History is the Story of Liberty, Not Nations
Benedetto Croce argued that the lifespans of particular regimes, tyrants and oppressors are limited, but history always and inevitably arcs toward Liberty.
Benedetto Croce was born in Abruzzi, Italy in 1866 to a wealthy family, assuring his lifelong involvement in Italian politics with a fortune enabling a career of independent study and scholarship in the fields of aesthetics, literature, and philosophy (which won him early and high acclaim). Perhaps his most significant contributions to the classical liberal tradition, however, were his works on history and historiography. Croce’s body of work contains roughly eighty volumes and his critical review, La critica, which he published personally from 1902 to 1944.
For his entire intellectual and political life, Croce maintained a sort of celebrity within the European liberal movement and Italian public life broadly. He became a senator for life (1910) largely as official recognition for his immense contributions to Italian culture. He used his position to advance liberal policies including opposition to Italy’s involvement in the First World War and later served as Secretary of Education for the year before Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome and the consolidation of the Fascist regime which promptly ousted and later blacklisted Croce for having written and signed an anti-Fascist manifesto (1925). Croce biographer Claes Ryn writes that “Black Shirt troopers broke into Croce’s home and raided his library,” though he remained critical of both fascism and the Mussolini regime “at considerable risk.” The level of Croce’s intellectual accomplishments shielded him from direct attack, but Mussolini had him surveilled at all times, forbade newspapers from mentioning his name, and removed all of Croce’s books from Italian academia.
In the selections below, Croce explains his position that all history, correctly conceived and written, is the story of liberty. He argues first that nationalist interpretations of history fail to account for the constant change and upheaval of events which constitute the historical process. Nationalists impose static, collective identities on their subjects, producing works closer to poetry than history. Rather, Croce argues that history is the constant, ever-evolving and social process through which individuals seek greater and greater liberty. In spite of the myriad changes in life over time and across space, despite the occasional tyrant or fascist coup, the constant and ever-present fact of human existence has been the struggle for liberty.
Croce published his book History as the Story of Liberty in 1938. A mere seven years later, Italy lay devastated by another World War and Mussolini’s regime was in ashes. The new government invited Croce to serve as the provisional Head of State, a position he declined. The venerable and now-ancient historian remained president of the Liberal party to the moment of his death in 1952. In late April 1945, Italian anti-fascists discovered, captured, and executed Benito Mussolini. The Italian people spent days desecrating the Duce’s corpse as it hung from a meathook at a gas station outside Milan. Italy’s interlude with fascism, bizarre and destructive as it was, faded into history while liberty—as ever—remains the impetus for true historical progress.
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Selections from History as the Story of Liberty
Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000. Trans. Sylvia Sprigge, rev. Folke Leander and Claes Ryn.
The Unity of an Historical Work
In contrast with historical works which observe logical unity, there are many books which also go by the name of history whose unity lies not in a problem but in a thing, or more precisely in an image. Such are the histories of nations, of a people, a country, a city, a lake, a sea or a single person or group of persons; not, of course, when these images are merely means used as the title of the book and a perfectly innocent means of advertising the contents, but when they are in reality the subject-matter of the book. By reason of these subjects, such books, when coherently written, are not history books: but they may be chronicles, gathered together round an image, or even, when the spirit of poetry illuminates the material, they may be poetry, in this way going back…from history to the epic, whence it is said that history originated…
The harm begins when such essays seek to become coherent in spite of their continued incoherence, because then they offend logic…It is then that those sterile spasms occur, in an attempt to give a logical unity to that which can never enjoy it; and in the wake of authors who may not be solely or strictly historical but are at all events poetical, follow the rhetoricians and the sophists, writers who devise and theorize on the concept of France, of Germany, of Spain, of England, and of Russia, Switzerland and Belgium, which being particular and transient are therefore clearly not definable concepts, but historical material to be discerned and interpreted according to the eternal conceptual categories. It is useless to dwell on this, because even recently in Italy we have been afflicted with a controversy that has neither meaning nor end on the “unity of the History of Italy” in this material sense. And yet if this is bad it is not the worst, because the worst in these matters occurs when substance is given to things, and when they are given a reality and a value which strictly belong to the activities of the spirit, to its political and moral, scientific and artistic works. It is of these last and not of things which are an abstraction, and therefore have no life of their own, that there is a history to be investigated and inquired into. If they are rendered corporeal, and thereby the spirit made matter and its wings clipped, then they necessarily take on an ambiguous shape and lend themselves as receptacles of all the morbid and the monstrous which lies like a coiled serpent in the slimy recesses of the human soul: lascivious and possessive instincts, violence and ferocity and cruelty, and then a weariness of life, despair and the desire for dissolution; all that man represses beneath him when he rises to spiritual activity being now released and permitted to expand and morbidly admired and cherished. According as we examine one group of events or a single individual event, these morbid and monstrous things are turned out nowadays as “nationalist” or “racial” histories or alternatively as “biographies” which because their natures cannot be hidden even from their authors are described as “romanticized,” that is, they themselves acknowledge that they are not historical. Nationalist histories are not so-called national histories, which (when they do not serve, as we said above as mere titles for serious and truthful histories) are mere collections of notes about a people, chronicles of its life, or are books of edification and exhortation, or sometimes poetry. The others, however, are really obscure and stupid exaltations…something which tickles certain nostrils and has no other merit than this, but appears grandiose and incomparable, an object of delirious passion and mystic cult, half-way between the bestial and the divine. How much literature of this kind is produced particularly and almost solely nowadays in Germany, everyone knows.
Historiography as Liberation from History
IT is even stranger to find that instead of accurately and profoundly analysing social diseases of the kind we have just mentioned or of other or similar kinds, or isolating them in a sort of ideal hospital, so that they can only harm those who are already incurably contaminated, people commonly turn to blaming historical thought or historicism for the generating of these diseases, by promoting fatalism, by dissolving absolute values, by sanctifying the past, by accepting the brutality of facts as facts, by applauding violence, by recommending quietness, and, in fact, by removing the impetus and confidence from creative forces, by blunting the sense of duty, and by disposing men to inactivity and lazy compromise. All these things have already their appellations in the moral world, they are called spiritual tiredness, disintegration of the will, lack of moral sense, superstition about the past, timorous conservatism, cowardice which knowingly tries to excuse itself by equivocation and by appealing to historical necessity when the need is for resolution and action according to moral necessity-and so on. And, although one or other of these things may sometimes be found as in other men, so also in some historians…historical thought as such has nothing to do with them and may be quite contrary to these tendencies.
We are products of the past and we live immersed in the past, which encompasses us. How can we move towards the new life, how create new activities without getting out of the past and without placing ourselves above it. And how can we place ourselves above the past if we are in it and it is in us? There is no other way out except through thought, which does not break off relations with the past but rises ideally above it and converts it into knowledge. The past must be faced or, not to speak in metaphors, it must be reduced to a mental problem which can find its solution in a proposition of truth, the ideal premise for our new activity and our new life. This is how we daily behave, when, instead of being prostrated by the vexations which beset us, and of bewailing and being shamed by errors we have committed, we examine what has happened, analyse its origin, follow its history, and, with an informed conscience and under an intimate inspiration, we outline what ought and should be undertaken and willingly and brightly get ready to undertake it. Humanity always behaves in the same way when faced with its great and varied past. The writing of histories-as Goethe once noted-is one way of getting rid of the weight of the past. Historical thought transforms it into its own material and transfigures it into its object, and the writing of history liberates us from history.
Only a strange obscurity of ideas could impede us from recognizing the purifying function which both the writing of history and likewise poetry fulfil: the latter liberates us from servitude to the passions, the former from slavery to events and to the past. Only by an even greater intellectual blunder can that man be called a gaoler who unlocks the door of the cell to which he would otherwise be condemned. Men with a gift for history (not to be confused with monks intent on compiling registers and chronicles, nor with the erudite who collect stories and documents, and by their industry produce reliable news, nor with scholarly compilers of historical manuals) have always been labourers in various fields, inclined to meditate upon situations which have arisen in order to overcome them and to assist others to overcome them by means of new activity: politicians who have written political history, philosophers who have written histories of philosophy, artistic spirits who have tried by means of their intelligence to distil from the history of art an enjoyment of works of art, men of great civil and moral fervour who have severely scrutinized the history of human civilizations. During periods in which reforms and upheavals are being prepared, attention is paid to the past, to that from which a break is to be made, and to that with which a link is to be forged. During uneventful slow and heavy periods, fables and romances are preferred to histories or history itself is reduced to a fable or romance. Similarly, men who shut themselves up within the four walls of their private affections and private economic life, cease to be interested in what has happened and in what is happening in the great world, and they recognize no other history but that of their limited anxieties.
History as the History of Liberty
HEGEL’S famous statement that history is the history of liberty was repeated without being altogether understood and then spread throughout Europe by Cousin, Michelet and other French writers. But Hegel and his disciples used it with the significance which we have criticized above, of a history of the first birth of liberty, of its growth, of its maturity and of its stable permanence in the definite era in which it is incapable of further development. (The formula was: Orient, Classic World, Germanic World - one free, some free, all free.) The statement is adduced in this place with a different intention and content, not in order to assign to history the task of creating a liberty which did not exist in the past but will exist in the future, but to maintain that liberty is the eternal creator of history and itself the subject of every history. As such it is on the one hand the explanatory principle of the course of history, and on the other the moral ideal of humanity.
Jubilant announcements, resigned admissions or desperate lamentations that liberty has now deserted the world are frequently heard nowadays; the ideal of liberty is said to have set on the horizon of history, in a sunset without promise of sunrise. Those who talk or write or print this deserve the pardon pronounced by Jesus, for they know not what they say. If they knew or reflected they would be aware that to assert that liberty is dead is the same as saying that life is dead, that its mainspring is broken. And as for the ideal, they would be greatly embarrassed if invited to state the ideal which has taken., or ever could take, the place of the ideal of liberty. Then they would find that there is no other like it, none which makes the heart of man, in his human quality, so beat, none other which responds better to the very law of life which is history; and that this calls for an ideal in which liberty is accepted and respected and so placed as to produce ever greater achievements.
Certainly when we meet the legions of those who think or speak differently with these self-evident propositions, we are conscious that they may well be of the kind to raise laughter or derision about philosophers who seem to have tumbled on the earth from another world ignorant of what reality is, blind and deaf to its voice, to its cries, and to its hard features. Even if we omit to consider contemporary events and conditions in many countries, owing to which a liberal order which seemed to be the great and lasting achievement of the nineteenth century has crumbled, while in other countries the desire for this collapse is spreading, all history still gives evidence of an unquiet, uncertain and disordered liberty with brief intervals of unrest, rare and lightning moments of a happiness perceived rather than possessed, mere pauses in the tumult of oppressions, barbarian invasions, plunderings, secular and ecclesiastical tyrannies, wars between peoples, persecutions, exiles and gallows. With this prospect in view the statement that history is the history of liberty sounds like irony or, if it is seriously maintained, like stupidity.
But philosophy is not there just to be overwhelmed by the kind of reality which is apprehended by unbalanced and confused imaginings. Thus philosophy, when it inquires and interprets, knowing well that the man who enslaves another wakes in him awareness of himself and enlivens him to seek for liberty, observes with serenity how periods of increased or reduced liberty follow upon each other and how a liberal order, the more it is established and undisputed, the more surely decays into habit, and thereby its vigilant self-awareness and readiness for defence is weakened, which opens the way for a “recourse,” as Vico termed it, to all of those things which seemed to have vanished from the world, and which themselves, in their turn, open a new “course.” Philosophy considers, for example, the democracies and the republics like those of Greece in the fourth century, or of Rome in the first, in which liberty was still preserved in the institutional forms but no longer in the soul or the customs of the people, and then lost even those forms…Or philosophy looks at Italy, exhausted and defeated, entombed by barbarians in all her pompous Imperial array, rising again…like an agile sailor. Or philosophy contemplates the absolute monarchs who beat down the liberty of the barons and the clergy once they had become privileged, and superimposed on all men their own form of government, exercised by their own bureaucracy, and sustained by their own army, thus preparing a far greater and more useful participation of the people in political liberty. A Napoleon destroys a merely apparent and nominal liberty, he removes its appearance and its name, levels down the peoples under his rule and leaves those same people with a thirst for liberty and a new awareness of what it really was and a keenness to set up, as they did shortly afterwards in all Europe, institutions of liberty. Even in the darkest and crassest times liberty trembles in the lines of poets and affirms itself in the pages of thinkers and burns, solitary and magnificent, in some men who cannot be assimilated by the world around them…Yes, to the eye of philosophy, whether the age is propitious or unfavourable, liberty appears as abiding purely and invincibly and consciously only in a few spirits; but these alone are those which count historically, just as great philosophers, great poets, great men and every kind of great work have a real message only to the few, even though crowds may acclaim and deify them, ever ready to abandon them in order noisily to acclaim other idols and to exercise, under whatever slogan or flag, a natural disposition for courtisanship and servility…He sees this and he sees so many other things and he draws the conclusion that if history is not an idyll, neither is it a “tragedy of horrors” but a drama in which all the actions, all the actors, and all the members of the chorus are…a mixture of good and bad, yet ruled always by a governing thought which is good…and that this achievement is the work of liberty which always strives to re-establish and always does reestablish the social and political conditions of a more intense liberty. If anyone needs persuading that liberty cannot exist differently from the way it has lived and always will live in history, a perilous and fighting life, let him for a moment consider a world of liberty without obstacles, without menaces and without oppressions of any kind; immediately he will look away from this picture with horror as being something worse than death, an infinite boredom.
Having said this, what is then the anguish that men feel for liberty that has been lost, the invocations, the lost hopes, the words of love and anger which come from the hearts of men in certain moments and in certain ages of history We have already said it in examining a similar case: these are not philosophical nor historical truths, nor are they errors or dreams; they are movements of moral conscience; they are history in the making.