Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Leopardi's Philosophy of Consolation in 'La Ginestra.'

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Leopardi's Philosophy of Consolation in 'La Ginestra.'

Article excerpt

The 'philosophy of consolation' of my title refers specifically to the famous third stanza of La ginestra, a poem written in 1836, one year before the poet's death, at Torre del Greco, a small town on the lower slopes of Vesuvius. In the past fifty years this so-called 'solidarity stanza' has been the focus of much critical debate stimulated by studies published in 1947 by Cesare Luporini and Walter Binni. (1) It seems appropriate to return to this topic in a year that celebrates the 200th anniversary of Leopardi's birth. The scholars who have taken part in that debate have contextualized the stanza, in order to assess its status and worth, either in the development of Leopardi's thought or in relation to a social and political context. (2) This essay, however, focuses on the way Leopardi frames the virtue of human solidarity in this third stanza and therefore addresses these issues in the debate only indirectly. It refers in broad terms to aspects of moral and political philosophy in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Western Europe and to the Zibaldone in order to clarify Leopardi's conception of goodness in human society. (3) In a recent study of La ginestra in this journal, John Alcorn and Dario del Puppo note that 'curiously' there has been no close analysis in English of the stanza. (4) Their own study of the whole poem seeks 'to shed fresh light on Leopardi's mature vision and the poem's multiple value by inserting La ginestra in a line of social theory anchored in the Enlightenment tradition stretching from the French moralists of the seventeenth century to a loose cluster of modern philosophers, the most prominent of whom is Jurgen Habermas'. (5) While the broader argument of their study is full of interest, two points of detail in their analysis of the solidarity stanza should be corrected. First, for Alcorn and Del Puppo, the nobility of which Leopardi speaks is 'a synthesis of motives construed to point in roughly the same direction: enlightened self-interest; concern for the general welfare (unweighted altruism); a notion of duty; virtue, as expressed in the Christian maxims, "love thy neighbour" and "turn the other cheek"'. (6) Sebastiano Timpanaro, too, in the context of the critical debate already referred to, has spoken of the 'indeterminatezza' of Leopardi's appeal to the whole human race, (7) though specifically in a political sense. However, since the combative spirit of the poem is clearly predicated on the blindness and folly of Christian revivalism, it is misleading to refer to motives which point 'in roughly the same direction' and to include among them maxims of the Christian faith. Secondly, with reference to the concluding lines of the solidarity stanza (ll. 145-57), Alcorn and Del Puppo remark that 'Leopardi states that the necessary and sufficient condition for securing the foundations of the good society is that the noble beliefs be commonly held. [...] If each holds that Nature is the enemy, then Nature is the enemy. Noble beliefs are self-fulfilling when generally shared. This is a case in which "saying makes it so", provided there is general agreement' (p. 877). Whatever other characteristics human nobility has in La ginestra, it certainly means facing and admitting the truth. Leopardi is not seeking in his argument to replace the illusions he combats with the universal deception that Nature is the enemy. (8) These two points of correction will be clarified in the course of this article.

There is no consolation of philosophy for Leopardi. As Eleandro affirms in the 'Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro', 'la filosofia, sperando e promettendo a principio di medicare i nostri mali, in ultimo si riduce a desiderare invano di rimediare a se stessa'. (9) It would be better to live with beautiful and happy illusions in our heads than to live with the truth without them, but in Leopardi's view, about fifty years before his time, modern philosophers (he has the empiricists in mind) swept away the beautiful illusions, such as ideas of glory and love, along with all the intellectual sophistry and illusion of metaphysics and theology. …

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