Right Thinkers #7: Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944)
Where he was Right and where he went wrong
It is sometimes said that fascism had no coherent philosophy, but this is untrue. One need not look further than the Actual Idealism of Giovanni Gentile, the Italian scholar and Minister of Public Education under Benito Mussolini, to find a coherent philosophy of fascism. Gentile’s philosophy, profound in itself, provides the key to understanding fascism as it was understood by those who supported and lived it.
Gentile’s work does not receive much attention in the English-speaking world, despite its significance in relation to fascism, likely because of its impenetrability for those unacquainted with the tradition of Idealist philosophy. I am only a bumbling amateur in the study of the work of Kant, Fichte and Hegel, but I will do my best to explain Gentile’s philosophy as I understand it, even if I will inevitably end up making philosophy scholars cringe with the crudeness of my terminology. I invite any constructive comments or corrections.
The starting point of Gentile’s philosophy is the Idealist principle of the “ideality of the real” (Gentile, Theory 2), or the idea that reality is always reality as perceived by a thinking subject. Following from Berkeley and Kant, Gentile rejects the idea that we can have direct access to an objective reality existing outside of the mind. This may sound like solipsism, or the idea that the external world is a private illusion, but when Gentile refers to the mind or the subject, he is referring not only to the “empirical ego” (to use a term borrowed from Kant), which is the limited ego or self of which we are aware, but also to a higher subjectivity that transcends the individual and encompasses all of the nation, or even all of humanity (4, et al). These two forms of ego or self are interdependent. In short, we do not have access to anything outside of human thought, of which we are a living part. To be more precise, since Gentile sees thought as an act, we do not have access to anything outside of thinking, of which we are a thinking part. To capture this idea of thinking as an act that constitutes reality, Gentile labelled his brand of Idealist philosophy “Actual Idealism.”
Following loosely from Hegel, Gentile accepts that this higher, collective subjectivity (or what both Hegel and Gentile refer to as “spirit”) has a history. For Gentile, however, the historical development of spirit has no defined end, and what matters most is that humanity realize that it is fully involved in this development, wherever it may lead. To this end, Gentile sought to teach others to accept the worldview inherent in Actual Idealism, which helps explain his intense involvement in education and educational institutions.
So what is special about Actual Idealism? Well, by equating reality with the act of thinking, Gentile is able to demolish the distinctions between subject and object, self and other, and thought and action. The object only appears to be an external entity opposed to the subject, when in fact they are part of the same spiritual reality. As H.S. Harris writes, “Experience for him [Gentile] is an a priori [before experience] synthesis of subject and object” (18). The recognition of this spiritual unity must be the basis for all moral action, and for the shaping of society.
So what does this have to do with fascism? Well, if Gentile’s idea of the a priori synthesis of subject and object holds true, there is (on the level transcending the empirical ego) essentially no difference between you and others in society. All people are one, as parts of an organic whole. The state, as well, is part of you, just as you are part of it. In an authoritarian state, you serve the state; in a liberal-democratic state, the state serves you (by providing services); in the Gentilean fascist state, you are the state. As an individual, you are empowered through the state. Far from merely requiring submission to Il Duce, the fascist state allows the individual to join a corporate body that can accomplish far more than a mere organized collection of autonomous individuals ever could. Fascism, in this view, is pure democracy. Writing of the idea of a State in which there are no restrictions on State power, Gentile remarks,
“It appears to make the State swallow the individual, and to absorb into authority completely the liberty that should be set against every authority that limits it. The regime corresponding to such a doctrine is called ‘totalitarian’ and ‘authoritarian’ and is set off against ‘democracy,’ the system of liberty. But one might say just the opposite: 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 . . . . Lo and behold, absolutism is overturned and appears to have changed into its opposite; and the true absolute democracy is not that which seeks a limited State, but that which sets no limits to the State that develops in the inmost heart of the individual . . .” (Gentile, Genesis 179).
The individual is incorporated by the state (becomes part of its corporate body), but at the same time the individual incorporates the state within his/her self. The same goes for one’s relationship with the head of state: you are Il Duce and Il Duce is you.
What if you are a fascist-minded individual trapped in a democratic or merely authoritarian society? Well, there is a “transcendental society” (98) (perhaps an imagined perfect fascist society based upon actual idealism) implicit in the Gentilean vision, which one can work towards realizing. Self-development is a social project if the self/other distinction has been overcome.
All of this makes sense if, and only if, one accept the idea of the “ideality of the real” and vigorously think through its implications, as Gentile claimed to have done. Luckily, we can safely reject Gentile’s comprehensive philosophy, as alluring as it may be, by holding fast to the idea that there is at least one thing that exists outside of the spiritual unity of human thinking: God.
Despite the agnosticism (or even atheism) implicit in Gentile’s comprehensive philosophy, parts of it may be useful to Christians, and there is at least one striking correspondence between Actual Idealism and Catholicism. Fr. Martin D’Arcy, the famous twentieth-century neo-Thomist, in his book Thomas Aquinas, makes it clear that for Aquinas, the path to happiness is through the intellect, and that (using terms that are more Gentilean than Thomist) “the perfection of knowledge consists in the fusion of subject and object in one act” (234). The ultimate fusion of subject and object is in the Beatific Vision, but the subject/object fusion may also unite us with human communities that transcend the individual, such as the state (235). Speaking of Aquinas’s philosophy of knowledge, D’Arcy remarks:
“The same ideal of knowledge makes a comparison between his [Aquinas’s] own position and that of Gentile, for example, both easy and necessary. To the latter, thought is act, and also ‘becoming.’ To St. Thomas the ideal of mind is fulfilled in pure Act, but human beings are not God, and one sign is precisely the ‘becoming’ which belongs to their nature; they aspire to act and have to be contented with judgments in which subject and object are not wholly identical” (275).
Any Christian interested in Gentile must keep Fr. D’Arcy’s warning in mind: because “human beings are not God,” the subject/object fusion is never complete, and the human spiritual reality is never total.
Gentile’s privileging of philosophy over theology should make it impossible for a right-thinking scholar to accept his conclusions in their entirety, but there is much we can learn from Gentile about the act of thinking and its relation to society. Those stubborn members of the European New Right who insist on following a neo-fascist path would be better off studying the works of Gentile than those of their current favourite scholar, Julius Evola. There, they may find a purely intellectual justification for their political passions, free from the trappings of racism (however aristocratic or ‘non-vulgar’ Evola’s ideas on race may have been) and Nietzschean mysticism and occultism. For the rest of us, Giovanni Gentile can be seen, even with all his great faults and moral failings, as one of the great twentieth-century champions of the intellect.
D’Arcy, M.C. Thomas Aquinas. London: Oxford University Press, 1930.
Gentile, Giovanni. Genesis and Structure of Society. Trans. H.S. Harris. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960.
——. The Theory of Mind as Pure Act. Trans. H. Wildon Carr. London: Macmillan and Co., 1922. Available online at archive.org/details/thetheoryofminda00gentuoft.
Harris, H.S. The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960.