September 29, 2013


REVIEW: of Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, by Giacomo Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino (Robert Pogue Harrison, Financial Times)

For Leopardi, nature may be our enemy, yet it is the only sponsor we have: "It is no more possible for man to live completely cut off from nature, which we are constantly drawing farther away from, than it is for a tree cut off at the root to bear flowers and fruit." He wonders, in the same passage, whether humankind will soon face extinction as a result of its detachment not only from the natural world itself but also from those fundamental familial, communal and social ways of being human that Leopardi considered "natural".

Leopardi believed that the modern detachment from nature is due to our aggressive and excessive reliance on reason. He believed furthermore that the modern age, despite its self-deception on this score, has only one veritable religion, namely the pursuit of truth at all costs, regardless of the consequences. The consequences are grave indeed, for the pursuit of truth dispels our life-enhancing illusions and destroys every higher "value" that makes life worth living. The will-to-truth ends up casting humankind into a universe with no overseeing God, no ultimate purpose, and no concern whatsoever for the unspeakable suffering to which it condemns its inhabitants, "not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds", as Leopardi puts it in one of his entries.

Though he lived in an age that considered reason the agent of progress, Leopardi held that an excess of reason can lead to forms of barbarism unknown in the ancient world. "Reason is often the source of barbarism (indeed is barbarous in itself) and an excess of reason always is." Not only can reason be used to justify immoral actions, its abstract notions of the good will often incubate the most monstrous means to bring about ideological ends. "In the end nothing is barbarous apart from what is contrary to nature," writes Leopardi, for "nature and barbarism are opposites, and nature cannot be barbarous", whereas reason often is.

In such remarks we catch fore-glimpses of the catastrophes that would incinerate much of 20th-century history. I mean those genocides brought on by the ideologies of totalitarian regimes which were as "rational" as they were barbarous in their murderous logic. Barbarism in our age is never "natural" but is always underpinned or justified by the abstractions of ideology.

A profound contradiction, of which he was well aware, informs Leopardi's philosophy. Although he saw in the will-to-truth the primary cause of the nihilism that he believed was drawing modern civilisation into its vortex, Leopardi fully embraced reason, logic, science and this will-to-truth. He followed the truth wherever it led him, refusing to shy away from its conclusions or to seek refuge in mystifications and self-deceiving consolations.

Except, of course, that such thinkers could never take themselves as far as those of the Anglosphere and accept that the embrace of Reason is nothing but an act of faith.

The barbarism of reason: John Gray on the Notebooks of Leopardi : The first full translation of a reclusive Italian poet's philosophical "hotchpotch" is a major event in the history of ideas. (JOHN GRAY, 26 SEPTEMBER 2013, New Statesman)

His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. "Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it," he writes.

Christianity was a reaction against corrosive doubt, a condition that took hold partly as a result of the habit of sceptical inquiry inculcated by philosophy: "What was destroying the world was the lack of illusions. Christianity saved it, not because it was the truth but because it was a new source of illusion." This new illusion came in the form of a claim to truth that all the world had to accept: an inordinate demand that with the rise of the Enlightenment shifted to science, which has become a project aiming to dissolve the dreams in which humanity has hitherto lived. The result is modern nihilism - the perception that human beings are an insignificant accident in a scheme of things that cares nothing for them or their values - and a host of rackety creeds promising some kind of secular salvation.

Leopardi's account of the paradoxical process whereby a Christian will to truth gave birth to nihilism has much in common with Nietzsche's - an affinity that the fiery German thinker recognised. Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche was following a path opened up by Schopenhauer, who wrote that it was a tragedy that the world's three great pessimists - "Byron, Leopardi and myself" -were in Italy at the same time but never met. (I'm not sure that a meeting between Leopardi and Schopenhauer would have been a success. Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter.)

What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi's insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.

Unlike philosophers today, Leopardi aims to do more than provide a comforting justification for the intuitions of well-meaning liberals. Just as much as Nietzsche, though much more soberly, he is a critic of modern ethics. Leopardi found the unthinking moral certainty of secular thinkers highly questionable, not least because of their hidden debts to Christianity. In an irony of which he was undoubtedly aware, this opponent of the Enlightenment ideal of reason was in many ways a child of the Enlightenment, not least because he shared the Enlightenment suspicion of Christianity.

Yet Leopardi's resistance to Christianity was not simply, or even mainly, an intellectual objection to its theological claims. It was a moral objection, which applied equally to the secular successors of Christianity. He criticised Christianity not because he believed it to be untrue (he accepted that human beings cannot live without illusions) but because he saw the militant assertion of its truth as being harmful to civilisation. The universalism of which Christianity and its humanist offshoots are so proud was, for Leopardi, an openended licence for savagery and oppression.

Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles - a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. "No one understands the human heart at all," he wrote, "who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it." Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.

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Posted by at September 29, 2013 6:55 AM

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