Norberto Bobbio

1994 Balzan Prize for Law and Political Science (Governments and Democracy)

To this eminent professor, philosopher and historian of law who, through his teaching, his work and his civic engagement, has made an exceptional contribution to the theoretical and practical study of the government of democracies.

A grand master of thought in constant dialogue with societies whose evolution has compelled the scholar in his role as a citizen to question himself, to demand answers from the leaders who guide those societies. This philosopher is also a historian with a vast culture, and this permits him to place problems of his time within a wide temporal horizon, this being true both with regard to the history of political thought as well as to the history of the Risorgimento. This dialogue, stimulated by an ever-constant curiosity and the critical spirit of a man who seeks to re-examine problems already thought to have been understood, is exerted in essays which allow us to grasp his accurate thinking orientated to preserving the coherence between that which is fixed and that which changes.

His general theory of law takes form in the writings which mark his evolution up until the volume published in 1993. And it is also from the essays that his conception of the government of a democracy bursts forth – this being the theme of the 1994 Balzan Prize – pinpointing his dialogue with society and the path of his thought, and upon which he concentrated his reflections all throughout his life as one may see from his bibliography and his biography.
Which conclusions may one arrive at from this quick profile of the man and his work? Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1935, Bobbio began his career as a university professor teaching Philosophy of Law. Fifty-fine years have passed since then. Next year gives testimony to his sixtieth year of teaching within and without the university system – a maestro who dominates two fundamental disciplines: philosophy and history, a humanist, a scholar seeking rigour and coherence, giving particular attention to the norms of society, while always willing to allow for a certain flexibility in their interpretation, a courageous man whose involvement in the struggle for the birth of democratic institutions has been enriched by years of study and reflection. It would be enough to take up his discourse, “Power and Law”, given on occasion of his being awarded the Charles Veillon European Essay Prize in 1981. This most rich discourse was inspired by Guglielmo Ferrero’s book, Power (1943), which gave Bobbio the chance to examine the relations between the principle of legitimacy and the principie of legality, and a chance to make reference to Max Weber and Hans Kelsen, “…those ever-lasting sources of inspiration for all my political and juridical research.”

Norberto Bobbio is, and will himself remain an “ever-lasting” source of inspiration for all “political and juridical” research into the foundations of democratic systems. This theorist is, however, a professional blessed with a rare quality: common sense. Proof of this is given in his essays on the future of democracy. Beginning with a “basic” definition of democracy, he is careful not to project the images of its most probable future, limiting himself to the description of the unavoidable adaptations of the institutions which the new democratic societies are forced to undertake due to new problems and new protagonists. These adaptations imply assuming the responsibility for the risks taken, as well as discussing again the principle of democracy. And if he insists in suggesting that an era of democracies might follow the era of tyrannies of Elie Halévy, he still reacts against a possible fall into illusion, as he did in 1991, dedicating a new chapter to this argument in his book, Il futuro della democrazia. It dealt with the problems of international relations, and Bobbio raises two most pertinent questions: “Is an international democratic system possible among autocratic States?” “Is an international autocratic system possible among democratic States?”

Norberto Bobbio gives an answer in his introduction: The ideal system for stable peace could be summed up in this succinct formula: a universal democratic order of democratic States. I have no need of adding that this, too, as all ideal formulas, doesn’t belong to the sphere of what is, but to the sphere of what should be.”
This reflection is indicative of an intellectual process, a process which leads Norberto Bobbio over the mine fields he will never desert.

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