Durant 1926: The Man (Benedetto Croce)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 2.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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II. BENEDETTO CROCE

1. The Man

From Bergson to Croce is an impossible transition: there is hardly a parallel in all their lines. Bergson is a mystic who translates his visions into deceptive clarity; Croce is a sceptic with an almost German gift for obscurity. Bergson is religiously-minded” and yet talks like a thorough-going evolutionist; Croce is an anti-clerical who writes like an American Hegelian. Bergson is a French Jew who inherits the traditions of Spinoza and Lamarck; Croce is an Italian Catholic who has kept nothing of his religion except its scholasticism and its devotion to beauty.

Bergson and Croce are two very different philosophers.

Perhaps the comparative infertility of Italy in the philosophy of the last hundred years is due in some part to the retention of scholastic attitudes and methods even by thinkers who have abandoned the old theology. (More of it, doubtless, is due to the northward movement of industry and wealth.) Italy might be described as the land that had a Renaissance, but never a Reformation; it will destroy itself for beauty’s sake, but it is as skeptical as Pilate when it thinks of truth. Perhaps the Italians are Wiser than the rest of us, and have found that truth is a mirage, while beauty—however subjective—is a possession and a reality. The artists of the Renaissance (excepting the sombre and almost Protestant Michelangelo, whose brush was the echo of Savonarola’s voice) never worried their heads about morals or theology; it was enough for them that the Church recognized their genius, and paid their bills. It became an unwritten law in Italy that men of culture would make no trouble for the Church. How could an Italian be unkind to a Church that had brought all the world to Canossa, and had levied imperial tribute on every land to make Italy the art-gallery of the world?

Perhaps the comparative infertility of Italy in the philosophy of the last hundred years is due in some part to the retention of scholastic attitudes and methods even by thinkers who have abandoned the old theology.

So Italy remained loyal to the old faith, and contented itself with the Summa of Aquinas for philosophy. Giambattista Vico came, and stirred the Italian mind again; but Vico went, and philosophy seemed to die with him. Rosmini thought for a time that he would rebel; but he yielded. Throughout Italy men became more and more irreligious, and more and more loyal to the Church.

Italy remained loyal to the old faith, and contented itself with the Summa of Aquinas for philosophy. 

Benedetto Croce is an exception. Born in 1866 in a small town in the province of Aquila, and the only son of a well-to-do Catholic and conservative family, he was given so thorough a training in Catholic theology that at last, to restore the balance, he became an atheist. In countries that have had no Reformation there is no half-way house between orthodoxy and absolute unbelief. Benedetto was at first so pious that he insisted on studying every phase of religion, until at last he reached its philosophy and its anthropology; and insensibly his studies were substituted for his faith.

Benedetto Croce is an exception. Benedetto was at first so pious that he insisted on studying every phase of religion, and insensibly his studies were substituted for his faith.

In 1888 life dealt him one of those ruthless blows which usually turn men’s minds back to belief. An earthquake overwhelmed the little town of Casamicciola where the Croces were staying; Benedetto lost both his parents, and his only sister; he himself remained buried for hours under the ruins, with many broken bones. It took him several years to recover his health; but his later life and work showed no breaking of his spirit. The quiet routine of convalescence gave him, or strengthened in him, the taste for scholarship; he used the modest fortune which the catastrophe left him to collect one of the finest libraries in Italy; he became a philosopher without paying the usual penalty of poverty or a professorship; he realized Ecclesiastes’ cautious counsel, that “wisdom is good with an inheritance.”

Croce went through a catastrophe. He used the modest fortune which the catastrophe left him to collect one of the finest libraries in Italy.

He has remained throughout his life a student, a lover of letters and of leisure. It was against his protests that he was drawn into politics and made minister of Public Education, perhaps to lend an air of philosophic dignity to a cabinet of politicians. He was chosen to the Italian senate; and as the rule in Italy is, once a senator always a senator (the office being for life), Croce provides the spectacle, not unusual in ancient Rome, but rather unique in our day, of a man who can be a senator and a philosopher at the same time. He would have interested Iago. But he does not take his politics too seriously; his time goes chiefly to the editing of his internationally famous periodical, La Critica, in which he and Giovanni Gentile dissect the world of thought and belles lettres (beautiful letters).

It was against his protests that Croce was drawn into politics and made minister of Public Education. But he did not take his politics too seriously; his time went chiefly to the editing of his internationally famous periodical, La Critica,

When the war of 1914 came; Croce, angered at the thought that a mere matter of economic conflict should be permitted to interrupt the growth of the European mind, denounced the outbreak as suicidal mania; and even when Italy had, of necessity, thrown in her lot with the Allies, he remained aloof, and became as unpopular in Italy as Bertrand Russell in England or Romain Rolland in France. But Italy has forgiven him now; and all the youth of the land look up to him as their unbiased guide, philosopher, and friend; he has become for them an institution as important as the universities. It is nothing unusual now to hear judgments of him like Giuseppe Natoli’s: “The system of Benedetto Croce remains the highest conquest in contemporary thought.” Let us inquire into the secret of this influence.

Croce denounced the outbreak of the war of 1914, and remained aloof even when Italy had, of necessity, thrown in her lot with the Allies. Although this made him initially unpopular, his reputation was restored after the war. He became for the Italian youth an institution as important as the universities. 

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