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Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter VII Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter VII
by Prof. Ernesto Paolozzi
2013-03-18 08:13:17
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Chapter VII

History as Contemporary History and Ethico-political Historiography

The previous chapters, especially those devoted to the aesthetics and to the logic as theory of historical judgment, allow us to pause briefly on two questions, two famous definitions, whose theoretical origin is traceable and partly implicit in Croce’s meditations, with which we have already dealt. In History, Theory and Practice, written between 1912 and 1917, and first published in German, Croce asserts that history, if it is truly history, is always contemporary history. This assumption, whose subversive claim is clear, is both theoretical and polemical, as any philosophical proposition. From a logical point of view, it is clear that historiography, since it is founded on judgment, can only be “contemporary,” as it arises out of exigencies or an interest contemporary to the historian, even if what is being investigated is a remote past. In a polemical sense, Croce means to refute both the objectivist histories and thesis histories, as well as mere chronicle and aprioristic history.

It is the present that “creates” the past, just as in Kant the eye makes the world, and historical judgment changes because of its nature, that of never being definitive but always ready to be put into question. There is no doubt that at first Croce’s concept can appear relativistic, subjective and idealistic, according to the point of view and the terminology one employs. If everyone makes history according to his intellectual or practical needs, what guarantee do we have as to the veracity or objectivity of the story being told? In recent times, but even in the past, we have come to think of historiography in terms of story (récit), of mere narrative experience, devoid of any real truth-content. Is Croce the unaware and unrecognized precursor of relativistic hermeneutics, of what has been effectively defined as “weak thought”? Is Croce the first postmodern thinker, granted that this definition means anything? Croce would deny peremptorily this presumed relationship, just as he took great care to differentiate his historicism (which he defined as absolute) from the relativistic one (if indeed it was) of the so-called German Historismus, offspring of the crisis of Hegelianism. Judgment, which is always contemporary because it unites particular and universal, is always, in its form, true. If it changes it is because the conditions change, which does not mean that in previous formulations it was false. If, for instance, one is convinced that art is the beautiful, he will regard the work of Dante as not artistic because he only focuses on the allegorical-moralistic aspect. If, at a later moment, one “discovers” that beside the allegory, the Commedia is a work rich in representations, in images, in short, in expressive force (that is, art, according to our definition), the judgment changes, but not the form, that is, the intentionality of the concept itself. Historiography changes with the changing of history, culture, interests, but this does not meant that it vanishes because truth is nothing more than this process of continuous and infinite succession of judgments. There is no truth with capital “T.” Hegel would have said that truth is a process, becoming, it makes itself.

Although this point deserves a longer and a more in-depth discussion, this partial clarification that confirms the “contemporaneity” of every history, also denies, as its logical consequence, all those false histories or pseudo-histories that do not satisfy those requirements because they do not originate from a real need, from a true interest, but remain closed within the circle of mere erudition. Hence, the resolute negation of the distinction between chronicle and history (there is no chronicle that precedes History), between the “facts,” which supposedly precede interpretation providing it with an objective base, and judgments. Once again, then, a concise polemic with respect to positivism, whose philosophical and methodological “ingenuity” seems to bring historiography back before Vico, who claimed the inseparable unity of philology and philosophy, of the verum and the factum. In fact, Croce does not condemn serious and rigorous philology, which is certainly essential to historical research which employs it toward a synthesis that in reality is inseparable.

If in Croce’s view, there is no value in anecdoctal histories (even though he himself had been an impassioned collector), in the history of curiosities that more or less excite the imagination, in documentary history, and alike, it does not mean that the real (contemporary) need of the historian is assimilated to the a priori of those stories that we could define thesis histories. Subjectivity does not imply distortion of events subservient to a pre-constituted will, even for noble ideals. Thus Croce denies truth value to those philosophies of histories that aimed at demonstrating, by instrumentalizing the “facts” of history, a general and abstract conception of life. From St. Augustine to Hegel to Marx, Croce’s critique targets the overall attitude assumed by these philosophers beyond the depth of their theories and, as we said, of their ideal and moral intentions.

There is no doubt that in debunking the traditional and somewhat trite idea of history as magistra vitae (since it is always life, the present, that puts the past into perspective) there is at play a Marxist reminiscence. Namely, the idea that an objective history does not exist but only and always a biased, instrumental, ideological history, or whatever else one may wish to call it. As we have seen, the basic diversity between Croce’s theory and that of Marxist historians consists in Croce’s belief, of theoretical and ethical origins, according to which judgment is always a judgment that aims to arrive at the truth. Croce speaks of the interest for truth, the need to see clearly before taking action. This is not a dogmatic, predetermined truth which, in order to confirm it, one constructs a convenient past.

The influence of Marxism does not end here. Croce himself reminds us that from Marx he learned, as we have already seen with the “discovery of utility” as a spiritual value, to realize the importance of economic factors in history. It is precisely on this theme that Croce’s critique (in Latin America they thought of him as a reformist), in denying philosophical value to Marxism, proposes to view it as a canon of historical interpretation, a good pair of glasses to look at historical events, but not to absolutize as a metaphysical principle. “Mmetaphysical,” precisely, since to raise just one aspect of life, even if it is the material principle of economy, as a founding moment of the entire history of humanity, means wanting to explain the whole of reality through an entity that is situated outside reality itself, outside becoming, as being the only generating cause, a sort of laic causa sui.

History, therefore, is not determined by any particular or privileged cause, least of all it is a quantitative whole of special juxtaposed histories (economic, juridical, institutional, cultural histories, history of ideas, customs, and so on) reducible empirically to one comprehensive, universal history. There is no doubt that for Croce one can and must privilege one aspect, one moment of the immense flow of history, but the real universality is in the ability of putting judgment into motion, in the way the events are qualified. It is the interpreter’s point of view that confers the necessary unity. In this sense, and only in this sense, history is always positive history, that is, of the categorical value that one confers to the event which, however brutal, has a sense, a meaning, in the complex web that holds the many events together. Historiography, therefore, is never an executioner. It neither condemns nor absolves. In a certain way it justifies but, let it be clear, at the level of logic not of morality. In short, it understands. Moral judgment is valid for action, for history in the making, not for the one that is already made. To understand the reasons of an event, of a dictatorship for instance, does not mean resigning oneself and not combating the possible advent of new dictatorships. This is the circle of thought and action, which I have discussed previously.

In 1924, Croce meant to define what we commonly understand for history with the well-known definition of a ethico-political history. This was a definition that could seem (and in some ways is) ambiguous and contradictory with respect to his doctrine of the unity of history. With this formula, Croce intends to stress the ethical and religious character (i.e. secular religiosity) of history understood as history of human civilization. In fact, the addition of the adjective “political” goes to prove the will of the philosopher not to abandon the logical synthesis between ideal moment and moment of force, both dialectically indispensable for the evolution of life and, therefore, history. From this point of view the new definition ends up by attributing to history a strong unitarian sense since, in the end, the many possible histories find a sense in the unique history of peoples, namely the one that flows, precisely, into ethico-political feelings and ideals. To give one example, it will certainly not be from the histories of parliamentary institutions, or from the history of fine arts, that we will be able to determine the overall level of a people’s civilization.

There is no doubt that Croce’s doctrine feels the effects of the incipient struggle that liberty will have to conduct against the new totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and, therefore, that the emphasis shifts from the evaluation of history as power and force of Machiavellian and Marxist memory, to that of platonic origins, as we said, of history understood as history of moral freedom. But in either case, it does not seem to us that from a purely philosophical point of view, Croce meant to privilege a single aspect of the complex human events.

As in the case of aesthetics, it is not possible to distinguish, almost hierarchically, the activity of Croce the theorist from Croce the critic, in the same way that one cannot affirm that his historical works derive mechanically from the methodological ones. In fact, their gestation is strictly interwoven with his vast and varied philosophical activity, and they are closely connected to the development of the historical conditions of his time.

History of the Kingdom of Naples (1925) closes, in a certain way, the period of erudite research that Croce devoted to Naples (famous his work on the theaters of Naples) and represents the first remarkable example of ethico-political history.

The Storia dell’età barocca in Italia. Letteratura e vita morale, (History of the Baroque Age in Italy. Literature and Moral Life) (1929), with its famous polemic on the baroque, is also exemplary, for certain aspects, of his method and judgment, his thought and taste, who saw in baroque artfulness a flaw both in poetry and in moral life, and in whose harsh judgment one can detect a devaluation of the baroque. After all, it cannot be denied that if the baroque had been an empty rhetorical exercise, as in part it was, Croce’s critique would be well-founded.

A History of Italy, 1871-1915 (1928), even in the purity of its historiographical undertaking, that is, in the impartiality that characterizes it, is not at all neutral, in fact it is decisively a polemical and political work, tending to demonstrate the “superiority” of the entire civilization of liberal Italy over Fascist Italy.
The History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century (1932) is probably the most well-known (certainly outside of Italy) and may be the most controversial of the historical narratives that make up the great tetralogy. This fundamental work, which narrates in a style worthy of the greatest prose writers of any age, the triumph and the decline of liberalism in the nineteenth century, is at the same time an acute reconstruction of the historical events of that century, an essay of political philosophy, an invective against totalitarianism, a moral witnessing as sincere as it was suffered. In this work, a vision is drawn of the original liberalism and of the present one and, at the same time, and coherently with this vision of the world, one finds a resolute act of faith in liberty that was of great encouragement to so many who in that dramatic historical moment, seemed to have lost all hope. This is the sense of the famous closing lines of the book that, so often quoted, is still worth remembering, with the admonition that to fully understand the sincerity of the style one must keep in mind the historical moment in which it was written. The same goes for the repeated call to Christian religion understood as the foundation of Western civilization, jeopardized by totalitarian regimes, a call which echoes the sense of that famous statement “we cannot but call ourselves Christians,” uttered by a lay philosopher who had also singled out the Church, as a political organization of dogma, the eternal enemy of the State.

A history inspired by the liberal idea cannot, even in its practical and moral corollary, end with the absolute rejection and condemnation of those who feel and think differently. It simply says to those who agree with it: “Work according to the line that is here laid down for you, with your whole self, every day, every hour, in your every act; and trust in divine Providence, which knows more than we individuals do and works with us, inside us and over us.” Words like these, which we have often heard and uttered in our Christian education and life, have their place, like others from the same source, in the “religion of liberty.”


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 Paparella2013-03-18 12:56:40
A few musings on the conclusion of your last chapter, Ernesto. As you well know, it was exactly the concept of Providence that got Vico in some hermeneutical difficulties with his Christian interpreters. Since he posited the concept as being at the same time both transcendent and immanent, some missed the paradox that it was meant to be and considered it a violation of the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction. They thought they had found a solution by placing emphasis on either one or the other of the poles thus making Providence either the personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or of the immanent pantheistic God of the philosopher which denies creation (and often God too) conceiving the universe as eternal. But to understand such a Vichian concept the two poles may be distinguished but they are not to be separated, just as the leaf of an olive tree is green on one side and silver on the other and makes the tree appear green or silver depending on the direction of the wind.

Pari passu for Croce. Since Croce was a liberal and did not adhere to Catholicism per se, it was felt that he had simply thrown out the window the transcendent aspect of the concept of providence without which the three Abramitic religions are simply inconceivable.

In parenthesis, it may be worth reiterating that those who say that they are unconcerned with history, that they are only concerned with the present, not only show great disrespect and undemocratic spirit toward historicism but toward those who have preceded us and have built history and the Western heritage, and despite their lofty Gnostic all inclusive blanket pronouncements will end up speaking out of ignorance and repeating the mistakes of the past. I think we are witnessing something like that going on in the EU presently.

However, as you brilliantly elucidate, this is not so. Within what you call Croce's "religion of liberty” one remains free to believe in a transcendent God even while one believes that this God is immanent and very much integral part of his own creation (i.e., he is providential) to the point of becoming a human being; which come to think of it is the essence of Christian doctrine and without it Christianity becomes a sham, another shallow new age phenomenon.

So, the issue then becomes, to what extent did the personal religious beliefs of Croce determine his philosophy? I tend to think that such a question remains open-ended and still in need of a more thorough answer but it certainly does not alter the basic premise of freedom on which Croce’s philosophy rests, as you clearly argue; therefore it can be adhered to from believer and non believer alike.

Thank you once again for a needed and lucid interpretation of Croce’s philosophy and thank you too to the editors of the Ovi team for perceiving its importance for our contemporary philosophical concerns and encouraging its diffusion.

ernesto paolozzi2013-03-20 21:41:12
Caro Emanuel, poni problemi di grande rilevanza filosofica. Anch'io credo che la questione della religione in Croce sia molto complessa. Sto lavorando su questo tema. Ti aggiornerò insieme ai lettori di Ovi. Quello che mi sento di dire è che la religione della libertà è compatibile , come tu dici, con una religione rivelata come è il cristianesimo.Penso proprio di si.Altro discorso si dovrebbe fare sul senso da dare al termine trascendente, ossia all'idea di una provvidenza che interviene nella storia e non appartiene alla storia stessa. Croce lo nega. La trascendenza in sè e per sè esiste. Ad esempiol'azine trascende il pensiero e il pensiero trascende l'azione. Se così non fosse non esisterebbe nemmeno la libertà e, dunque nemmeno una religione della libertà. Su questo aspetto dovremo dovremo tornare a riflettere perchè è una questione aperta di difficilissima soluzione. Grazie ancora per gli stimoli e per la pazienza agli amici di Ovi.

Emanuel Paparella 2013-03-21 10:13:40
Effettivamente, Ernesto, c'è ancora molto da fare sull'argomento della religione vis a vis la filosofia di Croce. Immagino che saresti d'accordo che quell'altro grande filosofo partenopeo, spesso e volentieri ignorato dalla filosofia post-moderna, Tommaso d'Aquino, puo' essere utile e rilevante alla soluzione dei problemi di tale filosofia. Buon lavoro ed auguri.

ernesto paolozzi2013-03-21 20:57:50
Caro Emanuel, vero. Non sono un esperto, ma sarebbe interessante anche recuperare Duns Scoto, in parte ancora inedito, e la sua idea del Cristo che si rivela nella storia. Ne parlavo anni fa con col padre francescano e filosofo Ambrogio Manno che mi fa piacere ricordare.Francescano e liberale, studioso intenso e uomo generoso. Tanti auguri

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