, creativity, development, except through the study of its manifestations in history. By the same token, history is the story of liberty, not because everything that happens is creative, but because thought only receives nourishment from moments of genuine creativity and development, and therefore, only such moments find a durable home in history. And this is no less true of the history of quilts or toothpicks than it is of the history of diplomacy or architecture.

Momigliano is wrong, therefore, when he writes, “[Croce’s] notion of history as the story of liberty was essentially fatalistic: it relied on Providence.” On the contrary, Croce’s notion of history rejected all abstract agents—not only Providence, but social classes, aesthetic movements, and partisan theories and ideals. Impressionism, the working class, the Absolute—it was all bunk. In Croce’s view, history is made by individuals. The individual human soul—thinking, reflecting on history, acting—is the locus of all historical develop, and should be the focus of historical research.

Near the end of the piece, Momigliano remarks that Croce’s philosophical system put him “automatically outside the mainstream of modern science.” Once again to his credit, Momigliano’s remark is accurate, if uncomprehending. One of Croce’s most valuable discoveries (which built upon a century of anti-positivist thought) was that science, which deals with atemporal laws and abstract genera and species rather than concrete events that have taken place in historical time, was categorically incapable of approaching the domain of truth. Croce’s system did not, in fact, lay outside the realm of science; rather, it offered a logical demonstration of why science lay outside the realm of truth, and must be subsumed under the rubric of practical life (which was also a part of Croce's philosophy). Momigliano’s remark implies (without defending logically) that Croce’s system crippled his attempts to "keep up" with scientific thought, whereas in fact, Croce’s system demonstrates conclusively that such “implications” are themselves philosophically jejune.

In the end, Momigliano's portrait is both penetrating and affectionate, and it reminds us why Croce has fallen off the map. Croce's suggestion that history and philosophy are the same thing is anathema to philosophers, who prefer hypothetical situations to the nitty gritty of real life; and it's no less distasteful to historians, who avoid the "big" questions like the plague.

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