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New Left Review I/116, July-August 1979

Sebastiano Timpanaro

The Pessimistic Materialism of Giacomo Leopardi

Giacomo Leopardi was born at Ricanati (a town of the Marches) in 1798, the off-spring of a reactionary and clerical family of the minor nobility (the Marches belonged to the Papal States, even though at the time of Leopardi’s birth its lands were occupied by the French). He was possessed of an exceptionally acute intelligence and sensibility, and though educated by his father and by an ecclesiastic tutor in the Jesuit tradition, he very quickly began to study on his own account, teaching himself Greek and Hebrew. His father would have liked him to pursue a career in the church. His first scholarly works on Greek and Latin texts, notably those by Christian authors, which he completed when still adolescent, seemed to pave the way for such a career. But even in these early studies he displayed an exceptional gift for philology, the fruits of whose subsequent development were to elicit the admiration of foreign scholars of such eminent distinction as B. G. Niebuhr, J.-F. Boissonade and (after Leopardi’s death) U. von Wilamowitz. Nonetheless, it is only in comparatively recent times that the value of Leopardi’s writings to Greek and Latin philology has been fully appreciated. Initially, as might be expected, he shared the reactionary and Catholic ideas of his family; but during the period 1817–1819 he began to dissociate himself from these views, sympathising instead with patriotic and liberal ideas: his first Canzoni already show signs of this change of heart. This new outlook was further encouraged by his friendship with Pietro Giordani (1774–1848), a highly talented if somewhat inconsistent writer, who, though a defender of the ‘purity’ of the Italian language against French adulterations, was nonetheless full of Enlightenment ideas imported from France, an anti-clericalist and a materialist by inclination. Around the year 1819, Leopardi was drawn towards a pessimistic conception of reality. His pessimism passed through two stages, which have come to be labelled (though the terms are neither used by Leopardi himself nor entirely apt, but have now become established usage) ‘historical pessimism’ and ‘cosmic pessimism’. During the first phase, Leopardi was under the indirect influence of Rousseau, believing that human unhappiness was attributable to man’s having withdrawn from Nature, the beneficient Mother and bestower of brave-hearted illusions, in order to follow ‘reason’, the source of spiritual dessication and of a false and corrupt civilisation. It is this conception which inspires the Canzoni, the Idilli (Short poems) and the first of the Operette morali, a series of prose sketches that were ‘philosophical’ after the manner of Voltaire and the French philosophes of the 18th century.

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Sebastiano Timpanaro, ‘The Pessimistic Materialism of Giacomo Leopardi’, NLR I/116: £3

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