The Importance of Norberto Bobbio

The Importance of Norberto Bobbio

Norberto Bobbio died in January 2004 at the age of ninety-four in Turin, the city in which he was born and spent most of his life. Over the years, his home had become a haven for intellectuals, political leaders, and scholars of several generations. He used to receive his guests at 4 p.m. for approximately two-and-a-half hours of extraordinary conversations about philosophy and politics, Italian politics in particular, Bobbio’s main interest (and source of anxiety) since his youth. His life, as one sees from his Autobiography, is a historical and political profile of twentieth-century Italy and Europe. This is not merely because of its length but also because of the political events it spanned-from the time when governments were the business of a tiny agrarian-industrial oligarchy, to the age of fascist populism, to the building of constitutional democracy, and finally to the new video-populism and plutocracy. The year Bobbio was born, 1909, FIAT was celebrating its tenth birthday and producing 1,800 cars a year, while the Italian police were on alert against demonstrations by anarchists and socialists protesting the visit of Nicolas II, the Russian czar. In the month he died, European leaders failed to reach an agreement on the constitution of the European Union, the chief of the Italian government, Silvio Berlusconi, was undergoing plastic surgery, and the Constitutional Court had just rebuffed an effort to grant him immunity from all criminal charges pending against him.

A scholar of the philosophy of law and political theory, in his maturity Bobbio taught at the University of Turin and lived on the same street where he was born-a telling detail if one recalls that in the years of his youth the Italian government (liberal and constitutional, not yet fascist) was subsidizing the exodus to the United States of millions of its subjects. The description he provides of his social background matches the black and white picture of Italian predemocratic society: the rich and the poor, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, lived close to each other like two hostile nations. Bobbio belonged to the former. “From my family I never got the impression that there was class conflict between bourgeois and proletariat. We were educated to think all men equal.” Early on, he realized that Italian children were not at all equal, comparing his lifestyle to that of peasant friends with whom he played during summer vacations in the countryside. “The contrast between their homes and ours, their food and ours, their clothes and ours, could not escape us. . . . Every year, we learned that some of our friends had died of tuberculosis during the winter.”

IT WAS NOT with the help of his family that Bobbio developed his hostility toward fascism, social inequality, and injustice. As with other Italians and Europeans of his generation, public school was the place where he began his political education and discovere...


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