A System That Excludes All Systems

Giacomo Leopardi's «Zibaldone di pensieri»

by Emanuela Cervato (Author)
Monographs XXIV, 256 Pages


For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.
This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on the Text
  • A Book of Philosophical Sketches?
  • A note on the translations of the Zibaldone
  • Chapter 1: From Poet to Philosopher
  • Leopardi the philosopher? Criticism up to the 1970s
  • Leopardi the systematic thinker? The 1980s and 1990s
  • The harmony of poetry and philosophy
  • Chapter 2: ‘A System that Excludes All Systems’
  • Leopardi’s notion of system
  • Navigating the Zibaldone: Labyrinth, hypertext, rhizome
  • The Zibaldone as labyrinth
  • The Zibaldone as hypertext
  • The Zibaldone as rhizome
  • Two projects: The Dizionario filosofico and the Enciclopedia
  • Chapter 3: ‘To Know Is None Other than To Feel’
  • Leopardi’s notion of knowledge: Definition, object, limits and range
  • On the usefulness of knowledge
  • Knowledge, opinions and beliefs
  • Truth and the importance of doubt
  • The limits and sources of our knowledge: Matter and sensations
  • Reason and imagination
  • Memory and attention
  • Chapter 4: ‘Turning Reason into Passion’
  • The planned moral texts
  • The Machiavellismo di società
  • The Galateo morale
  • Passions as the epicentre of ethics: The Trattato delle passioni and the Manuale di filosofia pratica
  • The Manuale di filosofia pratica
  • Chapter 5: ‘Morality Is None Other than Propriety’
  • Leopardi’s moral discourse beyond the planned texts: Ethics in the Zibaldone
  • The comparison-contrast between the ancients and the moderns
  • Ethics as a relative value: Ethics as convenienza and convenzione
  • Ethics and Christianity
  • The notions of good and evil
  • Good and evil as relative values
  • The notion of virtue
  • Leopardi and the environment
  • Bibliography
  • Leopardi’s works
  • Secondary references
  • Index

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I would like to express my gratitude to the many people who saw me through this book; to my friends and colleagues in the School of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University, especially in Modern Languages, who supported and encouraged me.

I would like to thank Ronan Fitzsimons for checking some of my English translations with patience and generosity; and Mark Epstein for the comments he offered. Any errors that remain are my own. I would also like to thank David Jeckells for his cover design.

Thanks also to the Centro Nazionale di Studi Leopardiani in Recanati for their kind assistance and support always, especially to Roberto Tanoni for the reproduction of Domenico Morelli’s portrait of Giacomo Leopardi (part of the CNSL archive) and for permission to use it.

Thanks are also due to Christabel Scaife and everyone at Peter Lang for their assistance and support.

I am grateful to my family and friends, especially to Simona Rizzardi for her precious friendship and for the scorribande that have provided a much welcome distraction to the intensity of this work.

Last, but not least, my special thanks to Alberto, Melody, Margot and Flora.

| xi →

Note on the Text

Throughout this book citations from the Zibaldone are taken from the English translation edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), unless otherwise indicated. According to the conventions of Italian Leopardi scholarship, all references to the Zibaldone are recorded using the abbreviation Zib. followed by the page number to Leopardi’s original manuscript.

As there exists no uniform English edition of Leopardi’s writings, and unless otherwise indicated, this book utilizes the following editions of individual works:

Canti, translated by Jonathan Galassi (London: Penguin, 2010).

Essays and Dialogues/Operette morali, translated by Giovanni Cecchetti (Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1982).

The Letters of Giacomo Leopardi 18171837, selected and translated by Prue Shaw (Leeds: Northern Universities Press, 1998).

The translations of Leopardi’s works and of all other texts not available in English are my own.

Unless otherwise indicated the use of italics in quotations reproduces their use in the original texts.

An earlier version of the section on the Zibaldone as hypertext has appeared as ‘Lo Zibaldone come ipertesto: limiti e possibilità’ in María de las Nieves Muñiz Muñiz, ed., Lo ‘Zibaldone’ di Leopardi come ipertesto [Leopardi’s ← xi | xii → ‘Zibaldone’ as Hypertext] (Firenze: Olschki, 2013), 313–32; it is reproduced here by kind permission of Filippo Polenchi.

A more extensive section dealing with Leopardi’s notion of ‘opinion’ appears as the entry ‘Opinione’ in Novella Bellucci, Franco D’Intino and Stefano Gensini, eds, Lessico Leopardiano 2016 (Roma: Sapienza Università Editrice, 2016), 75–82; it is reproduced here by kind permission of Camilla Miglio.

Parts of Chapters 4 and 5 have appeared as ‘“Su un fragile cristallo”: il percorso leopardiano di prassi e teoria morale fra il Manuale di filosofia pratica e lo Zibaldone’, in Appunti leopardiani 5–6 (1) (2013), 50–70 <http://www.appuntileopardiani.cce.ufsc.br>; they are reproduced here by kind permission of Andreia Guerini and Cosetta Veronese.

The schemata in Figure 1 appeared originally in the article ‘Giacomo Leopardi: poeta dimezzato?’, in Sebastin Neumeister and Raffaele Sirri, eds, Leopardi poeta e pensatore/Dichter und Denker (Napoli: Alfredo Guida Editore, 1997), 195–212; it is reproduced here by kind permission of Diego Guida.

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A Book of Philosophical Sketches?

Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri is an extraordinary book – not just by virtue of its distinctive features (the difficulty of framing it within a specific literary genre; the broad spectrum of observations contained and subjects explored; the relevance and richness of its analyses and reflections) but also because of the relationship it establishes with its readers. The fragmentary nature of its writing makes it challenging and laborious to extract an organic and coherent overview of its many meditations and requires readers to become active coordinators of its content by gathering passages on a specific topic separated by lengthy spatial (in the text) and chronological (in the writing) distances, assembling the many pathways linking Leopardi’s considerations and following their development. The legitimacy of such an operation is implicitly supported by Leopardi, who complements the Zibaldone with various indices whose main purpose is to catalogue the notebook’s content before channelling it towards a number of literary-philosophical projects, and who also occasionally indicates the links between specific themes (‘Malvagio. Vedi Innocente’ [Wicked. See Innocent]; ‘Sensibilità. Vedi Vitalità’ [Sensibility. See Vitality]). Readers’ central role is further attested by the private nature of the notebook, whose origin and existence are centred on Leopardi’s dual role of author and reader. The Zibaldone grows and evolves as a result of Leopardi’s constant and parallel processes of writing and reading, his returning to existing ideas in order to develop and expand them, his identifying, collecting and cataloguing them according to their hierarchical relationships and associative processes, with the twofold purpose of keeping fresh in his own mind the notebook’s contents and of organizing them into a possible future, published existence.

The most problematic aspect of the notebook is its fragmentary character, which has undoubtedly contributed to its relegation to a secondary position within Leopardi’s oeuvre. Considered for decades a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found ← xiii | xiv → in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali)[Moral Essays], the Zibaldone has consequently been denied inner conceptual consistency and coherence – a hierarchical separation that is reflected in the parallel distinction between Leopardi the poet and Leopardi the thinker and which has led to privileging the former over the latter.1 The notebook’s lack of theoretical substance is however only illusory; the text-blocks forming the Zibaldone, interconnected by Leopardi’s own links and by an intricate web of references within the text, inextricably combine several themes and topics, embracing many fields of knowledge as well as Leopardi’s key tenets: the ambivalent concept of nature, the contrast-synergy between opposite elements and categories (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination, etc.) and the inner tension of human existence, torn between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization.

The Zibaldone presents two separate, co-existing planes: the objective one of philosophical analysis, and the subjective one of the diary and autobiographical annotations. This is in full compliance with what Leopardi considers to be one of the cruxes of philosophical practice, namely the inclusion of the thinking and analysing subject as part of the wider investigation into ‘men and things’: ‘we learn that the philosopher is not a philosopher in his life and action […] if […] he does not rid himself of the natural habit of excluding himself and his behavior from what he has learned in general ← xiv | xv → about men and their behavior in the world’ (Zib. 1870). This statement, which is programmatic both in terms of the object as well as the aims of Leopardi’s analyses and meditations, has led critics to deny philosophical value to his reflections on the grounds of their intrinsically pessimistic tone; reading his views on the human condition in autobiographical terms has resulted in considering their key tenets as the consequence of Leopardi’s personal circumstances, and as such entirely subjective and philosophically irrelevant.2 Leopardi’s absolute and systematic pessimism, inherent to the human condition and founded on materialism and hedonism, and the ensuing anti-spiritualism and anti-anthropocentrism they inspire, are at the root of the intense hostility his thought engendered.

The efforts to circumvent Leopardi’s inclusion in the philosophical ambit by characterizing him as a ‘moralista’ [moralist] (Luporini and Solmi, among others) are however ineffective because too reductive of the heterogeneous variety and range of Leopardi’s analyses. Furthermore, in the eighteenth century French moralists such as Montaigne, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, to whose writings the Zibaldone has often been compared, opt consciously for the fragmentary form of writing to express their refusal of traditional philosophical discourse, whereas the fragmentary nature ← xv | xvi → of the Zibaldone is the product of Leopardi’s approach to and process of writing the notebook, marked by the daily contact with his notes. The lengthy debates held in Italy over the possible philosophical character of the Zibaldone are underpinned by the contrasting notions of philosophy developed by idealism (Croce, Gentile) and historicism (Binni, Luporini, Timpanaro, Solmi) and the inclusion of the Zibaldone and its author within a philosophical context has been conditioned by the notion of philosophy espoused by scholars. The acceptance in recent years of a more modern definition of philosophical speculation that includes the notion of fragmentary writing has resulted in a new wave of interest in Leopardi and his notebook also on the part of philosophers (Emanuele Severino and Antonio Negri among others). Since the attempt to classify Leopardi’s considerations according to a fixed idea of philosophy is a precarious exercise, a more fruitful approach to the notebook needs to focus instead on its systematic structure. Although systematicity is an equally subjective attribute, the modern understanding of this feature (whose origin can be traced to Romanticism) sees in fragmentary structures an effect of the complex reality they analyse. The fragmentary character of Leopardi’s considerations about his ‘system of nature’ (an expression he almost certainly borrows from Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, whose 1770’s Système de la Nature ou Des Loix du Monde Physique et du Monde Moral Leopardi knows through Frederick II’s commentary ‘Examen du Système de la nature’, which he reads in June 1825) should therefore be seen as a reflection of the intricacy and non-linearity of the world they examine.

By applying the definition ‘il mio sistema’ [my system] both to his Weltanschauung as well as the structure that contains and organizes it Leopardi shows that he embraces the eighteenth-century notion of the term, which combines the hierarchical relationships supporting and coordinating our entire knowledge (‘for all human knowledge is a syllogism’, Zib. 348) and is centred around the liason des idées, the reciprocal connections linking themes and ideas. Leopardi’s worldview hinges on the key features of the human condition and on what he calls his ‘teoria del piacere’ [theory of pleasure], human beings’ constant and fruitless search for infinite happiness. This teoria appears to be inseparable from other motifs (the opposition between ancient and modern times and peoples, the synergetic contrast-cooperation of reason and imagination, the role of ← xvi | xvii → religion, etc.) acting as common denominators in Leopardi’s multi-faceted reflections and linking them through a subtle and pervasive fil rouge (every thinker ‘searches for a thread when considering the nature of things’, Zib. 946) and through reciprocal connections, making it almost impossible to discuss a specific topic without referring to others (see Figure 1 at the end of this chapter). This concatenation of concepts and themes runs through the notebook on a double axis: a vertical one of logical-hierarchical connections and a horizontal one of associations based on analogy, opposition or continuity, in accordance with one of the principles Leopardi adopts as guideline to his thinking: the search for ‘the link between truths (something that is inseparable from the faculty of thought) and the relations between things’ leading to ‘a system that will be more or less extensive, more or less complete, more or less coherent, harmonious, and consistent in its parts’ (Zib. 947). The systematic character of Leopardi’s thought as expressed in the Zibaldone – based on this definition of system – emerges therefore as a constitutive element of the notebook, its inner framework, its skeleton, a solid frame that supports from within the complexity and vastness of Leopardi’s annotations despite their fragmentary expression.

The central role of the reader as one of the essential elements of the notebook is also attested by its possible belonging to three models (labyrinth, hypertext and rhizome) which better than any other seem to capture its substantial duplicity and tension between the discontinuity of the writing and the inner coherence of many of its contents. The application of these models materializes in the thematic reading of the Zibaldone, which allows for the channelling of Leopardi’s considerations and thoughts on specific topics into a discourse which is organized according to the logical connections uniting its various components as well as the horizontal ramifications which the text not only authorizes, but even encourages.

The labyrinth model evokes the Borgesian ‘forking paths’, the chaotic Babel of routes and pathways leading in very many directions, but seems to exclude the idea of linear progress. This negative perspective is however grounded on a negative interpretation of this paradigm, which does not include one of the labyrinth’s essential features: its being productive. The labyrinth model developed during the Renaissance combines the notion of complexity, impenetrability, inextricability with that of potential productivity, and it is in this all-embracing aspect that the notion of labyrinth needs to ← xvii | xviii → be applied to Leopardi’s notebook: as the productive combination between the disorder of its fragmentary writing and the intrinsic unity of its contents.

If the labyrinth is an evocative yet potentially misleading model, the comparison with the hypertext paradigm is more concrete. The non-linear writing and the need for the reader to intervene in choosing their reading pathways are two of the essential features shared by the Zibaldone and the hypertext. Considered as the most appropriate structure to represent human beings’ non-sequential thought processes, the hypertext and Leopardi’s notebook share in particular the connectivity of the segments that constitute them, an indirect and implicit corroboration of the systematic character of Leopardi’s thinking, given that the commonly accepted definition of systematic includes, alongside consistency and coherence, also the inter-relation of its elements and concepts. The result of the readers’ own readings do not represent either new texts in relation to the Zibaldone, or an act of creation or construction: firstly because they are simply the reconfiguration of materials that are combined in a different order from the scattered one in which they appear across the notebook; secondly because the connections that exist between the various blocks of texts, established by Leopardi either through direct cross-references in the text, or by cataloguing them within precise entries or specific subjects, contain the role of the reader within the parameters of interpretation. The many hesitations and dead-ends readers have to deal with belong to the hypertextual ambit and relate to the logical order to be assigned to specific passages within a particular context, or the difficulty to contain specific discussions within clearly defined boundaries – because of the overflowing of the connections linking Leopardi’s thought and leading it into different themes at times very close to, other times very distant from one another. In any case the inclusion of the notebook within this context is limited by the hierarchical relationship that separates Leopardi from the Zibaldone’s readers-coordinators, and also by the restraints imposed upon their interventions on the text itself, limited within the boundaries of multiple interpretations (but excluding production or creation).

In the analysis of the rhizomatic model the extent of the inter-relationships connecting the notebook’s passages emerge in all its breadth. The rhizomatic principles which can at the same time be seen as key traits ← xviii | xix → of the Zibaldone are: the reciprocal interconnectivity of any point in the notebook and the subsequent fluidity of its themes, whose boundaries are often blurred, making their definition difficult; the absence of a fixed centre, of a determined beginning and/or end, of a rigid structure, and the overflowing of the connections in all directions; the possibility that every interruption may represent the start of a new pathway; finally, the image of the map as representation of the horizontal expansion of the text. The connections linking Leopardi’s observations on knowledge, for example, show how Leopardi’s analyses are built upon a double axis: one logical-hierarchical-vertical, and one associative-horizontal, and encompass his analysis of the processes leading from sensations to experience to the formation of ideas; the role that reason and imagination play within these processes; the involvement of memory and attention; the presence, in the background of these analyses, of the two, ubiquitous notions of ‘assuefazione’ [habit] and ‘convenienza’ [propriety]. The tension between vertical structures, manifest in the intention to collect the reflections consigned to the Zibaldone in treatises structured according to traditional, hierarchical texts for which Leopardi has prepared the list of contents; and horizontal structures, characterized by the expansion and overlapping of themes and notions, better represented by the two projects of the Dizionario filosofico [Philosophical Dictionary] and the Enciclopedia delle cose inutili [Encyclopedia of Useless Knowledge], lead Leopardi to a stalemate, whose only outcome is the non-materialization of his many projects.

The analyses of epistemology and ethics illustrate in a concrete way the belief in the inner coherence of the notebook. These topics have been chosen for a variety of reasons: first and foremost because they represent – within the classification of subject matters typical of the eighteenth-century framework of Leopardi’s thinking – the so-called sciences de l’homme; they are reciprocally connected because it is our knowledge of our own condition that leads human beings-Leopardi to elaborate some codes of behaviour that allow each individual, in full awareness of their own state, to endure it. The other reason for choosing these two themes is the fact that just for one of them – ethics – Leopardi plans to write two treatises and to this end collects the passages that should compose them; a similar plan does not exist for epistemology, the inclusion of which has instead been ← xix | xx → inspired by a now distant statement made by Sergio Solmi, who, in denying philosophical status to Leopardi’s analyses, uses the perceived absence of an epistemology from the notebook as evidence of his own conclusions.

Even though Leopardi has not explicitly planned a treatise on epistemology, his annotations do nonetheless tackle the essential issues of a theory of knowledge proper: how it is acquired, its aims, its range and its distinction from beliefs and from opinions. The eighteenth-century matrix of Leopardi’s thought transpires in his empiricist-sensistic perspective: from the central role he assigns to the liaison des idées, to the material origin of our knowledge, born out of experience and sensations, to the strictly material boundaries of its scope. The negative impact of knowledge, which reveals the true state of the human condition, implies also the existence of an intermediate status, that of beliefs – statements which are believable, regardless of their objective truth, and foster a status of equilibrium that allows individuals to achieve a certain degree of happiness (otherwise annulled by the prevailing of rational-philosophical knowledge). This discussion is linked to the origin of knowledge, grounded on reason and imagination, united in their complex and synergetic relationship that is at the same time enmity and collaboration and which, once balanced, realizes a form of knowledge that embraces the ‘poetico della natura’ [poetic in nature] as well as the more philosophical syllogizing. Each element has its own form of expression: reason has philosophy, imagination has poetry; the apex of their cooperation is reached in what Leopardi describes as the ‘colpo d’occhio’ [glance], the subject’s ability to grasp at once all the interrelations that exist in the reality of things, and expressed through ‘poesia sentimentale’ [sentimental poetry].


XXIV, 256
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
Leopardi’s Zibaldone Italian Studies thought in movement systematic character vis-à-vis its fragmentary and non-linear structure readers’ active role fragmentary writing epistemology system Sensationalism Empiricism Ethics Trattato delle passioni Manuale di filosofia pratica Relativism Labyrinth hypertext rhizome
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XXIV, 256 pp., 1 fig.

Biographical notes

Emanuela Cervato (Author)

Emanuela Cervato is Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. Her research interests focus on Leopardi, Carlo Goldoni and Luigi Pirandello.


Title: A System That Excludes All Systems