ROME — Italy is often the brunt of jokes — and sometimes with good reason: Its corrupt political system (if it can even be called that) is quasi-anarchical, its social organization could be called feudal, its economy is sluggish and, culturally, it is on a population death spiral with Europe’s lowest population growth.
Our popular culture often participates in ridicule of Italians. In director Robert Altman’s widely-praised Gosford Park, Raymond Stockbridge, one of the upper crust English characters, admonishes his wife to stop crying over the death of her brother-in-law, saying: “Do stop snivelling! Anyone would think you were Italian!” The pages of The Economist, too, often gleefully disparage Italy’s business and political leaders, especially, of late, Romano Prodi, the current prime minister.
But after spending the last two weeks in Italy — visiting friends and family, meeting with church officials and talking to professors — I’ve started thinking that there is still plenty we can learn from this ancient if imperfect republic. And it’s not just about Roman ruins, high fashion, performance cars and espresso as thick as West Texas Intermediate Crude.
In fact, there’s an extremely rich heritage of conservative political thought in Italy long neglected by many Anglo-American thinkers.
With the exception of classic Italian works within the Western canon — works by writers like Dante Alighieri, Ludovico Ariosto and Niccolo Machiavelli, for example, or more controversial thinkers like Antonio Gramsci — I think I can safely say that we know very little of Italian contributions to political philosophy. Can any of us name any contemporary Italian political thinkers?
A few years ago, however, something happened on the European public stage that put a spotlight on one of Italy’s leading political philosophers. In 2004, Rocco Buttiglione, a member of Italy’s center-right Popular Party and a widely-admired academic and political philosopher, was nominated to be the European Commission’s new Minister of Justice, Freedom and Security.
Unfortunately, his personal Roman Catholic views were not acceptable to Europe’s left or to the EU’s secular (and possibly anti-Catholic) political machine. Controversy ensued. Buttiglione’s nomination was eventually withdrawn and subsequent accounts of the whole disgraceful incident by people like George Weigel referred (appropriately) to his “inquisition” or “Borking.”
The point is that Buttiglione is just the tip of the iceberg. He’s representative of a long line of Italian conservative intellectuals who sadly have been ignored for too long even in their own country.
Along with several other prominent academics, Buttiglione was a student of the late Augusto Del Noce, a conservative intellectual strongly admired by Italy’s conservative intellectuals. He has been the subject of a few recent doctoral theses at the Pontifical Universities in Rome but seems largely unknown elsewhere. This is a shame as Del Noce could almost be said to have been the godfather of Italy’s conservative intellectual movement.
During my days in and around the seven hills of Rome, I stopped at every used bookstore I came across in an effort to track down works by Buttiglione and Del Noce. Along the way (and this is one of the joy’s of frequenting used bookstores), I discovered half a dozen other Italian conservative intellectuals worthy of the pages of Modern Age: Roberto De Mattei, a historian who has collaborated with the conservative Brazilian group Tradition, Family and Property; Armando Plebe, who wrote a book in the early 1970s on “reactionary philosophy”; and the young Gian Franco Lami who has written exhaustive introductory works to Del Noce and Eric Voegelin. This is all some very stimulating material!
A quick look through some of their writings — which I have had to dispatch back to my home in Vermont via air freight — shows that none of these are light-weights; nor are they simple policy analysts or political operatives. These are deep thinkers on a par with Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Leo Strauss and Willmoore Kendall, among others.
It is a pity that most of these Italian writers have yet to be translated into English. (Maybe someday an enterprising young conservative scholar out there — perhaps with funding from a conservative think-tank — will remedy this situation.) What is clear to me, however, as a long-time admirer of the Anglo-American political philosophy distilled so ably by Russell Kirk, is that it may be time to start looking beyond the Anglosphere for conservative arguments and philosophical ideas to strengthen our own understanding of conservatism.
It’s not a matter of simply trying to appear more inclusive of other cultures like that of the Italians; nor is there some kind of conservative multiculturalism that is behind what I am saying. Rather, I am motivated more than anything else by the simple realization that many Americans have very little appreciation for the European roots of their culture and political system.
Even among conservatives, the philosophy of ordered liberty, freedom and responsibility seems to exist too often with little acknowledgment of our inheritance from the Old Continent. Much of this was made even more apparent to me as I flipped through a 600-page work [by yet another Italian: Massimo Salvadori] which described the European ideas that inspired and motivated American leaders during the first 100 years of our Republic.
Based on my recent writings while in Europe, friends have accused me of having “gone native.” This is amusing — but wildly off the mark. I am not now saying that Europe (or even Italy) is superior to our “shining city on a hill.” But I do think it is time that we remember the admiration that our Founding Fathers had for Old Europe — and perhaps allow ourselves to be similarly inspired (and elevated). We need to tap into our European roots. I don’t think there is anything unreasonable or Europhilic about this.
Alvino-Mario Fantini is Europe correspondent for Brainwash. He is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire