Article abstract: Croce was modern Italy’s premier philosopher. His extensive writing on philosophy, history, aesthetics, and literary criticism represents a major contribution to European culture. For his reserved but firm opposition to Benito Mussolini’s regime, Croce became recognized worldwide as an anti-Fascist symbol and as the intellectual guardian of Italy’s democratic political heritage.
Benedetto Croce was born in the southern Italian region of Abruzzi. His family’s substantial property wealth afforded him a comfortable childhood in Naples. After his parents died in an earthquake in 1883, Croce moved to Rome to live with his uncle, Silvio Spaventa, a prominent intellectual and conservative politician. The Italy of Croce’s youth was a country struggling with all the problems attendant to a newly formed nation-state. The heroic era of the national unification movement—the Risorgimento—had ended in 1871. In the years that followed the Risorgimento period, Italian political life settled into the more uninspiring routine of parliamentary politics, budgetary battles, and electoral campaigns. Croce’s early exposure to politics came from the lively social and political gatherings at the Spaventa household. As a young man, he demonstrated little interest in politics, and his uncle’s conservative rhetoric only reinforced his apolitical disposition. Croce later recalled his time in Rome as “a bad dream . . . the darkest and most bitter years of my life.” His only consolation was in attending lectures on philosophy at the University of Rome.
In 1886, Croce returned to Naples. His inheritance enabled him to devote his entire life to scholarship. Over several decades, he accumulated an impressive private library and made his residence in the Palazzo Filomarino, an important center of intellectual activity in Italy. Croce’s early research and writing dealt with local history and culture. He discovered in Naples a rich intellectual heritage that included the eighteenth century idealist philosopher Giambattista Vico and the Risorgimento literary critic Francesco De Sanctis. Like many of the scholars of his generation, Croce became intrigued with the economic theories of Karl Marx. After several years of intense study, he wrote a critique of Marxism, Materialismo storico ed economia marxista (Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx, 1914) in 1899 and published it in 1900. Croce followed his rejection of Marx’s “scientific” socialism with a broader criticism of the pervasive influence of science among European intellectuals.
During the late nineteenth century, European thought was dominated by positivism—the belief that the methods of empirical science were the best means of arriving at a true understanding of all natural phenomena. Even human behavior became the valid subject of scientific inquiry through the pioneering work in psychology and sociology. Croce took the lead in the intellectual “revolt against positivism.” He had little regard for scientific methodology, especially when applied to the study of human activity. He sought to defend those expressions of human creativity—especially art, poetry, and literature—from “scientific” critiques. He also argued that history, like art, was subjective. He denied that history could be written or understood with the detached objectivity of a scientist. Croce’s assertion that “all history is contemporary history,” refers to the manner in which the historian’s own time and place and personal biases are reflected in his understanding and writings about the past. Croce attempted a systematic approach to the fundamental problems of aesthestics, logic, practical philosophy, and history in his monumental four-volume Filosofia come sciensa dello spirito, which was published between 1902 and 1917 and which was later translated into English volume by volume. In addition to the ideas of Vico and De Sanctis, he drew heavily on German philosophy—most notably the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He modified Hegel’s idealism by emphasizing the importance of the manifestation of the ideal in human creativity...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)