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Italian Literature and Libertarian Theory

  • Speaking Truth to Power

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 Annali D’Italianistica, “Speaking Truth to Power: From Medieval to Modern Italy.” Volume 34, 2016. Edited by Jo Ann  Cavallo and Carlo Lottieri.

The great historian of the Italian Renaissance Jacob Burckhardt said, “Power is evil,” and Jo Ann Cavalho and Carlo Lottieri, the co-editors of this volume, would with one caveat agree with him. They distinguish between political power and power of other sorts: it is only the former that is to be condemned. “Many authors have grouped together under the same umbrella political power (which compels compliance through the use or threat of physical force), cultural power. . . and economic power. . .Against this all-inclusive definition of power, we maintain that culture and wealth do not represent, in themselves, instruments of violence. . .For this reason we have chosen to focus critical attention specifically on opposition to political power. . .because the state, regardless of the structure it assumes, is the only entity that claims a legal monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory and thereby compels compliance through physical aggression.” (p.21)

As is readily apparent, the editors are convinced libertarians, and they draw explicitly on Austrian economics and the political philosophy of Rothbard and Hoppe. “The conception of state power outlined above is shared by the Austrian School of economics and by libertarian philosophy.” (p.21)

The volume’s twenty essays range over Italian literature and history from Dante to Elsa Morante, and I can here comment on only a few of these. Cavallo  discusses  a novella, “Triunfo da Camarino” (Triumph of the Little Room) written by  by Giovanni Sabadino  degli Arienti, (1443/5-1510) The story is about a servant “who regularly stages a dialogue between the emperor and the pope during his daily hour of privacy and who abruptly leaves his aristocratic employer after the latter spies on him and discovers his secret pastime.” (p.141)

In her analysis of the tale, Cavalho draws from Franz Oppenheimer: “Triunfo [the servant] opposes the pope’s and the emperor’s coercive modus  operandi. . . Whereas his performance draws attention to the political means used by those in power, his interactions with his employer illustrate instead the economic means underlying consensual exchange in the market place. According to sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, who coined these terms, there is a fundamental opposition between these two means of seeking to attain one’s desires. . . In the first case, the pope and emperor resort to coercion and threats. . . in order to wage war and increase their power. By contrast, in the private space of Piero’s household, the contractual parties freely negotiate mutually acceptable conditions. When the aristocratic employer violates the contract by invading the servant’s privacy, the latter responds by exercising his unquestioned right to depart as a sovereign individual.” (p.159)

Nicla Riverso analyzes the efforts of the 16th century Venetian friar Paolo Sarpi to defend the Venetian Republic against the power-seeking and corruption of the Roman Curia. “In his explanation of the unscrupulous means by which the pope arrogated more authority and power to himself, Sarpi notes that to exercise temporal power is to ignore the divine injunction against exercising any authority over the bishops which might divert them from their main task, namely the care of believers.”  (p.304). Riverso discusses Sarpi’s great influence on English Protestant writers; this was in sharp contrast to his waning power at home. I would add to Riverso’s account that Sarpi’s influence on English writers continued in the 20th century. A.N. Whitehead in his Lowell Lectures at Harvard, Science and the Modern World, quotes from Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent.  

Maria Giménez Cavallo carries the dissection of state power to the 1970s. In an discussion of  Elsa Morante’s La storia. Cavallo finds that “Morante’s meditation led her to distrust  the prevailing ideologies of the period.. Her political vision cannot be understood by applying the narrow, horizontal categories of Left vs. Right, since it tends to move in a different spatial direction altogether, a vertical axis in which state power is opposed to freedom. “(p.424)

Cavallo finds both similarities and differences between Morante and Rothbard. Morante “insists upon the basic premise that anarchism is the antithesis of Power and therefore cannot be arrived at through the use of violence or state power in any form. . .This refusal to align anarchism with Leftist paradigms might seem at first glance to bring her vision in line with that of the American libertarian philosopher, economist, and activist Murray Rothbard. . .Where they split company, however, is on the issue of property rights.. Whereas Rothbard, in Lockean fashion, grounds human rights in the self-ownership of one’s body  and one’s rightfully acquired property, advocating free-market capitalism, Morante includes private property in the list of evils  to combat in order to arrive at a collectivist anarchic society.” (p.443)

This very valuable collection continues the work of Paul Cantor, Stephen Cox, and Allen Mendenhall,  among others, in applying Austrian insights to literary history and criticism.


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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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