TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Revisiting Giovanni Gentile's Political Philosophy

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Flaminia Incecchi looks at Giuseppe Parlato’s “Giovanni Gentile: From the Risorgimento to Fascism” from Telos 133 (Winter 2005).

Giovanni Gentile is one of many important philosophers that have been eclipsed by shifting fashions in modern academia. In becoming overshadowed, he now often is forgotten and to some extent shunned. After all, most philosophy departments have become increasingly polarized as their orthodoxies crystallize in the analytic or the continental camp, leaving them, in most cases, without much hope for dialogue. It seems useful to ask: Who should look at Gentile? Which philosophy department should engage with his thought? On paper, it seems that Gentile does not have much to offer to one sect or the other. This misfit quality is worsened and to some degree excused by the various ideological shadows that precede Gentile. At that point, Gentile’s ideological predispositions provide an indisputable alibi for the silence surrounding his thought. Most of his works have not been translated from the Italian, which limits his prospective audiences significantly. Of course, Gentile also is not at the center of academic disputes today in Italy.

Italian academics writing about Gentile constitute a very restricted circle. The fact that Gentile is wholly reminiscent of a darker violent zeitgeist that must be abandoned and forgotten does not help those making a case to bring his thought back into mainstream academic debates.

Most people would conclude that if the list of reasons to neglect Gentile is fairly long and strong even in Italy, then the simplest solution (with a convenient touch of Occam’s razor) is perhaps that Gentile has nothing valuable to offer to students and academics. This tendency is what makes an article like Giuseppe Parlato’s “Giovanni Gentile: From the Risorgimento to Fascism” crucially important today. It brings a neglected figure to the fore, while opening our minds to ideas from the past that we have been made all to ready to forget.

Parlato’s article traces Gentile’s thought in the different phases of his life. By doing so, it sheds light on: Fascism’s ties with the Risorgimento, Gentile’s posthumous influence, and, to some extent, the allegedly iron bond between Mussolini and Gentile. Parlato also highlights Gentile’s greatest achievements, among those: the creation of the Italian Encyclopaedia, his appointment as Minister of Education, and his Educational Reforms of 1923, which Mussolini eagerly dubbed “the most fascist of reforms” (82). The article also gives insights into the theoretical roots and political parentage of Fascism. This topic all too often is neglected, and when it is discussed openly, the treatment it receives is rather simplistic.

Parlato presents readers with a sketch of Gentile’s political philosophy. The article rightly stresses how the “kings” of the Risorgimento (Mazzini, Gioberti, and Cavour) influenced and inspired Gentile to the point that, “fascism was for him the continuation, the completion, and the realization of the Risorgimento” (80). The first Mazzinian principle Gentile adopts is a binary of thought and/in action, which he re-interprets as an intense type of intellectual militancy. Indeed, it confers to the intellectual a vital duty to make an impact in the world. Parlato writes: “Military life becomes the model for discipline, first moral and philosophical, and only then ‘conforming to regulations,’ in which the intellectual discovers ‘militancy.’ Since the intellectual cannot avoid dealing with the difficulties of history, he cannot simply resign himself to his educational function” (76). This is effectively what Gentile did. He took philosophy into the “field,” while following the steps of the Risorgimento with the aim of shaping a nation. Gentile believed with undying fervor that Mazzini and the others were not dead. Rather, they somehow lived vicariously in Fascism and in the propria persona of Mussolini. His dedication of I Profeti del Risorgimento Italiano to Mussolini is worth quoting: “to Benito Mussolini, an Italian by race, who is worthy of hearing the voices of the prophets of the new Italy.”[1]

Parlato initially spends a great deal of energy on the inclusiveness of Gentile’s political views, showing that at their genesis at least, racism and demonization of the “other” were not components of the Fascist praxis: “only with the principle of non-exclusion would it be possible to create the national culture” (80). Second, the article analyzes Gentile’s views on labor at great length. The centrality of labor in his thought is evident in this passage: “The citizen is not an abstract man; neither the man of the ‘managerial class,’ because he is more educated and richer, nor the man who, with his knowledge reading and writing, possesses the capacity for limitless spiritual communication with all other men. The authentic man, the man who matters, is the man who works, and according to his labor is worth what he is worth” (90). It is interesting to note that in spite of the general neglect of Gentile, the first article of the Italian Constitution seems to be modeled precisely on his view of labor and the citizen. It recites: “Italy is a democratic Republic, founded upon labor.” Finally, Parlato explores Gentile’s influence on postwar European thought, suggesting an implicit Gentilean legacy in a passage well worth quoting:

[Gentile embodies] the figure of an organic intellectual, who is in a position to elaborate a thought and to actualize it in society with coherence and rigor, derives from a neo-idealist view that the intellectual has a pedagogical and moral duty to the people. In this sense, the postwar Italian Marxist tradition was significant, and followed Gentile’s model. Both aimed to transform the social structure, to mobilize society around a project of moral and civil reform; in both, labor is the constituent element of the revolution. (94)

Parlato’s article is an insightful introduction for anyone who wants a crash course on Gentile’s thought. A significant measure of the article’s analysis is devoted to presenting of Gentile as a “closet” liberal and to arguing that Gentile was not as an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini and Fascism as he is generally thought to be. This brief analysis, however, does not focus on those elements in order to prioritize the more philosophical exegetical nature of the article, which is very comprehensive. Parlato’s work is an open invitation to any reader who cares to know more about this enigmatic figure, and how he influenced more discourses than we care to admit.


1. Giovanni Gentile, I Profeti del Risorgimento Italiano (Florence: Le Lettere, 2002) p. vii.

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