One of the greatest unsung intellectuals (along with the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, profiled in this past issue of Early Modern Times) who were forced to develop their ideas in enforced self-isolation–literally thinking inside the box–was Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). Leopardi spent most of his short life in his hometown of Recanati, roughly 250 km east of Florence, in his ancestral house (pictured above in a late 19th-century photograph). This was not due to love of home–Leopardi often denounced the provincialism of Recanati, and made unsuccessful attempts to escape it in his youth–but rather to a domineering father and his own infirmities: Leopardi suffered from near-blindness, extreme sensitivity to heat and light, and intense pain arising from physical deformity, i.e., a severely hunched back since his teenage years. Some of these ailments may have been caused by his excessive devotion to study, but in any case, Leopardi was caught in a spinal trap.
Leopardi compensated for his lack of physical mobility with intense erudition and prolific writing. He made a name for himself especially because of his poetry and philology; his published opus was admired posthumously by such men of letters as Herman Melville, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Samuel Beckett. His philosophical work has been overlooked, however, due to its not being discovered until the end of the 19th century, and only coming to the attention mainly of specialists in Italian literature. To this day, he is still not well-known to historians of philosophy, due to the dearth of translations as well as the sheer scale of his writing: his chief philosophical work is the Zibaldone (literally, ‘hodge-podge’ of thoughts), and has only appeared in a full English version in 2013. The Zibaldone is a massive notebook (my copy of the English paperback edition runs to about 2,000 pages not including editorial notes and index) written between 1820 or so and 1832, its 4,526 pages kept in a trunk. While contemporaries like Alexander von Humboldt travelled across countries and continents to learn about the world, Leopardi had to mine his family’s vast library and develop his own reflections on history, modernity, memory, nature, art, beauty, taste, politics, and of course language as well as a host of other topics. More worldly thinkers may have been there, but Leopardi had to settle with having Zibaldone-that.
One of Leopardi’s central preoccupations is the old quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, originating from late 17th-century writers like Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Sir William Temple, and continuing in the works of such authors as Jonathan Swift, Bernard Mandeville, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leopardi, Friedrich Nietzsche, and–the subject of Dr. Neil Robertson‘s current book-project–Leo Strauss. Like such champions of the ancients as Temple, Swift, Rousseau, and after Leopardi’s time, Nietzsche and Strauss, Leopardi bemoans the moral and cultural effects of modern rationalism and scientific progress. Although moderns have a greater knowledge of nature and a greater self-consciousness than the ancients (and here Leopardi includes a host of ancient civilisations in addition to the Greeks and the Romans), we have also lost the sense of wonder and vitality characteristic, for example, of Homeric Greece. Modern culture in the wake of the scientific revolution, the age of reason, and Enlightenment is increasingly soulless, empty, mechanical, homogeneous, individualistic, and futile: instead of the distinct national cultures of the ancient world, we are increasingly all living similar lives across the globe in a purposeless universe. The modern condition is that of the endless and pointless pursuit of individual desires rooted in self-love, as opposed to a higher goal or purpose to which human beings can aspire. Leopardi would not be surprised to encounter 21st-century human beings sitting at home with nothing meaningful to do, going on social media, streaming endless TV programs, munching on Twinkies, and sipping mugs of moderni-tea.
And yet, unlike his intellectual predecessor Rousseau or the 20th-century Strauss–who inspired generations of right-wing culture critics from Allan Bloom to George Grant known as ‘Straussians’–Leopardi never idealises, or expresses a nostalgic desire to return to, the ancients. Like Nietzsche after him, Leopardi doesn’t think it possible for moderns to reclaim the more natural state of the ancients, nor is nature benevolent or moral as Rousseau thought: the natural spontaneity and vigour of ancient culture led to the ‘barbarisms’ of prejudices, national hatreds, bloody wars, violence, and other forms of brutality. Moreover, in contrast to Rousseau and Strauss, Leopardi doesn’t regard the naturalness of ancient culture to be somehow closer to the Truth. The unity and vitality of ancient cultures were sustained by ‘illusions’: the ancients naively accepted nature as it appears to us and constructed their religions accordingly, whereas moderns have pierced the illusions of the ancients in their rational understanding of the world. The movement to philosophical rationalism in the ancient world, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and the rise of Christianity (which demarcated the spiritual from the natural world) marked the downfall of ancient illusions and ushered the way for modern consciousness. Modern thought, in the form of science and Enlightenment reason, has exposed the first principle of all things: nothingness. We cannot go backwards, having discovered the truth behind nature, which is nothing at all. In other words, nihilism in the modern world is unavoidable.
This is just a sample of the myriad reflections in Leopardi’s vast Zibaldone, which I invite you to peruse during our period of physical distancing (and, he would say, in a modern era characterised by social distancing–regardless of plague). Although his conclusions are fundamentally pessimistic, we can at least be inspired by how much was achieved by a Leopardi who could not change his spots.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Leopardi-hardy Studies Program