Italy: From Revolution to Republic, 1700 to the Present

By Spencer M. Di Scala | Go to book overview

1
The Italian Enlightenment

A Europe-wide movement, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment used ideas as "intellectual weapons" to alter the existing religious, political, and social situation. The intellectuals of this age, the philosophes (illuministi in Italian), aimed to transform their traditional, rigid, and inequitable society into a world with greater justice. They utilized "reason," critical judgment that corroded the "myths" underpinning the existing political and social structure. By employing reason, they could also analyze society, learn the principles governing behavior, and achieve a more perfect and rational world by applying these principles through education and influence upon powerful "Enlightened monarchs."

In short, the philosophes applied physicist Isaac Newton’s scientific methodology to the study of society, reversing the prevailing attitude of reverence for the past and aiming for perfection in the future rather than lamenting the loss of the past’s golden age. Using the rules of evidence, they questioned everything, destroyed the historical basis of the old regime, and set the stage for the "Age of the Democratic Revolution" in Europe and America.

In practice, the philosophes advocated eliminating the Church’s political power, judging government by a utilitarian yardstick, rationalizing the economy by eliminating feudal vestiges and by establishing an equitable tax system, opening careers to talent instead of birth, drafting constitutions to limit the power of governments, securing civil rights, and reforming the justice system.


Reciprocal Influences

France’s position as center of the Enlightenment sometimes causes observers to overlook the crucial contributions of Italian, German, English, Russian, and other thinkers, and Marxist analyses of the movement as the expression of a rising bourgeoisie have downplayed the Enlightenment’s revolutionary character outside France. In Italy during the 1920s and 1930s, Fascist domination encouraged interpretation of the Italian Enlightenment as a purely native move-

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