Croce in Italy in the last seventy years. Conversation with Michele Maggi

We publish the first part of the interview of our councilor Davide Bondì with Michele Maggi, on the presence of Benedetto Croce in the contemporary cultural and political debate. Maggi, a passionate and a sharp interpreter of twentieth-century culture, has been professor of history of political philosophy in Florence.

1. Dear Michele, if you agree, this conversation will focus on the presence of Benedetto Croce’s thought in contemporary Italy, from the fifties onwards. I turn to you not only for your interpretation of Croce’s philosophy, important for my formation, but also as a witness of a season in which cultural and political discourse are intertwined. I would like to start with some biographical aspects in the interview that will be published on the website of the Gramsci center for the humanities of the University of San Marino. When, in the early eighties, you began to take an interest in Croce’s thought, what were the main trajectories of reading his work in Italy and why did this work present itself to you as the culmination of a journey that began with your studies on hegemony and Marxism?   

Dear Davide,

I conceived the project of what would become the book La filosofia di Benedetto Croce (it was one of the books with which a new Florentine publishing house, “Il ponte alle Grazie”, made its debut in 1989), I remember well, in the summer of 1982. I decided on it, I should say. It was born, in fact, in full awareness of the need to free myself from a mental armor in which I had no longer found myself for some time, but which still maintained its dominance as the very horizon of thinkability. I am talking about what somewhere I have called the social noumenon: a conceptual structure (where Marxism is an essential connective element, but not the only one) that in the subject “society” has both a cognitive foundation and an ethical destination. This was the vision of La formazione dell’egemonia in Francia (The formation of hegemony in France, subtitled L’ideologia della Terza Repubblica tra Sorel e Durkheim), the book I had published years before at the De Donato publishing house, then an active breeding ground of Marxist scholars. The result of long research, I feel those pages are very far away: even if, reading them again now, it seems to me that in that reconstruction of the relationship between social ideologies and intellectual mediations as functions of an overall state equilibrium, there were already dissolving pressures of the reference assumptions. It was the very notion of Marxist history that showed itself to be a dead-end street.

Croce meant the liberation from a blocked conceptual grid and at the same time the possibility of considering it from a higher point of view. My frequentation of Croce’s work was not recent. My reading of his texts was intertwined with my youthful Marxist passions (above all Gramscian: in my first years at university, the Quaderni, in the classic grey volumes of Einaudi, had acted as training texts). He was an ideologically confronted Croce, but always inescapable. And Croce returned in the suggestions that led me to retrace the discussions on Marxism from a singular point of view: the one that led to the writing of my thesis on the political thought of Georges Sorel. I discussed it with Eugenio Garin, finally concluding a university course that was anything but regular, prolonged between periods of political militancy (I had joined the Communist Party at the age of twenty), survival work and phases of uncertainty that resulted in dissipation of time. Garin welcomed me as a scholarship holder, immediately entrusting me with seminars for students in the university that was becoming massively popular. I then took up a position as assistant to his chair, until Garin moved from the Florentine faculty to the Scuola Normale in Pisa. 

In that university world of mine, Croce was certainly not forgotten: but it was a Croce in fragments, a historian and moralist, whose theoretical foundation was subtly downsized or abandoned to the theoretical figures of slow learners. It was not, however, the Croce als philosoph I was now looking at. I remember that I insisted with the publisher to keep the bare title with which the book came out in 1989, instead of a more appealing and less demanding formulation. Of course, I knew I was making an outdated choice. When, at the beginning of 1983, I published the first piece of writing, which was to become the Introduction to the volume, it appeared to some – I was told – to be “apologetic” (even if Norberto Bobbio, to whom I had sent the extract, sent me a non-formal letter of consent and interest). In general, in those years, Croce’s presence seemed to have faded: an entire intellectual epoch had come to an end, even if for many it was not yet evident, and the key to an ideological reading had disappeared, which, albeit in a polemical way, allowed one to recognize the centrality, at least historically, of Croce’s work. I was therefore moving into new territory, and I faced it with conviction as new. 

2. Between the fifties and the eighties, Federico Chabod, Eugenio Garin, Giuseppe Galasso, and other scholars, reacted to the removal of Croce’s work, enhancing the civil magisterium, the historiographic production and the cultural activity. As you say, the “theoretical foundation was subtly downsized” even by those voices that called for keeping an open dialogue with the author. In your La filosofia di Benedetto Croce, which appeared in a second edition for Bibliopolis in 1998, it was precisely the philosophical structure that was questioned as “new territory”.  

I don’t know how much it is possible to gather under the same indictment very different readings, and also temporally not very close to each other. With regard to Chabod (his essay on Croce, a historian, dates back to 1952), I would limit myself to a harsh statement made by a great historian like Rosario Romeo – at a round table on Croce promoted by the magazine “Mondo operaio” on the thirtieth anniversary of his death – according to whom Chabod “had an imperfect understanding of Croce’s theory of history. The thesis that the truly great historian Croce is the historian of Vite di fede e di passione, or of Uomini e cose della vecchia Italia, which are undoubtedly very valuable essays, is not sustainable”. As for Garin, a continuous and intimately conflicting confrontation with Croce’s legacy runs through all his reflections on the twentieth century, from Cronache di filosofia italiana (Chronicles of Italian Philosophy) in 1955 to his interventions in the 1990s. Incidentally, I do not know to what extent Garin could agree with my reading of Croce, even though he generously included in the “Giornale critico della filosofia italiana” an essay that will become a chapter in my book. Certainly he was the one who was most inclined to grasp the nuances of the discourse I had begun. In the two volumes, Filosofia e cultura. Per Eugenio Garin, edited by Michele Ciliberto and Cesare Vasoli, conceived on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, to which many colleagues and old and new scholars collaborated, there was also an essay by me: Note di una lettura di Croce: il negativo e l’ombra del male. I found again with emotion the note that he wrote to me: “Dear Maggi, I finished reading in these days the volume of essays that you wanted so affectionately to dedicate to me. I liked your beautiful Crocean pages very much, and I am particularly pleased to imagine that you wrote them also with me in mind. Thank you very much! Dear greetings and best wishes for ’92 from your Eugenio Garin”.

But here let me refer you to my essay Garin e il confronto con Croce (Garin and the confrontation with Croce), originally a report to a conference organized in 2010 by the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana and the Fondazione Istituto Gramsci, then included in the volume Archetipi del Novecento that I published in 2011.

There would be another point to make for Giuseppe Galasso. Certainly, it would be difficult to see any reductive intentions in his passionate return to Croce’s work, from the pages collected in the 1969 volume on Croce, Gramsci and other historians, to his last book, Storia della storiografia italiana. A Profile, published by Laterza in 2017. Not to mention the care of the texts of Croce that at the end of the eighties resumed to come out in Adelphi editions, just when it seemed to be declining their circulation (but at the same time had started the great enterprise of the National Edition at the house Bibliopolis of Francesco Del Franco). Most importantly, Galasso had the merit of reopening an overall discourse with the volume, published in 1990, Croce e lo spirito del suo tempo. In a review of that book that was perhaps excessively polemical, I contested most of the interpretative structure. It seemed to me that the need to “historicize Croce” declared by Galasso was once again arranged in a series of temporal scans, historical “turning points” and psychological “breaking points”, which ended up projecting an extrinsic dramatization on the actual conceptual process. I saw reappear implacably, and precisely in a scholar so involved in Croce’s cultural atmosphere, the form of the antinomies between the systematic Croce and the historical Croce, between “logical” and “vital”: that which my entire reading of Croce was opposed to. Galasso responded to those remarks in the Afterword to the re-edition of his book; for my part, I republished the review of that time (under the title Una critica non dimenticata, in the collection La formazione della classe dirigente. Studies on twentieth-century Italian philosophy). There was no dialogue: the interpretative coordinates were, or seemed to be, too distant.

In the meantime, I had continued to work on the 1989 book. There were some points, I knew, that had been overlooked or bypassed. First of all, Vico was missing, except for hints; the question of Marxism remained rather contracted. But above all, I was left unsatisfied by the last chapter, “The Volitive Synthesis,” although I was not yet clear why. An acute reviewer, who pointed out some shortcomings, pointed out that the book gave a reductive interpretation of Croce as a “master of ethics”. This was certainly not my intention, but perhaps the final chapter gave the impression in that sense. In the second edition, published nine years later by Bibliopolis, that tentative chapter disappeared and only a few parts were recovered, recast in the three new chapters. I felt the book was finally complete. I intended the last chapter as the seal of the entire discourse, right from the title chosen, “The Reality of Forms”. At this point, the interpenetration of logic and history was in evidence, and the field of the philosophy of reality appeared fully cleared of the temptations of the philosophy of praxis, which perhaps still accompanied the previous version.

3. Giuseppe Galasso had the merit of putting back into circulation at the end of the 1980s some of Croce’s works with Adelphi. Already in 1981 the Edizione Nazionale delle Opere ( had been launched and entrusted to Bibliopolis. Giovanni Spadolini, then President of the Council of Ministers, was one of its main promoters. Do you think that the diffusion of these editions has contributed to the understanding of Croce’s thought? 

There is no doubt, these are years of revival in the publication of Croce’s works, with the parallel initiatives of Adelphi and Bibliopolis. Nor was the commitment of philology and exegesis missing from such an impressive legacy. This is testified by the vast documentation collected in B. Croce – G. Gentile, Bibliografia 1980-1993, placed as an appendix to a double issue of the “Giornale critico della filosofia italiana” of May-December 1994 entitled Croce e Gentile un secolo dopo. But it is significant that once again the obligation of joint representation was felt: a sort of scholastic monumentalization, reproposed up to important recent initiatives, and in which it is difficult to see only an editorial expedient.

Years ago I wrote an article that I entitled: Ma è davvero esistito l’idealismo italiano? That formula, Italian idealism or neo-idealism, insistent at all levels, from manuals for schools to more ambitious exhibitions, is more than an insufficient definition, and not only because it associates distinct positions under an approximate denomination. If for Gentile the expression – which places him in a historical series of which he felt part, indeed he assumed his own philosophy as fulfillment of it – has some definitional congruity, in the case of Croce it is even distorting. Croce looks with circumspection at the Neo-Idealismus unserer Tage mentioned at the beginning of the century. And in the face of the danger that the “rebirth of idealism” would become a school buzzword, and that the philosophical need would be confused – he wrote in 1908 – with a literary fashion to be resolved in a variation of titles for university competitions, “persisting in the superficiality and inconclusiveness of their content”, the appeal is to the fullness of reality: which in that text appears in the image of the Neapolitan cobbler whom Croce passing by sees at work at his desks and who seems to him to “represent social usefulness and dignity far better than the university candidate who sets up his zibaldone on the Concept of Freedom or on Kantian Categories.” In what he claims for himself, in a letter to Carlo Antoni, as “the extra-university philosophy, which was born out of the needs of the soul”, there is the sense of his relationship with the canonical tradition, which he can refer to for didactic purposes, but which he breaks down in absolute independence. In this there is the difference in level with Gentile: and precisely that difference in level allows a non-conflictual cooperation, at least up to a certain point. 

In fact, Croce remains indifferent to the problem of the subject in which Gentile tries to involve him, free as he is almost by instinct from that obsession of the encounter between consciousness and reality that in the act of the pure “I” exhibits perfect closure (how many times have we read of a Gentile who is more of a philosopher than Croce?); and here he confirms his extraneousness to the gnoseological and ethical problematics of the philosophies that took over after the loss of the Hegelian synthesis. Reason – he will reiterate in the late Neapolitan conferences – is given to man as full and not empty; “the world is not a datum whose presence is expected and invoked, but rather it is the datum that is always present, in which we are immersed and of which we live” (as he writes in a continually returning echo of the Pauline phrase).  Unity is the totality in which one operates, not the completion to be achieved. This faith in the intrinsicality of truth and reality, this certainty of the structure of the world (the non-historicity of the forms that hold up infinite historicity, the “primalities of God,” as he calls them in ancient terminology) makes up the religious nature of philosophy, a philosophy that does not identify with the techniques of a corporation but opens itself to the vast world.

On this confidence in the consubstantiality of the whole of reality (rejection of dualisms, elimination of the phantom of the “thing in itself”) Croce can look without wavering at the “crises” and “irrationalisms” of the end of the century, which are the sign of the no longer containable pressure of European life on ideal images and the corresponding social authorities. It can implicitly stand up to the radical destruction made by Nietzsche of the philosophical ideas reçues (which never involved him); and it can look at Marxism as an enlargement of the cognitive field, without being tempted, like Gentile, by a battle over theoretical principles. And when there will be a real crisis in the European universe, when the war will open the mass spaces to the ideological substitutes of the dethroned philosophies, Croce will be able to maintain the dimension of philosophy as a form of civilization: and from this height, in his speech at Oxford in 1930, he will call the “philosophers and historians” to the defense of “historicity – which means civilization and culture – […]: historicity, knot of the past with the future, guarantee of seriousness of the new that arises”. I do not know to what extent that discourse was then understood, beyond its more immediate aspect of appeal to the nobility of the spirit, in its structure which is theoretical, not of even lofty rhetoric. Europe was already spiritually torn at that point.


Cover: Benedetto Croce in his studio, 1912 (detail) (Archive of the B. Croce Library Foundation)

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