Italy, philosophy in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N028-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

1. From Counter-Reformation to Enlightenment

The great philosophical blossoming of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which in Italy had started with the revival of the humanae litterae, came to a decisive and lasting halt with the Counter-Reformation movement which began with the Council of Trent (1545–63). The new cultural climate – inspired by an idea of humanity and human destiny which bore little resemblance to the spirit of liberty, creativity and loyalty typical of philosophers and artists such as Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo – prevailed in the second half of the sixteenth century and especially in the seventeenth century. Indeed, the general lack of cultural confidence expressed itself as censorship, especially of the three main philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Bruno and Campanella (both heirs to Telesio’s naturalistic tradition, combined with Neo-Platonist, magical and cabalistic ideas), and Galileo.

Having fled Italy to avoid being persecuted by the Church for his philosophical ideas, Giordano Bruno lived in England between 1583 and 1585, where he wrote and published works which were later gathered under the title of Dialoghi Italiani (Italian Dialogues). When he returned to Italy, he was condemned by the Church authorities to die at the stake in 1600. Central to his philosophy is the idea of the unity and infinity of nature which the Copernican system, through Neo-Platonist metaphysics, attempts to demonstrate. The universe is one, open and infinite, and may contain many worlds. The unity of nature means that it contains within itself the principle of its own movement. Bruno thus adapts, and uses against Aristotle, the hylozoistic idea of the Presocratics to which he often refers. Corresponding to this naturalistic concept is an ethical vision that unites contemplation and activity through a radical criticism of medieval virtues and the defence of worldly virtues. The eroico furore (heroic fury) is the synthesis of theoretical knowledge and practical activity which allows the individual to grasp the dynamical unity of nature, a composition of opposing tensions (coincidentia oppositorum) that Cusano had previously attributed solely to God.

Tommaso Campanella, a contemporary of Bruno, further undermined the influence of Aristotelian philosophy (still prominent at the University of Padua). His epistemology is a combination of Augustinism and empiricism: knowledge is sensation, but its justification is grounded on the internal awareness of self (sensus inditus) By referring to Augustine (§§4, 5), Campanella anticipates Descartes. His naturalism is full of references to magic (De sensu rerum et magia, 1620), on which he builds his religious, ethical and political vision – the ultimate goal of magic is ‘to give laws to men’. In his Città del sole (City of the Sun) (1623) Campanella describes the organization of an ideal city (like Thomas More’s Utopia or Plato’s Republic). The three principal officers (Captain, Wisdom and Love) and supreme head (Metaphysic or Sun) are personifications of metaphysical and religious principles derived from the synthesis of Christianity with a natural religion of a strongly naturalistic and magical character, which in its essence tries to be ‘rational’. The extent of Campanella’s awareness of the developments in scientific thought is evident from his Apologia pro Galilaeo (1622).

Galileo is credited with having been the first to formulate what has gone down in history as the ‘Galilean scientific method’ (see Galilei, Galileo). However, unlike Bacon, he never actually explicitly formulated this method – it was derived from his scientific treatises, including the Saggiatore (The Verifier) (1623), the Dialogo sui massimi sistemi (Dialogue on the Chief World Systems) (1632), and Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze (Dialogues and Mathematical Demonstrations about Two New Sciences)(1638). As a result of this method, using some fundamental concepts (such as causality) and ideas from the traditions of Ockham and of Naturalism (which had undermined medieval ways of thought), Galileo made scientific discoveries of enormous importance in both astronomy and in physics. Unlike Bruno and Campanella, he based his study of nature on mathematics and excluded anything metaphysical or magical. Only what is measurable (what Locke was to call ‘primary qualities’) can be the subject of investigation: this establishes a distinction between religion/philosophy and science, and guarantees the autonomy of the latter from the former.

While Galileo was not a philosopher in the strict sense of the word, the cultural importance of his personal vicissitudes, and his trial and conviction by the Inquisition, is especially significant. Bruno and Campanella remained isolated in the tragedy of their personal circumstances because the philosophy of each of them was closely tied to his personality. In the case of Galileo, the condemnation did not manage to stem the spread of his ideas, because they were based on a new methodology which was destined to dominate on its own merits. The immediate influence of Galileo was therefore mainly confined to the scientific sphere, where his pupils initiated an important series of studies, especially in the field of mathematics. Bonaventura Cavalieri, for example, sought to replace the method of indivisibility with the method of exhaustibility in the calculation of volumes and areas: Evangelista Torricelli, possibly Galileo’s greatest pupil, built on these discoveries. Vincenzo Viviani is known for his work on geometry, and Michelangelo Ricci was the author of a book on the problem of tangents and of maxima and minima.

The Counter-Reformation movement sought to reunite philosophy, science and religion, whose compartmentalization had given rise to the new science based on experimentation (Galileo himself tried throughout his life to show that the three disciplines were compatible with each other). Campanella more than anybody had tried to achieve this goal: the Città del Sole is in fact the idealization of a world in which religion, science, philosophy and politics find a harmonious synthesis. Less idealistic, on the other hand, is the political thought of the Jesuit Giovanni Botero, author of Della ragion di stato (About the Reason of State) (1589). In this work he opposes Machiavelli by attempting to bring ethics back into politics, believing justice to be the prince’s supreme virtue and claiming that politics is ultimately subordinate to the counsels of religion. At this time Alberico Gentili, professor at Oxford and one of the first theoreticians of natural law, maintained in his De jure belli the existence of rights that apply even in times of war (respect for prisoners, women and children and so on), holding that the only just war is carried on in self-defence.

Continuing Counter-Reformation preoccupations meant that Italian philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was limited to repeating scholastic arguments. The thought of Descartes, Hobbes (who had visited Galileo during his exile at Arcetri), as well as that of Leibniz and Berkeley (both of whom had also visited Italy), had little impact (but see Fardella, M.). The first figure of note in this period took an open stance against European thought, continuing in that tradition of historical Humanism typical of Italian thought (especially of the Neapolitan school down to the present day). Gianbattista Vico was a seventeenth-century humanist who, like all other humanists, regarded the Middle Ages a time of barbarism and considered the main path of knowledge to lie in the synthesis of philology and philosophy. In contrast to Descartes, Vico denies that evidence is the criterion of truth or that the Cogito could convince sceptics. In fact, one can only know what one has done oneself. Just as God knows the universe because he created it, humans can know their own works, but they cannot know nature or know themselves, only their history.

The identity between explanatory knowledge of x and direct experience of the causes that have brought about x (the Verum et factum convertuntur hypothesis) is the great principle of the nuova scienza (new science) which justifies including Vico in the history of the contemporary hermeneutic movement. In his main works De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (1710), and in Scienza nova (which went to three editions), Vico outlines the foundations of historical science. Against Descartes’ followers, he extols the superiority of both historical-juridical studies and of the rhetoric over the exact sciences. History he divides into three eras: the age of gods (when imagination plays an important part in the origin of language), the age of heroes, and the age of humans. These three phases are cyclical, so human history is a repetition of historical phenomena, guided by a providence that makes it ‘a reasoned civil theology of the divine providence’.

Mario Pagano, a follower of Vico, was representative of the Neapolitan Enlightenment that opened up to European culture from the middle of the eighteenth century. Traces of Rousseau are evident in his Saggi politici (Political Essays), just as echoes of Montesquieu can be found in Gaetano Filangieri’s Scienza della legislazione (Science of Legislation). The high opinion in which these men are held by J. Schumpeter (he gives a place of honour in the field of pre-Smith systemizers to Italian economists of the eighteenth century), is due to their analytical capacity and to their interest in a civil economy which reconciles ‘public good’ and ‘utilitarian happiness’ in the concept of ‘public happiness’. Many of these economists were in public employment as ambassadors and administrators, for example L.A. Muratori, author of Della pubblica felicità (Concerning Public Happiness); Antonio Genovesi, who in his Meditazioni filosofiche sulla religione e sulla morale(Philosophical Meditations on Religion and Morals) expounded an ethical concept inspired by Condillac and Helvetius; and Ferdinando Galiani, author of the treatise Della moneta (On Money).

The influence of the French Enlightenment was strong in the Neapolitan School (see Enlightenment, continental). The Italian translation of the Encylopédie was published in Lucca and Livorno between 1758 and 1779. Lombardy was another centre for the diffusion of Enlightenment thought. Its geographical position and economic and political situation (it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose rulers Maria Theresa and Joseph II were among the more enlightened sovereigns), placed it in a strategic position for contact with the rest of Europe. Gathered around the ‘Società dei Pugni’ (Society of Fists) founded in 1761, whose mouthpiece was ‘Il Caffé’ (a newspaper inspired by England’s ‘Spectator’), the exponents of the Enlightenment in Lombardy were, like those in Naples, mainly interested in economic and political studies. Pietro Verri’s Discorso sulla felicità (Discourse on Happiness) (1763) proposed an ethical theory which merged sensationalistic and utilitarian themes; Cesare Beccaria, author of the well-known Dei delitti e delle pene (On crimes and punishments) (1764) which was condemned and banned by the Catholic Church in 1766, questioned the justice and use of the death penalty and of torture. For him punishment must defend public welfare – punishment is just only when it guarantees the inviolability and freedom of the people (see Inviolability).

Citing this article:
Chiurazzi, Gaetano. From Counter-Reformation to Enlightenment. Italy, philosophy in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N028-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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