11th March 2021

Book in Focus

Aldo Capitini on Opposition and Liberation

A Life in Nonviolence

Introduced by Jodi L. Sandford

Who was Aldo Capitini? Why is his work important today?

Aldo Capitini (1899-1968) was an Umbrian. He was from Perugia, one of the first city-states in Italy and one of the earliest municipalities to develop democratic representation. He continued to promote this democratic ideal throughout his lifetime. It has often been erroneously reported that Capitini was from Tuscany, because he went to university and worked in Pisa, was jailed in Firenze, and networked with many people from that region. However, it should be noted that he networked with many regions across Italy. He remains a fundamental figure in modern political and social sciences as an ideologue of nonviolence, open education, and open religion, of the “you-all omnicratic persuasion”. Perhaps because he was anti-fascist, anti-Church, pro-grassroots, vegetarian, and a sensitive self-made man, he has yet to receive proper recognition.

Aldo Capitini was an inconvenient figure and has regrettably remained outside national and international resonance for too long. He was a strong anti-fascist and among the first to be a conscientious objector and vegetarian—starting the Vegetarian Society of Italy. He was also among the first to promote Gandhi and nonviolence in Italy—also through the March for Peace and the Brotherhood of Peoples from Perugia to Assisi (in 1961). Likewise, he was an active promoter of open education. Despite this, his multifaceted contribution to contemporary society has often been overshadowed. He was in close contact with many well-known people of the period with whom he worked on numerous publications and political theory, including Benedetto Croce, Guido Calogero, and Norberto Bobbio, to mention a few. However, Capitini himself has often been relegated to passing mentions, and has not been translated into other languages (possibly due to the complexity of his writing, and his self-made-man style). More frequent studies of his work have been published in the past several years, however, and it is my hope that this translation will help disseminate the work of this extraordinary individual.

More precisely he says of himself:

"I was born in Perugia on December 23, 1899, in a house with a modest interior, but in a stupendous location, because it was right under the bell tower of the city hall. It had a view over the roofs of the countryside and the Umbrian skyline, and, above all, of the mountain of Assisi, whose beauty was indescribable. My father was a humble municipal office worker and the bell-tower guardian as well. He also used to ring the municipal bells. All of us in the family knew how to do it. My mother, who came from a nearby village called Brufa, worked tirelessly in the house and as a seamstress for other people. I had an older brother.

The first twenty years of my life passed according to a typical model. Since I was precociously sensitive, thoughtful, fond of reading, and of poetry too, and I had no guide, the discovery of Futurist literature with its manifestos and innovative programs had a great impact on me. I was totally absorbed by it for a period of time from 1913 to 1916. It was connected with my adolescent nationalism (having read newspapers since I was a child)."

About this Translation

This translation gives the English-speaking world access to Capitini’s quasi-autobiography, a text that Piergiorgio Giacchè the editor of the original Italian version explains as a book that collects and composes the writings of Capitini that have been published in other forms and for different purposes. It serves as a way to make him tell his life once again and more extensively. There are two autobiographical texts that are especially used in the development of his “story”. One is “Anti-Fascism among Young People”, meant for anti-fascist education, and the other, “Through Two-Thirds of the Century”, is what Giacchè calls a short self-portrait, which Capitini wrote shortly before his death to recapitulate his life, work, and ideas, and to describe his friends and acquaintances. In total, twenty-one different texts were used to create this patchwork autobiography. The parts of each text used are indicated at the end of each chapter of the book. The majority of the first six chapters are excerpts from “Anti-Fascism among Young People”, while there are only brief inserts of other texts in Chapter 4.

To give you a better idea of what the book is made up of, what follows is a brief layout of the chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the first twenty years of Capitini’s life, and gives the reader an idea of what it felt like to become an adult in the First World War era and be immersed in a growing patriotism, nationalism, and fascism. It also provides an introduction to Capitini’s anti-fascist and anti-secular point of view.

Chapter 2 discusses his studies at, and graduation from, the Normale of Pisa during the following ten years. The opportunity to study in such a prestigious university was an amazing achievement for a self-taught young man from such a humble background. Moreover, the chapter describes the social and political dynamics between Capitini’s friends and colleagues in academia. Capitini’s words give the reader a good idea of the ever-growing divide between the Fascists and Non-Fascists and the consequences of his non-enrollment in the Fascist Party. Chapter 3 starts in 1933, when Capitini was sent away from the Normale, and returned to Perugia. It explains how the first anti-fascist local networks and national connections were formed, and discusses his role, listing places and the people involved.

Chapter 4 expounds on anti-fascism in 1935, and the first crisis of fascism in the Ethiopian and Spanish Wars. Here, Capitini introduces his notions of nonviolence, with the publication of the “Elements of a Religious Experience”. In this text, he discusses how his philosophy was perceived by important figures like Benedetto Croce and the Rosselli brothers, and his relations with other leading personalities and editors in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Genova, and Milan. He begins here to call his political philosophy Liberalsocialism and to refer to his notion of “openness”.

Chapter 5 goes into more detail on Liberalsocialism, Capitini’s relationship with Guido Calogero, and the debate between forming a political party and maintaining a grassroots movement.

Chapter 6 explores the final crisis of fascism and the war, starting in 1942. It describes Capitini’s two experiences in prison, and then in the underground, at which time he wrote one of his most significant texts, “The Reality of All”, which was only published later in 1948. He had a series of 4 books published between 1942 and 1944 under the unifying theme of nonviolence and openness.

Chapter 7 discusses the Liberation, and how Capitini decided to work towards and promote political participation and what he referred to as “religious presence”, and to concentrate on the movement and democratic committees, rather than on a particular political party. It also explains his bond with a religious nonviolent movement, promoting conferences with themes such as Christianity and nonviolence, Gandhism, vegetarianism, modernism, and the principles of “compresence”; and the crucial support he had from Emma Thomas a Quaker, who retired to Perugia.

Chapter 8 details work written between 1947 and 1948, particularly the letters he wrote to other politically involved people including Guido Galogero. Here, Capitini explains what he saw as the direction for the Italian Left and why he refused to be nominated for elections. Chapters 7 and 8 are composed from five different texts each.

Chapter 9 illustrates Capitini’s idea of “addition” through two examples: Pietro Pinna, a conscientious objector, and Danilo Dolci, a “social worker”. On the other hand, Chapter 10 describes Capitini’s religious beliefs, which he felt were inseparable from his political and social values. In this chapter, he defines his stance and what he calls the “compresence” in 10 points under “My Faith”.

Chapter 11 goes from 1952 through to 1964, elucidating the theory of nonviolence and the struggle for peace, and the founding of the first International Center for Nonviolence. It also reviews three different events: the Conference in Bandung, the first Perugia-Assisi Peace March, and the resistance of the Buddhist monks and opposition to the War in Vietnam.

Chapter 12, deals with Capitini’s well-known pedagogical stance for Open Education, examining the power of students, and his stance of nonviolent noncooperation and opposition. The book closes with “A Farewell”, a poem he published in 1968 shortly before he died.

I would like to acknowledge that this translation has been possible with the support of my research funds from the University of Perugia.

My gratitude goes to Gabriele De Veris of the Biblioteca Comunale San Matteo degli Armeni, where the Capitini collection is maintained, to Giuseppe Moscati, the President of the Aldo Capitini Foundation and Studies Center, and to Piergiorgio Giacchè for their encouragement, support, and generosity. My infinite appreciation goes to Francesca Montesperelli and Sara Sandford, among others, for their thoughtful comments and corrections.

Below are a couple of important quotes from Capitini that illustrate his fundamental notions:

  • Moreover, we develop our protest in our own way, which is different from violent groups because: Our soul and our method is not against the people, but against certain facts, certain structures, certain behaviors, that can be replaced by others. We continually emphasize that improvement in the future for all beings is possible. Therefore, our dissent is against certain behavior and not against the person as a whole. The guarantee that we can offer everyone is not so much that we will all-out defend their things, but that we will defend the values of all, something that is real or potential, today and tomorrow, in every human being (we will always be for the promotion of freedom, development, equality, nonviolence, etc., for all).
  • Borders must be overcome and the word “foreigner” should be considered old-fashioned. Every community lives with an inclusive outlook, so it cannot be too big and is linked to the others through a federal system. If people move, they must not be exterminated, but must be welcomed by keeping structures and programs predisposed in order to make this “openness” possible.
  • By choosing nonviolence he [this person] has shown signs of the will to establish a relationship with other humans based on care and openness to the existent, to freedom, and to the development of others in the largest circle possible. The relationship is not bound or limited, and gradually reveals the commitment to the reality of all, which means to be basically open and interested in the sacred word: “all”. The “all” are not there in front, massed in crowds, however. The word “all” gains authority, and also unity. The reality of all, which includes the near and the far, the foolish and the sick, the dead and all the beings who were never “born”, is active, alive, and profound, ready and helpful in the soul itself. That nonviolent person increasingly feels the reality of all as the compresence of the dead and the alive.
  • Still, the following serious limits are clear: Groups pay attention to their opponents (policemen, men who detain economic or political power) instead of to solidarity with the people for whom or with whom they work. They become less important or are not considered because groups are interested in conflict (this is why one finds people in groups who only like to come to blows, to risk everything, and nothing more).

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Jodi L. Sandford holds a PhD in Cognitive Semantics and is University Researcher-Adjunct Professor in English Linguistics and Translation at the University of Perugia, Italy. Her research interests include applied cognitive linguistics and cognitive semantics, with a specific focus on embodiment, conceptual metaphor theory, polysemy, conventionality, and entrenchment. She has translated numerous texts between Italian and English and has applied cognitive semantics analysis to translation studies. Her recent publications include ““In what sense do you sense that sense?”: A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis of ‘sense’ Polysemy” in Worlds of Words: Complexity, Creativity, and Conventionality in English Language, Literature and Culture; “Black and White Linguistic Category Entrenchment in English” in Progress in Colour Studies: Cognition, Language and Beyond; and “Methodological Approaches and Semantic Construal of the Seeing Domain in English” in Sensory Perceptions in Language, Embodiment, and Epistemology.

Piergiorgio Giacchè is an anthropologist, and has conducted research and studies on deviance, youth issues, political participation, cultural policy, and the culture of contemporary theater. A scholar of Aldo Capitini’s philosophy and work, he has edited the books Liberalsocialismo (1996); Opposizione e liberazione (2003); and La religione dell’educazione. Scritti pedagogici di Aldo Capitini (2008). His publications include Una nuova solitudine. Vivere soli fra integrazione e liberazione (1981); Lo spettatore partecipante. Contributi per un’antropologia del teatro (1991); and Carmelo Bene. Antropologia di una macchina attoriale (1997; 2007).

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