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A System That Excludes All Systems

Giacomo Leopardi's «Zibaldone di pensieri»

Emanuela Cervato

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.

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Chapter 5: ‘Morality Is None Other than Propriety’

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Chapter 5 ‘Morality Is None Other than Propriety’ Leopardi’s moral discourse in the literary and philosophical projects listed in his Disegni letterari (Machiavellismo di società; Galateo morale; Trattato delle passioni and Manuale di filosofia pratica) confirms the key themes and principles of his analyses: the central role of individual happiness and the way to achieve it (or to avoid unhappiness), on the basis of the internal conditions – the dominant role of passions – and the external circumstances – society – within which the subject lives and acts. The description of everyday life and behaviours is grounded on observation and self-analysis, and is dominated by the practical aspect of ethics, whereas theoretical discussions seem to be limited to the presence, role and combi- nation of passions to the exclusion of what in modern terms is described as meta-ethics (the origin and meaning of our ethical principles), normative ethics (a definition of the standards regulating right and wrong conduct) and applied ethics (the philosophical analysis of specific issues in private and public life, which are matters of moral judgment). Consultation of the Zibaldone’s indices shows however that Leopardi’s moral discourse is not exhausted in the planned moral texts and that the notebook offers fur- ther insights into important issues such as Leopardi’s definition of ethics, his understanding of its origin, its link with Christianity, and finally the relativity of moral values and judgements. The non alignment of some of his views with traditional beliefs and Catholic dogma can probably explain why some of these passages...

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