Leopardi, Count Giacomo (1798–1837)
LEOPARDI, COUNT GIACOMO
Count Giacomo Leopardi, the Italian poet and prose writer, was one of five children born to Count Monaldo Leopardi and Marquise Adelaide Antici, in Recanati, near Ancona. His brief and anguished existence was plagued both by continuous illnesses (among them rachitis, which made him a hunchback) and the bigotry of his parents, who refused him financial support. A liberal and an agnostic, he yearned to leave the "bodiless, soulless, lifeless" ancestral abode where he had spent all his time devouring books; learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and a number of modern languages; and translating and writing critical essays on the classics, history, and astronomy. A fellow philologist, Pietro Giordani, opened to him the world beyond his "savage native town." Afterward, he traveled to Rome, Milan, Bologna, Pisa, Florence, and Naples, never venturing beyond the Alps because of his frail constitution, and even refusing the Dante Alighieri chair offered to him by the University of Bonn. Often he returned to Recanati, only to leave after a short stay. Nature and beauty offered him moments of precious calm, but these few instants could not dispel the physical and metaphysical oppression that, for Leopardi, seemed to weigh upon the world. Everywhere reality proved a bitter disillusionment. Several devoted publishers and friends offered him various jobs and forms of subsistence, but generally to little avail. The poet both expected and invoked death, which came to him in Naples in 1837, shortly after he had dictated his last poem.
As Elme Marie Caro said, Leopardi wanted to be, deserved to be, and was a philosopher. He did not come to philosophy through poetry, or to poetry through philosophy; his poetry is his philosophy. While Leopardi's prose works (the magnificently cogent Operette morali, 1827; the diary called the Zibaldone, 1898–1900; and the copious correspondence, or Epistolario, published posthumously) reflect the melancholy meditations of a thinker concerned with universal sorrow, the most fulfilling expression of his thoughts is to be found in his poetry, the Canti (1831, 1835, 1845). The Canti complement and complete the Operette, because in expression and content they constitute an organic outgrowth of the nature and orientation of Leopardi's philosophy.
Leopardi's philosophy, which should not be viewed as a methodically pondered and presented system, has been labeled skeptical and pessimistic, a philosophy of despair. Indeed, it dwells upon the triumph of evil over good and of nature over man, the mystery and insignificance of our mortal existence, the anguish of our miseries, the extinction of youth, and the lure of death. As Arthur Schopenhauer recognized, "No one has treated these subjects more fundamentally and exhaustively in our day than Leopardi." Given the limited dissemination of Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819) at that time, it is unlikely that Leopardi read the work or that he met the author. It is certain, however, that Schopenhauer read Leopardi's poems; yet while he mentions them, he in no way indicates whether they influenced the development of his own thought.
Yet the similarities run deep. Leopardi characterized life—this life we love, not for itself but, erroneously, for its promise of happiness—under the rubrics of sorrow (dolore ), or unhappiness (infelicità ), and tedium (noia ). By means of this perspective, he was able to discard many cherished notions. Assuming the hapless state of humanity, the notions of patriotism and heroism vanish as follies, as does the glory of genius, which the poet had once assiduously pursued and which later, like Eduard von Hartmann, he relegated to the category of illusions. As for love and beauty, they entice soul and senses cruelly, since their ephemerality brands them as colossal deceptions. Nature, which according to Leopardi is the mysterious principle of being, closely related to Hartmann's concept of the Unconscious as a neutral absolute, answers none of man's queries about the secret of things; it is undecipherable, mechanical, unreasoning and unreasonable, and at times brutally hostile toward men. Man, then, is nothing; if he is something, he is so by virtue of being his own greatest enemy. In the Operette morali, Schopenhauer's gloomy picture of life as a gory chase in which men scramble for spoils differs only moderately from Leopardi's description of Prometheus's and Momus's journey.
Death as nonbeing is therefore, like love during its moment of existence, a thing of beauty. Death as suicide, however, solves nothing because it constitutes not a negation of existence but rather, as Schopenhauer asserted, an act directed against the accidental portion of unhappiness that creeps into human existence. Moreover, the future holds no promise, and progress and perfectibility are empty words.
Leopardian pessimism differs from Schopenhauer's on two questions: the principle of evil and the remedy of evil. Leopardi refused to consider the problem of the necessity of evil and, in any case, would not have ascribed evil to a principle, such as Will or the Unconscious, simply because he believed that evil is an empirical datum and does not require metaphysical or transcendental explanation. He felt the existence of evil and saw only gross arbitrariness in those who attempt to show why it must exist, or who make a transcendent dialectics of the universal law of suffering. Historical pessimism, which stems from the "restless creative mind" of men who boldly oppose unconquerable nature, and cosmic pessimism, through which evil, inherent in nature, subjugates man, are fundamentally interrelated in Leopardi's philosophy and preclude all thought of remedy. The individual's only recourse is stoic dignity—resignation, silence, and scorn. "Of what value is our life, except to despise it?" In this respect, Leopardi was a precursor of German pessimism.
Schopenhauer also upheld Stoic dignity, but for Leopardi dignity was less a remedy for suffering than an instinctive and protective reaction that neither alters suffering nor consoles the sufferer. Schopenhauer even found some consolation in the Buddhist ideal of nirvāṇa, which Leopardi could not. And while Schopenhauer could derive a sense of pride from his belief that the more developed the organism, the greater its misery, Leopardi, even when speaking of man's nobility, could not find in it any basic gratification. The degree to which both men felt a sense of compassion differed: Leopardi's pity, although less central to his ethics than Mitleid was to Schopenhauer's, was still less condescending and more sympathetic than Schopenhauer's.
Leopardi held to the inexorability of destiny and nature's blind subservience to it—subservience which fails to take into account man's struggle and misery. Everything, therefore, is deceit; the only truth lies in nothingness. For Leopardi, what counts is the philosophical negation of life, both in its effective pains and in its false felicities. Only in this way can one claim to demonstrate moral consistency—through the affirmation of a negative totality.
Illusions and Reality
Reason, then, in Leopardi is tantamount to negation. Illusions are merely dreams, substances insofar as they may be considered "essential ingredients" of living, "half-real things." Since all that is real comes to nothing, Leopardi inverted the concept of reality and asserted that only the illusory is real. In claiming this, he did not suggest that reality is a mere phenomenon concealing a noumenon. On the contrary: The reality of the world in which man lives and which has meaning for him is neither rational nor spiritual, but natural and imaginary; it is a reality that is necessarily maintained by what we call illusions. Beyond it lies complete negation. Hence Leopardi professed the opposite of the instinctive noumenalism of man's mind. The world is real in relation to the absence of those other substances that we seek under the heading of truth. Just as the world is arbitrary, so men's beliefs, desires, hopes, and "certainties" (justice, science, virtue, freedom, idealism) are merely groundless illusions. Leopardi despised theological, dogmatic, spiritualistic philosophies, along with any form of presumptuous optimism.
The philosophy outlined above precluded religious faith. Leopardi might assent to the Scriptures' theory of man's decadence, but he could not admit Christian Providence or the Resurrection. Yet although he is unhappy (infelice ), the poet is not irreligious. His "atheism" bespeaks the combined awareness of the necessity and of the absence of God—in short, of the impossibility of hope. Escape into pleasure is self-deceiving ("pleasure is a subjective speculation and is unreal"), for we seek the idea of pleasure more than we seek pleasure itself; indeed, the latter does not exist. The resulting tedium closely approaches Martin Heidegger's Angst, which reflects the experience of nothingness.
Value of Life
Because Leopardi is an artist and poet, the immensity of his despair loses its bitterness in a melancholy and fraternal contemplation of existence. Despair allows him to understand the value of human life, although in the long run life is a "useless misery." As a measure of exiguous man's infinite desires against the infinity of being, tedium itself (that is, enthusiasm, heroism, and desperation successively experienced and resulting in a sense of nothingness) seemed to him "the greatest sign of grandeur and nobility in human nature." He recognized illusion as a positive value, offsetting negation and "the infinite vanity of all things." This kind of deception is of value to man, since it constitutes his only justifiable pleasure. Despite it, or actually because of it, Leopardi called for brotherly solidarity and compassion, not out of love of God, but out of a desire to combat the cruelty of destiny and of nature.
What Leopardi finally did was to negate negation, thus creating what he called an ultraphilosophy. He developed a philosophy about philosophy (namely, that we should not philosophize) that rejects reason. For, wrote Leopardi, "As [Pierre] Bayle said, in metaphysics and morals reason cannot edify, only destroy." But by denying itself, reason in a sense vindicates its own power and worth. While exposing the pains and infirmities of existence, Leopardi makes us love the very objects of his despair. By glorifying illusion, art, in the pureness of its beauty (which supersedes the misery of all material things), becomes the most important postulate of ultraphilosophy. Art transfigures sorrow and, by not limiting its own strength and freedom, converts that sorrow into human greatness—a greatness that constitutes the triumph of free creative power and of infinite strength.
works by leopardi
The critical edition of Leopardi's collected works is Tutte le opere, edited by Francesco Flora, 5 vols. (Milan, 1937–1949). For English translations, see Essays, Dialogues and Thoughts, translated by James Thomson (New York, 1905?); The Poems of Leopardi, a translation of all the Canti by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1923); Translations from Leopardi by R. C. Trevelyan (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1941); Giacomo Leopardi: Poems, translated and with an introduction by Jean-Pierre Barricelli (New York: Las Americas, 1963).
works on leopardi
For literature on Leopardi, see Giovanni Amelotti, Filosofia del Leopardi (Genoa, 1937); Aristide Baragiola, Giacomo Leopardi: filosofo, poeta e prosatore (Strasbourg, 1876); Elme Marie Caro, Le pessimisme au XIXe siècle (Paris, 1880); Karl Vossler, Leopardi (Munich: Musarion, 1923); Giovanni Gentile, Poesia e filosofia di Giacomo Leopardi (Florence: Sansoni, 1939); Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Biography (London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1935); J. H. Whitfield, Giacomo Leopardi (Oxford: Blackwell, 1954); and G. Singh, Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1964).
Jean-Pierre Barricelli (1967)