A Lesson in Humility, a Lesson for Our Times: Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,958 words
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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"Ministers, general managers, commissars, prefects should purchase a copy ... of Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed to be read in idle moments, to be kept on their desk or on their nightstand at night, to be at hand when they cannot sleep. It is one of the best treatises on political economy ever written. They should ponder the words, full of truths and sense, of this great author and resolve at last to make themselves scarce as to private commerce. Let the government mind its business, and the citizens will mind theirs" (Einaudi [1919] 1961, 271-72). (1)

These words were written by Luigi Einaudi (1874-1961), recommending I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, 1827), a novel by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), to the massive ranks of Italian public officers. Einaudi would become, in 1948, the president of the fledging Italian Republic. Well before then, he was the country's most prestigious economist. So why was he recommending a novel to "ministers, general managers, commissars, prefects" rather than a proper treatise in economics?

Manzoni's book is indeed the story of two betrothed people, whose hope to get married is hampered by a local nobleman but who mostly by chance--or thanks to Providence--eventually overcome the obstacles he puts in their way. The two main characters show a kind affection, largely free of sensual passion, and the novel's key themes seem to be redemption and humility. So what does the novel have to do with economics?

Manzoni wrote what is perhaps the highest example of the historical novel. He uses the story of two common types to paint a larger fresco of History with a capital H, which he sees as the complex of social phenomena affecting the many rather than as the adventures of a few "great men." Economics here comes in handy; it inspired in particular the twelfth chapter of the novel, which Einaudi recognized as a masterpiece in making clear vivid concepts dear to classical economists.

Novels are not lectures, and they should not be read as such. But stories can transform things as sometimes dreary as social and economic ideas into narratives that talk to people by evoking situations that resonate in their own lives.

In this regard, where an author comes from intellectually is not a mere detail. The struggle between liberty and power, the need for restraint in government, a strong revulsion for the powerful and mighty, an affinity to free-market economics, and a sympathy for the "small people" who must earn their living through work are important features of Manzoni's work. He wrote poems, tragedies, and essays, innovating literary genres profoundly. In the following pages, however, I am concerned mainly with The Betrothed, trying to highlight to what extent the novel can be considered as having a classical liberal message. Such a message was consistent with the author's mindset.

Alessandro Manzoni: A Brief Sketch of His Life and Times

One of Manzoni's most important achievements was to provide Italians with a common language. Even at the time of Italy's unification in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364012