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Capsule Review

The Academy of Fisticuffs: Political Economy and Commercial Society in Enlightenment Italy

In This Review

The Academy of Fisticuffs: Political Economy and Commercial Society in Enlightenment Italy
The Academy of Fisticuffs: Political Economy and Commercial Society in Enlightenment Italy
By Sophus A. Reinert
Harvard University Press, 2018 688 pp. Purchase

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment marked a decisive historical turning point: from that moment on, a distinctively modern conviction spread that durable progress toward peace, tolerance, and welfare was feasible. Previous political and social theorists tended to believe instead that self-interest inclined individuals to commit acts of unspeakable evil against one another—a fate only intermittently softened by virtuous leaders or altruistic religious beliefs. Most people think of the Enlightenment as centered in France, Scotland, and perhaps Germany. In this erudite and engaging intellectual history, Reinert makes the case for the critical role played by a pioneering group of Italian political economists who gathered in the cafés of Milan, notably Cesare Beccaria and the brothers Pietro and Alessandro Verri. They studied the socializing impact of commerce and espoused the inalienable rights of man not to suffer cruel punishment—just as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant did elsewhere. This suggests not just that the Enlightenment was more widespread than many think but also that the twin processes of market globalization and state formation already at work in that era made it inevitable—although in this case, as in France, large doses of caffeine helped.

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