Marcello Veneziani on the Spirit of Giovanni Gentile’s Actualism and Rebuilding Italy
“It would take Gentile to rebuild Italy” outlines Gentile’s thought, and place in Italian intellectual history. Like Mazzini, Gentile understood nationalism in the sense, that it was a faith and a spiritual philosophy for unifying the people of a nation, which has its destiny. The philosopher states in The Residues of the Old Italy (p. 17), e.g., that “there are the Masons who, it is acknowledged, have driven their secular principles to logical conclusions: they are neither for religion nor against it. That is the case not only for Masons, but for how many Italians who prefer to be silent on religious matters, have reservations, and are ashamed of revealing and defending their own conviction—if they have any. All of this is the old Italy, the Italy of individualism, the Italy of the Renaissance–when even the sacrifice of philosophers was sterile because not honored, and not honored because it conformed to the logic of their own doctrines, all individualistically closed up in a world without connections to that life in which was to be found that concrete reality with which they necessarily had to deal and for which they necessarily required to sacrifice. Human beings did not feel that their personality was an intrinsic part of the social world to which each belonged, which each lived in his own interests, with his family, with his faith as a moral person that has duties, with a program to realize and a truth to profess. There is nothing alive in the recesses of our soul that does not wish expression, to preach that which is our truth, to communicate it to all, to strengthen it with all the energy that derived from collaboration, from living together, from rendering common our moral life. Every faith draws persons together…” (Giovanni Gentile, Origins and Doctrine of Fascism: With Selections from Other Works, p. 46)
“Even in the times of Mazzini, there were liberals who gave the individual priority before all else. We still have those liberals underfoot who prove recalcitrant, and resist the irresistible movement of history. Liberalism, during the time of Mazzini, raised a fiery banner, the flag of liberty–that banner of liberty that even Mazzini adored and for which he struggle. Liberty at that time, politically was necessary for the nation in their struggle against foreigners (…) But Mazzini maintained that true liberty was not that of individualistic liberals who failed to recognize the nation as superior to the individual, and did not thereby acknowledge the mission that awaited peoples…” (ibid 46)
15 April 2013
“Today the anniversary of his assassination in Florence in 1944 is recurring today. In 1944, thinking of Italy is the title of an essay with a Gentian anthology that I edited for the Gentile heirs, which will see the light this year. But it really is the meaning of the Gentile civil philosophy.
Gentile thought Italian and in thought found the soul, destiny and mission of Italy and thought it before the advent of fascism. Gentile tried to trace almost an Italian eschatology that runs parallel to the history of Italy, as a story of the spiritual redemption of Italy.
I use the expression eschatology in its full and religious sense, because in Gentile there was the last powerful attempt to think of Italy through a civil theology, in the wake of Vico, a religious reform aimed at politics and a civil religion linked to love, patriotism, political spiritualism and national thought.
The precursors of unitary thought, Gentile calls them prophets, starting from Dante; the Risorgimento sees it as the Resurrection of Italy, to implement Italy is for him a mission based on the religion of the homeland and on its moral and civil primacy, but also cultural. Mazzini and Gioberti relive in the thought of Gentile as the gods of an Italian thought with the heart.
According to Gentile it is Dante, “pervaded by a philosophy far superior” to the classical poets, the precursor of Italian thought and of the unitary state; he is “our father, first of the Italians”, Gentile writes in his commentary on the song of Sordello.
Before being a poet, Dante is a philosopher, devoted to that madonna philosophy “daughter of God, queen of everything, noble and beautiful philosophy”, as Gentile writes, quoting Dante in a 1907 lecture at the University of Palermo. In order to realize his enterprise, Gentile summons into his work the general states of ancient and modern Italy — philosophers, artists, poets and heroes — and traces their living thought, as Mazzini already called it; a living and vibrant thought in its eternal, incessant becoming. A business conceivable within its philosophy of actualism where thought revives the past and puts it into action.
“He brought philosophy down from profuse abstractions into the concreteness of life.”
On 10 February 1921 Piero Gobetti organized a Gentile conference in Turin, in a series of meetings with Croce, Salvemini and Prezzolini. For the occasion he wrote Gobetti on New Order: “This teaching of intense vitality, of necessary work, of serenity, of humanity springs from the work of G. Gentile. He brought philosophy down from profuse abstractions into the concreteness of life. It is right that in him the individuals recognize a master of morality, and a whole new generation is inspired by his thought to be renewed”.
Two years later, making my accounts with current idealism, Gobetti took that judgment, which he himself said compromising, by saying that he only wanted to publicize the conference. But you can not write those things and then attribute them to a promotional need. Which of the two Gobetti was sincere? In the meantime, Gentile had become Minister of Public Education with Mussolini.
No philosopher before Gentile had the opportunity to transfer his theory into practice, thinking in government action, disseminating it in the school, university, culture and institutions of his time. Except for brief ministerial experiences of De Sanctis, Bonghi and Croce, no intellectual had the opportunity to engrave in history and Italian culture as Gentile, either before or after him .
And Gentile engraved, extensively, deeply, effectively. Rare case of a philosopher in power who actually produced concrete effects, despite the autocratic regime (or precisely for this?). We still talk about his legacies. As in a coherent body and directed towards unity, the theoretical framework of actualism is tied to civil philosophy, rather it joins in the name of that philosophy of identity which is its main imprint.
There is in Gentile the effort to give conscious fulfillment to the post-Risorgimento motto of making Italians after having made Italy and expressing an Italian thought after having given body to the unitary State. Almost an organicistic vision of Italian thought that composes its scattered members in unity, as happened with the historical process that brought together the scattered local members in the whole body of the State.
Gentile thinks of Italy through its tradition, its poets that also considers philosophers, from Dante to Leopardi, the circulation of thought in Italian philosophy and the formation of idealism, the conceptual construction of the Risorgimento as a philosophical and ethical category, the philosophy of war and political spiritualism, the centrality of the school and the educational process, the formation of a national civil conscience, the relationship with religion, the humanism of work and the community vision.
In Italian thought, Gentile conveys the history, art and spiritual life of the nation .
An unavoidable premise, indeed an absolute precondition, of his philosophical and civil thought, is his character, his personal nature: that sort of trust in history, in culture and in the outcomes of life, that ardor to test himself, of Renaissance temperament and the Risorgimento, that trust in the constructive and audacious force of thought.
Gentile made explicit in his major theoretical work a true profession of philosophical optimism. “A coherent religious conception of the world must be optimistic, without denying pain and evil and error,” he writes in the General Theory of the Spirit as a pure act. And in all its pages one breathes this trust in the burning thought that raises man through works and makes him eternal.
Gentile optimism does not stop even before the father of pessimism, Leopardi, whom Gentile first sees as a tragic counterpart to idealism, but then moving from “abstract objectivity” to “real life”, Gentile sees an opposite effect to his pessimism, to the point of concluding by going beyond De Sanctis: “Leopardi’s philosophy becomes one of the most vigorous forms of highly human optimism.”
Here again is that bold and jovial trust in dealing with life and thought, “that sort of childish and heroic ingenuity” of which his son Benedict later spoke. Not only of his power of thought, but also of his heroic and active confidence in life and work we would need today in Italy to resurrect. And yet, Gentile still remains a forbidden fruit for present Italy; which is then an increasingly absent Italy.” (Veneziani, Marcello. “It would take Gentile to rebuild Italy,” Il Giornale, 15 April 2013, http://www.marcelloveneziani.com/ritratti/ritratti-ci-vorrebbe-gentile-per-ricostruire-litalia/.)
“When scholars study a thing, they strive to kill it first, if it’s alive; then they have the parts and they’ve lost the whole, for the link that’s missing was the living soul.”JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, FAUST, PART I.