The Italian Encyclopedia


Sillani, Tomaso, and Giovanni Gentile. Essay. In What Is Fascism and Why?, 169–73. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1931.

https://archive.org/details/whatisfascismand000474mbp


Italy had never possessed, except in revised and re-arranged editions of foreign works, a large universal Encyclopaedia. The most fruitful attempt had been that made by Pomba, whose Popular Encyclopaedia may still be consulted and read with profit. Pomba's attempt was due to an enterprising Turinese editor and it belonged to the period of the re-awakening of the national consciousness in the years immediately preceding the Revolution of 1848. Great enterprises like these, in fact, are only possible among nations with confidence in their own capacities - as they demand not only powerful combinations of intellectual energies and a vast cultural preparation of the nation itself in all branches of learning, but above all a great capacity for discipline in joint labour.


Nor is this discipline something that may be improvised to respond to the need of the moment, but rather the outcome of a slow process of evolution based partly on tradition and partly on the scientific training of the nation as a whole. Something out of the reach, therefore, of young nations or of nations having but recently attained to political unity, and still groping after a plan of action and a spiritual individuality of their own, based on personal knowledge and a personal faith in the world-race of the nations towards civilization. From 1860 to 1915 Italy exhausted herself in this struggle, hesitating between doubts and anxieties and the more praiseworthy efforts of individual students or groups of students, inspired by an intense faith in the genius of the race, while the masses were still looking to other nations, hoping to receive from them the ideas, methods and rules for their own spiritual activities. With the war, this period of uncertainty and of seeking was closed for ever and a radical change took place in the depth of the Italian consciousness. And already in the years following the war, editors and writers from different parts of the country discussed the expediency of endowing Italy with a large Encyclopaedia which should be Italian, both in spirit and in form, and should speak to the world for Italy.


More than once the present writer was invited to take part in different enterprises of a similar nature, all inevitably doomed to failure for lack of funds. At last it was my good fortune to meet Sig. Treccani, a man who by his talents and courage had won for himself a high position in Italian industry and who had already given proof of a noble-minded interest in cultural problems. On my inviting him to study the plans for a National Encyclopaedia, Sig. Treccani, together with a young and intelligent editor, Calogero Tumminelli, at once saw a way out of the difficulty.


The new scheme was certainly one of many risks, but these were soon overcome, as we entered upon our enterprise full of an unfailing faith in the future of the Nation rejuvenated by Fascism. Thus was inaugurated in January 1925 the Treccani Institute presided over by Treccani himself and directed by myself and Tumminelli. The Encyclopaedia was announced and four years later, in March 1929, there appeared the first volume, followed by three others in the course of the same year. Four large in quarto volumes appear yearly, of a thousand pages each, richly illustrated in black and colours, and by 1937, the thirty-six volumes will have all appeared and we shall have set to work on the supplements and be preparing the new edition which will certainly follow the present one.


By that time the Encyclopaedia will have become a National Institution, an institution which will gradually go on perfecting itself, but which will never abandon the programme we have drawn up for it. This programme may be seen in detail in my preface to the first volume, but I beg leave to quote a few leading paragraphs from it.


"An encyclopaedia is the expression of the thought of a people and an epoch, and more precisely of the positive, vital and active elements of this thought. The latter in turn does not obviously represent the sum of the ideas of all the individuals, both learned and unlearned, conscious and unconscious of the ideals of the nation to which they belong and to which they are indissolubly bound, but it is reduced to a system by those who lead and represent the nation."


The results they obtain may not all be equally satisfactory, but the writers are all leaders: some either by fashioning new social and political faiths or by creating and urging new religious beliefs, and some by investigating technical means to add to the enrichment of life, or by studying its laws and its meaning. Others, again, are leaders because they explore the secrets and measure the forces of nature or because they examine and calculate the productive forces of man. Some describe the aspects of the physical world and others scrutinize the remains and the documents of man's past history in order to make it harmonize with present day interests, while the poets are busy moving the hearts of man with their song and their endless luminous images drawn from the realms of fantasy and freeing their souls from the bondage of petty cares. They are all leaders and they all lead by means of their thought, enriched by science and art. And this thought, in every nation, flows into the stream of national conscience and identifies itself with it; in each period of history it has its own form and character; and it assumes an individuality of its own in which thousands of voices are blended together in one great harmony."


Concordia discors. On this condition and in this sense the Encyclopedia, is a book capable of becoming part of the life of the spirit and of enriching it with new elements, and is endowed with the power of becoming an important instrument for human progress, in proportion to the amount of doctrine and intelligence that has gone to its making. But in order to maintain this "concordia discors" every writer intends of fixed rules not only in regard to the subject studied but also in regard to the mental standpoint from which it is approached: in order that the various aspects of learning may combine harmoniously in a finished picture, similar in its outstanding features to the spirit of a people and an epoch. And this same spirit has been one of the guiding principles of the Directors, who have constantly borne it in mind in their work. They have seen it continually in the moulding of all human ideals and spiritual energies into a complex civilization, summing up in itself all forms of learning and of taste and firm in the knowledge of its millenary history: a history not always universally known, but none the less worthy of having new light shed on it, so that all may remember what is Italian for Italy and for the world. They have beheld this spirit look triumphantly to the future, no longer with the pride of past glories, but anxious to create a new history, in which Italy will make herself known to the world and take her place by the side of the stronger nations. And it is for this reason that she hastens to become familiar with the science of all nations, thus putting into practice the old maxim nihil humani a me alienum.


"No intolerance, no shallow narrow-mindedness". To every event, to every doctrine and to all persons their dues. No exclusive doctrines therefore, such as generally spring from the minds of single individuals, but the order, rather, in which these doctrines are possible, despite their differences, each one with its motives. The great impartiality of history itself, in which every fact has its own explanation.


"It is in history that we find the method of treatment most adapted to an Encyclopaedia, in history with its great capacity for reconciling the most opposing forces of the mind and the most varied aspects of truth. In history every thought or institution, religion or doctrine, myth or theory, people or race lives and goes on living. And in history all dogmatism is destroyed, and every soul humbles and exalts itself in turn as its vision opens out to embrace wider horizons where every fact is given its real explanation and every truth its full value. Herein there is no place for vainglory or selfish presumption and it is with a feeling of religious awe that one becomes conscious of the infinite power one is endowed with"


What a contrast to the diffidence, nay, the scepticism with which the enterprise was greeted by persons still unaware of the fact that many things had changed in Italy since the month of October 1922 and, above all, the spirit of the Italians. Here is one of the objections most frequently raised even by those who had decided to work with us, but who still feared we had not realized all the difficulties ahead of us: does Italy possess a sufficient number of specialists in all fields, to secure for the Encyclopaedia a predominance of Italian collaborators, not only in number, but especially in quality and universality? And again: is Italian culture sufficiently mature to stand this test before the eyes of the whole world?


It is an excellent thing to keep one's difficulties well before one's eyes. To contribute to it is bound to follow, within the limits of his capacity, a certain number instead of seeking vain consolation in smoothing them over; but there are different ways of doing so. There is the dispirited way of those who are afraid to move a step, if they are not absolutely sure of themselves, and this is the way of the sluggish, the dispirited and the sceptics. But there is also the more manly manner of those who measure both the obstacles and their forces, and then try to increase the latter as much as they can, and endeavour to overcome these obstacles at all costs. And it is these last that succeed in accomplishing something worthwhile in the world.


Now I wish to make a few statements in this connection. First of all the Encyclopaedia is not perfect, viz. it is not without mistakes- printing mistakes, oversights, and even more serious mistakes, occasionally. I have said so already in my Preface: and I also warned critics, then, to be very slow about passing judgments on a work which can only be judged as a whole, a work to which thousands of persons have dedicated the best part of their intelligence and ability. I may now add that whereas many have written deploring the absence, for example, of a word (which means that they have not yet understood that an Encyclopaedia is not a Dictionary and that, moreover, it is not complete without an index), no reader has yet succeeded in pointing out one real mistake. I have written many letters, but I have not yet been able to write a single one (a thing that would give me great satisfaction) beginning: so: "Dear Sir, you are right. We have made a mistake. We willingly admit it, as we never pretended to be perfect. We will try to remedy it and we will double our efforts to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Many thanks for your kind help." Up to the present date all mistakes have been pointed out to me only by my staff and vice versa. It is here in this beautiful old palace which I am writing from, and which the Treccani Institute is restoring to its ancient splendour, that all such suggestions and plans are formulated.


But one must also remember that there are various ways of conceiving an Encyclopaedia. There are those who imagine it to be a kind of Summa, in which everything worth knowing has been set down once for all. This is a materialistic, out-of-date conception. There are those instead who compare an Encyclopaedia to a working instrument, useful for a certain number of years, but destined to be surpassed in time. There are two ways of conceiving objectivity: the way of those who consider it as an end unto itself, and the way of those who are incapable of conceiving the different doctrines separately in their struggle for existence, and must therefore see them inserted in their proper place, in "that or der in which the different doctrines are possible" as I have already said in my Preface. But it is also logical that an Encyclopaedia should not be a tribune from which every one can say what he has to say. There is a limit which must not be overstepped and that is the reader's mind. The reader has every right to be allowed to form his own opinions and this right should always be respected. Thus only may the Encyclopaedia have a formative influence on the minds of the people and contribute to the moulding of a more mature national conscience.

To the latter the Encyclopaedia has already begun to contribute. I have already recalled past difficulties. The first articles were often undigested hoards of erudite material. Now instead they are becoming daily more interesting and human. But this is not all. Thanks to the Encyclopaedia Italy possesses to-day a group of historians who have become specialists in world history, something new for Italy. In volume V, for example, there are only 53 foreign contributors, as compared to 593 Italian ones, on a total of 1181 articles. The percentage increases in certain cases. It is higher for instance among ecclesiastical writers on Ecclesiastical subjects (liturgy, hagiography, canon law, etc.), but it decreases if one adds to these lay writers on the History of Christianism and the History of Religions. The percentage of foreign contributors is higher still in the field of Art. This is due to the fact that Italian Art students generally limit themselves to the study of Italian Art. For this reason the Art of different countries is studied by specialists of the countries themselves. The problem is one that deeply interests and preoccupies me and I hope to make some radical changes in the near future. On the other hand, it stands to reason that a certain number of "local" writers will always be necessary for certain articles (viz. the historical description of towns) (1). Another important result obtained, which will increase as the Encyclopaedia continues to progress, is the drawing of the attention of the world to Italian art and culture, the immediate effects of which may be seen in the flattering judgments passed on the scientific, technical and artistic training of the nation. By the time it is finished we have every reason to hope it will have been adopted by all countries. It will then no longer be a simple means of giving a new stimulus to the national culture, but a powerful means of promoting Italian culture outside our own boundaries.


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