Antonio Rosmini-Serbati

From New World Encyclopedia

Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (March 25, 1797 - July 1, 1855) was an Italian philosopher and theologian who set out to re-define the balance between reason and religion in light of the philosophical developments which had taken place during the Enlightenment. He attempted to develop an objective Christian philosophical system which could be applied not only to the life of the individual, but to ethics, law and politics. After extensive study of post-Renaissance philosophy, he turned to the pre-Socratics, to Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in an effort to explain the origin, truth and certainty of human thought. Rosmini presented knowledge as a simple, indivisible whole, based on an innate notion of existence, or “being.” He regarded philosophy as an aid to theology, examining preconceptions and determining their truth, in order to provide rational grounds for faith. He applied his theories extensively in many areas, including ontology, ethics, political science, human rights and education.

Rosmini founded a religious order called the Institute of the Brethren of Charity, also known as the Rosminians. The members could be priests or laymen, who took vows of humility, chastity and poverty, and devoted themselves to preaching, the education of youth, and works of charity. Branches exist today in Italy, England, Ireland, France and America.


Antonio Rosmini-Serbati was born at Rovereto, Italy, in the Austrian Tyrol, on March 25, 1797 into a family of lesser aristocrats who had become wealthy through the manufacture of silk. He was educated at home and at local public schools until the age of twenty. After studying at Pavia and the University of Padua for three years, he returned to Rovereto to prepare for the priesthood. He was ordained at Chioggia, on April 21, 1821, and in 1822 received a Doctorate in Theology and Canon Law at Padua. In 1823 he accompanied the Patriarch of Venice to Rome, where he met Consalvi and other prominent scholars, and was encouraged by Pope Pius VII to undertake the reform of philosophy. He spent the next three years (1823-1826) in private study of philosophy at Rovereto, devoting himself especially to the study of Thomas Aquinas. He had already adopted as his guide two principles of order, an order which puts God's prompting first and man's instant and swift action second.

first, to apply himself to the improvement of his faults and the purifying of his soul without seeking to undertake works of charity on his own initiative, until summoned by some positive outward manifestation of God's will (Principle of Passivity).
second, not to refuse offices of charity when Divine Providence offered them, but in fulfilling them to maintain perfect indifference to his personal preferences or repugnances and to do the offered work as zealously as he would any other (Principle of Indifference).

The Venerable Marchioness di Canossa, foundress of a society of Daughters of Charity for poor friendless girls, had long desired a like institution for boys, and no sooner was Rosmini a priest than she began to urge him to establish one. On December 10, 1825, he wrote to her that in accordance with his rules of life he could not altogether refuse her request if God were to provide means, but that even then he could form such a society only on the basis of his two principles. Led to Milan in February, 1826, for a charitable work and for the purpose of study, he received there a powerful stimulus in June, 1827, from the Abbé Loewenbruck. This zealous and impetuous priest introduced himself abruptly, saying, "I am thinking of a society directed to a reform of the clergy, and you must help me to carry this into effect." Rosmini answered by confessing his own aspirations and laying down his principles. The two men agreed to spend the next year's Lent together in fasting and prayer in an old house on Monte Calvario above Domodossola, a town near the Italian end of the Simplon Pass. Loewenbruck did not keep the appointment, and on February, 1828, Rosmini began his great work alone, spending Lent in practicing austerities and writing the constitutions of the institute. In order to establish a religious society, he needed to gather a group of like-minded men, but Rosmini made no attempt to do this. Instead, two or three acquaintances who knew his thoughts joined him of their own accord. These men urged Rosmini to approach the Holy See and seek approval for his society. He arrived in Rome in November, 1828, but would not do anything there to further his cause.

Pius VIII, who was to be elected pope the following March, called him to an audience a few weeks after he arrived, and said, "If you think of beginning with something small, and leaving all the rest to God, we gladly approve; not so if you thought of starting on a large scale." Rosmini answered that he had always proposed a very humble beginning. During this visit to Rome, he published his "Maxims of Christian Perfection" and his "Nuovo saggio sull' origine delle idee" (1829; translated as "Origin of Ideas," London, 1883-1884).

The new institute

In the autumn of 1830, he gave the institute something of its regular form at Calvario; and all the community began to pass through their stages of religious training. On February 2, 1831, Rosmini's friend and protector at Rome, Cardinal Cappellari, was chosen pope and took the name of Pope Gregory XVI. The new pope became an immediate patron of the new institute, but Rosmini shunned all initiative more than ever. An unsolicited papal Brief came forth in March, calling the new society by its name and rejoicing in its progress under the approval of the bishops. A later brief granted the institute special spiritual graces. From 1834 to 1835 Rosmini had charge of a parish at Rovereto.

In 1835 the pope made known his wish that, since solemn episcopal approval had been given the society in the Dioceses of Novara and Trent, Rosmini should no longer delay, but submit the constitutions of the society to the formal examination of the Holy See. It was not, however, until March, 1837, that these were at length submitted to Gregory XVI, with a short letter in which Rosmini petitioned the pope to approve and confirm them and to grant to the institute the privileges of regulars, adding only that these seemed necessary to the well-being of a society which was intended for the service of the universal Church. After some discussion regarding the form of the vow of religious poverty, the constitutions were formally approved December 20, 1838.

About this time the pope gave over to Rosmini several missions tendered him in England by the vicars Apostolic, and also the Abbey of S. Michele della Chiusa in Piedmont. Later foundations followed at Stresa and Domodossola. On March 25, 1839, the vows of the institute were taken by 20 Fathers in Italy and by six in England (Spetisbury and Prior Park). The Letters Apostolic ("In sublimi," Sept. 20, 1839) formally recorded the approval of the institute and its rule, and appointed Rosmini provost general for life. The institute then spread rapidly in England and Italy, and requests for foundations came from various countries.

The new religious order was called the Institute of the Brethren of Charity, known in Italy generally as the Rosminians. The members could be priests or laymen, who took vows of chastity and poverty, and devoted themselves to preaching, the education of youth, and works of charity, material, moral and intellectual. They have branches in Italy, England, Ireland, France and America. In London they are attached to the church of Saint Etheldreda, Ely Place, Holborn, where the English translation of Rosmini's works is edited.

Political involvement

In 1848 Rosmini published, in Milan, his "Costituzione secondo la giustizia sociale" and "Cinque piaghe della chiesa" opposing Austrian control over ecclesiastical appointments in northern Italy and promoting a confederation of the Italian states, under the control of the pope. In August of that year, he was sent to Rome by King Charles Albert of Piedmont to enlist the pope on the side of Italy, against Austria. There, Pius IX appointed him to a council which was to deliberate on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. When the revolution broke out, the pope asked Rosmini to share his exile at Gaeta. Rosmini left Gaeta, June 19, 1849.


From 1836 until 1855, Rosmini was involved in constant controversy. The approbation of his religious order (1836-1838), his work on conscience (1840), theological disputes (1843-1848) and his participation in the political events of 1848, aroused opposition, especially among the Jesuits. In 1849 two of his works, The Five Wounds of the Holy Church and The Constitution of Social Justice were placed upon the Index of Prohibited Books of the Roman Catholic Church. Rosmini at once declared his submission and retired to Stresa on Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. Rosmini’s theological and political opponents then campaigned for an examination of all his works, which resulted in his complete exoneration in 1854, a year before his death at Stresa on July 1, 1855.

The controversy continued until 1887, when Pope Leo XIII finally condemned 40 of his propositions in the decree Post Obitum and forbade their being taught. In 2001, the Vatican reversed this opinion, stating, ‘The motives for preoccupation and for doctrinal and prudential difficulties which determined the promulgation of the decree Post Obitum condemning the "Forty Propositions" drawn from the works of Antonio Rosmini can now be considered as surmounted.’ (CDF, Osservatore Romano, July 1, 2001).

Thought and Works

After the excesses of the French Revolution, Europe was experiencing a spiritualistic, anti-Enlightenment reaction during the early part of the nineteenth century. In his philosophical work Antonio Rosmini set out to re-define the balance between reason and religion, and to develop an objective Christian philosophical system which could be applied not only to the life of the individual, but to ethics, law and politics. After extensive study of the works of post-Renaissance philosophers philosophy from Locke to Hegel, he turned to the pre-Socratics, to Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in an effort to explain the origin, truth and certainty of human thought.

"If philosophy is to be restored to love and respect, I think it will be necessary, in part, to return to the teachings of the ancients, and in part to give those teachings the benefit of modern methods" (Theodicy, a. 148).

Rosmini felt that the thought of the Enlightenment, with its subjectivism and emphasis on reasoning for its own sake rather than as a means of arriving at ultimate truth, had led to confusion, ignorance, and erroneous ethics. The title of his fundamental philosophical work, A New Essay concerning the Origin of Ideas (1830) suggests that it was intended to supersede Locke's famous Essay concerning Human Understanding. Rosmini wished to systematize truth and combat error. He regarded philosophy as ‘the study of the final reasons.’

Rosmini distinguished between the sensationalists who, he felt could not explain the origin of ideas, and the idealists who developed explanations that were far more complex than was necessary. "In explaining facts connected with the human spirit, we must not make fewer assumptions than are required to explain them… [nor must we] make more assumptions than are needed to explain the facts." (A New Essay concerning the Origin of Ideas, Vol. 1, 26-27).

He rejected eclecticism as a way of reconciling different philosophical systems, concluding that different systems could only be reconciled if they shared the same basic principle from which deductions were made; without a common base, philosophical systems could not be reconciled. Rosmini wrote voluminous works on many subjects, including ontology, theology, epistemology, philosophy, political science, ethics and morality, and education, developing his basic ideas and applying them in a variety of fields.

Philosophy and Theology

Rosmini wished to present philosophy as an aid to theology. The duty of the philosopher was to examine preconceptions and determine their truth, in order to provide rational grounds for faith. He believed that total freedom to question and examine was a necessary condition for true faith. Revealed doctrine could not be presented as true science unless there were at least some rational truths to support it. Certain theological concepts, such as the nature of the body and the spirit and the uniqueness of the individual, could not be properly addressed without the assistance of philosophy. At the same time, he regarded divine revelation, not as a contradiction of truth, but as a way of enhancing philosophical inquiry by proposing problems, such as the relationship between nature and person, which might otherwise have been ignored. If faith were considered divine although in conflict with reason, it would impose an impossible obligation and totally inhibit our reasoning activity. We would be unable to give our assent to either reason or faith, and would thus remain deprived of truth (IP 3)

Being and Cognition

Rosmini presented knowledge as a simple, indivisible whole; a sort of encyclopedia of all that could be known, conjoined according to the order of ideas into a single harmonious entity. All human thought depended on an innate notion of existence, or “being,” without which nothing was intelligible. All intellectual principles and ramifications of thought could be explained using the single notion of being and all the ways in which being could be understood through sensation. The most comprehensive view of Rosmini's philosophy is in his Sistema filosofico, in which he examined and analyzed human knowledge, and arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. The notion, or idea, of “being” or “existence in general” is necessary to, and is presupposed by, all our acquired cognitions, so that, without it, they would be impossible
  2. The idea of “being” is essentially objective; what is seen in “being” is as distinct from, and opposed to, the mind that sees it, as light is from the eye that looks at it
  3. Being is essentially true, because being and truth are convertible terms. The mind cannot err in its intuition, or perception, of “being;” error can only be committed when judgments are made based on the initial perceptions of being.
  4. The human being intellectually perceives, first, his own animal body, individually conjoined with him; and then, when he experiences sensations produced by something outside himself, he perceives the causes of those sensations as an agent or being, and therefore a true thing, that acts on him. In this way he interacts with the external world, and makes true primitive judgments, which contain
    1. the subsistence of the particular being (subject), and
    2. its essence or species, as determined by the quality of the action felt from it (predicate)
  5. By separating the essence or species of an agent from its subsistence, he grasps the full specific idea (universalization) of the agent, and then from this, by eliminating some of its elements, the abstract specific idea (abstraction) of the agent.
  6. The mind, having reached this stage of development, can proceed to further and further abstracts, including the first principles of reasoning, the principles of the several sciences, complex ideas, groups of ideas, and so on, endlessly.
  7. The most universal idea of being, the idea which is the generator and formal element of all acquired cognitions, cannot itself be acquired, but must be innate in us, implanted by God in our nature. “Being,” as the idea which naturally illuminates our mind, must therefore be what men call the light of reason. Rosmini termed it “ideal being,” and presented it the fundamental principle of all philosophy, and the supreme criterion of truth and certainty.

When ‘being’ is seen as the supreme principle of unity on which all knowledge depends, truth—‘being as known to the human mind’—is systematized and is seen in all its beauty. Since, however, the full application of being is never seen once and for all, it is better to ensure adherence to principle than to grasp at unconnected. truth’, that is, a system which shows clearly how the passage is made from the most general, self-evident principles to more particular levels of knowledge

Ethics and Human Dignity

Rosmini’s definition of the human being as a “knowing and feeling subject” endowed by God with the universal concept of “being,” gave each human being the uniqueness and individual value which had been acknowledged and celebrated by Enlightenment thought.

A human being had both sense and instinct, with which to perceive and react to physical impressions, and will and intellect with which to acquire and react to knowledge of “being.” Rosmini regarded will as the supreme active principle which constituted “person,” because it was according to his will that a person acted upon the judgments made by his intellect. Therefore the dignity of a human being lay in his will, and “person” was itself an inviolable end. Human beings were free to adhere to or reject what was known, and could not be coerced or used as a means by others, without contradicting the inviolable truth. Rosmini maintained that every person was morally obliged to recognize the truth, that every other human being was equal in value to himself, and to act accordingly.

In a six-volume treatise, The Philosophy of Right, Rosmini dealt with every aspect of human rights. He defined two types of human rights, those which were innate at birth, and those which were acquired. The State had no power to create or destroy human rights, nor could it be valued above its individual members in such a way that individual persons could be sacrificed for the sake of society. Rosmini elaborated three types of societies within which certain rights arose from the bonds formed between intellectual beings:

  1. theocratic society, between God and man;
  2. domestic society, which was divided into conjugal and parental society; and
  3. civil society, the communion of several families who wish to entrust the preservation and the regulation of their rights to a single or collective mind called ‘government.’

Rosmini suggested that the true end, or purpose, of society was to achieve human good, which ‘resides in virtue and the eudemenological appurtenances of virtue, and in general in every good in so far as it is connected with virtue.’ He concluded that every society was illegitimate to the extent that it was contrary to virtue, because the essential purpose of true society was to realize virtue. Every law that prevented members of a society from achieving virtue was also invalid. ‘Without virtue there is no human good, the end for which society is established’ (PP, vol. 2, 189). Virtue was only one of the elements constituting the good which was the essential goal of a true society. Every society aimed to produce contentment of spirit, not just physical contentment.

Something could be desirable in itself, because it accorded with the order of being; or it could be desirable because it seemed good for an individual. According to Rosmini, utilitarian good was what was desired as being good for the individual, without reference to what is inherently good in itself. Moral good was to be found when the human will upheld what is good in accord with the order of being. Human beings maintained their dignity only when, through acts of will, they adhered to the whole of being and to their presence in that order.


Rosmini applied his philosophical principles to education in "Della educazione cristiana" (Milan, 1856) and "Del principio supremo della metodica" (Turin, 1857; tr. by Grey, The Ruling Principle of Method Applied to Educatio, Boston, 1893). He theorized that education must follow the natural order of development, and that the mind of the child should be led from the general to the particular, taking care to be sure that the child has grasped cognitions of the first order before advancing to related cognitions of the second, third and higher orders. Rosmini explained the cognitions appropriate to each level, the corresponding activities, the instruction which they required, and the moral and religious education which the child should receive. His general theory of adapting education to the needs of the growing mind, and the importance he attached to instinct, feeling, and play, anticipated theories that are now regarded as fundamental in education. "The child," he says, "at every age must act."


Primary sources

Of his numerous works, of which a collected edition in 17 volumes was issued at Milan (1842-1844), supplemented by Opere postume in 5 vols (Turin, 1859-1874), the most important are:

  • New Essay on the Origin of Ideas (Eng. trans., 1883); The Origin of Thought. Leominster: Fowler Wright, 1987. ISBN 0852441150
  • The Principles of Moral Science (1831)
  • The Restoration of Philosophy in Italy (1836)
  • The Philosophy of Right (1841-45); Durham: Rosmini House, 1993. ISBN 0951321188

The following have also been published in English:

  • A Catholic Catechism, translated by William Seth Agar (1849)
  • The Five Wounds of the Holy Church, (abridged trans. with introd. by H.P. Liddon, 1883)
  • Maxims of Christian Perfection, by W.A. Johnson (1889)
  • Psychology (Anonymous) (1884-1888)
  • Sketch of Modern Philosophy, by Lockhart (1882)
  • The Ruling Principle of Method Applied to Education, by Mrs. W. Grey (Boston, Mass., 1887)
  • Select Letters, by D. Gazzola

Rosmini's Sistema filosofico has been translated into English by Thomas Davidson (Rosmini's Philosophical System, (1882), with a biographical sketch and complete bibliography).

See also:

  • Life by G. S. Macwalter (1883)
  • Life by C. B. Pagani (1907)
  • C. Werner, Die Italienische Philosophie des 18 Jahrhunderts (1884)
  • F. X. Kraus, Antonio Rosmini: sein Leben, seine Schriften (1888)
  • "Church Reformation in Italy" in the Edinburgh Review, cxiv. (July 1861)

See also numerous Italian works, for which Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy or Pagliani's Catalogo Generale (Milan, 1905) should be consulted.

Secondary sources

  • Bredestege, Francis Joseph. The Educational Philosophy of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.
  • Lockhart, William. Thesis (Ph. D. in Education)—University of Cincinnati, 1932. Life of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. 1886.
  • Lockhart, William. Life of Antonio Rosmini Serbati, Founder of the Institute of Charity. London: K. Paul, Trench, 1886.
  • MacWalter, Gabriel Stuart. Life of Antonio Rosmini Serbati, Founder of the Institute of Charity. London: K. Paul, Trench, & Co, 1883.
  • Pagani, Giambattista. The Life of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. London: G. Routledge, 1907.

External links

All links retrieved August 11, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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