As If God Existed

As If God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy

Maurizio Viroli
Translated by Alberto nones
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.cttq9s1j
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  • Book Info
    As If God Existed
    Book Description:

    Religion and liberty are often thought to be mutual enemies: if religion has a natural ally, it is authoritarianism--not republicanism or democracy. But in this book, Maurizio Viroli, a leading historian of republican political thought, challenges this conventional wisdom. He argues that political emancipation and the defense of political liberty have always required the self-sacrifice of people with religious sentiments and a religious devotion to liberty. This is particularly the case when liberty is threatened by authoritarianism: the staunchest defenders of liberty are those who feel a deeply religious commitment to it.

    Viroli makes his case by reconstructing, for the first time, the history of the Italian "religion of liberty," covering its entire span but focusing on three key examples of political emancipation: the free republics of the late Middle Ages, the Risorgimento of the nineteenth century, and the antifascist Resistenza of the twentieth century. In each example, Viroli shows, a religious spirit that regarded moral and political liberty as the highest goods of human life was fundamental to establishing and preserving liberty. He also shows that when this religious sentiment has been corrupted or suffocated, Italians have lost their liberty.

    This book makes a powerful and provocative contribution to today's debates about the compatibility of religion and republicanism.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4551-4
    Subjects: Political Science, Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. PREFACE TO THE ENGLISH EDITION
    (pp. xi-xxii)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-12)

    In the republics of the late Middle Ages, in the Risorgimento, and in the struggle against fascism, Italian liberty was the work of religious men and women. Many of them possessed a sincere Christian faith, often quite distant from or in stark contrast with the teaching of the Catholic Church; others did not believe in any revealed religion but instead were believers and apostles—sometimes martyrs—of a religion they called a “religion of duty” or “religion of liberty.” Both the former and the latter people, regardless of the theological content of their convictions, were religious because they lived their...

  5. PART I A REPUBLICAN CHRISTIANITY
    • 1 REPUBLICS PROTECTED BY GOD
      (pp. 15-20)

      In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the assemblies of citizens that gave birth to the communes in northern and central Italy gathered in churches. Even when public authorities built their own palaces, public council meetings were always preceded by religious ritual. Furthermore, the communes contributed to consecrating the city through paintings and sculptures of the saints, especially those patron saints who had defended the community from external or internal enemies, and hence had an explicitly civic meaning. The cities were religious, and so were the communes.

      The religious dimension of the Italian communes was further reinforced by the shift from...

    • 2 IMAGES OF THE CIVIL RELIGION
      (pp. 21-28)

      Through the treatises on government, the concept of civil religion spread within republican cities’ culture and customs. But even more effective were the images that embodied those concepts. Whereas the concepts expounded in the treatises spoke first and foremost to reason, paintings struck the eyes, and from the eyes touched the passions. The rulers of republics were aware of the images’ strength, especially when they were accompanied by clear words, written in large, legible characters, preferably in the vernacular. For this reason, rulers commissioned skilled artists to produce a great number of works explaining the principles of republican good government...

    • 3 REPUBLICAN AND MONARCHICAL RELIGION
      (pp. 29-32)

      Republican religion was born and spread in a late medieval Europe dominated by monarchies that, from the thirteenth century on, had endowed themselves with a sacred dimension similar to that of the church.¹ Jurists and political philosophers transferred the concept ofcorpus mysticum—intended to designate the church community as a body that cannot be seen by the eyes but can only be grasped by the intellect—to the state. Applied to the state, the concept of a mystical body referred mainly, but not exclusively, to the monarchy, where the king is at the head of the mystical-political body, just...

    • 4 A RELIGION THAT INSTILLS VIRTUE
      (pp. 33-36)

      The most refined elaborations of republican religion are to be found in Quattrocento political thought. Politicians, prophets, historians, and philosophers of that time explained that the men who serve the common good render themselves godlike. Salutati, for instance, stated several times that a good Christian has a duty to serve his fatherland with all his energies. He also noted that charity toward the fatherland must comprise as well as surpass any other affection, bond, and interest.¹ For him, caritas was the foundation of patriotism and the ideal of the Christian citizen. In his early writings, Salutati elaborated on a form...

    • 5 SACRED LAWS AND SACRED REPUBLICS
      (pp. 37-44)

      For civic humanists, laws are sacred as long as they reflect divine wisdom, and because their object is not just whatever is good but rather the divine good, which is the public good.¹ In order to ignite and sustain loyalty within a citizenry toward laws and statutes, a republic must foster its religious system with great diligence. Furthermore, a republic must educate its citizenry to love justice and the fatherland, through both the teaching imparted by good and revered priests, and ceremonies that strike and move the multitudes’ sentiments.² Palmieri, for instance, elaborates on these ideas of republic and religion...

    • 6 REPUBLICAN RELIGION AND RELIGIOUS REFORM
      (pp. 45-51)

      Those who lived liberty as a religious faith felt a deep revulsion for the corruption of the clergy and the temporal power of the pope. The former corrupted customs and extinguished civil virtues; the latter was a constant menace to republics and hindered the rule of law from within, through the vindication of exemptions and privileges. For this reason, republics intensely felt the need for a religious reform that would eradicate the church’s temporal power and bring Christian religion back to its focus on poverty and charity.¹

      The advocates of religious reform drew inspiration and arguments from biblical and classical...

    • 7 A RELIGION TO LIVE FREE
      (pp. 52-61)

      Machiavelli was the political writer who, better than anybody else, elaborated on both republican religion and the need for a religious reform. In the last pages ofThe Art of War, which he wrote in order to revive the ancient orders and ancient Italian military virtue, he reveals his conviction that Italy “seems to be born to resurrect dead things, as one could see in poetry, painting, and sculpture.”¹ In theCanto degli spiriti beati, Machiavelli harks back to the myth of the return of the golden age and the revival of ancient virtue with words similar to those of...

    • 8 WITHIN THE SOUL
      (pp. 62-71)

      Machiavelli speaks often about God. In the last chapter ofThe Prince, he writes that Italy “prays God to send her someone who will redeem her.”¹ In theFlorentine Histories, discussing the religious wars that roiled Africa at the time of Arcadius and Honorius, he observes that “living thus among so many persecutions, men bore the terror of their soul written in their eyes, for, besides the infinite evils they endured, a good part of them lacked the possibility of seeking refuge in God, in whom all the miserable are wont to hope. As most of them were uncertain as...

    • 9 THE TWILIGHT OF REPUBLICAN RELIGION
      (pp. 72-86)

      When, at the end of the third decade of the sixteenth century, the Florentine experiment with republican government was on the wane, the conviction that Christian religion and republican principles were tightly interconnected was declining, too. The idea that to serve the republic one must depart from God, or that to save one’s soul one must put aside republican ideals, was more and more widely spread. Evidence of this decline can be found in Guicciardini’s reflections inLe cose fiorentine(1528). Guicciardini reports that the belief that God loves the freedom of peoples is commonly held in florence, but he...

  6. PART II RELIGIOUS REBIRTH AND NATIONAL EMANCIPATION
    • 10 WITHOUT GOD
      (pp. 89-102)

      The publication, in 1762, of Rousseau’sDu Contrat Socialopened a new chapter in the history of republican religion. Like Machiavelli, Rousseau was well aware that republics need religion to come to life and endure.¹ Rousseau notes that great lawgivers had to place the rules of civil life in God’s mouth in order to “entraîner par l’autorité divine ceux que ne pourroit ébranler la prudence humaine.” He also stresses that only men with great souls can persuade people that they have been inspired by God and hence can establish enduring laws. At the same time, he charges the Christian religion...

    • 11 AFTER THE REVOLUTION
      (pp. 103-114)

      The defeat of the revolutionary experiment made the most perceptive political writers aware of the fact that Italy lacked a public spirit capable of sustaining republican institutions. These thinkers realized that the true enemies of republican liberty, rather than reactionary governments and the papacy, were Italy’s bad customs and bad religion. The revolutionary initiative could change governments and institutions, but only education could improve customs and religion. Cuoco understood better than anybody else that the Italian problem was above all one of public spirit. In a letter to Giovanni battista Giovio on March 7, 1804, Cuoco explains that no better...

    • 12 THE NEW ALLIANCE
      (pp. 115-125)

      The ideas coming from france helped Italian intellectuals seek a civil religion different from the Jacobin one, which had revealed all its flimsiness and had not been able to weaken the traditional religion. In various writings, terenzio Mamiani (1799–1885), who participated in the riots of 1831 and 1848, invoked a religious reform that would abolish the temporal power of the pope, and offer a new religion capable of educating people—in accordance with science and civilization—about civic virtues and love of country.¹ during those same years, Giacomo durando (1807–94) wrote, inDella nazionalità italiana(1846), that civilization...

    • 13 LITERATURE AND HYMNS OF THE RELIGION OF LIBERTY
      (pp. 126-139)

      A religion must have hymns and music that move hearts and impel action, even when reason admonishes people not to run risks. Alessandro Manzoni composed the poem and the novel that taught people to love liberty as a religious principle. In the ode “Marzo 1821” (March 1821), the patriots, “certain about the ancient virtue within their heart,” take a solemn oath: “The sacred words are already given; / either fellows on a deathbed or brothers on a free soil.” their guide was God, who “rejects the foreign force,” wants to assure that “every people is free,” and hopes that justice...

    • 14 APOSTLES AND MARTYRS
      (pp. 140-144)

      “Imagination,” “illusions,” “faith,” and “devotion” are all words that often loom large in the writings of the Risorgimento’s protagonists, from the greatest leaders to the more modest militants. In the previous centuries, such words were detached from any profound sentiments. This time, though, there was a correspondence between sentiment and language, since the words had been a site of laborious struggle. They drove action, to the point of self-sacrifice. Silvio Pellico, to cite the obligatory example, received an education based on love of family, country, and humanity.¹ Pellico discovered his faith in prison, although he was already convinced that if...

    • 15 MASTERS
      (pp. 145-153)

      The martyrs’ religion was consistent with the teachings of the Risorgimento’s moral and political leaders. Albeit in quite different ways, all of them—Vincenzo Gioberti, Giuseppe Mazzini, Camillo benso Count of Cavour, and even Giuseppe Garibaldi—lived by a religious conception that regarded Italy’s liberty as the fundamental principle of life. they were aware that national emancipation required a religious sentiment. Gioberti, the main advocate of the project of national unification under the aegis of the pope, fought against the religion of idleness in the name of the religion of virtue. for him, idleness contradicts the will of God, “who...

    • 16 REGRETS AND THE QUEST FOR NEW FAITHS
      (pp. 154-172)

      After Rome had been taken and national unification had been achieved, concerns about the future of Italian liberty were strong among the Risorgimento patriots. They understood that the new state lacked a civil religion, and that liberal institutions were, as a consequence, fragile. The educational projects inspired by Mazzini were directed against clericalism and the power of the Catholic Church, but they also urged a religious revolution in the name of the ideal of “God and people.”¹ Genoa’s paperIl Doverepublished harsh articles on the religious problems, but always in favor of a humanitarian religiosity, and including a clear...

  7. PART III THEY GOT TOO CLOSE TO THE LIGHT
    • 17 TWO CLASHING RELIGIONS
      (pp. 175-185)

      In 1932, Mussolini celebrated the tenth anniversary of his rise to power with solemn ceremonies, climaxing in the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution in Rome, a grand event aimed at exalting the regime’s religious character.¹ While workers prepared the imposing halls and set up gigantic representations of the deified leader, Croce publishedStoria d’Europa nel secolo XIX (History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century)to explain to the Italians that another religion existed: the “religion of liberty.” the fascist religion brought thousands of people to the squares, had state support, and offered impressive rituals; the religion of liberty lived in...

    • 18 IN THE NAME OF CHRIST
      (pp. 186-199)

      Fascism offends Christian conscience. Don Giovanni Minzoni, parish priest in Argenta, massacred by the fascists on August 23, 1923, was among the first who understood this fundamental truth. Born in Ravenna on June 29, 1885, he took holy orders on september 18, 1909. His Christ was on the side of men who seek justice, as revealed by a moving page from his diary:

      Every night, as I return home, I pass by the Camera del Lavoro [Chamber of Labor], and it breaks my heart to see those halls, all with the lights turned on, and with the walls covered with...

    • 19 INNER LIBERTY
      (pp. 200-213)

      As Fascism accentuated its totalitarian character and tried to infuse its domination into people’s consciences, those antifascists who were intellectually more refined directed their research toward the rediscovery of an inner liberty. They were aware of the fact that once fascism became hegemonic, the last glimmer of hope for a political and civil liberation also would die. The philosopher Piero Martinetti (1872–1943) is a prime example of opposition to fascism in the name of human dignity. Starting in 1926, when fascism took on a totalitarian character, he exhorted students to that pride of character that is the distinctive trait...

    • 20 THE RELIGION OF LIBERTY
      (pp. 214-225)

      Among the others, Croce’s voice rose with a particular force and was able to penetrate souls. As early as 1925, he outlined the characteristics of a religion of liberty opposing the fascist religion. In his “Manifesto degli intellettuali antifascisti” (Manifesto of antifascist intellectuals), which he wrote in direct response to the “Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals” composed by Gentile, he uses the most severe words against fascism’s claim to be a new religion for Italy:

      Let us leave aside the already-known and arbitrary historical interpretations and patchworks. For the mistreatment of the doctrines and history is minor thing, in that text,...

    • 21 A RELIGION THAT INSTILLS HOPE
      (pp. 226-234)

      After finishingStoria D’Europa, on December 6, 1931, Croce wrote Thomas Mann, asking permission to dedicate his work to him:

      Now I ask you if you allow me to dedicate it to your name. I remember the converging thoughts of our Munich conversation, and I feel the natural desire to address it to one of the few (they are not many in Europe) who still cultivate certain ideals. You will see by reading the introduction what is the line of this history. I must tell you that there are unfavorable interpretations of Prussian, Bismarkian, Treitschkian, nationalistic history. But remember that...

    • 22 THE RELIGION OF DUTY
      (pp. 235-248)

      Croce’s work was noteworthy not only because it indicated the moral and political contents, as well as historical references, of the religion of liberty but also because it collected and refined rich and varied reflections that searched for an effective alternative to the fascist religion. Among the protagonists of this search, though, first place goes to Carlo and Nello Rosselli, witnesses of a religion of duty that was different from Croce’s philosophical premises and political conclusions, yet identical to it in the central role played by the principle of moral liberty. They had been led to the religion of duty...

    • 23 AS IF GOD EXISTED
      (pp. 249-258)

      It was Ernesto Rossi who instead recognized the absolute authority of moral conscience and posited it as the foundation of his religious conception of life. Sentenced to twenty years in prison for his participation in the conspiratorial activity of GL, he wrote to his mother, Elide Rossi, from the penitentiary in Piacenza, on January 20, 1933, that he was happy she no longer had any tie with the Catholic religion:

      Usually, when they grow old, women become bigoted: you, instead, have moved further and further away not only from the Catholic religion but also, more important, from any revealed religion....

    • 24 ONLY A GOD CAN EXPEL A GOD
      (pp. 259-267)

      In those same years, Calamandrei, a Florentine who was a nonbeliever and a nonpracticing Christian as well as a distinguished lawyer, reached the conclusion that in order to save human and Christian civilization from Nazism and fascism, men needed to rediscover faith in God. We can follow his reflections in the pages of his diary, which he kept from 1939 to 1945, putting both himself and his relatives at risk, so that some person of goodwill, a few centuries later, could understand how and why a whole civilization had died out. The anguish that filled him during the war years,...

    • 25 LEAVING LIFE
      (pp. 268-274)

      Calamandrei expressed the religion of liberty by throwing himself into work, teaching, and writing, and tirelessly defending the Resistenza’s moral and political legacy. Others gave their life for that same religion. Umberto Ceva is one example, among many others. Born in Pavia in 1900, he was a chemist and manager. As early as 1929, he joined Giustizia e libertà. He was arrested in 1930 together with Ernesto Rossi and Riccardo Bauer (betrayed by the Friulan lawyer Carlo del Re). Fearful of breaking down under torture and jeopardizing his fellows, he committed suicide in the Regina Coeli prison. His sister Bianca...

    • 26 TWILIGHT
      (pp. 275-282)

      How many people lived by the religion of liberty? Certainly more than the few whose stories I have tried to recount. I hope that other scholars will relay other stories. But numbers count little. From a historical and moral point of view, what counts is that there were men and women who opposed fascism and Nazism in the name of the religion of liberty. This is a historical fact. Intellectual honesty requires that we rediscover and recognize that fact. The religion of liberty gave the Resistenza a religious character. The first who understood this was, I believe, Raffaele Pettazzoni, a...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 283-328)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 329-352)