That great classical liberal novel you never heard of
By Alberto Mingardi
Alessandro Manzoni was the Italian Dickens. Perhaps Walter Scott may be a more fitting comparison, as Manzoni’s novel, The Betrothed, is indeed a great historical novel. But Manzoni’s impact has been similar to Dickens’s. Manzoni wrote plays and poems, but he is mostly famous for one work: indeed, The Betrothed.
Manzoni was the grandson of Cesare Beccaria and his natural father was probably Pietro Verri. Indeed, he came from a family at the very center of the Lombard Enlightenment. In his youth, he spent time in Paris, where he got to know the Ideologues and absorbed their teachings. Later, he rediscovered his Catholic roots, but he never repudiated a politically liberal persuasion. As a rule, his liberalism is linked with his support to the Italian unification (indeed, a hotbed of political enthusiasm in those days) but he had a profound understanding of economics. He read Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say thoroughly, and understood clearly the role of prices and the dangers of “protection”. Manzoni’ masterpiece features a chapter which is a wonderful little primer in economics. Few people in the Anglo-Saxion world are aware of it, to the best of my knowledge. I do remember once having a conversation on Manzoni once with Leonard Liggio. If you knew Leonard, you won’t be surprised, as there was hardly a subject he could not converse about.
One of the themes in his book, “The Betrothed”, is our tendency to search for what Matt Ridley calls “skyhooks”: when people are baffled by events out of their control, they tend to look for scapegoats instead of attempting to understand the causes of the upheaval. Likewise, when things go well, they search for a visible hand rather than crediting the invisible one.
For your amusement and edification, I have an article on Manzoni in the last issue of the New Criterion.
I shall add that Manzoni’s The Betrothed was compulsory reading for generations of Italians. This is why I begin the article by writing:
The idea that to change a political landscape one must first influence people’s minds relies on the premise that what one reads influences what one thinks. In other words, if “ideas have consequences,” then books have consequences, too. The fate of Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) in Italy, however, may prove this to be an unfortunately naive assumption.
Many people have been exposed to the book, but very few have picked up its message (at least, one of its messages). The Betrothed is available in translation. I highly recommend it.