A Pessimist’s Pessimist

Giacomo Leopardi, born in 1798, was the son of a minor Italian aristocrat. He spent most of his youth in his father’s extensive library. By the time he was ten, he had taught himself Latin, Greek, German and French. Leopardi suffered from poor health throughout his life and died at the age of 38. He is now considered one of Italy’s greatest poets.

He is also revered as the author of a massive intellectual diary, first published in 1898 in seven volumes. Originally titled Pensieri di varia filosofia e bella letteratura (“Various thoughts on philosophy and literature”), it’s now known as Zibaldone (“Hodge-podge”). Last year, a complete English translation was published for the first time. (The translated text is 2,000 pages long, so if you’re interested, an electronic edition might be a good idea.)

In addition to being a great poet, Leopardi was one of Western culture’s great pessimists. Arthur Schopenhauer, probably philosophy’s most famous pessimist, had this to say about him: 

But no one has treated [the misery of our existence] so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi…. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect [The World as Will and Idea].

More recently, Tim Parks summarizes Leopardi in The New York Review of Books (behind a paywall):

Obliged by frequent illness to pass his firstborn’s right to inherit to his younger brother, troubled by constant problems with his eyes, frail and almost grotesque, Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence. Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions as he came to call them, that give life meaning, shifting energy to the mental and rational and away from the physical and instinctive, where, in complicity with illusion, happiness lies.

In a later biography of his son, [Leopardi’s father] would write of Giacomo in this period that “setting himself to thinking about how one breathes” he found he could no longer breathe… “Thought,” Giacomo wrote in a letter in his early twenties, “can crucify and torment a person.”

Maybe more careful thought, perhaps a life devoted to philosophy, might help? That’s what Plato and Spinoza recommended. Leopardi is skeptical:

Those innumerable and immense questions about time and space, argued over from the beginnings of metaphysics onward,…are none other than wars of words, caused by misunderstandings, and imprecision of thought, and limited ability to understand our mind, which is the only place where time and space, like many other abstract things, exist independently and for themselves…”

In his review, Tim Parks suggests that if Leopardi were writing Zibaldone today, it would be a blog. I wonder if he’d throw in a few lighthearted posts to generate traffic.

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