Italy, from antiquity to modern times, passing through the Renaissance, produced influential thinkers. Of course, everyone can quote Machiavelli or Thomas Aquinas, but did you know that Epictetus or Seneca were both Italian?
Here is a list of influential transalpine philosophers and a brief description of their work.
Cicero (-106 / -43)
As the most celebrated orator of antiquity, Cicero was the first to write works of philosophy in Latin (and no longer in Greek, which was the custom). He was interested in politics (how to govern?), Logic (what is truth?), Morality (how to live?), Nature (we are determined by nature) And can be attached to the so-called New Academy school whose aim was to re-found philosophy by going beyond both epicureanism and stoicism.
Lucretia (-98 / -55)
A philosopher who wished to popularise Epicurism with the Romans, Lucrece’s major work was his immense poem De la Nature, in which he retraces the history of mankind. Surprisingly modern, Lucretius rejects superstition, defending human freedom from the gods. Like Epicurus, he affirms that death is neutral, not constituting either good or evil. After 15 centuries of scrapping by the Catholic Church, it is Montaigne who will rediscover this thought in the Renaissance.
Seneca is one of the most prominent Stoics: his philosophy deals with the means of attaining wisdom and happiness. His work La Vie Heureuse (ironic, since he committed suicide) thus constitutes a kind of manual of happiness in which he opposes Cicero.
Epictetus (born in Turkey and emigrated to Italy most of his life) is undoubtedly the most eminent of the Stoics. Slave then freed, his Manual teaches men to detach themselves from the contingencies, to take refuge in the inner citadel that is the soul, in order to make this last waterproof to the vicissitudes of the world. Thus, Epictetus distinguishes between things dependent on us and those independent of us, inviting us to accept the latter as part of a destiny on which we have not taken.
Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180)
Marcus Aurelius is Roman emperor of the Stoic school. Known for its correctness in morals, this “philosopher king” strongly influenced ethicists and moralists (Bossuet, Montaigne and Pascal in particular). He has bequeathed only one work, his Thoughts for myself, in which he advocates an acceptance of death and reveals the precariousness of the human condition.
Thomas Aquinas is more often known as a theologian than a philosopher since Thomism has become the doctrine of the Vatican. His Theological Summa, an imposing work, aims at reconciling faith and reason, notably by synthesising the philosophy of Aristotle and the writings of Revelation.
Machiavelli is one of the intellectual treasures of Italy. At the same time historian, political advisor and political scientist, his Prince founded political science as it is known, that is to say, a discipline designed to describe political systems and not merely to prescribe them. His political philosophy is two-fold: practical, in the sense that he provides a guide to the exercise of power, and pessimistic, inasmuch as Machiavelli sees men as they are, imperfect, not as they should be. Thus, Machiavelli has brought out the political philosophy of its libraries in order to confront it, even in the middle, with reality.
Pic of the Mirandola (1463 – 1494)
A Florentine thinker, like Machiavelli, his intention was to synthesize the great currents of thought of his time, namely Platonism, scholasticism and Aristotelianism.
Vico, a professor in Naples, was one of the first philosophers of history, before Kant Hegel or Marx. His philosophy of the 3 ages (ages of the gods, heroes and then men) gives a “sense” to the story and explains its dynamics.
He also left a strong criticism of the philosophy of Descartes, to whom he reproached to want to base the wisdom, which is impossible via hyperbolic doubt.