‘The 20th Century: dare I call it my century?' These words appear in the message Norberto Bobbio conveyed to the Piero Gobetti Studies Centre in 2000, at the opening of a Seminar devoted to the ‘terrible 20 th century'. Indeed, it is the century Norberto Bobbio traversed almost entirely, even surpassing it by a few years (1909-2004), and in which he was a witness and a protagonist among the most eminent.
In his autobiographical writings one reads that his earliest memories go back as far as World War I. He had just turned thirteen years of age when fascism came to power. During ‘the age of tyranny' his intellectual and moral development was fostered, both at school and university, by ‘ clercs who had not betrayed' (J. Benda): teachers and peers whose memories he later recounted in his invaluable testimonials.
At the out-break of World War II, he had not yet reached thirty, but had for some time been active in the Resistance, contributing to the establishment of the liberalsocialist movement that subsequently converged into the Partito d'Azione [Action Party]. While conscious of the limits to the efficacy of that experience, he always reasserted, even in the latest writings, his loyalty to the values of justice and liberty which had inspired l'azionismo [that particular type of activism].
After Liberation, such activism provided the impetus for the cultural and political renewal that would underpin the creation of the new republican Italy. He firmly upheld the principles of liberty upon which to establish democratic life in the face of a communist left still attached to the Soviet political and cultural world. However, he contrasted with equal vigour the decades-old prevailing Christian Democrats' hegemony with the values of the laic and socialist culture .
On the threshold of his sixtieth birthday, the experience of the 1968-69 student and workers demonstrations was deeply worrying to him. During the subsequent phase of national terrorism, articulated through those long and dreadful years of terrorism, or ‘years of lead' (anni di piombo ), by both the ‘Red and Black Brigades' and ‘the strategy of tension', he was not overwhelmed by the fear that the democratic institutions would not withstand. Rather, he gained new energy to develop and refine his procedural conception of democracy centred upon ‘the rules of the game'.
In 1976, being an editorial contributor to 'La Stampa' in Turin meant that his thought and influence were reaching a broader range of levels of society, and before too long, much to his surprise, he was acknowledged as a critical conscience of civil Italy .
In his eightieth year (1989), he witnessed the end of an era provoked by the failure of real socialism, which he interpreted as the tragic fate of an ‘upturned utopia'. He drew attention to the urgency of confronting the problem of international democracy, the defence of human rights, and the guarantee of peace.
Soon after, public corruption in Italy, which he had openly denounced and fought, caused the collapse of the political system that had governed the Republic for almost fifty years. But there was no indication that the new phase would be any better.
During the last decade of his life, he still found the strength to oppose the emergence of new and old strands of the right in which he saw a clear threat to democracy. They in turn saw in him the eminent and emblematic figure of a political culture both alien and inimical to them. But right to the end, despite his political realism and anthropological and historical pessimism, he never ceased to explore the paths towards a more civil and humane world .
In 1984, Norberto Bobbio was nominated a Life Senator by the President of the Republic, Sandro Pertini. To a journalist who on that occasion asked him: ‘How would you prefer to be addressed, Senator or professor?' Bobbio simply replied: ‘I am a professor'. His university teaching, which he undertook for half a century, moving from legal philosophy to political philosophy, was a real forge for his extensive scientific production (the electronic bibliography at www.erasmo.it/bobbio lists almost 5,000 entries).
The specific fields of knowledge Norberto Bobbio cultivated, the topics and problems he confronted, and the currents of thought he influenced, and in many cases initiated, were numerous. His writings on analytical philosophy of both law and politics, complemented by a constant reflection on the classics of Western thought, have been translated in many languages, and continue to be read and to influence our contemporary culture.
Notwithstanding, the impact of Norberto Bobbio's intellectual and moral teaching was and continues to be more extensive than his scientific production. One could reconstruct the Italian political and cultural history (and not only) of the 20 th century through the debates he animated and provoked: the relation between politics and culture - with Italian communists during the 1950s; a marxist theory of the state - during the mid-1970s; pluralism and the ‘third way'; the ‘Italian anomaly' [lack of party alternation]; the ‘just war' - at the beginning of 1990s; left and right; the miserable ending of the First Republic and the woeful beginning of the would-be Second.
A man of dialogue , as he liked to describe himself, who with the rigour and clarity of his interventions succeeded in involving others in the public debate over public issues. There were countless scholars from all over the world, but he also included many ordinary citizens who appreciated such inclusion, and expressed it in their ultimate testimony through the emotional participation in the sorrow at his death.
The experience of the ‘Norberto Bobbio Lectures' held in Turin during 2004, and of the week devoted to De senectute [Old Age] in 2006 demonstrated that the appeal of Norberto Bobbio's moral and intellectual figure remains alive for the citizens of civil Italy, even for those of the new generations who never knew him directly.
Compiled by Pietro Polito