Philosopher George Santayana introduces me to Benito Mussolini

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus

I did my graduate work at Oxford in 1936-1937. My main study and research was on the philosophy of George Santayana. Professor A. G, Cunningham at the time was the authority on Santayana. He was my professor and tutor. One day in the middle of the term and to my great surprise Professor Cunningham called me aside and said: "Janus you are doing a fine job studying Santayana but I must tell you I can only tell you about Santayana. Santayana today is alive and well and living in Rome. Why don't you plan part of your reading period studying directly with the master? I can arrange this for You."

I must say this kind of thing only happens at Oxford. Of course I accepted the suggestion and went to Rome where Santayana received me at the Bristol Hotel and we began a series of tutorials over a 30 day period.

I would meet Santayana at noon at his hotel. He was immaculately dressed with a Homburg hat and he had a young personal driver who drove a Mercedes Benz. Our tutorial was always at one of his favorite restaurants. My first tutorial started with a great surprise. Instead of talking about philosophy, 'Santayana started describing the linen tablecloth. He said the best linen came from Ireland, the glasses from Venice, and the silver from England.

"Janus, the beginning of wisdom is to be interested by everything and awed by nothing."

Then he read me a verse from one of his favorite poems: "It is not wisdom to be only wise and on the inner wisdom close your eyes."

During our third tutorial. Santayana asked me to read up on Mussolini. He was invited to attend Mussolini's speech at the colosseum. He said he would take me with him and that is how I. met Mussolini-a meeting I'll never forget.

In my preparation, following is some of my reading and research:

Benito Mussolini was born at Dovia di Predappio in FoIl province on July 20, 1883. His father was a blacksmith and an ardent Socialist. His mother taught elementary school. His family belonged to . the improvisherished middle class. Benito with a sharp and lively intelligence, early on demonstrated a powerful ego. Violent and undisclipined , he learned little at school. At the age of 18 he took his Diploma de maestro and then taught secondary school briefly. Voluntarily exiling himself to Switzerland, he formed a dilettante's culture notablly for its philistinism. Not surpisingly, Mussolini based it on Friedrich Nietzshe, Georges Sorel and Max Stirner, on the advocates of force, will and the superego. Culturally armed, Missoulini returned to Italy in 1904, rendered military service, and engaged in politics full time thereafter,

In 1940-1941 Mussolini's armies. badly supplied and impossibly led strung their defeats from Europe across the Mediterranean tb the African continent. These defeats constituted the full measure of Mussolini's bankruptcy. Italy lost its war in 1942. Mussolini collapsed six months later. Restored as Hitler's puppet in northern Italy in 1943, he drove Italy deeper into the tragedy of invasion, occupation, and civil war during 1944-45. The end approached, but Mussolini struggled mainly to survive, unwilling to pay the price for folly. The debt was discharged by a partisian firing squad on April 28, 1945, at Dongo in Como province. I did not know enough Italian to appreciate his speech in the colosseum. Santayana translated part of the speech and said it was a rather statesman-like speech about the past greatness of Italy and that Italy was on the way to becoming great once again.

After the speech Santayana was invited to a small reception for Mussolini. When Mussolini saw Santayana, he came over to him, embraced him warmly and Santayana then introduced me to Mussolini as a scholar from Oxford. Mussolini shook my hand and said Italy always welcomed scholars and then said I was lucky to know the great Philosopher Santayana.

After the meeting I joined Santayana for cocktails at his hotel and he added his own comment about the greatness of Italy, Santayana said that Italy was always one of the most restless countries in Europe: "it had more than its share of revolutions, its politicians were among the most corrupt in Europe; it was ruled by the mafia in several elections." Yet he added Italy produced some of the world's greatest scholars, writers, artists like Dante, Galileo, and Michelangelo. Then he added: "Now you take Switzerland. It has a most peaceful history,' no mafia and what has it produced? The cuckoo clock Janus, that's a joke."

Santayana concluded our meeting by saying during our next tutorial we would discuxs the novel he had written "The Last Puritan," which I had asked him about. Santayanas novel was on The New YtJk Times best seller list for many weeks Reviewers then and even today consider "The Last Puritan," one of the best novels ever written and Mussolini praised it too. He had copies of thre novel sent to various schools in Italy.

(Posting date 25 April 2008)

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