Benedetto Croce

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Western Philosophy
twentieth-century philosophy
Name: Benedetto Croce
Birth: February 25, 1866 (Pescasseroli, Italy)
Death: November 20, 1952 (Naples, Italy)
School/tradition: Hegelianism, Idealism, Liberalism
Main interests
History, Aesthetics, Politics
Notable ideas
Influences Influenced
Giambattista Vico, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Antonio Labriola Giovanni Gentile, Antonio Gramsci

Benedetto Croce (February 25, 1866 - November 20, 1952) was an Italian critic, idealist philosopher, and politician. He wrote on numerous topics, including philosophy of history and aesthetics, and was a prominent liberal, although he opposed laissez-faire free trade. After the loss of his parents and sister in an earthquake which he himself barely survived, Croce plunged into a rigorous self-defined course of study, and began to develop a philosophy of history and aesthetics. He found a public voice when he and Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile founded the journal, La Critica, in 1903. In 1910, he entered politics and was made a senator for life. He criticized Italy’s involvement in World War I, and was an outspoken opponent of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, becoming a symbol for the national conscience. After World War II, he helped to shape a new national self-image for Italy.

Croce offered his “philosophy of spirit” as a humanistic alternative to the consolations of religion and metaphysics. An idealist, he held that nothing was real except the human consciousness, which he called “spirit.” He identified two types of knowledge, theoretical and practical, and four aspects of “spirit” towards which all human activity was directed: The Beautiful, the True, the Useful, and the Good. The Beautiful was known through intuition, the True through logic, the Useful in economics, and the Good in ethics. Croce developed theories of history and aesthetics which rejected analysis according to any principles or patterns. During the first half of the twentieth century, Croce had a considerable influence on the thought of philosophers of aesthetics, including Robin Collingwood, John Dewey, and Antonio Gramsci.


Benedetto Croce was born February 25, 1866, in Pescasseroli in the Abruzzi region of Italy. He came from an influential and wealthy landowning family, and was raised in a very strict Catholic environment. In 1883, Croce lost his parents and his only sister in an earthquake on the island of Ischia. He was buried for several hours and severely injured; only he and his brother Alfonso survived. He went to live with an uncle in Rome, where he studied law in the university. Around the age of eighteen, he turned away from Catholicism and became an atheist, remaining so for the rest of his life. He became disillusioned with the university, left without taking a degree and returned to Naples, where he began a demanding course of independent study. He inherited his family’s fortune, which gave him the freedom to devote a great deal of time to philosophy. He never held a university position, but lived the life of a scholar and wrote about many contemporary issues. Croce traveled in Spain, Germany, France, and England. He became interested in history after reading the literary historian Francesco De Sanctis. In 1893, he turned to philosophy, influenced by Giambattista Vico's (1668-1744) works on art and history; Croce purchased the house in which Vico had lived. His friend, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, encouraged him to read Hegel. In 1896, Croce received public notice for his book about the concept of history and its relationship to the concept of art, and began to work on a philosophical foundation for aesthetics. Although he professed no interest in politics, he became disillusioned with the nationalistic liberals of the period following the Risorgimento (the nineteenth century movement for Italian unity), and began to develop his own ideas on government. He closely examined socialism and Marxism, and eventually rejected them with severe criticism.

In 1903, together with Gentile, he founded La Critica, a journal of cultural criticism, and in it, over the next forty-one years, Croce published nearly all his own writing, plus critiques and reviews of the historical, philosophical, and literary work being produced in Europe. He began work on “Philosophy of Spirit,” his chief intellectual achievement. From 1906, Croce worked as an adviser with his publisher, Laterza and Sons, Bari, to produce three highly influential series of literature, Writers of Italy, Classics of Philosophy, and 'The Library of Modern Culture. Croce's famous commentary on Hegel, What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel, appeared in 1907.

In 1910, Croce entered politics and was made senator for life. In 1914, he married Adela Rossi, with whom he had four daughters. He was an open critic of Italy's participation in World War I, feeling that it was a suicidal trade war. Though this made him initially unpopular, his reputation was restored after the war and he became a well-loved public figure. In 1920-21 he was Minister of Public Instruction and worked on school reforms. During the period after World War I, Croce first saw fascism as a movement that might restrain some of the leftist tendencies towards unrestricted individual freedom. As the true character of the Mussolini regime became evident, Croce’s opposition hardened and he openly opposed the Fascist Party. He retired into isolation and became a symbol of opposition to Fascism. In 1943, he became Minister without Portofilio of the new democratic government and member of the Constituent Assembly, and from 1943 to 1947, he was President of the reconstituted Liberal party. In 1947, he retired from politics and established the Institute for Historical Studies in his Naples home, where he had an extensive library. Croce died in Naples on November 20, 1952.

Thought and works

Croce passed through four phases in the development of his political and aesthetic philosophy. During the first period, he experienced the loss of his family and embarked on a rigorous program of self-education. He read the works of Francesco De Sanctis, Giambattista Vico, and Hegel, and began to formulate his theories on art, history, and aesthetics, and some rudimentary ideas about political ethics. He entered a second phase when he found a public voice for his thought in the journal La Critica, developed his “philosophy of spirit,” and entered actively into political life as a member of the government. Towards the end of this second phase he modified his views about historical cycles and developed what he considered the definitive form of his thought, “absolute historicism.” During his third phase, he became an outspoken critic of fascism and took on the role of a moral teacher for the people of Italy. He began to compose didactic histories, a history of Europe in the nineteenth century, of Italy from 1871 to 1915, and of the Kingdom of Naples, which pointed out how the historical path of Italy had become la via smarrita (“the lost way”). In the confusion after World War II, Croce became universally recognized as a voice of moral authority that could speak for the true Italy. Taking an active role in the postwar government. he helped to inspire the new democratic Italy. He supported democracy in principle, although he had doubts about it, saying, "Sound political sense has never regarded the masses as the directing focus of society…"

Croce was considered the leading Italian philosopher of his day. He regarded his philosophy as an alternative to the consolations of religion. His opposition to the Fascist regime led him to classify his philosophy as liberalism, because it upheld the creativity and autonomy of the individual. His practical politics, however, were conservative; he favored constitutional monarchy. Croce influenced aesthetic thought during the first half of the twentieth century, including Robin C. Collingwood's Principles of Art (1934) and John Dewey's Art as Experience (1934), and the works of Antonio Gramsci.

The philosophy of spirit

Heavily influenced by Hegel and other German Idealists, such as Fichte, Croce developed what he termed the “philosophy of spirit.” He denied any reality other than “spirit,” or human consciousness. "Pure concept" referred to ideas which could be held universally, such as quantity and quality. Croce held that all human action was oriented towards one of the four aspects of spirit, the Beautiful, the True, the Useful, and the Good. The Beautiful and the True corresponded to the theoretical dimensions of the spirit, intuition and logic. The Useful and the Good corresponded to practical dimensions of economics and ethics. Croce insisted that, though these four aspects of spirit were interconnected, they should never be confused and should always be treated separately. He denied that spirit in any way transcended the human beings through whom it was expressed.

Croce rejected all forms of religion, as not being sufficiently logical, and came to view most metaphysics in the same manner. He felt that all metaphysics are simply justifications of religious ideas and not full, viable philosophical systems.

Absolute historicism

Croce shared the view of Vico that history should be written by philosophers. Croce scorned theorists like Marx and Hegel, who attempted to reduce history to a few guiding principles. He claimed that all meaning and value evolved from historical events as they progressed, and that history could not be interpreted in the larger context of some cosmic design or ultimate plan. History was “philosophy in motion.” In his earlier work, Croce developed a theory of circularity among “moments” of the four aspects of spirit, but his later definitive philosophy was that history captured and preserved these “moments” of spirit. Spirit was completely spontaneous, without a predetermined structure, while history became the unique mediating principle for all the “moments” of spirit. “Spirit,” or consciousness, developed through human history as ideas of truth, beauty, goodness, and usefulness were constantly redefined.


Croce's work Breviario di estetica (The Essence of Aesthetic) appears in the form of four lessons (quattro lezioni) written for the inauguration of Rice University in 1912. He declined the invitation to attend the event; however, he wrote the lessons and submitted them for translation, so that they could be read in his absence. In this brief, but dense, work, Croce set forth his theory of art, claiming that art was more important than science or metaphysics, since only art edifies humanity. He felt that all that is known can be reduced to logical and imaginative knowledge. Art springs from imaginative knowledge, making it, at its heart, pure imagery. Intuition is the primary source of artistic creativity. Imaginative knowledge is perceived by the intuition and precedes all other thought; it is therefore free of concepts. Art is an expression of the soul at the moment of intuition.

Croce distinguished between expression and representation; representational works of art tell a story, but works of expression present a unique experience available only through that particular work of art. The way in which the image in the artist’s mind is presented is as essential to a work of art as its meaning; form and content are inseparable. Just as Croce did not recognize patterns or principles which could be used to interpret history, he did not believe in the use of principles to criticize art. Each work of art is unique, springing from the imaginative consciousness of the artist, and its true character must first be perceived through the intuition, free of preconceptions. The task of an art critic is to grasp the character of a work of art, define its emotional aspects and evaluate how faithful the image is to emotion. "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, trans. by Colin Lyas).

Selected bibliography

  • Materialismo storico ed economia marxistica, 1900
  • L'Estetica come scienza dell'espressione e linguistica generale, 1902
  • Logica come scienza del concetto puro, 1909
  • Breviario di estetica, 1912
  • Saggio sul Hegel, 1912
  • Teoria e storia della storiografia, 1917
  • Racconto degli racconti (first translation into Italian from Neapolitan of Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti), 1925
  • Manifesto of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals, May 1, 1925, in La Critica
  • Ultimi saggi, 1935
  • La poesia, 1936
  • La storia come pensiero e come azione, 1938
  • Il carattere della filosofia moderna, 1941
  • Filosofia e storiografia, 1949

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Benedetto Croce. History As the Story of Liberty . Liberty Fund; New Ed edition, 2001. ISBN 978-0865972698
  • Benedetto Croce, Patrick Romanell (Translator). Guide to Aesthetics . Hackett Pub Co Inc; 2Rev Ed edition, 1995. ISBN 978-0872203044
  • David D. Roberts. Benedetto Croce and the Uses of Historicism . Univ of California Pr, 1987. ISBN 978-0520059047
  • M. E. Moss, Maurice Mandelbaum. Benedetto Croce Reconsidered: Truth and Error in Theories of Art, Literature, and History . University Press of New England, 1987. ISBN 978-0874513998

External links

All links retrieved September 27, 2023.

General philosophy sources


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