Sebastiano Timpanaro on Giacomo Leopardi & Materialist Pessimism

Once voluntarism and Platonist scientism (for a critique of the latter, see, in particular) 'Structuralism and its successors' below) have been rejected, the task is to go beyond the indications given by the Marxist classics, fundamental as they are, and to construct a 'theory of needs' which is not, as so often, reduced to a compromise between Marx and Freud, but which confronts on a wider basis the problem of the relation between nature and society. The accusation of 'biologism' or 'vulgar materialism' is, at this point, obvious and foreseen. If this label refers to an immediate reduction of the social to the biological and a failure to recognize the radically new contribution made by the appearance of labour and relations of production with respect to merely animal life, then I hope that these essays are already forearmed against any such error (see, in particular, pp. 63, 82, 102, 208 and 216 below). If, however, as is too frequently the case in the Western Marxism of our century, what is meant is denial of the conditioning which nature continues to exercise on man; relegation of the biological character of man to a kind of prehistoric prologue to humanity; refusal to acknowledge the relevance which certain biological data have in relation to the demand for happiness (a demand which remains fundamental to the struggle for communism); then these pages are deliberately 'vulgar materialist', From this point of view, they take as their point of departure certain hedonist and pessimistic themes which were widespread in eighteenth-century thought and which reached their highest point in Leopardi. They thus represent the continuation of a line of thinking first adumbrated in my earlier book Classicismo e illuminismo nell'Ottocento italiano.

Nor has this line of thinking—any more than what I said earlier about Maoism—reached a definitive conclusion, At the start of the fifties, it was difficult to speak of pessimism with Italian Marxists. In almost all cases, they were too full of historicist faith in human progress, and tended too much—as a consequence of their Crocean origins—to ignore the relation between man and nature. From that climate, my initial and fragmentary Marxism-Leopardism (if I may so term it for brevity's sake) contracted an original flaw from which, perhaps, it is still striving to free itself. This resulted from the juxtaposition of a historical and social optimism (communism as a now certain goal of human history, even if the price paid with Stalinism seemed even at that time excessive to many of us, despite our inability to see any alternative to Stalinism other than a social-democratic one) and a pessimism with respect to nature's oppression of man, which would continue to be a cause of unhappiness even in communist society.

Today the situation has changed. As a result of the increasingly monstrous developments of 'capitalist rationality' on the one hand, and the crisis of the world communist movement on the other, that tranquil faith in historical progress as a certain bearer of communism has vanished. Indeed, contemporary Marxism (especially through the agency of tlie thinkers of the Frankfurt school) has to a considerable degree taken on an apocalyptic hue. Certain Leopardian themes involving a critique of 'progress' and 'modern civilization' must be accorded greater attention than was done in that earlier period by Marxists. But in the face of the 'Adornian' interpretations of Leopardi which have already begun to appear and which are no doubt destined to develop further, it is necessary to recall that Leopardian pessimism, precisely because of the materialist and hedonistic basis which is most explicit in its final formulation, is immune from the Romantic and existentialist dross which gravely contaminates the thought of Horkheimer and Adorno—and even the later works of Marcuse, despite their far more political and secular character. Leopardi was able to work out for himself a complex relationship to the ideas of the Enlightenment (a relationship that involved criticizing the myth of progress, but strengthening hedonistic and materialist themes and hence refusing the Romantic restoration) which was far more correct than that in which the above-mentioned thinkers situate themselves. As far as the still crucial problem of what position to adopt vis-à-vis the Enlightenment is concerned, he is much more and much better than a precursor of the Frankfurt thinkers: indeed he helps to explain their limitations and provide a critique of them.


It is to further elucidate this problem of man's biological frailty that I consider it particularly important to study the thought of a poet and philosopher who is very little known outside Italy,[7] and who even in Italy is often more admired than understood: Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). And while I certainly would not claim to be able to give my English and American readers, in a few words, any adequate exposition of Leopardi's thought and poetry, I must provide at least a few essential points of clarification.

European culture of the last two centuries is full of pessimists, from Scbopenliauer to Kierkegaard (and in many ways Nietzsche), from Horkheimer to Adorno; there are powerful pessimistic themes in Freud too, especially in the last phase of his thought, when Eros was joined by the death wish. If this book were to propose yet another marriage of Marxism and 'Frankfurt' pessimism, of existentialist or Freudian ancestry, it would no doubt appear far more in conformity with the present orientations of much of Western Marxism.

Why then go back to Leopardi? From a provincial and nationalistic desire to be able to say that Italy too has its pessimist, to be exhumed and inserted willy-nilly into Marxist cnlture? By no means. Leopardi's pessimism is radically different from the romantic and existentialist variety which characterizes the thinkers mentioned above (only in the case of Nietzsche shonld a certain distinction be made). These pessimists of Mitteleuropa all have an anti-materialist, anti-Enlightenment, anti-jacobin orientation; and all end up in, or at least tend towards, more or less explicitly religious positions. What is involved is for the most part a 'religion of the shadows', a mystical desire for annihilation, rather than a banal religion of consolation; but through their despair, however sincere, there peeps a faith in an 'other reality' to be attained not on this earth but in a metaphysical world.

The itinerary of Leopardi's thought—and of his poetry, which though never banally pedagogic, indeed one of the most purely lyrical in any language, was nevertheless, like that of Lucretius, born of the courage of truth, recognizing the revivifying power of illusions without ever accepting to make use of them as an escape from harsh human reality—was quite different. Leopardi too felt deeply, from the morrow of Napoleon's fall, what has been called the 'historic disappointment' which followed the collapse of Enlightenment faith in progress. However, unlike the greater part of the Italian and European bourgeois intelligentsia, he neither slipped back into religious positions nor into a 'reasonable' form of Enlightened thought, suitably castrated and purged of its subversive charge. In a first phase (roughly from 1817 to 1823) he professed a kind of secular Rousseauism: it is necessary to return to nature (and to the Greek classics, not as academic models to be imitated in scholastic fashion, but because they are closer to ns), to nature still virgin and uncorrupted.; it is necessary to struggle against a false and mortificatory civilization which identifies 'modernity' and 'popular character' with Christianity, as the Romantics did. Christianity, for Leopardi, is not genuine primitiveness, inseparable from a proclamation of man's inherent need for happiness, but barbarie, i.e. corrupted civilization, which aggregates within itself the ills of the excess of civilization which preceded it (distance from nature, mortification of hedonistic impulses) and those of ignorance and superstition. This demand for a return to nature, against a society which claims to educate the spirit while neglecting the body, Leopardi maintained to tbe end. But, first spasmodically later with increasing vigour, there developed in his thought another line, which derived not from Ronsseau but rather from the Voltaire of the Poème sur Ie désastre de Lisbonne, from the more radical of the French materialists (especially d'Holbach and Volney), and from hedonistic pessimists such as Maupertuis and Pietro Verri. Especially from 1825 on, the most intransigent materialism, the denial of any notion of providence or anthropocentrism and the refusal of all myths, 'humanistic' as well as religious, were taken by Leopardi to their ultimate conclusions. These conclusions, moreover once the joy inherent in every conquest of truth and every liberation from prejudice passed, revealed far more clearly than in Leopardi's eighteenth-century precursors their pessimistic complexion. If nature is 'good' in contrast to a repressive and ascetic education or a progress which perpetually creates new false needs in us, not natural and not necessary, it nevertheless reveals itself to be a limit on the human need for happiness. 'Physical ill', as I mentioned earlier, cannot be ascribed solely to bad social arrangements; it has its zone of autonomous and invincible reality.

Hence, no romantic and existentialist pessimism, but a materialist pessimism. Also, however contradictory the notion may at first sight appear, an 'Enlightenment' pessimism. The later Leopardi, while he did not believe that the growth of knowledge would produce a growth of happiness (and in this sense he was not and never had been an Enlightenment thinker, at least in the more narrowly defined sense of the term), was nevertheless convinced that it was necessary, against the Italian and European 'moderates', to develop a materialist and pessimistic culture for all. That it was necessary to cease 'pacifying' the masses with the opium of religion, and instead to found a common morality, based on the solidarity of all men in the struggle against nature: a struggle that is, in the final analysis, a desperate one, but which alone can make all men brothers, outside all paternalist hypocrisy and all the foolish pride of those who will not acknowledge that men 'are no more than a tiny part of the universe'.

I must make it clear that I have never sought to fabricate a Leopardi 'precursor of Marxism'. Leopardi had no clear idea of the antagonism between social classes, even to the limited extent that this was possible before Marx and Engels. His cultural ancestry as profoundly different from that of Marx: he neither had experience of English classical economics nor of Hegel and the Hegelian left; he did not even have any direct political experience. (Though the malice with which clericals and reactionaries denigrated and persecuted him and the efforts which liberals made to circumscribe his greatness by presenting him as simply an 'idyllic' poet, belated follower of a bad philosophy, show that the politically dangerous character of his thought—albeit indirect—was well understood.) Thus the point is not to seek in Leopardi what one can find much better in Marx, Engels and Leuin. It is to gain, through Leopardi, an awareness of certain aspects of the man-nature relationship which remain somewhat in the shadows in Marxism, and which nevertheless must be confronted—and confronted materialistically—if Marxism is to be not simply the replacement of one mode of production by another, but something far more ambitious: the achievement of the greatest possible degree of happiness (in the full, strong sense which this word had in the eighteenth century, when it denoted a need which, though it could never be fully satisfied, was nonetheless impossible to suppress).

Theories of human needs are once again beginning to be discussed by Marxists, and a pupil of Lukács, Agnes Heller, has recently devoted an extremely acute and moving essay, to this subject. [8] However, she still seeks a solution in a 'Westernizing', anti-materialist Marxism. Her work too, therefore, despite its merits, confirms my conviction that it is necessary to go back to Leopardi. The same can be said with respect to Freudian Marxism. This again is on the one hand too crudely biologistic, on the other too concerned to detach psychology from neuro-physiology; the pessimism of the later Freud lays emphasis mor·e on man's 'wickedness' than on his 'unhappiness'. From this point of view as well, Leopardian pessimism has its own specific characteristic: it is uncompromisingly hostile to misanthropy (apart from a few rare occasions which Leopardi soon transcends). 'My philosophy not only does not lead to misanthropy, as might appear to a superficial observer, and as many claim against it; instead, by its nature it excludes misanthropy . . . My philosophy renders nature guilty for everything and, totally exculpating men, diverts hatred—or at least lamentation—towards a higher source, towards the true origin of the ills of the living.' In this reflection of 2 January 1829 (see Zibaldone, page 4428 of the manuscript) there is contained the germ of what, in more heroic tones and with greater awareness, Leopardi will say in one of his last poems, La Ginestra. [9]

7 On knowledge of Leopardi in England, see G. Singh, Leapardi e l'Inghilterra (with an essay on the poet's fortunes in America), Florence 1969. See too the lively and intelligent book by John Whitfield, Giacomo Leopardi, Oxford 1954. Whitfield, however, though he polemicizes effectively against Croce's essay on Leopardi, totally ignores tbe 'new course' in Leopardi studies which by 1954 had already been under way for several years, with Cesare Luporini's 'Leopardi progressivo', in Filosofi vecchi e nuovi, Florence 1947, pp. 183ff., and Walter Binni's La nuova poetica leopardiana, Florence 1947. Moreover, Whitfield's 'vitalist' interpretation, although it represents an advance over tbe reduction of Leopardi to an 'idyllic' poet, nevertheless still fails to give adequate emphasis to Leopardian materialism.

8 'Theory and Practice in Function of Human Needs', originally published in Uj Iràs, Budapest, April I972; French translation in Les Temps Modernes, August-September 1974.

9 Both the section in question of the Zibaldone and La Ginestra are included in Giacomo Leopardi, Opere, Milan 1966, pp. 921-2 and 115-22.


Thus, I see materialism as a criterion for the unitary explanation of reality, and not as a prop for emotional reactions. Having said that, I must add, however, that I do not accept the definition of Leopardian pessimism—i.e. materialist pessimism, quite different from the various romantic-existentialist pessimisms which the European bourgeoisie has given birth to over the last two centuries—as an emotional disposition beyond the realm of science. As I have attempted to show elsewhere, the agreement between materialism and Leopardian pessimism has its basis in hedonism; and hedonism is the basis of all scientific systems of ethics. The problem of ‘pleasure and pain’, to use Pietro Verri's words,[8] is a problem that is scientific to the highest degree. That old age, sickness, etc. are causes of unhappiness for the great majority of persons afflicted with them is an objective fact, just as the suffering produced by social and political oppression is an objective fact. To cite as a counter-argument the heroic calm with which so many men have confronted suffering and death means that one has not taken into account the high price paid for the attainment of such calm. Of course, in addition to heroes there are fakirs: there are those who enjoy living on nails and there are 'social fakirs' who feel completely comfortable under the most oppressive regimes. But it still seems unwarranted to conclude that physical and social ills are a matter of 'subjective taste'.

Nor do I think that the question can be glossed over by pointing out, as Vacatello does, that Leopardi and Stendhal drew different axiological consequences from materialism. First of all, Stendhal's Weltanschauung is not at all the 'opposite' of Leopardi's; in both of them there is the same headlong rush of vitalism into pessimism, and even if the vitalism is more accentuated in Stendhal, his vision of life is just as tragic. Furthermore, the question has to be considered at an earlier stage, going back at least to the eighteenth century. One can then see that (as has already been noted) pessimistic themes were already present in Voltaire, Maupertuis,[9] Pietro Verri and other writers of the period, and that it is only because the element of struggle against the old obscurantist forces and the joy in being emancipated from religious prejudices still has the upper hand that these themes do not occupy a larger space. In Leopardi himself this element is not altogether absent: the 'bitter truth', when it is affirmed against degrading superstitions and errors, is a source of Enlightenment pride. Nonetheless, the general equilibrium has shifted in a pessimistic direction because Leopardi belongs to a different personal and cultural-political situation, which accords more space to the recognition of the unhappiness in which man flnds himself after the destruction of religious and humanistic myths. [10]

With regard to socio-political oppression, a millennial philosophical tradition (represented in ancient times primarily by Stoicism, and in more recent times by idealism) has proffered 'inner freedom' as recompense. The man of culture is always free, even if he is subject to enslavement or torture, because he lives in a world of ideas over which external restrictions have no power. Marxism represents the most decisive and coherent refutation of this consolatio philosophiae. It contends that, except in those cases where the notion of inner freedom represents an extreme defensive posture designed to hold out the prospect of a future resurgence, so-called inner freedom is a poor substitute for true freedom, which cannot exist apart from man's actual emancipation from oppressive social relationships. But this refutation, if it is correct, is also valid for 'physical ills'. One cannot rejectconsolatio philosophiae as illusory in relation to socio-political oppression and at the same time regard it as completely valid and sufficient unto itself in relarion to nature's oppression of man. In my opinion, this is the most valid aspect of Leopardian pessimism: its coherent refutation of all 'consolations', not only the crudely mythological ones provided by religion, as is obvious, but also those of an idealistic or stoical nature.

8 The reference is to Pietro Verri's Discorso sull'indole del piacere e del dolore (Discourse on the Nature of Pleasure and Pain), written in 1773: Verri (1728-97), as an enlightenment polemicist, wrote against the retrogressive nature of the family, against out-dated cultural and literary forms, and against forms of economic and administrative organization which impeded the development of a market economy; as a student of human sensations, however, he held to the less than optimistic notion that all pleasures derive simply from a sudden lessening or cessation of pain. (NLB).

9 Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759): French mathematician, known for the principle of Least Action as applied to optics. (NLB).

10 With regard to the delay in recognizing certain of the clearly pessimistic consequences of eighteenth-century materialism, see Giuseppe Paolo Samonà, G. G. Belli: la commedia romana e la commedia celeste, Florence 1969, pp. 117ff.


But the cosmic background against which Engels projected his vision of human history put other limits as well on the concept of progress. In all forms of materialism there is a fundamental contrast between an Enlightenment thrust, confident that every emancipation from myth and dogma, every triumph of truth, is in itself a contribution to our greater happiness, and the emergence of pessimistic themes that are the inevitable result of a de-mythologized view of the human condition. As long as a group of intellectuals is organically linked to a class on the rise and is engaged in a struggle against the humiliating and oppressive old prejudices, the former characteristic prevails and materialism is seen as essentially a liberating philosophy. If, however, the struggle bogs down, either as a result of historical 'disillusionment' or simply because of the onset of a phase of relative social stability, the second characteristic comes to the fore, at times completely effacing the former, at times (as in the case of Leopardi) coexisting with it in a delicate balance. The positivist era saw satisfied materialists like Büchner and Mo1eschott in the bourgeois camp. But it also saw a resurgence of pessimism, which tended towards nostalgic religiosity among the less lucid minds and towards a coherently pessimistic conception of reality among the more lucid (although never so lucid as to be able to overcome their class origins). This coherent pessimism represented a single, unchanging vision of the 'human condition' which was inspired by the insurmountable physical-biological limitations of man as well as by historically transient social relations. Carducci and Pascoli [46] on the one hand, and Verga [47] on the other, represent the most obvious examples in Italian literature of the two kinds of pessimistic reaction. But it would be easy enough to confirm the phenomenon on a broader scale, not solely Italian or merely literary. Indeed, among the impulses that gave rise to the idealist resurgence at the end of the nineteenth century, one has to number also this bewilderment produced by a pessimism which was unable to resume and elaborate on the 'struggling' path shown by Leopardi in the Ginestra and therefore had to either fall back on some form of religion or else 'flee forward' towards irrationalist activism. In the writings of Croce and Gentile neo-idealism is repeatedly represented as a new religion destined to overcome the dismay caused by positivist materialism. On the other hand, this immanentist religion—which did away with crude myths of transcendence and only called for the capacity to negate one's own 'empirical ego' and experience immortality in so far as one identified with a supraindividual Spirit—appeared in turn to many to be too barren, and was not forceful enough to prevent many relapses into the old mythological religions and many flights of blind activism.

46 Giovanni Pascoli (1855S-1912): Italian poet, whose lyrical, melancholic verse tended to succumb to a pantheistic and nationalistic mysticism. (NLB).

47 Giovanni Verga (1840-1922): Italian novelist; while his works reflected a melancholic view of life, at the same time they depicted the sufferings of the poor with stark realism (verismo). His I malavoglia (1881) was the inspiration for Luchino Visconti's famous neo-realist film La terra trema (1948). (NLB).


SOURCE: Timpanaro, Sebastiano. On Materialism, translated by Lawrence Garner. London: NLB, 1975.

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From “Leopardi and the Italian Left of the ’70s”
by Sebastiano Timpanaro

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