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"The Three Brothers of a New Italian Humanism": Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-08-12 11:30:00
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“I do not conceive Socialist policy as tied to any particular theory, but to a faith. The more Socialist theories claim to be "scientific" the more transitory they are; but Socialist values are permanent. The distinction between theories and values is not sufficiently recognized, but it is fundamental. On a group of theories one can found a school; but on a group of values one can found a culture, a civilization, a new way of living together among men.”

                                                                                       --Ignazio Silone (The God that Failed)

In 1981 an intriguing film directed by Francesco Rosi came out of Italy titled “Tre Fratelli’ [Three Brothers]. It is the simple story of three brothers who are summoned by their father upon the death of their mother from a farmhouse in Southern Italy. One brother Raffaele is a judge living in Rome who is presiding over a terrorism case and is in fear for his life. Another son, Rocco lives in Naples, is religious and works as a counselor at a correctional institute for teenage boys. The third son, Nicola, lives in Turin and is a factory worker involved in a labor dispute and experiencing marital difficulties.

threeAt first sight the movie seems to be about the grieving process on the loss of one’s mother and how each brother experiences his own suffering in his own particular way colored by the predicament each finds himself in and the reverie of the past and what may come in the future:  Raffaele imagines his death, Rocco dreams of lifting the youth of Naples out of violence, drugs, and corruption, Nicola pictures embracing his estranged wife. Meanwhile, the old man and his young granddaughter explore the rhythms of the farm and grieve together while in the final scene of the film we see the three brothers, the lost second generation between grandfather and granddaughter, carrying their mother’s coffin to the cemetery.

I’d like to submit a rather unconventional interpretation which, to my knowledge, has never been proffered in any of the movie’s reviews. I hold that the film is less existentially psychological and/or sociological and more political-cultural and based on the history and culture of Italy. My interpretation is basically this: the mother can be interpreted as an allegorical figure for Mother Italy, the three brothers are allegorical figures representing the three historical movements that have traditionally been in constant conflict in Italy: Catholicism (Rocco), Liberalism (Raffaele) and Socialism (Nicola). They are all interrelated with common cultural roots and can be placed within the context of Italian Humanism, of a new modern humanism, new values on which to build a culture and a moribund civilization, beyond soccer games and common currency  as the above quote by Silone powerfully intimates. I also suggest that there may be some insights in this film’s interpretation on the predicament in which the European Union finds itself in at the moment; a predicament partly brought about by its misguided jettisoning of religion and faith from its cultural foundations.  

To validate my interpretation we need to delve a bit extensively into some historical and ongoing developments of Italian culture. We also need to take a close look at three giants of modern Italian culture and politics: Alcide De Gasperi (who has been extensively examined in two previous articles in Ovi), Benedetto Croce (extensively dealt in Ovi by Ernesto Paolozzi), and Antonio Gramsci, a socialist and the founder of the Italian Communist Party. Let’s begin our exploration by profiling the three men briefly.

Alcide De Gasperi (1881-1954) was an Italian statesman and politician and founder of the Christian Democratic Party. From 1945 to 1953 he was the prime minister of eight successive coalition governments. His eight-year term in office remains a landmark of political longevity for a leader in modern Italian politics. A conservative Catholic, he was one of the founding fathers of the European Union, along with the Frenchman Robert Schuman and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), the son of an aristocratic Neapolitan family, was a great philosopher and historian of culture who became a living embodiment of liberal culture during the first half of the 20th century. Believing "history is the history of liberty," he opposed all totalitarianisms. During the Mussolini period he withdrew from public life and, though never silenced, lived on the margins of political toleration. After World War II he was felt to be the greatest living symbol of the old liberal Italy and was as such both honored and disregarded. It has taken the likes of Ernesto Paolozzi to resurrect his memory and make us aware of how important he remains to understand anything about Italian and European culture.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is considered the founder of the Italian Communist Party was the son of a poor Sardinian family, ultimately of Albanian extraction. After coming to Turin he became one of the first outstanding leaders of the Italian Communist party. Arrested by Mussolini in 1926, he spent the rest of his life in prison, except for the few days he survived, diseased and physically broken, after his release in 1937. His greatest work was done in prison and became known only when it was published after World War II. Gramsci’s work has been widely popular among Italian intellectuals since the late 1940s.

These three men differed sharply from each other and yet they have had a tremendous influence on modern Italian society and its philosophical perspectives. In some way they are the sons of mother Italy. They are the three brothers of Rosi’s movie. All three of them were greatly concerned with the ethical and political normative order of Italian society. To De Gasperi an Italy divorced from its religious Christian ethic was equivalent to putting the cart before the horse. To Croce the historical realization of liberty was the highest good; to Gramsci it was the dialectic of socialist liberation. Those are different visions but they are cemented by a common Italian humanistic culture which precedes the Renaissance and continues after it culminating in The Science of Giambattista Vico.

Each of these men in his own way finally found himself alone. Each, though concerned with power, had to renounce power during the fascist era (1922-1942), to reject his society as it was, and to refuse to collaborate with it. They joined that long line of Italians, saints and heroes, who refused the demands of the powers of their day.

Benedetto Croce began his well-known book History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, with a chapter entitled "The Religion of Liberty." After describing various features of liberalism as it came to be expressed in the early nineteenth century, he writes: “Now he who gathers together and considers all these characteristics of the liberal ideal does not hesitate to call it what it was: a ‘religion.’ He calls it so, of course, because he looks for what is essential and intrinsic in every religion, which always lies in the concept of reality and an ethics that conforms to this concept.... Nothing more was needed to give them a religious character, since personifications, myths, legends, dogmas, rites, propitiations, expiations, priestly classes, pontifical robes, and the like do not belong to the intrinsic, and are taken out from particular religions and set up as requirements for every religion with ill effect.”

It is clear that Croce wishes to broaden the definition of religion beyond the traditionally religious elements he heaps together in the last sentence and that point to Catholicism. In his second chapter, "Opposing Religious Faiths," he discusses Catholicism and socialism as competitors to liberalism, and in his last chapter he discusses a more recent religion he calls activism, which includes, among other things, fascism, though that word is not mentioned. Antonio Gramsci criticized Croce’s History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century for beginning in 1815 and his History of Italy for beginning in 1871, that is, just after but not including the French Revolution in the one book or the Risorgimento in the other.  He thus excluded "the moment of struggle; the moment in which the conflicting forces are formed, are assembled and take up their positions; the moment in which one ethical-political system dissolves and another is formed by fire and steel; the moment in which one system of social relations disintegrates and falls and another arises and asserts itself."

 Gramsci’s view of "religions” is instructive because it emphasizes the element of struggle, of process, of politics. His conception of religion modulates from the Crocean to something more recognizably Marxist: Gramsci sees two major functions of such "religions."

Of particular importance to Gramsci is a religion or ideology that can provide a "national-popular collective will" such as he saw in Protestantism in the Reformation or Jacobinism in the French Revolution.For him the particular problem of Italy arose from the fact that the Renaissance was not in this respect the equivalent of the Reformation nor was the Risorgimento the equivalent of the French Revolution. It thus remained the task of Marxism ("The Philosophy of praxis corresponds to the nexus Protestant Reformation plus French Revolution") to awaken the national-popular collective will so long dormant in Italy. Because the papacy, with its ineradicably political implications, has been for centuries an Italian institution. It has therefore, and again until quite recently, been impossible to challenge the Catholic political system without challenging Catholicism as a religion. It is for that reason, especially in Italy, that liberalism, socialism, and activism have had to be civil religions religio-political organisms, in competition with the Catholic civil religion.

One of Gramsci’s central theoretical problems is the conditions under which an "organic" intelligentsia is formed, that is, one closely tied to a social group or class, which expresses its inner needs and aspirations, rather than, as has usually been the case in Italy, one that remains isolated from effective social involvement. Gramsci treats Machiavelli as a Reformer in secular guise, a "precocious Jacobin," with a vision of a people armed, a national Italy, and Gramsci used the figure of Machiavelli’s Prince to express the unifying and leading function of the modern Communist party. Gramsci does not mention that in the Discourses Machiavelli expresses an admiration for the religion of the ancient Romans, a truly "civil religion" relative to which he found Christianity largely impotent politically. Nonetheless Machiavelli’s Discourses were undoubtedly one of the sources for that political faith that Gramsci so admired under the name of Jacobinism.

Croce contrasted the "democracy of the eighteenth century as mechanical, intellectualist, and abstractly egalitarian, whereas the "liberalism" of the early nineteenth century was personal, idealistic, and historically organic.  For Croce, Cavour is the great liberal hero of the Risorgimento, the man with a sense of organic continuity, of history, of the necessity of the monarchy while Mazzini is a mechanical democrat whose views would have ruptured the natural growth of Italian society and who justly failed. It was a sort of failure of the Hegelian dialectic. Gramsci sees the victory of Cavour and the moderates as a "passive revolution," a victory of the ruling classes that the moderates organically and effectively represented but a defeat for the mass of people.

In reality both Croce and Gramsci failed to fully appreciate the fact that Mazzini, even if his vision did not prevail, remains the greatest Italian liberal and popular prophet of the nineteenth century. For Mazzini the conception of the Risorgimento, the struggle for Italian unification, completely overcomes the political through the spiritual. Not only is all Machiavellian ragion di stato radically rejected, but politics is integrally subordinated to ethics; and ethics is nothing but the application of religious faith. So Mazzini can be considered a precursor of sort of the Christian Democratic Party. He takes up the Italian religious problem, with a view toward a radical solution. The Mazzinian revolution does not reside in a political rearrangement  nor in insurrection which is a mere temporary instrument; rather his revolution resides in this inner religious transformation. He speaks explicitly of a new faith, which goes not only beyond the old Christian confessions he now considers impotent, but also beyond the skeptical and materialist non-belief of the eighteenth century.

What remains necessary is otherworldly faith, which for Mazzini is faith in God, who manifests himself to humanity through successive revelations; one day, all humanity will be called up to God just as individuals ascend to him in their successive lives. Until such time as social unity is established, ecclesiastical and political authority must remain as independent of each other as possible. But once the new society has really been constituted, there will be no more reason for the separation of Church and state, or of political and religious institutions. Ethics will conform to faith, and will be realized in politics; so, too, the state shall be the Church and the Church shall be the state.

Here we clearly see the nexus between liberalism and Catholicism. In the end, of course, the Risorgimento did not lead to such a grand national regeneration. It was a revolution "from above," a passive revolution" leaving the Italian masses largely untouched. The same Cavour would concur with Dazeglio’s famous sardonic statement that “now that we have made Italy we need to make the Italians,” which could be applied to the current EU. Moreover, Cavour’s formula of "a free church in a free state" was not only entirely unacceptable to the Vatican, it woefully underestimated the religious transformation that would have been necessary to create the free people for whom the free church and free state could have had real meaning. Which is ultimately to say that Cavour’s vision remained the special property of a ruling elite and was not really translated into a national culture.

Even when liberalism became so widespread among the educated classes, as it did by the end of the nineteenth century, that it was almost taken for granted, it was by no means securely institutionalized among the masses, as the rise of socialist, Catholic and fascist parties uncertainly or not at all committed to democratic institutions would subsequently show. Gramsci in fact, fairly or unfairly, criticizes  Croce’s seeming elitist distinction of religion for the masses but philosophy for the educated elite.

The question arises here: is Liberalism as an articulate movement an elitist  intellectualistic movement even today? But while the question is legitimate it cannot be denied that since Croce both the Catholic and socialist subculture have felt the powerful influence of liberalism and have in some measure been transformed by it.

Finally we come to socialism. After the unification in 1871 the intense moral idealism of Mazzini was gradually replaced by the rise of positivism as the dominant philosophy -- Herbert Spencer was everywhere read and quoted. The unification of the country provided the basis for a gradually accelerating industrial growth, particularly in the north but this sign of positivistic "progress" seemed to be creating as many problems as it solved. It is these circumstances that make understandable the emergence of socialism as a major force in Italy. According to Croce the work of Karl Marx, "who created the new religion of the masses’ in the same sense in which Paul of Tarsus created Christianity" was at first known only second or third hand. But when Antonio Labriola discovered Marx’s writing and popularized his theories Herbert Spencer whom every one had read and quoted as the highest authority, was no longer quoted or read, and was allowed to fall into complete oblivion. The same fate awaited Croce after his death in 1954.

Besides having a strong appeal for many of Italy’s educated youth, among whom Croce himself was numbered for a while, Marxian socialism early met success among the industrial workers, especially in the urban north. The Italian Socialist party gradually began to build up not only a network of institutions -- labor unions, mutual aid societies, and cultural organizations -- but a distinct subculture

After the First World War we enter the Fascist era, what Croce calls the religion of activism defining it as a "morbid romanticism," a parody or perversion of liberalism, a sickness of liberty. Here we can include Italian Futurism focused around the “morbidly romantic” figure of Gabriele D’Annunzio in tandem with Marinetti and even Pirandello.

But one thing that differentiated all the activists, D’Annunzio, Marinetti, and Mussolini from a left-wing socialist like Gramsci and a conservative liberal like Croce was their glorification of war and more particularly their violent interventionism in the First World War. That war, traumatic for so many nations, was a major disaster for Italy. It seriously disrupted the economy and set off an inflation that was serious for wage earners and all but fatal for small property owners and produced a class of ultra-rich war profiteers. It gravely overloaded the political system with serious problems at a time when it had not fully assimilated the consequences of universal male suffrage voted in 1912. One of the new political elements was the emergence of a Catholic party, the Popular party, for the first time since the unification of the country. The 1919 elections showed the two great popular parties were the Catholics and the Socialists; the Liberals, who had ruled Italy for half a century, were a declining political force.

Fascism never gained what Gramsci called ideological hegemony and never had an ideology at anything like the level of articulation and sophistication of the Catholics, liberals, or socialists. Fascism in the immediate postwar period was a highly personal movement, an eclectic mixture of whatever Mussolini found that worked. Composed of veterans, former socialists and anarchists, and enraged bourgeois youth eager to fight the socialists as a substitute for the war they were too young for, fascism focused around the leader role Mussolini copied largely from In free elections Fascism never approached the vote of the Catholics and socialists. Once in power it represented another substitute religion of sort (not unlike Bolshevism) claiming the whole man prescribing what he must admire and what it has to condemn even in art and literature and even its rites and ceremonies.

As long as it remained theoretical, Mussolini tolerated the figure of Benedetto Croce, who continued to write and publish all through the Fascist years. But in tolerating it Mussolini largely neutralized that opposition. It was the socialists who took the brunt of Fascism. Gramsci himself, by that time the leader of the Italian Communist party, was arrested in 1926 after his parliamentary immunity was violated and died in 1937 after years of bad food and maltreatment in a Fascist prison. For both Communists and Liberals, Mussolini’s securest basis of popular support came from his religious policy and derived from the Catholic church.

There is no reason to believe Mussolini ever had anything but contempt for the church in his own personal life. The church successfully resisted Mussolini’s efforts, soon after the Concordat, to destroy its lay organization Catholic Action. After the racial laws of 1938 and especially after the German occupation, the church became increasingly alienated from the regime, and the role of many of the clergy in the resistance was a heroic one.

The only thing that can explain how the church clung to this strange alliance for so long is the history of bitterness of the first seventy years of the Kingdom of Italy and the fact that the church was at last coming into its own, legally recognized as a central institution of society instead of existing in some limbo of marginal toleration.

After the Second World War once again there was the threat of revolution, this time from the armed partisans and workers in the north. This time around the discontent of the mass of people came under the leadership of a reborn Catholic party, the Christian Democrats. The 1948 elections were the high water mark of this upsurge, the greatest electoral party victory in modern Italian history. Never having had a Reformation or a revolution, the formal religions and ideologies continued to float on the surface of Italian society appealing to a mobile educated elite but not permeating much of the substructure except in certain areas of the country where Catholic piety or socialist fervor were genuine popular phenomena (for example, the Veneto for the Catholics and Romagna-Emilia for the socialists).

The electoral triumph of Christian Democracy within the institutional framework of the liberal state created a new situation.  The very logic of the early cold war forced the church into a defense of liberalism and democracy to a degree unprecedented since the French Revolution. The liberal state, instead of being the church’s persecutor, was now its defender and so had to be evaluated differently. Particularly now that liberalism was not a major independent political force or contender for rule its values could be accepted as the legitimate norms of the state and given religious approval.

There emerged a fusion of religious and political values, as the very term Christian Democracy suggests, which led almost to a clerical democratic state. Only under John XXIII the tight hold union of party, church, and state began to be broken on the initiative not of the Christian Democratic party but of the church. It would be based on the symbols of the Risorgimento but it would include the celebration of democratic values to which at several crucial points Catholics had also contributed.

The basic implications of the changes are a greater freedom of the church from party and state on the one hand and a wider range of political options for Catholics than support of the Christian Democratic party, options that include support of more vigorously reformist or radical parties of the left. The Italian church in the last fifty years has come a long way out of the wilderness.

If the Catholics have, in the last half century, gradually moved back into the centers of power, the same cannot be said of the socialists, who have never held effective power in Italy. Indeed, the history of socialism in Italy is a history of persecution from the very beginning, a persecution that reached catastrophic proportions in 1921 and 1922 and the long night that followed. Since the war socialists have been harassed rather than persecuted, but only in the last few years has a large socialist group, the left-wing Italian Socialist party attained a share of political power, and that certainly not the lion’s share.

There has been no aggiornamento within the Italian Communist party, no equivalent to Vatican II. This is due in part to an embattled necessary defensiveness. Nevertheless the Italian Communist party (CPI) has a tradition of flexibility, humanism, and appeal to intellectuals that is perhaps unique in the Western world. It is the tradition of Gramsci which even the former Soviet Union found strange and incomprehensible.  This does not by any means mean the CPI is clearly committed to liberal democratic values; it only means in the right circumstances it might be  open to that question.

So the main problem on the left remains the Italian Communist party, the largest excluded group in modern Italian history. The eventual entry of the Communists into some share of governmental power, unthinkable only a few years ago, has come to be widely discussed. Such an eventuality would create the possibility for the transformation of Communist values in a way parallel to what has happened to the Catholics. But if such a transformation is to be something other than a sellout that will just produce a new mass alienated party to the left of the Communists, it will have to be accompanied by at least the beginning of the solution to some of Italy’s basic social problems. In other words the only way to democratize the socialists is to socialize the democracy. How difficult that will be is already evident from the fruits of the several efforts at establishing a center-left government.

But in spite of some grounds for optimism, no observer of Italian society today could call it a happy one. Whatever their differences, the greatest of modern Italian novelists, beginning with Manzoni, all the way to Verga, Moravia, Silone, Lampedusa -- share a fundamental pessimism about the human capacity to alter social institutions. All of them opt instead for a certain dignity and integrity in the individual human soul. Croce, who led at several points an active political life, remains an inspirational example of modest but real institutional successes of modern Italy. Italian history states with stunning clarity the central issues of the sociology of human existence: the very partial institutionalization of morality, the role of the moral hero and the immoral hero, and the problem of when to take power and when to renounce power.

And so we are back to the three brothers grieving for their mother. Sometimes the ideology has to die for the dream or the vision to be resurrected. Will a new humanistic Italy resurrect from its grave? An Italy which has been all along ill suited to the straitjacket of modern nationalism accustomed to universal phenomena such as the Roman Empire, Christianity, Catholicism, Humanism and the Renaissance. Hard to say, but hope springs eternal. Silone’s quote at the outset of this essay is indicative of what he calls “the conspiracy of hope.” In that essay titled “Emergency Exit” Silone tells us that he left the Communist party because of the corruption he saw in the Soviet Union but he does not consider socialism an ideology but a faith, a faith in the aspiration of the human spirit to justice which goes back to Plato’s Republic and the Acts of the Apostles and the Franciscans owning everything in common and loving each other. Indeed, solidarity, justice and peace are also three brothers who will have to come together to bury and honor their mother.

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Dr. Bob Griffin2013-08-16 22:51:10
Humanist,evolutionary economics, both Italian, since A. Labriola, and T. Veblen,has long been on the table of advanced thinking. A 20th century proposal of "Eurocommunism" was perhaps one of the most brilliant, but postponed, expressions of humanist evolutionary economics. Need postponed mean lost. I hope not.

James Woodbury2013-08-12 23:45:07
Dear Emanuel.
A very good and interesting article. One of your best efforts, I'd say.
James W.

Leah Sellers2013-08-13 00:15:11
Dear Brother Emanuel,
Excellent, sir.
I,too, have seen this movie, and concur with many of your ascertions.
Socialism is far Truer and more Just to Benevolent and Benficial Universal Values and Ethics, than Malevolent, purely Darwinistic (Predatory) Capitalism ever dreamt of Being.
Socialism is very compatible with Humanistic and Christian Beliefs and Standards.
America is a Democratic/Socialistic Republic. But mention that to a Tea Partying/Republican, and you're liable to be lynched - ha !
Also, I would recommend this movie to anyone. I saw it quite by accident one evening, and it really moved me to tears. But I cried during Bambi- ha !

Gerard C. Farley2013-08-18 03:28:31
Intriguing interpretation of the movie. Your interesting presentation of the thought and influence of various Italian thinkers is illuminating for me. Thank you.

Reatieva 2013-11-18 00:58:10
I found this story to be very interesting and intellectually fulfilling.

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