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|Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)|
Italian critic, philosopher, politician, historian. Croce deeply influenced aesthetic thought in the first half of the 20th century, including Robin C. Collingwood's Principles of Art (1934) and John Dewey's Art as Experience (1934), although in the latter the philosophical background is totally different. Croce's main thesis was that art is intuition. His best-known work in the English-speaking world is Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic (1902).
"It is deeply ironic that Croce, defender of the autonomy of art, aesthetician, a man endowed with a great sensibility, good taste, and judgment, was finally unable to develop a theoretical and analytical scheme of criticism and had to be content (like many other critics) with defining his own taste, selecting his canon of classics, and persuading others that he was right. He was successful only for a time." (René Wellek in A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, vol. 8, 1992)
Benedetto Croce was born in Pescasseroli, in the Abruzzi region, into a moderately wealthy land-owning family. His parents, Pasquale and Luisa Sipari Croce, were both pious Catholics, and had him educated at a Catholic boarding school. In 1883 Croce lost his parents and his younger sister in an earthquake in Casamicciola, on the island of Ischia – he was buried for several hours and severely injured. Hearing his father crying was a traumatic experience, from which he never quite recovered.
Orphaned at the age of 17, Croce went to live in Rome with his uncle, Silvio Spaventa, brother of the Hegelian philosopher Bertrando Spaventa. After studying briefly at the University of Rome, Croce left without taking a degree and returned in 1885 to Naples, where he lived the life of a gentleman-scholar, writing about every issue of contemporary concern. He never held a university position.
During the next years Croce travelled in Spain, Germany, France, and England. He became interested in history after reading the literary historian Francesco De Sanctis. Under the influence of Gianbattista Vico's (1668-1744) thoughts about art and history he turned to philosophy in 1893. Croce also purchased the 18th century house in which Vico had lived. His friend, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile encouraged him to read Hegel. Croce's famous commentary on Hegel, What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel, came out in 1907.
Croce, Antonio Labriola (1843-1904), and Georges Sorel (1847-1922) were known as the Holy Trinity of Latin Marxist studies, but Croce rejected Marx's determinism. In art nothing can determine in advance the direction our expression will take. In Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx (1900) Croce stated that "the capitalist society studied by Marx is not any society that ever existed or does exist." Only Antonio Gramsci, an original Marxist philosopher, could challenge Croce's position as the leading thinker of Italy. Though Gramsci's disciplines never achieved political power, in culture wars against Croce they got the upper hand.
In 1896 Croce entered the cultural scene with his book about the concept of history in its relationship to the concept of art. He noticed that the philosophical foundations of aesthetics did not yet exist. In the following works he attempted to demonstrate the superiority of arts over the natural sciences, which he considered as a system of "pseudo-concepts."
From 1906 Croce worked as an adviser with his publisher, Laterza and Sons, Bari, to produce three highly influential literature series, 'Writers of Italy,' 'Classics of Philosophy,' and 'The Library of Modern Culture.' In 1914 Croce married a high school Adele Rossi, a high school teacher from Turin. They had four daughters and one son who died. For many years, Croce spent summers with her and his growing family in a resort town in the Piedmont mountains. In Turin, he was respectfully addressed as "Don Benedetto."
In honor of his achievements, Croce was appointed senator for life by Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti in 1910. Later, in 1920-21, he served as Minister of Public Instruction in Giolitti's final government, planning school reform. La Critica, which Croce founded in 1903 with Giovanni Gentile, became a forum for his thoughts. The magazine appeared until 1943, but Gentile left it much before, in the 1920s. Fascism destroyed their deep personal friendship. When Gentile started to support fascism and signed the 'Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals', Croce published his 'Manifesto of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals' (1925).
At first, Croce himself had regarded Fascism as a politically promising movement, but in the theoretical realm, he criticized its ideology and rejected Gentile's and his pupils attempts to identify idealism with fascism. "For me fascism is the contrary of liberalism", he said in a letter. Mussolini's own paper, Il Popolo d'Italia, called Croce "a walking ghost" and "a corpse four days old."
During the reign of Mussolini and World War II, Croce supported democratic principles, although he was skeptical about democracy: "Sound political sense has never regarded the masses as the directing focus of society..." He never joined any underground movement, but his historical essays, in which he defended the liberal ideals of the Risorgimento, made him a high-profile opponent of the regiment.
Known as one of the major anti-fascist thinkers in Italy, Croce driven more and more into isolation from the society. After he refused to take the loyalty oath, he was no longer invited to the meetings of the Reale Accademia of Naples. In a letter to the president of Stockholm University in 1938 he expressed his horror at the persecution of Jews. The letter was published in Sweden and after it became known in Italy it brought threats against the author. Visitors at his home were listed in police reports and his houses were under surveillance. As a senator, Croce could not be arrested without the consent of the Senate, but fascist partisans planned in 1944 to kidnap him in the Villa Tritone in Sorrento, where he lived after leaving Naples to escape the bombings.
After the war Croce was appointed Minister without Portofilio of the new democratic government and member of the Constituent Assembly. When the Italian people were called upon to choose between monarchy and republic in a referendum, Croce himself supported the monarchy. Though he was open to social reforms, he viewed Communism with suspicion and stated that "liberalism and democracy are like two Siamese brothers, two persons joined by one circulatory blood system."
Until his resingment from politics in 1947 Croce served as President of the reconstituted Liberal Party. On his retirement Croce established the Institute for Historical Studies in his Naples home, which held a magnificent collection of books. Croce continued his intellectual work until the last days of his life. When he was asked about his health, he said, "I am dying at my work." Croce died in Naples on November 20, 1952. He had been suffering from a kidney infection after an attack of influenca. The family refused a state funeral. No official speeches were made on the day of the funeral, which the government had proclaimed a day of mourning.
Croce maintained that there is no physical reality, nothing exists except the activity of spirit in history. Like Hegel, he identified philosophy with the history of philosophy. History moves on with no final stage: it is the only reality, and the only conceptual and genuine form of knowledge. The physical is solely a construction of mind. Croce distinguished two basic aspects of experience – the theoretical, which included among others intuition, and the practical. In this category he placed all economic, political and utilitarian activities. The categories are dialectical, there is no action without thought. In normal experience intuition and concept combine, but in aesthetic experience we hold the two apart. In a work of art, form and content are inseparable. Intuition is free from concepts, it "is blind: the intellect lends its eyes to it." Criticism cannot be founded on rules or theories. "It is said that there are certain truths of which definitions cannot be given; that cannot be demonstrated by syllogistic reasoning; that must be grasped intuitively... The critic holds himself honour bound to set aside, when confronted by a work of art, all theories and abstractions and to judge it by intuiting it directly." (from The Aesthetic as the Science of Expression and of the Linguistic in General, translated by Colin Lyas).
As a critic he started from the popular assumption that analysis of texts themselves must precede other analysis. Works of art must be viewed in the light of their own, entire context. The intentional world of the poet is one thing and, and poetry is another – "what matters is not what the poet proposes or believes to make, but only what he has actually made." Croce distinguished expression from representation. Representational works of art tell a story, and if our interest is merely in the story, then the work has for us instrumental value. But when we are interested in expression, we are interested in the unique experience expressed by this special work of art.
"The artist is always morally blameless and philosophically irreproachable, even though his art may have for subject matter a low morality and philosophy: insofar he is an artist, he does not act and does not reason, but composes poetry, paints, sings, and in short, expresses himself." (from Nuovi saggi di estetica, 3th ed., 1948)
Croce believed in intuition as the main source of artistic creation. Works of art are examples of intuitive knowledge, which exists before it is apprehended by an individual artist. Basically artistic intuition do not differ in method from ordinary intuition, the difference is empirical (quantitative). Thus M. Jourdain in Molière's comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was right in his discovery that he had been speaking prose all his life, "and didn't even know it!" A poet realizes his intuition verbally, through the process of writing. According to Croce, poetry is emotion, an expression of the soul at the moment of intuition. The task of an art critic is to characterize the image of the work, an unified mental picture of a particular thing, define its emotional aspects and evaluate how faithful the image is to emotion. Image consists of smaller parts, plot, setting, language.
Croce's conservative, classical taste led him to reject French symbolist poetry and experimental movements. He also dismissed translation as a logically imposible task, which somewhat hindered the development of translation studies in Italy. Croce disliked Pirandello, Rimbaud's 'Bal des pendus' showed him "stupid inhumanity," he ridiculed Valéry for his poetic theory, and criticized D'Annunzio for not having inner clarity. Thoroughly disappointed with contemporary literature, he eventually gave up writing.
For further reading: Benedetto Croce by Rafaello Piccoli (1922); Benedetto Croce by C. Sprigge (1952); The Philosophy of Benedetto Croce by by A. De Gennaro (1961); Benedetto Croce by G.N.G. Orsini (1961); Le origini del pensiero di Benedetto Croce by Mario Corsi (1974); Benedetto Croce's Aesthetic by B. Bosanquet (1977); Croce and Literary Criticism by O.K. Struckmayer (1978); The Romantic Theory of Poetry by A.E.P. Dodds (1979); Benedetto Croce's Poetry and Literature by G. Gullace (1981); Introduzione a Croce by Paolo Bonetti (1984); Benedetto Croce Reconsidered by M.E. Moss (1987); Croce and Marxism by E.G. Caserta (1987); Benedetto Croce and the Uses of Historicism by D.D. Roberts (1987); A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, vol. 8, by René Wellek (1992); Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943-46: Benedetto Croce and the Liberals, Carlo Levi and the 'Actionists by David Ward (1996); The Legacy of Benedetto Croce: Contemporary Critical Views, ed. by Jack D'Amico et al (1999); Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism by Fabio Fernando Rizi (2003)
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