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Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter V Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter V
by Prof. Ernesto Paolozzi
2013-03-11 10:19:53
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Chapter V

The World of Praxis: Economy, Politics, Ethics, Vitality

We have seen how Croce, in the Logic, within the frame work of the unity of human life, differentiates between the theoretical and practical sphere, that are indissolubly (dialectically) correlated, so that one presupposes the other and vice versa. It is a question now of determining the nature of praxis, of describing the internal relations that form what we call actions or acts, in the strict sense, because, as we said, even thinking is an action (fare), an acting in the sense that it is an activity.

Willing is what makes action happen (if we can put this way) in a synthetic a priori relation. As in Croce’s entire thinking, in this case too there is the attempt to overcome any dualism. An abstract, detached willing does not exist that precedes the actual volitional act. Willing means truly realizing that will which would, otherwise, remain a mere phantasy, a play of the imagination, an optative. One thing is to dream of being the emperor of China, another is to want to read a book on the Celestial Emperor. If there is truly a will, the desire is realized and the book will be concretely read. Naturally, opposing the will there is the event, what escapes the single will but which is also the result of those same wills. Human will, therefore, is not completely free, but it is not completely determined, or enslaved to causes external to the will either. And, once again, from this particular point of view, the great theme of liberty is placed in evidence. Croce explains that the volitional act is free and necessary at the same time.

Volition, in fact, as has been seen, does not arise in the void, but in a definite situation, in unchangeable historical conditions, in relation to an event, which, if it be, is necessary. The volition corresponds to that situation and it is impossible to separate it: when the situation changes, the volition changes; as the situation, so volition.[...] But this also means that the volition is free. Because if the actual situation is its condition, the volition is not the condition, but the conditioned, for it does not remain fixed in the actual situation, nor does it repeat it by making a duplicate of it, which would be superfluous and therefore impossible in the effective development of the real, which does not allow of superfluity. The volition produces something different, that is, something new, something that did not exist previously and that now comes into existence: it is initiative, creation, and therefore act of freedom. Were this not so, volition would not be volition, and reality would not change, would not become, would not grow upon itself (Pop 176-177).

Once the essential nature of the will is established, through an analysis (which is also meticulous, and, in some cases, of absolute psychological importance) of various doctrines, prejudices and ambiguities of which we cannot give an account of it here, Croce goes on to identify the specific forms of practical activity or volition. As is well-known he distinguishes between an utilitarian or economic form and a moral or ethical form:

The economic activity is that which wills and effects only what corresponds to the conditions of fact in which a man finds himself; the ethical activity is that which, although it correspond to these conditions, also refers to something that transcends them. To the first correspond what are called individual ends, to the second universal ends; the one gives rise to the judgment concerning the greater or less coherence of the action taken in itself, the other to that concerning its greater or lesser coherence in respect to the universal end, which transcends the individual

(Pop 312-313).

One may wish to be elected to Parliament for personal gratification or in order to do one’s duty toward the community in which one lives or to defend a political ideal. In this example the first action may seem merely negative. In actual fact this is not really Croce’s idea, especially in the first phase of his activity. In fact we could say that one may wish to write a grammar to earn money, or to get a job, or to keep alive the classical tradition, the culture of a people. The first action is not in and of itself negative. It is not immoral to want to earn money but it is beyond morals. In fact, it is a legitimate utilitarian desire. Utility is not in and of itself immoral or moral, it is autonomous, a value in and of itself. It can become a negative value when it goes against a moral principle, for example, when the work is used to achieve an undeserved result that will be detrimental to others.

In this sense, utility is the volition of the individual and the ethics of the universal. Now, to look closer, ethics cannot live without utility because any moral action is also and always a useful action, while the contrary is not true, as we can see from our first example. This helps resolve another problem that Croce’s ethics could raise, namely the idea that there could be a volition of the universal, while it is clear that every volitional act is always individual. To will freedom in the absolute is not, properly, an act of will. It belongs to what we have called a mere play of the imagination, or to an abstract wish, even if impassioned and noble. What one can truly wish for is always a concrete truth. The freedom to behave as one wishes but also the freedom to conquer freedom for the workers of a certain country. The universal volition of which Croce speaks, therefore, is a conditioned universality. We shall see how, in the development of Croce’s thought, the question is modified, at least in part, and, perhaps, even complicated. Now, it is important to bring Croce’s philosophy back to its origins not so much and not only to fulfill a sort of duty toward its predecessors but because Croce’s position acquires a particular value in the contemporary history of the philosophy of the practical, as he himself was to indicate more than once, almost boasting. An unusual attitude for the otherwise stern Croce who was afraid of inserting in his autobiographical writings elements foreign to a strictly intellectual biography. But in this case, the question is different because the “discovery” of utility as spiritual value marks without doubt a decisive moment in contemporary philosophy.

Croce vindicates the absolute spirituality of utility by placing it next to the ancient triad of traditional values: the beautiful, the true and the good. The economic, the search for individual interest, have been generally considered opposed to morality both in the Greek and in the Catholic traditions. Of course, it would be easy to read between the lines of philosophical doctrines of every age implicit, and sometime even explicit, acknowledgments of the positive value of the economic, but according to Croce the positivity of this category was substantially unknown. In a famous essay, “Le due scienze mondane” (The two worldly sciences) , the aesthetic and the economic, Croce claims that art and utility could not find their proper place as long as philosophy was strictly connected to metaphysics. The two sciences could achieve full recognition only when thought freed itself of metaphysics between the XVIIth C. and the XVIIIth C when it becomes philosophy of spirit and, thus, “modern”. A journey clearly long and uneven that climaxes with the full collocation of the category of utility within the sphere of a full system of relations functional to the unity of life.

In Croce’s interpretation, Machiavelli is the first to realize, with absolute clarity, the autonomous value of politics, understood as a coherent force that dominates the sphere of civil passions. But not only Machiavelli, but Vico and Hegel too, and Marx, above all, are the close antecedents of Croce’s thought. But what is the domain of economy, of the category of utility? Above all, it is necessary to forget what we intend by economy in the strict sense. As we saw, by economy Croce means that vast world in which the passions of man are tossed, in which those passions are organized and, for certain aspects, rationalized. This is why the economic category includes politics and law, scientific as well as historical classifications, grammatical forms, as well as all the other necessary forms through which humanity organizes empirically its own life.

Those who do not have an aptitude for philosophical distinctions will hardly be able to overcome the psychological barrier whereby the banal organization of a small office should be held to be a utilitarian action similar in everything to that which is found in the organization of laws, or in the classification of human beings according to species and class, or in the division of literature in genres, and so on. We need to free ourselves of many prejudices remembering, if nothing else, that humanity founded its existence, for many centuries, on “truths” that to us appear to be obvious folly. Thus, in trying to understand Croce’s position, one must reflect at least on this one point, that what all these various economic activities have in common is the abstractive procedure. Biological classification is an operation which tends to abstract common elements from different individuals, but it is clear that, in fact, no individual corresponds perfectly to the biological law so derived. Even written laws correspond to abstract criteria, so much so that for any law there are exceptions and every judge falls back on jurisprudence (that is, on the concrete history of law practice), and lawyers fall back on extenuating circumstances, and so on. Homicide is punished with a life sentence unless it was done in self-defense, or in war, or out of necessity, or in a state of temporary insanity, and so on. And often the laws of a State find themselves in clear contradiction with the public morality of a nation. The same goes for grammar which is the abstraction of concrete language, or for literary genres that list under the heading of historical novel writers as different as Walter Scott and Alessandro Manzoni, or under lyric the diverse poems of Giambattista Marino and Baudelaire.

One can abstract from reality by generalizing or creating laws, or by dividing what is in itself united. Only the whole man exists, not the practical man, the bourgeois, the male gender, the black, the Aryan. As long as these concepts are understood in their practical dimension they are useful but woe to those who misunderstand their real nature! Racial persecutions, sexual discrimination find in similar misunderstandings their tragic foundation.

The abstraction of reality, therefore, is one of the common denominators of the utilitarian spirit. But here Croce’s terminology does not help. Abstraction from reality does not mean unreality. In fact, these abstractions possess a specific reality, a life of their own, even if they seem to mortify and kill the flow of life. They are realities, precisely, of the utilitarian world. And here, once again, Croce’s position is different from Hegel’s as well as from Heidegger’s and that of similar philosophers. Hegel, for instance, believed abstraction to be an inferior moment of truth, a stage of the process through which truth is affirmed. For Croce, utilitarian abstraction is not the opposite of truth, but a distinct, an essential different way of operating. Naturally, it is not only this component that defines the essential character of the economic. There is what we have defined summarily as the passional element because even moral acts are accomplished with passion, and in fact, so every act of life. But in this case, by passion we mean that which drives to fulfill individual expectations. Politics, in a certain way, is, on the whole, the typical example of the utilitarian attitude because it summarizes the very nature of the category. Politics is the reign of passions and of organizational capacity, and possesses what animates the economy, understood in the traditional sense, and the utilitarian attitude, taken in the broader sense.

The relation between ethics and politics is seminal to Croce’s thought and has given way to many discussions at various levels. The reduction of the State to a mere economic act seemed to many almost an outrage to the liberal Italian tradition, and yet one must admit that the State understood as ethical State can represent the antechamber to dictatorship. The State cannot and must not be preoccupied with individual morality which is a concept far superior to that of any concrete State. If by State, then, the community is designated, metaphorically, it is natural that a community can be ethical insofar as it represents the expansion of individual morality which, as we know, is for Croce the universal. Ethics belongs to universality and no particular State can arrogate the right of being ethical. At this point, many problems pose themselves, such as that of the relation between economy and ethics, and that of vitality, which occupied the last years of Croce’s life. Vitality seems to be (and perhaps is not) the expression of utility on the specific side of what we have precariously defined as the satisfaction of individual expectations.

From what has been said, it would seem that once the autonomy of utility and, therefore, of politics, has been sanctioned, the useful can unfold in all its volitional force upsetting the material of life. But as we have already shown in the chapter on the Logic, the relation between distincts is extremely close, inseparable. The categories converge, diverge, and imply one another. Utility finds in ethics its limitations, politics has its intrinsic laws that somehow ought to be respected but that always find their limitations in those of morality. One should not think, however, that the relation consists solely of limitations and, therefore, of oppositions. Ethics, in fact, has force and vigor only if it makes use of economy, politics, to be realized concretely. An ethic, which in order to remain “pure,” would renounce to becoming an actual reality, Machiavellian-like, would be an empty, unresolved morality, and, therefore, intrinsically immoral because sterile. The good politician, as the authentic moral man is, according to the gospels, pure as the dove, and cunning as the snake.

But what are the limitations of politics, the confines of ethics? Croce does not tell us and this silence has earned him all kinds of accusations. But the philosopher, as such, cannot establish these confines. It is up to the politician, immersed in history, to judge from time to time. Croce’s ethics is a philosophical and not a normative ethics. The so-called normative ethics, even if enunciated through more or less logical and coherent reasons, is substantially the abstraction of a political feeling raised to a rule of behavior. The problem of philosophy is that of ascertaining if liberty has a sense, and not to take for granted that a reasonable man would accept the concepts of tolerance, plurality, democracy, and so on. This is the sense in which Croce’s ethics is a philosophical ethics within which liberty ends up by being compared to morality. In this delicate shift there is, perhaps, the greatest point of contact with Kant, but not the philosopher of the enlightenment, the theorist of the formal autonomy of morals.

Liberty is what combats and overcomes the negative, its opposite, that sometimes can be utility in its diverse manifestations. In this sense liberty is the triumph of morality over instincts, over the mechanical (and only in this sense, natural) production of passions. What in Kant occurred in a static manner (the categorical imperative), in Croce occurs, historically, through the mediation of Vico, Hegel and Marx. Liberty never wins and never dies. It represents the eternal struggle with the negative. These last considerations take us back to the central theme of Croce’s last speculative work.

The bitter, terrifying experiences of totalitarianism, of two World Wars, the devastation of the atomic bomb, drove the old Croce to wonder what terrible force led men to such inhumane acts, a force that could destroy our civilization achieved with such great difficulty. This “raw and green” force, Croce calls vitality which is and is not utility. It is what is opposed to morality, to freedom, but it is also what moves history (and that is why it is vitality) because no action, as noble as it may be, can be performed without that movement of satisfaction, that natural inclination of which our life is woven. Croce’s system seems to be modified substantially since vitality and morality have become two categorical modes, as Alfredo Parente observed, namely, the inner structure of conscience that accompanies and holds up the scaffolding of life itself.

Raffaello Franchini, without wanting to play down the novelty of Croce’s thought, has emphasized its substantial continuity. In fact, we saw how, at a certain stage, at first the preoccupation to safeguard the autonomy of utility seems to prevail, then that of ethics and, finally, we have a new attention to vitality-utility. Therefore, there is an oscillation of emphasis but substantially confirming the dialectic interweaving between the two forms of life, distinct and united, without priorities or devaluations.


The book has been translated from Italian, proofread and diligence in English by Professor Massimo Verdicchio of the University of Alberta, Canada


Chapter I - Chapter II - Chapter III - Chapter IV - Chapter V - Chapter VI - Chapter VII


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Emanuel Paparella2013-03-11 10:42:44
Dear Ernesto, congratulations; the above is surely one of the more lucid and explanatory chapters in your book. For the overcoming of dualities and the embracing of paradoxes are central to both Vico and Croce’s thought. Thank you for your masterful elucidation of the paradox that is Croce’s philosophy. The Ovi team is to be complimented for having discerned how essential it is for our modern theoretical concerns to revisit these particular philosophies of history, for to include Augustine or Hegel or Heidegger and to exclude Vico and Croce is to render a great disservice to the whole field of the philosophy of history. Croce needs to be known beyond mere aesthetics. Well done Professor Paolozzi and Ovi team.

ernesto paolozzi2013-03-12 19:42:54
Caro Manuel, grazie innanzitutto. Lo storicismo di Croce rispetto alle filosofia della storia lascia ampio spazio alla scelta individuale, alla libertà. Non prefigura il futuro ma invita a lavorare per il futuro, a creare il futuro.Grazie al team di Ovi per darmi la possibilità di divulgare un pensiero vivo, non concluso che aspetta sempre nuovi interpreti e prosecutori come il professor Paparella ci mostra con i suoi commenti.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-12 22:58:41
You are quite welcome, Ernesto. The Ovi team is indeed lucky to have you aboard as a new brilliant addition to its membership, for indeed philosophers who can understand and can elucitade the bridges between the two estranged cultures of sciences and the humanities are quite rare nowadays. Ad majorem.

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