Giovanni Gentile Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Gentile was the most prominent Italian intellectual associated with the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. As a government official, Gentile helped shape Fascist educational policies and define the government’s role in Italian culture. His neo-idealism and theories on political authoritarianism provided structure for Fascist ideology and philosophical justification for the Fascist state.

Early Life

Giovanni Gentile was born in a small Sicilian village in the province of Trapani. He studied classics and received a degree in philosophy at the University of Pisa. His doctoral thesis on two nineteenth century Catholic philosophers reflected his interest in Italy’s conservative intellectual heritage. He began his teaching at Campobasso in southern Italy in 1898. His distinguished academic career would eventually lead to positions at the Universities of Naples, Palermo, Pisa, and Rome. During his first years of lecturing and writing on philosophy, he became interested in educational reform. He defended religious instruction in the public schools and advocated more emphasis on philosophy at the secondary school level. As a young scholar and teacher, Gentile won recognition as a perceptive interpreter of the Italian philosophical tradition; in subsequent years, he published a four-volume study of Italian philosophy. Early in his intellectual life, he expanded his research and writing to include German philosophy. Like many of the scholars of his generation, Gentile was intrigued by the ideas of Karl Marx, but his investigation of Marxist theories only reinforced his political conservatism and his aversion to materialistic and scientific philosophies.

Life’s Work

Gentile’s intellectual standing increased markedly in 1903, when he received an appointment to the University of Naples and began his collaboration with Italy’s foremost philosopher-historian, Benedetto Croce. For almost twenty years, Gentile assisted Croce in editing the highly regarded journal of Italian culture La Critica. Intense philosophical and personal differences during the Fascist period eventually brought an end to their association. Croce and Gentile shared responsibility for the revival of neo-idealism in Italy. They joined in the intellectual “revolt against positivism”—the rejection of science and scientific methodology in the study of human activity. In their critique of positivism, they both looked to an earlier generation of German philosophers, most notably Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to recover and reinterpret idealism. Applying Hegel’s idea of the dialectic to the process of human thought, Gentile fashioned a creative synthesis, “actual idealism,” a method for reconciling the dichotomy between theory and practice.

Gentile supported Italian intervention on the side of England and France in World War I. He believed the war presented a test for the Italian people and an opportunity to reaffirm the qualities of sacrifice, discipline, and patriotism that the previous generation had so ably demonstrated during the Risorgimento—the Italian national unification movement. At the same time, he sought to mitigate the effects of popular anti-German hysteria, especially in Italian academic life. Through the war years, Gentile refined his political philosophy and developed the idea of the “ethical state.” He defined the state as the embodiment of moral will and moral law in a society, and he asserted that human freedom could be achieved only through total integration of the individual into society. This concept of the “ethical state” would later provide a sophisticated rationale for authoritarian and totalitarian government.

In the postwar period, Gentile became disillusioned with Italian parliamentary politics. He had always been a political conservative. His political heroes were the selfless, principled statesmen who had led Italy through the Risorgimento. The present generation of conservatives, he believed, had forsaken their own traditions and ideals. When Mussolini seized power in 1922, Gentile welcomed the change. He saw in Mussolini a true conservative who could end the postwar political crisis, thwart any threat from the Socialist and Communist parties, and revitalize...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)