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The best books on Italian Political Philosophy

recommended by Guglielmo Verdirame

Italy has a rich tradition of political philosophy, producing a number of thinkers with both practical experience and a cosmopolitan outlook. Here Guglielmo Verdirame, Professor of International Law at King's College London, talks us through the five most important Italian political philosophers, and the best books to read to understand their work.

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Before we go to the books that you’ve chosen, I’d like to ask you a question about Italian philosophy in general. You’re Italian, a philosopher and a lawyer. In the UK, apart from Machiavelli, who’s amongst your selection, there are relatively few Italian philosophers that get discussed. We study French philosophy, German philosophy and we might study American philosophy, but I’ve never seen a course on Italian philosophy. But there have been some great Italian philosophers. It’s strange that we don’t see an Italian tradition where we see these other traditions.

I think one reason is that Italy, as a unitary political entity, arrived quite late on the European scene. A lot of medieval philosophy by philosophers living in Italy wouldn’t be thought of as Italian philosophy. Aquinas did not grow up in a cultural context that was identified by him, or others, at that point in time, as ‘Italian’. One could even consider Augustine as Italian in some way. He’s even buried in Pavia, but he was North African really, so I didn’t want to appropriate him unfairly. Had I thought of Augustine as an Italian philosopher though, then he would have very much topped my list.

But going further back, Stoic philosophers were from the landmass now known as Italy. There was a great school of Roman stoicism, and other Roman philosophers flourished for a while too.

Yes, absolutely – the Stoics were very influential in Rome, particularly for the last generation of the Republic, on Cicero most famously. But these were still, of course, very much Roman thinkers. I think maybe Boethius is, in some ways, the first philosopher who came from the Italian landmass and was post-Roman because, while he is still very much a classical thinker, he writes after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the sixth century. Perhaps, he can be seen as Italian in the sense that the Roman Empire was gone as a political entity at that point. Maybe one could think of him as the beginning of Italian philosophy, in a certain sense.

Within Italy, do you have a national sense that these thinkers are part of a tradition?

Not as part of an Italian tradition. One wouldn’t think of Aquinas as a great Italian philosopher. One would think of him as a great Western philosopher.

That’s interesting. We talk about a British tradition of philosophy, which has a pedigree and an influence. We talk about the empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume through Mill to Bertrand Russell. There is a story we tell about the unfolding history of British philosophy. And it’s just really intriguing to me that that’s not so prevalent—at least from our perspective—in Italy.

There is perhaps a sense of a Neapolitan tradition, from Vico to Croce. And there was also the sense of a Piedmontese tradition, particularly in political philosophy after the 19th century. But I think that the idea of an Italian philosophy and an Italian ‘school’ really begins with the Italian state, and comes to maturity with someone like Croce, who was the dominant figure in Italian philosophy well after his death and until at least the ’60s and ’70s. But Italian philosophy, after national unification in 1861, for quite a long time, was seen almost as a province of German idealism on the one hand, and of Marxism on the other. Those were the two most influential traditions.

Obviously, you also always had a strand of Catholic political thought, with people like Rosmini the 19th century and other important Catholic thinkers, but somehow they ended up in a bit of a ghetto in the 20th century. University academic philosophy was very much dominated by Crocians and the Marxists, with Catholic thinkers, in spite of the enduring influence of the Catholic Church, ‘in their box’.

Let’s go to your first choice, which is the Florentine philosopher—and possibly the most famous political philosopher to emerge from Italy—Niccolò Machiavelli. Which of his books did you choose?

I chose the Discourses on Livy, which I very much prefer to The Prince. The Prince is a great book of course. But it’s also a book that, as we now know, Machiavelli wrote almost as a job application. He thought The Prince would be his ticket, to get back into the game of politics in the new Florence, dominated again by the Medici.

With the Discourses, we hear Machiavelli’s real voice, without any sense of further purpose or motive in writing it. Here is Machiavelli the humanist, commenting on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. And I think his insight into republican liberty is just extraordinary throughout the book. Every discourse within it contains a jewel, by way of an intuition, an idea, or an argument – and offers endless inspiration for further argument.

“Italians…are much more pessimistic about the course of history. They don’t think of history as linear, but as circular”

My favourite discourses are the ones around what Machiavelli saw as the strength of the foundations of Roman liberty. There are two or three discourses in the first book, where he asks how the Romans managed to create a free state after getting rid of the monarchy of Tarquinius Superbus. He says that was quite exceptional, because most peoples who get rid of a tyrant will not be able to maintain their freedom, their liberty, since in the meantime they lost – or perhaps had never developed before – the beliefs, customs and habits of liberty. They won’t know what it is to be a free people. They will not have the sentiment of liberty and the sense of duty that political liberty requires.

When the Romans got rid of Tarquinius Superbus, they still had those beliefs and sentiments. They still got what liberty was about. Corruption had begun within the elites, with the family of Tarquinius and the people around him, and it had begun to sink into the fabric of society. But society was still sufficiently healthy that they could get rid of the tyrants, and create and sustain a free republic that lasted until the civil war five centuries later.

It’s such a contrast with The Prince, where we basically have a handbook for how to be a ruthless tyrant. In this book, the Discourses, he’s praising republican liberty. How does he square that? How does the same man come up with such apparently different takes on politics? Is it simply pragmatism, that he’s just going where the wind blows? You said the Discourses represent the real Machiavelli, but how do we know that the real Machiavelli isn’t the Machiavelli of The Prince?

He was a realist and a pragmatist in the sense that he didn’t theorise politics in an abstract way. But, insofar as he had a sense of what his political moral values were, there is no question that he thought liberty was an important political and moral value. A free republic and a free people are what he would have wanted to be associated with.

But, at the same time, because he was a realist, he thought that it wasn’t within the power of politicians or philosophers to just make liberty happen. You have to look at the real conditions. You have to look at – as he put it – the mettle of the people. And, if you’re dealing with the Romans of the sixth century BC, then yes, there is still some hope of creating a free state. If you’re dealing with the Romans of the first century BC or first century AD, there was no hope anymore. Caesar gets killed, Caligula gets killed, Nero dies, but freedom doesn’t follow from any of those events, because the people at that point were too corrupt.

It’s one of those things that perhaps in contemporary analysis of liberty we sometimes prefer not to discuss. Maybe it’s become a bit politically incorrect to think about peoples as being ‘suitable’ or ‘ready’ for free government. But for Machiavelli that was a key consideration. He thought you really have to look at who the people are and ask yourself: can these people – with these values, with these beliefs, with these customs, with this history – sustain liberty? Even if you think – as I do – of freedom as a fundamental entitlement of human beings and political communities, the question of whether we have what it takes to be free is a different one.

John Stuart Mill says something quite similar that’s very controversial as well, saying that liberty was not for people “in their nonage”, that peoples who are not as developed as we are shouldn’t be getting liberty yet because they can’t cope with it, basically. That tradition carries through to the 19th century at least.

Yes and before then. In fact, Machiavelli here links up a bit with Vico, who is my next thinker on the list of five. Italian historicism is quite different from British historicism. Maybe it’s a difference between Catholic and Protestant historicism. British historicism is quite often a Whiggish historicism – this idea that history will progress and that there is linear evolution. I suppose Mill too thought that at some point people would have graduated from their nonage into adulthood. In this Whiggish sense, political institutions will become freer and freer as people become better and better. A virtuous cycle emerges: if you give them free institutions and good laws, people will flourish and improve under them.

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Italians, like Machiavelli too ultimately, but Vico especially, are much more pessimistic about the course of history. They don’t think of history as linear, but as circular. Machiavelli would not have been surprised that the Florentines, whom he would have considered extremely accomplished in so many pursuits, like art and literature, were not as accomplished politically. It just happened to be the case that the Florentines at that point in time—despite his own efforts through 12 years in active politics—were not ready for liberty. They were also disadvantaged by all sorts of geopolitical considerations. Florence was difficult to defend. The fact was that a combination of geopolitics and who the Florentines were at that point meant that a republican Florence could not, realistically, be successful.

One of the things I find so engaging about Machiavelli, and the way he writes, is that he’s drawing on experience. As you said, he’s not an abstract thinker. He tends to make his points through stories—true stories, presumably, things that he’s either observed or read about. They’re either ancient history or recent history. And his comments about them are very engaging and psychologically astute. You say he focuses on what’s possible, given the historical circumstances and the nature of the people. He’d lived in Florence through the republic, Savonarola and the Medici, major shifts in the political regime, and witnessed invasion, war, plague—things that really test human individuals in a small city state. Most political philosophers today don’t have that range of experience, or they don’t tend to draw on psychology in the same way. It’s really interesting as a style of doing political philosophy.

Yes, I think he was unusual in the degree of real political experience he had. He was one of the senior political figures in Florence for 10 or 12 years between Savonarola and the return of the Medici. In that capacity too, he brought his acute sense of reality to the table. In one of his first documents when appointed to office in Florence, Machiavelli set out for Soderini, who was essentially the prime minister/chancellor, the challenges the city faced. He explained, “We have no land and the Pope wants to conquer us. We need to count on the French because they can protect us from the Pope. Venice is always going to interfere if we try to expand our territory, but that is really what we need to do, if we want to become more sustainable as a republic. But we can’t expand our territory because the moment we get into the Romagna, Venice will go to war with us. Here in Tuscany, if we move only 20/30 kilometres south or east, we already find obstacles and enemies. So it is difficult for us to remain free in these circumstances. But this is the best we can do: let’s keep the French on our side and always remember the Pope is our enemy and will never be on our side.”

When people play that game of which philosophers they’d like to have at a dinner party, he doesn’t usually come up. I think he would have been amazing.

He would have been amazing. I think Grotius is another philosopher with a lot of practical experience, and also a practising lawyer, who would have been good at the dinner table. But the two of them are quite exceptional, I think, in the history of political philosophy—you would have thought there would be more people with political experience among political philosophers, but there are not that many.

Are the Discourses on Livy a book that a lay reader could pick up and get something from, do you think?

I think so. It’s very readable. In Italian, it’s a very Florentine Italian and it can be a bit difficult for modern readers, but there are various excellent English translations, like the one by Harvey Mansfield.

Let’s go on to your second choice, Vico. Who was Vico?

Of all the philosophers I’ve chosen, Vico would be the most foreign to a British reader, I think. He feels like a man from a different place and era because his historicism is so alien to the British mindset. He was a Neapolitan.

By the way, I have just realised he’s the only one of my five philosophers who never spent any time in prison. Gramsci spent years in prison. Machiavelli spent quite a bit of time in prison and was tortured quite badly—as was Gramsci probably. But Vico managed to avoid prison. He had quite a distinguished career in Naples. His great book is The New Science, which has some similarity in style to Machiavelli. He starts with a deep engagement with the classics. He’s obsessed with Tacitus and Thucydides and the first part of the book is all on the classics. And then, at the end of the book, he sets out his theory, which he says is based on those classics, of three cycles of history. He says all nations go through these three cycles. There is the divine era, the heroic era and the human era. And when one is over, the other starts, like on a wheel. Each of these cycles comes with distinctive laws, with distinctive temperaments and institutions. Art will also be different. Everything will be different in each of these eras. But that – Vico says – is the natural course of history, that is the eternal history, as he calls it. So there is this sense of fatalism, which as I said before, is perhaps somewhat Catholic, but it’s a particular type of Neapolitan, perhaps still a bit pagan, Catholicism that has at its heart this sort of historicism that is so deterministic, so inescapable.

You’ve used the word ‘historicism’ quite a few times. I just want to be sure what you mean by it.

I mean a theory of history that is, to some extent, deterministic. Marxism is a form of historicism in that sense, too, but it is a different kind of determinism to Vico’s.

What’s the evidence for Vico’s three-part cycle that keeps repeating? Is it based on his observation of history?

Yes, he would say it derives from the observation of history and mainly classical history. So, he says, you go through this first phase (the divine one), and you see giant statues; you have laws guarded by priests and still part of theology; you have the Mosaic law for the Jews or the Twelve Tables of the law for the Romans. You’ve got this sense of the law as God-given. The people who are in charge of the laws are priests, effectively.

After the divine era, you move to the heroic phase or cycle. This is the era of Achilles; of the celebration of war and conquest; of the poetry of poets like Pindar, celebrating the achievements of the human body. Heroic societies are not as dominated by God. They are more concerned with human achievement, but a particular type of human achievement: that of heroes.

“Had I thought of Augustine as an Italian philosopher though, then he would have very much topped my list”

The third cycle is the more properly humanistic one. Here, the laws become a much more rational, bureaucratic creation; judges are professionals; art and literature become – as the French would put it – more intimiste. There is room for all types of humans, not just heroes.

At some point, however, humanist societies will revert back to a divine, or to a heroic phase. Vico would probably say that in our society today we are at the end of the humanistic phase. And if the divine and heroic cycles feel so distant, just look at how we are now imagining the future – look at works of science fiction. The interesting thing about science fiction – films or books – is that nobody seems to imagine a future that is still humanistic as our present is. The future that we imagine is much closer to a society of heroes or to a divine society of a more pagan kind, perhaps. But most science fiction, interestingly, doesn’t imagine a hyper-humanistic future; rather, it imagines a sense of going back to more ancient times but, of course, with futuristic technology.

That’s the sort of insight that Vico would provide, his instincts about where we are heading as a society. He would say, ‘we’ve had quite a long time of this sort of rational, super-humanistic phase, but I can already begin to see that there are new mythologies and new trends that are beginning to emerge that will mean human societies and nations moving back to something quite different.’

So we get The Handmaid’s Tale with the religious reversion, then we get Star Trek, then eventually we get back to a kind of rational discussion of laws, do we?

Yes, in a way!

Did he turn his focus on his own contemporary experience? Or was it all looking at the past?

He was mainly looking at the past, actually. He comments a lot on Grotius’s work, but he lived a century later than Grotius. Grotius was from the 17th century, but Vico is an 18th century character. But Vico is quite unusual as a figure of the Enlightenment because, although he’s part of the Enlightenment and indeed one of the central figures of the Neapolitan Enlightenment, his is an Enlightenment that has a very different feel from the French Enlightenment, precisely because of this extraordinarily deterministic – suffocatingly deterministic – view of history that leaves one wondering, ‘Well, what can I do? How can I really improve the society in which I live, if we are just bound to repeat the same errors and to go back to what we’ve seen before?’

And was this book influential?

It was influential, especially in Neapolitan circles, and for quite a long time. Croce wrote extensively on Vico, and so did Gramsci. Gramsci mentions Vico and Machiavelli quite a lot in the notebooks. It was one of the formative books that an Italian man or woman of ideas would have had to read. And, and at some point, I think, any Italian thinker engagé in politics has to confront this very Italian sense of history as being a bit of a trap, inescapable in its outcomes.

And that then softens you up for Hegel and Marx.


It may be a slightly crude characterisation, but I would say that the Anglo-American tradition in political philosophy emphasises beyond what’s reasonable, a kind of individual, almost existential freedom, and the possibility of change and of determining your own life. This is a big contrast. It may be to do with the number of times you get invaded as a country, or the number of wars you have, as to whether you have this optimistic view about individuals within society. But certainly, in my experience of education, there was no emphasis on determinism at all, but a bias towards free will, individualistic political liberty, and the sense that if you try hard enough, you can do anything. Whereas this seems to suggest that history is going to grind you down and there’s not a lot you can do about that.

Exactly. And it may be that the big difference is the Protestant Reformation. It may be that that’s what unleashed in Northern Europe these ideas of possibility, and that was the exit strategy from a more deterministic way of thinking about one’s position in the world.

But this way of thinking about history obviously comes with an enormous burden and limits one’s mind. Of course, Vico would have said, ‘No, it doesn’t, it just helps you conform to reality as it is, and you won’t cultivate dreams and absurd utopias. At least you’ll know what you’re dealing with.’ But it does, I think, have great consequences for the type of politics that one can imagine, and that one could put into effect. In fact, it was Karl Popper who in his book, The Poverty of Historicism, took aim at this kind of historicism. Popper didn’t like Vico. It is difficult to see how one can be a liberal, if you think of history in these terms. Or, if you’re a liberal, you’re the most pessimistic, depressed, hopeless, kind of liberal.

By the way, there is something Viconian in the works of grand human history by scientists that have become so popular recently – by people like Yuval Noah Harari, Jared Diamond and especially Peter Turchin. They too claim to have uncovered eternal laws and predictable recurrence.

Let’s go to your third choice.

Yes, Guido De Ruggiero. I think he fits well into some of the themes that we’ve touched on. His book is more a history of philosophy, rather than a book of philosophy. The book I’ve chosen is a History of European Liberalism, which he wrote in the 1920s, just at the beginning of the fascist era.

De Ruggiero was one of these Italian philosophers who was very much influenced by German idealism. He was, broadly speaking, part of Benedetto Croce’s circle. What is wonderful about this book is, first of all, the account that he gives of these four liberal traditions in Europe, the Italian, the French, German, and the English—he doesn’t call it ‘British’, which is a bit unfair, because he does include Scottish philosophers.

He first sets out these four different liberal traditions. They’re quite distinctive. Some of the differences are themes that we already touched upon. He sees two key moments in British liberalism, the first one in the first half of the 17th century with the radicalism that comes from the Reformation and leads to the Glorious Revolution; and the second one, the utilitarian moment, in the 19th century, with Bentham, Mill and the Manchester School. These are the two souls of British liberalism.

German liberalism is different because, like Italian liberalism, it didn’t have to grapple with the existence of a state until much later. People like Humboldt or Kant were obviously associated with a state—Prussia in their case—but there was no German-wide state. A distinctive theme Ruggiero sees in German liberalism is Kant’s rejection of the idea that there should be a right to resist. He says that Kant is probably the greatest liberal thinker in terms of the way in which articulates the relationship between liberty and law. But he’s also the one who says there is no right to resist.

Unlike Hobbes in the English tradition, who thought that when you find yourself up on the scaffold, you have a right to fight against the executioner, even if he’s executing you because of a just law. You still have that individual, natural liberty, that allows you to resist to save your life.

Hobbes was obviously at the extreme end of that debate in the Anglo-American tradition. Somebody like Locke would have been fully in favour of a right to resist. Yet Kant, who was a liberal, certainly more liberal than Fichte or Hegel, can’t accept the right to resist. So there is something quite distinctive about that.

French liberalism, which I think De Ruggiero is also extremely good on—Tocqueville and Constant, for example—always had this greater sensibility about the role of society. It never abstracted the individual from society in the way in which Anglo-American liberalism often has done – from Hobbes and Locke all the way to Rawls – whose starting point is usually  an abstraction (state of nature for Hobbes or Locke, or the original position for Rawls). French liberals didn’t think like that. They always started, a bit like Machiavelli, from the social, historical and economic reality—ever since Rousseau at least, but probably before already with Montesquieu.

So, De Ruggiero discusses these different liberal traditions, briefly and very insightfully. At the end of the book, he has an essay on the nature of liberty, and the relationship between liberty and democracy, which I think is also very good. Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on two liberties was, in part, inspired by what De Ruggiero wrote here, I think.

I noticed that De Ruggiero was translated by R. G. Collingwood, who’s such an interesting philosopher. He was outside the mainstream of Oxford philosophy. But he wrote about history and art, basically, from an idealist perspective and, obviously, was much more sympathetic to the Italian tradition than many of his contemporaries in Oxford would have been at that time. It’s interesting that he took the trouble to translate De Ruggiero.

There was a great tradition of idealism in England in the late 19th century, until the First World War, when it more or less disappeared. People like Collingwood would have been much more part of this European dialogue between post-Hegelian idealists and De Ruggiero and Croce were all part of that, too.

Is this a readable book?

It’s very readable and it’s not a very long book. It’s basically a history of ideas with an argument about liberty and liberalism at the end. It’s very enjoyable. There is so much debate about liberty, the rule of law, political institutions and self-government today, but it tends to be quite parochial. I don’t mean so much in philosophy, but in the wider public sphere. The cultural, political, historical and philosophical references of today’s wider public debate are extraordinarily limited. This, in contrast, is a book that really widens one’s horizons about the liberal tradition.

I like the way you describe these cultural traditions that are quite different and the different relations to history. That does sound like a useful framework to start thinking about liberty, rather than just sitting in an armchair and hypothesizing about what it might be. What’s your fourth book choice?

The fourth book is Antonio Gramsci’s Notebooks. In the Italian edition of the Notebooks, they are collected in four volumes. And it’s the third volume that I particularly like. Essentially, it’s the central notebooks from Notebook 12 onwards. It’s the notebook that is normally published under the title “On the Role of Intellectuals in Society” that I find particularly interesting. It contains miscellaneous thoughts on culture and literature. Gramsci, like a lot of these Italian thinkers, was not a professional philosopher.

Could you say something general about who he was, for somebody who might not have heard of him before? When was he around and what were his dates?

Gramsci came from Sardinia. He was born in the 19th century and he died in the late 1930s, during fascism. His family was part-Albanian. They were Albanian refugees—Gramsci is an Albanian name. There were a lot of Albanian refugee communities in Italy. His father’s family had taken refuge in Italy, I think, in the early 19th century.

So he grew up in Sardinia, then moved to Turin, which was one of the hotbeds of Italian intellectual life in that period. And he became a Marxist early on, and was quite active in local and national politics. After the First World War, he played a key role in Italian left wing politics and led the faction that split from the Socialist Party to found the Communist Party. Gramsci also travelled to Moscow where he met his wife, who was a Russian revolutionary as you would expect. He also met Lenin there. But he then came back to Italy and, before too long, ended up in prison.

“There is so much debate about liberty, the rule of law, political institutions and self-government today, but it tends to be quite parochial”

Mussolini came to power in 1922. Some democratic life could continue for the first few years, but by the mid to late 1920s—1926 or 1927—Italy was essentially a dictatorship, and Gramsci was near the top of the list of public enemies of the new regime. So, he was in prison, he suffered poor health and died in Rome, shortly after being released on health grounds  in 1937.

As I said, Gramsci wasn’t a professional philosopher and had been engaged in a lot of real politics. But he was an extremely curious and learned man. He was interested in literature; in theatre; in economics, and in the social sciences. The Notebooks are full of references to different strands of intellectual thought. A lot of the Notebooks are just ideas that are not developed, because he didn’t really have the time or the resources in prison to develop them at greater length. But they’re extremely original and powerful.

In the notebook on intellectuals and their role in society, he’s obviously looking at their role with reference to Italian history. He says that Italian intellectuals were quite different from others in Europe, because there had been until comparatively recently no unified Italy. And so Italian intellectuals were always traditionally ‘cosmopolitan’, as he puts it. He doesn’t see that as a good thing. He thought one of the problems with political and social progress in Italy was that Italian intellectuals never felt any particular connection with, or commitment to, their people or their communities.

That sounds more like David Goodhart than Marx.

Perhaps. One of the interesting things about reading Gramsci is that he’s a Marxist, but of a sort of right-wing kind if there is such a thing. He’d be more Blue Labour than New Labour.

What’s wrong with cosmopolitanism, in his view? I think it’s true to say that most anti-fascist philosophy tends towards cosmopolitanism. I think of Marx as cosmopolitan, in the sense that Marx thinks about ‘humanity united’, rather than some local group being superior to others elsewhere. Marxism was conceived as an international workers’ movement.

Gramsci doesn’t criticize their cosmopolitanism because he favours a nationalist alternative. What he criticizes about the cosmopolitanism of Italian intellectuals is their lack of commitment to anyone. They essentially just exist for themselves. Some of them may have said that they are helping humanity, but humanity is just an abstraction. Ultimately, you have to have a connection to a real group of people whose situation you’re trying to improve and for whom you’re trying to fight.

For a Marxist like him, that group has to be the working class. But he thought the Italian working class never had any intellectuals who stood up for it. But power tends to create its own intellectuals. Every hegemonic project, every political project, every ruling class will have what Gramsci describes as ‘the organic intellectuals’. These are the people who just provide intellectual cover for power and who also enable power, because power needs intellectuals to function and be effective.

Since Italy wasn’t a state and Italian intellectuals always felt so removed from any community, class or people, intellectuals in Italy ended up becoming the organic intellectuals of different groups of power, such as the Catholic Church.

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So, when Gramsci is thinking about cosmopolitanism, he’s not thinking about the debates that happened later and are still going on today about the merits of nationalism versus cosmopolitanism. He’s thinking about Italian history in the 19th century and early 20th century. For him, the Catholic Church was the ultimate cosmopolitan institution and, like Machiavelli by the way, he doesn’t like it very much.

I’ve seen some of Gramsci’s actual notebooks – they were on display in London for a while in the Italian Cultural Institute there. What’s amazing to me is that they are just a bunch of little exercise books filled with very neat handwriting. While locked up in a prison cell he was able, presumably without much access to a library or intellectual conversation, to generate really stimulating ideas—almost in a vacuum. He had his memories and, presumably, there were other left-wing intellectuals around him. People talk about the peace of a prison that will allow you to write, but that’s not the reality of most prisons. Most prisons are not conducive to intellectual endeavour.

He had a phenomenal memory and a real disposition to erudition. The amount of literary references that he masters in these notebooks is just phenomenal. He thinks literature is very important, with a unique role in shaping the consciousness of society. He says that, again, Italians have been failed by Italian novelists, who often looked down on ordinary people. He gives the example of Manzoni’s The Betrothed, and says that, essentially, everyone who is working class in that book has no agency. They’re just pawns moved by Providence. But the moment an aristocrat appears, all of a sudden you get this interesting and beautifully depicted inner life. He points out that that is in stark contrast to Dostoyevsky or Dickens. He found this failure of Italian intellectuals to relate to the people in their country very frustrating.

There’s this continuing theme of being connected with your present day world as an important element in political philosophy in Italy throughout your book choices here. People are not just concerned with abstract problems, but with the problems of real people. Gramsci was advocating, in an abstract way, a connection with real people that was lacking among his contemporaries.


What’s your final choice?

My final choice is Norberto Bobbio’s The Future of Democracy. I have to say, I hesitated a bit about it. It’s a good book, but perhaps not a great book like the others. Bobbio wrote it in the 1970s. It reflects the sense at that time that there was a crisis of democracy. A number of Western philosophers embarked upon similar projects. Another example from this period is Habermas’s book on the Legitimation Crisis.

What I like about Bobbio’s book is that he tried to reconcile liberalism with socialism. He was a socialist, not a Marxist or a communist. But he was also deeply committed to liberty. There was a tradition in Italy in the 20th century of people like him and he was probably the greatest representative of that tradition of “liberal socialism”, as they called it.

He says he didn’t see a contradiction between liberty and equality, one of the themes that a lot of people in political theory were focussing on in those days. He says liberty has three dimensions. You need to have liberty within a certain private sphere – liberty of conscience, of religion, and liberty to pursue your own interests. That’s the first dimension. In order to possess this, you also need juridical equality, because you can’t be free in the private sphere unless the law treats you equally and treats different beliefs equally. The second dimension of liberty, which is crucial, is political liberty. You need to be able to participate in the shaping of the public sphere. And to participate in that you also need to be equal, in a political sense, to others. So both private liberty and political liberty are already premised on some measure of equality.

The third dimension of liberty is socio-economic equality. For all the great values that the post-war constitutions—like the Italian one of 1948—enshrined, to be meaningful, for them to really allow people to flourish, it is necessary to include basic socio-economic guarantees. And these socio-economic guarantees require a degree of socio-economic equality.

For Bobbio, then, liberty and equality go hand-in-hand together, and so do liberty and democracy, by the way. He did not accept the idea that some liberals have had about there being a tension between liberty and democracy. Modern-day liberalism cannot avoid – he thought – being both democratic and social-democratic.

Do you think he reconciles those? There is always that tradition which says that liberty and economic equality are not compatible because, however equal your starting point, freedom for the pike is death for the minnows. People are differently talented in using their economic wherewithal. Very quickly massive inequalities arise and, if you curb those, you’ve ceased to be liberal because you’re not giving people the freedom to do what they want with their money. So liberalism is in this constant tension with the desire to bring levels of inequality down.

I think a programme that is very strongly redistributionist will inevitably clash with liberty. And I don’t think Bobbio was necessarily advocating that. He was advocating something that was closer to ensuring that every individual enjoys socio-economic conditions that gives him or her access to the constitutional goods. That will mean the basic socio-economic conditions, including education, health or sanitation. You need those basic conditions, which will involve some redistribution. But because people will flourish more if you start off by making people more equal, the sort of inequality that will result from differences in talent or differences in chance will not be as extreme as the kind of inequality we just seem to accept, because we don’t do enough to address the inequality of conditions, which is the main obstacle for people to achieve more.

When was Bobbio writing?

He was writing mainly after the Second World War. He was born before the First World War. Like Gramsci, he was also part of the Turin scene during the fascist period and ended up in prison in the 1930s. His lawyer suggested he should write a letter to Mussolini asking to be released, which he did, and it did get him released. But then he was arrested again during the Second World War.

The other quite distinctive theme in Bobbio’s writings on these topics is what he calls the ‘invisibility of power’. In the book on the future of democracy he says there are a number of promises that democracy has failed to deliver. And the one he keeps coming back to is power remaining invisible.

One of democracy’s promises was that power would become transparent, visible. The reason why that matters so much is because democracy in its original and ancient formulation is direct democracy. It is about people actually deciding in popular assemblies. Democracy can’t function like that now. It has to be representative democracy, it has to be procedural  and mediated. But this is a compromise between the ideal of direct democracy and the reality making it impossible in the present time. But people will become very quickly apathetic and disenchanted with this imperfect way of achieving democracy, unless power is absolutely visible and transparent. The ruled need to be able to see through the rulers for representative democracy to maintain its credibility and appeal.

We’re going back to your first choice of author. Machiavelli, certainly in The Prince, suggests leaders have a strong motivation to disguise the exercise of power, to make people feel that you’re benevolent—when you might be on the point of slitting their throats—in the interests of ensuring the survival the state. It’s a kind of naivety to think that real political power would be transparent to the people voting, it seems to me. The power of the press is one thing, but we know the press tends to be in thrall to the interests of the wealthy, because the press has always been financially dependent on big money and, to some extent, in thrall to powerful people who can determine what gets published.

Completely visible, transparent power is a utopia, but there are various things that can be done and some of them have indeed been done—for instance around the right to access to information. It’s essential there is a sense of how decision-making really happens because the moment people think, ‘I vote, but the real way in which decisions are taken is something I’ll never find out’ democracy begins to die. That was Bobbio’s real concern. You don’t want people to develop this sense of fatalism – which, again, may be more of an Italian problem – towards democratic decision-making.

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Interestingly, what Bobbio also says is that one of the reasons why power is so cynical so often—in the Machiavellian sense of dissimulation and pretending you’re doing one thing, but actually doing the other—has to do with international relations. He says international law helps not only promote peace, which is a common value that we should promote, but it can also strengthen democracy because it removes one of the main justifications, i.e. raisons d’état, that power normally uses to be secretive. In a world where all rulers are visible, transparent and democratic, there is no need for so much secrecy. Bobbio sees international law, and a world where international relations are subject to the rule of law, as achieving not only the goal of international peace, but also that of entrenching and strengthening democratic rule at the national level.

It’s very interesting that he moved in that direction. You’re a lawyer as well as a philosopher. Do you see these books influencing how you think about what you’re doing? Is your work influenced by this tradition?

I think it is. My day job these days is mainly practising at the bar. I started off as an academic in international law, public law to a lesser extent, and legal and political philosophy. Now I’m only part-time in academia. Most of my day is spent writing legal briefs and developing legal arguments.

But I find that all of these philosophers, perhaps with the exception of Vico, have some relevance to the work that I do. They are in the background in various ways. In litigation there will be cases that engage first principles more than others, but the most interesting cases will very often take you back to first principles. For example, a case like the first Gina Miller case, where I was part of the counsel team for the government, is a case that takes you back to first principles.

Could you say in a sentence what the context of that case was and what challenges it threw up?

There was a first case brought by Gina Miller to review the decision of the government to implement the result of the referendum on leaving the European Union without a Parliamentary vote. Her argument—which prevailed in the end—in the Supreme Court and in the Divisional Court before the Supreme Court, was that Parliament had to legislate to start the process of Brexit before the government could take matters further.

And, just to spell it out, that’s a point of principle, and of interpretation of law, with an individual citizen calling the government to account by means of law. How does that fit within the sorts of frameworks that we’ve been talking about? Was it related to Bobbio’s sense of the importance of the transparency of power?

I think it had to do with that, yes – the transparency of power. I think it had to do with the accessibility of law as well: the idea that the law isn’t just something that is imposed on people, but is something that a citizen, any individual, can resort to in order to challenge one of the biggest decisions that the government is taking. There is a very strong sense of equality before the law in a country, in a legal system, that accepts this principle as part of ordinary democratic life. Regardless of the outcome, just the principle that you can challenge a decision and take it to a court that has to apply the law is quite extraordinary. We now take it for granted, but the history of political institutions suggests it is something we should never take for granted.

January 4, 2021

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Guglielmo Verdirame

Guglielmo Verdirame

Guglielmo Verdirame is Professor of International Law at King’s College London and practises as a barrister in London. In addition to writing on various topics in international law (from human rights and refugee law to investment and trade law), he has also taught and published on legal and political philosophy. With John Tasioulas, he is authoring the entry on international law for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. He hopes to complete his next book, Political Liberty in our Time, in 2021.

Guglielmo Verdirame

Guglielmo Verdirame

Guglielmo Verdirame is Professor of International Law at King’s College London and practises as a barrister in London. In addition to writing on various topics in international law (from human rights and refugee law to investment and trade law), he has also taught and published on legal and political philosophy. With John Tasioulas, he is authoring the entry on international law for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. He hopes to complete his next book, Political Liberty in our Time, in 2021.