One has 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 spontaneously spilled into the streets to say farewell to one who has been described as 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 an intellectual 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, those who view him as a great "popularizer," or, to use the Italian phrase, a "vulgarizer" of culture. (Perhaps one should be wary of intellectuals who are wary of vulgarizers. Those who feel this way about Croce might well have felt the same way about Dante, who chose the terribly vulgar path of writing the single 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 what I have said is a
fair description of at least some intellectuals, than
that is what Croce definitely was not, and
therein lies his appeal to many. There is undeniably
something in the Neapolitan character and, indeed, in
all of us throughout the ages and across cultures that
loves, respects and identifies with very simple and very
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 were killed in the great earthquake that struck the island of Ischia where they were staying in 1883. He, himself, was buried beneath the 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 and range 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, said "We have made Italy. Now let us make Italians." Croce perhaps helped to "make Italians," culturally speaking, by providing them with a broad unified cultural background. He founded his journal, La Critica in 1903 and for 41 years published his own writing as well as reviewing important European historical, philosophical and literary work of the times. 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."
In discussing Croce's philosophy, 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, "That which is excellent is difficult"!) Yet, his language is eminently approachable, and, indeed, 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 the very least he succeeded in moving Italian intellectual thought away from religious scholasticism into the mainstream of 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 takes place within history rings true to many. History, after all, is not something that runs 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 has made 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 an integral part of larger macroeconomics. Yet, this commonsense view of history has not been all that clear to many who have chosen to view their searches for truth, for God, for music, for art, for whatever, as something that transcends life instead of being part of it. It is true that 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 may shed some light on Croce's view of the age-old question in aesthetics: What is beauty? Mozart used to sit in crowded pubs, eating, drinking and chatting with his friends, surrounded by the constant hubbub common to such places. When asked how he could compose music with all the racket going on, he said that the 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 merely "copying out the parts". The opposing view, of course, claims that it is absurd to think that Michelangelo's mere thought of David is beauty. Surely it is the manifestation of the idea that is beauty! Surely, you need the statue! If that makes intuitive sense to you, you are not alone, but ask yourself the question presented in the counter-argument: Why, then, do 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 (!) or BE in the presence of the idea, 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 Everyone, that all of us, creative or not, have 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 particularly important in 20th-century Italy. Croce has rightly been called the Historian of Liberty, one who viewed all of 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 rightfully 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.