Recensione a: Vincenzo Cuoco, Historical Essay on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799, edited and introduced by Bruce Haddock and Filippo Sabetti, translated by David Gibbons, Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library, Toronto Buffalo London: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2014. li + 312 pp.
Thanks to this edition of the Historical Essay on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799, translated by David Gibbons and so nicely edited by Bruce Haddock and Filippo Sabetti, the English-speaking readers finally have access to a lynchpin of the great history of Italian political thought. A text which not only explains the history of the ideas of a nation, at that time still not politically united, but, according to many scholars, rightly and firmly inscribes the ideas of Vincenzo Cuoco within the school of European liberal conservatism, showing them to be on a par to Edmund Burke’s for analytical sharpness and predictive validity.
As highlighted by the two editors in the ‘Introduction’, the young Cuoco had the good fortune of having been brought up, culturally and politically, in one of the most intellectually fruitful periods in the history of Southern Italy. What characterized his training, was an acute sense of reality derived from the study of Machiavelli, probably suggested to him by Giuseppe Maria Galanti, an economist, writer, publisher, politician and traveler – a leading figure of the Neapolitan Enlightenment. Through forensic practice, Cuoco started understanding men and affairs, becoming familiar with the political and administrative structure of the state. Legal disputes between municipalities and landowners were very frequent in the Bourbon kingdom, and Cuoco learned much about the feudal question, so as to devote to it very insightful pages in his Essay. According to many interpreters of his thought, Cuoco’s political ideology would become, in many respects, that of the Italian moderate liberal party leading the process of national unification in the mid-nineteenth century. Even more: his ideas would also influence scholars such as Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. In the wake of the Neapolitan vicissitudes, Cuoco matured the conviction that priority should be given to the modernization of the state and the formation of the national spirit, rather than to political freedom. Thanks to his study of Machiavelli and Vico and the ideas of eighteenth-century Neapolitan culture, Cuoco took on an original stand in the face of the French Revolution. He accepted the legal and social order that emerged after 1789 as irreversible, but he refrained from considering it a perfect model to be implanted anywhere without any changes.
The editors have properly grasped and stressed the importance of a comparison between the ideas of Cuoco and Edmund Burke, another great critic of the French Revolution. But if in the case of the latter his was, in many respects, a preventive critique, and thus ideologically partial despite its validity, Cuoco’s criticism appears to be even more solid and persuasive, since it is formulated ex post. As is convincingly argued by Haddock and Sabetti, ‘where Burke had been concerned to minimize the abuses of the ancien régime in order to heighten the absurdity of revolutionary ideas, Cuoco painted a picture of a Kingdom of Naples desperately in need of reform’ (‘Editors’ Introduction’, p. xxiii). The Italian scholar, moreover, was able to seize another utterly original key issue for a history of European revolutionary movement: ‘by attributing overriding importance to the ideas of revolutionaries, the sovereigns of Europe had exposed themselves to a ferment which […] would be satisfied by nothing less than the wholesale reconstruction of the political order’ (p. xxiv). In this sense, Cuoco proves to be a thinker that can be more properly labelled as a reformist than a conservative – or, actually, a reformist who gives great weight to the gradualism and moderation in terms of legislative intervention to change a political, legal and fiscal systems in crisis and no longer capable of meeting the needs of citizens. In a famous passage, Cuoco stresses how much ‘the French were forced to deduce principles from the most abstract metaphysics, and fell into the error to which men who follow abstract ideas are excessively prone – that is, to confuse their own ideas with the laws of nature. They believed that everything they had done or wanted to do was the duty and right of all men’ (chap. VII: 41).
Conservative or reformist, what is the best definition for Vincenzo Cuoco’s thought? In this, a couple of quotes might be helpful. In January 1792, Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote in a letter to Friedrich von Gentz: ‘[I]t is impossible to graft onto men Constitutions as one grafts shoots onto trees. When times are not yet ripe and nature has not already done the preparatory work, it is as if one tied blooms with a wire. The first meridian sun makes them fall’. The German scholar meant that no nation could be prepared and mature enough for a constitution drawn up at the table, based solely on reason. In conclusion, revolutions for Humboldt were always more harmful than beneficial because they claim to disrupt society and re-found it ab imis fundamentis. The same aversion towards the revolutionary spirit was felt by the so-called French ‘doctrinaire’ of the Age of the Restoration (Royer-Collard, Guizot, Rémusat, etc.), who appreciated, of what had happened after 1789, the emancipatory aspect with respect to the constraints and privileges of the ancient régime, but refused the violent and demagogic degenerations that had led to tyranny. These are all ideas of authors who are now classic, a crucial part of the liberal tradition. Many of these considerations, we find in the work of Vincenzo Cuoco, who might then be considered a liberal thinker of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century – and this means a revolutionary thinker cum juicio, or with caution and moderation, with a sense of historicity, aware of the importance of geographical and cultural variables.
That said, it cannot be denied that Cuoco’s ideas are, at times, excessively tied to his personal experiences, which are, substantially, a failure from the political point of view. This, possibly, prevents him from grasping what in those years Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel understood, that is, that with the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ of 26 August 1789 the rational became reality and reality became the rational. It was certainly just the beginning of a long process, and much violence and coercion were to be used for that transformation to start and to take root. But it is equally certain that such a process has never stopped since and, between progress and braking, it has deepened and has come down to us, even spreading outside of the borders of Europe, not least because the first idealistic transformation of the social and political reality had occurred, shortly before, in the United States, the great hegemonic power of the mid-twentieth and early twenty-first century.
[di prossima uscita su «European History Quarterly». Ringrazio l’amico Matthew D’Auria per la traduzione in inglese dell’articolo]