Antonio Rosmini Serbati, philosopher, and founder of the Institute of Charity, born 24 March, 1797, at Rovereto, Austrian Tyrol; died 1 July, 1855, at Stresa, Italy; was educated at home until his twentieth year, and, after a three years’ course at the University of Padua, returned to Rovereto to prepare for Holy orders. He was ordained priest at Chioggia, 21 April, 1821, and in 1822 received at Padua the Doctorate in Theology and Canon Law. In 1823 he went to Rome with Mgr. Pyrker, Patriarch of Venice, met Consalvi and other prominent men, and was encouraged by Pius VII to undertake the reform of philosophy. The next three years (1823-26) he spent in philosophical pursuits at Rovereto, devoting himself especially to the study of St. Thomas. He had already adopted as principles of conduct:
never to assume external works of charity on his own initiative, but, until summoned by some positive outward manifestation of God’s will, to busy himself with his own sanctification, a thing always pleasing in the Divine sight (principle of passivity);
at any clear sign from God, to assume with alacrity any external work of charity, without, so far as concerned his higher will personal preferences or repugnances (principle of indifference).
On these maxims he based the rules of the Institute of Charity which, at the instance of Maddalena, Marchioness of Canossa, and of John Loewenbruck, a zealous priest from German Lorraine, he founded in 1828 at Monte Calvario near Domodossola. In 1828 he again went to Rome, where he was encouraged by Leo XII and later by Pius VIII to pursue his philosophical studies and consolidate his institute. During this visit he published his “Maxims of Christian Perfection” and his “Nuovo saggio sull’ origine delle idee” (1829; tr. “Origin of Ideas”, London, 1883-84). In the autumn of 1830 he inaugurated the observance of the rule at Calvario, and from 1834 to 1835 had charge of a parish at Rovereto. About this time the pope made over to Rosmini several missions tendered him in England by the vicars Apostolic, as also the Abbey of S. Michele della Chiusa in Piedmont. Later foundations followed at Stresa and Domodossola. The Constitutions of the institute were presented to Gregory XVI and, after some discussion regarding the form of the vow of religious poverty, were formally approved 20 December, 1838. On 25 March, 1839, the vows of the institute were taken by twenty Fathers in Italy and by six in England (Spetisbury and Prior Park). The Letters Apostolic (“In sublimi”, 20 Sept., 1839) formally recorded the approval of the institute and its rule, and appointed Rosmini provost general for life. The institute then spread rapidly in England and Italy, and requests for foundations came from various countries. The publication of Rosmini’s “Trattato della coscienza morale” (Milan, 1839) led to a sharp controversy. Against Rosmini were writers like Melia, Passaglia, Rozaven, Antonio Ballerini, all members of the Society of Jesus, in which Rozaven held the office of assistant to the general. On the defensive, along with Rosmini, were L. Eastaldi, Pestalozza, Pagamini. For fifteen years the wordy war was protracted, with a truce from 1843 to 1846, due to an injunction of Gregory XVI enjoining perpetual silence on both sides. Pius IX, who succeeded Gregory in 1846, showed himself favourable to the institute, and various new foundations in England attested its vitality. In 1848 Rosmini published (Milan) his “Costituzione secondo la giustizia sociale” and “Cinque piaghe della chiesa”; the latter against Josephism, especially in the matter of Austrian episcopal appointments in Northern Italy. In August of the same year, he was sent to Rome by King Charles Albert of Piedmont to enlist the pope on the side of Italy as against Austria. Pius IX appointed him one of the consultors to deliberate on the definability of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and at the outbreak of the revolution asked Rosmini to share his exile at Gaeta. Antonelli’s influence, however, prevailed and Rosmini left Gaeta, 19 June, 1849. His works, “Costitunone” and “Cinque piaghe”, were condemned in August, a sentence which he unhesitatingly accepted. A further attack was made on him in the “Postille” and the “Lettere di un prete Bolognese” (1848). Pius IX (1850) referred the “Postille” to the Congregation of the Index, which rejected it as false. In view of other charges the pope ordered an examination of all Rosmini’s works. The decision, rendered 3 July, 1854, was that all the works be dismissed (esse dimittenda), that the investigation implied nothing disparaging to the author, to the institute founded by him, or to his exceptional services to the Church, and that to prevent any renewal and dissemination of charges and strife, silence was for the third time imposed on both parties. Within a year after this decision Rosmini died. His body reposes in the Church of the Santissimo Crocifisso built by him at Stresa. (See ROSMINIANS.)
The Rosminian system
According to Rosmini, philosophy is “the science of the ultimate reasons or grounds of human knowledge”. The philosopher at the outset must answer the questions: What is knowledge? What is thought? Can we be certain of what we know? Rosmini’s answer is given in his ideology and logic. Intellect, he holds, is essentially different from sense; thought is objective, sensation is subjective. The term of the intellectual act is seen in such a way that the seer, at the moment, is conscious neither of himself nor of any relation with himself as seeing. The primal and essential act of human intelligence, thus terminating in its object, is intuition — an attitude rather than an activity, in which the mind pronounces no judgment on what is known, but merely receives the communication of the intelligible object. All our concepts, when analyzed, reveal being (somethingness) as their essential constituent; or, conversely, human concepts are nothing but determinations more or less complex of the simple and elementary notion of being. This fundamental idea is indeterminate and general, conveying to the intellect no knowledge of particular things, but simply manifesting itself as the essence of being. Our abstraction does not produce it, but merely discovers it already present in thought. Being, as it appears within man’s experience, has two modes, each governed by its own conditions and laws each with well-defined attributes, diverse, but not contradictory. Manifesting itself to the mind as the intelligible object, not exerting any stimulus upon the intellect, but simply illuminating it, this is being in its ideal mode. As it acts or is acted upon in feeling, modifying the human subject in sensation, constituting the sentient principle in action and passion, this is being in its real mode. The former is essentially objective, simple, and one — universal, necessary, immutable, eternal; the latter is subjective and, in our world, contingent, particular, temporal, manifold, and almost infinitely varied in aspect. Ideal being is not God, but we may call it, says Rosmini, an appurtenance of God, and even Divine, for its characteristics are not those of created finite things, and its ultimate source must be in God. If thought had in it no element transcending the contingent and finite, all knowledge of the absolute and infinite would be inexplicable, and truth, uncertain and variable, would exist only in name.
To explain our knowledge of particular real entities, Rosmini says that our knowledge of realities reduces itself to a judgment whereby we predicate existence of what is felt by us. Real entities act upon man’s senses, and he immediately recognizes them as particular activities of that essence of being already manifested under another mode in intuition. Because of its simplicity, the human ego, or subject-principle, is constrained to bring together and collate its feeling and its knowledge of being, and thus it perceives being energizing in the production of feeling. This act of the human subject whereby it cognizes real entities, Rosmini calls reason. By sense we are introduced to realities, but we could not know them as beings unless we already possessed the idea of being. This is given to our mind prior to all perception or individual cognition; it is not acquired by any act of thought, but is implanted in us by the Creator from the beginning of our existence: it is innate, and constitutes for us the light of reason. Furthermore, it is the very form of the human intelligence, a form not multiple, but one — not subjective, but objective — i.e., not a quality or attitude or component of the human subject, but distinct from it and superior to it, existing in an absolute mode and called the form of the mind because, in manifesting itself to man, it draws forth and creates, so to speak, the act of his intelligence.
Logic, says Rosmini, is “the science of the art of reasoning”. The scope of reasoning is certainty, i.e., a firm persuasion conformable to truth. The truth of a thing is, in last analysis, its being, and since being is the form of the human intellect, it follows that a criterion of truth and certainty lies at the base of all thought and reasoning. The principles which govern reflection and argument are founded on the primitive intuition of being. “Being is the object of thought”; this is the principle of cognition, and it is antecedent to the principle of contradiction. Error is found, not in the idea of being, which is without any determination, nor in the principles of reasoning, which simply express the essential object of the mind in the form of a proposition without adding anything foreign, but in reflection, and hence in the will, which usually initiates reflection. Logic shows us how to use reflection so as to attain truth and avoid error.
The Sciences of Perception are psychology and cosmology. The subject of psychology is the ego in its primal condition, i.e., stripped of its acquired relations and developments. The soul is felt by and through itself; it is essentially a principle of feeling. “The human soul is an intellective and sensitive subject or principle, having by nature the intuition of being and a feeling whose term is extended, besides certain activities consequent upon intelligence and sensitivity.” This “extended term” is twofold: space, which, simple and immovable, underlies all sense phenomena as the idea of being underlies the phenomena of thought; and body, a limited extended force which the sentient principle passively receives and thereby acquires individuation. It is a favourite doctrine of Rosmini that the extended can exist only in synthesis with a simple, immaterial principle. Considered apart from this principle, the material corporeal term lacks the unity and coherence necessary for existence and permanence. Our own body, the “subjective body”, is felt directly as the proper term of the human sentient principle and is the seat of corporeal feelings. Other (external) bodies, since they modify not the soul, but the bodily term in connexion with the soul, are felt by an extra-subjective perception. We feel our own bodies as we feel external bodies, through vision, touch etc.; but we also feel them immediately with a fundamental feeling, always identical and substantial, in which no distinct limits, figure, or relation of parts can be assigned. Shape, hardness, colour etc., belong to the extra-subjective world. But the body is not merely felt by the soul; it is also intellectually perceived by the soul in a primordial and immanent judgment, whereby being is applied to it (the body) in the way above described. In this perception is found the true nexus intimately uniting soul and body. The body is the felt-understood term of the human principle which in this intellective synthesis performs its first act as a rational soul and exerts a real physical influence on its bodily term. Hence Rosmini’s definition of life as “the incessant production of all those extra-subjective phenomena which precede, accompany, and follow parallel with the corporeal and material feeling (subjective)”.
Every time that by generation an animated organism is produced, perfectly constituted according to the human type, the vivifying, sentient principle rises to the vision of the intelligible object, ideal being. This happens in virtue of a primordial law, established by God in the creative act. There is, however, no chronological passing from sentience to intelligence, as if one could assign an instant in which the human soul was purely sentient and another following in which it had become rational. All is consummated in a single point of time. The soul’s immortality is deduced from its nature as an intellective principle having for its object-term the eternal and necessary idea of being. This is independent of space and time, and the act of intuition continues even after the bodily term has been dissolved by death, and the soul’s immanent perception of its body has been for a period destroyed.
Cosmology, which considers the ordered universe, the nature of contingent real being and its cause, is not a complete science in itself; it must be treated in connexion with the sciences of reasoning in which reflection, testing the observations of intuition and perception, discovers new truths and arrives at the existence of beings beyond the reach of intuition and perception.
The Sciences of Reasoning are ontological and deontological. The former comprise ontology and natural theology. Ontology treats of being in all its extent as known to man, viz., ideal being, the necessary object of the intellect; real being, i.e., subjective force and feeling; moral being, the relation between real and ideal — a special act of recognition and adherence on the part of the subject harmonizing it with the object. Light, life, love; intellect, sense, will — these are the forms under which the essence of being manifests itself in man’s world; they are also the foundation of the categories. Natural theology treats of the Absolute Being, God. The existence of God is known, not through perception or direct intuition, but through reasoning. Ideal being is being under only one of its forms and therefore incomplete; in the real world we meet only partial realizations of being. Comparing in reflection the products of our perception with the essence of being manifested in intuition, we see that they do not exhaust the possibilities of that essence; yet this must find its full realization in some way far transcending our experience; it cannot, in that fulness, be finite and imperfect as are the things of this world. This knowledge of the Absolute Being Rosmini calls negative-ideal; it tells us not so much what God is as what God is not.
Definite proofs of God’s existence are furnished by being in its essence and in each of its forms. The essence of being is eternal, necessary, infinite; but these attributes it would not possess if it did not subsist identical under the other two forms of reality and morality, complete and perfect. Where it exists under all these forms, it is being in every way infinite and absolute, i.e., God. Again, the ideal form that creates intelligence is an eternal object and hence demands an eternal subject with infinite wisdom — God. The real form of being is contingent, and it therefore postulates a First Cause in whose essence subsistence is included. Finally, the binding force of the moral law is eternal, necessary, absolute, and its ultimate sanction must be found in an Absolute Being in whom the essence of holiness subsists. Thus man naturally does not perceive God; his knowledge of God is but of a negative kind. In the supernatural order of grace, the real communication of God to man, a new light super-added to that of reason brings man into conjunction with God’s own reality, which reveals itself to him in an incipient and obscure manner, yet acts upon the soul with positive efficacy. Thus the Christian becomes a new creature, consors divinœ naturœ.
The deontological sciences treat of the perfections of beings and the ways in which these perfections may be acquired, produced, or lost. Amongst them, ethics, the science of virtue, is prominent (see “Compendio di Etica”, Rome, 1907). Each moral act contains three elements: the law, the subject’s free will, and the relation (agreement or disagreement) between law and will. Man is not a law unto himself; the moral imperative must come from a higher source, from the necessary and universal object of the understanding Being, manifested to the mind, has an order of its own, and the various entities we know though it occupy different places in the scale of excellence. We cognize them by an act of intellect; we recognize them by a practical act of our will, adhering to the good we see in them with an intensity determined by the moral exigence of the object. The idea of an entity, therefore, as the medium which reveals its excellence, clothes itself with the authority of law; and as all ideas are but determinations of the idea of being, the first of laws and the first principle of obligation is: “Follow the light of reason”, or “Recognize being”. Besides the testimony of consciousness and the consent of mankind, the proofs for free-will, i.e., the power of choice between objective good (duty) and subjective good (pleasure, self-interest), are closely bound up with Rosmini’s theory of man and the soul. Man is stimulated by sensation and his subjective modifications; at the same time he is illumined by the light of being eternal and absolute whence he can draw strength to overcome the allurements of sense and unite himself to the absolute good.
In reference to the third element Rosmini used a distinction which led to sharp controversy. By peccatum (sin) he means the sinful condition of the will in its antagonism to objective good; by culpa (sin as fault), the same condition considered relatively to its cause, free will. Ordinarily, peccatum is also culpa, and every sin is traceable to a free agent. But, in abnormal circumstances, there may be peccatum where there is not, at the moment, culpa. The acts of an acquired sinful habit, when performed without advertence or deliberation, are contrary to law, though at the moment the will is not responsible. They are culpœ and imputable, but to complete the imputability one must link them with the first free wicked acts whence the habit resulted. Original sin is a true sin yet not a culpa, not imputable to the person in whom it is found as to its free cause. The responsible cause is to be sought in the free will of Adam, whose sin was both peccatum and culpa. Rosmini wrote voluminously in defence of the traditional Catholic doctrine of original sin. Conscience he defines as “a speculative judgment on the morality of the practical judgment”; and since morality, he points out, belongs to an order of reflection anterior to the conscience, there may exist in man moral or immoral conditions apart from conscience — a doctrine which he also applied to original sin and to certain states of virtue and vice. Regarding probabilism, he distinguishes, in the question of the doubtful law, what is intrinsically evil from what is evil only on account of some extrinsic cause, for example, prohibition by positive law, and lays down the rule: “If there is a doubt respecting the existence of the positive law, and the doubt cannot be resolved, the law is not binding; but if there is a doubt in a matter pertaining to the natural law and relating to an evil inherent in action, the risk of the evil must be avoided.” This theory provoked controversy, but Rosmini maintained that it accorded substantially with the teaching of St. Alphonsus Ligouri.
The science of rational right arises from the protection which the moral law affords to the useful good. The classification of the goods and rights which we possess in our relations with our fellow-men, is based on freedom and property. Freedom is the power, which each one has, to use all his faculties and resources so long as he does not encroach on the rights of others. Property is the union of goods with the human personality by a triple bond, physical, intellectual, and moral. The moral bond guards the other two, for the moral law forbids one man to wrest from another what he has united to himself by affection and intelligence. The subject of right may be either the individual man or man in society. Concerning the three societies necessary for the full development of the human race, Rosmini speculates at length in his “Filosofia del diritto” (Milan, 1841-43).
Rosmini applied his philosophical principles to education in “Della educazione cristiana” (Milan, 1856) and especially, “Del principio supremo della metodica” (Turin, 1857; tr. by Grey, “The Ruling Principle of Method Applied to Education”, Boston, 1893). His basic idea is that education must follow the natural order of development. The mind of the child must be led from the general to the particular. The natural and necessary order of all human thoughts is expressed in the law: “A thought is that which becomes the matter, or provides the matter of another thought.” The whole sum of thoughts which can occur to the human mind is classified in divers orders of which Rosmini enumerates five. To the first order belong thoughts whose matter is not taken from antecedent thoughts; each of the successive orders is characterized by its matter being taken from the order immediately preceding it. The ruling principle of method is: Present to the mind of the child (and this applies to man in general), first, the objects which belong to the first order of cognitions, then those which belong to the second order, and so on, taking care never to lead the child to a cognition of the second order without having ascertained that his mind has grasped those of the first order relative to it, and the same with regard to the cognitions of the third, fourth, and other higher orders. In applying this principle to the different orders, Rosmini explains the cognitions proper to each, the corresponding activities, the instruction which they require, the moral and religious education which the child should receive. Both in his general theory of adapting education to the needs of the growing mind and in the importance he attached to instinct, feeling, and play, Rosmini anticipated much that is now regarded as fundamental in education. “The child”, he says, “at every age must act.” To regulate the different kinds of activity, and to make each kind reasonable, is really to educate. It is in the kindergarten system of Fröbel, the contemporary of Rosmini, that these principles are most fully worked out.
The most important of Rosmini’s posthumous works, the “Teosofia” (ontology and natural theology), was published in five volumes (Turin, 1859-64; Intra, 1864-74). In 1876 some Catholic newspapers and periodicals in Italy, interpreting the “Dimittantur” decree of 1854, declared that Rosmini’s works were open both to criticism and to censure. The Rosminian school on the contrary maintained that, while the decree gave no positive approval, it at least guaranteed that the books examined contained nothing worthy of censure and could therefore be safely read, and their conclusions accepted by Catholics. This view seemed to be confirmed by the Master of the Sacred Palace, who, in a letter to the “Osservatore Romano” (16 June, 1876), reminded the editor of the silence enjoined on both parties and stated that no theological censure could be inflicted. A month later, the “Osservatore Cattolico” of Milan, as ordered by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Index, acknowledged its interpretation to be erroneous.
After the death of Pius IX, the controversy was renewed. An answer of the Index was given (21 June, 1880) that “dimittantur signifies only this — a work dismissed is not prohibited” — and another (5 Dec., 1881) that a work dismissed is not to be held as free from every error against faith and morals and may be criticized both philosophically and theologically without incurring the note of temerity. Both answers were taken by the adversaries of Rosmini’s doctrines to justify new censures, while the Rosminian writers contended that these answers in no degree rendered untenable the position they had always occupied. On 14 Dec., 1887, a decree of the Inquisition condemned forty propositions taken from the works of Rosmini. The decree, published 7 March, 1888, lays special stress on the posthumous works which, it says, developed and explained doctrines contained in germ in the earlier books; but the propositions condemned have no theological nota attached. About one-half of the propositions refer to Rosmini’s ontology and natural theology; the remainder, to his teachings on the soul, the Trinity, the Eucharist, the supernatural order and the beatific vision (Denzinger, “Enchir.”, 1891 sq.). Some of the propositions were clearly taught in the works examined in 1854; others repeated what Rosmini had said over and over again in the principal books published during his lifetime. The superior general of the Institute of Charity enjoined obedience and submission on the members. Leo XIII in a letter to the Archbishop of Milan (1 June, 1889) plainly stated that he approved and confirmed the decree. Cardinal Mazella discussed the propositions exhaustively in “Rosminianarum propositionum trutina theologica” (Rome, 1892). This brought out a reply from an erudite layman, Prof. Giuseppe Morando, under the title “Esame critico delle 40 proposizioni Rosminiane” (Milan, 1905).
Besides the works already mentioned, Rosmini wrote a large number of treatises the more important of which are: “Il Rinnovamento della Filosofia in Italia” (Milan, 1836); “Psicologia”, (Novara, 1843; Turin, 1887; tr., London, 1884-88); “Logica”, (Turin, 1853; Intra, 1868); “La Filosofia della Morale” (Milan, 1831);” L’Antropologia in servizio della Scienza Morale” (Milan, 1838); “Antropologia sopranaturale” (Casale, 1884); “Teodicea” (Milan, 1845); “Filosofia della Politica” (Milan, 1858); “La societa e il suo fine” (Milan, 1839); “V. Gioberti e il Panteismo” (Milan, 1847); “Introduzione alla Filosofia” (Casale, 1850); “Introd. al Vangelo secondo S. Giovanni” (Turin, 1882).
- George Cormack and Daniel Hickey. “Rosmini and Rosminianism”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 10 November 2013. Web. 28 August 2016. <>