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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 4: ‘Turning Reason into Passion’

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CHAPTER 4

‘Turning Reason into Passion’

The centrality of sensations and experience in Leopardi’s interpretation of our cognitive processes, and his teoria del piacere, encompass themes and motives that have a crucial role also in his moral discourse. In one of the key segments of the teoria Leopardi establishes the equivalence of happiness and pleasure (‘The human soul (and likewise all living beings) always essentially desires, and focuses solely (though in many different forms), on pleasure, or happiness, which, if you think about it carefully, is the same thing’, Zib. 165); in another he states the limitless nature of our desire for such happiness and the impossibility ever to achieve it (‘After having experienced one pleasure, the soul does not stop desiring pleasure itself, […] because […] the desire for pleasure’ is ‘inseparable from our existence’, Zib. 183). This desire causes agony and pain (it is ‘a torment, a kind of habitual anguish of the soul’, Zib. 172) and is a direct consequence of ‘amor proprio’ [self-love] because those who love themselves want what is good for them; self-love is, in turn, an effect of existence itself.1 ← 151 | 152 →

The placing of happiness as supreme value at the centre of his worldview, and the importance of sensations, lead Leopardi to elaborate a moral theory and practice in which the subject’s behaviour is determined by hedonistic principles: the attainment of the greatest possible pleasure/happiness or the avoidance of unhappiness. These views lend Leopardi’s moral...

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