Giacomo Leopardi: Happiness and the Modern Man
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Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi, Domenico Morelli
In Praise of Illusions:
Giacomo Leopardi‘s Ultraphilosophy
by Geir Sigurðsson
"Leopardi was concerned about the consequences of modernity for human life. He strove to find ways to bridge the abyss separating the old and the new order of Western society and thought.
This is summed up rather neatly by Antonio Gramsci:
"In Leopardi one finds, in an extremely dramatic form, the crisis of transition towards modern man; the critical abandonment of the old transcendental conception but not as yet the finding of the new moral and intellectual 'ubi consistam' which would give the same certainty as the jettisoned faith..."
Scientific progress and rationalization had undermined both religious faith and any kind of
foundation attempting to ground a metaphysical significance of human life. According to Leopardi, the universe emerging from this development turns out to be mechanistic, material and deterministic.
Influenced by French materialist thinkers such as Julien Offray de la Mettrie and Paul-Henri Baron d’Holbach, he conceives of all phenomena, including the human being, as connected blindly in an endless chain of cause and effect according to which they will all be destroyed and their substance amalgamate into other beings.
In Leopardi’s “Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander”, the wretched Icelander who
travels all over the world only to find a spot where he can be free from pain and suffering,
gets to hear this harsh truth about the world from Mother Nature herself:
"You plainly show that you have not realized that the life of the universe is a perpetual circle of production and destruction, both linked to each other in such a way that each of them constantly serves the other, and is necessary to conserve the existence of the world; which, if either of them should fail, would swiftly be dissolved. Thus, if anything within the world were free from suffering, the world itself would be harmed."
As Gramsci notes, Leopardi represents the emotional shock in Western culture brought
about by a new level of understanding that undermines meaning in an existence that now
presents itself as being merely contingent. Leopardi accepted this new understanding and
consequently renounced Christianity to take up a radical kind of materialistic atheism, yet
dedicated his life to find a remedy for the existential evil of modernity.
In this endeavour, Leopardi adopted a stance to life that could be termed eudamonistic. He identifies happiness as the sole aim of human life. As with the utilitarian thinkers, he further identifies happiness with pleasures, and regards pleasures as both sufficient and necessary means to obtain happiness. However, ‘pleasures’ in his understanding of the term do not explicitly refer to sentiments, but is a catch-all word for everything actually desired by living beings.
Leopardi further states that the human being’s desire for pleasure, and thus for happiness, is a natural instinct.
Just as all sentient creatures, human beings are self-loving beings. This merely means that they want to fulfil their desires since they believe that the objects of their desires would lead to happiness, for otherwise they would not be desired at all. (...)
The problem with the desire for pleasure is that it is unlimited, because it is not a desire for
specific concrete pleasures but for the pleasure, an abstract, absolute, infinite, unlimited
pleasure. The existential problem in human living emerges in the actual desire for particular
existent pleasures, for these are all finite and thus cannot satisfy the desire for the infinite.
(...) Pleasures accessible to the human being are all limited both in time and space, whereas the desire for pleasure is without limits in either dimension. Failing to find its end in any of the finite pleasures of the world, the desire is condemned to remain in a state of unfulfilment until it is terminated altogether as life itself comes to an end.
This is the core of Leopardi’s pessimistic view of human life: the inability of innate natural desire to reach the infinite climax in finite terrestrial reality causes life to be an essential misery.
But in what sense is this a particular characteristic of modernity ?
Leopardi follows, to some extent, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view of the human being’s corruption and alienation from nature. From Leopardi’s point of view, it especially has to do with the thirst for and acquisition of knowledge:
"I believe that within the natural order, the human being can be happy also in this world, provided that he lives according to nature and like animals, that is, without grand or unique or vivid pleasures, but in a more or less constantly equal and temperate state of happiness... But I do not believe that we are any longer capable of this sort of happiness after having acquired knowledge of the vanity of all things and of the illusions as well as of the nothingness of the natural pleasures themselves, which is something that we were not even supposed to suspect."
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri
The ignorance of the ancients brought them happiness and contentment with the world. But, as Leopardi himself realizes, these times are long gone:
"I prefer the savage stage to the civilized one. But having set off and arrived at a certain stage, it is impossible to reverse the development of the spirit, impossible to hinder the progress of individuals no less than peoples. For times immemorial, the individuals and nations of Europe, as well as a great part of the world, have been in possession of a developed spirit. To revert to the state of the primitive and the savage is impossible."
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri
The ignorance of the ancients cannot be reconstructed. The illusions that previously
produced the appearance of meaning in the world have now been annihilated.
We have seen that Leopardi is fully aware of the impossibility of returning to the primitive natural state.
The most we can possibly do is to imitate the superior happiness enjoyed by the ancients; the happiness deriving from ignorance can never be resurrected. Nor can we refrain from philosophizing, even though we know that it would make us happier.
But this does not mean that all is lost. Leopardi suggests an attempt to find a certain balance between reason and nature. The following passage could in fact be a reference to Kant and his insistence on the moral law:
"Reason is never as efficient as the passions. Listen to what the philosophers say: the human being ought to be moved by reason, just as, or rather much more than, by passion; indeed, he ought to be moved by reason and duty only. Nonsense. Human nature and the nature of things can certainly be corrupted but not corrected ... We do not need to extinguish passion with reason, but to convert reason into passion; to turn duty, virtue, heroism, etc., into passions."
Leopardi’s way out of the human being’s dreary valley of tears consists in carrying out even
further the Enlightenment quest for truth. Reason’s domination is accepted, and the truth of
the human being’s miserable state in the universe cannot be ignored, but by naturalizing
reason, that is, by combining it with the natural faculty of imagination, reason can also move
into the human realm and discover that which is “truly suitable for his nature”.
"It is wholly indispensable that a philosopher is a great and perfect poet; not in order to reason as a poet, but rather to examine with his cold reasoning and calculation that which only the very ardent poet can know."
This may seem paradoxical, but it is at this stage that reason, and thus philosophy, by inquiring into the quite different truth of the human being’s necessary aspirations, reaches its culmination by realizing its own superfluousness.
However, the paradox vanishes as soon as we see that reason has simultaneously been transformed. In addition to the realm of external nature, the scope of philosophy has now been expanded to embrace as well the realm of inner human nature. The discipline of naturalized reason, the new expanded philosophy, is what Leopardi calls ‘ultraphilosophy’.
Since reason cannot reverse its development and become primitive again, it has to exceed its own limits and transcend itself. In other words, since reason has eliminated the possibility of reviving the ancient faith in the illusions,
"our regeneration depends, so to speak, on an ultraphilosophy that brings us closer to nature by exploring the entirety and the interior of things. And this ought to be the fruit of the extraordinarily enlightened men of this century."
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri
"Zibaldone di pensieri"
It is significant that the poet-philosopher who opts for the enhancement of the body and adaptation to nature is an enlightened philosopher. He has become keenly aware of the metaphysical meaninglessness of being. But in order to release himself from the oppressive consciousness of his awareness, he indulges in ‘natural’ actions, i.e. corporeal activities or imaginative conceptualizations, in order to put it temporarily aside.
In this sense, while in a state of distraction, he is ignorant of his unfortunate but inescapable fate, and, for a moment, imagination reigns. The completely enlightened person is, in other words, capable of producing in himself a semblance of ignorance that temporarily imitates the ignorance of the ancients. And this can only happen through artistic experience:
“The human being hates inactivity, and wants to be liberated from it through fine art.”
Fine art, and poetry in particular, arouses the imagination, deceives the senses, and can produce a certain ‘second sight’:
"To the sensitive and imaginative person ... the world and the objects are in a certain sense double. His eyes will see a tower, a farmland; his ears will hear the tolling of a bell; and, at the same time, his imagination will see another tower, another farmland, hear another tolling. It is the objects of this second kind that contain all the beautiful and pleasant aspects of things."
By reviving its mythological language, poetry not only distracts the person from his dread of living, but also induces in him a particular view of life, a curious combination of a pragmatic and an aesthetic view of life, which, on a cognitive level, is known not to correspond to reality but which both produces happiness, and, by strengthening certain values, gives rise to action.
Leopardi often argues that ancient values such as patriotism, virtue, heroism, glory and honour, all illusions, were the cornerstones of true morality, a morality of conviction, when moral actions were believed to be ends in themselves, not mere means to the agent ́s own egotistic ends. Not only did these values preserve morality but also provided life with precious meaning and produced happiness by provoking physical action, and preventing the human being from delving into excessive contemplation.
Although these lost values cannot be revived, Leopardi contends that the ultraphilosopher is capable of adopting a certain aesthetic world-view conducive to his happiness. However, it also requires the adoption of conscious illusions:
"The illusions cannot be condemned, disdained and persecuted except by those who are illusioned and believe that this world is, or could be, really something, and in fact something beautiful. This is a major illusion: and therefore the quasi-philosopher combats the illusions precisely because he is illusioned; the true philosopher loves and preaches them because he is not illusioned. And the combat against the illusions in general is the most certain sign of a totally imperfect and insufficient knowledge and of a notable illusion."
Among the primary functions of the myths of antiquity was the transformation of the numinous indefiniteness, of the overwhelming powers of the unknown, into a nominal definiteness; they made the strange familiar and addressable, and thereby delivered the human being from the terror of being surrendered to an immensely more superior reality..
Today, after the myths have collapsed, we must look mechanistic reality straight in the eye. But we can decorate and anthropomorphize the world so that it will, at least, have the appearance of being a world belonging to us – and a world in which we belong. It is the Apollonian transfiguring dream – but which must be known by the dreamer to be a dream.
Leopardi’s aim is therefore not to return to or preserve the past, but merely to find a substitute for the hope that we once possessed but have lost somewhere on our way.
Such a substitute can be found in the faculty of imagination that momentarily enables us to regain the joy of living. Pleasure and joy must be the proper aim of poetry and art, for it is joy, not melancholy or sentimentality, that brings about the best results in dealing with the world. As Leopardi, says,
"the world does not like to hear crying – but laughing."
Sentimental poetry of lament, characterizing much of Romantic poetry, only serves to demonstrate the dreary truth of the human being’s vulnerability and insignificance and thus to obstruct the path towards happiness. This path, however, is arduous, and the force of the obstacles consists in their seductive powers; one is often tempted to collapse against them with a weary sigh and admit one’s surrender.
This applies not least to Leopardi himself whose poetry is not altogether free from Romantic sentimentality. In some passages he also expresses strong doubts about the possibility of resuscitating anything resembling the innocent joy of life as found in ancient poetry. In his later poetry in particular, however, he expresses this sentimentality with an unmistakable hint of cynicism.
He often demands that we at least show enough strength to face nature’s evil creator and destructor with a cynical laugh; if we cannot laugh despite our misery, then the least we can do is to laugh at it:
"I believe it to be much worthier of the human being and of a magnanimous despair to laugh at our common ills rather than sighing, weeping and screeching together with the others and instigating them to do the same."
To be sure, the Leopardian laughter still echoes in many valleys of Occidental thought.