Brooding and saddened, as if looking down on his country’s ruin, is the face of Benedetto Croce, world-famous Italian philosopher. At left and right are symbols of the tragedy of the peninsula’s recent history. Fascism – which Croce never yielded to – represented in the ceremony of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in the heyday of the Axis placing a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier in front of the Victor Emmanuel II monument of Rome. At right, Italy’s present devastation, caused by combination of bombings, artillery bombardment and German demolitions, is typified by a war-wrecked granary. The nation faces a huge reconstruction after the war.

By Gregory Clark, December 31, 1943.

By Air Courier to the Star Weekly from Naples

Between my hotel in Naples and the temporary home of old and famous Benedetto Croce in Sorrento, lie 30 miles – in every foot of which occurs not one field, not one meadow, not one open garden.

It is just endless human habitation. Naples; then the suburbs of Naples; then the villages adjoining Naples, in continuous contact of house, hovel, wall, beautiful but forbidding villa, humanity crawling amidst it everywhere.

So that by the time my jeep drew up in front of the massive flower-laden (in November!) wall of the villa of the late William Waldorf Astor in Sorrento, where Benedetto Croce has had sanctuary the past year or so, I was already numbed and saddened for his answer to my question – “What is the future of Italy now?”

His answer was – a regency for the five-year-old prince, grandson of the present King Victor Emmanuel, which would allow 15 or 20 years before that young gentleman could become sufficient of a king to interfere with still one more of the countless attempts for Italy to work out a political system that will bring her abreast of the western world in freedom, in comfort, in stability – or abreast of us in our dreams of those things.

This regency would get rid of both the king and the crown prince who suffer some share of the Italian people’s furious reaction to fascism. They are tainted. The regency would permit Badoglio or some other trusted or half-trusted individual to act as head of the government, surrounded by ministers representing both the Socialists, who want a republic, and the anti-Socialists, who feel safer with a king.

There are not a few in Italy who want neither. They want exactly what all of us should have foreseen as the reaction to fascism when it collapsed. And that is communism. There is the rub in Italy.

All the forces, individual and political, in Britain, America, France and everywhere else in the shivering old-fashioned world who helped build up fascism in Italy and Germany as a barricade against communism failed to foresee that if fascism failed, a great dammed-up force of the thing they were trying so desperately to dam back, would burst upon them. Italy right now is the ground over which that dam is to burst – if a whole horde of excited and anxious people, not all of them Italian, do not bear false witness.

In going to see Benedetto Croce, who is 78 years old, and who was already a world-famous philosopher and scientist 40 years ago, and minister of education for three years prior to fascism, I went with no political interest whatever. I am just one of those thousands of Canadians and tens of thousands of Americans who for the past three months have been walking through Italy looking upon nationwide spectacle of poverty, degradation, despair and ruin.

We do not need to be politicians to know that something has got to be done about Italy. We need only be citizens of Canada and the United States to know that when this war is all over and we go back home, we will have memories to bear, opinions to hold and votes to cast.

Across the Bay of Naples from the villa window in Sorrento we could see Naples. Along the waterfront, as modern and up-to-date as any great seaport in the world, lay utter and pitiless ruin. Not millions, but billions of dollars have gone up under our bombs and German demolition blasts. By some infernal humor of war, we had left that part of Naples which was old and historic and muddled and narrow and typical of everything Italy has been trying to escape from intact. But everything modern and new and big, everything that represented Italy’s effort to escape from the past, her port, her shipbuilding yards, her great modern factories and warehouses of every conceivable line of industry, we had reduced to tangled ruins of bent steel and heaped rubble.

“And further north,” said Croce, “in Milan, Turin and Genoa, the ruin and loss are worse.”

“It is not this ruin I wanted to ask you about,” I started. “We have lately fought and marched several hundred miles from the very toe of Italy through an Italy I am sure not one of the thousands of Canadians who saw it believed was possible in this day and age. Tiny villages which in America would house 500 people, housing 5,000. Living conditions so remote from all modem conceptions of public health, let alone human dignity, that it seemed to us we were dreaming. Peasants in a world from which we thought peasants had gone long, long ago. Women acting as beasts of burden. Slavery, with no other word for it, everywhere. Here and there, a county town with a brave show of a few modern buildings in the midst. But around the back, the same old filth and degradation. If it takes billions to restore those factories over there along the proud front of Naples and in Milan and Turin and all over the north of Italy, how many more billions will it take to sweep Italy free of the 16th century?”

Croce may have been a little offended at my naive and unctuous question. But his answer was this:

“If we can have a pause, free of political turmoil, long enough to permit the best elements of the Italian people to express themselves to one another, I am confident that not only is there a sufficient number of those best elements to establish, by legislation, a reasonable and happy solution for Italy, but that the sufferings Italy has experienced in the last war, in this war and under fascism between the two, have finally inspired in the Italian people a mass desire for peace and security that will survive under whatever world politics the future may surround us with.

“I was offered, along with my friend Count Sforza, a ministry under the king when he escaped from Rome and set up his government in the south with Badoglio. I refused. I said I had no ambition but that I had 78 years! I am giving anyone who asks counsel and advice. My advice is always the same. Seek a pause in events in which to bring together all the parties, all the creeds, all the sections and interests of Italy. And in that pause, free from political struggle against one another or against the world, work out Italy’s salvation. Does that answer include both the proud modern cities and the peasants?”

“How long would it take to set up this regency in the present confusion?” I asked. “And is the regency the majority opinion of the national committee?”

“The regency suggested itself to the majority of the national committee, said Croce, “when it was realized no self-respecting experienced public man in Italy could associate himself with either the king or crown prince in view of their lack of character throughout the Fascist regime. It would take us only a matter of days to set up the regency if we had the facilities of press and public halls, which of course are denied at present. Above all, however, we do not want a coup de force, a coup d’etat, another party foisting itself upon Italy. We have had enough of those. Garibaldi was one. Mussolini another. It matters not who or how good the leader, or how bad. To force there is always the reaction. In God’s name let Italy have a rest, a pause, a time to relax and talk and think freely. I am certain that if the United Nations do not understand on what a brink Italy now stands, just another and worse confusion will descend upon us.”

Benedetto Croce all his long life has been an educator and a thinker. And in this hour, he thinks what Italy needs is a period of education. He was born on the island of Ischia, near Capri. When he was a small child, his mother was killed in a great earthquake and he himself was buried for many hours in the ruins. Then, in his prime years he was all but buried under the ruins of fascism. But he survived both catastrophes. He has no fear of the powers of nature, geological or human. But when the earthquake is over he believes in clearing away the ruin, not calling down another quake to reshape the ruins in the hope that they will tumble straight.

One of Benedetto Croce’s most famous contributions to modern philosophy is his writing on the absolute. He maintains that there is no absolute fact, no absolute good, no absolute truth or even absolute beauty. He has defined the forces that bear on life to change, imperceptibly but eternally, the absolute. A sort of Einstein in the realm outside mathematics.

He has lectured in America, France, Britain, at all the greatest universities of the world. He was already a very great man when fascism rose in Italy. So famous, indeed, that when he refused to join the Fascist party, and when his non-co-operation with the Fascists became a dangerous scandal to the party, there was not a thing they dared do to him.

He did not flee the country, as other anti-Fascists did. He just went ahead non-resisting and non-co-operating. He had been made a senator by the king in 1921. After fascism, he simply declined to take his seat. When they tried to convert his writings into support for the Fascist ideal, he immediately published corrections but in such terms that nothing could be done about it. To scientist, no truth can be adduced in support of anything. It is just truth – as far as it can be seen at the moment!

And now the only advice he can give is to cease believing you have the truth; cease fighting for what you conceive to be the truth; and to get together with all your fellowmen and try to find the truth among you all. All – including peasant women staggering day and night under huge burdens

And all – including such density of population that in my jeep journey from my hotel in Naples to the late William Waldorf Astor’s villa, with high thick walls for keeping people out, and hanging lovely and high over the famous Bay of Sorrento and of Naples, I did not pass in 30 miles, one open stretch of meadow, one garden, but only continuous human habitation, wall touching wall, house-house, hovel-hovel, and all swarming and crawling with humanity, ragged, stunned sleep-walking, bewildered in a far deeper bewilderment than I ever have seen in any humanity, but which I have seen in the animal kingdom, among herds of cattle in the stockyards, and among corrals and in herds of sheep driven along dangerous tumultuous town streets.

On my way home from seeing Croce I asked my jeep driver what he thought was the chief problem of Italy.

“Too many Italians,” was his solution, as he nipped the jeep in and out amidst the ragged, scampering, sleep-walking throngs.

Too many, too confused, too pitiably victimizing one another in their ultimate hunger of body and soul; too pitiably, with wide dark blank eyes, trying to victimize us in small pitiable things, so that the tough guys among us curse them for swindlers and the soft guys among us can scarce forbear to weep.

I am thinking this minute of my backyard in Toronto, full of peace, full of security. Thinking also of my jeep driver’s farm north of Orangeville on this afternoon brown and quiet and far-flung and with nothing moving. But in the barns, the stables, in the mow, in the house, in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the milk shed, in the rocking chair beside the stove, in the kettle simmering on the wide hot top – peace, security.

I have heard only one man laugh in Italy and that was old Benedetto Croce – you pronounce it Craw-chay – when he described how his king invited him to become a minister of this, his ruined and wrecked native land. And that was when he said, from the security of his age and of his pride these past 30 years in which he pursued only truth:

“I have no ambition: I have only 78 years!”

His laughter was the saddest thing to hear.

Editor’s Notes: Greg was a war correspondent in Italy at the time. Benedetto Croce was a Greg described him, and did serve in government again after the war was over. He was also President of PEN International from 1949 until 1952, and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature sixteen times.

After the war, King Victor Emmanuel III had tried to save the monarchy by abdicating on May 9, 1946 with his son becoming King Umberto II. A constitutional referendum was held on June 2 1946 where the Republicans won, and the monarchy was abolished.

Pietro Badoglio was an Italian general during both World Wars. He became Prime Minister of Italy after the fall of the Fascists. Carlo Sforza was an Italian diplomat and anti-fascist politician.