All posts by Geir Sigurðsson

Ethics and Ego: East-West Perceptions of Morality

1. Introduction

However morality ought to be understood, it is a simple fact that cultural perceptions of morality differ. These perceptions determine to a significant extent how morality is approached, pondered and discussed. In other words, the diversity of ethics as it presents itself in various world-philosophies depends largely on the real and actual perceptions of morality.

In the following, an attempt will be made to formulate a general East-Asian vs. Euro-American comparison of such perceptions and the dominant tendencies in ethical thinking ensuing from them. Needless to say, such tendencies are far from absolute, and there are significant overlaps in the ethical approaches of both East and West. One can certainly find important exceptions from the tendencies that otherwise characterize the traditions in question. But exceptions are exceptions precisely because the deviate from a rule, and the aim here is merely to identify the general rule, or, more appropriately, as here is intended a purely descriptive term, ‘tendency’. A generalization such as this is not meant to polarize the compared cultural traditions, but merely to identify and thus clarify some of their distinguishing features, to locate the specific cultural traits that keep them together as particular ‘traditions’. This requires generalizations. Without them, we merely heap together a collection of individual and disconnected features that are not easily assimilated into a meaningful and coherent whole. As Roger T. Ames has observed, “the only thing more dangerous than striving to make responsible cultural generalizations is failing to make them.”[1] To the extent that such an identification is possible, it may facilitate meaningful interaction between the traditions, reduce the possibility of misinterpretation and miscommunication, and help to indicate strengths and weaknesses of both tendencies which should be instructive to those working within either tradition.

The thesis from which this comparison proceeds is that the major differences between the East-Asian and Western ethical traditions emanate from divergent views of the kind of role selfhood or ego should play in social human life. A comparison of these views, it is suggested, will be helpful to flesh out the different perceptions of morality. It will be proposed that Western thinking is characterized by a stronger focus on the self, and that while Western ethical thinkers and schools certainly seek to reduce self-centeredness, such endeavours generally proceed through an augmentation of the role of human reason and thus a more intense and even tormenting self-consciousness. A clear reflection of this tendency is the ethical approach to moral issues qua issues associated with individual action and rational choice. The East-Asian approach differs from this in that it seeks to balance excessive introspection with a cultivated ‘sense’ of identification with the whole, be it society or the natural realm. While this approach, it seems, largely succeeds in preventing an existential kind of agony, it nevertheless suffers from some other serious weaknessess. Hence both traditions, it is argued, have something to offer one other. The discussion offered here is merely a sketchy outline that may hopefully work as a first step toward that purpose.

2. The Western Road to Egology

Towards the end of her life, around 1882, Emily Dickinson wrote this melancholic but beautiful poem:

How happy is the little stone

That rambles on the road alone,

And doesn‘t care about careers,

And exigencies never fears;

Whose coat of elemental brown

A passing universe put on;

And independent as the sun,

Associates or glows alone

Fulfilling absolute decree

In casual simplicity.[2]

What could possibly be desirable about being a rambling stone? Dickinson‘s rambling stone is free from the affliction of self-consciousness, of the reflexive but futile and therefore unending and vicious quest for its true essence and aim. Instead, it rambles without awareness of its own being and direction, free from human cares and worries. It simply goes. Dickinson‘s poem expresses the pain of selfhood, of consciousness, of self-awareness within a culture in which the individual self has become so paramount that it is stuck in its own self-reflexivity, isolated from communion with others. In Western literature, especially in and after the nineteenth century, this is a peculiarly common theme.

But perhaps it is not so peculiar. At least since the rise of philosophy in ancient Greece, the ego has played a central role in Western thinking. However the Delphic maxim ‘know thyself!’ ought to be understood, Socrates seems to have understood it as an inquiry into himself for the sake of obtaining the moral wisdom of temperance.[3] The task of ‘knowing oneself’ has since then been transmitted to Western students of philosophy, though today it rather indicates an endeavour to realize the uniqueness of one’s ‘true self’. Who am I? What am I? While it is hard to imagine intelligible answers to such questions, at least in their current sense, they have an unmistakably rationalist foundation signifying the priority of epistemology to ethics: one first needs to know before one can act. Plato’s primary objective may have been to eliminate relativism, but he did so by locating the source of truth in a unchanging transcendental realm accessible only through mind and reason. This inescapably directs philosophical activity, taking place in the self, to the self itself.

Socrates and Plato set the stage for “a long-developing process whereby an ethic of reason and reflection gains dominance over one of action and glory.”[4] The play went on for hundreds of years. And while the dominance of Christian values may have reduced the introspective tendency during the Middle Ages,[5] the emphasis on the ego was considerably intensified during the modern period. In order to solve the epistemological problem of grounding certainty in his age of growing uncertainty, Descartes had to detach the ego from its ‘container’ the body, and provide a notion of the two entirely incompatible entities of spirit and matter. This had a number of radical implications. For one, it entrenched even further the dualistic view of body and soul that Plato and Christianity brought to western culture. It further divided the gap between subject and object. The subject took over as prime value, while the mechanistic object became a mere means to reach the aims laid down by the free subject. The mind devoured the body while the human being was given free rein to consume nature.

Thirdly, Cartesian dualism produced an even stronger move to internalization than Plato had proposed with his rationalist turn. As Charles Taylor observes, it was to “place the moral sources within us.”[6] The ‘I’ gradually began to encroach upon itself, culminating, at least symbolically, in the aged Kant‘s posthumous notes. He had found himself compelled to dismiss his personal servant to many years, Martin Lampe, but it obviously caused him such distress that his memorandum-books contain reminders scattered here and there where Kant has written: “The name Lampe must now be completely forgotten.”[7]

The glorification of self and reason, as it developed during the Renaissance and modern period, manifests itself perhaps most clearly in modern individualism as expressed in Enlightenment philosophy. The belief in the autonomy of the rational subject is for instance clear in Utilitarianism according to which the rational self is meant to be able to assess, even ‘calculate’, the most expedient consequences of one‘s action to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number, which is thereby meant to constitute the ultimate standard of right and wrong.[8] This belief in the self’s ability to determine in a most accurate manner the goodness or badness of actions was perhaps a logical consequence of the Euro-American’s increased self-confidence in the wake of new discoveries and methods in science and the felt power of the individual to be able to interpret, understand and discover things on his own accord.

This, in many ways positive step, encouraged by the Protestant movement, seems to have gradually brought us to a position of ‘absolute egotism’ whereby we decide, as absolute subjects, the criteria at which the world should be handled and the rational defined. Max Stirner may seem a curious product of German Idealism, but in many ways he brought the ethical and political implications of the school to its most consistent conclusion by locating the world, or at least the conceptual standards at which the world can be recognized and evaluated, in the ego. Stirner says:

Just as I find myself behind things as spirit, I must later also find myself behind the thoughts, i.e. as their creator and owner. During the spirit-time my thoughts grew till they overtopped my head, whose offspring they were after all; they hovered about me and convulsed me like fever-phantasies – a formidable power. The thoughts had become corporeal for themselves, were ghosts, e. g. God, Emperor, Pope, Fatherland, etc. If I destroy their corporeity, then I take them back into mine, and say: ‘I alone am corporeal.’ And now I take the world as what it is to me, as mine, as my property; I refer all to myself.[9]

While generally considered a marginal and idiosyncratic thinker, Stirner epitomizes the general Western modern approach to the problem of selfhood, which is precisely to increase selfhood, to make us even more conscious of ourselves. The cure consists in spreading and intensifying the disease.

A good case in point is psycho-analysis, in which the object is to transfer as much as possible of the id (das Es), the irrational, repressed and disturbing unconscious part of the psyche to the ego (das Ich), the rational and conscious part.[10] The aim is enhanced control, self-control. Psycho-analysis is, in this sense, a continuation of the Kantian epistemological project of empowering rationality.

Kant, in fact, explicitly says that we must subdue our natural side by subordinate it under the dominance of reason: “Human nature does not of itself harmonize with [the moral] good; it [can be made to harmonize with it] only through the dominance [Gewalt] that reason exerts over sensibility.”[11] According to this view, reason, ostensibly leading to clear consciousness and self-understanding, is the exclusive key to civilized human living, and the more we have of it, the more civilized, more human, we become. Curiously, however, the more we are aware of ourselves, Kant seems to say, the more capable we are of submitting ourselves to a generalized and impersonal law. So in this sense the possibility of ethics appears to be contingent upon the overcoming or indeed bursting of self as a consequence of its progressive expansion. Egotism is eliminated by enlarging the ego. Perhaps this apparent contradiction is among the causes for the agony that Western thinkers relate to increased self-awareness. Kant acknowledges this quite explicitly, but he sees it as a necessary evil associated with progress:

To feel one‘s life, to enjoy oneself, is merely to feel oneself continually being agitated to step out of the present situation (which must therefore to be an equally recurrent pain). This further explains the afflicting, distressing hardship of boredom for all those who are mindful of their life and of time (cultivated people).[12]

In a footnote to this passage, Kant adds:

Because of his innate lifelessness, the Carribbean is free from this hardship. He can sit with his fishing-rod for hours without catching anything; thoughtlessness is a lack of spur to activity, which always brings pain with itself, but from which he is free.

The ability to savour the moment in peace, quiet and thoughtlessness is therefore not an ability, but on the contrary a sign of primitiveness. But not everyone has considered the human being‘s surge to conscious awareness of self and world as a sign of progress. Max Scheler, for instance, says that thinking and human intelligence is in fact a response to the human being‘s handicap of not knowing instinctually what to do:

‘Cogito ergo sum’ says the proud and self-confident Descartes. But Descartes – why do you think; why do you want? You think, because neither instinct nor some kind of skill based on your natural tendencies whispers to you directly what you are or are not to do! And you don‘t think – as you yourself believe – in order to elevate yourself above the animals onto new levels of existence or value, but in order to become ‘more animalistic than other animals’! And what do you mean by ‘free choice’? This is what you call the fact that you live in constant uncertainty, i.e. you don‘t know where to and what for – which the animal always knows directly and instantly, which, in other words, it knows much better than you! [13]

Scheler considers human intelligence to be a response to the human being‘s “biological weakness and feebleness”.[14]

From this point of view, the hyper-conscious human being, with all his intelligence and self-awareness, appears as a kind of sickness, sickness unto death, as Søren Kierkegaard so famously put it. And as a matter of fact, consciousness has often been tackled as a kind of sickness. The modern affliction of selfhood is a common theme among Western authors. We find it virtually everywhere in modern philosophy and literature, in Hegel‘s ‘unhappy consciousness’, in Giacomo Leopardi‘s noia or ‘boredom’[15], in the Romantic Weltschmerz, in Schopenhauer‘s and Nietzsche‘s nihilism, in Robert Musil‘s ‘man without qualities’, in Baudelaire‘s ennui, in Freud‘s psycho-analysis, in Emil Cioran who speaks of consciousness as “nature‘s nightmare”,[16] in the existentialist critique of the bourgeois way of life, in surrealism, and in countless other Western philosophies, psychologies, novels, poems and artworks from the modern period onwards until the present.[17]

The torture of the ‘I’, locked inside itself, seeking some kind of salvation or release from itself to become something else or even become nothing at all is a conspicuous characteristic of Euro-American and by now globalized modernity. The seemingly ever-increasing attention given to celebrities and the super-rich may be an aspect of this complex, implying a popular desire to identify with them instead of oneself. Other layers of contemporary culture, however, approach the issue in the customary paradoxical manner by suggesting that one can only escape oneself by becoming oneself, i.e. one’s true and authentic self, a common theme in popular self-help manuals.[18]

3. East-Asian Egophobia

Throughout history, Asian philosophy has often been dismissed by Western thinkers as unproductive introspection. This view, possibly influenced by misconceptions of meditation, is particularly ironic considering that this tendency turns out, in fact, to be much more typical of Western thought. Ethical considerations largely revolve around the ego, both as the main cause and the solution of moral predicaments. In this particular sense, and perhaps in some others, we have been, and still are, quite self-obsessed.

In the Chinese philosophical traditions, which are taken as representative of East-Asian cultures in this discussion,[19] selfhood is certainly regarded as problematic, but it is not accompanied with any kind of agony. This is an intriguing fact as such, and indicative of a more positive existential attitude to the relationship between human beings and their life-world, but a discussion of this aspect is beyond the parameters of this paper.

In the following, a sketchy outline will be provided of the classical Chinese approach to selfhood with regard to morality. While we can of course find a plethora of similarities between the Chinese and Western approaches (after all, both Chinese and Westerners are human), the focus here will be on differences. In short, while Western philosophy generally tends to inflate the self, the general aim of Chinese philosophy is to diminish or overcome the self. The self is considered problematic in two senses that also reflect the different emphases of Confucianism and Daoism.

First, the ego‘s dominance symbolizes a primitive state, as it is virtually or literally the sole concern of the individual in his or her initial circumstances after birth. As the infant grows up, it develops a natural kind of affection for the people in its surroundings, usually the parents and other next of kin. This is the first step towards reducing the scope of the ego in the sense that one‘s concern embraces others as well. The Confucians call it ‘personal cultivation’ (xiu shen ??), indicating that becoming a genuine person means to become a social kind of being. Successful personal cultivation or indeed transformation means successful expansion of our natural affection, certainly graded affection according to the closeness of relations. One treats one‘s grandmother differently from one‘s insurance agent, and so one should, but, believe it or not, a cultivated person will still have some affection for her insurance agent. For the Confucians, a petty person, xiao ren ??, is someone who fails to overcome his infantile egocentrism. An exemplary person, a jun zi ??, is one who succeeds.[20]

The other problem of self, notably represented by Daoism, is that self-consciousness obstructs the relationship with our surroundings or our tasks at hand.  Many Daoist writings encourage us to let go of our self while proceeding in our daily activities as a most desirable achievement that will facilitate creative and efficacious engagement with our social and natural surroundings. It is creative and efficacious in the sense that it produces something of value, something that contributes to harmonious relations between those involved. It is therefore a moral achievement as well.

In the Daoist 4th century BCE classic Zhuangzi, it is said that “the highest man is without self”.[21] The term is wu ji ?? or ‘non-self’ as it literally means. But wu ?, indicating a negation, does not mean that what is being negated has thereby ceased to be. This is more of a deconstruction, or Aufhebung, to speak in a Hegelian manner. It is not simply selflessness, but rather a temporary letting-go of the self while one tends to the world and one‘s tasks. It has been referred to as the “death of the ego”[22] and it certainly is death in the Daoist sense of the ego immersing itself with the entire and incessant process of existence.

Zhuangzi continues by saying that “the spiritual person is without accomplishments, the sagely person is without name.”[23] But does this mean that they are good for nothing? Not at all. In the Daodejing, there is a clearer indication of what the negative wu-forms imply. In the Daodejing, wu wei ??, literally ‘non-action’, is often endorsed. However, it also makes clear that ‘non-action’ is not simply not doing anything: “By doing non-action, there is nothing that will not be ordered.” (wei wu wei, ze wu bu zhi ???????)[24] So wu wei, non-action, is in fact wei wu wei ???: it is active non action. In this case, to do non-action will bring about that everything will be well-ordered. Thus, instead of meaning that we do absolutely nothing, it means that we do it non-coercively, let things go without forcing them, follow the natural inclinations. This comes through clearer in a later section: “Dao (the world-process) never does anything (coercively), and yet nothing is left undone” (dao chang wu wei er wu bu wei ????????).[25]

So we can produce a more refined translation of the non-self passage in the Zhuangzi on the basis of this word play from the Daodejing: “The highest man is without self, and yet there is nothing of himself that is not there” (wu ji er wu bu ji ??????). He is entirely focussed on his task. No self is full self. Similarly, the spiritual person does not act out of a wish to effect great accomplishments, and yet this is precisely what he does; and the sagely person does not act out of consideration of achieving fame, and yet she acquires fame. The conjunctive er ?, which I have translated as ‘and yet’, could also be understood semi-causally so that it is precisely because of their selfless motivations that they are so effective in their actions.

An intriguing model of this self-forgetting for Zhuangzi is the drunk person:

If a drunk falls from a carriage, even if it is going very fast, he will not die. His bones and joints are the same as those of other people, but the injuries he receives are different. It‘s because his spirit is whole. He was not aware of getting into the carriage, nor was he aware of falling out of it. Life and death, alarm and fear do not enter his breast. Therefore, he confronts things without apprehension. If someone who has gotten his wholeness from wine is like this, how much more so would one be who gets his wholeness from heaven![26]

The integrity, fullness or completeness of his spirit prevents the drunk from suffering serious harm. Consciousness, on the other hand, splits us up and distracts us. Zhuangzi is not suggesting a kind of Dionysian lifestyle of constant drunkenness, however tempting it may be to interpret him as such. The drunk is merely an indicative model. The Daoist classics are full of stories about skillful individuals, butchers, bell-makers and carpenters whose art consists in letting go of their self, though only after having received sufficient training. The ability to do something well depends significantly on the degree to which one can keep one’s mind together, focus on the task at hand and forget about everything else, not least about others and their judgment.

For the skill of fluency, of fulfilling the task, is also inhibited by concerns about the assessment of the audience, of the others, of something outside of us. As it says in the Liezi, a work dating back to about 3rd century BCE:

Gamble for tiles, and you play skilfully; for the clasp of your belt, and you lose confidence; for gold, and you get flustered. You have not lost your skill; but if you hold yourself back, you give weight to something outside you; and whoever does that is inwardly clumsy.[27]

The inhibiting factor is consciousness. As A.C. Graham says in his introductory remarks in the Liezi, “it is especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself … One whose mind is a pure mirror of his situation, unaware of himself and therefore making no distinction between advantage and danger, will act with absolute assurance, and nothing will stand in his way.”[28]

The Liezi often speaks of a sage who has broken through the conventional analytical means of assessing the world: “his eyes became like his ears, his ears like his nose, his nose like his mouth”. The strict use of the various senses is bypassed, implying some kind of instinctual wisdom, perhaps a sixth sense, whose communication appears incommensurable to conventional logic.

Other models of emulation are animals, the infant or even the fool, as described in the Daodejing:

The multitude are happy, happy … I alone am impassive, revealing nothing at all, like a baby that has not yet learned to smile, so listless, as though nowhere to go; the multitude all have more than enough, I alone seem to be in want; I have the heart-and-mind of a fool – so vacant and dull.[29]

Even Confucianism regards the highest cultivation as characterized by the absence of conscious thinking and the ability to respond spontaneously to circumstances in an appropriate manner. Selfhood with all the concentration it requires is overcome, as expressed for instance by Confucius himself:

The Master said: ‘When I was fifteen, my heart was set on learning; at thirty, I took my stance; at forty, I was no longer perplexed; at fifty, I had realized the heavenly forces of circumstance; at sixty, my ear was attuned; at seventy, I could give my thoughts and feelings free rein without overstepping the boundaries.’[30]

At the highest point of his personal development, Confucius could let go of his thoughts and feelings without any rational calculation. He simply knew instinctually, as it were, and not unlike animals, what is the best thing to do.

4. Concluding Remarks

The point made by the Chinese thinkers is that a true self is most efficient in its absence. The more it has been overcome, the better it functions in the moral realm. In this sense the ancient Chinese approach to morality is comparable to Chinese medicine: the aim is to secure a harmonious situation for the whole, a situation that is precisely destroyed by egocentrism. Consider this traditional Chinese story of Bian Que, a doctor in the Warring States period (5th-3rd c. BCE) who was renowned for his ability to heal even the most deadly disease. He was asked by the King of Wei why he was so much better than his two brothers who also happened to be doctors. He responded as follows:

My first brother heals sickness before it even develops, so his methods appear hidden, his science art and he is known only within our village.

My second brother deals with illnesses while they are minor, preventing sickness from getting worse and returning the body to health.

I deal with sicknesses when they have reached the level of disease and threaten to destroy the organism of which they are a part. This requires numerous medicines, and skill and knowledge in their use. For this reason my name has become famous throughout the kingdom and I have been asked to be physician to the king, yet my first brother has the knowledge to deal with sicknesses before they arise and my second brother is able to treat them at an early stage and prevent them getting worse. Though my fame has spread throughout the land, their knowledge is greater.[31]

In like manner, the most efficient ‘ethicist’ in classical Chinese thought is one who does what she does without anyone noticing. She aims at securing harmony within a group, at the prevention of moral problems, and when she excels in her performance she manages to prevent difficulties before they even develop, and no one ever knows that they could have arisen:

It is easy to maintain a situation while it is still secure;

It is easy to deal with a situation before symptoms develop;

It is easy to break a thing when it is yet brittle;

It is easy to dissolve a thing when it is yet minute.

Deal with a thing while it is still nothing;

Keep a thing in order before disorder sets in.[32]

By the same token, the best generals, according to Sunzi, are those who “subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all”.[33] But these excellent generals may be quite unknown, as they have never engaged in battle.

Western ethics, on the other hand, is parallel to Western medicine in the sense that it tends to wait until problems emerge, and only then aims at eliminating them. The strengths of Western surgical medicine is the ability to isolate the issue in question and carry out the rational, methodological procedure necessary to cut through it. Western ethics essentially does the same by focussing first and foremost on particular moral dilemmas and the correct or just resolution of them. It is an individualist rights-based approach to morality taking for granted an unequivocally ‘true’ outcome of the issue, virtually as if it were a mathematical, or indeed, a physiological problem. In order for such an approach to be viable, self-consciousness, the enhancement of rational evaluation and in some cases calculation, is inescapable and necessary. Western ethics is not satisfied with merely ‘sensing’ the situation, but demands rational articulation of the moral issues in question, and their rigorous, logical and conscious resolution.[34] “The focus is on the principles, or injunctions, or standards which guide action, while visions of the good are altogether neglected.”[35] Thus, it may miss the big picture, so that when it cuts off one head, two may grow in its stead. And this cultural requirement of enhanced focus on one’s ego comes with a price and may be something of a vicious circle, for it also produces psychological pain and existential issues that may in fact lead to increased ‘immorality’, for harm done to others is not seldom due to the agent’s own affliction and distress.

The strength of Western ethics, however, should certainly not be understated. It presides over the ability to identify in a reasonably ‘objective’ manner who is in the wrong and who in the right in each case, and hence adept in protecting the rights and interests of an individual who is, at least in principle, regarded as being on equal footing with everyone else. Certainly, cultural, political and personal factors can and often do cloud the issue, but in this respect it is undeniably superior to the East-Asian approach, which tends to be rather poor at protecting the particular interests of the individual and may even be disposed to sacrifice them for the sake of social stability or, as it is often euphemistically called, ‘harmony’.

Another weakness of the East-Asian model regards the main issue of this paper: the tendency to selflessness. In certain circumstances such a disposition may be quite unhelpful, even harmful, and could be compared with Hannah Arendt’s well-known notion of the ‘banality of evil’. Adolf Eichmann was, one could argue, a ‘selfless’ individual. He simply followed orders. But his ‘selflessness’ involved a lack of thinking, empathy, of humanness. Perhaps the same applies to the Japanese occupying forces in China, Korea and other Asian countries during World War II who treated the peoples of these areas with inhumane brutality. And perhaps it applies to Mao Zedong’s provincial cadres during the Great Leap Forward in 1958-1960 who did nothing to prevent a famine in which up to 30 million people died. And it may even apply to those who assisted the genocidal Khmere Rouge regime in Cambodia during the 1970s. We may also turn the issue around, as Arendt did in her time, and find fault with the ‘selflessness’ of all these victims themselves, who arguably could have done more to resist the injustice brought against them.[36]

Nevertheless, while a more analytical focus on the self and individual actions may be needed in the East-Asian model, the Western approach could also do with more holistic and preventive considerations that would serve to expand the rather myopic individual vision still dominant today. Considering the spread of Western ethical approaches in East-Asian academia, it seems that the former process is already taking place, perhaps even going too far. The question, however, is whether contemporary Euro-Americans are ready to take a step towards the latter. If they are, I fear that those in the forefront will not be academics.


Ames, Roger T. Confucian Role Ethics. A Vocabulary. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2011.

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Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press, 1963. [Online]. Available at

Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi]. Wandering on the Way. Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. Translated by Victor H. Mair. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Cioran, Emil. Tears and Saints. Translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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Galtung, Johan, Carl G. Jacobsen and Kai Frithjof Brand Jacobsen. Searching for Peace: The Road to TRANSCEND. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Johnson, Thomas H. (ed.). The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Vol. III. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht. In Akademie Textausgabe. Vol. VII. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968.

Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der Urteilskraft. In Akademie Textausgabe. Vol. V. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968.

Köller, Wilhelm. Perspektivität und Sprache. Zur Struktur von Objektivierungsformen in Bildern, im Denken und in der Sprache. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

Lieh-Tzu [Liezi]. The Book of Lieh-Tzu. A Classic of Tao. Translated by A.C. Graham. London: Mandala, 1991.

Mill, John Stuart. “Bentham”. In Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Vol. 10. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2006. Pp. 75-115.

Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism”. In Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Vol. 10. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2006. Pp. 203-259.

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Scheler, Max. Philosophische Weltanschauung. München: Lehnen Verlag, 1954.

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Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Wohlfart, Günter. Die Kunst des Lebens und andere Künste. Skurrile Skizzen zu einem euro-daoistischen Ethos ohne Moral. Berlin: Parerga, 2005.

[1] Roger T. Ames, Confucian Role Ethics. A Vocabulary (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2011), p. 23.

[2] Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), The Poems of Emily Dickinson, vol. III (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963).

[3] Cf. e.g. Plato‘s Charmides, 166c-e.

[4] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 117.

[5] Though this is not altogether certain. As applies to probably all religions (and ethical philosophies), the Christian teaching certainly seeks to reduce self-centered behaviour. But this is not the point. The practical effects of worship and the strict emphasis on personal sin are quite capable of ‘internalizing’ the believer’s vision in such a way that later cultural manifestations display an intensified accentuation on self-interest and even egotism. This is for instance argued by Friedrich Nietzsche in many of his writings, perhaps most notably in The Geneology of Morality, and by Max Weber in his classic and compelling analysis of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. These complex cases of civilizational analysis cannot be addressed here, but one may also point to Charles Taylor’s compelling thesis that the combination of Christian thinking and modern rational scientific approaches actually served to underscore the (European) human being’s self-love. Cf. Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. 234ff.

[6] Ibid, p. 143.

[7] Wilhelm Köller, Perspektivität und Sprache. Zur Struktur von Objektivierungsformen in Bildern, im Denken und in der Sprache (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), p. 584.

[8] Cf. John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism”, in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 10 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2006), p. 213. It is true that Mill criticized his predecessor and founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, for a simplified view of nature and for “supposing that the business part of human affairs was the whole of them; all at least that the legislator and the moralist had to do with.” Mill, “Bentham”, Collected Works, vol. 10, p. 100. Mill himself had a more complex and pluralist view. However, the approach of Mill’s Utilitarianism is still one in which the subject’s rational calculation is first and foremost intended to establish the goodness and badness of isolated, individual actions. Cf. Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. 83-86.

[9] Max Stirner. Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (Leipzig: Zenith Verlag/Erich Stolpe, 1927), p. 8.

[10] Cf. Sigmund Freud, “Das Ich und das Es”, Gesammelte Werke XIII (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940), pp. 252ff.

[11] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Akademie Textausgabe, vol. V (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), §29, p. 271.

[12] Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht, Akademie Textausgabe, vol. VII (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), §61, p. 233.

[13] Max Scheler, Philosophische Weltanschauung (München: Lehnen Verlag, 1954), p. 80.

[14] Ibid. An intriguingly similar view is expressed in the Daoist classic Liezi: “Yang Zhu said: Man resembles the other species between heaven and earth, and like them owes his nature to the Five Elements. He is the most intelligent of living things. But in man, nails and teeth are not strong enough to provide defence, skin and flesh are too soft for protection; he cannot run fast enough to escape danger, and he lacks fur and feathers to ward off heat and cold. He must depend on other things in order to tend his nature, must trust in knowledge and not rely on force. Hence the most valuable use of knowledge is for self-preservation, while the most ignoble use of force is to attack others.“ Lieh-Tzu [Liezi], The Book of Lieh-Tzu. A Classic of Tao, transl. A.C. Graham (London: Mandala, 1991), book 7, p. 153.

[15] Cf. Geir Sigurðsson, “In Praise of Illusions. Giacomo Leopardi‘s Ultraphilosophy”, Nordicum-Meditteraneum, vol. 5, no. 1 (2010).

[16] Emil Cioran, Tears and Saints, transl. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 102.

[17] Thus, the rationalizing focus on self with all its agonly is largely a modern manifestation. In ancient Greek thought, notably in Aristotle’s social philosophy, it is mostly absent. However, a strong indication of the Platonic heritage is quite present in Aristotle‘s ambivalence as to whether the good life ought to be pursued in social activities or in individual contemplation.

[18] Some recent titles suffice to illustrate this: In the Meantime: Finding Yourself and the Love You Want (1999), Bliss: Writing to Find Your True Self (1999), Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self (2000), The Courage to Be Yourself: A Woman‘s Guide to Emotional Strength and Self-Esteem (2001), Heal Your Wounds and Find Your True Self: Finally a Book that Explains Why it‘s so Hard Being Yourself (2002), Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside Out (2003), Know Thyself: The Stress Release Programme (2006), The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self (2006), A Weekend to Change Your Life: Find Your Authentic Self after a Lifetime of Being All Things to All People (2007), Heal Your Self – A Journey to Find YOU (2008), Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self (2008), Coming Home to Your True Self: Leaving the Emptiness of False Attractions (2008), True Self (2010), The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Hidden Power of Your True Self (2011), Soul Coaching: 28 Days to Discover Your Authentic Self (2011), Know Thyself (2011), Know Thyself – A Guided Journey to Self and Unlocking the Powers Within (2012), Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (2013).

[19] This is not meant to imply that the Chinese philosophical traditions, let alone Chinese culture, is identical or even interchangable in this or any other respect with the traditions found in, say, Korea and Japan. But while both Korean and Japanese societies certainly have their own particular national and cultural character, they received considerable philosophical, religious and cultural influence from China, in many cases developing the original sources of these influences much further than was ever to take place in China. It can be reasonably taken for granted that the classical Chinese philosophical insights presented in this discussion are to a greater or lesser extent shared by both Korean and Japanese cultures.

[20] Cf. The Analects of Confucius. A Philosophical Translation, transl. Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), e.g. 4.11 and 4.16.

[21] Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi], Wandering on the Way. Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, transl. Victor H. Mair (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1998), 1.1, p. 5. For the convenience of readers, all references to Chinese philosophical classics are to available and authoritative English translations.

[22] Cf. Günter Wohlfart, Die Kunst des Lebens und andere Künste. Skurrile Skizzen zu einem euro-daoistischen Ethos ohne Moral (Berlin: Parerga, 2005), pp. 214f.

[23] Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi], 1.1, p. 6.

[24] Tao Te Ching [Daodejing], transl. D.C. Lau (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1989), ch. 3, p. 7.

[25] Ibid, ch. 37, p. 55.

[26] Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi], 19.2, p. 176. The same reflection appears in Lieh-Tzu [Liezi], book 2, p. 38.

[27] Lieh-Tzu [Liezi], book 2, pp. 43-4.

[28] A.C. Graham‘s introduction in Lieh-Tzu [Liezi], p. 32.

[29] Tao Te Ching [Daodejing], ch. 20, p. 31.

[30] The Analects of Confucius, 2.4.

[31] Cf. Johan Galtung, Carl G. Jacobsen and Kai Frithjof Brand Jacobsen, Searching for Peace: The Road to TRANSCEND (London: Pluto Press, 2000), p. 84.

[32] Tao Te Ching [Daodejing], ch. 64, pp. 93f.

[33] Sun-tzu [Sunzi], The Art of Warfare, transl. Roger T. Ames (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), ch. 3, p. 111.

[34] This may be changing. Some recent strands of Western ethics, such as ethics of care, emphasize the use of emotions and feeling rather than rationality and logical analysis. And it is of course true that through the ages many Western thinkers have proposed a more ‘feeling-based’ alternative to the classic rational orientation. But as throughout this paper, I am here describing the mainstream tendency.

[35] Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 84.

[36] While Arendt‘s coinage of the ‘banality of evil’ is without doubt the most significant legacy of her analysis of the Holocaust, her most controversial claim at the time was that the widespread cooperation of Jewish leadership with the Nazis in the occupied areas of Europe may have aggravated the situation and served to increase the Jewish death toll. She makes no attempt to explain why this was the case, and simply states briefly that it took place “in one way or another, for one reason or another”. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. 61. However, she combines this issue with the question, which she claims (ibid, p. 7) is of “greater import”: “Why did [the Jews] go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?“ Though nowhere said explicitly, Arendt seems to indicate that a ‘selfless’ tendency to make the best of the (miserable) situation instead of overturning it may have been involved. The same could probably be said of many of the horrors experienced by East- and Southeast-Asians in the twentieth century and beyond.

Ingerid S. Straume (ed.), Danningens filosofihistorie (Oslo: Gyldendal Akademisk, 2013)

Bildung is not easily defined; it may even be among our most evasive and complex philosophical terms, both because of its inescapable historicity and cultural contingency, but also due to the scope of its conceptual relevance. We could say that it designates the process of ‘civilization’ or ‘humanization,’ of becoming a human being, and therefore encompasses pedagogy, education and maturation without being reducible to any of these. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for instance, understands Bildung as an ‘aesthetic’ process in which the individual acquires a profound ‘sense’ (Sinn) for one’s social and ethical environment by nurturing such qualities as taste, judgment, and tact that tend to be all but ignored in Western discourse on the grounds of their ostensible lack of ‘objectivity.’ Others take different approaches and have different foci while they may still be dealing with Bildung.

As Straume explains in her informative and accessible introduction, the philosophy of Bildung has had considerable and lasting impact on the education systems and ideals in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In contrast to Germany, where it gradually came to be associated with a certain elite, and later may even have degenerated into a superficial and uncritical ‘snobbery’ that was eventually incapable of resisting the takeover of political extremes, the Scandinavian version revolved around universal ‘folkedanning’ or ‘public education’ and was closely associated with the ideals of a democratic society. It is well worth asking whether the emergence of these peaceful, prosperous welfare societies may owe more to the specific development of the Bildung philosophy than usually held, and, alas, whether we may currently be witnessing the erosion of its ideals by narrower and more self-centered values and considerations in the political, social and not least economic arenas. At least it can be stated with certainty that if Bildung ever had any impact in Iceland, arguably a part of cultural Scandinavia, that impact seems all but lost in the present.

Straume explains that there is no English word for Bildung (danning). While this is for the most part correct, the word ‘edification,’ used for instance by Richard Rorty, may by now have become an adequate designator. But the historical lack of a clearly equivalent term in English – or French, or in most other languages for that matter, including Icelandic – has the consequence that a selection of topics and thinkers that are to constitute the ‘history of the philosophy of Bildung’ is subject to debate. From one point of view, Bildung refers to the particular tradition of thought that began with Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt and was further developed in German idealism by Hegel and the hermeneutical and phenomenological disciplines. From another, however, many of the implications involved in the concept of Bildung are present in most if not all streams of thought dealing with pedagogy and the philosophy of education. The volume under review is undeniably, and perhaps inescapably, strained by this ambivalence. For those leaning to the former understanding of Bildung, the selection of thinkers and periods may appear too broad and some sections somewhat out of place. And those leaning to the second may find that other topics should have been covered. Be that as it may, putting together a volume on this important and fascinating topic will always be a complex and formidable task which is certain not to satisfy all readers. In the opinion of this reviewer, however, the selection has been largely successful. By introducing various ways of thinking in history that could be subsumed under a philosophy of Bildung, the volume is intended first and foremost as a textbook for teaching, but should also be of value to the general reader who seeks to gain an overview. The editor further deserves credit for including sections on non-Western approaches such as Confucianism and Islam, thus introducing to Western readers divergent approaches that ought to be able to stimulate fresh views on what it means to be an educated, civilized or ‘gebildet’ human being.

Most sections are well composed, organized and lucid. They are written in altogether three different languages, Norwegian Bokmål, Norwegian Nynorsk and Danish, which, however, should present no obstacles to readers of the Scandinavian languages. The editor has made a surprisingly successful effort to ensure that the length of each section is more or less the same, around 10-12 pages, which makes the book ideal for teaching. Due to the brevity of the sections, however, they are necessarily condensed, and will lend themselves to being picked at for their omissions. The following are some brief suggestions that could serve to improve later editions of the book.

The section on Confucianism is clear, informative and surprisingly comprehensive, but seems to rely excessively on an Aristotelian ‘virtue ethics’ reading of Confucianism in its rather artificially (or Occidentally) systematic presentation of the Confucian ‘virtues’ (de). It is regrettable that it leaves out the demands on the individual practitioner of self-cultivation to come up with creative responses to new social circumstances, especially in the practice of li. For it is precisely these that most prominently constitute the self-reflective aspect of the Bildung-process in the Confucian view of education. Furthermore, considering the inclusion of Confucianism in the volume, one may wonder whether other Asian approaches, say, for instance, the Buddhist self-cultivational quest for eliminating ignorance (avidya), should not deserve to be included as well.

While Kant’s epistemology and ethics are certainly important for an understanding of his overall project, it would have been useful to consider as well his attempts to systematize his entire philosophy in a comprehensive whole from a Bildung-perspective. These are evident in the latter half of his Critique of Pure Reason as well as in his discussions of pedagogy, history and Enlightenment. The author certainly makes reference to some of these, but perhaps they should have been pulled more to the forefront. As a point of comparison, the author of the section on John Rawls does well to explicate the all-too often ignored second part of his A Theory of Justice, which is revelatory for the ultimate purpose of his well-known but not always well-appreciated concepts of ‘original position’ and ‘veil of ignorance’. In a similar fashion, the elements of Kant’s elaborate philosophy can similarly be made more meaningful by contextualizing them within his philosophical framework – or architechtonic – from the perspective of Bildung. It is readily admitted, however, that composing such a synthesizing account in 10-12 pages is easier said than done.

The section on Hegel would have profited from a somewhat more elaborate discussion of his specific understanding of ‘experience’ (Erfahrung). It had considerable influence on Bildung-thinkers such as Dilthey, Dewey, Gadamer and Habermas, and is, as a matter of fact, treated in some detail in the section on Habermas. Experience for Hegel is really a formative kind of experience. The subject’s transformation to self-reflection, its ‘reversal of consciousness,’ when exposed to objects of the world and other subjects is a vital factor in enabling and initiating the Bildung-process. A more striking omission, however, is the notion of ‘growth’ in the section on John Dewey, while it receives some discussion in the one on Rorty. In Dewey’s terms, growth could be said to be the outcome of the civilizing process. But the aim of growth is simply more growth. It enables the individual in question to continuously expand on his or her experience and apprehension of the world and make it more sophisticated and open to other and novel experiences. Dewey’s notion of growth makes it all the more easy to appreciate his visions of a civilizing process towards the necessarily non-specified aim of a flourishing humanity.

But all this is nitpicking for the sake of academic discourse and primarily intended to be enriching. The editor and contributors should be commended for a bold but successful project that should serve to keep alive a certain family of ideas belonging to humanity’s most ambitious and lofty, yet realizable, ideals. Their survival can only depend on accessible publications such as this one, and, of course, on those of us who make use of them.

In Praise of Illusions: Giacomo Leopardi‘s Ultraphilosophy


Romanticism was largely a reaction to the rational and materialist pursuit of modern science and the secularism of the Enlightenment philosophy. In Germany, a number of Romantic poets rejected Immanuel Kant‘s vision of art as being governed by reason, and rather saw art as juxtaposed with nature as a second language communicated by God to the human being. In this way, however, they also joined forces with science and philosophy by attempting to comprehend being, albeit through different means. The ‘productive imagination’, a notion originally coined by Kant in his Kritik der Urteilskraft, was conceived as a basic power of all creative potencies. It was held to simultaneously beget and behold, and that its beheld ideas were no arbitrary occurrences within the subjective mind, but revelations of nature, of the first cause of existence, of the world-spirit, of God. Novalis, for example, saw this task of realizing ideas as connecting the philosopher and the poet: the former works with concepts, the latter with symbols and signs. Both Novalis and Friedrich von Schlegel speak of philosophical or transcendental poetry which they see as necessary in the time of German Idealism.[1] From this point of view, art does not constitute an isolated sphere, but promises on the contrary a profound kind of knowledge and understanding. Friedrich Schelling went so far as to regard art as the organ of the absolute, in which “the invisible barrier separating the real and the ideal world is raised.”[2] For the Romantics, then, art became Kant’s ‘intellectual intuition’. This was a complete break from the Platonic view of art as identified with lies and deceptions – art now became the organ of absolute truth.

At the same time in Italy, however, Romanticism did not find much fertile ground in which to sow its seeds. On the contrary, it rather sowed seeds of distrust in the Italian mind. There were in particular two reasons for this. Firstly, Romanticism introduced a radically novel kind of poetry that both implicitly and explicitly threatened the Latin classicist tradition. The Italian classicists, who found their artistic ideals in the mythological language of Cicero, Horace and Virgil, reacted furiously to to this new foreign movement that now provoked both the structure and the content of both classical poetry and thought. Secondly, however, its “barbaric Anglo-Teutonic” and Protestant origin aroused suspicion and aversion in Catholic Italy, not because the Italians were all rigorously Catholic (in fact, many had turned away from Christianity), but because Protestantism was decisively renounced as if by instinct. Outcries were frequent against the Gothic, the Nordic, and Romantic literature, as well as against the despotism of “the Huns, the Goths and the Vandals”.[3]

Leopardi’s reaction to Romanticism, as well as the German, including the Kantian, philosophy, certainly contains elements of the general tone of protest in Italy as depicted above. However, his responses differ from the mainstream due to his own rather idiosyncratic philosophy. He provides an anthropological explanation of Romanticism and German philosophy as distinctive expressions of Nordic culture, concentrating on physical factors as being the determinants of the general Nordic character. His attitude to German philosophy, moreover, is complex. On the one hand he decisively rejects it, but on the other he expresses his admiration. This may seem paradoxical but will be elucidated in the following. In the first part of this essay, however, I will discuss Leopardi’s main existential perspective as well as his rather bleak view of modernity, scientific progress and the Enlightenment philosophy of the eighteenth century.

Leopardi was concerned about the consequences of modernity for human life. He strove to find ways to bridge the abyss separating the old and the new order of Western society and thought. This is summed up rather neatly by Antonio Gramsci:

In Leopardi one finds, in an extremely dramatic form, the crisis of transition towards modern man; the critical abandonment of the old transcendental conception but not as yet the finding of the new moral and intellectual ubi consistam which would give the same certainty as the jettisoned faith…[4]

Scientific progress and rationalization had undermined both religious faith and any kind of foundation attempting to ground a metaphysical significance of human life. According to Leopardi, the universe emerging from this development turns out to be mechanistic, material and deterministic. Influenced by French materialist thinkers such as Julien Offray de la Mettrie and Paul-Henri Baron d’Holbach, he conceives of all phenomena, including the human being, as connected blindly in an endless chain of cause and effect according to which they will all be destroyed and their substance amalgamate into other beings. In Leopardi’s “Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander”, the wretched Icelander who travels all over the world only to find a spot where he can be free from pain and suffering, gets to hear this harsh truth about the world from Mother Nature herself:

You plainly show that you have not realized that the life of the universe is a perpetual circle of production and destruction, both linked to each other in such a way that each of them constantly serves the other, and is necessary to conserve the existence of the world; which, if either of them should fail, would swiftly be dissolved. Thus, if anything within the world were free from suffering, the world itself would be harmed.[5]

As Gramsci notes, Leopardi represents the emotional shock in Western culture brought about by a new level of understanding that undermines meaning in an existence that now presents itself as being merely contingent. Leopardi accepted this new understanding and consequently renounced Christianity to take up a radical kind of materialistic atheism, yet dedicated his life to find a remedy for the existential evil of modernity.

In this endeavour, Leopardi adopted a stance to life that could be termed eudamonistic.  He identifies happiness as the sole aim of human life. As with the utilitarian thinkers, he further identifies happiness with pleasures, and regards pleasures as both sufficient and necessary means to obtain happiness. However, ‘pleasures’ in his understanding of the term do not explicitly refer to sentiments, but is a catch-all word for everything actually desired by living beings.[6]

Leopardi further states that the human being’s desire for pleasure, and thus for happiness, is a natural instinct. Just as all sentient creatures, human beings are self-loving beings. This merely means that they want to fulfil their desires since they believe that the objects of their desires would lead to happiness, for otherwise they would not be desired at all. From self-love also emanates the tendency to self-preservation, or, in other words, the love of life. But since the love of life emanates from the love of self, and is therefore a secondary derivation from human beings’ instinctual gratification through pleasure, the object of their love is not life as such, but the happiness for which life is an indispensable condition and instrument: “a happy life would undoubtedly be good; but as ‘happy’, not as ‘life’. An unhappy life, for the very reason of being unhappy, is evil.”[7]

The problem with the desire for pleasure is that it is unlimited, because it is not a desire for specific concrete pleasures but for the pleasure, an abstract, absolute, infinite, unlimited pleasure. The existential problem in human living emerges in the actual desire for particular existent pleasures, for these are all finite and thus cannot satisfy the desire for the infinite. Leopardi illustrates this with the following example:

If you desire to possess a horse, it seems to you that you desire it as a horse and as a particular pleasure. But in fact you desire it as an abstract and unlimited pleasure. When you then find yourself in possession of the horse, you encounter a pleasure that is necessarily restricted, and, because of the unsatisfied state of your actual desire, you sense a feeling of emptiness in your soul. And even if it were possible to satisfy it in terms of extension, it would be impossible in terms of duration, because the nature of things also commands that nothing is eternal.[8]

Pleasures accessible to the human being are therefore all limited both in time and space, whereas the desire for pleasure is without limits in either dimension. Failing to find its end in any of the finite pleasures of the world, the desire is condemned to remain in a state of unfulfilment until it is terminated altogether as life itself comes to an end. This is the core of Leopardi’s pessimistic view of human life: the inability of innate natural desire to reach the infinite climax in finite terrestrial reality causes life to be an essential misery.

But in what sense is this a particular characteristic of modernity? Leopardi follows, to some extent, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view of the human being’s corruption and alienation from nature. From Leopardi’s point of view, it especially has to do with the thirst for and acquisition of knowledge:

I believe that within the natural order, the human being can be happy also in this world, provided that he lives according to nature and like animals, that is, without grand or unique or vivid pleasures, but in a more or less constantly equal and temperate state of happiness… But I do not believe that we are any longer capable of this sort of happiness after having acquired knowledge of the vanity of all things and of the illusions as well as of the nothingness of the natural pleasures themselves, which is something that we were not even supposed to suspect.[9]

It is, in other words, the realization, the knowledge, of the nullity of things that constitutes the human being’s corruption. The conscious awareness of the natural contradiction that nature lacks the capacity to satisfy the human being’s desires adds to his unhappiness to such an extent that life becomes unbearable. When this realization becomes ascendant in someone’s mind, that person will find himself in the terrifying state of boredom, or noia. Leopardi’s complex notion of boredom seems close to what is usually termed nihilism. Psychologically, boredom comes to the fore when someone becomes fully cognizant of the futility of the innate desire for pleasure and thus sterilizes it. The desire is fully present, and above all sensed, but it is sensed as a desire detached from its objects, because the subject knows that these cannot be reached, and therefore renounces them.

Leopardi attributes this unhappy state to the development of human rationality. Not that reason as such is evil, but it has crossed the borders within which it can function as a useful and, indeed, necessary tool for the human being, and thereby changed into a rather different entity to which Leopardi refers as acquired or unnatural reason. The original ‘primitive’ reason fully conforms with nature in mediating between premises and conclusions by means of simple but crucial judgments. If I experience hunger and feel inclination toward food, ‘primitive’ reason draws the conclusion from these premises that food is something good. It therefore makes value-judgments, or, as Leopardi puts it, beliefs (credenze), without which the human being would be unable to remain alive.[10] Thus, the human being in a state of nature makes perfectly rational judgments. However, such reasoning is not exclusively human. Every animal makes comparable kinds of judgment, relative only to itself and its own well-being. As long as reason’s function is limited in this way, to merely making judgments relative to the interests of those it serves, it promotes life according to nature, or a happy life. However, as soon as it transcends this simple function, it begins to be harmful:

Human beings, and, proportionately, animals, are rational by nature. I therefore do not condemn reason to the degree that it is a natural quality and essential for life, but only to the degree … that it grows and modifies in a way to become the principal obstacle to our happiness, instrument of unhappiness, enemy of the other natural qualities … belonging to human being and human life.[11]

This acquired kind of reason is a corrupt kind of reason that will not limit itself to fulfil the modest task assigned to it by nature, but begins to aspire to truths in conformity to itself, that is to say, truths independent of the relative needs of living beings and the utility for their lives. Instead of being satisfied with subjective beliefs, this developed kind of reason aims at objectivity and absolute truths. Leopardi often identifies this reason with the analytical, calculative and scientific raison of the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy: it is the instrumental reason of progress and development, of accumulated truths, and of the identification of the true with the good. For the human being, the evil consequences of this reason derive from its aspiration to absolute truth, for such can never be found. The only truths that can be found, according to Leopardi, are those derived at by ‘primitive’ reason in order to serve the interests of the living being in question. For anything resembling absolute truth would require knowledge of all the relations of that truth with other truths. Nothing can be known as such, or in itself, for nature or existence is a system in which things only manifest themselves relative to other things. Therefore, since

…it can be said that we cannot know any truth perfectly, however insignificant, isolated or particular it may seem, as long as we do not know perfectly all its relations with all the subsistent truths, [we can just as well] say that no truth (however minimal, however evident, clear and simple) has ever been or will ever be perfectly and entirely known from all sides.[12]

This would seem to imply epistemological relativism, and in another passage Leopardi explicitly confirms it:

It is said that every proposition has two aspects whence it is deduced that every truth is relative. But let us note that every proposition, every theorem, every object of speculation, every single thing has not only two but infinite faces, from the point of view of each of which one can consider, contemplate, demonstrate and believe with reason and truth… And anything can be affirmed, and also denied, about every single thing; which demonstrates most vividly and directly that there is no absolute truth.[13]

Given this incommensurable antagonism between nature’s relativity and reason’s aspiration to non-relative unconditioned truths, reason is doomed to failure, resulting in two interrelated and deplorable consequences for the human being.

First, the further reason travels through the universe the more worlds it discovers, demonstrating the smallness and insignificance of the human being. For instance, when Copernicus disclosed an apparent infinity of worlds functioning in much the same way as our own, he “debased the idea of the human being”[14] by depriving him of his former uniqueness as a focus of the universe. Secondly, however, and more importantly, since reason cannot function ‘positively’ by discovering absolute truths, it can only function ‘negatively’, that is, by eliminating prior errors. Even the truths that it conceives of having discovered are later refuted by itself. Thus, great discoveries are nothing but discoveries of great errors. The same applies to the modern (eighteenth century) philosophical ideas themselves:

Modern philosophy affirms that all ideas held by the human being proceed from the senses. This may seem a positive proposition. But it would be frivolous without the prior error of innate ideas, just as it would be frivolous to affirm that the sun heats, because no one has believed that the sun does not heat, nor affirmed that the sun cooled. Rather, the intention and the spirit of the proposition that all our ideas come from the senses is really negative, and the proposition is as if one said: the human being does not receive any idea other than by means of the senses…[15]

In this way, reason has become a sort of inquisition against errors and superstitions that were previously held to be truths. This negativity of reason entails that the progress it claims to uphold is itself purely negative:

It is true that the progress of the human spirit consists, and hitherto consisted, not in learning but principally in unlearning … in realizing that the human being always knows less, in diminishing the number of cognitions, and restricting the vastness of the human sciences. This is truly the spirit and the principal substance of our progress from the eighteenth century until now, even though not everyone, indeed not many, have come to this realization.[16]

Through its desctruction of the illusions of antiquity, this regress, usually termed progress, has gradually brought about the realization of the nothingness of the world. Not that the things that exist are nothing, for in one sense they are something by virtue of existing. But for human desire that can only be satisfied with infinity, all the things and pleasures that exist, are, because of their finitude and transience, as good as nothing. “In this way, they are nothing to the human being’s happiness, while not being nothing in themselves.”[17] Only the illusions have been able to deceive the human being by giving the appearance of infinity and eternity, and thus make him retain a belief in a meaningful world in which he takes passionate interest.

In this very same process, Christianity, itself a philosophical empire basing itself on the domination of reason over nature, of the spirit over the body, played a crucial role by destroying the beliefs and illusions of antiquity. Now another philosophical empire, namely the rational empiricism of the eighteenth century, is conquering Christianity. The last chain in the sequence has been broken and the world stands there in its meaningless nudity. Half a century before Nietzsche, Leopardi decisively declares God’s death:

It is clear that the destruction of the innate ideas destroys the principle of the good, beauty, absolute perfection, and their contraries. This applies to perfection, etc., which would have a foundation, a reason, a form anterior to the existence of the subjects containing it, and would therefore be eternal, immutable, necessary, primordial and existing prior to these subjects, as well as being independent of them. Now where does this reason, this form, exist? And in what does in consist? And how can we know and recognize it if every idea derives from sensations relative to only existing objects? To suppose the absolute beautiful and good is to return to Platonic ideas, and to revive innate ideas after having destroyed them. Since these have been removed, there is no other possible reason for things having absolutely, abstractly and necessarily to be as they are … [except] every factual thing, which in reality is the only reason for everything, and is thus always and solely relative. Thus nothing is good, beautiful, true, bad, ugly or false, if not relatively; and therefore, the correlation between things is, so to speak, absolutely relative… It is certain that when the Platonic forms pre-existent to things are destroyed, God is destroyed.[18]


By claiming art to be the potential solution to the problems of modernity, Leopardi certainly incorporates a Romantic tendency. But he severely criticizes the Romantic outlook, and his criticism is in line with the contrast that he sees between reason and nature. By having explained its occurrences, reason has deprived nature of its previously held mysterious qualities and, instead, reduced it to mere mechanical laws. Having been disenchanted in this manner, nature is now unable to concede the pleasures that it offered so spontaneously before. This radical transformation, however, is not a transformation having taken place in nature, but in the human being. Given that the ancients, with all their ignorance of the workings of nature, gained pleasure from poetry, Leopardi insists that we should concentrate on and investigate their methods of drawing from nature all the pleasure emanating from its imitation. For, as he says, “the beauties of nature … do not change with the changes of those who observe them…”, in fact, “no mutation of human beings ever induces an alteration in nature…” Therefore, since “nature does not adapt to us, it is necessary that we adapt to nature, and, moreover, poetry must not, as demanded by the modern [Romantics], undergo mutation, but is in its principal characteristics immutable like nature itself.”[19]

Leopardi agrees with the Romantics that the poet must imitate nature, but his conception of nature is the unmediated, spontaneous, physical, non-thinking life of passion. Since the faculty of imagination is a part of this nature, the poet produces images that are natural. Correspondingly, he severely attacks the Romantic understanding of nature as a metaphysical or ontological entity. Such ideas, he says, are ultimately the outcome of the enhancement of reason. Hence the Romantics are not poeticizing about nature but about civilization, and this, in Leopardi’s view, is not poetry at all.[20] The same complaint applies to the task assigned to poetry by the Romantics as being an ‘organ of truth’. To use poetry as a means to obtain truth simply obstructs its proper task of providing pleasure, for poetry must be deceptive in order to fulfil the second task. The negative consequences of the Romantic quest for truth, Leopardi further argues, can be seen in its insistence on the exploration of pathetic sentimentality, a form of ‘scientific psychology’, which is purely artificial, having nothing to do with natural sentiments and merely expressing the sickness of modern civilization.[21]

Leopardi holds on to the Platonic view of art and poetry as sources of deception. However, he takes this to be a positive function. By insisting upon the deceptive powers of poetry, Leopardi wishes to bring the human being into closer conformity with nature by enhancing the role of the imagination in the human mind. The virtue of imagination is that it deceives our desire for the infinite into believing that it has acquired it. And thus happiness, obtainable only by means of infinite pleasure, can be felt when we, in our ignorance, are unable to behold the limits of the indefinite pleasure that we experience. Hence ignorance is a precondition for happiness:

The faculty of imagination … is the main source of human happiness. The more it rules in the human being, the happier he will become. We see this in children. But it cannot rule without ignorance, at least a certain kind of ignorance, as with the ancients. The cognition of the true, that is, of the limits and definitions of things, restricts imagination.[22]

The ignorance of the ancients brought them happiness and contentment with the world. But, as Leopardi himself realizes, these times are long gone:

I prefer the savage stage to the civilized one. But having set off and arrived at a certain stage, it is impossible to reverse the development of the spirit, impossible to hinder the progress of individuals no less than peoples. For times immemorial, the individuals and nations of Europe, as well as a great part of the world, have been in possession of a developed spirit. To revert to the state of the primitive and the savage is impossible.[23]

The ignorance of the ancients cannot be reconstructed. The illusions that previously produced the appearance of meaning in the world have now been annihilated. However, this does not entail that there are no myths and illusions left in the modern world. On the contrary, the benevolent myths have been exchanged for particularly malignant ones. This is because reason itself is a creator of myths, of “hideous and acerbic myths”.[24] They are brought to expression in the Enlightenment belief in the coincidental progress of truth and happiness, and in the equivalence of the rational, the good and the beautiful. A comparison between the modern human being with all his truths, however, and the human being of antiquity living in midst of deceptions reveals the superiority of the latter in terms of the happiness that it produces:

[the human being] needs to know what works for his sake. Absolute truth … is indifferent to the human being. His happiness may consist in both true and false cognition and judgment. Crucial is that his judgment be truly suitable for his nature.[25]

The problem, however, is that this realization can only be arrived at after truth, with all its dreadful consequences, has revealed itself. Having reached that stage, it is not easy to see how truth could be disposed of and exchanged for a more favourable interpretation of the world. This rather alarming paradox does not escape Leopardi’s attention:

I am not unaware of the fact that the ultimate conclusion we draw from true and perfect philosophy is that we must not philosophize. From this we infer, first, that philosophy is useless, for to achieve the effect of non-philosophizing, we do not need to be philosophers; secondly, that it is extremely harmful, for that ultimate conclusion can be learned only at one’s own expense, and once it has been learned, it cannot be put in operation because it is not in the power of human beings to forget the truths they already know…[26]

When Leopardi refers to philosophy in this manner he means of course the empirical materialist philosophy of the Enlightenment, the “true and geometrical”, as he calls it, which has undermined the plausibility of any systematic metaphysics that attempts to construct a teleological scheme of the universe. A philosophy such as Kant’s, therefore, is to him no less plausible than a dreamy fairy tale, however much he would like to be able to adhere to such “poems of reason”.[27] In his essay, Discourse on the Present State of the Customs of the Italians, he endeavours to explain the tendency in German thought, philosophy and literature by contrasting it with the Italian national character.

He paints a rather bleak portrait of Italian society as hypocritical and morally degenerate. Italians, he says, only care for the appearance of morality, i.e. for the favourable opinion of themselves that they believe others will have of them if they behave outwardly in a certain manner. This is the only foundation left for morality in Italy. The hypocritical character of Italians surpasses by far the hypocricy of other European nations. This is because Italians are in one sense more ‘advanced’ than the nations of Northern Europe. The fact that the Italians are much less fruitful than the Germans, the French and the English in the construction of theoretical philosophy is simply one side of the coin of their being more advanced in the practice of philosophy. In other words, Italians have realized the futility and meaninglessness of constructing fantastic philosophical systems without foothold in reality, while the Italian hypocrisy, egotism and indifference to others is a result of having realized the collapse of the metaphysical foundations of morality, which leaves behind a complete kind of moral relativism.[28]

The anthropological reason for this unhappy state of the Italians is that they are closer to nature in the sense that they possess more inner sensitivity, i.e. are more acutely aware of their environment, than North-Europeans. Being closer to nature might imply greater happiness, but in this case it actually works in such a way that Italians are more acutely affected by civilization. Therefore, they are far less susceptible to illusions which alone can preserve morality. Nordic people, on the contrary, are less sensitive, hence less susceptible to the disillusionment of civilization, and their imagination is more easily aroused.[29] In other words, they are slower in internalizing the inescapable consequences of modernity. The Nordic peoples are now the warmest in spirit, the most imaginative, the most animated and those who are most easily influenced by illusions; they are the most sentimental, have the greatest character, spirit and customs in Europe, and thus produce the greatest poetry and literature. They are much closer to the ancient in that they are less ‘advanced’ with regard to the corruptive effects of reason:

If we can find literature in our times (and in recent times) where systems and opinionated fictions are still in use, it is in England, and much more so in Germany, because one could really say that there is no literate man of any kind among the Germans who does not either make or follow a decisive system, and this is for the most part, as is the case with the usual and the ancient application of systems, a fiction.[30]

The systems constructed by modern philosophy are hence mere ‘opinionated fictions’ or ‘fantastic constructions’ that say little if anything about the world as it really is. The same applies to the philosophy of Kant:

In Germany, and partly also in England, one continually finds systems and fictions in all literature, in every kind of philosophy, in politics, in history, in criticism, and any segment of linguistics through to grammar, in particular related to ancient languages. For the longest time in Europe, there was no sect or school of such a philosophy [of systematic fictions], much less of metaphysics, until very recently in Germany … in the sect and school of Kant, which is precisely metaphysical, and which is again subdivided into diverse sects. Before Kant, it was the school of Wolff.[31]

Kant’s critical philosophy is thus deemed by Leopardi as being derived and deduced from the abstract speculative fantasies that the latter calls metaphysics. He displays clear admiration for German culture, as well as for its philosophical fictions and systems that he claims to be a fruit of the Occidental residuum of the imaginative ‘virginity’ of antiquity. But however enchanting, these constructions cannot be a viable alternative to him, for it is precisely this kind of philosophizing that has been rendered unpersuasive and virtually ridiculous by the modern empirical philosophy of the Enlightenment.


We have seen that Leopardi is fully aware of the impossibility of returning to the primitive natural state. The most we can possibly do is to imitate the superior happiness enjoyed by the ancients; the happiness deriving from ignorance can never be resurrected. Nor can we refrain from philosophizing, even though we know that it would make us happier. But this does not mean that all is lost. Leopardi suggests an attempt to find a certain balance between reason and nature. The following passage could in fact be a reference to Kant and his insistence on the moral law:

Reason is never as efficient as the passions. Listen to what the philosophers say: the human being ought to be moved by reason, just as, or rather much more than, by passion; indeed, he ought to be moved by reason and duty only. Nonsense. Human nature and the nature of things can certainly be corrupted but not corrected … We do not need to extinguish passion with reason, but to convert reason into passion; to turn duty, virtue, heroism, etc., into passions.[32]

Leopardi’s way out of the human being’s dreary valley of tears consists in carrying out even further the Enlightenment quest for truth. Reason’s domination is accepted, and the truth of the human being’s miserable state in the universe cannot be ignored, but by naturalizing reason, that is, by combining it with the natural faculty of imagination, reason can also move into the human realm and discover that which is “truly suitable for his nature”. Therefore,

It is wholly indispensable that [a philosopher] is a great and perfect poet; not in order to reason as a poet, but rather to examine with his cold reasoning and calculation that which only the very ardent poet can know.[33]

This may seem paradoxical, but it is at this stage that reason, and thus philosophy, by inquiring into the quite different truth of the human being’s necessary aspirations, reaches its culmination by realizing its own superfluousness. However, the paradox vanishes as soon as we see that reason has simultaneously been transformed. In addition to the realm of external nature, the scope of philosophy has now been expanded to embrace as well the realm of inner human nature. The discipline of naturalized reason, the new expanded philosophy, is what Leopardi calls ‘ultraphilosophy’. Since reason cannot reverse its development and become primitive again, it has to exceed its own limits and transcend itself. In other words, since reason has eliminated the possibility of reviving the ancient faith in the illusions,

our regeneration depends, so to speak, on an ultraphilosophy that brings us closer to nature by exploring the entirety and the interior of things. And this ought to be the fruit of the extraordinarily enlightened men of this century.[34]

By exploring the particular human domain, this new kind of philosophy does not seek absolute truths or facts but values pertaining to the happiness of the human being. While these values shed a clear light on the harmfulness of philosophy for us, there is no need to delve into the problem of how to dispose of it. For at this stage, philosophy has already developed into a different kind of philosophy, a sort of synthesis of the philosophy of ‘advanced’ reason and the one of ‘primitive’ reason. This new philosophy aims at value-judgments relative to the human being only with exclusive consideration of the special circumstances of modern human life, which is mainly the outcome of instrumental reason’s domination.

Being naturalized, Leopardi´s ultraphilosophy has disposed of the value-laden dualism that typifies the Platonic-Christian tradition. Rather, there is a turn towards celebrating the body. The human being is, in Leopardi´s understanding, a mere body, but, more importantly, the human being´s happiness consists in the vividness of sensations and of life, a vividness that is never as great as when physically experienced.[35] Leopardi seeks to revive the importance of the passions and of physical activity, and, accordingly, reduce the tendency to contemplation, which to him is a sure sign of corruption. Contemplation merely enforces the inner sensitivity of life, which, because of its conscious non-spontaneous character, merely leads to unhappiness. On the other hand, the multiplicity, novelty and singularity of physical sensations distract the mind from recognizing the limits of things, and by fulfilling many little pleasures the human being would have the impression and illusion of infinite pleasure.

This is precisely what Leopardi means by imitating nature. He agrees with the Romantics that imitation is not equivalent to copying, but with ‘nature’ he means creative spontaneity. However, he rejects the Romantic ontological view of nature and sees it instead as a constantly impulsive physical entity. What Leopardi sees as good in nature is precisely its spontaneous vital spark, its constant movement and unpremeditated motion.[36] His endorsed vitalism is meant to bring the human being closer to the mobility and spontaneity of both nature and animals. It is worth noting, in this respect, that Leopardi decisively turns away from the tendency in Occidental thought to aim at constancy, at the fixation of the human being´s natural and social environment through eternal Platonic or even Kantian transcendental ideas. An excessive effort to freeze or paralyze nature, both in its workings outside of the human being but not least within him, merely serves to enhance his conscious misery. If we want to reduce such feelings, Leopardi says, we must succumb to nature and try to live in harmony with it by adapting to it.[37]

It is significant that the poet-philosopher who opts for the enhancement of the body and adaptation to nature is an enlightened philosopher. He has become keenly aware of the metaphysical meaninglessness of being. But in order to release himself from the oppressive consciousness of his awareness, he indulges in ‘natural’ actions, i.e. corporeal activities or imaginative conceptualizations, in order to put it temporarily aside. In this sense, while in a state of distraction, he is ignorant of his unfortunate but inescapable fate, and, for a moment, imagination reigns. The completely enlightened person is, in other words, capable of producing in himself a semblance of ignorance that temporarily imitates the ignorance of the ancients. And this can only happen through artistic experience: “The human being hates inactivity, and wants to be liberated from it through fine art.”[38] Fine art, and poetry in particular, arouses the imagination, deceives the senses, and can produce a certain ‘second sight’:

To the sensitive and imaginative person … the world and the objects are in a certain sense double. His eyes will see a tower, a farmland; his ears will hear the tolling of a bell; and, at the same time, his imagination will see another tower, another farmland, hear another tolling. It is the objects of this second kind that contain all the beautiful and pleasant aspects of things.[39]

By reviving its mythological language, poetry not only distracts the person from his dread of living, but also induces in him a particular view of life, a curious combination of a pragmatic and an aesthetic view of life, which, on a cognitive level, is known not to correspond to reality but which both produces happiness, and, by strengthening certain values, gives rise to action. Leopardi often argues that ancient values such as patriotism, virtue, heroism, glory and honour, all illusions, were the cornerstones of true morality, a morality of conviction, when moral actions were believed to be ends in themselves, not mere means to the agent´s own egotistic ends. Not only did these values preserve morality but also provided life with precious meaning and produced happiness by provoking physical action, and preventing the human being from delving into excessive contemplation. Although these lost values cannot be revived, Leopardi contends that the ultraphilosopher is capable of adopting a certain aesthetic world-view conducive to his happiness. However, it also requires the adoption of conscious illusions:

The illusions cannot be condemned, disdained and persecuted except by those who are illusioned and believe that this world is, or could be, really something, and in fact something beautiful. This is a major illusion: and therefore the quasi-philosopher combats the illusions precisely because he is illusioned; the true philosopher loves and preaches them because he is not illusioned. And the combat against the illusions in general is the most certain sign of a totally imperfect and insufficient knowledge and of a notable illusion.[40]

Among the primary functions of the myths of antiquity was the transformation of the numinous indefiniteness, of the overwhelming powers of the unknown, into a nominal definiteness; they made the strange familiar and addressable, and thereby delivered the human being from the terror of being surrendered to an immensely more superior reality. Today, after the myths have collapsed, we must look mechanistic reality straight in the eye. But we can decorate and anthropomorphize the world so that it will, at least, have the appearance of being a world belonging to us – and a world in which we belong. It is the Apollonian transfiguring dream – but which must be known by the dreamer to be a dream.

Leopardi’s aim is therefore not to return to or preserve the past, but merely to find a substitute for the hope that we once possessed but have lost somewhere on our way. Such a substitute can be found in the faculty of imagination that momentarily enables us to regain the joy of living. Pleasure and joy must be the proper aim of poetry and art, for it is joy, not melancholy or sentimentality, that brings about the best results in dealing with the world. As Leopardi, says, the world does not like to hear crying – but laughing.[41] Sentimental poetry of lament, characterizing much of Romantic poetry, only serves to demonstrate the dreary truth of the human being’s vulnerability and insignificance and thus to obstruct the path towards happiness. This path, however, is arduous, and the force of the obstacles consists in their seductive powers; one is often tempted to collapse against them with a weary sigh and admit one’s surrender.

This applies not least to Leopardi himself whose poetry is not altogether free from Romantic sentimentality. In some passages he also expresses strong doubts about the possibility of resuscitating anything resembling the innocent joy of life as found in ancient poetry. In his later poetry in particular, however, he expresses this sentimentality with an unmistakable hint of cynicism. He often demands that we at least show enough strength to face nature’s evil creator and destructor with a cynical laugh; if we cannot laugh despite our misery, then the least we can do is to laugh at it:

I believe it to be much worthier of the human being and of magnanimous despair to laugh at our common ills rather than sighing, weeping and screeching together with the others and instigating them to do the same.[42]

To be sure, the Leopardian laughter still echoes in many valleys of Occidental thought.

[1] Paul Kluckhohn. Das Ideengut der deutschen Romantik. Fifth edition (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1966), p. 174.

[2] Cited from ibid, p. 160.

[3] Francesco Flora, “La Rivolta romantica e la Poesia come Verità”, in Leopardi. Discorso di un Italiano intorno alla Poesia romantica, con una antologia di testimonianze sul Romanticismo, ed. By Ettore Mazzali  (Bologna: Cappelli Editore, 1970), pp. XXff.

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Gramsci’s Prison Letters (Lettere dal carcere), A selection translated and introduced by Hamish Henderson (London: Zwan Publications, 1988), p. 235.

[5] Giacomo Leopardi, ?Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese“, Operette Morali (Milano: Garzanti, 1984), p. 129.

[6] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, in Tutte le Opere, con introduzione e a cura di Walter Binni, vol. II (Firenze: Sansoni, 1969), 178.

[7] Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogo di un fisico e di un metafisico”, Operette Morali, p. 98.

[8] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 165-6.

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] Ibid, 1681-2.

[11] Ibid, 1825.

[12] Ibid, 1091.

[13] Ibid, 2527-8.

[14] Ibid, 84. Nietzsche expresses a strikingly similar thought in his Genealogy of Morality, which, however, cannot be an influence of Leopardi‘s, since the Zibaldone was not published until 1898: “Isn’t it the case that since Copernicus the self-diminution of the human being and his will to self-diminution have been progressing without halt? Alas, the faith in his dignity, his uniqueness, his irreplaceable position in the chain of being has gone. The human being has become an animal, not a metaphorical animal, but absolutely and unconditionally — he, who in his earlier faith was almost God (“child of God,” “God-man”) … Since Copernicus the human being seems to have brought himself onto an inclined plane. He‘s now rolling at an accelerating rate past the mid-point. But where to? Into nothingness? Into the “penetrating sense of his own nothingness”? Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, Kritische Studienausgabe 5 (München: dtv/de Gruyter, 1988), 3:25, p. 404.

[15] Ibid, 2713-14.

[16] Ibid, 4189-90

[17] Ibid, 2936.

[18] Ibid, 1340-42.

[19] Giacomo Leopardi, “Discorso di un Italiano intorno alla Poesia romantica”, in Giacomo Leopardi – Opere. La Letterature Italiana. Storia e Testi, vol. I (Milano and Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1982), p. 781.

[20] Ibid, pp. 788ff.

[21] Ibid, pp. 812ff.

[22] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 168.

[23] Ibid, 4186.

[24] Ibid, 1841-2.

[25] Ibid, 381.

[26] Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro”, Operette morali, p. 269.

[27] Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 2616.

[28] Leopardi, “Discorso sopra lo Stato presente dei Costumi degl‘Italiani”, in Giacomo Leopardi – Opere. La Letterature Italiana. Storia e Testi, vol. I (Milano and Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1982), pp. 854ff.

[29] Ibid, p. 873.

[30] Ibid, p. 875.

[31] Ibid, p. 875.

[32] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 293-4.

[33] Ibid, 1839.

[34] Ibid, 115.

[35] Ibid, 2017.

[36] Cf. Cesare Luporini, Leopardi Progressivo (Roma: Riuniti, 1980), p. 39.

[37] See e.g. his prose “Elogio degli Uccelli” (Operette morali, pp. 225-237) in which he expresses his admiration for and even envy of birds that can never suffer from boredom because of their ability to move swiftly from one place to another.

[38] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 2362.

[39] Ibid, 4418.

[40] Ibid, 1715.

[41] Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri, in Giacomo Leopardi – Opere. La Letterature Italiana. Storia e Testi, vol. I (Milano and Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1982), §34

[42] Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro”, p. 266.