Giacomo Leopardi is one of the greatest secrets of 19th century poetry. Despite being heralded by luminaries like Schopenhauer1 and Nietzsche, his fame remains scattered in Europe and hardly extends to the American hemisphere. Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri2 was read by every school kid but they barely cracked open his Operette Morali.3 The likely culprit is an irredeemable pessimism that was too difficult for interpreters to connect it to contemporary issues. Leopardi wrote mostly moral essays, parables, fables, and dialogues – painting life as a joke of the gods – a darkly comic view of world and its inhabitants. However, instead of leaving the reader sad and pathetic, they are actually funny.
I will try to assess Leopardi’s unique brand of pessimism by delving into his works, highlighting his anti-systematic intentions as well as analyze Dienstag’s systematic interpretation, and make a few determinations.
Basically the thesis of his Zibaldone sets out to explore the limits of philosophy, as well as the technique to overcome them. Leopardi argues that we must pursue an “ultrafilosofia” that accepts the limits of analytic reason and knits it together with the synthesizing power of imagination.
Early in his work, Leopardi was still under the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who attributed reason as the chief culprit of man’s alienation from nature and the cause of human unhappiness. Obviously, in order to return to an original state of nature, we must reject reason. However, Leopardi later developed an ultrafilosofia that was no longer concerned with Rousseau’s dreams of a return to original nature. Rather than yet another philosophical system, ultrafilosofia was at bottom the realization that all philosophical systems are insufficient.
Carlo Ferrucci described Ultrafilosofia as an “aesthetic experience of truth” that consists of a creative and fictional activity that brings about a poetical sacrifice of nature & of memory. Once reality is recognized as a meaningless void, and philosophy directly confronts the nothingness of existence, then our only recourse is to create authentic meanings of our own. In other words, we are to know and understand through our imagination. Our knowledge of the world is subjective, or more precisely, conditioned by our subjective faculties. Basically, our pretense to objectivity is naught but an illusion, because we cannot be both the knowing subject and the object of our own analysis. Because we have always created our own meaning, we are at once both poet and philosopher, the ultimate author of our own narrative and the creator of truths.
Since reason has alienated us moderns from nature, Leopardi claims that
“Therefore our regeneration depends on an ultrafilosofia, one could say, which knowing things completely and profoundly, brings us closer to nature. And this should be the accomplishment of the extraordinary luminaries of this century.”4
The early aspects of Leopardi’s poetry – nature and memory – shrivels in his later project of nihilism, an “ontology of nothingness.” The ultrafilosofia’s project of unmasking our anthropocentric illusions about nature will thunder with realization at the emergence of a poetry that is inspired and nourished by the negation of the very aspects of Leopardi’s early poetry.
Contemporary interpretations emphasize how modern Leopardi’s insights are; they are as sharp and deep as Nietzsche or Heidegger. Since nature is essentially becoming, it is a constant emergence from nothingness and a relapse back into the same. Man, too is a pebble in the gigantic stream of nature, but in order to endure the horror of nothingness, we need illusions, and the best illusion is poetry. Prior to Nietzsche, Leopardi pointed out the necessity of fiction, but Severino claims that he became far more radical in his later poetry – a poetry of nothingness that had surpassed his earlier Rousseau-ish phase of illusion, a poetry that transforms the abyss and silence into inspiration and voice, a poetry that encompasses nihilism by mirroring the very function of nature with the creation of appearances.
Leopardi asserts that a poetic sensibility is not just compatible with philosophy, but constitutes its very prerequisite. A true philosopher must have “imagination, feeling, capacity for enthusiasm, heroism, vivid and grand illusions, strong and varied passions”5 Basically the philosopher must exceed philosophy itself, for “reason needs the imagination and illusions that she destroys”6 Anticipating Nietzsche several decades, Leopardi equates the great philosopher with the true poet, and the true philosopher with the great poet.7
Most of the Operette consisted of the dialogue form, which is a discourse that undermines authority and challenges the assumption of absolute truth and permanent answers. If the dialogue is a legitimate form of philosophical discourse, then Socrates (Plato’s as well as Xenophon’s and Aristophanes’) was the product of a fiction, and the creation of poetry.
A variant of pessimism courses in the veins of Ultraphilosophia, styled as “cultural pessimism” by Joshua Foe Dienstag in his work Pessimism. While pessimism has been a term of abuse in recent centuries, Dienstag rehabilitates it and reconceptualizes it as a “philosophical sensibility” a “stance” to deal with a “world that we now recognize as disorded and disenchanted.”8 For Dienstag, pessimism is more than just skepticism of optimism – it is the incredible burden of time, the naked experience of being aware of time as it flows, as everything changes. The implications to such a principle is that history becomes ironic, that freedom and happiness are not compatible, and that existence is absurd.
Dienstag interpreted Leopardi as a cultural pessimist who had much in common with Rousseau’s classic critique of the Enlightenment, but without committing to similar misanthropic conclusions. As the grandfather of pessimism9, Rousseau was Leopardi’s most decisive influence. According to Dienstag, both writers were concerned about the prospects of human happiness that take place over time in society. Both thought the Enlightenment accelerated these developments, although both argue with a larger scope that goes further back to origin of civilization and consciousness. But where Rousseau offered fantasies of reversal of time or escaping the effects of time, Leopardi recommended an active embrace of the conditions of our existence. Rousseau recommended a withdrawal of politics while Leopardi supported engagement in circumstances, whether the expected result was possible or not.
Effects of time
The burden of time permeates the Moral Essays, and is best expressed in “Dialogue Between Torquato Tasso and his Guardian Spirit.” The transience of pleasure indicates how the passage of time prevents us from experiencing such directly. Pleasure constantly runs ahead of us as they hop along, passing us in time.
One of the main themes of the dramatic stories in Moral Essays is boredom. Much like laughter, boredom is a characteristic that separates man from the animals. However, this isn’t due to some special, innate capacity for tedium, but that we experience a continuous existence in time. Boredom is one aftermath of this existential condition. Given that boredom emerges from the fundamental fact of self-consciousness, then it must be the baseline condition — a condition from which we can only be distracted, either by pain or by occupation. The latter is no guarantee of happiness, but it is the less bad alternative than either pain or tedium – the two most common conditions.
For Leopardi, boredom isn’t some neutral compromise between happiness and unhappiness. Instead, boredom is the default condition of disappointment, absent only a present pain. Moreover, this disappointment is due to the duration of conscious existence, in addition to the loss of the animal ability to be satisfied in time. So we vacillate between boredom and pain. There certainly are exceptions, such as Christopher Columbus, who could stave off both with intense activities.
“I truly believe that by tedium we should understand none other than the pure longing for happiness; not assuaged by pleasure, and not overtly afflicted by distress. But this craving, as we agreed not long ago, is never gratified; and real pleasure is never to be found. So that human life, so to speak, is composed and interwoven, partly of pain and partly of tedium; and is never at rest from one of these passions without falling into the other.”10
If we lack the enforced projects to divert ourselves, then boredom is the best anyone can hope for. An indifferent reality grants nothing else.
Dating back to its inception in Plato’s Dialogues, philosophy has championed reason or more precisely, knowledge, as a condition of happiness. In Gorgias, the philosophers is judged to be both the most virtuous and happiest of all. However, this is a false judgment in pessimism. Reason certainly has its benefits, but happiness is not one of them. In fact, reason actually destroys illusions and results in disappointment. Leopardi illustrated this in his dark comedy, “History of the Human Race,” a profound historical irony, with the failure of the gods to satisfy their creation. At first, human beings were child-like in their enjoyment of existence. Eventually the human beings found disappointment with their initial hopes, forcing them to resort to reason to fulfill desires. But this sparked a chain reaction in which every accomplishment only put off and exacerbated the initial desire. This dissatisfaction increased exponentially at every level, allowing a greater insight into the ultimate meaninglessness of existence. First hopes are dashed, then ideals are exposed, and finally, the very idea of hope itself. Man knows himself to be unhappy, and accepts that this will not ever change.
Illusion of Freedom
Leopardi satirizes philosophers in his Sillographers parable, wherein he pokes fun at the old Socratic maxim that because error and ignorance cause unhappiness, knowledge is the solution. As a result of this dogma, philosophers since Socrates fancy themselves independent of the commandments of nature. For Leopardi, via his character Filippo Ottonieri, this tenet was merely another illusion, for he “laughed at those philosophers who held that man can evade the tyranny of fortune, by … entrusting his happiness or unhappiness to… what depends entirely upon himself”11 Even if this ability exists, then that ability would be entirely dependent on the whims of Fortune:
“Is not man’s reason subject all the time to countless accidents, innumerable sickness that bring stupidity, delirium, frenzy, violence and one hundred other kinds of madness…? It is great folly to admit that our bodies are subject to things beyond our control, and nonetheless deny that the mind, which depends on the body in almost everything, is inevitably subject to anything whatever outside ourselves.”12
Leopardi confirms that man is utterly a slave to the whims of Fortune. In another dialogue, “Dialogue of Nature and an Icelander,” Nature is unable to satisfy the Icelander’s queries about the significance of human suffering at the hands of Nature, except with brutal realism:
“You forget that the life of the world is a perpetual cycle of production and destruction, so combined that one works for the good of the other. By their joint operation the universe is preserved. If either ceased, the world would dissolve.13
Because man cannot accept meaninglessness he will continue to ask questions. In the end, the Icelander is interrupted by a famished lion and became its dinner. This is Nature’s final, implacable answer: the death of the individual. In other words, this parable represents the inadequacy of science and philosophy, that the truths they discover are unsatisfactory.
Dienstag’s category of cultural pessimism is itself useful, certainly, but not exhaustive, because Leopardi’s brand of pessimism is not limited to the analysis of his time, his society. Its scope reaches high enough for the gods and far back into antiquity – a cosmic pessimism that grasps the laws of the universe as determinative to human suffering and wholly antithetical to human hopes for change of their condition. Since science is also a vain pursuit, and Nature is always cruel, then the only possible relief is a poetic re-imagination of reality.
Moreover, I consider pessimism as one of several possible reactions to existential nihilism, the thesis that existence lacks intrinsic meaning. Leopardi’s response to his beautifully rendered existence seems to parallel that of the Absurdist, who concedes that the individual can create meanings in her life, but she must face the Absurd, and her “Absurd creation” must be individual, or more specifically, authentic in order to have meaning and sense.
Where most pessimists like Rousseau resign and chant VANITAS, VANITATUM, OMNIA VANITAS, the absurdist like Leopardi rebels against the state of things and establishes his poetry in the middle of what negates it. His imagination exalted himself before what crushes us all. Our freedom or our passion, the imagination joins lucid awareness. Leopardi is already aware that his imagination is ultimately meaningless, yet it serves an authentic life. Perhaps no solution to unhappiness exist. Perhaps it is not necessary either.
Cliff of Leucas
However, Leopardi is not content to depress the reader – but to edify her about the human condition and to fortify her for the future. Once we abandon the burden of our goals, then we can live more than ever: “Life must be vital, that is, truly life; otherwise death incomparably surpasses it in merit.”14 Leopardi’s exemplar figure, Columbus strives for an active life, but more that just avoiding boredom he has left the security of dry land as well as the safety of reason itself. Others object to Columbus that he has “staked [his] life… on no more than a mere speculative opinion”15 This embracing of uncertainty demonstrates how much we can value life more than one lived under the umbrella of reason. “Every voyage is, in my opinion, like a leap from the cliff of Leucas.”
The leap symbolizes the acceptance that our fate will be entirely up to cosmic forces beyond our control. By giving up control we acquire a freedom from fear and acquire a vitality of existence. We may be disappointed idealists in a vain chase of a will o’ the wisp, but by risking ourselves is freeing from the unattainable & forces us away from the familiar.
Despite the hopelessness of existence, Leopardi draws a positive conclusion from his pessimism – contra its apparent self-contradiction or absurdity. Time consciousness does lead to intense and utterly irreversible human suffering, but we can embrace this. Suffering is necessary, yet it can be considered as trivial and part of achievement. Then a life of self-directed activity is possible, as long the activity is attempted for its sake, not for some mythical belief in the progress of humanity. Leopardi himself epitomizes one such activity: the thinker as a poet. He took a leap into the fictional and supplemented analysis with a system – a fictitious, artificial one that was useful, even if it was ultimately meaningless.
1Schopenhauer wrote that Leopardi presented the “mockery and wretchedness of this existence.. but with such a variety of forms and expressions, with such a richness of images, that he never induces displeasure, but instead stimulates and engages us.” The World as Will and Representation, Vol II, 46
2 Italian for “hodgepodge book;” it was a collection of impressions, aphorisms, philosophical thoughts, analyses, criticism. Traditionally, zibaldone was paper codices of small format consisting of vernacular language, often containing the author’s sketches.
3 “Small Moral Works,” consisting of 24 dialogues and fictional essays.
4ZS, p. 115
5ZS, p. 1833
6ZS, p. 1839
7Zibaldone, p. 3383
8Pessimism, p. xi
9Walter Starkie described Rousseau as the “patriarch of pessimism.”
10OM, p. 96
11OM, p. 144
12OM, p. 144-45
13OM, p. 79
14OM, p. 89
15OM, p. 160