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The Citadel of Liberty

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century. My Hencdello Croce. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. $3.50.

If one were to consider Benedetto Croce’s “History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century” somewhat figuratively and somewhat mirthfully, one might picture him as throwing open the gate of the citadel of Idealism in which he sits scornfully secure in these troublous times, sending out a squadron of his favorite phrases under the arch-raider, History, with the Spirit riding as second in command, chalking a capital “L” on the tails of the frock-coats of the ex-blacksmiths and ex-house-painters who are now ruling Europe, and getting his troop safe home again before the victims have had time to unravel the meaning of the longer of his periods. There is something majestically frolicsome about this book, which is otherwise written in grim earnestness of mood and scholarship. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin may look like giants in a certain world of “matter,” but lift them up into the world of “Spirit” and look at them as they are foreshortened and forelengthened by a certain parabolic lens called “history,” and it is apparent that they are clowns. The artistic motive of Croce’s writing is the serenity that comes to him from his complete intellectual mastery over what he has chosen to call the world. It can have, however, and has in this book, an undertone of merciless scorn.

History, says Croce, in one of those phrases of his that contain a quarter portion of objective truth and a three-quarter portion of moral lift—history is the history of liberty. In these ten thousand years of known humanity, what else have men been striving for except “liberty”? Wherever there has been progress, by what other gauge can we measure it than by the gauge of liberty? In the nineteenth century in particular, liberty bus been the great inspirer of struggle, and the advance, greater or smaller, that each act in the social drama has achieved, has been an advance toward liberty. Now that is the thing we have to remember at this moment, when, with an evidence too cogent to be denied, liberty is being quoted very low on the market. Liberty, Croce assures us, is not dead, she is merely sleeping. She will come back with the next turn in the tide.

Now the scientific sceptic may well wonder whether all that is history, but meantime in his heart of hearts he will be saying that he does not care. One January morning four centuries and more ago the crusaders in the Vega Real woke up and saw the banners of the cross floating from the towers of the Alhambra. Some such exhaltation must come to the liberals of the world at sight of the banner of freedom which Croce has raised and keeps floating over his ivory tower in Italy. As he well says, it is the banner of a faith that does not die so long as the believer lives.

Like most of Croce’s thinking, this “History” too is dovetailed into his own peculiar vision of the world and is completely intelligible only to one who has mastered his system. “Men,” he says (without saying, of course, just what men, and how many), “men had not come by that concept [of Liberty] by chance or suddenly . . . they had been brought there by all the experiences and solutions of philosophy as it labored for centuries. . . . By giving ideality to reality and reality to ideality, philosophy had recognized and understood their indivisible unity which is identity.” Before setting out to discover what that means, one ought to remember the example of Taine who, as he relates in his preface to the “Ancien Regime,” set out to discover in 1848 just how he ought to vote in the elections of that year. Before he found out, he had written the twelve volumes of the “Origines” and it was the year 1872. If that analogy is to hold, one can only hope for the sake of our bibliographers that the many readers of Croce’s “History” will not take the task of understanding him too conscientiously.

Furthermore, probably very few “men” were ever intelligent enough to get their concept of freedom in the manner Croce describes, and one may doubt whether those who define history as a record of the facts have very much to gain by abandoning the direct approach to the facts for the detour through metaphysics. The examples of the hosts of Croceans that Italy has produced in the course of the past thirty years are there to show that those who take up the challenge of Croce’s thought and try to retrace the paths he has blazed, far from reducing the vagueness of the master, actually make it still vaguer. Crocean history in the mass is one vast illustration of the metaphysical fallacy that was labelled of yore by Comte and has been illumined in all its phases by Pareto —the fallacy of going from the theory to the facts and of deforming the facts in the light of the theory.

The main distortions of fact that arise under Croce’s system go back to his dogma about a certain “life of the Spirit,” which has another incarnation as a sort of personified History, and this dogma is coupled with another dogma that this “Spirit” (alias “History”) is a sentient creature, rational and ethical, working ever in a given direction, which is the direction of which Croce approves. History conceived from such a standpoint is an inspiring thing, for it becomes the vehicle of Croce’s personal highmindedness and, on the intellectual side, is permeated at every point with his ennobling faith in the obligation to be intelligent. But, from the objective standpoint, a distortion is none the less a distortion, though the error may often be more formal than substantial.

Ignoring, therefore, the system, which is useful primarily to Croce and truly manageable only in his hands, one runs eagerly through this book, and the more eagerly in view of its nobility of sentiment, for those many brilliant analyses of detail that we have come to expect from Croce’s powerful mind. And, in fact, they are sprinkled like jewels all through a text that is more distinguished for eloquence than for clarity. Trenchant and illuminating is the discussion of the faiths opposed to the religion of liberty, and especially the analyses of Catholic thought and of Communism, and of the antitheses between Liberalism and democracy. Less valuable, perhaps, is the essay on Romanticism, which suffers from the usual cloudiness that results from the persistence of the literary critics in considering so many different things under one single name. Altogether admirable and inspiring, on the other hand, is the review of the many-sided developments in the European mind between 1815 and 1870. Here Croce ascends to a truly European outlook, lays the intellectual foundations for a European faith, and writes many pages that will be memorable, one may venture to predict, as among the first and best contributions to the formation of a truly European spirit. But the thing that makes this “History” an indispensable handbook to the critic and the historian is the gallery of portraits. They show Croce at his best and are ever rich in suggestiveness. Devastating the criticism of Bismarck, which is indeed refreshing to read as a counter to the usual adulation that is heaped upon that clever but not very profound tactician. Notable also the paragraphs that are devoted to Mazzini, Cavour, Napoleon III, Marx, and the chapters that attempt to justify the plutocratic democracies of the pre-war period. And then, finally, comes the most exciting quality of all in Croce’s thinking and writing—his ever determined resolve to master the whole of history with his mind, absorb all the experiences and thought of the past into his own living personality. One always lays down a book by Croce with a sense of ethical uplift and intellectual encouragement. He is a great apostle of intelligence and a great spirit.


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