Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)
Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) © Getty Images

Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, by Giacomo Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino, Penguin Classics, RRP£50/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$75, 2,592 pages

During his lifetime the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) published a brilliant collection of dialogues known as the Operette morali, whose pessimistic worldview inspired Schopenhauer to call him his “spiritual brother”. Yet little in the Operette or the Canti – the verse on which Leopardi’s literary fame largely rests – suggests the rich philological and philosophical humus from which those two works sprouted like rare flowers. It was only with the publication of his massive notebooks in 1898-1900, six decades after his death, that some scholars began to realise that, in addition to being one of Italy’s greatest poets, Leopardi was also one of the most original and radical thinkers of the 19th century.

Now that Leopardi’s complete notebooks, or Zibaldone di pensieri, as they are known in Italian, are finally available in English – splendidly edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino of the Leopardi Centre at Birmingham university, and superbly translated by a team of seven scholars in three different countries – anglophone readers may discover for themselves why, in the annals of intellectual history, the Zibaldone di pensieri (which means a “hodgepodge of thoughts”) is as important as the Notebooks of Coleridge, the Journals of Emerson, the Diaries of Kierkegaard, and the posthumous notes of Friedrich Nietzsche, first made available to the public under the title The Will to Power.

Almost all of the 4,500 handwritten pages that make up the Zibaldone were scribbled in Recanati, a small hill town in the provincial Papal state of Le Marche, far from the intellectual centres of Italy and Europe. Here Giacomo – the prodigiously gifted but sickly son of Count Monaldo Leopardi – spent his youth and early adulthood poring over books in many languages, ancient and modern, in his father’s immense library, one of the largest private libraries in Europe. Friendless, starved for affection, forbidden to leave the family castle without his tutor, Giacomo developed a large hunch in his back and by 21 gave up any hope of personal happiness. (He finally managed to leave home in his late twenties, eventually moving to Naples, where he died during a cholera epidemic at age 38.)

In his darkest and most desolate years in Recanati, above all between 1819 and 1823, Leopardi held on to his sanity by filling his notebooks with carefully considered entries on a wide range of topics. The Zibaldone is not a personal diary. One does not find in its pages a howling heart, nor an outpouring of pain, grief and despair (Leopardi reserved that for his poetry). One finds instead a lucid mind thinking aloud by way of an ongoing conversation with the dead, above all the many ancient authors who stacked the family library.

Apart from the thoughts that make up what Leopardi calls his “system” – by which he means his philosophy of life, history, nature and the human psyche – the Zibaldone is filled with philologically oriented notes that will bewilder contemporary readers who know nothing of the more obscure works he was in dialogue with. Yet even its most recondite entries vibrate with a distinctly modern voice. It is the voice of quick, free-ranging, syncopated thinking. No matter how eloquent it becomes at times – and no one in the history of Italian prose was more eloquent than Leopardi when he put his mind to it – the style never grandstands, nor does the tone ever turn shrill, as it often does in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, or, for that matter, Emerson.

Thinking may be a solitary activity, yet as Hannah Arendt claimed, it begins with the dialogue I hold with myself, inside my own head. If I cannot dialogue with myself, I will not be able to engage thoughtfully with others, either in speech or in writing. The reader of the Zibaldone often gets a sense that Leopardi is addressing him or her directly, yet in truth, when a thinker is in dialogue with himself, he is in dialogue with the world at large. The Zibaldone is first and foremost the record of Leopardi’s spirited thinking in the cavernous silence of a library where he held converse with a host of interlocutors, most of them from the past but some of them also from the future, such as the “young man of the 20th century” whom he at one point invokes.

Leopardi engaged ancient authors as if they were in his presence. His formal conversations with them put him and his thinking beyond period labels such as Enlightenment, Romanticism or post-Romanticism. If anything, he appears to us in these pages as one of those “philosophers of the future” that Nietzsche spoke of, referring primarily to himself. In his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche wrote: “When the past speaks it always speaks as an oracle: only if you are an architect of the future and know the present will you understand it.” Leopardi was more sober-minded than Nietzsche and may have found this formulation heavy-handed, yet there is no doubt that his precocious and “untimely” modernity comes from his sustained confrontation with, and interrogation of, the ancients.

The ancients gave Leopardi a keen sense that “modern civilization”, as he called it, is immensely more removed from nature than they were. Except for moments of childhood wonder, a modern person does not possess the ancients’ natural sentiments, their capacity to believe in deities, their embrace of illusions, or their devotion to heroic ideals. Leopardi considered the triumph of reason in the modern age something of a disaster, not because he was a Romantic who exalted spontaneity, intuition and passion, but because he believed that “man can only live by religion or by illusions”, which reason makes it difficult, if not impossible, to believe in. If science and reason “force us to give up all our illusions”, he writes, “and have constantly before our eyes, with no escape, the pure, naked truth, there will be nothing left of the human race but the bones”.

Leopardi never mystified nature in the Romantic mode. Although he initially wanted to believe, along with Rousseau, that nature is marked by harmony, benevolence and wisdom, over the course of writing the Zibaldone he became convinced that nature always was and always will remain humanity’s implacable enemy, if only because it instils in us a desire for happiness that it dooms to frustration. Yet Franco D’Intino, one of the two editors of the English Zibaldone, is surely right when he claims that there is far more to Leopardi’s thinking about nature and humanity than enmity. “When human beings forget or deny that they are part of nature,” D’Intino told me in an interview in Rome, “they aggravate the enmity and create the conditions for their own self-destruction.”

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.

Leopardi’s open-eyed, disabused thinking led him ultimately to a monistic view of reality. All that exists is matter, he concluded, and whatever the tradition calls mind, soul or spirit is only in effect matter. Yet Leopardi’s concept of matter was so original, heterogeneous and self-expansive as to have little in common with the inert matter of the dualists who believe that mind is one thing, matter another. Late in the Zibaldone he declares that everything points to the conclusion “that matter can think, that matter thinks and feels”. Like many of the other thoughts that make the Zibaldone an ongoing conversation with the future, Leopardi’s inspirited concept of matter is one that calls on us to take it up and give it new life in our own time.

Robert Pogue Harrison is professor of Italian literature at Stanford University


Extract from Leopardi’s ‘Zibaldone’: Massacre of the flowerets

What is certain and no laughing matter is that existence is an evil for all the parts which make up the universe …Not only individual men, but the whole human race was and always will be necessarily unhappy. Not only the human race but the whole animal world. Not only animals but all other beings in their way. Not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds.

Go into a garden of plants, grass, flowers. No matter how lovely it seems. Even in the mildest season of the year. You will not be able to look anywhere and not find suffering. That whole family of vegetation is in a state of souffrance, each in its own way. Here a rose is attacked by the sun, which has given it life; it withers, languishes, wilts. There a lily is sucked cruelly by a bee, in its most sensitive, most life-giving parts. Sweet honey is not produced by industrious, patient, good, virtuous bees without unspeakable torment for those most delicate fibers, without the pitiless massacre of flowerets. That tree is infested by an ant colony, that other one by caterpillars, flies, snails, mosquitoes …The spectacle of such abundance of life when you first go into this garden lifts your spirits, and that is why you think it is a joyful place. But in truth this life is wretched and unhappy, every garden is like a vast hospital (a place much more deplorable than a cemetery), and if these beings feel, or rather, were to feel, surely not being would be better for them than being.

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