Piero Martinetti (1872-1943)


21.8.1872 (Pont Canavese) — 20.3.1943 (Cuorgnè)



(links to the Open Commons of Phenomenology)

(1902) Introduzione alla metafisica, Torino, Bona.
(1922) Breviario spirituale, Milano, Isis.
KANT Immanuel (1925) Antologia kantiana, Torino, Paravia.
(1926) Saggi e discorsi, Torino, Paravia.
(1928) La libertà, Milano, Libreria Editrice Lombarda.
(1934) Gesù Cristo ed il Cristianesimo, Milano, Edizioni della Rivista di filosofia.
(1934) Ragione e Fede: Introduzione ai problemi religiosi, Milano, Edizioni della Rivista di filosofia.
(1942) Ragione e fede: Saggi religiosi, Torino, Einaudi.
(1943) Hegel, Milano, Bocca.
(1943) Kant, Milano, Bocca.
(1976) Scritti di metafisica e di filosofia della religione, Milano, Edizioni di Comunità.
(1987) Spinoza, Napoli, Bibliopolis.

Piero Martinetti was born on 21 August 1872 in Pont Canavese (Piedmont). Under his father’s pressure, he enrolled in the Law Faculty at the University of Turin, where he studied for one semester, before he decided to move to the Literature Faculty where he could study philosophy. His masters, during the university years (1889-1893), were Arturo Graf, poet and literary historian, Giuseppe Allievo, pedagogue and spiritualistic philosopher, Pasquale D’Ercole, Hegelian scholar and later positivist, and Giovanni Flechia, orientalist, comparatist and linguist. The influences of Flechia and D’Ercole were particularly important for the young Martinetti, who developed an interest in Indian philosophy thanks to their teaching.

A concrete outcome of this interest is the master degree that he obtained on 12 July 1893, with a thesis entitled Il sistema Sankhya [The Sankhya System]. Even though this work is today inevitably outdated, Il sistema Sankhya is still important for comprehending the nature and evolution of Martinetti’s thought, as elements that later became leitmotives in his following works made their first appearance here. Among these elements is the idea that philosophy is to be understood as a practically-oriented discipline, whose main aim is to address the existential issue par excellence,i.e.  the human search for happiness. From the way in which this search is accomplished, a fundamental difference immediately emerges between those who pursue happiness in mundane or transcendent issues, and those who are rather aware of the illusory character of any attempt to identify happiness either in worldly wealth or in a purely otherworldly dimension. Far from this, the right human behaviour should consist of a continuous search for moral enhancement, which corresponds to a spiritual elevation of both world and conscience. Another element of interest concerns Martinetti’s emphasis on the theoretical autonomy of Samkhya from all the other Brahmanic dogmatic systems, which he interprets as a claim for the existence of a religious level that is determined exclusively by the action of reason, and that is therefore independent from any historical revelation.

Between November 1894 and the summer of 1895, Martinetti was in Lipsia for a research stay. On this occasion, he got in touch with several German philosophers, whose reflections would have a major importance for his future studies: Wilhelm Wundt’s introspective psychology, Schubert-Soldern’s philosophy of immanence, and Strümpell’s Herbartism. When he got back to Italy, Martinetti alternated years of teaching in high-schools (1899-1906) with the writing of his first philosophical monograph: Introduzione alla metafisica [Introduction to Metaphysics], which was first published in 1902, and reprinted two years later. This book – whose second part remained unpublished until many years after Martinetti’s death – clearly echoes the Einleitungen written by Paulsen and Wundt, and consists of a dialogue between its author and the main trends of German and European philosophy of that time. Introduzione alla metafisica is divided into two parts: the first one is historical, the second one more systematic. In the first part, Martinetti analyzes several of the gnoseological and metaphysical standpoints that emerged throughout Western intellectual history. This historical analysis, however, does not correspond to a mere historiographic account, as is the case of many other works belonging to the Italian philosophical tradition. By dealing with various gnoseological orientations, Martinetti rather aims to pave the way for the theoretical part of his work.

Martinetti’s theory, as it emerges in Introduzione alla metafisica, corresponds to a form of idealism. It is however a kind of idealism that radically diverges from the immanent idealism that was widespread at that time in the Italian philosophical panorama. Martinetti’s idealism is essentially transcendent, as it is grounded on the absolute value of intuition (both in its sensible and intellectual facet), as well as on the recognition of the moral and religious value of human knowledge. In this sense, philosophy is conceived as a gradual process of liberation from the world: the intuition of pure forms of knowledge reveals indeed not only the human capacity of abstraction, but rather the supersensual orientation of reason. Theory of knowledge is therefore subordinated to and absorbed by a metaphysical concept of reason, which is understood as a never-ending process of enhancement and whose climax corresponds to the highest syntheses of religion. Despite this characterization, this viewpoint does not underestimate the experiential layer; according to Martinetti, each stage of knowledge presents indeed formal elements that clearly show the presence of rational activity. Hence metaphysics does not constitute for him an alternative knowledge, which lies on a further ground, radically separated from the one of experience. On the contrary, metaphysics should be conceived, as Herbart and Schopenhauer did, as a science which aims at the clarification (“deciframento”) of experience. The data offered by our senses are never bare and unreflected elements, but as they offer themselves to conscience they are always made of two constitutive parts: matter and form. This distinction is however only logical, and should be understood exclusively as an abstract articulation of two otherwise inseparable parts – subject and object, whose correlative constitution takes place in the realm of consciousness. Cognitive acts thus are not due to the action of an assumed external world on our sensible perception (in this regard, the reference to Schuppe and “philosophy of immanence” is made explicit). A cognitive act rather corresponds to the actualization of a content of conscience, which has to be analyzed on the basis of the rational elements that are present in it. This theory implies a dynamic concept of metaphysics, which is not circumscribed into a “aprioristic system of arbitrary deductions”, but rather opens itself to particular sciences, which allow humanity to adequately comprehend reality. Insofar as this comprehension immediately grasps the distinction between matter and form, which inheres in reality, it also shows the latent contradiction between these two elements, and their natural inclination towards the spiritual world.

Thanks to the good reception of Introduzione alla metafisica, Martinetti was appointed professor of theoretical philosophy at the Accademia Scientifico-Letteraria of Milan in 1906. The inaugural speech he gave on that occasion, “La funzione religiosa della filosofia” [The Religious Function of Philosophy], synthesizes both the fundamental metaphysical vision stemming from Introduzione alla metafisica, and his way of teaching, and the function and purposes of studying philosophy. The relation between philosophy and religion is described neither in the sense of a clear separation nor of a subordination of religious forms to philosophical truth. Both philosophy and religion aim at knowledge by creating symbols that point to rational syntheses. In this sense, the symbols of religion have the same objectives as the ones of metaphysics: their meaning is not limited to the fact that they become objects of human conscience, but rather depends on their capacity of referring through their content to something which is beyond themselves. The function of these symbols, unless they are corrupted, is always positive. On the other hand, if they become dogmatic, they lose their main characteristic; dogmas are, in fact, nothing but stiffened and hypostatized symbols, which can refer only to themselves, and whose meaning is limited to their mere appearing.

The project of freeing religion from its external apparatus, and the conviction that a deep religious renewal was necessary, got Martinetti close to the Milanese exponents of modernism. He established good relations with Tommaso Gallarati Scotti, Guido Cagnola, and Jacopo Jacini, and started to collaborate with the modernist journal Il Rinnovamento, in which he published his inaugural speech of the academic year 1908-1909: “Il regno dello spirito” [The Kingdom of Spirit]. His classes became more and more crowded, as they were attended not only by students, but also by friends, pupils, and admirers of all sorts, who were all equally attracted by Martinetti’s sharp philosophical thinking.

Looking at Martinetti’s notes from the first classes at the Accademia Scientifico-Letteraria, in which he focused on Schopenhauer and Fichte, a growing interest in ethical issues becomes apparent. Martinetti understands morality not as a normative doctrine, but as the metaphysical dimension of human life. His notes from the following years also show the religious character of his philosophy, which is not absorbed and thus nullified by rational activity, but rather represents the completion and ultimate form of this activity. Following these topics, Martinetti came to rediscover Kant, whose philosophy became of major importance for his thinking. The rediscovery of Kant, which starts with the edition of the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and the article “Sul formalismo della morale kantiana” [On the Formalism of Kantian Moral Theory], is characterized by a an emphasis on Kant’s metaphysics, through a general consideration of his output. According to Martinetti, Kant not only founded a theory of knowledge or an ontology, but also a true metaphysics, which reintroduces the dualistic scheme matter-form, immanent-transcendent, recognizing the latter as the centre of gravity of human practical activity. At the same time, the great merit of Kant was avoiding to get involved with any transcendent metaphysical speculation. By identifying in the form of the moral law a symbol of transcendent reality, Kant could indeed refer to the transcendent, without falling back into visionary dreams.

With the publication in 1913 of “Sul formalismo della morale kantiana”, Martinetti starts his practical investigations. This period also corresponds to the years of the Great War, during which Martinetti denounced the triumph of a nationalistic and irrational rhetoric, whose consequence would be visible also in the following decade. In this respect, he stated in a note from 29th May 1918: “I saw the parade for the third anniversary of the war. Music, flowers, shouts, great excitement in everybody, and especially young people. What a baleful education to vanity and exhibitionism of an already too vain people. A people that would rather need to be educated to meditation, silence, and gravity. What to say of the soldiers who threw flowers, and showed to a clapping crowd their stumps? What to say of the mothers of the fallen, who came to the parade to show their grief off? No one should ever disjoint force and gravity from a severe and dignified pride, alien to any kind of mummery. And what to say of the children and young people who are in this way educated to ostentation, indiscipline, and self-indulgence, while the exact opposite would be more than ever necessary?”

The first outcome of Martinetti’s practical orientation was the foundation in 1920 of the Società di studi filosofici religiosi [Society of Philosophical and Religious Studies], whose goal consisted in gathering together people animated by the same spirit: religious, yet free from any form of dogmatism. The Society aimed at fostering a spiritual reflection, in view of the foundation of an ethics capable of diverging from contemporary skeptical turns, without falling back into old formalisms. Two conferences that Martinetti held in the early nineteen-twenties display this objective: “La psiche degli animali” [The Psyche of Animals] and “Il compito della filosofia nell’ora presente” [The Task of Philosophy in the Present]. In the first one, Martinetti – who was himself a committed vegetarian – identified a moral goal in attributing to animals the status of sentient and right-holder subjects. In the second one, Martinetti sketched the main traits of this new line of thought, by recalling the idea of taking a step back from immanent philosophy, which is incapable of providing society with an ethical orientation. In these same years (1922-23), Martinetti also published Breviario spiritual [Spiritual Breviary], a non-academic work in which he suggested how to conduct practical life, through a personal enhancement which goes from the control of primary impulses until the awareness of ultimate truths.

This same idealistic itinerary is also apparent in the way in which Martinetti addressed the thought of Spinoza. According to Martinetti’s interpretation, Spinoza’s Substance has the same function as Plato’s idea of Good, as it corresponds to the ultimate stage of a process of knowledge that goes from the lowest to the highest step. What emerges is a reading of Spinoza, which is deeply influenced by Plato and Kant, and in contrast with the Hegelian immanence, of which Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile were the main Italian imitators. People must discipline their intellects and find a way to get a true knowledge of things. The practical aspiration to the highest good is attained only through knowledge: as love stems from knowledge, only the knowledge of the highest good can produce in us the kind of love that delivers us from loving what is corruptible. Now, the knowledge of what is supreme is influenced by the philosophical knowledge of what is, that is by the knowledge of nature, as well as of ourselves. Only by knowing the relationship between the human kind and reality can we therefore apprehend what is the highest achievable good. Hence the fundamental and immediate activity of the philosopher consists in knowing what is true. The work of philosophy starts with the “emendation of the intellect”, that is with the methodical preparation of our intellect to philosophical knowledge.

The centrality of moral discourse in his thinking caused a harsh confrontation between Martinetti and the fascist regime, which took power after the 1922 March on Rome. Unlike other well-known liberal thinkers, like for instance Croce, Martinetti held from the very beginning a critical stance towards Mussolini and his party. In the attempt to use force to reach power, and violence to hit enemies, Martinetti recognised how a nihilistic trait prevailed over the ideal of freedom that always inspired him. The clash between the philosopher and the regime emerged on the occasion of the 1926 Philosophy Congress, of which Martinetti was the main organizer. As a consequence of the uproar generated by the invitation as speaker of the dissident theologian Ernesto Buonaiuti, which was strongly criticized by Catholic circles, the regime decided to forcedly close the Congress. The decision was officially motivated on grounds of public order. More realistically, the reason was to prevent liberal thinkers to take the fore and give public speeches. As a consequence of these events, the Ministry of Education started a disciplinary action against Martinetti, who was accused of being an instigator.

The philosopher’s clearest answer to all this was the publication in 1928 of La Libertà [Freedom]. In this work, Martinetti strives to define a concept of freedom which radically diverges from what he calls “freedom of indifference”, which represents for him in the most accurate way the world of today, and corresponds to the mere possibility of satisfying one’s immediate needs. According to Martinetti, freedom is rather autonomy of conscience, which can be achieved by means of great values such as Justice, Beauty, and Goodness, which recur in all epochs. Only by acknowledging a Justice which transcends the various historical epochs, can the individual be free from our time’s conditioning. La libertà soon became a reference point for an entire generation of students, including eminent figures in Italian intellectual history, like Ludovico Geymonat and Norberto Bobbio.

The final break with fascism happened only three years later, in 1931, when Mussolini forced all the university professors to take an oath to the Fascist Party, in order to keep their academic positions. To this request, Martinetti answered with a brief message: “I have always directed my philosophical activity according to the needs of my conscience, and I never considered, not even for an instant, the possibility of subordinating these needs to any other guideline. I have always taught that the only light, direction, and solace that a man can have in his life is his own conscience, and that subordinating this conscience to any other consideration, no matter how noble it is, would be a sacrilege. Now with the oath that I am requested to take, I would retract these convictions of mine, and mislead my entire life. Your Excellency will admit that this is not possible”.

After he left his job, Martinetti retired in his house in Spineto (Piedmont). He maintained relations with students and friends and often traveled to Milan. During these years, he started his investigation on the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, in whom he recognized the herald of a liberty of conscience, capable of emancipating from any formal morality. This work came to fruition with the publication of Gesù Cristo e il Cristianesimo [Jesus Christ and Christianity] in 1934, and of a comment to the Gospels, two years later. Martinetti’s Jesus is grounded on two fundamental and interconnected ideas: the demythification of the figure of Christ and the reevaluation of his Jewishness. The myth of the son of God, which spread in the cultural context of the rising Christian religion is, according to Martinetti, a popular narrative that has nothing to do with Jesus’ preaching. Jesus was a Jew who wanted to universalize the Jewish ideal of Justice, by conceiving an image of universal brotherhood. Those who, like Augustine, dogmatized his message betrayed his original vision. The history of Christianity divided into an institutional and a spiritual line. To the latter belong figures that are at the margin of the Church history. Gesù Cristo e il Cristianesimo was the last books placed on the index by the ecclesiastical tribunal. During the 1930s, Martinetti also committed himself to the activities of the Rivista di filosofia, a journal in which some of his students (like Antonio Banfi), as well as other intellectuals influenced by him (Norberto Bobbio, Ludovico Geymonat), and antifascist thinkers (like Luigi Fossati, Gioele Solari, Cesare Goretti) gathered together.

Piero Martinetti died in 1943 in Spineto. Looking at the history of Italian philosophy, one can easily see how his thought had a remarkable influence throughout the twentieth century. Both in Milan and Turin, many philosophers and intellectuals carried on his legacy, by starting fruitful confrontations with the main European philosophical trends. Authors like Banfi, and the school that spread from his teaching, as well as Pareyson and Bobbio, among many others, always owed him a debt of gratitude.