- Giovanni Gentile’s Reading of Dante as Prophet of the State in interiore homine
Distinguiamo pure la Divina Commedia da Dante che la scrisse e da noi che la leggiamo, ma avvertiamo poi che questa Divina Commedia, che così distinguiamo da noi, è da noi ed in noi, dentro la nostra mente, pensata come distinta da noi. È cioè, essa stessa, in noi malgrado la distinzione: in noi, in quanto la pensiamo. Sicché non è nulla di estraneo a noi che la pensiamo.
Conoscere è identificare: superare l’alterità come tale. L’altro è semplicemente una tappa attraverso la quale dobbiamo passare, se dobbiamo obbedire alla natura immanente del nostro spirito.1
Il metodo dell’immanenza è il punto di vista e la legge dell’idealismo attuale.2
La tradizione…che è la forza e il fondamento morale di una coscienza nazionale, non è un passato ancorché glorioso ma tramontato, bensí un vivo presente, operante nell’attualità dello spirito consapevole di sé, della sua forza, del suo destino.3
It is hard to imagine a case of philosophical and ideological appropriation of Dante in the twentieth century as pervasive and conspicuous as Giovanni Gentile’s.4 In fact, Dante is a steady point of reference for Gentile’s own philosophy of the act, or actualism, both in the process of its formation and in its mature formulations. This is true at the level of Gentile’s aesthetics, historiography, ontology, philosophy of history, theory of education, and political philosophy, at which level all these aspects of his thought culminate and are integrated.5 One century after Ugo Foscolo delineated an Italian [End Page 169] cultural history as the basis for the construction of an Italian cultural identity in his “Carme dei sepolcri” (“On Sepulchers”), Gentile was looking to Dante, ghibellino d’Italia (Ghibelline of Italy)—an echo of Foscolo’s ghibellin fuggiasco (fugitive Ghibelline)—as the spiritual father of the Italian nation.6 That nation was already a political reality but not yet fully conscious of its own spiritual identity; in other words, it was not yet a State. Educating the Italians to acquire a consciousness of this identity—the making of Italians as the fulfillment of the Risorgimento program of “making Italy”7—is the mission of Gentile’s actualism, which was later claimed by Mussolini for Fascism. The nature of this philosophical and political mission is captured in the felicitous phrase pensare l’Italia (thinking Italy), which denotes the synergy of philosophy and nationalist ideology—“the theoretical power of his actualism and the persuasive and pervasive force of his civil philosophy”—that animated Gentile well before his fascist militancy.8 His educational program takes the form of a moral exhortation to his fellow Italians to honor their tradition by becoming agents of history and contributing with the pursuit of freedom under the law to the ongoing process of the construction of the State. For this prophetic stance, Gentile finds in Dante a powerful antecedent and inspiration.
Central to Gentile’s political actualism, the notion of the State as an “ethical substance” takes shape along with the twofold dimension of his thought: the European dimension, with his original re-elaboration of German idealism, and the Italian one—distinguished by its cultural specificity but consonant with the other—with his commitment to the reconstruction of a national philosophical tradition. Gentile credits Hegel with the discovery of the concept of the State as a spiritual reality, but the distinctive, dynamic character the concept acquires in actualism—whereby the State is identified with the unfolding of history9—is the result of multiple mediations, in particular those of Bertrando Spaventa, J. G. Fichte, and Karl Marx, whose philosophy of praxis played a significant role in shaping Gentile’s idealistic concept of history.10
It is not, however, on these temporally closer interlocutors that I intend to focus here, but on Dante and the Middle Ages. In the trajectory of Italian philosophy that Gentile traces in his historical works, Dante stands at the divide between the Middle Ages and modernity, heralding the very beginning of that tradition whose legacy Gentile himself now carries over. As suggested above, the poet [End Page 170] provides the philosopher, in both his...