Experiencing Action as History
We have seen that Croce insisted on the endless interaction of the theoretical and practical sides of what we do, so the scope for knowing and truth is bound up with practice, the world of action. Indeed, though we continue to know the world afresh, the whole movement of the spirit is toward action. But in considering practice, Croce took another step, giving a particular spin to his understanding of what we do. What happens through our actions is the endless remaking of the world in history. Purely contemplative thinking or understanding, even if possible, would be evanescent, unreal, because it would not enter history, contributing to that ongoing remaking. In a Crocean mode, then, we experience what we do as shaping the world for keeps. Thus Croce's emphasis on "the immortality of the act," the cumulative weight of our actions in the endless coming to be of the world.
Nietzsche and Croce started with a comparably radical way of embedding human being in the endless history through which the world keeps becoming some particular way. For each, our present is nothing but the resultant of the whole past, and what we do shapes the future, conditioning reality, as Nietzsche put it, for all eternity. Moreover, each denied that we might attune ourselves to some higher, extrahistorical dimension and thereby feel out of phase with our merely historical world, even though history depends on mechanisms that may seem cruel and that may, on occasion, entail a feeling of futility for the
individual. Indeed, each posited a kind of identification with the world as history and pointed toward a mode of affirmation, as opposed to alienation and the "absurd" sense of not belonging in this apparently cruel and futile world. Although we are "merely" historical creatures, we need not experience ourselves as inadequate or incomplete. In meshing with the world as history, we are congruent with all there is.
For both Nietzsche and Croce, this congruence undermines any basis for making moral judgments about anything that has happened historically. We come to feel instead the necessity of all there has been for there to be this moment, which we cannot coherently deny, for to do so would mean denying ourselves and thus the very possibility of such negation. Croce insisted that even our negative judgments presuppose the resultant of history so far, even as they help to change it. Nietzsche made much the same point as he deplored the claim "to judge history, to divest it of its fatality, to discover responsibility behind it, guilty men in it." Seeking to uncover the sources of this attitude, he suggested that losers who could not bear their own lives needed "a theory through which they can shift the responsibility for their existence, for their being thus and thus, on to some sort of scapegoat." This was a mode of ordering characteristic of dissatisfied individuals who, as the culture came to experience itself as radically historical, could do no better than to blame history itself for the fact that their historically specific lives had not turned out well.
But Nietzsche and Croce were subject to different preoccupations, and their modes of affirmation led to quite different conceptions of the cultural priorities. Indeed, Nietzsche posited eternal recurrence and the innocence of becoming partly to box out the sort of relationship with the world that Croce proposed a few years later. The Nietzschean sense of completeness dissolves the historicist tension that leads to a premium on action informed by historical understanding. History becomes a mere scaffold or foundation for self-justifying individual experience, even self-creation. We experience what we do as innocent play as opposed to weighty, history-making action.
Croce went in the opposite direction, emphasizing both endless openness and the cumulative weight of what we do. A purely historical world entails precisely the endless creativity and novelty that Nietzsche, in his later works, took pains to deny. The world is forever unfinished, and we feel its incompleteness as a call to further creative response in action. So my sense of affirmation means not that I settle for the particular world that has resulted so far but that I feel sufficiently at one with it to care for it, to feel some responsibility for what it will become next.
That sense of responsibility demands ethical response—response that is not merely self-serving—but it also calls my cognitive capacities into operation.
Croce was determined to specify a measure of rationality, a cognitive moment in action, partly in response to the increasing emphasis on will, passion, or myth in the culture of his time. Rather than respond on the basis of moral passion alone, we seek to understand the present moment, through inquiry into its historical genesis, so that we might more effectively act upon it.
The sense of responsibility that informs action as history-making contrasts directly with the innocence that Nietzsche sought to imagine. And when compared with Nietzsche's radical effort to work "beyond good and evil," Croce's emphasis on ethical response, like his emphasis on truth, appears safe and conventional at first. But Croce's historicist reduction had radically transformed the ethical category. Ethical response does not involve the application of transcendent, suprahistorical values; it is simply one of the defining attributes of human being. As individuated embodiments of the spirit, we all establish right, good, justice in the particular situations we face, thereby adding to what "justice" has come to encompass so far. Such response is "ethical" precisely insofar as it results from our care for the world, our sense of responsibility for it—insofar as we want what we do to last, affecting what the world becomes.
But though Croce's way of invoking the ethical was postmetaphysical and historicist, Nietzsche still had reason to head off any such conception. The mode of eternal recurrence dissipates any experience of the world as incomplete and inadequate and the consequent sense of responsibility. The world at every moment is complete, perfect; there is nothing else that needs to be done. Even insofar as my actions will change the actual, I do not act in order to change it. As Crocean weight disappears from action, so does the shadow of judgment and guilt. Thus the mature Nietzsche could imagine action as innocent play.
Croce could have said, with Nietzsche, that "my consolation is that everything that has been is eternal." But the sense for Croce was profoundly different. In a world without transcendence, I take comfort that what I do lives on after me, helping to make reality a particular way at all subsequent moments, forever. Thus what ultimately matters, what is ultimately real, is what I do, not my subjective experience, not what I go through as I decide what to do. The meaning of what I do is bound up with the larger, ongoing coming to be of this particular world.
Partly because he deemphasized sheer individual experience in this way, Croce drew fire from Italian existentialists like Nicola Abbagnano, who accused him of downplaying the subjectivity of the person, even of submerging the living, suffering individual into a blandly benign process. But Croce repeatedly
denied the charge of insipid optimism; for the individual, being caught up in the happening of a particular history was closer to tragedy than to idyll. Although he understood that responsibility entails anxiety for the individual, Croce saw no point in dwelling on that anxiety, and he denied that anxious personal experience was somehow privileged or ultimate. Such accents invited morbid self-preoccupation as opposed to a premium on responsible, history-making action. But even so, Croce was as forceful as Nietzsche or the later existentialists in probing the implications of the loss of transcendence for individual experience.
In Croce's world, desire for the immortality that only history can offer helps structure our lives. We want to affect what the world becomes, and we fear the sense of futility we feel when our actions fail to connect with the growing world. So we seek a vocation that enables us to focus our efforts and maximize our chance to respond effectively. Moreover, whereas Nietzsche sought to get out from under priests, theologians, the long shadow that Christianity still cast across the world, Croce sought explicitly to reformulate Christian categories as he accented human responsibility for the ongoing growth of the world in history. Indeed, his absolute historicism was very nearly a new "religion of history," based on this recasting not only of immortality but also of providence, grace, faith, prayer, and even God for a horizontal, postmetaphysical world.
"Grace," for Croce, is the individual's participation in the overall power of the spirit; "providence" fits some particular action to the historically specific moment, making that action effective. The individual may even "pray" for the grace necessary to act effectively and thereby mesh with history. And it is "faith in history," faith that what we do will interact with the contributions of others to have the desired impact on the future, that most fundamentally surrounds Crocean action. In entrusting what we do to history, we hope that those who come after will use our legacies well, just as we feel under obligation to use well what the past has bequeathed to us.
Again, however, it is crucial that our cognitive capacities come into operation, complementing these religious impulses. Even my choice of an overall vocation depends partly on my historical grasp of the world in which I find myself. As was true of the generation of 1914 in Robert Wohl's account, inadequate historical understanding impedes the connection between individual and present and breeds a feeling of futility.
If we feel ourselves responsible, are we then subject to judgment in Croce's
religion of history—along the lines Nietzsche feared? Even though he accented ethical responsibility in a way Nietzsche did not, for Croce, too, there is an important sense in which what we do is innocent. Insofar as my action is an ethical response to the world, it is not subject to second-guessing according to some external, transcendent standard, for there is nothing but me at this moment to establish the moral response to this particular situation. This is true whatever becomes of my response, whatever the world makes of it. Thus Croce's insistence that past actions simply are not subject to moral judgment.
Our actions are, however, subject to what Croce called historical judgment, and that would be sufficient to worry Nietzsche; even for Croce it adds a layer of anxiety in each of us as we act. Historical judgment seeks to determine what some action was—whether it was moral or not—and how it entered history. Insofar as my action stemmed from laziness, or a desire for edification, or a selfish concern with my own immediate advantage, it was not ethical. Such amoral utility may even have compromised my effort genuinely to inquire, seeking to learn; the resulting deficiencies in my understanding may have compromised the effectiveness of my action, even rendered it futile. So the historian who refuses risk, settles for propaganda, or curries the favor of reviewers, invites later condemnation. Even if my action is a pure, authentic existentialist gesture, it can be condemned insofar as I failed to prepare it through historical inquiry.
For Croce, then, there is no transcendent or last judgment, but my acts and even my vocation itself are endlessly subjected to the provisional judgment of history, which is all there is to determine the meaning of what I have done. In one sense, history is the harshest of judges, because it lacks the capacity to forgive or absolve. At the same time, however, the meaning of what I have done, its place in reality, can always be made different—by means of subsequent action, even by others after my death.
Nietzsche was actively seeking to avoid even such a horizontal mode of judgment, which he felt betrayed the legacy of Christian categories. Croce, however, did not deny that Christian categories were still at work in his way of conceiving judgment, responsibility, and the scope for creative ethical response in action. Indeed, he implicitly admitted what Nietzsche charged: It was through Christianity that we came to have this sense of creativity and responsibility; the notion of creative moral spirit derives precisely from the idea of God and the world as created by God. And our sense of being subjected to judgment for how we stand, or act, vis-à-vis the whole, now become history, inevitably follows.
In adapting Christian categories, Croce was seeking to enhance the
plausibility of his historicist way of conceiving individual experience in a world that was, just as Nietzsche had assumed, fundamentally post-Christian but that, nonetheless, could not deny the particular—Christian—way it had been. Though we have come to recognize its contingency, and though we might now wish to reject parts of it, Christianity, too, is immortal. And thus Croce's claim, in a controversial article of 1942, that "we cannot but call ourselves Christians" (non possiamo non dirci "cristiani" ).
Is Nietzsche, then, the more innovative and postmodern of the two thinkers? It may seem so at first, because Croce invoked religious categories like grace and providence that Nietzsche was willing to do without. But it was Nietzsche who longed for, and posited, redemption, a restoration of innocence. Croce did not feel the same need for redemption because he was less traumatized by the religious categories centering around sin and judgment. Each thinker was a pioneer in the post-Christian confrontation with the enduring legacy of Christianity in our tradition, and neither need be taken as privileged or more advanced.