14 MARCH 1941, Page 16

Books of the Day

A Voice from Italy

" 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 keen- ness to set up, as they did shortly afterwards in all Europe, institu- tions 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. . ." If the name of Mussolini is substituted for that of Napoleon in this passage, it will give the reader some conception of the courage and passion which animate this book. Croce, since Bergson's death the most eminent philosopher in Europe, still lives in Italy; but never for a moment, even by the easy path of silence, has he compromised with the powers of darkness around him. Solitary and magnificent, he has pursued the philosopher's task, the search for truth. But this he could not do in any spirit of isolation, of escapism. Knowledge for knowledge's sake, far from seeming to him to have anything aristocratic or sublime about it, is condemned as "an idiotic pastime for idiots, or for the idiotic moments which we all have in us." It is as deadly in its way as that subservience of knowledge to faction, whether in religion or politics, which has been more widely condemned. The philosopher and the historian (one and the same person according to Croce) can neither ignore events nor take part in them. " It is necessary to pass through them, to feel the impact and the agony which they generate in order to stand above them, rising from suffering to judgement and knowledge." And precisely the same attitude, Croce would argue, is imposed on the poet.

Ostensibly this book, published in Italy three years ago, and now excellently translated by Sylvia Sprigge, is a definition of the province and purpose of the science of history, and the general reader must be prepared for a certain degree of specialisation which makes for difficult reading. But precisely because of the nature of the definition given by Croce, the boot has an im- mediate topicality, and an importance which it would be difficult to exaggerate. Though it comes from a Fascist country, I have no hesitation in describing it as the most powerful, because the most profound, statement of the principles for which this country is fighting. These principles arise out of the very definition which Croce gives to history. History, he says, is the act of comprehending and understanding induced by the requirements of practical life. Historical science exists for the purpose of main- taining and developing the civilised life of human society. Far from being the mere accumulation of documents, the collection of anecdotes, reminiscences, memoirs and so on, it is " an act of consciousness arising out of a moral need which prepares and invokes action." It is about what man does and not what he suffers. Its purpose is not to generalise or moralise, not to judge or condemn; but to determine and clarify ideals of action which have become obscured or confused, so that, through reflection upon what has happened in the past, new action in the present may be determined and pursued. ° When history is thus conceived and contemplated, a single principle is discovered—the principle of liberty, upon which the concept of progress depends. Liberty is found to be, not one ideal among many possible ideals, but the eternal creator of history and itself the subject of every history. It does not matter if the principle in any particular epoch is held only by a few spirits, for it will be these few spirits which alone count historically. It is the thread upon which all significant events are strung; or to use Croce's own more organic metaphor, the idea of liberty goes on " just as breathing goes on so long as there is life, indoors and outdoors, on the plains and in the hills, painfully or in deep whole- some draughts."

Though he is opposed to all conceptions of history and of life which contradict the principle of liberty, above all to the German conception of the State, and the materialistic conception of history upon which modern Communism is based, Croce is not an in- transigent libertarian. He recognises that vast economic changes are inevitable, and that they involve a considerable restriction of individual freedom. This does not matter much so long as the supreme principle is preserved. "Liberty objects to and opposes only this : the nationalisation of the soul, the sale of that which cannot be sold." Whoever infringes the integrity of the moral consciousness of the individual commits the historical crime, the crime which arrests progress and brings society to a condition of paralysis and nullity.

It can be imagined with what scorn a writer like Croce, imbued with these principles, treats the anti-liberal forces of the past

and of the present. He does not mention the name of Hider or national-socialism; but the doctrines of racialism and totaii! tarianism are condemned openly and unequivocally; nor do those religious institutions which have so often provided tyrants with a lesson in the technique of persecution escape any more lightly. Individual philosophers and historians are not dealt with to any great extent, but Burckhardt is subtly demolished, and there is a completely devastating attack on Table. Goethe is praised, and always those universal spirits like Dante, Shakespeare and Kant. Positively, this book looks forward to the growth of a new liberal party, inspired by the religion of liberty, and opposed to all institu- tions that would restrict the free exercise of man's moral conscious- ness. It would be a mistake, however, to carry away the impression that the faith so presented is one of easy optimism or complacent pacifism; on the contrary, it is the faith of one who can define progress as an ever higher and more complex form of human