Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
Giacomo Leopardi was an Italian poet, philosopher and exceptional philologist, who lived the scientific revolutions of the early 19th century and ventured into the dark side of naturalist philosophy. His pessimism influenced the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer and the future of modern philosophy and literature to come.
At the moment, I am reading parts of his ‘Zibaldone of Thoughts’, a diary he kept for his philosophical ideas among others. His uncommon sensitivity shines through the yellowed pages of my 1951 edition, and his high consideration of women is proven by his constant references to the writings of Mme de Stäel and to other Swiss and French femmes de lettres.
It is not my purpose to idealize his figure, nor to depict an anachronistic version of a man of his time. At any rate, Leopardi’s exceptionality is beyond doubt and deserves much greater international consideration.
I am rather ignorant concerning this author’s massive literary production of a quality more unique than rare, surprisingly vast especially for him, who died prematurely at the age of 38. None the less, I will attempt to pay him a brief tribute by analyzing an argument among those of Zibaldone, which led him to embrace pessimism.
As I understand it, this argument is formulated in two parallel ways. The first I will call argument from the infinity of pleasure, shortly “infinite pleasure argument” (IPA); the second is the argument from the projection in the future of our good, shortly “future good argument” (FGA).
IPA runs like this: we desire our pleasure always to be infinite. However, desire is all we can do with respect to infinite things, for infinity is unconceivable for finite creatures like us. Hence, our pleasure can never be satisfied, because everything we can ever experience is going to be finite.
FGA runs like this: our good is always projected in the future. Once we have reached it, we project it even further or are caught by boredom instead. Therefore good can’t, by its own nature, ever be reached.
Both IPA and FGA lead us to adopt one of these two pessimist conclusions: delusion about our true condition, or melancholy and hopelessness, which are the best ways to deal with our misery.
Reason has no liberating power from Leopardi’s perspective. Indeed, it is our “capital enemy”, who is concerned with destroying the illusions that could make our life happier.
You might guess that a sympathizer of rationalism such as myself would find this position uninteresting to say the least. Instead, I might surprise you by telling that I could even agree with Leopardi on a great amount of things. All I need is just a different interpretation of his own arguments.
If taken as descriptions of reality, both IPA and FGA are inexorably sliding into pessimism. But if we adopt a motivational/normative reading, we can see how they can have even an optimistic potential. I try to clear myself in what follows.
Imagine a world in which the infinity of pleasure were reached. Or imagine a world in which the good we always project in the future were in our hands. What kind of worlds would those be? Wouldn’t they be incredibly static worlds, with no possibility of doing anything whatsoever for it wouldn’t make sense to change our perfect condition? But there is something more to this thought experiment, I believe: would the notions of good and bad ever make sense anymore? If we couldn’t change our condition, what term of comparison would we have to define it as good? The assumption that our perfect static condition were good would be just as arbitrary as thinking it were perfectly bad.
What this is supposed to show is that awareness of our existence comes with the question of whether our existence is good or bad. At the same time, it is only because of the variety and mutability of our reality that we can distinguish what is good from what is bad. And once we know that, we are suddenly provided with reasons to pursue what is good and reject what is bad.
Leopardi followed the path of pessimism, which drove him with great costs to greater philosophical and literary excellence. But that is not the only path permitted by his arguments. You could even uncover a source of motivation and normativity in them, because, once you exist, discrimination between good and bad is unavoidable and action necessarily follows.
No one ever said that achieving the good was as easy as not doing anything.