The Italian Enlightenment and the Rehabilitation of Moral and Political Philosophy

The European Legacy 25 (7-8):743-759 (2020)
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By reconstructing the eighteenth-century movement of the Italian Enlightenment, I show that Italy’s political fragmentation notwithstanding, there was a constant circulation of ideas, whether on philosophical, ethical, political, religious, social, economic or scientific questions—among different groups in various states. This exchange was made possible by the shared language of its leading illuministi— Cesare Beccaria, Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Francesco Maria Zanotti, Antonio Genovesi, Mario Pagano, Pietro Verri, Marco Antonio Vogli, and Giammaria Ortes—and resulted in four common traits. First, the absence of a radical trend, such as the French materialist-atheist trend and British Deism, or religious reformation. Second, the rejection of inhumane laws and institutions, capital punishment, torture, war and slavery. Third, the idea of public happiness as the goal of good government and legislation. And fourth, the conception of the economy as a constellation where social capital, consisting of education, morality, and civility, plays a decisive role. I conclude that the Italian Enlightenment, not unlike the Scottish Enlightenment, was both cosmopolitan and local, which allowed its leading writers to develop a keen awareness of the complexity of society alongside a degree of prudence regarding the possibility and desirability of its modernization.

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