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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 361-385

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Economia civile and pubblica felicità in the Italian Enlightenment

Luigino Bruni and Pier Luigi Porta

1. The "New Science" in Italy

Happiness is the pivotal concept of Italian economic thinking during the latter half of the eighteenth century. This essay proposes to demonstrate that the two main Italian groups of political economists of the time developed the theme of happiness following rather interesting complementary patterns. The Milanese group worked along eudemonistic eighteenth-century lines, moving from a hedonistic perspective: individual happiness provides the starting point. The Neapolitan side was based, in its turn, on an original reinterpretation of the Aristotelian and Scholastic tradition; Neapolitan authors attempted to update that tradition and bring it into line with the new scientific method: civil economy is the result of that effort.

In both cases, the canons of the "new science" are naturally woven into the political and economic discourse; political economy, in particular, is indeed elaborated by making use of those canons. In fact, this has the further incidental consequence of creating a continuum between political economy and technological applications of science. The emphasis on technical matters among reformers and political economists more generally stands out as typical of Italian enlightenment.

It is, further, a special character of the Italian tradition, generally speaking, that the study of the polity in the light of the principles of the new science is not conducive to any purely mechanical view of the economy and society. It leads rather to a civic conception implying a quite sophisticated blend of institutional interactions, which is aptly described [End Page 361] by Antonio Genovesi's term economia civile; it is a conception that can be traced easily through the Italian tradition in later periods well into the nineteenth century. Pubblica felicità and economia civile are the terms that best describe and qualify the system of political economy developing in Italy particularly during the latter half of the eighteenth century. As indicated above, we shall limit the discussion in this essay to the Milanese and the Neapolitan cases: the former group mainly reflects an emphasis on happiness and, more particularly, on public happiness; the latter is known for its peculiar use of the phrase civil economy. This statement, however, holds within limits, for the two terms do in fact apply in some sense to both the Milanese and the Neapolitan experience, as we shall see.

Newtonianism had a role in the development of political economy in Italy throughout the eighteenth century. At the same time, however, it would be impossible to understand the relationship between Italian political economy and the Scientific Revolution without taking the Italian tradition of physics and mechanics, and in particular the contribution of Galileo, into account. The main achievement of Galileo, as far as physics is concerned, is as much experimental as intellectual, especially as it concentrates on showing the effectiveness of mathematical reasoning in developing ideal cases. In that sense we can speak of a Galileo-Newtonian tradition.1

The frame of reference and the intellectual sources for the present treatment are twofold. On the one side is a large current of thinking that can be termed moral Newtonianism; on the other side we have the developments of sensism and materialism in eighteenth-century thought.2 [End Page 362] These two currents of thinking developed their influence in Italy, and they were a driving force in the flourishing of economic thought especially during the latter half of the eighteenth century. At the same time, this essay shows that the oeconomy that flourishes in Italy, within that frame of reference, is largely a development of the theme of happiness, and of public happiness more precisely, within a "constitutional" setting.

A locus classicus of moral Newtonianism is to be found in Adam Smith's Essays on Philosophical Subjects and more particularly in his essay on the history of astronomy. Following Hume on the method of the new science and on the connection or association of ideas, Smith is...


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pp. 361-385
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Archived 2005
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