Benedetto Croce

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Benedetto Croce
Born (1866-02-25)February 25, 1866
Pescasseroli, Italy
Died 20 November 1952(1952-11-20) (aged 86)
Naples, Italy
Era 20th-century
Region Western philosophy
School Idealism, Liberalism, Historism
Main interests
History, aesthetics, politics
Notable ideas
Art is expression

Benedetto Croce (Italian: [beneˈdetto ˈkroːtʃe]; 25 February 1866 – 20 November 1952) was an Italian idealist philosopher, and occasionally also politician. He wrote on numerous topics, including philosophy, history, methodology of history writing and aesthetics. He was a prominent liberal, although he opposed laissez-faire free trade, and had considerable influence on other prominent Italian intellectuals including both Marxist Antonio Gramsci and fascist Giovanni Gentile.

He was President of PEN International, the worldwide writers' association, from 1949 until 1952.

According an article of 2012 on Foreign Affairs, Benedetto Croce is considered among the most modern thinkers from those of the 20th century, along with intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, Francis Fukuyama and Leon Trotsky.[1]


Croce was born in Pescasseroli in the Abruzzo region of Italy. He came from an influential and wealthy family, and was raised in a very strict Catholic environment. Around the age of 16, he turned away from Catholicism and developed a personal view of spiritual life, in which religion cannot be anything but an historical institution where the creative strength of mankind can be expressed. He kept this position for the rest of his life.

In 1883, an earthquake hit the village of Casamicciola on the island of Ischia near Naples, where he was on holiday with his family, destroying the home they lived in. His mother, father, and only sister were all killed, while he was buried for a very long time and barely survived. After the incident he inherited his family's fortune and much like Schopenhauer before him was able to live the rest of his life in relative leisure, enabling him to devote a great deal of time to philosophy as an independent intellectual writing from his palazzo in Naples. (Ryn, 2000:xi[2]).

There, he graduated in law at the University of Naples, while reading extensively in historical materialism. His ideas were spread at the University of Rome towards the ends of the 1890s by Professor Antonio Labriola. Croce was well acquainted with and sympathetic to the developments in European socialist thought exemplified by Filippo Turati, Anna Kuliscioff, Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel, Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky and Paul Lafargue.

Under the influence of Neapolitan born Gianbattista Vico's thoughts about art and history, he turned to philosophy in 1893. Croce also purchased the house in which Vico had lived. His friend, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile encouraged him to read Hegel. Croce's famous commentary on Hegel, What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel, appeared in 1907.

Political involvement[edit]

As his fame increased, Croce was persuaded, against his wishes,[verification needed] to go into politics. He was appointed to the Italian Senate, a lifelong position, in 1910. (Ryn, 2000:xi[2]). He was an open critic of Italy's participation in World War I, feeling that it was a suicidal trade war. Though this made him initially unpopular, his reputation was restored after the war and he became a well-loved public figure. He was Minister of Public Education between 1920 and 1921 in the 5th and last government headed by Giovanni Giolitti. Benito Mussolini took power just over a year after Croce's exit from government; Mussolini's first Minister or Public Education was Giovanni Gentile, an independent who later became a fascist and with whom Croce had earlier cooperated in a philosophical polemic against positivism. Gentile remained minister for only a year, but managed to launch a comprehensive reform of Italian education that was partly based on Croce's earlier suggestions. Gentile's reform remained in force well beyond the Fascist regime, and was only abolished in 1962.

Croce was instrumental in the move to Naples' Palazzo Reale of the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III in 1923.

Relations with Fascism[edit]

Croce initially supported Mussolini's Fascist government that took power in 1922.[3] The assassination by Fascists of Giacomo Matteotti in June 1924 shook Croce's support for Mussolini. In May 1925 Croce was one of the signatories the Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals which had been written by Croce himself; however in June of the same year he voted in the Senate in support of the Mussolini government. He later explained that he had hoped that the support for Mussolini in parliament would weaken the more extreme Fascists whom he believed were responsible for Matteotti's murder.

Croce was seriously threatened by Mussolini's regime, though the only act of physical violence he suffered at the hands of the fascists was the ransacking of his home and library in Naples in November 1926.[4] Although he managed to stay outside prison thanks to his reputation, he remained under surveillance, and his academic work was kept in obscurity by the government, to the extent that no mainstream newspaper or academic publication ever referred to him. Croce later coined the term onagrocrazia (literally "government by asses") to emphasize the anti-intellectual and boorish tendencies of parts of the Fascist regime.[5] However Croce's description of Fascism as anti-intellectual ignored the fact that many Italian intellectuals at the time actively supported Mussolini's regime, including Croce's former friend and colleague Gentile. Croce also described Fascism as malattia morale (literally "moral illness"). When Mussolini's government adopted antisemitic policies in 1938, Croce was the only non-Jewish intellectual who refused to complete a government questionnaire designed to collect information on the so-called "racial background" of Italian intellectuals.

The new Republic[edit]

In 1944, when democracy was restored in Southern Italy, Croce, as an "icon of liberal anti-fascism", became minister without portfolio in governments headed by Pietro Badoglio and by Ivanoe Bonomi (Ryn, 2000:xi–xii[2]).[6] He left the government in July 1944 but remained president of the Liberal Party until 1947 (Ryn, 2000:xii[2]).

Croce voted for the Monarchy in the Constitutional referendum of June 1946, after having persuaded his Liberal party to adopt a neutral stance. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly which existed in Italy between June 1946 and January 1948. He spoke in the Assembly against the Peace treaty (signed in February 1947), which he regarded as humiliating for Italy. He declined to stand as provisional President of Italy.

Philosophical works[edit]

His most interesting philosophical ideas are divided into three works: Aesthetic (1902), Logic (1908), and Philosophy of the practical (1908), but his complete work is spread over 80 books and 40 years worth of publications in his own bimonthly literary magazine, La Critica. (Ryn, 2000:xi[2]) Croce was an agnostic;[7] however, he did publish an essay entitled "Why We Cannot Help Calling Ourselves Christians."

The Philosophy of Spirit[edit]

Heavily influenced by Hegel and other German Idealists such as Fichte, Croce produced what was called, by him, the Philosophy of Spirit. His preferred designations were "Absolute Idealism" or "Absolute Historicism". Croce's work can be seen as a second attempt (contra Kant) to resolve the problems and conflicts between empiricism and rationalism (or sensationalism and transcendentalism, respectively). He calls his way immanentism, and concentrates on the lived human experience, as it happens in specific places and times. Since the root of reality is this immanent existence in concrete experience, Croce places aesthetics at the foundation of his philosophy.

The Domains of Mind[edit]

Croce's methodological approach to philosophy is expressed in his divisions of the spirit, or mind. He divides mental activity first into the theoretical, and then the practical. The theoretical division splits between aesthetic and logic. This theoretical aesthetic includes most importantly: intuitions and history. The logical includes concepts and relations. Practical spirit is concerned with economics and ethics. Economics is here to be understood as an exhaustive term for all utilitarian matters.

Each of these divisions have an underlying structure that colors, or dictates, the sort of thinking that goes on within them. While Aesthetic is driven by beauty, Logic is subject to truth, Economics is concerned with what is useful, and the moral, or Ethics, is bound to the good. This schema is descriptive in that it attempts to elucidate the logic of human thought; however, it is prescriptive as well, in that these ideas form the basis for epistemological claims and confidence.


Croce also held great esteem for Vico, and shared his view that history should be written by philosophers. Croce's On History sets forth the view of history as "philosophy in motion", that there is no greater "cosmic design" or ultimate plan in history, and that the "science of history" was a farce.


Croce's work Breviario di estetica (The Essence of Aesthetic) appears in the form of four lessons (quattro lezioni), as he was asked to write and deliver them at the inauguration of Rice University in 1912. He declined the invitation to attend the event; however, he wrote the lessons and submitted them for translation, so that they could be read in his absence.

In this brief, but dense, work, Croce sets forth his theory of art. He claimed that art is more important than science or metaphysics, since only the former edifies us. He felt that all we know can be reduced to logical and imaginative knowledge. Art springs from the latter, making it at its heart, pure imagery. All thought is based in part on this, and it precedes all other thought. The task of an artist is then to put forth the perfect image that they can produce for their viewer, since this is what beauty fundamentally is – the formation of inward, mental images in their ideal state. Our intuition is the basis of forming these concepts within us.

This theory was later heavily debated by such contemporary Italian thinkers as Umberto Eco, who locates the aesthetic within a semiotic construction.[8]

Contributions to liberal political theory[edit]

Croce's liberalism differs from the theories advocated by most proponents of liberal political thought, including those in Britain and in the United States of America: while Croce theorises that the individual is the centre of society, he rejects social atomism, and while Croce accepts limited government, he refuses that the government should have fixed legitimate powers.

Croce did not agree with John Locke about the nature of liberty. Croce believed that liberty is not a natural right but an earned right that arises out of continuing historical struggle for its maintenance.

Croce defined civilization as the "continual vigilance" against barbarism, and liberty fit into his ideal for civilization as it allows one to experience the full potential of life.

Croce also rejects egalitarianism as absurd. In short, his variety of liberalism is aristocratic, as he views society being led by the few who can create the goodness of truth, civilization, and beauty, with the great mass of citizens simply benefiting from them but unable to fully comprehend their creations (Ryn, 2000:xii[2]).

Selected quotations[edit]

  • "All history is contemporary history."[9]
  • "As an historian, [I] realize how arbitrary, fantastic and inconclusive are theories of race."[10]
  • "Until eighteen years old everyone writes poems. After that only two categories of people continue to do so: the poets and the idiots."[11]

Selected bibliography[edit]

See also: Croce at the Marxists Internet Archive.

See English edition: Theory and history of Historiography, translation by Douglas Ainslie, Editor: George G. Harrap. London (1921).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ (Italian) Pagina jpg del Corriere del Mezzogiorno: Luigi Mosca, L'America innamorata di Croce. La prestigiosa rivista USA "Foreign Affairs" lo incorona tra i pensatori più attuali, 31-01-2013
  2. ^ a b c d e f g History as the story of liberty: English translation of Croce's 1938 collection of essays originally in Italian; translation published by Liberty Fun Inc. in the USA in 2000 with a foreword by Claes G. Ryn. ISBN 0-86597-268-0 (hardback). See Croce 1938.
  3. ^ Denis Mack Smith, "Benedetto Croce: History and Politics", Journal of Contemporary History Vol 8(1) Jan 1973 pg 47.
  4. ^ See the detailed description in a letter by Fausto Nicolini to Giovanni Gentile published in Sasso, Gennaro (1989). Per invigilare me stesso. Bologna: Il mulino. pp. 139–40. 
  5. ^ It is a disdainful term for misgovernment, a late and satirical addition to Aristotle's famous three: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.
  6. ^ For about a month in the so-called Second Badoglio government and again for a month in the Second Bonomi government.
  7. ^ La Critica. Rivista di Letteratura, Storia e Filosofia diretta da B. Croce, 1, 1903 p.372
  8. ^ Umberto Eco, "A Theory of Semiotics" (Indiana University Press. 1976)
  9. ^ Allan, George (1972). "Croce and Whitehead On Concrescence". Process Studies 2 (2): 95–111. Allan lists the sources Croce, History as the Story of Liberty, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1941 (see Croce 1938) and Croce, History: Its Theory and Practice, New York: Russell & Russell, 1960. 
  10. ^ Quoted in Salomone, William A., Italy from Risorgimento to Fascism: an Inquiry into the Origins of the Totalitarian State.
  11. ^ Poesia popolare e poesia d'arte, Laterza, Bari, 1933

Further reading[edit]

  • Parente, Alfredo. Il pensiero politico di Benedetto Croce e il nuovo liberalismo (1944).
  • Myra E. Moss, Benedetto Croce reconsidered: Truth and Error in Theories of Art, Literature, and History ,(1987). Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1987.
  • Ernesto Paolozzi, Science and Philosophy in Benedetto Croce, in "Rivista di Studi Italiani", University of Toronto, 2002.
  • Janos Keleman, A Paradoxical Truth. Croce's Thesis of Contemporary History, in "Rivista di Studi Italiani, University of Toronto, 2002.
  • Giuseppe Gembillo, Croce and the Theorists of Complexity, in "Rivista di Studi Italiani, University of Toronto, 2002.
  • Fabio Fernando Rizi, Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism, University of Toronto Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-8020-3762-6.
  • Ernesto Paolozzi, Benedetto Croce, Cassitto, Naples, 1998 (translated by M. Verdicchio (2008)
  • Carlo Schirru, Per un’analisi interlinguistica d’epoca: Grazia Deledda e contemporanei, Rivista Italiana di Linguistica e di Dialettologia, Fabrizio Serra editore, Pisa–Roma, Anno XI, 2009, pp. 9–32
  • Matteo Veronesi, Il critico come artista dall'estetismo agli ermetici. D'Annunzio, Croce, Serra, Luzi e altri, Bologna, Azeta Fastpress, 2006, ISBN 88-89982-05-5
  • Roberts, David D. Benedetto Croce and the Uses of Historicism. Berkeley: U of California Press, (1987).
  • Claes G. Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality (1997; 1986).
  • R. G. Collingwood, "Croce's Philosophy of History" in The Hibbert Journal, XIX: 263–278 (1921), collected in Collingwood, Essays in the Philosophy of History, ed. William Debbins (University of Texas 1965) at 3–22.
  • Roberts, Jeremy, Benito Mussolini, Twenty-First Century Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8225-2648-3.

External links[edit]

Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
Maurice Maeterlinck
International President of PEN International
Succeeded by
Charles Langbridge Morgan