Discourse on the present state of the customs of Italians
Edited by Vincenzo Guarracino
Ed. La nave di Teseo, Milan 2021
Guarracino has given us, for La nave di Teseo publisher, his great commentary on another edition of the agile Leopardi essay of 1824, published only in 1906. The publisher's name recalls an easy mythological reference, and Leopardi's work in fact shows its complexity, constructed with the confidence of the political philosopher and the anthropologist – Leopardi has never ceased to amaze those who approach him.
The approximately 270 points of commentary made by the editor (while the author's notes numbered 18) are each presented as a lemma, a short essay on the passage or topic, finally forming a small Leopardi encyclopedia. There is no line that is not worth the effort of reading: the commentary is constructed and shifted from the point of view of the essay in question, of course; however, Leopardi's entire oeuvre is present. And indeed the dense interweaving lies primarily in the text's threads of connection with Leopardi's other texts, of which many were written and published at the time, while Zibaldone (for years) and Operette morali (just from 1824, it seems) were in gestation. But not only that: the whole cultural context that was in the author's mind at the time can be said to be carefully examined, and also the whole history of Leopardi after Leopardi is looked at.
It would be impossible, for the purposes of a brief introduction, to give here a pale idea of the richness of the arguments. But I hope at least to be able to convey the importance of the essay by posing at the outset a question, not really one of many: can Leopardi's Italians still be a text for discussion today, a good two hundred years later (yes!)? Is it something that can still be considered today? Guarracino took care of answering this in his Introduction (itself accompanied by a substantial critical apparatus), on pp. 56 ff: where he documents that, starting from the 1900s until almost today, or rather until 2011, prominent men such as Franco Cordero (only the last of many) have considered the Leopardi essay as a largely valid point of reference: it does make text, if one wants to lead a meaningful discussion and the conduct the analysis in a dispassionate and truthful way, without parochial concessions.
So the reader is learning something that can still be a starting point, it will then be up to his or her critical spirit and competence, the ability to discern, to decide on what he or she reads from time to time – no need to be a scholar of politics and philosophical anthropology, otherwise we would have to argue that in civil matters only specialists can say anything.
In fact, today among other things this has changed, not to say that two aspects: that Italy, for good or ill, was united (which and the way also is disputed from many quarters, but it is in the facts); moreover, at the time Leopardi, like everyone else, considered Italians only that minority who could afford a comfortable life and leisure time, and so could count for something, cultivate opinions of some importance, act influentially as an intimate or close society in the sense that will be said; the others were not in question (one understands: see, in the history of Italy since unification, the long affair of universal electoral suffrage-extended from a few classes to all, only in the mid-twentieth century).
So, how is the topic discussed here?
It must be kept in mind that we are still and always dealing with Leopardi, seen by several authoritative quarters as an author of modern nihilism.
We know from the whole course of his thought in motion that he shows an ambivalent attitude toward the Illuminism of the time: it has the merit of having shown the truth, for example, with respect to the barbarity of the Middle Ages (here Leopardi's Romantic sensibility comes to a halt); but it made a massacre of illusion – because in the face of the truth of life, of death and pain, of nothingness, what in the twentieth century has been called situations-limits and figures of existence, symbols of transcendence – the grandeur of ancient ideals, such as the ambition of glory, what e.g. the monumental dimension of history, that of the Roman republican virtues à la Plutarch delivers to us-has revealed the depths of its nothingness. Greatness of nothingness is nihilism: god is not, or does not show himself – things are nothing.
Thanks to the Illuminism, Leopardi says, in our age, such virtues of the ancients, powerful in cementing a society, but also in other ways the greatness of the Renaissance, are seen in their intrinsic nullity, they cannot revive and in any case they are not: "Speaking... clearly, morality properly is destroyed, and it is not credible that she can rise again for now, ... and there is no way to see it" (p. 127).
But merely being in the world, in the manner of things, is not man's way; man acts and always seeks to clothe things with meaning, in order for existence to have meaning. And the societies of men may be more or less positive – think of true amor, of the mutual aid just invoked in the Broom – something, for a society to be seriously to be spoken of, must stand as the foundation and glue of a good coexistence of men: despite the collapse of illusions, "customs can in some guise maintain themselves, and only civilization can do so and be instrumental to this effect, when it is in a high degree" (ibid.).
I do not seem to see contradictions, in the broad outlines of Leopardi's thought. If life is hopeless, there is nothing left but to make existence worthy, to make it meaningful, and to face nothingness with dignity, in individual life but also in social life.
At least, the ambition of the citizen should be able to aspire to honor, which is the consideration, the esteem of his peers toward him and of peers among themselves. It being understood that the feeling of honor and consideration of others is also nothing but dust: indeed , "What thing is more frivolous in itself than the reckoning of a good deed neither more nor less than a good motto or a good dress (...) but it must be confessed that... the state of opinions and nations as to morals is reduced to this precise misery" (p. 97), whereby in France, England and Germany, the only nations in which Leopardi sees at the time a cohesion in the desired sense, the least worst that is possible, "society itself by producing the positive social tone (i.e., the "good tone" of relations therein, ed. ) produces the greatest indeed the only guarantee of customs both public and private... and thus is the immediate cause of the preservation of itself" (ibid. - and, in note: "the polite men of the said nations refrain from doing evil and do good, not moved by duty, but by honor").
Why does Leopardi see in the nations of Northern Europe the prerequisites of a society that, with all the shortcomings he sees in them, is at least acceptable?
It is found throughout the essay - the French retain at least some legacy of the ruined greatness that brought them to the events between the 18th and 19th centuries from the Sun King to the Napoleonic wars; on the English and Germans and the spiritual flowering of the latter in the 19th century, which Leopardi punctually records to the point where he lived, anthropological, cultural, and climatic reasons agree that "… the northern nations, and above all the people, are much more comparable and similar nowadays to the ancient ones than are the nations, and above all the people, of the south" (p. 132); in spite of what common sense may believe, we read "I do not doubt to attribute to a great extent the decided and visible present superiority of the northern nations over the southerners, yes in politics, yes in literature, yes in everything, to the superiority of their imagination... It seems that the time of the north has come" (pp. 132-3) also because "...all histories, show that peoples superior to others in great illusions, are always so even in the reality of things" (p. 133 n.); for this, see especially the last part of the essay).
Italians are in one respect like everyone else, based on what was said of the Age of Enlightenment, that is, devoid of "any real constraint and conservative principle of society" (p. 98) which the ancients had instead, but unlike the three nations mentioned, the Italians also lack "that kind of strict society defined above" (ibid.) that is, the "good tone" given by the feeling of honor. They "stroll about, go to shows and amusements, to mass and sermons, to sacred and profane festivals" (p. 99), nothing else: and "each Italian makes tone and manner by himself" (p. 100). In Italy, society is lacking in this dispassionate view, and "there is no honor where there is no close society." It follows that "nothing... is willing an Italian of the world to sacrifice to public opinion" (p. 101); indeed in this the Italians are ultra-philosophers, that for them "there is no place for illusions" (p. 102 but see also p. 108 - e.g. doing things deemed important, such as planning for the future, committing oneself to the future, which on the one hand would give tone and cohesion to a society, but would still be deluding oneself with respect to the meaning of life, of course).
On the contrary, "the perpetual and full dissimulation of the vanity of things ... in a narrow society, deceives in some manner the thought, and maintains as it is and as far as it is possible the illusion of existence" (pp. 104-5). From the fact that "the Italians of the world, deprived as they are of society, feel ... more than foreigners, the real vanity of things and of life"; "well known and continually feeling the vanity and misery of life and the bad nature of men" (p. 108; 109), from this kind of bitter realism, "arises to customs the greatest harm that can ever be thought of" (p. 109). Here it is: "despair, so neither more nor less contempt and the intimate feeling of the vanity of life are the greatest enemies of good working, and authors of evil and immorality" from which spring "profound indifference," "full and continuous cynicism of mind, thought, character, customs, opinion, words and actions" (p. 109); it is not appropriate to show discretion and reserve in public, and the most harmful thing when one is with others turns out to be to each "being dilatory and sensitive about one's own account" (p. 113).
Reciprocal cynicism, an exercise in which the " among us, man of more experience and ease" (p. 111) is most distinguished, whereby those who do not respect others cannot expect to be respected (cf. p. 112-13), manifests itself in not taking anything seriously, in laughing "at everything and everyone, beginning with oneself" (p. 110). A close society such as the others mentioned above-French, English, German-could not, "cannot last among men continually occupied with mocking one another in the face, and giving one another continual signs of mutual contempt" (ibid.); there these things do not happen, or not to such an extent, but here in Italy conversation consists of laughing at others and at everything, and "most of the laughter is over men and those present," according to a meticulous, aberrant phenomenology that Leopardi goes on to describe and that he will not have failed to observe especially in the experience at that time already gained by him, for example in his Roman journey. Moreover, the phenomenon of bad customs, to which the lack of good ones gives rise, at most replaced by "customs and habits," is more evident in small provincial towns, while it is attenuated "in the capitals and large cities of Italy" (p. 125) there being in those "a little more society, and therefore a little more care of public opinion... a little more study and spirit of honor, and jealousy of one's own fame... a little more of custom, and therefore of good or less bad custom" (cf. p. 123: it is done by "habituation" what little remains of worthiness, which should be done instead by "national or provincial" spirit).
Every man in the world but especially in Italy develops, in defense, selfishness and misanthropy (cf. p. 114), because "fought and offended by each one" and we use to consider others "so differently than as brothers" (p. 115) and moments in society become "a means of hatred and disunity" (p. 115), where in other nations the dimensions of sociability and conversation, where everyone's self-love is respected and increased, succeed "most effective means of exchangeable love so national as generally social." This must be said, although other nations do not lack drawbacks either, we read, beginning with selfishness. With respect to certain things, all over the world, to some degree, humanity resembles each other, but Leopardi means that "the mentioned drawbacks... are greater here than elsewhere" (p. p. 117).
Nowadays , when education should be generalized, with more widespread prosperity and mass-media, there would be far more Italians able to form opinions (we hear all kinds of them, albeit very much out of hand) and implement civilized conduct without therefore having to be intellectuals or politicians. Does this happen? What is certain is that, as Guarracino shows, Leopardi's writing left a trace, something that still offers food for discussion today.
If existence, despite nothingness, is to be made meaningful, he knew how to do it in his own, unique way.