Benedetto Croce

The Italian philosopher, critic, and educator Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) dominated Italian intellectual life in the first half of the 20th century. His many critical and philosophical writings brought Italian letters well into the mainstream of European thought.

Born to a prosperous middle-class family, at the age of 9 Benedetto Croce began a rigorous Catholic education in Naples. When his parents and sister were killed in an earthquake in 1883, Croce went to Rome. While he never completed his law degree at the University of Rome, he reacted enthusiastically to the lectures on moral philosophy by Professor Antonio Labriola. Returning to Naples in 1886, Croce began a period of dedicated research, enriched by journeys to Spain, England, Germany, and France. Although his early works were largely historical, Croce transcended Positivistic scholarship and soon began inquiry into the nature of art and history and their relationship. He pursued this path relentlessly after his close study of G. W. F. Hegel and Giambattista Vico. With Labriola's encouragement, Croce briefly (1895-1899) cultivated Marxism but refuted this doctrine in Historical Materialism and Marxist Economics (1900).

A long and fruitful collaboration with the philosopher Giovanni Gentile began in 1896. Working with Gentile, Croce edited Classics of World Philosophy, Writers of Italy, and The Library of Modern Culture. In 1903 Croce founded the bimonthly La critica, an international cultural review. For his contributions to Italian letters, in 1910 Croce was made a life member of the Italian Senate. Later, as minister of education (1920-1921), he conceived educational reforms implemented by Gentile, who subsequently occupied that office.

Croce's opposition to fascism, however, severed his association with Gentile. Through his "Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals" (1925), his denunciation of the Lateran Pact (1929), and his open criticism of Mussolini, Croce became the symbol of Italian intellectual freedom. After the fall of fascist Italy, he was a liaison between the Allies and the Italian monarchy but declined public office. In 1947 Croce established the Italian Institute for Historical Studies, to which he donated a large part of his house and extensive library.

His Thought

The essence of Croce's thought may be found in his four-part Filosofia dello spirito (1902-1917; Philosophy of the Spirit), amplified and clarified in many subsequent writings. For Croce, philosophy is the science of the mind, or spirit, wherein all reality resides. The mind's activity takes two distinct, interrelated but not opposite forms, the theoretical and the practical (or cognition and volition). The former perceives and understands reality, the latter creates and changes it. Within the sphere of theory, Croce distinguishes between intuition and logical thought. Similarly, in the realm of the practical, he separates the particular (utilitarian or economic) from the universal (ethical). These four interrelated divisions, none of which has primacy over the others, give rise to man's spiritual activities, which Croce treats in the four volumes of the Filosofia: Aesthetics, Logic, Philosophy of Conduct (Economics and Ethics), and Theory and History of Historiography.

In Aesthetics Croce declared that art is intuition. Realizing that intuition requires communication through language, he later spoke of "lyrical intuition" as creatively expressed impression. Still pursuing the theme in La poesia (1936), Croce distinguished between poetry ("achieved expression") and literature (which bears an external resemblance to poetry but fulfills another function).

As spokesman for an antimystical and antiutopian humanism which maintains that the goal of philosophy is an understanding of the course of human events, Croce has been criticized for not accepting an all-embracing belief, such as Catholicism or communism. He held, however, that there exists no final system or any eternally valid philosophy. Instead, Croce espoused "Historicism," a term by which he characterized the inherently evolutionary nature of his thought.

Further Reading on Benedetto Croce

In general, the most reliable translations of Croce's work are by Arthur Livingston and R. G. Collingwood. For a capsule portrait of Croce see Cecil J. S. Sprigge, Benedetto Croce: Man and Thinker (1952). A more complete study is Gian N. G. Orsini, Benedetto Croce: Philosopher of Art and Literary Critic (1961). There is a chapter on Croce in William Kurtz Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957). Henry Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930 (1958), includes a discussion of Croce.

Additional Biography Sources

Caserta, Ernesto G., Studi crociani negli Stati Uniti: bibliografia critica (1964-1984), Napoli: Loffredo, 1988.

Croce, Benedetto, Carteggio, s.l.: Bibliopolis, 1976.

Ocone, Corrado, Bibliografia ragionata degli scritti su Benedetto Croce, Napoli: Edizioni scientifiche italiane, 1993.

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