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Coleridge, Vico and Gentile

Wednesday, 21 Aug 2019

Giovanni Gentile on Dr John Dunn. Giovanni Gentile

Coleridge first opened the pages of Giovan Battista Vico’s Autobiography and Scienza Nuova in 1825 and his response was quick, hospitable and incisive. In a letter dated 16th may 1825, Coleridge wrote:

I am more and more delighted with G. B. Vico and if I had (which thank God’s good grace I have not) the least drop of Author’s blood in my veins, I should twenty times successively in the perusal of the first volume (I have not yet begun the second) have exclaimed ‘Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixere’. (‘May they perish, who said first what we were going to say.’)

Coleridge was referring to Vico’s masterpiece La Scienza Nuova,which he read in Italian, using the edition published in Milan in 1816. Vico’s central principle was the idea that human nature is not ever the same, static and unalterable, with a central kernel. Rather, Vico’s motto was - ‘humanity is its own creation.’ This central principle led him to a new type of aesthetics, not based on universal norms, but on the uniqueness of each individual culture or civilisation. To the traditional types of knowledge, a priori, deductive, a posteriori, empirical, the products of sense-perception and revelation, there had to be added that of the reconstructive imagination. Even if Coleridge discovered Vico too late for him to be a defining influence upon his own work, he did feel an affinity to Vico’s emphasis upon the creative imagination and the notion of humanity being active in ‘its own creation’.

If Coleridge warmed to the principles of active self-creation laid down by Vico, then it should not be surprising either that the Italian political philosopher Vico was an influence upon the Italian philosopher of action par excellence, Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944). About Gentile’s response to Vico, William Smith wrote:

Vico, according to Gentile, taught that we can know an object when the object is neither found nor discovered by our thought as existing before we began to know. Vico must have seen, therefore, that knowing is resolving an object into one’s spiritual activity. Truth, then, involves a making, a creative activity. In this Vico anticipated Kant and Hegel.’

With regard to the deity, Gentile aligned Vico with St. Paul and St.Augustine and their view on the presence of God in the world. Gentile states that in these men it is evident that ‘we have that immanence of the divine in the mind of man, which we see in the doctrine of providence in Vico’.

If a shared affinity to Vico offers a bridge from Coleridge to Gentile, then so too does a clear anti-Spinozism.

Gentile wrote in his Philosophy of Art:

Spinoza’s Ethics is composed as a doctrine of freedom - a freedom to be acquired by liberating the soul from the passions. In order to free ourselves from our passions we must only know them, that is, we must discover their causes and understand their natural necessity… In such a conception, reality was nature, the universe, existing independently of human thought which only aspired to know it, without ever attempting to transform it into a better world of its own - the moral world. Hence the essential function of the human spirit was conceived as a purely theoretical and speculative activity, without any practical power. The will… was degraded by such a doctrine to a mere device of reasoner compelling human conduct to conform to the laws of nature. Its function was therefore negative rather than positive; it was destined to put out of man’s mind any foolish desire to oppose himself vainly to reality, which, being what it is, cannot be changed to please us…

In such a system feeling can find no place. It is a hindrance to man who, being born to develop completely his rational nature, is from the beginning entangled in his senses, which are at once the means and the obstacle to human knowledge…

What horrified Gentile in Spinoza’s Ethics was the categorisation of humanistic opposition to reality as ‘foolish desire’, and the degradation of the will and compulsion to conform that follows from this. Nowhere did Gentile identify the socio-economic and political motivations underpinning Spinoza's philosophy, but it is certainly no coincidence that Gentile should have put his own philosophy, which he called Actualism, at the service of the Fascist cause. Antipathy to Spinozism aligned with the Mussolini regime’s opposition to the economic liberalism of the Western Allies, the heirs to Sarpi’s ‘Republick of Merchants’.

Not surprisingly, the opening sentence of the Doctrine of Fascism, attributed to Mussolini, but written by Gentile, is

Like all sound political conceptions, Fascism is action and it is thought…

There is an implicit rejection of Spinozism.

Fascism sees in the world not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centred, subject to natural law.

Rather than natural law,…

individuals and generations (are) bound together by a moral law.

In a philosophy of action, ‘struggle’ is the watchword.

Fascism conceives of life as a struggle in which it behooves a man to win for himself a really worthy place.

Man must make himself fit for the struggle.

Hence the high value of culture in all its forms (artistic, religious, scientific) and the outstanding importance of education.

The emphasis upon education has echos of Fichte and Coleridge. Gentile was the Minister for Education in the Mussolini regime.

Counterposed to the Spinozist subjection to reality is a humanistic intent to confront reality head on…

by which man subjugates nature and creates the human world (economic, political, ethical, and intellectual).

Humanist freedom from natural law demands the wholehearted support of everyone. The individual will only be accepted…

inso far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity.

In his opposition to Spinozism, Gentile was obsessed with preserving the power of human agency. This was made explicit in the Doctrine of Fascism’s outright rejection of Marxism (even though Gentile himself had once been a celebrated Marxist, lauded by Lenin).

That the vicissitudes of economic life…explain human history to the exclusion of other factors is absurd.

Again there are echoes of Fichte and Coleridge in the shift from a Spinozist left radicalism to the political right. For Gentile, as for the others who had followed a similar path of political conversion, this shift was prompted by an urge to defend the ‘I’. But Gentile believed that he had introduced something new into the struggle, something which overcame the failings of all previous idealisms.

© John Dunn.

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