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Blog: Humanist Voices

giacomo-leopardi-1-sizedUsing seven translators, a major work (2,500 pages) of one of Europe's greatest Enlightenment era thinkers and atheists is now available in English: Zibaldone, by Giacomo Leopardi. "Today it is considered the greatest intellectual diary of Italian literature, its breadth and depth of thought often compared to the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche."

 

Giacomo's father Monaldo, an "archi-conservative and papal loyalist,"[1] had intended his son to become a priest and a supreme Christian apologist. Aiding this aspiration was a library of 25,000 volumes, comprised of books Monaldo had acquired through Napoleon's closure of religious institutions. By age 10 Giacomo had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and French, with Hebrew and English coming later. In his teens he wrote the Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients, a first salvo in his expected life of apologetics.

A burgeoning rationalist yet a believer comprised a "fatal alliance" according to Parks. Leopardi wrote, regarding the claimed consolations of faith:

"A promise and expectation, of happiness which is immense, supreme, and complete, but (1) which man cannot comprehend or imagine...(2) which he well knows he will never be able to conceive or imagine...and (3) which he expressly knows is of an entirely different nature and alien from what he desires in this world... A promise such as this...is quite unable to provide consolation for the man who is unhappy or unfortunate in this life... This happiness which man naturally desires is a temporal happiness, a material happiness, to be experienced by the senses or this mind of ours, such as it presently is and as we feel it to be."

According to Parks, Leopardi burned a path of skepticism through a huge range of received notions "and pieties of every kind," finding, perhaps inevitably, the limits of reason. Having become disillusioned with reason, he finds a kind of existential refuge in poetry. According to Parks, Leopardi held that "what is finest in human expression is what arises most immediately from an intense unmediated engagement with the world and is then expressed simply and directly." 

In his famous poem "L'inifinito" of 1818, Leopardi, again according to Parks, believes that "the mind finds repose not in knowledge but in everything it cannot know but only imagine":

 

     This lonely hill was always

   dear to me,

and this hedgerow, which cuts off

   the view

of so much of the last horizon.

But sitting here and gazing,

   I can see

beyond, in my mind's eye,

   unending spaces,

and superhuman silences, and

   depthless calm,

till what I feel

is almost fear.   And when I hear

the wind stir in these branches,

   I begin

comparing that endless stillness

   with this noise:

and the eternal comes to mind,

and the dead seasons, and

   the present

living one, and how its sounds.

So my mind sinks in this

   immensity:

and foundering is sweet in such

   a sea. 

 

 Leopardi seems at once a preeminent Enlightenment rationalist and its romantic successor. 

I'm reminded of French philosopher André Comte-Sponville's discussion of eternity[2], a concept thoroughly secularized and naturalized in his hands. "The present is here, and it is all there is. It never vanishes; it continues. It changes ceaselessly; therefore it is unceasing. All is present; the present is all...All is eternal, here and now!" And "Eternity of present; presence of eternity." He recalls Spinoza's famous statement: "We sense and experience that we are eternal." And Wittgenstein's parallel thought: "If by eternity we mean not infinite duration but intemporality, then he who lives in the present has eternal life." 

Zibaldone is destined to live, if not for a temporal eternity, at least for a very long time with a new audience of readers. 

 

[1] All quotes are from Tim Parks, 'The Greatest Intellectual Diary of Italian Literature' in The New York Review of Books, Oct. 10, 2013, pp 28-30. 

[2] p 173 in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (2006), New York: Viking.

 

-Eric Snyder

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