Leopardi: When Pessimism is not so Pessimistic
Leopardi, one of Italy’s most appreciated and often-quoted poets
Italian students, at school and at university, are well-aware of Giacomo Leopardi, one of Italy’s most appreciated and often-quoted poets.
At school you learn that he was a pessimist and highly sceptical of human progress; but was he really? Did he really develop a pessimistic and gloomy outlook on life during his education at home? Through this article, I hope to be able to address these issues and let this important intellectual be re-evaluated and assessed anew.
Born in 1798 in the Marches, which at the time belonged to the Papal States, he was brought up at home, in the library of his father, who was a destitute nobleman. Despite the pervasive power of the Holy Office, the Leopardi family had been able to establish a sizeable library, full of texts that had been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Young Giacomo took advantage of this vast collection of books and soon started to shape his own philosophical system: our world is made up of illusions and, growing up, these illusions are dispelled.
This mental disposition comes to the fore in his poem Brutus the Younger, where Brutus, a man of virtue, honour, and liberty, has come to the realisation that everything he has done in his life has been pointless because such is life. Thus, the only thing he can contemplate doing is taking his own life.
Furthermore, influenced by European Romanticism, the Italian poet and philosopher articulated his own pleasure theory: we strive for and desire things, but, once we have got them, we endlessly desire something different.
This situation is well-described in one of his most famous poems, Saturday in the Village, where the inhabitants of a small community eagerly await Saturday, but when the day finally comes, they understand that day is nothing to write home about.
Leopardi’s last work, The Broom, deals with another theme (so much in vogue in these days, fortunately): solidarity. The eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in Naples urges human beings to co-operate and to seek assistance, not to give the cold shoulder, because mankind has got to work together in such difficult circumstances.
We all desire things and we are all urged to desire something else once we have gotten hold of what we originally wanted. Then, sometimes, we believe our world is deprived of any value and we are ready to even take our lives. Above all, we should always be ready to help one another, not to erect barriers or walls. Thus, Leopardi is not predominantly pessimistic and bleak but, rather, he is human, all too human.