Giovanni Gentile

The Italian philosopher and politician Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944) was influential in reviving Hegelian idealism in Italy. He made significant contributions to the Italian educational system and participated in the formation of the Fascist corporate state.

On May 30, 1875, Giovanni Gentile was born at Castelvetrano, Sicily. He earned a scholarship to the University of Pisa in 1893. There his interests were turned from literature to philosophy by the influence of Donato Jaja. Enthusiastically responding to this new stimulation, Gentile determined to revive the idealist doctrine of the autonomy of the mind.

After 5 years of teaching in secondary schools, Gentile began his university career in Naples with an inaugural lecture entitled "The Rebirth of Idealism" (1903). Subsequently he taught at Palermo and, after Jaja's death, inherited the chair at Pisa in 1914. The next few years were filled with intense work, culminating in three major volumes: The Theory of Spirit as Pure Act (1916), Foundations of the Philosophy of Law (1916), and the first volume of his Logic (1917). During the years 1903-1922 Gentile and Benedetto Croce collaborated in editing a periodical, La critica.

After the Italian defeat at Caporetto, Gentile became increasingly involved in public life. Together with a group of friends he founded a review, the New Liberal Politics, in order to promote political and educational reforms. After Mussolini's march on Rome in 1922, Gentile became minister of public instruction, with full powers to reform the school system. He now had the authority to begin the second part of his life's dream: the rejuvenation of Italian culture. After the enactment of his plan, Gentile's political influence lessened, although he received appointments to several political positions and cultural organizations. His duties as president of the National Fascist Institute of Culture and director of the new Enciclopedia italiana took most of his energies during the next 15 years, but Gentile continued to teach, now at the University of Rome, and published a major work, The Philosophy of Art.

Gentile supported Mussolini's Ethiopian adventure but became increasingly disaffected with the party after Mussolini allied Italy with Germany in 1940. However, he saw Mussolini as the only man who could rescue Italy from civil war and from the warring foreign armies on Italian soil.

In spite of the turmoil and the constant dangers of his last years, Gentile managed to finish the final aspect of his idealist philosophy: The Genesis and Structure of Society. On April 15, 1944, after interceding on behalf of some students whose loyalty was suspect, Giovanni Gentile was shot by a band of partisans.


Further Reading on Giovanni Gentile

The definitive study of Gentile is by H. S. Harris, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (1960), a sympathetic account which also provides all the necessary background information. Harris also translated Genesis and Structure of Society (1960), which contains a biographical essay and an exhaustive bibliography of Gentile studies in English. See also Roger W. Holmes, The Idealism of Giovanni Gentile (1937), and Pasquale Romanelli, Gentile: The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (1938).

Additional Biography Sources

Romanell, Patrick, Croce versus Gentil, New York: AMS Press, 1982.