Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is considered Italy’s greatest modern poet, and one of its greatest philosophers. The latter reputation is built mainly on the thousands of pages of his notebooks, the Zibaldone or “hodgepodge,” which he began writing when he was a teenager and which has recently published for the first time in a complete English translation.

Helen Vendler’s TNR review gives an excellent overview of Leopardi’s thought and work.

The scope of Leopardi’s hodging and podging is remarkable. Vendler points to pages written in a two-day period in the summer of 1821, and lists the topics he addresses: “the similarity of the Greek and French idioms meaning “nothing at all”; the difference between ancient and modern patriotism; the totalizing nature of ancient wars; the difference among French, Italian, and Latin pronunciation of certain consonants; the use of Greek inscriptions on Roman monuments; the imitative faculty in human intelligence and the importance of habituation to learning; the definition of grace, as distinguished from beauty; the relation of Dante to Italian literature, compared with the relation of Homer to Greek literature; the range of men’s tastes in female beauty; the relative nature of all judgments of purity and impurity (‘nothing is therefore in itself and absolutely either pure or impure’); and the insensibility to art of the ignorant person.”

Despite their diffusiveness, the Zibaldone circulates around several major themes. He is obsessed with “linguistics and etymology—ancient Greek and Latin and their relations to modern French, Italian, and Spanish,” and his pet theory has to do with the development of the Romance languages from Latin: He claims that “the modern Romance languages did not descend directly from the Latin we know from surviving Latin literature. Instead, he argues, French, Italian, and Spanish derive from ‘Vulgar Latin’—the spoken dialect of the Roman empire, which deviated in some of its rules and vocabulary from the pure Latin of the textbooks. Leopardi is never more enthusiastic than when he can add another piece of evidence for this theory. ‘Did the Latin people perhaps call the head testam . . . and did the Italian word testa perhaps come from this and the French tête ?’”

This is not only a linguistic question for Leopardi, but a question about history. It raises one of the central themes of his thought: “Can a modern language, or a modern mind, achieve the same heights as the ancients?” To this, he has a clear answer: “Modern man can never be as great, productive, or happy as the ancients were.”

Thus his philological interests are linked with his “deepest convictions” about “the impossibility of human happiness, the nullity and futility of human life, the empty indifference of the universe.” Differently put, his interest is in the “psychology of unhappiness” and in developing a theory of history, “which is a theory of decline.”

Like the Romantics, Leopardi thinks himself a man out of time. Modernity is worse than antiquity, but not because it has lost something. Moderns know more and apply reason more thoroughly, and this very knowledge and rationality belittle humans. As Leopardi himself says, “Reason is the enemy of all greatness: reason is the enemy of nature: nature is great, reason is small. I mean that it will be more or less difficult for a man to be great the more he is governed by reason, that few can be great (and in art and poetry perhaps no one) unless they are governed by illusions.” He doesn’t think that this condition can be reversed, nor does he think scientific reason has exposed something false. On the contrary, science has discovered the truth nature of the real world: “a place devoid of purpose, meaning, and providence.” In Leopardi’s words, “Reason . . . recognizes how unimportant all things are,”

Salvation comes through ignorance: “There is no other remedy for the ills of modern philosophy than forgetting.” But forgetting isn’t really possible. We have eaten from the tree of knowledge and now can only envy the innocent who live in their illusions - children (“Children find everything in nothing, men find nothing in everything”) and the innocent savages of the ancients. Leopardi thinks that the cruelty of the ancients is a sign of their authenticity, their vitality (anticipations of Nietzsche here as everywhere, as Vendler points out). Xenophobes have it right: “Society cannot subsist without love of the homeland, and hatred of foreigners.” At times, Vendler says, Leopardi suggests that it’s time for the modern world to “re-barbarize itself.”

The only truth is the truth that absolute truth is an illusion, and all is relative: “The truth about good and evil, that one thing is good and the other is bad, is believed to be naturally absolute, when in fact it is only relative . . . . There is almost no other absolute truth, except that All is relative. This must be the basis for all metaphysics.” Leopardi is especially interested in the relativism of aesthetics. Beauty is always relative, and it only appears to be objective because certain people have habituated themselves to certain forms of art. Not only in art but in everything, humans are what they are by habit: “Each man is like a soft dough, susceptible to every possible shape, impression, etc.,” he writes. “It hardens over time, and at first it is difficult, and finally it is impossible to give it a new shape.”

There is another truth, though, the truth that humans are fated to be unhappy. It’s built into our nature. We have an infinite self-love, an infinite desire for our own pleasure. But we have limited mental and physical capacities, and so our infinite desire for pleasure can never be entirely satisfied. We get satisfaction only in fits and starts, and are left longing for the infinite pleasure that science has proven to be an illusion. Absence of pleasure is pain, and so we are doomed to a life of constant pain. It would be better if we had never been born.

Though humans are always unhappy, the modern world has made us even more so. Modernity forces us together into mass society, and this is against our nature. The social contract was a massive mistake, a sort of original sin, which left humans as the “one species that does not live in accordance with its nature, that has perverted its telos.”

The English translation has over 2500 pages of this. Vendler has done a great service for those of us who prefer to take our despair in smaller servings.