Giovanni Gentile’s Philosophy: An Introduction
Zoran Zoltanous discusses the life and thought of the Italian Fascist-era philosopher Giovanni Gentile.
Giovanni Gentile, a philosopher often overlooked in modern times, remains shrouded in relative silence, his ideas obscured by ideological biases. The limited translation of his Italian works further confines their reach, denying a broader audience access to his philosophies. Despite these constraints, the significance of Gentile, dubbed “the philosopher of Fascism” by Mussolini, must not be dismissed. His philosophy of Actualism, though obscure, holds substantial value, revealing that Italian Fascism encompassed an intellectual and academic movement. As Mussolini himself recognized, “It was Gentile who paved the way for those, like myself, who wished to follow it.”
In addition, Benedetto Croce, a liberal Hegelian philosopher who once worked alongside Gentile, acknowledged him as “the most staunch Hegelian in Western philosophy” and lamented his association with Fascism, dubbing him the “official philosopher of Fascism.” Taking into account the perspectives of both Mussolini and Croce, it becomes evident how Gentile’s ideas align with the Fascist ideology. The Italian Marxist Diego Fusaro has a deep admiration for Giovanni Gentile. This can be attributed to Gentile’s endeavor to forge a philosophical system that addresses and integrates the disparate elements of society and the individual into a unified conceptual framework. Fusaro, viewing through a Marxist lens, appreciates Gentile not only for his intellectual rigor but also for his focus on the collective, on state-centric ethics, which mirrors Marxism’s concern with structures over individualism. Fusaro sees in Gentile’s Actual Idealism a parallel to the Marxist vision of society, where individual actions are understood within a broader socio-economic context. For Fusaro, Gentile’s ability to articulate a vision of the nation-state where individual identity is harmonized with the collective whole resonates deeply with Marxist thought, which may explain why he esteems Gentile so highly despite the latter’s association with Fascism.
Diego Fusaro explains Gentile’s philosophy
Historian A. James Gregor, an expert on Fascism, claimed that
Marxism as a social and political philosophy was the product of the genius of Karl Marx, Fascism considered as a social and political philosophy was essentially the product of the genius of Giovanni Gentile. While both Marxism and Fascism as doctrines… were the products of many hands, the master hand behind Fascism was Gentile’s. His formulation contained the ‘essence’ of Fascism; he was its Karl Marx, and his system of philosophy, ‘Actualism’, was its historical materialism.
— A. James Gregor, quoted in “Was Giovanni Gentile Really The Karl Marx of Fascism?” by James Wakefield
Through Gregor’s interpretive work, we come to recognize in Giovanni Gentile the philosophical consciousness that breathes life into the Fascist paradigm. Gentile’s philosophy transcends a mere collection of political tactics, evolving into a unified and philosophically grounded vision that finds its expression in the supremacy of the State. This merging of the individual’s liberty with the universal — embodied in the omnipotent State — demands an exploration of ethical life in its most rigorous manifestation, wherein individual desires are integrated into the overarching national purpose, as demonstrated in Mussolini’s Italy. Hence, the core of Gentile’s philosophical work, intertwined with Fascist practice, generates a tension within his legacy, compelling us to perpetually analyze the “Absolute Spirit” of his philosophy in light of his engagement with the political realities of his era.
Giovanni Gentile’s Philosophy
Giuseppe Parlato’s Giovanni Gentile: From the Risorgimento to Fascism sheds light on Gentile’s influence and the connections between Fascism and the Risorgimento. The work also highlights Gentile’s achievements and offers insights into the theoretical foundations and political lineage of Fascism, often neglected in discussions. Parlato provides a glimpse into Gentile’s political philosophy, stressing how influential figures of the Risorgimento, such as Mazzini, Gioberti, and Cavour, shaped and inspired Gentile to the extent that “Fascism was, for him, the continuation, completion, and realization of the Risorgimento.” Gentile’s philosophy, originating from a Hegelian milieu, diverges from the absolute and monistic viewpoint of reality upheld by neo-Hegelians in the Anglosphere. Instead, Gentile advocates a more subjective perspective, termed Actual Idealism or Actualism. Some scholars, like Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School, seek to dissociate Gentile’s philosophy from its Hegelian classification, contending that “his philosophy, when assessed by its content and not its language, has nothing to do with Hegel.” Marcuse criticizes Gentile for lacking the concept of the Absolute, deeming him unworthy of the Hegelian designation. Indeed, Gentile differs from other Hegelians in this respect. His philosophy encompasses elements from Kant, Fichte, Vico, Bertrando Spaventa, and various philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, including his contemporary Croce. Gentile does not shy away from acknowledging the issues he perceives in Hegel’s philosophy.
While Marcuse initiates a noteworthy critique of Fascism’s philosophy, his analysis takes a somewhat peculiar turn. He accuses Gentile of transgressions for which he himself is culpable, asserting that Gentile was not a true idealist due to his stance on the mind-body relationship. Marcuse even implies that Gentile inclines towards positivism without providing substantial elucidation. Nevertheless, it is imperative to recognize that Gentile indeed upholds idealism and presents a rationale for it that corresponds with the arguments made by numerous other idealists.
Reality is conceivable only insofar as the reality conceived is in relation to the activity which conceives it, and in that relation it is not only a possible object of knowledge, it is a present and actual one. To conceive reality is to conceive, at the same time and as one with it, the mind in which that reality is represented; and therefore the concept of a material reality is absurd.
— Giovanni Gentile, quoted in Thought Thinking: The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile by James Wakefield and Bruce Haddock
To truly comprehend Gentile’s idealism as captured by the quote, one must first understand his philosophical viewpoint, much like how the final page of a mystery novel brings clarity to the entire story. This mirrors Hegel’s critique that prefaces can’t substitute for the actual content. Similarly, in philosophy, a quote’s depth is best appreciated with a full grasp of the underlying ideas and thought processes of the philosopher.
The spirit ... is never really that pure theoretical activity that is imagined to stand in opposition to practical activity: there is no theory or contemplation of reality that is not also action and thus the creation of reality. Indeed, there is no cognitive act that does not have a value, or rather, that is not judged, precisely so far as it is a cognitive act, according to its exact conformity to its own law and whether or not it is recognized as being what it ought to be ... If we were not the authors of our ideas, or rather, if our ideas were not purely our own actions, they would not be ours, we would be unable to judge them, they would have no value: they would be neither true nor false.
— Giovanni Gentile, quoted in Thought Thinking: The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile by James Wakefield and Bruce Haddock
Gentile’s Actual Idealism acknowledges the inherent social nature of humans, much like Marxism does, but it suggests that our communal ties stem from our collective cultural and historical experiences within a nation, not just through class struggle. In Actual Idealism, thought is seen as all-encompassing; it posits that individuals can’t exceed the limits of their personal thought processes. This idea stands in contrast to Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, which propose different relationships between thought and reality. Gentile posits that reality is universally constituted through thought, as what we cannot think of effectively does not exist. Despite facing critiques and being associated with solipsism, Gentile differentiates his Absolute Idealism by rejecting the notion of a solitary, self-centered ego. Instead, he proposes a dialectical ego that is concrete and interactive, not just a detached spirit. Actual Idealism necessitates the recognition of other minds and the pursuit of unity with them, for without this, understanding would be elusive. Gentile advances the idea of a collective consciousness that surpasses individual thought, hinting at an overarching Infinite Unity.
The dialectical concept of mind, then, not only does not exclude, it requires spiritual multiplicity as the essential mark of the infinite unity of mind. Infinite unity is therefore infinite unification of the multiple as it is infinite multiplication of the one.
— Giovanni Gentile, quoted in Thought Thinking: The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile by James Wakefield and Bruce Haddock
At the core of Gentile’s philosophy lies the concept that the human spirit, through its capacity for thought, is the creator of all reality. This implies that every aspect of existence is a product of the creative power of the human subject, positioning the human subject as the ultimate center of all that exists and endowing it with Absolute Freedom. Gentile’s philosophy takes the shape of a comprehensive system, emerging from a metaphysical core and extending its branches into various disciplines such as history, ethics, and aesthetics. In this manner, Gentile follows in the footsteps of Hegel, affirming that “the spirit is the director of world history.”
Gentile embraces the Mazzinian principle for the spirit, which entails a binary relationship between thought and action. However, he interprets this concept as a fervent form of Intellectual Militancy. This perspective assigns the intellectual a crucial responsibility to actively engage with the world and exert a significant impact through their ideas and actions. Gentile suggests that military life serves as an ideal for discipline that is at first moral and philosophical before it becomes about adherence to rules. The intellectual, who must confront the complexities of history, cannot merely settle into a role of education but instead must embrace a form of Militancy in their endeavors. This implies an active, disciplined engagement with the world’s challenges, akin to the disciplined life of a soldier. Gentile’s philosophy extended beyond theoretical discourse and embraced practical implementation, aligning itself with the ideals of the Risorgimento movement to mold a unified nation. With resolute fervor, Gentile staunchly believed that the spirit of Mazzini and other eminent figures of the Risorgimento endured, finding expression and fulfillment through the conduit of Fascism and the persona of Mussolini. The inscription of I Profeti del Risorgimento Italiano to Mussolini by Gentile is notable: “To Benito Mussolini, an Italian of race, deemed worthy to heed the prophets’ call of the new Italy.” This conviction elucidates why intellectuals within the Fascist movement esteemed the State as the primary agent of action and transformation, prioritizing its role over that of the nation itself.
For Fascism, on the contrary, the State is a wholly spiritual creation. It is a national State, because from the Fascist point of view, the nation itself is a creation of the mind and is not a material presupposition, it is not a datum of nature. The nation, says the Fascist, is never really made; neither, therefore, can the State attain an absolute form, since it is merely the nation in the latter’s concrete, political manifestation. For the Fascist, the State is always in fieri. It is in our hands, wholly, hence our very serious responsibility towards it.
— Giovanni Gentile, quoted in Readings on Fascism and National Socialism by Alan Swallow
In the development of Italian identity, the State assumed the central role of synthesizing a nation from diverse regional entities. The Risorgimento’s drive for Italian unification manifested a modern synthesis imbued with spiritual resonance and poetic expression. Gentile frequently employed poetic symbols like Dante’s Celestial eagle to articulate a vision of the Rousseauian General Will. Fascism, foregrounding the primacy of consciousness, established an early exposition of Critical Theory, essential for synthesizing a coherent Italian National Consciousness, transcending the particularism of local allegiances in favor of a universal Italian Self. Gentile’s Critical Theory involved dialectical movements: the thesis of Constructing consciousness and the antithesis of Deconstructing it, both necessary for the historical unfolding of social structures. He critiqued the prevailing notion of Italians who identified more with their immediate locales than with the national idea, a reality at odds with the Risorgimento’s Objective Spirit. For Gentile, the Risorgimento’s dialectic could only be rekindled through conflict, positing that only through such negation could the particular interests of individuals be subsumed into the totality of the General Will.
Gentile says this:
War does not have its end in itself; war is the instauration of peace, resolution of a duality or plurality in the collective will, the realization of which is immanent in conflict, representing its true raison d’être, and its proper meaning.
— Giovanni Gentile, quoted in The Aesthetics of War in the Thought of Giovanni Gentile and Carl Schmitt by Flaminia Incecchi
He maintains that war emerges from specific interests, even when those involved are oblivious to their own interests, and this state of conflict can only be quelled by the experience of war itself. He clarifies that conflict should not be viewed as a mere transitional stage from individualism towards a collective entity that negates individualism, but rather as an indispensable juncture in the spiritual life’s dialectic; without war, there can be no peace. Philosophically, Gentile perceives war as a dialectical event, integral to the unification of society’s diverse wills. War, therefore, symbolizes both the absence of unity and the initial step towards achieving it. Considering that war constituted the core notion of Fascism, Gentile elucidates the significance of war and combat in Mazzini’s ideology, which, by extension, is central to Fascism. This perspective treats ethics as a system where duties, epitomized by the Sanctity of Duty, invariably take precedence over rights. Hence, one cannot lay claim to rights without first discharging their duties. Politically, Mazzini prioritizes the supremacy of duties to argue that it is the populace’s obligation to forge a race and thus a nation. This creation of a nation is to be realized not through comradeship, but through conflict and war. This notion aligns with Mazzini’s assertion from 1855 that “war is sacred as death, and like death, gives access to a holier life, and a higher ideal,” and his belief that “life is neither spectacle nor pleasure, but a struggle, a sacrifice. Rights cannot be obtained from above, but must be conquered through insurrection and martyrdom.”
Accordingly, Gentile posits that the belief in Mazzini’s Risorgimento endeavor should not be cast aside but reignited within Italy’s renewed ethos. In the framework of Gentile’s interpretation of Mazzini, war is deemed a tactic for unification. This led him to endorse the First World War and Mussolini’s subsequent expansionist campaigns in Libya and Ethiopia. Gentile also referred to Vladimir Lenin’s April Theses, recognizing the argument that war acts as an essential precursor to revolutionary societal transformation. Discussing Gentile’s intellectual rapport with Hegel is pertinent here, considering Hegel’s absolute idealism contrasts with Gentile’s subjective idealism. Gentile critiques the ancient Platonic idealism which extended through Aristotelian, neo-Platonist, Scholastic, and Cartesian thought, up to Kant, for portraying the spirit as something static, akin to a substance or event.
For Gentile, this perspective does not truly embody a spiritual view:
The idea, the Absolute, is not spirit, but the object and presupposition of spirit. It is an object that cannot be identified with the spirit without annulling itself as spirit in the process. In so doing it collapses into a simple presupposition of an ulterior spiritual position, in relation to which it becomes a knowable reality.
For Gentile, our thought is an act or process, not a substance, and as for the old Idealism, he remarks:
It declared it to be substance, by which it meant that it was the subject of an activity of which it was independent, an activity therefore which it could realize or not realize without thereby losing or gaining its own being. In our view the mind has no existence apart from its manifestations; for these manifestations are according to us its own inward and essential realization. We can also say of our mind that it is our experience, so long as we do ... By experience we must mean the act of experiencing, pure experience, that which is living and real.
Within the tradition of idealism, Hegel stands as a transformative figure. Gentile posits that Hegel initiated a radical shift in idealism, building on but not completing the critical project sparked by Kant. Hegel reconceived the Transcendental Ego, not as a static substance, but as dynamic thought. It is through this lens that the nature of thought must be elucidated, shedding light on both classical and modern interpretations of the mind. Thought, in this context, is understood as an active, ongoing process, a concept which Gentile contends even Berkeley did not completely appreciate in its depth.
... Although Berkeley identified representation with the existence of that which is perceived, his conception has nothing to do with negation. Kantian or Hegelian ‘thought’ — which is the act of the thinking activity — would also understand Berkeleian representation as something presupposed by thought. It is with Hegel, therefore, that we see the beginning of the new Idealism, an idealism that can no longer be called naturalism, but something akin to spiritualism.
Gentile maintains that Hegel, while groundbreaking, did not bring his philosophical upheaval to its final stage. He suggests that remnants of the classical Platonic outlook persisted in Hegel’s thought, which he could not entirely transcend. On this issue, Gentile’s own perspective is nuanced and somewhat ambivalent.
On the one hand it presents itself as an activity that thinks, and on the other, as a reality understood as both object and presupposition of thought.
Kant and Hegel both revisit the Platonic idea that reality surpasses thought, with Hegel finding the rational interwoven with the natural world. From this, Gentile’s philosophy emerges, building on their foundations. However, he sees an imperative to advance past Hegel, to rectify the enduring naturalistic elements in his work. Gentile echoes the criticisms of another Hegelian, Bertrando Spaventa, highlighting the need for an idealism that views reality exclusively as a construct of knowledge, purged of naturalistic residues. Spaventa’s critiques significantly contribute to resolving the inconsistencies identified by both him and Gentile.
Gentile approaches Hegelian Idealism with a transformative intention, aiming to amend the perceived shortfall in Hegel’s absolute idealism. In line with Spaventa, he argues for the removal of the naturalistic strand from the dialectic. Gentile illustrates his idealism through Dante’s The Divine Comedy, arguing that the poem’s true reality comes into being through its readers’ engagement, not merely as a historical artifact from 1320. The act of studying the poem actualizes it, while an uninterpreted historical text remains abstract.
Just try securing in thought something we assume to be already determined; that very act will be a new creation which will resuscitate the process. This means that self-consciousness, in its individuality, is formed in the infinite and that this individuality cannot, therefore, be divided into multiple discrete individuals, but in a continuous process of individuation. The same can be said of The Divine Comedy, for example, which is not, strictly speaking, a work of a certain individual imagination, undertaken in the narrow confines of the life of a man who died in 1321; that would be an abstraction. The real Divine Comedy is that which we read, which we interpret, and on which we cast judgment. ... Thus our work extends the process by which we establish that spiritual creation that we call the Comedy, is carried out across a series of centuries; it is tangled up in the whole progress of the spirit and flows into the general current of thought, or of culture.
In light of this, we must acknowledge that the Fascist disposition, as informed by Gentile’s thought, inherently espouses a form of relativism that stands in stark opposition to the immutable universals posited by Natural Law. Alfredo Rocco, in The Political Doctrine of Fascism, explicitly dismisses Natural Law as an artifact of liberal ideology, an impersonal and abstract set of principles that Fascism, with its emphasis on immanent National Spirit and General Will, cannot countenance. In Actual Idealism, reality is a process of becoming actualized through the self-determining activity of the mind; the very notion of a Natural Law existing independently of human consciousness is therefore impossible. The external, insofar as it is conceptualized, must be understood as a product of the subjective activity of the State, which itself is the objective manifestation of the collective consciousness. Therefore, within the Fascist philosophical paradigm, there can be no recourse to a law that transcends the historic and existential reality of the State and its continuous act of self-creation. Gentile’s philosophy thus demands a reconsideration of ethical and legal principles as dynamic, State-centric constructs rather than as eternal verities derived from a natural order. The implications of this view extend to the ethical and political spheres, where the State does not conform to pre-existing moral laws but instead generates its own principles which are reflective of its historical moment and cultural identity. The Fascist State, then, is the sole arbiter of its laws and ethics, creating a closed system where the State justifies its actions within its own self-referential logic, a logic that is inherently resistant to the liberal ideas of universal rights.
Turning our attention to Gentile’s view on God, we find that while English-speaking Hegelians often attribute a central place to God in their Idealism, it’s challenging to imagine that they share the same disbelief in a personal God as held by John M. E. McTaggart. Despite this, Gentile maintains that his form of Idealism is congruent with Christian and Catholic doctrine. However, he reinterprets the divine, proposing the idea of a man-god with the assertion est Deus in Nobis — there is a God within us. This interpretation forges a spiritual oneness between humanity and the divine.
It is a reality which waits for us to construct, a reality which is true even now of love and will, because it is the inward effort of the soul, its living process, not its ideal and external model. It is man himself who rises above humanity and becomes God. And even God is no longer a reality who already is, but the God who is begotten in us and is ourselves in so far as we with our whole being rise to him. Here mind is no longer intellect but will. The world is no longer what is known but what is made; and therefore not only can we begin to conceive the mind as freedom or moral activity, but the world, the whole: world of the Christian is freed and redeemed. The whole world is a world which is what it would be, or a world, as we say, essentially moral.
We may say of spiritual reality what the great Christian writers have said of God. Whoever seeks Him shall find Him. But to find spiritual reality one must be willing to put his whole being into the search, as though he would satisfy the deepest needs of his own life… Therefore faith is a virtue and supposes love. In this lies the folly of the atheist’s dams that the existence of God should be proved to him without his being relieved of his atheism. Equally fatuous is the materialist’s denial of spiritual reality: he would have the philosopher show him spirit — in nature! Nature which by its very definition is the absence of mind! Wonderful are the words of the psalmist. “Dixit insipiens in corde suo non est Deus”. Only in his foolish heart could he have said it.
Gentile’s view of God is significantly divergent from the Catholic faith, to such an extent that it might be considered on the verge of heresy by the Church. He champions the notion that humans possess the extraordinary potential to overcome their mortal constraints and ascend to a divine status. This proposition is in direct conflict with Catholic beliefs, which affirm that humans are crafted in the image of God but remain fundamentally separate from divinity, with no capacity to attain a divine nature. Gentile’s revolutionary concept of God is not one of a pre-existing, autonomous creator but rather of a sacred essence actualized through our persistent endeavor and determination. This idea counters the Catholic view of God as the eternally present creator from whom all existence flows.
In Gentile’s exploration of faith, it emerges as something born from a profound and deliberate personal endeavor, in stark contrast to the Catholic perspective that faith is a divine boon passively received. For Gentile, faith is not a mere gift but an accomplishment that must be actively sought and cultivated by the individual. His critique of materialism finds some common ground with Catholic thought, yet his conviction that nature is intrinsically devoid of intellect stands against the Catholic doctrine of a God who is intimately involved in every aspect of creation, providing constant sustenance. Gentile’s viewpoints bear a resemblance to Marxist humanism, particularly in their shared emphasis on human-centered interpretations of the world.
Imbued with the spirit of Giambattista Vico’s Theory of Truth as a construct of the human spirit, Giovanni Gentile’s philosophy weaves together the threads of moral constructivism and the Kantian imperative of autonomy. Yet, it diverges into the realm of political actuality. In Gentile’s vision, the State emerges not merely as a passive stage for individual action but as an active agent in shaping the identities and associations of its citizens. His constructivism is not one of benign idealism but acknowledges the potential for authoritarian conclusions. Gentile insists on a procedural rigor in the State’s moral edicts, demanding that values be consciously ascribed rather than discovered. In his framework, values are not pre-existing entities but artefacts of human cognition, forged within the crucible of societal interaction and materialized through the agency of the State. He champions a vigilant, self-reflexive intellectual autonomy and resists the notion of blind adherence to state authority. Interpreting Gentile’s philosophy, one encounters a potent constructivist ethos that confers moral and ethical significance upon all forms of thought, unmasking the potentialities as well as the constraints inherent in any steadfastly anti-realist constructivism. His is a philosophy of absolute immanentism, echoing Machiavellian practicality and veracity, contending that Actual Idealism encapsulates the only plausible liberty within the bounds of objective reality. In this domain, the transcendental Self is elusive, not an object but a process, constantly redefining its essence through the historical and cultural machinations of the State’s will.
Early writings by Giovanni Gentile touch upon Karl Marx, and although Gentile’s philosophical system was not fully developed at that time, one can discern his anti-materialistic stance and the influence of Hegelian thought. This perspective primarily emerges from Gentile’s interpretation of Marx’s Materialism, which deviates from the official Soviet stance. Gentile does not perceive Marx as a materialist, but rather argues that Marx was a confused idealist who attempted to rectify Hegel’s philosophy by dialectically merging idealism and materialism, only to meet with complete failure.
Diego Fusaro explaining how Marx was an idealist
Let us consider the viewpoint of Lenin and other Marxists concerning Marx’s philosophy. Lenin’s book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism provides a valuable source for this examination. Lenin argues that sensation, thought, and consciousness are the products of matter, asserting that these are the perspectives of materialism in general, and specifically of Marx and Engels. For Lenin, and the majority of Marxists, being a Marxist requires the belief that everything, including consciousness, is material in nature. However, Gentile offers a differing perspective, stating, “In Marx, praxis is synonymous with human sensory activity.” It is important to recognize Marx’s concept of Praxis, which rejects other theories that view the subject and object as abstract notions. Instead, Marx’s Praxis acknowledges their interconnection and mutual existence.
Inseparably linked to each other so that their actual reality results from their relationship to the organism in which and through which they find their necessary fulfillment, and outside of which they are nothing but abstractions.
Reality… is a subjective production of man; a production, however, of sensory activity; not of thought, as Hegel and other idealists believed.
— Giovanni Gentile, The Philosophy of Marx
According to Gentile, Marx’s philosophy embodies a dialectical connection between the subjective subject and the objective material reality. Gentile rejects the interpretation of Lenin and Engels, who espouse a vulgar materialism, as Marx’s philosophy goes beyond such a simplistic understanding. Marx, in Gentile’s perspective, sees the world as composed of matter, but his Hegelian background prevents him from perceiving matter as static. Instead, Marx views matter as dialectically dynamic and subject to change. Gentile appreciates Marx’s critique of Feuerbach’s vulgar materialism, which he sees as an inclination towards idealism. From this criticism, Gentile identifies Marx’s espousal of a philosophy of Praxis, a concept that Gentile himself would later develop in a more comprehensive manner. For Marx, Praxis, or the active process of human sensory activity, is the foundation of our reality. Gentile explains that reality is the subjective creation of individuals and their sensory activity. Marx acknowledges that humans are influenced by their environment and education, but importantly, he emphasizes that humans also have the capacity to change their environment and education.
Gentile, however, raises a critical question regarding the source of external information or data that informs our senses. He argues that the sense itself creates the sensation, as there is nothing beyond the purely physical facts outside the mind. Gentile asserts that the matter, which Marx considers the building blocks of his metaphysics, exists outside the realm of human sensory activity. This discrepancy reveals the inability of Marx’s theory of sensory Praxis to justify the existence of matter and undermines the entire metaphysical foundation of Marx’s philosophy. Furthermore, Gentile argues that by invoking a philosophy of Praxis, one already transcends the boundaries of sensible reality as it posits the existence of something immaterial and metaphysical that cannot be perceived by human senses. Ultimately, Gentile’s criticism of Marx centers on the incompatibility of materialism mixed with idealism. Marx fails to surpass Hegel and instead creates an incoherent philosophical system that contradicts its own principles. Gentile contends that the internal mechanisms of Marx’s philosophy are philosophically bankrupt, without the need to delve into historical or economic analyses. Gentile also critiques Marx’s philosophy of history, often referred to as dialectical materialism or historical materialism. Gentile questions whether Marx’s philosophy of History is truly a philosophy in the vein of Vico and Hegel or merely a historiographical tool to comprehend the past. While Marx attempts to predict the future through a priori claims, Gentile argues that this elevates it to the realm of proper philosophy. Gentile asserts that Marx falls short in this regard, just as his Materialism of Praxis does. Marx’s endeavor to overcome Hegel misses the mark as Hegel’s philosophy of History revolves around the development of the immaterial mind, not material reality. Gentile believes that Marx’s philosophy of History is a flawed deviation from Hegelian thought, as it attempts to have the material drag the immaterial instead of the other way around.
Gentile concludes this, in relation to Marxism:
We will say, therefore, in conclusion, that an eclecticism of contradictory elements is the general character of this philosophy of Marx’s; of which some of his disciples today are perhaps not greatly wrong in not knowing what to do. There are many fruitful ideas at its foundation, which taken separately are worthy of meditation: but isolated they do not belong, as has been proved, to Marx, nor can they therefore justify that word ‘Marxism,’ which is sought to be synonymous with a purely realistic philosophy.
— Giovanni Gentile, The Philosophy of Marx
The philosophical writings of Marx, including the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology, were subjected to misrepresentation and censorship in the Soviet Union, presenting a vulgar materialistic view. This manipulation aimed to create a perceived seamless ideological lineage from Marx to Lenin. Yet Gentile contends that Marx’s philosophy contains idealist inclinations, yet it is often misconstrued as vulgar materialism by Marxist-Leninists. This suggests that the ideology commonly referred to as Marxism does not accurately reflect the original principles laid out by Marx himself.
Gentile also critiques Marx’s understanding of the dialectic, arguing that it should be seen as a concrete subject of human thinking rather than an abstract object of historical development. Gentile posits that Marx’s externalization of the dialectic leads to a fetishistic mysticism, allowing for claims about the objective existence of the dialectic in history. He rejects this view, asserting that the dialectic is intrinsic to the State, emerging from the organic process of opposing views within society. Gentile argues that even criminality is a necessary part of the dialectic, to be subsumed into the State. His philosophy of Praxis aims to guide History correctly, recognizing that the pure act does not exist and that impurity is inherent in any action. He emphasizes the need to envision a concrete entity within a particular and determinate objective reality.
Antonio Gramsci, influenced by Gentile, develops his own philosophy of Praxis, which centers on the translatability of languages and the cultural ensembles specific to different disciplines and worldviews. Gramsci perceives cultural production as rooted in historical and Social Praxis, seeking to interpret historical truth through the lens of Marx’s philosophy of Praxis. However, Marxism, under Stalin’s leadership in the Soviet Union, closes itself off to these ideas and embraces a naturalistic materialism and positivistic dogmatism, rejecting idealism and suppressing cultural movements that deviate from this narrow perspective.
According to Gentile, the State is the supreme ethical entity, and individuals must submit their will and reason to it. He views Fascism as the natural outcome of Actual Idealism, rejecting the notion of independent opposites and aiming to overcome the false dichotomy between the public and the private. Gentile contends that only a totalitarian State, embodying the reciprocal relations between individuals and society, can resolve these issues. Influenced by Hegel’s theory of the State, Gentile justifies the corporatist system, where diverse interests are incorporated into the ethical State. He rejects Marx’s Objective Dialectic, which subsumes the private within the public, and instead argues that the public and private are already identified with each other in a subjective dialectic. Both are constituent elements of the State, and neither can exist independently from it. While Gentile rejects Historical Materialism, he embraces a philosophy of Praxis that seeks to interpret and transform the world. He sees Fascism as a form of socialism, considering it a revision of Marxism that underscores the spiritual dimension of Praxis. Gentile positions himself within the Marxist tradition, and his understanding of the dialectic is grounded in the concrete subject rather than an abstract object. He highlights the interconnectedness of dual opposites in human thinking and underscores the role of Praxis, which is dependent on the Spirit, in effecting change.
Gentile’s rationale for Fascism can be understood through his conception of perception and thinking. He argues that perception, a result of thinking, occurs in the mind. The human mind is the sole means through which we can access and comprehend reality. In fact, reality itself is constituted by the act of thinking. The distinction between the thinking subject and the external object is ultimately illusory, as both belong to the same holistic whole. This applies not only to the individual but also to collective entities such as nations. Gentile equates the higher stages of subjectivity, transcending the individual, to the Hegelian concept of Spirit. This collective Spirit constitutes a greater reality that propels History and is reflected in the laws, customs, and culture of a nation. The law, for instance, is an expression of a General Will that transcends the individual, yet it is internalized by the individual and shapes their reality.
If subject and object are synthesized in the act of thinking prior to experiencing reality, then on the level of the higher subjectivity, there is no essential difference between individuals in a society. Collective thinking constitutes collective reality, manifested in the State as a higher subjectivity or greater Mind. In this view, there is no distinction between society and State; they are part of the same organic whole. The State is not an external object; it is part of individuals, and individuals are part of the State. The State and the individual are inseparable, representing the Aufhebung or sublation of the two. This viewpoint gives rise to Gentile’s concept of the Ethical State, which forms the essence of Fascism. The term “Totalitarian” should not be misconstrued as denoting an oppressive state. Instead, it signifies the ideal in which individuals and the State unite as a singular totality without conflict. This ideal is realized through corporatism, which integrates social entities into the State. The State and society amalgamate to constitute a unified, holistic organism. Rather than suppressing the individual, a Totalitarian State empowers the individual, akin to how an individual within an army gains empowerment through participation in a larger collective.
The State does not just swallow the individual as liberal critics would have it, but the opposite is also true, for in this conception the State is the will of the individual himself in its universal and absolute aspect, and thus the individual swallows the State.
— Giovanni Gentile, The Philosophic Basis of Fascism
Gentile’s validation of Legal Naturalism, which he drew from Marx, is perceived as an outcome of his understanding of the State. Through this philosophical structure, he sought to organize all areas of interest under the dominion of absolute self-identification, thereby legitimizing every outcome stemming from this supposition. Gentile’s perspectives on corporatism can also be viewed as an expansion of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, particularly his exploration of corporations as State organs. Furthermore, he incorporates Sorel’s concepts to offer a more tangible definition and comprehension of Fascism.
It is necessary to distinguish between socialism and socialism — in fact, between idea and idea of the same socialist conception, in order to distinguish among them those that are inimical to Fascism. It is well known that Sorelian syndicalism, out of which the thought and the political method of Fascism emerged — conceived itself as the genuine interpretation of Marxist communism. The dynamic conception of history, in which force as violence functions as an essential, is of unquestioned Marxist origin. Those notions flowed into other currents of contemporary thought, that have themselves, via alternative routes, arrived at a vindication of the form of State — implacable, but absolutely rational — that finds historic necessity in the very spiritual dynamism through which it realizes itself.
— Giovanni Gentile, Origins and Doctrine of Fascism
Totalitarianism should be comprehended through a communitarian lens within the context of Hegelian Statism. Gentile aligns himself with Hegel’s belief that the State represents the actualization of freedom and perceives the State as the earthly manifestation of God. Consequently, Fascism emphasizes positive liberty, which involves confinements on individual or group actions for the greater good, as opposed to negative liberty, which centers on freedom from external constraints. Gentile contends that Sorel’s myth can be harnessed to unify individuals under a General Will. Similar to religious devotion, where individuals are willing to sacrifice their lives for their faith, people are willing to do the same for their nation. Gentile asserts that the State embodies Spirit and, as History is propelled by Spirit, a nation can only be deemed great if its State embodies the Spirit of shaping History. For a State to wield the power to influence History, its interests must coincide with those of the people. This notion echoes Hegel’s idea of a desired harmony in The Philosophy of History.
Gentile extends his views on Totalitarianism to encompass the individual’s way of life. This serves as the foundation for the Uomo Fascista, or the Fascist New Man, which is influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch. For Gentile, the man should transcend himself and the Übermensch surpasses the limitations of humanity. For Gentile, Fascism symbolizes a moral struggle against bourgeois materialism and anything that degrades the human spirit, reducing individuals to the level of animals.
Fascism sees in the world not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centered, subject to natural law, which instinctively urges him toward a life of selfish momentary pleasure; it sees not only the individual but the nation and the country; individuals and generations bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission which suppressing the instinct for life closed in a brief circle of pleasure, builds up a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists. The conception is therefore a spiritual one, arising from the general reaction of the century against the materialistic positivism of the 19th century…
— Giovanni Gentile, The Doctrine of Fascism
Gentile’s vision of the Ethical State provided the philosophical justification for a Corporatist economic model, wherein society is compartmentalized into various collective bodies, each reflective of specific economic sectors such as labor, industry, and professional groups. The intent of this structure was to cultivate a mutually beneficial dynamic between employees and employers, with the State functioning as a mediator to diminish class disparities and foster economic equilibrium. Within this arrangement, syndicates or corporative units work to advance the shared interests of their constituents in concert with the State’s guidance over economic strategy and operations. In contrast, syndicalism involves similar forms of organization between workers and employers but is rooted in a fundamentally different ideology. Originating from socialist or anarchist thought, syndicalism supports workers initiating direct actions to seize command of industries, aiming for a societal construct devoid of traditional power hierarchies, one where the workforce directly administers its own affairs. Corporatism, however, positions the State as the central authority that manages the collaborative efforts of the various corporate factions.
Fascism accepted from Syndicalism the idea of the educative and moral function of the syndicate. But since the intention was to overcome the antithesis between the State and the syndicate, the effort was made to enter the system of syndicates harmoniously into corporations subject to discipline by the State and to thereby give expression to the organic character of the State. In order to give expression to the will of the individual, the organic State must reach him, not as an abstract political individual that the old liberalism supposed — as a featureless atom. The organic State sought to reach the individual as it could only find him, as he in fact is: as a specialized producer whose tasks moved him to associate himself with others of the same category, all belonging to the same unitary economic organism that is the nation.
— Giovanni Gentile, Origins and Doctrine of Fascism
Gentile’s advocacy for Corporatism deeply resonates with the organicist dimension of his philosophical thought. He conceptualized society as akin to a living organism, with each individual and group acting as integral components of a unified entity. In this biological metaphor, the collective health and functionality of the organism are reliant upon the seamless interaction and cooperation of all its parts, the foundations of an Ethical State. The health and advancement of the Ethical State, according to Gentile, depend on the cohesive collaboration of all societal and economic sectors, orchestrated by the State in pursuit of a collective, national objective. This reinforces Gentile’s broader philosophical stances, with an emphasis on the belief that reality is a process of continual creation through human activity and thought, particularly through the State. His Corporatism, therefore, not only reflects the organic unity and interdependency of society’s parts but also actively engenders it; by bringing individuals and groups into alignment with the State, thereby society could realize its full potential. It is through this coordinated effort, guided by the State, that Gentile’s Hegelian vision becomes a dynamic and living reality, actualizing the General Will and fostering the development of a strong, unified National Community (Volksgemeinschaft).
Giovanni Gentile’s Life & Career
Giovanni Gentile, hailing from Castelvetrano, Italy, emerged as one of the outstanding students at the esteemed Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Having excelled in the Faculty of Humanities, he earned his degree in Letters and Philosophy in 1898. Under the guidance of his mentor Donato Jaja, a disciple of Bertrando Spaventa, Gentile completed a dissertation titled Rosmini e Gioberti. Although he occasionally identified as an atheist, he remained culturally tied to his Catholic upbringing, eventually becoming deeply devout after 1920. Gentile’s early work included a notable critique of Marxism titled The Philosophy of Marx. This meticulously researched study impressed even Vladimir Lenin, who recommended it in his own work, Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism. Throughout his academic career, Gentile held various positions, including Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Palermo (from March 27, 1910), Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Pisa (from August 9, 1914), and Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Rome (from November 11, 1917), later transitioning to Professor of Theoretical Philosophy in 1926. He also served as Commissioner and subsequently Director of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (from 1928 to 1943), as well as Vice President of Bocconi University in Milan (from 1934 to 1944).
Gentile’s advocacy for war became associated with the Fasci, the group led by Benito Mussolini that would eventually evolve into the Fascist party. As the chief intellectual figure of Fascism, Gentile played a pivotal role in discarding the anarchist remnants of revolutionary syndicalism. The principles of corporatism, co-formulated by Alfredo Rocco and Sergio Panunzio, bore the imprint of Gentile’s ideas. The Fascist model, with its distinctive features rooted in revolutionary syndicalism, drew inspiration from Georges Sorel and Francesco Saverio Merlino, who revised Karl Marx’s theories to suit the prevailing times. Gentile’s philosophical contributions offered Mussolini’s dictatorship a semblance of revolutionary legitimacy, a fact acknowledged by Italian philosophers such as Augusto Del Noce and Diego Fusaro, as well as historians like Zeev Sternhell and A. James Gregor.
Giovanni Gentile maintained a fruitful intellectual relationship with Benedetto Croce, particularly during their joint editorship of La Critica from 1903 to 1922. Gentile, in fact, encouraged Croce to delve into the works of Hegel, resulting in Croce’s renowned commentary on Hegel’s philosophy, What is Living and What is Dead of the Philosophy of Hegel, published in 1907. However, their philosophical and political alliance fractured in the early 1920s due to Gentile’s embrace of Fascism. Their dispute centered around the historical inevitability of Fascism. Despite their earlier collaboration in a philosophical critique of positivism, they found themselves at odds. Gentile’s educational reforms in 1923, which Mussolini enthusiastically dubbed “the most Fascist of reforms,” were partly based on Croce’s earlier suggestions. These reforms remained in effect long after the Fascist regime and were only partially abolished in 1962.
In 1922, Gentile assumed the position of Minister of Public Education for the Fascist government. It was in this role that he implemented the Riforma Gentile, a comprehensive overhaul of the secondary school system that left a lasting impact on Italian education. His philosophical works, such as The Theory of Mind as Pure Act and Logic as Theory of Knowledge, are essential for understanding his philosophy. Ugo Spirito, one of Gentile’s students, also became a notable Fascist intellectual under his tutelage. Gentile played a significant role in shaping the corporate State of Fascism in 1925 as the head of two constitutional reform commissions. He served as the president of the Fascist State’s Grand Council of Public Education from 1926 to 1928 and gained membership in the influential Fascist Grand Council from 1925 to 1929.
It is worth noting that Gentile was the co-author of The Doctrine of Fascism, attributed to Mussolini. First published in 1932 in the Italian Encyclopedia, this work described the tenets and characteristics of Italian Fascism at the time, including corporatism, the rule of philosopher kings, totalitarianism, imperialism, the abolition of the parliamentary system, and Idealism. Gentile also penned the Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals, which garnered signatures from notable writers and intellectuals, such as Luigi Pirandello, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Filippo Marinetti, and Giuseppe Ungaretti. In collaboration with Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini wrote the essay What Is Fascism? in 1932. This piece aimed to define Fascism and outline how it would restore Italy’s former glory. Additionally, Gentile published a lesser known essay in 1928 titled The Philosophic Basis of Fascism, further elaborating on Hegel’s concept of statism. Despite his association with Fascism, Gentile maintained close ties and collaborations with Jewish scholars from various countries. In the face of rising German anti-Semitism in the 1930s, he actively facilitated the placement of Jewish refugees in Italy. Scholars such as Paul Oskar Kristeller benefited from Gentile’s assistance, including financial support for their immigration to the United States. Italian Jews, such as Giorgio Fano, Rodolfo Mondolfo, Gina Arias, Giorgio Mortars, Emilio Servadio, and Attilio Momigliano, have attested to Gentile’s aid and support.
In 1933, Gentile, together with Giuseppe Tucci, co-founded the Italian Institute for the Middle and the Far East, with the purpose of fostering cultural, political, and economic relations between Italy and Asian countries. This institution later merged with the Italian-African Institute in Rome in 1995, forming the Italian Institute for Africa and the East. Gentile served as its president from 1933 to 1944. Gentile did not agree with Mussolini’s decision to form an alliance with Nazi Germany. He believed that Italy would become subordinate in this relationship and that the country was not prepared for another world war. Gentile simply wanted Italy to remain neutral. Even after the fall of the Fascist government in 1943, Gentile remained loyal to Mussolini. He supported the establishment of the Italian Social Republic, despite criticizing its anti-Jewish and racial laws. Gentile even accepted a position in its government. During this time, he served as the last president of the Royal Academy of Italy from 1943 to 1944.
Tragically, on April 15, 1944, Giovanni Gentile was assassinated by Communist partisans led by Bruno Fanciullacci. Ironically, Gentile was targeted after attending a meeting where he had advocated for the release of a group of anti-Fascists who were wrongly accused of being partisans. This event caused division among Italian anti-Fascists and remains a controversial subject, including among Italian Communists. The assassination took place in the Salviatino district, where Bruno Fanciullacci and Antonio Ignesti positioned themselves near the villa where Gentile was staying. Disguised as students by carrying books under their arms, they approached Gentile as he arrived by car and subsequently shot him to death. Fanciullacci was later arrested and subjected to torture during interrogation. He was eventually killed by the Waffen SS. Doctor Italo Pizzaiolo certified Fanciullacci’s cause of death, which included a fatal fracture to the skull base, fractures to the wrist and femur, and multiple stab wounds.
Following his passing, Giovanni Gentile was interred in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, where he rests alongside distinguished figures such as Galileo Galilei and Niccolò Machiavelli. Subsequently, Gentile’s name was largely disparaged or even forgotten. Some, like Alexander Dugin, dismissed him as the “so-called philosopher of Italian Fascism,” reducing him to a mere neo-Hegelian without a genuine grasp of his philosophical concepts. Nevertheless, in recent times, scholars have begun to reassess Gentile’s legacy and his contributions to philosophy. The examination of Gentile’s Actualism and his life holds practical significance, particularly in comprehending the ideologies of revolutionaries worldwide. While Marxism-Leninism has waned, generic fascism has emerged as a phenomenon that the advanced industrial democracies must confront within the totalitarian states of the contemporary era. It is noteworthy that despite Gentile’s general neglect, the first article of the Italian Constitution appears to closely align with his views on labor and citizenship. It asserts: “Italy is a Democratic Republic, founded upon labor.” For these reasons, Giovanni Gentile remains one of Italy’s most eminent, prolific, lucid, poetic, and contentious thinkers to this day.
I am a Christian… because I believe in the religion of the spirit… I have been a Catholic… since I came into the world in June 1875. And I am sorry, therefore, not to be able to tell you about any crisis… a sudden conversion, or a thunderbolt. I have been walking the road to Damascus since the day I was born. Every day since then I have gone on thinking and deepening my ideas… and if you insist on talking about conversions, I can say that my conversion is the story of each and every day.
— Giovanni Gentile, “My Religion”