Giacomo Leopardi 1798-1837
Leopardi’s PhilosophicalPoetics • Leopardi’s thought evolves from the gradual awareness of his own unhappiness, whose origin can be found in the poet’s environment and historical background • The lack of a caring family, a conservative formal education, the solitude and isolation of his upbringing, the illnesses derived from the “mad and desperate dedication to his studies,” the derision of the citizens of Recanati, the mediocrity of the city’s cultural environment, had a great impact on Giacomo’s sensitivity and intelligence • The historical background was characterized by the crisis of the Enlightenment, the birth of new ideologies, the crisis of the intellectual (loss of political and civic role), the political and cultural backwardness of the papal state • Leopardi came to maturity during the Restoration, which saw the conflict between nationalism, liberalism and romanticism on one side
And cosmopolitism, absolutism and classicism on the other • On the literary scene those years saw the polemic article written by Madame de Stäel on Romanticism and Classicism • The point of departure of Leopardi’s speculations, ultimately aiming at illuminating the meaning of life, is the existential malaise of the poet, his physical and psychological unhappiness. • Such sentiment is at the origin of an existential pessimism whose characteristics are a) a precocious recognition of one’s youthful illusions and dreams b) a growing distrust for life c) a (not yet rationalized) feeling of disappointment and desolation d) a distaste for all sorts of social constraints e) a sense of uselessness and suffocation
Historical Pessimism (1816-20) • Leopardi’s thought advances from an analysis of the condition of “unhappiness,” whose causes, dynamics and consequences are investigated • At the foundation of this condition he places the theory of Self-Love, according to which man is a creature that, by necessity, is drawn to self preservation and self love. Anything one does, even good actions towards others, are driven not by selflessness, but by the opposite desire to please primarily the self (deriving pleasure from good deeds) • Self love is at the origin of good deeds, even of noble deeds, while egoism is caused by a degeneration of self-love, produced by the development of civilization, which is dominated by reason. Egoism is one of the consequences of the negative historical progress which brought man, according to Leopardi, from Nature to Reason (involution, barbarism)
Leopardi rejects the optimism of the new ideologies and the reassuring utopias of his time. He revolts against the closemindedness and the conventions of his class. He celebrates a mythical world of noble virtues and incorruptible values, a world in which glory and fame are the only antidotes against the grayness of life. He attacks vehemently the century’s myths, history and progress, and the simplemindedness of a century that celebrates MAN as the creator of reality. • He criticizes the fanatic anthropocentrism of the time and affirms that history is not progress but involution from the primitive state of nature, happy and good, to a civilized condition, corrupt and decadent • In the history of humankind he recognizes four ages a) the primitive (state of perfect harmony and innocence) b) classical antiquity (synthesis of nature and reason) c) the M. A. (common places of the Enlightenment - dark ages) d) the modern (reason, coldness, rationalism, inauthentic life)
Leopardi rejects any civil and technological progress, convinced of its negativity. To him civilization means distancing man from nature. The world becomes more and more corrupt. • Cause of all ills is Reason, enemy of Nature, mother of society and of all its egoism. Reason has destroyed the ancient heroic age • Leopardi’s dream is to recapture the ancient flame, the vivacity of the imagination, the strength of illusions, the energy of yesterday against the tedium of today. This can only succeed through the recapturing of “memories” • Like Foscolo, Leopardi understands the need for illusions (glory, self love, love for the country, honor, virtue, love); they are in synchrony with Nature and constitute the only antidote against progress and civilization. Poetry for Leopardi must foster illusions • The history of humankind is about the battle between happiness and truth, illusion and reality, hopes that humanity must keep alive in order not to surrender to despair. Illusions hide from men the tragedy of life (Il sabato del villaggio)
The Real is also illusory (Schopenhauer). Reality is the enemy of happiness • Leopardi, son of the age of Reason, revolts against it, proclaiming the superiority of what is thought, dreamt and hoped for (against what is real) • Happiness (against the most coveted tenet of the Enlightenment) is given not by the knowledge of reality but by its ignorance. To know more means to suffer more. Who augments knowledge (is written in the Bible) augments suffering. • In sum, Leopardi’s historical pessimism can be expressed in the following antinomies, the first with positive, the second with negative value a) Nature b) Reason a) Ancient b) Modern a) Natural state b) Society a) Illusion b) Real
Cosmic Pessimism (1823-1830) • During the years of his “poetic silence” (1823-7), Leopardi completely changes his initial conception, rehabilitating Reason against Nature. As he continues to analyze the causes of human unhappiness, he observes that the natural impulse is contrasted, on the individual level, by a twofold limitation, biological and ontological. On the historical level he sees egoism as a third limitation (“the plague of society”) a) humanity’s intrinsic weakness. Discovery of one’s fragility b) impossibility of happiness. Nature endows man with a drive to happiness, but this is unattainable (since it is infinite and totally fulfilling). Its search leads to a finite and concrete unhappiness. The momentary pleasures are but a relative short truce in the unending unhappiness • Leopardi’s Teoria del piacere: Man is driven to find pleasure, but pleasure exists only in desire (since it is a purely speculative concept).
Desire is imagination, hope, dream, and as such it is always projected in the future and always destined to remain unfulfilled. • Pleasure exists as pleasures, seen, negatively, as cessation of the unhappiness, brief moments of absence of pain: concrete but ephemeral, they make suffering tolerable, giving us back, although momentarily, the élan vital. • Theory of Self Love and Theory ofPleasure are connected: man is always, unsuccessfully, seeking happiness. He seeks pleasure, but it is finite, driving man to look for a higher, more powerful one, that he never finds. The tragedy of humankind is in this unending search for the infinite, which unerringly results in defeat • Pleasure is always hoped for, never possessed, always future, never present: always fleeting. Never being possessed it becomes a hope, a desire or an expectation. The deriving concept of pleasure is therefore negative, that of suffering is positive: a) pleasure is the absence of pain b) suffering is not the absence of pleasure (La quiete dopo la . . . )
This is the concept of negative pleasure: if suffering ceases (pleasure being its counterpart), pleasure does not take its place, but noia does (ennui-angst-despair). Life (as in Schopenhauer) oscillates between suffering and ennui. • The historical limitation: the irreconcilable difference between individual and society; their interests are diametrically opposed. Humanity, always seeking its own pleasure, behaves antisocially (and this in full accordance with Nature). As a consequence, Leopardi admits that all societies (including the ancient) are bad, and that humanity is inevitably marching toward its destruction. No hope or confidence is given to scientific and technological progress, to economic expansion, to industrial and colonial exploitation. • All three limitations considered, Leopardi concludes that all is evil. To exist equals eternal disillusion, suffering, alienation. Responsible for all this is Nature, source of humanity’s sorrows (La sera del dì di festa, Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese, Cantico del gallo silvestre, Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia)
In sum: • Man is born to suffer; joy is but a momentary cessation of pain • From man’s perspective (existential level), the entire universe seems to conspire against humanity. From the absolute point of view (metaphysical level), life is a natural process that alternates the living through birth and death • Nature, seen as a malevolent and brute force, is responsible for our tragic destiny • Man knows his destiny, and that renders him unhappy. This awareness leads him back to himself, to the primary source of his unhappiness, his own life. Death is the only refuge to the living
Heroic Pessimism (1830-7) • After Leopardi leaves Recanati (April 30, 1830) there is an ideological turn (anticipated in the Dialogue of Plotinus and Porphiry, 1827); from a materialistically negative vision of reality to a positive agonistic message. Reasons for the change: a) The friendship with the Tuscan liberals b) The failed love relation with Fanny Targioni Tozzetti c) The conflicts with the Neapolitan spiritualists d) The practice of philology in the search for answers to the existential drama e) The discovery of satirical language as expressive instrument f) The reading of Epittetus (Greek stoic) and Theophrastos (disciple of Aristotle and founder of materialistic empiricism) g) The distancing from stoicism and atarassia (from indifference to participation h) The need for a constructive ethics and for a heroic attitude, based exclusively on the human being (not on a transcendental power)
In the Diaolgue of Plotinus and Porphiry we find the first expression of Leopardi’s new phase: a call for solidarity in front of the human destiny • Later on in the Zibaldone he defends his philosophy against the accusation of misanthropy (not man is culpable of our ills, but Nature) • In a letter to Giordani (1828), Leopardi criticizes the political and cultural trends of his time, which professed their complete confidence in the “magnifiche sorti e progressive.” He initiates a battle against historicist optimism, and against political and legislative commitment, that he sees animated by the ridiculous pretense to create a betterment for society and at the same time ignoring the real necessities of the individuals. • In the last years Leopardi abandons the most “metaphysical” pessimism in favor of a more “relativistic” one, founded on the recognition of two different levels of truth:
a) the level f the “order of things” (objective reality) b) the level of existence (quality of life, history, culture) • There is thus a double origin of suffering, that caused by a) inevitable because external, produced by life itself: illnesses, catastrophes, physical decay etc.) b) can be contrasted because it is not determined by Nature but by the human being. Hence Leopardi’s discovery of a heroic resistance and of social commitment • Historical ills are caused by the free reign of egoism: we all live to die, and even if we are commonly living in the same misery, we fight to prevail, to succeed at one another’s expenses. This egoism, the manifestation of the lowest human drives, accrues human suffering, makes our lives less tolerable. • Man is a rational being. Subject to his culture, he can learn to suppress his lowest instincts, and produce alternative values: compassion, solidarity, friendship.
The Ethics of Solidarity • Task of Philosophy (“filosofia dolorosa ma vera”) is to educate humanity first to openly recognize the ills of life and then to mitigate them through participation in the culture of the time • The role of the poet is to serve truth and humanity, as he promotes real culture and authentic social progress: attention to the individual and to his complexity rather than attention to a social class or an economic group • It is the message encoded in “La ginestra” (the Broom): Leopardi calls for a great alliance of all human beings, a “social chain” (social catena) that unites all against the brute force of Nature. Leopardi refuses the idea of Divine Providence and all the silly ideas of his proud and simple century • The final message is an irreducible rationalism. The conquest of a “giusto sapere” (just knowledge) shall be the foundation of a new society, a society built exclusively with human strength