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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Arthur Livingston (1883–1944)

By Benedetto Croce (1866–1952)

THERE is an important difference between the method of Croce’s ‘Æsthetics’ as he first presented it in 1902, and the method of his ‘Breviary,’ written especially for the United States in 1913. Fifteen years ago, Croce was emphasizing especially what was wrong in traditional views of art. He is now making indulgent, even lavish, concessions to the amount of “common sense” they contain. This undoubtedly has been a great gain for his influence. It tempers the note of “cocksureness,” which has been a piquant characteristic of Croce’s style. And it tends to win some sympathy in the enemy’s camp for a system which has always been more definite in what it denies than positive in what it affirms.

These fifteen years of warfare for an idea have meant—there is no exaggeration in saying so—the intellectual regeneration of Italy. They have meant something also to Germany, England, and America, and they will mean progressively more. The Romantic movement of a century ago distinguishes itself to us now as a great unlocking of conflicting individual forces, each denying, each affirming, denying partly what was affirmed, affirming partly what was denied. If Croce’s theories are juxtaposed with any of the important manifestoes of the early nineteenth century the great significance of his work is made apparent. He has reduced chaos to order, confusion to coherence. His own opponents have as much to gain from his work as his particular partisans. Croce is less concerned with destroying a particular method, a particular point of view, than in defining the scope of the method, the nature and value of the point of view. He insists simply that (for instance) sociology, remaining perfectly sound as sociology, shall not give itself pretensions in the æsthetic field foreign to it; or that ethics, remaining perfectly good as ethics, shall not intrude on the field, let us say, of grammar. Croce has distinguished himself as the relentless antagonist of positivism. Yet he is one of the greatest living masters of the positivistic method. The contradiction is possible because his real lifelong fight has been for coherence: as a positivist he has been content with coherently positivistic results. Whatever effect future criticism may have upon the fundamental allegations of Croce’s system, his contribution to the definition of the æsthetic problem, to the clear joining of issues, will not be touched. Herein lies the peculiarly stimulating quality of his work.

An inclusive study of Croce’s numerous volumes up to the present time would show him definitely in possession of a “philosophy of life.” Like Santayana he has attempted in recent years to create a “life of reason,” a “philosophy of philosophies,” which would enable him intellectually and consciously to “understand” and be coherent about every act of existence, and even death itself. He has evolved a complete and symmetrical philosophy of knowing and doing. In origin, however, Croce’s purposes were much less pretentious. His ‘Philosophy of the Spirit’ had its birth in the simple problem of philological methodology. Before 1900 Croce was known as one of the most active, enthusiastic, and erudite of young Italian literary historians. In this youthful work, to which he has remained faithful in a surprisingly varied production, he reflected merely, though in brilliant fashion, the trait of historicity so characteristic of Italian culture. This historicity fed, as it always feeds in Italy, on the nationalistic impulse more or less disguised, and on the regionalistic spirit more or less avowed. Croce was interested in the national literature generally, in Neapolitan and southern literature particularly. He was interested in Italian history, and in the details of Neapolitan culture.

In all this work Croce’s production was noteworthy for “rigorous method,” accuracy of documentation, careful scrutiny of detail. He was loyal thus far to the historical school of literary criticism which developed in Italy as elsewhere after 1840, and which showed as its chief Italian nucleus and monument the ‘Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana’ of Turin (D’Ancona, Graf, Renier, also Monaci, Novati, Ascoli, etc.). In its fundamental premises the historical school of criticism seeks to explain artistic phenomena in the biography of the artist in the understanding of the artist’s environment in discovering the sources of his work. We come to understand Dante by assembling details about him and his contemporaries from the archives, the relics of fourteenth century life in Florence and Italy. We become authorities on Shakespeare by making ourselves proficient Elizabethans. There is a “state of science” around every artistic fact. Each new monograph enlarges or should enlarge the “area” of a given “field” of knowledge. Each artistic fact is a “field” by itself; each author has his own “bibliography.” The less fortunate scholars pass their lives over a few monographs—in a sense even, narrowness of the “area” tilled is a guarantee of “rigor” of method, the pledge of “soundness” of scholarship. The more fortunate scholars, as D’Ancona, Gaston Paris, or Ascoli, with a more tireless activity, a tougher constitution, create a bibliography extraordinarily large. But the historical school had not only a method, it had also a hope. It looked forward some day to a Messiah, of activity infinitely tireless where D’Ancona’s had been heroically tireless, of constitution infinitely tough, where Ascoli’s had been but heroically tough. This Messiah would some day extract a valuable synthesis from all this work of erudition. He would breathe the spark of life into the dust and bones of arid scholarship. He would combine the German dissertation and the French thesis, the Austrian monograph and the Italian “study” into a peaceful living unity, capable of regenerating the spirit of humanity. He would build a united fabric of science, which would be the beacon-light of a culture to come, and at the same time give value to so much toil and sacrifice on the part of the minor “contributing” scholars. Now every faith has its sceptics. There were sceptics also in the ranks of the historical critics. Indeed, even those who were not sceptical often became impatient. They sought substitutes for the single great synthetizer in a sort of co-operative synthetizer. The great co-operative synthesis of the Italian historical school is the ‘Storia letteraria d’Italia,’ the ‘Literary History of Italy,’ written by a “society,” a “company,” of “Italian professors”; just as the co-operative synthetizer of the English historical school is the ‘Cambridge History of Literature.’

Now the man in the street knows that working around literature is not the same thing as working in literature; and also, that those who are most erudite in the external history of letters are often least capable of grasping the essential significance of the artistic fact in itself. What, then, is the purpose of literary history, of all the mass of detail with which scholarship has enriched our knowledge of men and books, at the same time failing to perfect our artistic vision? The academic criticism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries exhausted its vitality on the phenomena arising posterior to the artistic fact (comparing the artistic production with a fixed model, real or ideal). Has not historical criticism gone to the other extreme, exhausting itself on the phenomena arising before the artistic fact (study of sources, biography, environment)?

If, thus far, we have by implication represented Croce as hostile or antithetic to the historical school of criticism, we must hasten to rectify that impression. Assailing mercilessly the pretensions of historical criticism, he has at the same time given a complete justification of its existence when properly oriented and legitimately applied.

In his meditations on the methodology of criticism, especially of historical criticism, Croce was probably most directly impressed by Hegel, who likewise develops his philosophy as an investigation of the methodology of philosophy. But the germs, to a large extent even the guiding principles, of his thought are derived from the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (styled by Croce the “discoverer of æsthetic science”) and from Francesco de Sanctis, the Neapolitan critic, by whom Croce has seen Vico’s theories most extensively, though in a measure incoherently, applied. The Neapolitan character of the Vico de Sanctis-Croce tradition is however purely accidental, as those who take the trouble to follow a portion only of Croce’s vast reading will surely admit. There is something besides regional pride in his aggressiveness!

The great light shed by Vico upon Croce’s thinking was the discovery of the “intuitive” nature of art. Croce perfects and systematizes this discovery. He holds that in “logical” and “intuitional” activity, if you wish, in “thought” and “vision,” man’s whole cognitive activity is accounted for. But the controlling fact, so potent in its consequences for æsthetic theory, is that “logic” and “intuition” are activities wholly distinct from each other—intuition concerning exclusively the apprehension of particulars, the particular, logic concerning exclusively relationships between particulars—the universal. The phenomena of art arise wholly, absolutely, in the field of intuition—the apprehension of the particular; whatever is a matter of logic, whatever concerns relationships, the universal, is extra-artistic, non-artistic, save that, indeed, a logical result may itself become the object of intuitional activity (the particular universal) and therefore enter as an integral part into the artistic “vision.” Indeed this latter step is necessary before the logical cognition attains reality. The artistic fact, is, accordingly, the activity of the “intuition,” in other words “expression.” It is the operation of the “active” mind, reacting not only to the exterior world (perception), but to its own “passive” processes (emotion, etc.) and to its own logical activity (concepts, etc.). This expression, the only “real” expression, is of course within the mind; all material expression (technique) remaining a fact posterior in sequence and in a measure independent of this real, this mental expression. In this sense, all art is expression, and all expression is art.

For Croce’s trenchant and relentless demonstration of his theory we can only refer to the first chapters of his ‘Æsthetics.’ What interests us here is the limitless devastation wrought by this notion in all the traditional methods of literary and artistic criticism. Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian criticism (classic school of the Renaissance) made art (a way of doing things) a function of the ingenium, the constructive (and analytic) faculty. It was located wholly in the field of logic (plot, episode, form, etc.). Its chief preoccupation was with the relation of author and reader, both as regards method of presentation (form), the substance to be presented (plot), and the effect to be produced (pleasure, morality). Its fundamental premise was the absolute separation between substance and form, both of which were susceptible of a separate “théorique.” In fact, the dominant ideas of the older criticism were, as regards substance, the “imitation of life” (historicity, probability), and as regards form, the producing of pleasure as a preparation for receiving the substance to be imparted.

In practice, classic criticism after the sixteenth century gave to “imitation” an unfortunately narrow definition (imitation of authorities); and its principal concern was more and more with form, pure and simple (technique), elaborately worked out and legislated into law according to the different genres (tragedy, comedy, epic, etc.). Romantic criticism overthrew many of the absurdities of extreme classicism: imitation of life became more truly “imitation of all that life contains”; limitations of form were broken down, the artist vaunting the right to use any form his subject seemed to require and dictate. However, unless we see in Croce himself the perfecter of romantic criticism, it cannot be said that the romantics ever worked themselves entirely free from the premises of the classics. The concept of the separation of substance and form is still inveterate in the consciousness of the present. So is the notion that the effect on the audience is the test of artistic excellence. It is needless to point out the importance given to ethical considerations in contemporary criticism, whether positively by those who insist on morality in art or negatively by those who believe in “art for art’s sake.” We may say that it has occurred hardly to anyone to question that the test of art is, in the last analysis, the truthfulness of its reflection of life.

Whereas, for Croce, all these notions go by the board. Substance and form are one and the same thing, in the sense that the intuition is a unit indivisible, form being simply and purely the “activity” of the spirit by which alone what the classics would call substance gains reality, exists at all. This activity of the creative mind in the artist is by nature independent of the effect it may chance to produce on the audience, whether that effect be one of pleasure, indifference, or disgust; and of course it will be neither moral, nor immoral, but simply amoral, independent of ethics which are the concern of logic, of science, of philosophy, of what you will. Most startling of all, this activity is independent of the truth or falsity of the material which is its object (e.g., the value of Henry James, as an artist, is not due to his knowledge of life).

Many futile polemics have arisen around Croce’s system at this point, owing to the difficulty some critics have had in seeing the exact limitations placed by Croce himself upon the above denials and affirmations. Croce of course does not contend that art (literature for instance) has no relation to a “consuming” public; nor does he deny that art may have a moral, social function, that it may satisfy, usually does in its best manifestations satisfy, the craving for pleasure; that the value to civilization of a work of art usually does reside in its contribution to our knowledge of life. He holds simply that what makes the work of art a work of art, what makes literature, literature—as opposed to its character as ethics, entertainment, science, etc.,—is something beyond, and different from this ethical, pleasurable, scientific “content.” It is, to repeat, this activity of the spirit, this Crocian “form,” which may be beautiful even though the scientific content is absurd, though the ethical tendencies are anti-social, though it chance to awaken no sympathetic echo in any heart of the whole universe; just as it may be quite ugly, though acclaimed by multitudes, though socially of extreme value, though scientifically divine. Beauty in fact has no existence apart from this spiritual activity; it is spiritual activity itself, and its measure is the measure of the intensity of that activity. No other “standard” is possible for the critical judgment.

Whether all this be regarded as true or as false, what cannot be questioned is that Croce’s method has in practice meant the recovery of the “literary” point of view toward literature, the “artistic” point of view toward art. He himself in fact, seeking in ancient thought a name for the intuitional force that creates art, has chosen the word “soul,” the anima, the form which determines individuation, and which, discovered, reveals the vital essence of the artistic phenomenon. Perhaps this word “soul” has, in common parlance, been affected to some extent by romantic sentimentality. Nevertheless the total result of Croce’s system has been to direct attention anew to the “soul” element (stripped of sentimentalistic connotation) in art and letters, liberating criticism from arid and meaningless study of technique, on the one hand, and from purposeless historical erudition on the other. But at the same time, though Croce’s system was in origin a reaction against the historical school of criticism, in effect it proves to be the justification and, for the Crocean, the definitive orientation of the historical method. For the artistic fact, a given work of art, is a moment in history, to be recovered by an historical method which will elucidate, help us to re-live, that historical moment. This re-living of the artistic experience is, however, the important, and the only important thing in dealing with art as art. The results of the scientific study of literature are to be judged by the contribution such study makes to this revivification.

Croce’s ‘Æsthetics’ has been far more influential than his ‘Logic,’ which is more or less implicit in his theory of intuition and expression, and than his ‘Ethics,’ where, in his most interesting inferences, he has had powerful competitors in Bergson, Eucken, and Dewey. His ethical system is peculiar in the close relationship it insists on between economic values and ethical values, economics being included by Croce among the four categories under which life (activity, reality) may be considered: intuition, logic, (forms of knowing); economics, ethics, (forms of doing). Again, just as Croce reduced knowledge in the last analysis to intuitional activity, expression, thus destroying all the literary genres, so his ethics dispenses with all abstract formulas for conduct, all ethical “systems,” since each ethical situation is something sui generis, something forever new. This emphasis on “activity of the spirit” as the condition of all reality has definite affinities with the method of Bergson and with American pragmatism. But Croce is entirely hostile to the anti-intellectualistic trend that developed late in the work of James and he gives much more importance to intuition, “to knowing,” than does John Dewey whose stress is on doing. From Bergson also he departs at the point where the French philosopher calls in question the eternal value of the knowledge obtained by intellect; just as he is also free from the mysticism of Bergson in analyzing the nature and purposes of the “active spirit.”

Croce thus aligns himself with a great series of modern thinkers who have set the ideal of the active, adaptable, intensely conscious life over against all that is habit, instinct, passivity, irrationality. His work rings with the enthusiasm of the search for truth, which at times rises to lyric fervor. In his own country, which has a deeply rooted tradition of scholarship often as elsewhere reclining in a complacent pedantry, he has stirred the cultural forces deeply, giving them with a new method also a new ideal. The very bitterness with which the younger generation (Papini, and “La Voce”) is assailing him only testifies to the strength of his influence. What D’Annunzio has been to the national feeling in poetry, Croce remains to the national thought.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.Benedetto Croce, born at Pescasseroli near Naples, 1866. The ‘Æsthetic’ and ‘Ethic’ along with studies on Vico are available in the translation of Ainslee (Macmillan). For extensive practical applications of his method to literature, philosophy, history, etc., see his review La Critica (Bari, Laterza, 1905–). His collected works are published by Laterza. The ‘Breviary of Æsthetic’ appears in English in the Rice Institute Pamphlets, vol. ii., Houston, Texas, 1915.