Tag Archives: Enlightenment

Good Prejudice. A Passing Foray in Intellectual History

In the Latin original—praejudicium*—the usage of this notion was specific to the field of law and meant, in classical times, “a preceding judgment, sentence, or decision, a precedent” (Lewis & Short, 1879; cf. also Newman, 1979). In post-classical Latin, cognate meanings started to appear, including “[a] judicial examination previous to a trial… [a] damage, disadvantage… [and a] decision made beforehand or before the proper time” (Lewis & Short, 1879). The aspects of harmfulness and erroneousness began to emerge in conjunction with “praejudicium”. Over the centuries, they submerged the initial, neutral, technical meaning, up to the point that, today, the Oxford Dictionary defines “prejudice” as “[p]reconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience… Dislike, hostility, or unjust behaviour deriving from preconceived and unfounded opinions” and, with reference to the field of law, “[h]arm or injury that results or may result from some action or judgement.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the exact time when the pejoration of “prejudice” occurred. Nor can “prejudice” be understood once and for all as being exclusively a poorly formed opinion, an unreasonable belief, a false judgement, a sentiment, an assumption dictated or corrupted by sentiment, a bad behaviour, or an admixture of them, at least as far as intellectual history is concerned. Though assuming only one particular meaning of the term ab initio may be very convenient (e.g. Penco, 2019), speakers, erudite ones included, have been using “prejudice” in many ways, the variety of which the Oxford Dictionary and researchers at large cannot but acknowledge and report to varying degrees (e.g. Allport, 1954; Duckitt, 1992; Gadamer, 1985/1960; Van Dijk, 1984). Unlike artificial technical terms—e.g. the classical legal interpretation of “praejudicium”—and like all important concepts of our natural languages—e.g. love, justice, beauty, education—“prejudice” too is polysemic, ambiguous, living, contestable and contested (Dorschel, 2000).

Within philosophy, it is even possible to find positive appraisals of the term itself. For one, sensing perhaps the morally and socially paradoxical outcomes of too extreme a rejection of prejudice in all its forms, Voltaire (1901/1764) had already distinguished “different kinds of prejudices”, which he defined as “opinion without judgment.” Some of these unreasoned opinions were said to be more or less dangerously mistaken (e.g. “that crabs are good for the blood, because when boiled they are of the same color”), while others could be “universal and necessary… and… even constitute virtue.” For example, “throughout the world, children are inspired with opinions before they can judge… In all countries, children are taught to acknowledge a rewarding and punishing God; to respect and love their fathers and mothers; to regard theft as a crime, and interested lying as a vice, before they can tell what is a virtue or a vice” (Voltaire, 1901/1764). Under such social, moral and pedagogical conditions, “[p]rejudice may… be very useful, and such as judgement will ratify when we reason” (Voltaire, 1901/1764).

In his essay “On Prejudice”, Hazlitt (1903/1830) reached an analogous conclusion, but he also added two important observations: (A) that human reason may be rarely able to ratify any such opinions, thus issuing good judgements; and (B) that we may have to rely on prejudice instead, insofar as:

We can only judge for ourselves in what concerns ourselves, and in things about us: and even there we must trust continually to established opinion and current report; in higher and more abstruse points we must pin our faith still more on others… I walk along the streets without fearing that the houses will fall on my head, though I have not examined their foundation; and I believe firmly in the Newtonian system, though I have never read the Principia. In the former case, I argue that if the houses were included to fall they would not wait for me; and in the latter, I acquiesce in what all who have studies the subject, and are capable of understanding it, agree in, having no reason to suspect the contrary. That the earth turns round is agreeable to my understanding, though it shocks my sense, which is however too weak to grapple with so vast a question.

Voltaire’s case suggests that, pace very many fellow Enlightenment thinkers (cf. Dorschel, 2000) and today’s prevalent parlance exemplified by Penco (2019), prejudices may not always be bad and worthy of elimination, lest we let our children fail to acquire basic moral and social principles of conduct (cf. also Billig, 1988). Hazlitt’s reflections add that prejudices are quite simply necessary for us to function at any level. Without holding some prejudices qua tacit presuppositions of our voluntary actions, including our thinking and talking, no common person or no eminent scientist could attain anything whatsoever. Descartes (1968/1637), for instance, when engaging in radical doubt, did never stop assuming that the meaning of his own words and concepts would persist unchanged through time.

In the modern age, Pascal (1993/1670), Vico (2013/1710), Schlegel (1975/1796–1806) and Amiel (1981/1860–1863) concurred on this point, though only the last two may have used the term “prejudice” as such. In the 20th century, the great Hungarian chemist and philosopher Polanyi (1969) reached the same conclusion too. Indeed, Polanyi (1962/1958) reflected on how young persons, were they not prejudicially convinced of the value of a discipline that they do not yet know, would never endeavour to learn it, and that scientists themselves, without prejudicial faith in the actual presence of a valuable bit of unknown knowledge, would never strive to discover it, sometimes at great peril for themselves, their career, or even their wellbeing. What is more, both students and scientists may fail miserably, thus confirming the prejudicial character of their presuppositions. Had they not held them, though, then they would have not even tried. Also, had they held them lightly, then they would have been less likely to succeed. As sportsmen, soldiers and artists know well, a crucial step in achieving anything great is to believe that you can do it, even if you have never done anything like that before and would have good reasons to conclude that you are unlikely to be able to (Dorschel, 2000; it should be noted that Polanyi did not use the term “prejudice” as such).

Moreover, in spite of all the novel sciences and great technologies that thinkers such as Bacon (1902/1620) and Descartes (1968/1637) could only begin to fathom, or the revolutionary political freedoms and personal emancipations conquered since their times, Polanyi (1969) noted as well how the power and propensity of humankind for cruelty and oppression did not seem to have waned over the modern centuries. If anything, the greatest slaughters and the very imperilment of human survival as a species have characterised the most recent ones, not the distant ages that the Enlightenment thinkers would have described as filled with prejudice and superstition (cf. also Hobsbawm, 1994).

Back in 1721, Swift’s popular Modest Proposal had already reached, in a satirical tone, the murderous conclusions that his day’s allegedly enlightened and scientific rationality could lead to. Specifically, the most effective economic solution to the famine in Ireland, as he had sarcastically argued, was to breed poor people’s children for public consumption. Indeed, Swift had noted in his earlier Thoughts on Various Subjects: “Some men, under the notions of weeding out prejudices, eradicate virtue, honesty, and religion.” On its part, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1923/1791: 467) reports the famous moralist to have said: “To be prejudiced is always to be weak; yet there are prejudices so near to laudable that they have been often praised, and are always pardoned.”

Before both these Anglophone authors, Fontenelle (1683/1803: 92–96; translation ours) had reflected on the expediency of those “prejudices” that “philosophers” seem eager to “destroy”: “common opinions” can be very “handy” and “useful”, whenever we may have too little knowledge, time or opportunity to reason fully about things—which is far from being an uncommon experience, since “reason offers us a very small number of sure maxims”. In the same pages, Fontenelle (ibid.) observed also how “prejudices” are part of the heritage or “costume” of “our Country”: they are constitutive elements of people’s identity, the source of their sense of belonging, that is, important threads in the fabric of society itself.

The importance of prejudice for identity, belonging and social cohesion is a specific theme that other defenders of prejudice discussed at length. Duclos (2004/1751: 7; translation ours), for one, defined “prejudice… a judgment held or admitted without examination, which can be true or mistaken”. Although it may be wise to try to eradicate erroneous and nefarious prejudices, he thought it unwise, “for the good of society”, to carry the Enlightenment’s battle against prejudices much farther: why “demonstrating accepted truths”, if “recommending their practice” can be enough? (Duclos, 2004/1751: 7; translation ours) Why trying to make people reach by “reasoning” what they do already by “sentiment”, or “an honest prejudice?” (Duclos, 2004/1751: 8; translation ours) Hume (1964/1742) and Chesterfield (1847/1779) made similar points, but Duclos added: “Prejudice is the common law of men” and as such it should be respected; whereas “by wanting to enlighten people too eagerly, we teach them a dangerous presumption” that can lead to dreadful moral and social chaos (Duclos, 2004/1751: 7; translation ours).**

Moral and social chaos is precisely what Burke (2008/1790: 42 & 63) observed in France at the time of the Revolution, which he believed to have been inspired by “sophisters, economists; and calculators” who thought that they were “combating prejudice, but [were] at war with nature.” Preferring, as a general rule, the present time-tested institutions to the future ones pandered by revolutionary thinkers, Burke (2008/1790: 72) famously stated:

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Currently, it is rare to hear any philosopher speaking well of “prejudice”, whether in the epistemic context or in others, e.g., politics, morals, education. Somehow, the pejoration of this notion has reached a point such that the usages made of it by Johnson or Fontenelle sound odd to our hears. Different words should be used, e.g., “preconception, presupposition, hypothesis, presumption, presentiment, presage, premonition, foreboding, predilection, prepossession, outlook, expectation or anticipation in general…intuition.” (Dorschel, 2000: 58 & 136; emphasis removed) Yet, as Dorschel argues (2000: 136; emphasis added), “such choice of terms is a matter of rhetoric”, in the technical sense of this term, i.e. as appropriate to the circumstances (or kairos; cf. Barthes, 1988). Depending on the audience and on the point to be made, “eulogistic” or “dyslogistic” synonyms are to be preferred, if and when “prejudice” may appear inappropriate (cf. Bentham, 1824: 214).

Still, whether we use “prejudice” or not, the fact remains that “if some of our beliefs are based on reasons, there has to be something which is not based on reasons. We are able to reason in support of certain things and to prove certain things only if and because there are other things for which we do not have reasons or proof.” (Dorschel, 2000: 135). Recognising the existence and the value of this “something” or of these “things”, whether we call them “prejudices” or “intuitions” or else, is the contribution of Voltaire, Fontenelle, Burke and the other eccentric defenders of “prejudice” qua “prejudice”. They did not succeed in stopping the pejoration of “prejudice” as such, but they succeeded in preserving important insights concerning the tacit assumptions of human agency at large, the educational limits of thoroughly rational approaches, the complex sources of morality, the roots of political power, and the needs for cultural identity and social belonging.


* The present text is part of a longer written contribution prepared for “Remix”, an Erasmus+ online teaching project on transnational migration that should commence across several European countries in June 2020.

** This short text is being published during the Covid-19 international crisis. Thus, I wish to provide a topical example of the corrosive “presumption” that Duclos associates with the modern preference for reasoning at all costs, rather than relying on good prejudice. Specifically, the reader may want to reflect on all those individuals who, especially on ever-popular social media, feel entitled to challenge with all kinds of arguments, however faulty and uninformed these may be, the far more competent individuals and institutions that their grandparents would have treated, prejudicially, with great deference and humble respect (e.g. physicians, epidemiologists, national health institutes). 



Allport, G.W. (1954), The Nature of Prejudice, Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Amiel, H-F. (1981/1860–1863), Journal intime, vol. 4, Lausanne : Editions l’Age d’Homme.

Bacon, F. (1902/1620), Novum Organon, New York: P.F. Collier & Son.

Barthes, R. (1988), “The Old Rhetoric: An aide-mémoire”, in The Semiotic Challenge. New York: Hill and Wang, pp. 11–94.

Bentham, J. (1824), The Book of Fallacies, London: J. & H.L. Hunt.

Billig, M. (1988), “The Notion of ‘Prejudice’: Some rhetorical and ideological aspects”, Text 8 (1–2): 91–110.

Boswell, J. (1923/1791), Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co.

Burke, E. (2008/1790), Reflections on the Revolution in France, Hamilton, ON: Archive for the History of Economic Thought, <https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/burke/revfrance.pdf>.

Chesterfield, P.D. Stanthorpe, Earl of (1847/1779), Letters, London: R. Bentley.

Descartes, R. (1968/1637), Discourse on Method and Other Writings, London: Penguin.

Dorschel, A. (2000), Rethinking Prejudice, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Duckitt, J. (1992), The Social Psychology of Prejudice, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Duclos, C.P. (2004/1751), Considérations sur les mœurs de ce siècle, npa: F-D. Fournier, <http://www.mediterranee-antique.fr/Fichiers_PdF/PQRS/Pinot_Duclos/Consid%C3%A9rations.pdf>.

Fontenelle, M. de (1683/1803), Nouveaux dialogues des morts, Köln: J. Dulont.

Gadamer, H-G. (1985/1960), Truth and Method, New York: Crossroad.

Hazlitt, W. (1903/1830), “On Prejudice”, Sketches and Essays, London: Richards, <http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Essays/Hazlitt/Prejudice.htm>.

Hobsbawm, E. (1994), The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, London: Michael Joseph.

Hume, D. (1964/1742), “Of Moral Prejudices”, The Philosophical Works, Aalen: Scientia, pp. 371–375.

Lewis, C.T & Short, C. (1879), “Praejudicium”, A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews’ edition of Freund’s Latin dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, <https://lsj.gr/wiki/praeiudicium>.

Newman, J. (1979), “Prejudice as Prejudgment”, Ethics 90(1): 47–57.

Oxford Dictionary (2019), npa: Lexico.com, <https://www.lexico.com/en>.

Pascal, B. (1993/1670), Pensieri, Milan: Rusconi.

Penco, C. (2019), “Prejudice and Presupposition in Offensive Language”, Nordicum-Mediterraneum, 12(3), <https://nome.unak.is/wordpress/volume-12-no-3-2017/conference-proceeding-volume-12-no-3-2017/prejudice-presupposition-offensive-language/>

Polanyi, M. (1962/1958), Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Polanyi, M. (1969), Knowing and Being, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Schlegel, F. (1975/1796–1806), Philosophische Lehrjahre, Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh.

Swift, J. (1730/1721), A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents or the Country, And for making them Beneficial to the Publick, London: W. Bickerton, <https://books.google.is/books?id=t1MJAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=is&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

Swift, J. (2014/1706), Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting, Adelaide: The University of Adelaide Library, <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/swift/jonathan/s97th/>.

Van Dijk, T. (1984), Prejudice in Discourse, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Vico, G.B. (2013/1710), De antiquissima italorum sapientia ex linguae latinae originibus eruenda, Napoli: ISPF, <http://www.giambattistavico.it/opere/deantiquissima>.

Voltaire (1901/1764), “Prejudice”, Philosophical Dictionary, in The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, New York: E.R. DuMont, <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/v/voltaire/dictionary/complete.html#chapter379>.

Cyrus Rohani & Behrooz Sabet (eds.), Winds of Change: The Challenge of Modernity in the Middle East and North Africa. (London: Saqi Books, 2019)

From a Western point of view, one of the key challenges facing us is, how the Islamic MENA region can find peace, modernize and contribute positively to human life on Earth. The Arab spring brought hope for positive changes:

“The Arab spring has awakened the world to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims worldwide to democracy – inspired by western values yet infused by Islamic ideals,” writes Dr. Christopher Buck, an independent scholar and attorney from the USA, in one of his essays in Winds of Change (p. 87). Unfortunately, such legitimate aspirations have not yet been met, and the MENA region is as war-torn as ever.

Wind of Change contains 15 essays written by 11 intellectuals with the perspective that Islam’s spiritual ethic and sense of justice has something valuable to offer to the world, as it did during the “Islamic worlds flourishing sociocultural era” (750-1250) (p.8). This period is referred to as the Golden Age.

The editors, management consultant, MBA, Cyrus Rohani and Dr. Behrooz Sabet believe that changes are under way in the Middle East. Rohani writes that dictatorships relegate people “to the level of animals” which “defies the purpose of their creation” (p. 45). At the same time “our planet is suffering owing to our betrayal of the trust bestowed on us as a gift from our Creator” (p. 48). He envisions the “establishment of a planetary civilization based on organic unity of mankind” (p. 49).

Six narratives deal with timely issues such as environmental challenges, press freedom, gender inequality, interfaith dialogue, education and the Arab spring, while the others apply more historical / philosophical perspectives. The latter strive for a common ground on which the Middle East and the West can meet and work together in solving global problems. Generally, the essays are written with a deep appreciation for Islam, a critical view on traditional Middle Eastern leaders, and a taken-for-granted view on the West. The book suggests that there is a need for spirituality, materialism and science to be integrated to create a global society with human dignity, happiness and appreciation of differences.

An interesting example of the search for common ground is Dr. Ian Kluge’s discussion of reason in Islamic and Western philosophy. Kluge, who on websites are presented as Canadian Baha’i scholar, writes:

The re-appropriation of rationalism is the major goal of numerous Muslim thinkers wishing to revive the fortunes of the Islamic world in face of modern challenges. However, they want to find the basis for such changes in Islam itself without having to depend on ideas imported from, among other things, the European Enlightenment.” (p. 155)

Islam has the concept of ijtihad that, according to one Islamic tradition, implies “free debate on matters to everyone” (p. 145). Kluge quotes the Qur’an for saying: “Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason” (p. 146), and he compares the spirit of this text to Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question about enlightenment (p. 150).

Throughout history, Muslims have disagreed on who should be allowed to practice independent spiritual reasoning and search for truth. Some believe that “ijtihad may only be practiced by mujtahids,” while others do not agree with this limitation (p. 151). In Islam there is for example a long tradition for reasoning stemming from the Muʿtazali theology of the eight century, modernized by Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). Originally the philosophers drew on different sources of inspiration, including Greek philosophy such as Aristotle’s logic of deductive reasoning. However, in the 12th century, the limitations of philosophy were exposed in the book The incoherence of Philosophers (p. 161), and the value of ordinary people’s reasoning was questioned by people in power.

Kluge argues that acceptance of individual reasoning and discussions can revitalize Muslim societies. As for international cooperation, he suggests that the “considerable common ground between Kantian understanding of ‘enlightenment’ and what we find primarily in the Qur’an, and secondly, what is offered by Mu’tazalism” (p. 163) can create a shared understanding that will benefit both the MENA region and the West. However, when Muslims use reasoning, they do not necessarily consider Western scientific methods superior, because they do not share the materialistic worldview. When scientists study the material world, their results say obviously little about important spiritual issues.

Buck is the author of three analyses related to norms, ethics and law. One is about good governance, one about the possible development of a shared moral compass for Sunnis and Shi’is, and the third about testing the value of Sharia laws. In each case, the methodology is the same. Buck interprets key Islamic texts and discusses Islamic practices. For example, he interprets basic principles for good governance from a letter written by the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Caliph Ali, who is respected by both Sunnis and Shi’is. This respect is important because his idea is to create a set of shared Islamic guidelines for good governance. He interprets the spirit of each paragraph in the letter and relate it to present-day situations.

In the two other essays the key text is the Qur’an. In one of these essays, he asks: “does Islamic law mirror Islamic ethics”? (p. 169). A Pew Research Center survey cited in his article found that most Muslims in many countries approve of executing apostates. Buck writes: “There is a clear contradiction between the sharia law of apostacy and Islamic claims to ‘freedom of religion” and to a “well-known Qur’anic verse: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion” (p. 176). Buck then discusses this difference and Islamic scholars’ writings about it.

Many of the essays in this volume can best be considered sincere and informed opinion pieces. Not all of them follow a strict academic form. But they bring fresh ideas and perspectives to important debates.

Prejudices, Philosophies and Language: Spinoza and His Strategies of Liberation

The reflection about the category of prejudice has been one of the biggest themes of modern thinking from the scientific revolution through the Enlightenment and Positivism, up to the twentieth-century debate about the philosophy of science. The theme of prejudice intersects with the one of nature, of knowledge and of the obstacles that prevent a correct comprehension of reality. This reflection comes primarily from Francis Bacon. He identifies the purification of the intellect from “idola”(prejudices) which blind the mind, as the first step of the quest for knowledge. It goes on with Descartes’s theory. According to him, the first act of the new philosophy is the choice to separate the mind from the senses and to free the mind of prejudice: “quin etiam nullis author sum ut haec legant, nisi tantùm iis qui seriò mecum meditari, metemque a sensibus, simulque ab omnibus praejudiciis, abducere poterunt ac volent”.[1] This reflection leads to the great Enlightenment’s fight against superstition and prejudices, sources of distortion of our knowledge of the world and of social discriminations. Voltaire says that prejudice “est une opinion sans jugement. Ainsi dans toute la terre on inspire aux enfants toutes les opinions qu’on veut, avant qu’ils puissent juger.”[2] And he goes on saying that, even if not all prejudices are false and negative, it’s useful to submit them to the judgments of reason in order to recognize which of them are the good ones: “ceux que le jugement ratifie quand on raisonne.[3]

Kant is amazed that someone could ask himself if prejudices are useful, and goes on saying: “Es ist zum Erstaunen, daß in unserm Zeitalter dergleichen Fragen, besonders die wegen Begünstigung der Vorurteile, noch können aufgegeben warden”.[4] Prejudices are source of wrong judgments and are caused by the lack of reflection, because prejudices are temporary judgments taken as principles or definitive judgments.[5] Moreover, Kant goes on saying that prejudices aren’t singular concepts; in fact, it is not a prejudice to affirm that an individual is dishonest, but it would be a prejudice to extend that assessment to a whole category of people.[6] Prejudice is therefore an undeserved generalization.

D’Holbach resumes with more radical tones the position of the Enlightenment about this theme: “L’ignorance, les erreurs et les préjugés des hommes sont les sources de leurs maux. La vérité doit tôt ou tard triompher de l’erreur.”[7]  The fight against prejudice has not only the aim to open the way to the real knowledge of reality; it’s the unavoidable step of progressive individual and social improvement. Experience and reason are essential to triumph on prejudices[8] and the instrument is instruction:

Pour que la morale ait du pouvoir sur les hommes, il faut les éclairer sur leurs vrais intérets; pour qu’ils soient éclarés, il faut que la vérité puisse les instruire, pour les instruire, il faut que le préjugé soit désarmé par la raison, c’est alors que les nations, tirées de cette enfance que leurs tuteurs s’efforcent d’éterniser, s’occuperont de la réforme de leurs institutions, des abus de la législation, des idées fausses qu’inspirent l’education, les usages nuisibles dont elles souffrent à chaque instant.”[9] The role of the educator was given to the “philosophe” presented as “medicin du genre humain” (physician of mankind).[10] The “philosophe” has to address himself to principals and to people “La verité a deux moyen de triompher de l’erreur: soit en descendant des chefs aux nations, soit en remontant des nations à leurs chefs.[11]

D’Holbach continues by saying that the most efficient of the two ways is the second one, because illuminated chiefs can die and be substituted by despots, while an “instruit et raisonnable” population can’t die. From this extended debate about prejudice, here summarily outlined, emerge some distinctive elements of the concept in matter. Prejudice is a pre-established opinion, a rush to judgment, lacking of a rational justification or of precise knowledge of the judged object, a conviction made up without any foundation. It acquires a negative value with hard social consequences.

Obviously, we must remember as well the critics who spoke against the Enlightenment’s and positivist traditions. I mean the reassessment of prejudice that finds its highest expression in Gadamer’s theory. Prejudice is the pre-comprehension, that is the knowledge that pre-exists the experience and so it’s a condition of making a reflective judgment about the world. In a hermeneutics perspective, prejudice is the necessary intuitive pre-cognition that the interpreter can’t leave out of consideration. Gadamer distinguishes between positive and negative reading of the term “prejudice”. The positive prejudice makes comprehensions possible while the negative obstacles and hardens it. The difference between the two isn’t in the bigger or in the smaller correspondence to the real world. On the contrary, both negative and positive prejudices can’t be preventively distinguished.  The distinction becomes clear during the process of understanding. The subject consciously uses them in an endless debate with the other possible “horizons of sense”.[12]

In the wake of these philosophical debates the great and complex analysis of psychology has been gradually introduced with the discussion between cognitivism and constructivism. The social-constructivist approach seems to be close to the criticism of the Enlightenment’s tradition developed by Gadamer and the hermeneutical approach. Social constructivism develops a particular attention for the language understood as an instrument of interpretation of the world and of comparison of “horizons of sense”. On the other hand, studies about the definition of prejudice as a cognitive mistake have been developed. For example, Allport which inserts the emotional element in the cognitivist definition: “Prejudice is an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group or an individual of a group.”[13]

During the years, more or less successful strategies against prejudices developed strategies tending to eliminate and reduce them. Gordon Allport himself developed already 60 years ago the hypothesis of contact. If prejudices come from a lack of knowledge among different groups, the contact with individuals of the out-groups will help to discover that a lot of prejudices and stereotypes are wrong. Recent researches have however underlined that prejudices is higher in towns with more immigrants, where the possibilities of a contact are higher.[14] So contact and knowledge do not always bring to more positive relationships.

We don’t want to underline these analyses here, even if they are important and fruitful. We want to leave from a question: did we really destroy or at least attenuate the negative strength of prejudices after centuries of fight against it? Actually, prejudices exist and they’ll always and always continue to direct collective and social life, and they often foment aversion and hostility towards other individuals, groups, nations and races. The idea of the Enlightenment that prejudice is to be fought with rational and objective knowledge freeing us from fast and preconceived opinions, as well as the position of hermeneutics calling for an awareness capable to distinguish the prejudices able to produce new cognitive horizons from the ones that stop it and render the vision of the world infertile, does not seem able to produce fully efficient strategies of liberation.

In order to understand this difficulty, I’d like to go back to the beginning of the reflection about prejudice made in modern thinking, and specifically to that author, who can’t be easily put in any simplistic category: Spinoza. He is hardly categorizable because his doctrine puts itself in the confluence of different traditions: the Renaissance’s immanentist naturalism,[15] the re-elaborations of elements already present in medieval philosophy[16] and in Jewish thinking,[17] and the study of the new mathematical science of nature. All this makes Spinoza not so much a forerunner of the radical Enlightenment,[18] but an “anomalous” thinker, as Toni Negri writes, an atypical modernity.[19] This atypical modernity can perhaps allow us to shed light on the complex phenomenon of prejudice. According to Spinoza, this phenomenon lies at the confluence of different elements: language, habit, experience, and daily morality.

Spinoza is among those who think that it’s necessary to remove prejudices from the mind, prejudices “quae impedire poterant quominus meae demonstrationes percipererunt”.[20] In his writings, we find a very long list of prejudices: the final causality attributed to God or to nature; the illusion of human free will; moral concepts of right and wrong, merit and sin, reward and punishment; the aesthetic concepts of beautiful and ugly, perfection and imperfection, order and confusion; concepts elaborated by theologians; miracles as a God’s works that lie outside the natural order.[21]

According to Spinoza, where do all these prejudices that he enumerates come from? Spinoza’s reflection about the category of prejudice runs through different levels, from the epistemological to the political one and it strictly connects to his theory of language.[22] Spinoza didn’t write a treatise on language, but nearly every one of his writings attempts some analysis of language. Let’s see what he says about this subject.

Words are conventional and arbitrary signs of things “prout sunt in imaginatione”.[23] Signs are images in the way explained by the scholium of the second part of his E. after proposition 17, that is affections of the human body whose ideas represent to us exterior bodies as if they were present to us. These images, as Spinoza explains, aren’t figures or the more or less objective reproduction of things. They are the product of interaction of our body with other bodies and they simultaneously express both the power of our body and the power of other bodies. Images are bodily traces of these meetings that “say” of both bodies, and that “confuse” both bodies in a unique sign. The body’s affection corresponding to the idea of this affection is what Spinoza calls “affect”. In turn affect expresses the increased or decreased power of the body (corporis agendi potentia).[24] Thus language is a web of patterns of affectivity.

The origin of the language is so explained thanks to the body.[25] In this way language is part of an immediate and not adequate knowledge, and so it’s always the expression of a confused knowledge. There is a double confusion: in front of the infinite complexity of reality, the human body, which is finite for definition, makes a process of practical simplification of which language is one of the products. In the scholium of proposition 40 E.II, when Spinoza explains to us the origin of the notions we call “Transcendental” and “Universal”, he illustrates this process of confusion and simplification. Our limited body is able to form just a limited number of distinct images. When the number of images becomes excessive, Spinoza says that images will be confused in the body and also the mind will be unable to distinguish all those images, and therefore it will apply only one tag: that is a general term, a word (e.g. a being, a thing, a man, a horse, etc.). Language is what is used to classify.[26]

It’s interesting to remember the development of the “term” human being. When the human body is affected by a lot of traces that form a lot of images of man as the mind can’t record the distinctive traits of each human being, such as his colour or his height, it tends to clearly imagine just those aspects that have almost the same effect on the body, i.e. those aspects that hit it with more vividness and that the mind more easily reminds: the term “man” (human being) will be applied to this group of aspects. But Spinoza goes on saying that those aspects that the mind retains with more vividness, can change in each individual according to the particular “ingenium” (temper) of the individual itself or the particular tendency to admire some aspects more than others:

Exempli gratia qui saepius cum admiratione hominum staturam contemplati sunt, sub nomine hominis intelligent animal erectae staturae; qui vero aliud assueti sunt contemplari, aliam hominum communem imaginem formabunt nempe hominem esse animal risibile, animal bipes sine plumis, animal rationale et sic de reliquis unusquisque pro dispositione sui corporis rerum universales imagines formabit.[27]

The word is a sign easy to remember and has a recognising function, which consists of advising that an object or a situation is already been recognised, i.e. that it is already known. This memory process of terms organises itself according to the concatenation of bodily affections:

ut exempli gratia ex cogitatione vocis pomi homo romanus statim in cogitationem fructus incidet qui nullam cum articulato illo sono habet similitudinem nec aliquid commune nisi quod ejusdem hominis corpus ab his duobus affectum saepe fuit hoc est quod ipse homo saepa vocem pomum audivit dum ipsum fructum videret et sic unusquisque ex una in aliam cogitationem incidet prout rerum imagines uniscujusque consuetudo in corpore ordinavit.[28]

The word is a sign that, moreover and above all, tells us about the relationship we establish between things and the use we usually do of them in relation with our needs: “Nam miles exempli gratia vivis in arena equi vestigiis statim ex cogitatione equi in cogitationem aratri, agri etc. incidet et sic unusquisque prout rerum imagines consuevit hoc vel alio modo jungere et concatenare, ex una in hanc vel aliam incidet cogitationem.”[29]

Words belong to the imagination, while language is the product of the immediate knowledge of the first immediate answer to our need. In the interaction with things, the body keeps traces of what more positively answers to the survival effort. In Spinoza’s terms, it increases or decreases its power to act, and we give a name to it. Language doesn’t tell us about the truth of things. We mustn’t search the meaning of words in the content of truth, but in its practical value, in its use value. For example, Spinoza says to us that the first meaning (prima significatio) of “true” and “false” seems to come from narrations: these tales have been called “true” when the told fact had really (revera)  happened; a fact that had happened nowhere, instead, was called “false”.[30] Here Spinoza puts in mutual relation the meaning of a word with an experience. And the experience has not a secondary place in Spinoza thinking, even if the majority of commentators deny the importance of the experience in the rationalist philosophy of the author of E. Returning to the acute observations by P.F. Moreau,[31] it is worth remembering that in his works, Spinoza does not strive to give the experience the lowest place as possible; on the contrary, in all his works experience is often shown with positive traits, and not only as the “vague experience” of the first kind of knowledge. Expressions such as “experientia docet”, “experientia docuit”, “experientia suadet”, “experientia monstrat”, “experientia comprobat”, “experientia confirmat” are frequent in all his works, including E.. Experience theaches, then; but what does it teach?

We have just one excerpt where Spinoza directly speaks about experience. In letter X to Simon de Vries,[32] Spinoza tells us that experience is necessary for that of which essence doesn’t involve existence: the “modi”. In other words, experience let us know facts that can’t be deducted from the definition of the object. It’s not just the existence of the finished modi; it’s something more: our actions, our soul’s affective impulses, all the infinite variations of our being, living and acting that are made by the meeting of our essence with the things surrounding us. We are not able to deduce “more geometrico” the infinite variety of the human events; we can just see them after that experience has presented them to us. However, we must pay a lot of attention: the teaching of experience has got some limits. Since experience does not teach about the essence, it never shows the cause of things, and it’s not able to tell us when such causes cease to act and others intervene. In any case, what experience tells us is always real. Experience does not cheat: it’s the reading that we do of experience that can be wrong. The ideologies, myths, superstitions and prejudices and also the language, with which we human beings redress the facts, prevent most times to take advantage from experience.

Language is also and in the same time the product of interaction of human bodies among them. In other terms, language is a social product. Therefore, Spinoza says, it’s common people who find and invent new words: “vulgus vocabula primum invenit.” Language is a product of collective interaction; it’s the language (langue) of a population. And, as such, it’s immediately in relation with collective experiences and needs of that population. Only later, with a metaphoric translation (metaphorice translata est) do “philosophers” use terms to indicate the agreement of an idea with its object and begin using them to indicate things. “Atque hanc philosophi postea usurparunt ad denotandam convenientiam ideae cum suo ideato”.[33] And so, when we use the terms “true” and “false” about, for example, gold, it’s as the represented gold told something about itself: it told that it’s or it’s not gold. But, as Spinoza continues, from the point of view of the meaning, this is an illegitimate use of words. This way to give meanings to the words is just rhetorical, and it has not a cognitive aim, but only a practical use for persuasion. It can open to manipulation and domination.

A word does not guarantee the correspondence between representations and things. Human beings (all together as vulgus) understand their relation to things not in the order of truth, but in relation to their immediate needs, through bodily affections. The analysis about the terms “true” and “false” of CM is the first example of what P. F. Moreau[34] called an operation of “philosophical etymology” that Spinoza will repeat in the fourth part of his E. for the term “perfect” and in the TTP for the term “Law”. Thanks to this operation of philosophical etymology, Spinoza shows in the appendix of the first part of his Ethics how the finalist prejudice always requires a critical analysis of language based on this philosophical etymology.

We remember that language is invented by the “vulgus”, i.e. by common people, by ignorant people, and so it’s from the beginning (ab origine) connected to inadequate ideas. The “genetic” or generative cause of language is imagination. That means that it belongs to the order and structure of this kind of spontaneous knowledge; this knowledge that Spinoza calls “cognitio ab experientia vaga”, where “vaga” means wandering, precarious, without a precise direction. Obviously, the word as a sign of an inadequate knowledge conserves a trace of the actual idea, but this idea of affection of the bodies of common people in the interaction with other bodies is an inadequate and confused idea: it’s an image.  And the word as the term that designates this idea is the image of an image. The totality of words leans on the mechanism of memory thanks to some disposition of the body: “verba… prout vage et aliqua dispositiones corporis componuntur in memoria.”[35]

We said that the improper use of words can open to the manipulation and to the subjection. Spinoza warns us that prejudices and superstitions are not only the product of manipulation of dominants over the dominated ones. They can rise spontaneously. Let’s suppose for example a group of individuals that live together. These people are common people who don’t use reason, but live under the yoke of imagination. They impose names to images born from affections of their bodies that interact with each other. As we have already see their imagination is not able to distinguish every specific aspect of each individual, but it will fix in mind those aspects that, for their inclination and habit, strike them most: white skin, size, colour of eyes and hair, etc. This image of human being has characteristics corresponding exactly to the instinctive bent of the group, and to what causes admiration. These individuals are so brought to recognise that sort of human being as the neighbour, and they find the term “man” to designate it. Considering the term as the object they will tend not to recognise as man or human being individuals that don’t fit well with that image. Racial prejudice is thus born.

If then we consider that the effects are an idea of the mind to which an affection of the body corresponds at the same time, and that when the mind has confused and inadequate ideas it’s passive, and that a confused idea is a passion of the soul, then we understand that prejudice is inevitably accompanied by a passion: admiration for the counterpart, diffidence or fear for the different, etc. And since men tend by nature to strictly associate when they fall prey to a common passion such as hope, fear or common desire of revenge,[36] prejudice (which always goes with a passion) risks of being among the natural foundations of political society. However, what characterises a society of human beings, a nation from another, has not its origins in nature. Nature just creates individuals. The habit, the reiterated experience of custom and laws shape the people’s “ingenium”. In the TTP, Spinoza wonders why the Jewish people had moved away so often from the observance of the laws. Was it by nature? No, he answers. The language, the laws and the customs distinguish a community from another and it is just from this the particular nature of a community that its condition and its prejudices derive.[37] Through the language, the customs and the laws, prejudices shape the character of a community, and therefore they participate in the constitutive power of imagination.  At the same time, individual and collective experiences are often misinterpreted by prejudices.

How can we escape from the chain of prejudices? Is knowledge—theoretical, rational—enough to modify prejudices that revealed to be behavioural attitudes, collective affects in addition to illusory tales? Without going back to all aspects of Spinoza’s theory, I’m going to touch upon some suggestions that we can infer from his theory to develop strategies for liberation.

First, we must remember what Spinoza demonstrates in the fourth part of his E.. Till the real knowledge of good and bad remains purely theoretical, it doesn’t modify the human condition; on the contrary, it risks making it worse, because it’s unarmed in front of the power of the affects.[38] It’s therefore useful to develop a strategy of the affects—what Spinoza does in the  fourth part of his E., where he develops what P. Macherey calls “a daily ethics” that  “introduit dans l’espace qui paraît séparer la servitude de la liberté toutes un monde de nuances microscopiques, de determinations intermediaires”.[39] This strategy of the affects can’t get out of being also a strategy of the language. Perhaps this is also the very difficult (perardua) way which Spinoza speaks about at the end of his E.; very difficult because, as we have seen, language is a sign of inadequate knowledge, corresponding the bondage of passions. The dominion of words is such that also philosophy remained prisoner of words and has fallen into a lot of mistakes: “Attamen non miror philosophos verbales, sive grammaticales in similes errores incidere: res enim ex nominibus judicant.”[40] Nevertheless, at the heart of the philosophical project, Spinoza puts the achievement of a Real Good that is communicable.[41]

How can we communicate, speak and, for the philosopher, write, in order to stay clear from illusions, mistakes and prejudices of the imagination, if the language takes root in the imagination?

Spinoza’s answer is not the one to create another language, as for example mathematics did. Neither we can change the language that means to eliminate some words, in order to create others or substitute them with others. We have to transformer the use of the language, by using the same words, the words of common use, to signify something else: “Haec nomina ex communi usu aliud significare scio. Sed meum institutum non est verborum significationem sed rerum naturam explicare easque iis vocabulis indicare quorum significatio quam ex usu habent, a significatione qua eadem usurpare volo, non omnino abhorret, quod semel monuisse sufficiat.”[42]  That’ s what Spinoza does in his E., when he asks himself about definitions. But not only this; the whole of Spinoza’s work urges attention and caution in the use of language: “Caute”. In the whole E., he uses this motto just once and exclusively when referring to human language: “Nam quia haec tria, imagines scilicet verba et ideae, a multis vel plane confunduntur vel non satis accurate vel denique non satis caute distinguuntur”.[43] Caution in the use of words, caution in expressions, caution in the use of metaphors.

Spinoza’s philosophical etymology is therefore a criticism of the use of language, which results into a double consciousness.

First: language is a collective product and it’s meant for the community. Also, the philosophic discourse can be a discourse that really redirects the human being on the real communicable good, when it is within common people’s reach, when language can bond with the common people, and thus prepare them to listen to the truth: “Ad captum vulgi loqui, et illa omnia operari, quae nihil impedimenti adferunt, quominus nostrum scopum attingamus. Nam non parum emolumenti ab eo possumus acquirere, modo ipsius captui, quantum fieri potest, concedamus ; adde, quod tali modo amicas praebebunt aures ad veritatem audiendam.”[44]  Modifying the use of language can’t be just the work of a person or of a group of intellectuals. The wiser person too is always exposed to the danger of the passions and so she’s exposed to the risk of obtuseness; but human beings can also correct their faults by examining the questions, listening, discussing and trying all the intermediate solutions to find what nobody had already thought.[45]

Second: language has an ambiguous strength in itself; words are useful to produce transformations towards the better or the worse. When we make an improper use of it, unknowingly or deliberately, and we manipulate the meanings, the effect can be the loss of individual or social freedom. From here follows Spinoza’s call for caution and attention in the use of words, but at the same time the lack of any specific strategy of and about language divided from that strategy for mastering affects, i.e. the daily morality in the fourth part of his E.



Allport, The nature of prejudice, Reading, MA, USA, Addison-Wesley, 1979

Biasutti, La dottrina della scienza in Spinoza, Padova, Patron, 1979, pp. 140-145

Bove, “La théorie du langage chez Spinoza”, in L’Enseignement Philosophique, 1991, 4, pp. 16-33 and 2005, 1, pp. 24-38

Brunelli, “Religione e dottrina del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, VI, 1977, 4, pp. 755-787

Chiereghin, “Introduzione a Spinoza. La critica del sapere matematico e le aporie del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, V, 1976, 1, pp. 3-23

Descartes, Œuvres, publiées par Charles Adam et Paul Tannery, Paris, Cerf, 1897-1913

d’Holbach,  Essai sur les préjugés ou De l’influence des opinions sur les moeurs et sur le bonh.ur des Hommes. Ouvrage contenant L’apologie de la philosophie par Mr. D.M., Londres: Editeur anonyme, 1770

Gadamer, Wharheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1960

Kant, Logik, in Sämmtliche Werke, bind 4, herausgegeben von Karl Rosenkranz und Fried. Wilh. Schubert, Leopold Voss, Leipzig, 1838

Misrahi, Le désir et la réflexion dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Paris – London – New York, Gordon and Breach, 1972

Moreau, Spinoza, l’ expérience et l’éternité, PUF, Paris, 1994

Moreau, “Langage et pouvoir chez Spinoza”, in P.-F. Moreau, J. Robelin (éd. par), Langage et Pouvoir à l’Âge Classique, Besançon, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2000, pp. 57-67

Spinoza, Opera, Hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt Heidelberg: Carl Winters Verlag, Heidelberg, 1925, 4 Bände

Vinciguerra, Spinoza et le signe. La genèse de l’imagination, Paris, J. Vrin, 2005

Volpato & Manganelli-Rattazzi, “Pregiudizio e immigrazione. Effetti del contatto sulle relazioni interetniche”, in Ricerche di psicologia, 3-4, 2000

Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. Nouvelle edition. Avec des notes; beaucoup plus correcte & plus ample que les précédentes, vol. 2, Amsterdam, chez Varberg, 1765



[1] René Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, AT, VII, 9 (“I yet apprehend that they cannot be adequately understood by many, both because they are also a little lengthy and dependent the one on the other, and principally because they demand a mind wholly free of prejudices, and one which can be easily detached from the affairs of the senses.” René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. Stanley Tweyman, Routlegde, New York, 1993, p. 36, translated by Elisabeth S Haldane and G.R.T Ross).

[2] Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. Nouvelle edition. Avec des notes; beaucoup plus correcte & plus ample que les précédentes, vol. 2, Amsterdam, chez Varberg, 1765, p. 216: “Prejudice is an opinion without judgment. Thus all over the world do people inspire children with all the opinions they desire, before the children can judge.” Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary, Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf, Knopf, New York, 1924.

[3] Ibidem. “they are those which are ratified by judgment when one reasons.” Ibidem.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Logik, Sämmtliche Werke, bind 4, herausgegeben von Karl Rosenkranz und Fried. Wilh. Schubert, Leopold Voss, Leipzig, 1838, p. 89. “It is astonishing that in our age such question can still be advanced, especially that concerning the encouragement of prejudices.” Immanuel Kant, Lectures on logic, translated and edited by J. Michael Young, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[5] See ibidem.

[6] See ibidem.

[7] Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Essai sur les préjugés ou De l’influence des opinions sur les moeurs et sur le bonheur des Hommes. Ouvrage contenant L’apologie de la philosophie par Mr. D.M. Londres: Editeur anonyme, 1770, p. 1.  “Human beings’ ignorance, errors and prejudices are the sources of their evils. The truth is the remedy. …. The truth must sooner or later triumph over error. ” (my own translation)

[8] Ibidem, p. 36.

[9] Ibidem, p. 250; “In order to get morals has ascendancy over human beings, it is necessary to enlighten them on their true interests; in order to make them enlightened, it is necessary that the truth can educate them, for educate them, it is necessary that prejudice is disarmed by reason, then, the nations, free from the childhood  that their tutors strive to make eternal, will engage themselves to reform their institutions, to fight against the abuse of legislation, the false ideas that inspire education, the harmful practices of which they suffer at every moment.”(my own translation)

[10] Ibidem, p. 168.

[11] Ibidem, p. 170 : “Truth has two ways to triumph over error: either by going down from the chiefs to the nations, or by ascending from the nations to their chiefs.” (my translation).

[12]  See cfr  H.G. Gadamer, Wharheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1960.

[13] Gordon Allport, The nature of prejudice, Reading, MA, USA: Addison-Wesley, 1979, p. 9.

[14] See Chiara Volpato and Anna Maria Manganelli-Rattazzi, “Pregiudizio e immigrazione. Effetti del contatto sulle relazioni interetniche”, in  Ricerche di psicologia, 3-4, 2000.

[15] See Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Berlin, Verlag: Bruno Cassirer, 1922, pp. 73 and following.

[16] See Pietro di Vona, Studi sull’ontologia di Spinoza I, Firenze, Nuova Italia, 1960.

[17] See I. S. Revah, “Spinoza et les Heretiques de la communauté judéo-portuguais  d’ Amsterdam”, in Revue d’histoire et des religions, 154, 1958, pp. 173-2I8; Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza, Cambridge Mass.  2 voll., 1934; Geneviève Brykman, La Judêité de Spinoza, Paris, Ed. Vrin, 1973.

[18] See J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[19] Toni Negri, L’anomalia selvaggia: saggio su potere e potenza in Baruch Spinoza, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1981

[20] E.I, appendix, G. II, pp. 77: “which might impede the comprehension of my demonstrations”, Elwes,pag 55. The critical edition used in the text is: Spinoza Opera, Hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt Heidelberg: Carl Winters, 1925. 4 Bände. For the English translation of Ethica we have here referred to: Spinoza, Ethics, translated by R.H.M.Elwes, the Floating press publishing, 2009. The following abbreviations have been used to refer to Spinoza’s writings: E = Ethica, Epistolae = Correspondence, CM = Cogitata Metaphysica, TTP = Tractatus theologico- politicus, TP = Tractatus politicus.

[21] See .E.I, appendix, G.II, pp. 77-83.

[22] The attention on the problem of language in Spinoza is quite recent. Robert Misrahi had already dedicated several enlighting pages of this problem in his  R. Misrahi, Le désir et la réflexion dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Paris – London – New York, Gordon and Breach, 1972, pp. 186-206. We also remeber F. Chiereghin, “Introduzione a Spinoza. La critica del sapere matematico e le aporie del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, V, 1976, 1, pp. 3-23; V. Brunelli, “Religione e dottrina del linguaggio”, in Verifiche VI ,1977, 4, pp. 755-787;  F. Biasutti, La dottrina della scienza in Spinoza, Padova, Patron, 1979, pp. 140-145; L. Bove, “La théorie du langage chez Spinoza”, in L’Enseignement Philosophique ,1991, 4, pp. 16-33 e 2005, 1, pp. 24-38; P.-F. Moreau, Spinoza: L’expérience et l’éternité, Paris, PUF, 1994, pp. 307-378, and “Langage et pouvoir chez Spinoza”, in P.-F. Moreau, J. Robelin (éd. par), Langage et Pouvoir à l’Âge Classique, Besançon, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2000, pp. 57-67. Lastly let’s remember L. Vinciguerra, Spinoza et le signe. La genèse de l’imagination, Paris, J. Vrin, 2005.

[23] TI, G.I, , p. 33: “as they are in the imagination”.

[24] E.III, def.3, G.II, p. 139.

[25] See L. Bove, cit. p. 18.

[26] See CM. I, 1, G.I, p. 231.

[27] E.II, prop.XL, sch.1, G.II, p.107. “For instance, those who have most often regarded with admiration the stature of man, will by the name of man understand an animal of erect stature; those who have been accustomed to regard some other attribute, will form a different general image of man, for instance, that man is a laughing animal, a two-footed animal without feathers, a rational animal, and thus, in other cases, everyone will form general images of things according to the habit of his body.” Elswer, p. 122.

[28] Ibidem, “from the thought of the word pomum (an apple), a Roman would straightway arrive at the thought of the fruit apple, which has no similitude with the articulate sound in question, nor anything in common with it, except that the body of the man has often been affected by these two things; that is, that the man has often heard the word pomum, while he was looking at the fruit; similarly every man will go on from one thought to another, according as his habit has ordered the images of things in his body.” Ibidem

[29]  E.II, prop. XVIII, sch.G.II, p. 63  “For a soldier, for instance, when he sees the tracks of a horse in sand, will at once pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a horseman, and thence to the thought of war, &c.; while a countryman will proceed from the thought of a horse to the thought of a plough, a field, &c. Thus every man will follow this or that train of thought, according as he has been in the habit of conjoining and associating the mental images of things in this or that manner.” Elwes, p.102.

[30] See CM, I,6, G.I, p. 246.

[31] See P.F. Moreau, Experience, cit. These remarks on experience are taken from my own work, Paola de Cuzzani: ““Essere donna” e cittadinanza. La differenza sessuale nella filosofia di Spinoza” in Donne e filosofia, a cura di M. Marsonet, ERGA ed. Genova, 2011, pp. 27-37.

[32] See Epistolae, G. IV, p. 47.

[33] CM, I,VI. G.I. p. 246: “later philosophers made use of this signification to denote the agreement or disagreement of an idea with his object” in Spinoza Principles of Cartesian Philosophy: with Metaphysical Thoughts , transl. by Samuel Shirley, ed by S. Barbone and L.Rice, Hackett publishing C.Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1998, p. 107.

[34] See P. F. Moreau, Spinoza, l’ expérience et l’éternité, PUF, p. 366.

[35] TI G. I, p. 33: “we   form many  conceptions  in  accordance  with  confused arrangements  of  words  in  the  memory,   dependent  on  particular bodily  conditions”. Translated by R. H. M.  Elwes.

[36] See TP, III, 9, G.III, p. 284.

[37] See TTP, cap.XVII, G.III, p.217.

[38] See E. IV, 17. sch, G. II, p.177.

[39] P. Macherey, “Ethique IV, propositions 70-71. La vie sociale des hommes libres”, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 1994, n°4, p. 459. “…that introduces into space, which seems to separate servitude from liberty, a whole world of microscopic nuances, of intermediate determinations” (my own translation).

[40] CM.I1, G.I, p. 235: “Still, I am not surprise that verbal or grammatical philosophers fall into errors like these, for they judge things from words”, transl. by Samuel Shirley, op. cit. p. 96.

[41] See TI, G. I,  p. 5.

[42] E.III, aff. Def.20, expl. “I am aware that these terms are employed in senses somewhat different from those usually assigned. But my purpose is to explain, not the meaning of words, but the nature of things. I therefore make use of such terms, as may convey my meaning without any violent departure from their ordinary signification. One statement of my method will suffice.” Trans. Elwes, p. 235.

[43] E. II, prop 49, sch, “These three–namely, images, words, and ideas–are by many persons either entirely confused together, or not distinguished with sufficient accuracy or care” Elwes, p.138.

[44] TI.G.II,  p. 9, “To  speak   in a manner  intelligible to the multitude,  and to comply  with  every  general  custom  that  does  not  hinder  the attainment  of  our  purpose.  (17:3) For we can gain from the multitude  no  small  advantages,  provided  that  we  strive to accommodate  ourselves  to its understanding as far as possible: moreover,  we  shall in this way gain a friendly audience for the reception of the truth.” Transl. by Elwes.

[45] TP. 9, XIV, G.III, p. 352.

Gina Dahl, Libraries and Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Norway and the Outer World (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014)

In “Libraries and Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Norway and the Outer World,” Gina Dahl offers a marvelous insight into the intellectual life of Eighteenth-Century Norway by looking at library collections in Norway. This is a clever and engaging way to understand and analyze intellectual aspects of the Enlightenment.

Continue reading Gina Dahl, Libraries and Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Norway and the Outer World (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014)

Freedom of the Press – Two Concepts



Within Western democracies there exists a well-established agreement on the importance of a free press, which figures prominently in their constitutions since the nineteenth century. However, disagreement emerged as soon as the limits of this freedom had to be defined. As much as everyone agreed on the necessity of having limits, there seemed to be no accord on where these limits should be. The history of freedom of the press is a history of the debates on the limits and borders of a free press.[1]

There is no “original meaning of freedom of the press,”[2] a formula which is often used in order to give weight to an argument. Our modern understanding of freedom of the press is the result of different historic developments and philosophical ideas from the nineteenth century, which explain the different limits for a free press in the twenty-first century.

In the western world, the two main reasons for limiting freedom of the press are defending state interests and/or personal rights. There is a stronger emphasis in the Anglo-American world towards limiting the free press for reasons of state security than in the Federal Republic of Germany and vice versa when personal rights where are involved. In the first decades after the war, these differences did not play an important role as long the Cold War had a unifying impact on western societies, but with the end of the Cold War differences became apparent. The different perceptions on the limits of a free press were the result of two arguments used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for justifying a free press combined with a different historical context. By tracing the debate in the English-speaking world and in Germany, these two different arguments will become visible.

In 1644 the debate for freedom of expression started in modern times thanks to John Milton’s Areopagitica, where he still argued about God in order to justify his quest for freedom. With the enlightenment God lost his unifying role for society and could no longer serve as justification. Two arguments were brought then forward to justify freedom of the press: One by the continental movement of the enlightenment; the other from within the movement of utilitarianism, and most influentially by John Stuart Mill. Both underlined the importance of truth; however, they differed in their understanding on what truth was good for. This difference in their arguments had a lasting impact on the debate of the limits of freedom of the press. 



Freedom of speech and its limits

Formally the argument for free speech or free press[3] has been the same since John Milton’s time. Freedom was seen as a necessary means of realizing an aim for which wide social acceptance existed.  Milton needed to justify his quest for freedom of expression with an argument understandable to his contemporaries and for a man of the seventeenth century only God provided the basis for this argument. It was Milton´s challenge to connect freedom of expression to God. He did it in two ways. Firstly, in a purely rhetorical way, he linked censorship to the Catholic Church, reminding his reader that it was their invention and therefore unworthy of a country such as England.[4] This argument sounded convincing in a society where he could be sure that the Catholic Church was seen as an enemy. In his second more sophisticated argument, he linked truth to God: “Truth is strong, next to the Almighty”[5] and argued that it is our duty to God to seek truth.[6]

A large part of his argument was dedicated to demonstrating that freedom of expression was necessary to searching for truth. The role of freedom as a means for reaching a higher aim became evident when he set its limits. Freedom, he pointed out, was not intended for “popery, and open superstition”[7]. In other words, as the Catholic Church could not, for Milton, contribute towards truth-finding, they had no right to publicity. For him, the Catholic Church, described as the most “anti-Christian”[8] institution, was by definition excluded from enjoying any freedom of expression.

More broadly, however, Milton outlined with this text the construction of the argument for a free press. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the argument was the same; only God needed to be replaced with something else.



The English way

When Milton wrote Areopagitica, the newspaper had just been invented and it was not so much the journalist – a profession which did not exist in his time – whose freedom he had in mind, but more the righteous intellectual like himself. It was only in the nineteenth century that the newspaper became mass media and the debate on freedom of expression was led under the headline of freedom of the press. The newspaper could hardly be linked to the promotion of God’s truth and, due to the enlightenment, God as an ultimate justification could no more be taken for granted. The argument that Milton had brought forward needed therefore to be adapted to the changing times.

James Mill is a good example on how to do so, by replacing God with the social goals of utilitarianism. As a good friend of Jeremy Bentham, he believed utilitarianism would provide the ultimate fundament for society. In his 1823 essay Liberty of the Press he appealed first of all to common sense, such that everyone must be convinced that a society based on moral principles would achieve the highest happiness for all, which is the crucial criterion of utilitarian ethics. He needed to emphasize this since, unlike Milton, he had to justify the aim that he was striving for, whereas Milton, as a religious man of his time, was able to take God for granted.

However, just like Milton, he had to connect freedom of the press to the best possible society:  

We may then ask, if there are any possible means by which the people can make a good choice, besides the liberty of the press? The very foundation of a good choice is knowledge. The fuller and more perfect the knowledge, the better the chance, where all sinister interest is absent, of a good choice. How can the people receive the most perfect knowledge relative to the characters of those who present themselves to their choice, but by information conveyed freely, and without reserve, from one to another? There is another use of the freedom of the press, no less deserving the most profound attention, that of making known the conduct of the individuals who have been chosen. This latter service is of so much importance, that upon it the whole value of the former depends.[9]


James Mill – like Milton before him – saw a link between knowledge and freedom. The results of the last Pisa survey seemed not to suggest this, though. The difference vis-à-vis Milton consists in knowledge no longer serving God but allowing the creation of the ideal society.[10] An ideal society being for him a moral society and the freedom of the press promoting morality, since the individual would be scared that his sinful ways could be exposed to the public[11]

Everybody believes and proclaims, that the universal practice of the moral virtues would ensure the highest measure of human happiness; no one doubts that the misery which, to so deplorable a degree, overspreads the globe, while men injure men, and instead of helping and benefiting, supplant, defraud, mislead, pillage, and oppress, one another, would thus be nearly exterminated, and something better than the dreams of the golden age would be realized upon earth. Toward the attainment of this most desirable state of things, nothing in the world is capable of contributing so much as the full exercise of truth upon all immoral actions.[12]


In his argument he could no longer refer to religious authority; he had to refer instead to the intellectual authorities of his time in order to strengthen his position.[13] Like Milton, the aim he strived for defined the limits of the freedom:  

It will be said, however, that though all opinions may be delivered, and the grounds of them stated, it must be done in calm and gentle language. Vehement expressions, all words and phrases calculated to inflame, may justly be regarded as indecent, because they have a tendency rather to pervert than rectify the judgment.[14]


His argument sounds in the twenty-first century rather weak since it might provide reason for censorship instead for a free press. Any front-page of the yellow press might fail James Mill’s criteria for decency. 

It was left to his son John Stuart Mill to provide the argument with the biggest impact to the debate. Without the moral tone of his father argued for the necessity of a free press in order to create the best possible society. And his text On Liberty provided the printing press with the argument against “stamp duty” and censorship:

If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.


The printing press in England got with Mill a moral justification for their business. And they needed it, since the reputation of the journalist in the beginning of the nineteenth century was rather low seen as a “greedy adventurer”. With Mill they could claim an important social role in the society. By promoting the idea that the media was the fourth estate, a watchdog for the public interest and a speaker of public opinion a remarkable change occurred in the nineteenth century in England – the once distrusted media became an important and recognized player in society. Of course Mill himself was interested in it, since he saw the media also as a tool to promote his ideas as George Boyce concluded: “Like many political philosophers, the Utilitarians directed their ideas to a practical aim; and not only did they provide the press with an ideology but they also had contacts with the press which enabled them to advance their principles.”[15]

Even when it was obvious that the development and use of the freedom was not conducted in “calm and gentle language” as his father James had thought “the myth of the Forth estate continued to prosper” [16].



The struggle in Germany

The debate in Germany differed for a number of reasons: first of all Utilitarianism was never a strong philosophical or political movement in Germany. Mill wanted to reform English society with his liberal ideas, while Hegel left this to the Weltgeist. Nietzsche made it clear what he thought of a philosophy striving for happiness: “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.”[17]

Also early German contributions to the debate of press freedom were emerging from the Romantic Movement, and as in the case of Ludwig Börne, had little practical impact:

Public opinion is not the friend of the established order of the bourgeois society, and that makes the freedom of speech all the more necessary. Public opinion is a lake, which, if you curb him and put stays as long rises until he falls foaming over his place, flooded the land and sweeps everything away by itself. But where he is given an unimpeded run because it breaks up into a thousand streams varied speech and writing, which, peaceful flowing through the land, irrigate and fertilize it . The governments that suppress freedom of speech, because the truths they spread, they are annoying, make it as little children, which shut the eyes to be seen. Fruitless efforts! Where the Living Word is feared, since the death of the troubled soul will not bring peace. The ghost of the murdered thoughts frighten the suspicious prosecutor who slew them, no less than this even done in life. The free flow of public opinion, whose waves are the days writings , is the German Rubicon on which bore the lust for power and might ponder whether they pass him and take the expensive country and the world with him in bloody mess , or whether they themselves to defeat and stick out.[18] 


Even if it is beautifully written, the Weltgeist didn’t think Germany ready for it. When social reformers such as Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle, in the middle of the nineteenth century, had finally an impact on society, it was not possible to integrate their ideas into a common struggle for freedom of the press as was the case in England.

In England Mill’s ideas could be integrated and taken up by the media as the Utilitarians provided the press with the arguments needed for claiming their role as the fourth estate. In Germany social reformers positioned themselves in opposition to the press and provided the press with arguments to reject their ideas. Ferdinand Lassalle, one of the founders of the workers’ movement in Germany, claimed: “Our main enemy, the main enemy of the healthy development of the German spirit and the German people, is the press nowadays. (…) Its mendacity, their depravity, their immorality is only outbid by nothing other than perhaps by its ignorance. “[19]

Calling the work of the journalist “prostitution of the spirit”[20] might not have helped improve his standing in the media world. So when Lassalle like Mill called for a free press, the publishing houses were as much on the alert as the government, since he saw not only state interference as a problem, but he questioned also the impact of business interests on freedom of the press: “If someone wants to make money, he may fabricate cotton or cloth or play on the stock market. But that for the sake of filthy gain one is ready to poisoning all the fountains of the spirit of the people and serves the people their spiritual death daily from a thousand tubes – it is the highest crime I can imagine.” [21]

He wished to free the press from advertisements, since he saw in the economic strength of the media an obstacle to its freedom. Lassalle was therefore in line with Karl Marx, who defended freedom of the press in his early writings, underlying that “that the first freedom of the press is not being a business. The writer which degrades it to a material mean deserves as a punishment for this inner lack of freedom also the outer lack of freedom, the censor.”[22] The publisher of the nineteenth century who turned printing into an enterprise could not have taken Börne, Marx or Lassalle on board in their struggle for a free press.



Kant’s heritage

There is however one German philosopher who has had a lasting impact on the debate and on the perception of freedom of the press in Germany: Immanuel Kant. Kant’s argument differs fundamentally from John Stuart Mill’s. Mill is interested in negative freedom, which means absence of regulation to ensure the best possible society; while Kant’s concern is positive freedom,[23] having an enlightened individual able to accept laws made through rational choice. Therefore Kant called for the Enlightenment so that “Man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” could occur[24]. For Kant this immaturity kept man unfree. In order to achieve enlightenment, Kant asked for the free use of reason: “And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.”[25] However, Kant’s practical suggestion to allow “public use of one’s reason” is a means; the liberated self is the aim. The debate in the Mittwochsgesellschaft  one of the most important German societies in the eighteenth century that promoted enlightenment – showed this when one of the members concluded: “I believe completely unlimited press freedom would surely be misused, most by the unenlightened, and it cannot therefore be a means of enlightenment.”[26] The members of the society wanted to promote enlightenment and the debate about freedom of the press centered on the question of the extent to which freedom of press might be a means to achieve it.

When, after the first World War, the Weimar republic created its first democratic constitution, freedom of the press was included; however, as Jürgen Wilke remarked:  “In this respect, one can say that although the idea of freedom of expression as a human right entered the Weimar Constitution, but not its traditional utilitarian justification.”[27] 

After the Second World War and its dramatic experiences, the Kantian categorical imperative to treat man “never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” did materialize by having the “dignity of man” as the first article of the German Basic Law. In a study by Katja Stamm concerning the judgments of the highest courts in Germany, she pointed out that of course press freedom was recognized as a necessity for a functional democratic society, but it also emphasized this Kantian heritage in seeing the value “freedom of expression for the individual development of the personality.”[28]

There is the explanation for German judges limiting freedom of the press when it threatened dignity e.g. as in the case of hate-speech, while for example in the English-speaking world David Irving with his denying of the Holocaust was described as a “free speech martyr”.[29]

It also explains the different reactions to the latest National Security Agencies revelations. Living in a Benthamite panopticum might be safe and happy and, as the British tabloid journalist Paul McMullan expressed it, “Privacy is for peados,”[30] but it signals equally the end of the Kantian autonomous individual.




The discussion of free press in the English-speaking world is about the correct interpretation of John Stuart Mill. In the recently published Free speech. A very short introduction, by Oxford University Press, Mill figures prominently and his ideas are getting a whole chapter in it, while Kant is never mentioned. Contrary to a recently published Eine Ideengeschichte der Freiheit, where Mill is mentioned 23 times, compared to Kant’s 457.

The Kantian link between negative freedom as one’s use of reason in public to the idea of the autonomous individual, which is always an end to itself and cannot be a just a means for a utilitarian better society, allows German journalists and editors to have a self-regulation in place where they underline this Kantian idea of “preservation of human dignity”. The first article of the German journalist code of ethics reads therefore: “Respect for the truth, preservation of human dignity and accurate informing of the public are the overriding principles of the press.”[31] 

In the US, the Hutchins Commission concluded already in 1947 that “Freedom of the press for the coming period can only continue as an accountable freedom. Its moral right will be conditioned on its acceptance of this accountability. Its legal right will stand unaltered as its moral duty is performed.”[32] However, instead of following the findings of the commission, twenty years later freedom of expression was the winning argument for Larry Flint in the legal battle for publications of pornography.

State security, however, seemed to be to a much wider extent an acceptable reason for interfering with press freedom in Britain than in Germany. In 2007 the prosecutors dropped all charges against 17 journalists in Germany for disclosing state secrets, while in England in the same year David Keogh and Leo O’Connor were “jailed under the Official Secret Act 1989 for leaking a secret memo detailing discussions between Tony Blair and George Bush in August 2004 about an alleged American proposal to bomb the Arabic television channel al-Jazeere.”[33]

The differences between the German- and the English-speaking will increase as freedom versus security and privacy continue to be seen under either a Kantian or Millian view.


[1] This was pointed out by Friedrich von Gentz already in 1838: “Die große Spaltung der Meinung hebt erst an, wenn die Frage aufgeworfen wird, welche Art gesetzlicher Schranken die beste und zweckmäßigste sei, um in Rücksicht auf den Gebrauch der Presse, das Interesse der Gesamtheit zu sichern, ohne die Freiheit der Einzelnen zu zerstören.“ Friedrich von Gentz, Die Pre?freiheit in England, 1838, in: Pressefreiheit, p. 144.

[2]  A formula which gives you thousands of search results on google.

[3] I do not distinguish in this paper between freedom of press and freedom of expression as it is not valid for the argument made in this paper.

[4] After which time the Popes of Rome, engrossing what they pleased of political rule into their own hands, extended their dominion over men’s eyes, as they had before over their judgments, burning and prohibiting to be read what they fancied not;(…) And thus ye have the inventors and the original of book-licensing ripped up and drawn as lineally as any pedigree. We have it not, that can be heard of, from any ancient state, or polity or church; nor by any statute left us by our ancestors elder or later; nor from the modern custom of any reformed city or church abroad, but from the most anti-christian council and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired. John Milton. Areopagitica, The Harvard Classics. http://www.bartleby.com/3/3/3.html last visited 25 April 2014.

[5] Milton. Areopagitica.

[6] “Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who, as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb, still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall do, till her Master’s second coming; he shall bring together every joint and member, and shall mould them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection. Suffer not these licensing prohibitions to stand at every place of opportunity, forbidding and disturbing them that continue seeking, that continue to do our obsequies to the torn body of our martyred saint.” Milton, Areopagitica.

[7] “Yet if all cannot be of one mind–as who looks they should be?–this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian, that many be tolerated, rather than all compelled. I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled: that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or manners no law can possibly permit, that intends not to unlaw itself:” Milton, Areopagitica.

[8] Milton, Areopagitica.

[9] James Mill, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825). 3/25/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_88

[10] Also this link can be doubted, see for example Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985).

[11] His argument does not sound very convincing in a world where Paris Hilton and her like are heroes.

[12] James Mill, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825). 3/26/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_52

[13] There is, indeed, hardly any law of human nature more generally recognized, wherever there is not a motive to deny its existence. “To the position of Tully, that if Virtue could be seen, she must be loved, may be added,” says Dr. Johnson, “that if Truth could be heard, she must be obeyed.” (Rambler, No. 87.)—“Je vous plains, mes Péres,” says Mons. Pascal to the Jesuits, “d’avoir recours à de tels remèdes. Vous croyez avoir la force et l’impunité: mais je crois avoir la verité, et l’innocence. C’est une etrange et longue guerre que celle ou la violence essaie d’opprimer la verité. Tous les efforts de la violence ne peuvent affoiblir la verité, et ne servent qu’à la relever davantage: toutes les lumières de la verité ne peuvent rien pour arrêter la violence, et ne font que l’irriter encore plus. Quand la force combat la force, la plus puissante detruit la moindre: quand l’on expose les discours aux discours, ceux qui sont veritables et convainquants confondent et dissipent ceux qui n’ont que la vanité et le mensonge.” (Lett. Provinc. [23] 12.)—“Reason,” says Burke, “clearly and manfully delivered, has in itself a mighty force; but reason, in the mouth of legal authority, is, I may fairly say, irresistible.” (Lett. on Regicide Peace.) James Mill, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825). 3/31/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_108 .

[14] The text can be found here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_151

[15] “W.T. Stead, (…): A newspaperman must have good copy, and a good copy was ‘oftener to be found among the outcast and the disinherited of the earth than among the fat and well fed citizens.’ Hence, ‘selfishness makes the editor more concerned about the vagabond, the landless man, and the deserted child. (…) It was, for example the sensationalism of the ‘Bitter cry of outcast London’, (…) that led to the appointment of a Royal Commission on the Housing of the poor.”George Boyce, The Fourth Estate: the reappraisal of a concept, in: Newspaper History from the 17th century to the present day, edited by George Boyce, Thomas Curan and Pauline Wingate, Constable, 1978

[16] Boyce, The Fourth Estate, p. 25.

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Götzen-Dämmerung – Twilight of the Idols 1895, http://www.handprint.com/SC/NIE/GotDamer.html, last visited at 25 April 2014.

[18] „Die öffentliche Meinung ist der bestehenden Ordnung der bürgerlichen Dinge nicht hold, und das macht die Freiheit der Rede um so nötiger. Die öffentliche Meinung ist ein See, der, wenn man ihn dämmt und aufhält, so lange steigt, bis er schäumend über seine Schranken stürzt, das Land überschwemmt und alles mit sich fortreißt. Wo ihm aber ein ungehinderter Lauf gegeben ist, da zerteilt er sich in tausend Bäche mannigfaltiger Rede und Schrift, die, friedlich durch das Land strömend, es bewässern und befruchten. Die Regierungen, welche die Freiheit der Rede unterdrücken, weil die Wahrheiten, die sie verbreiten, ihnen lästig sind, machen es wie die Kinder, welche die Augen zuschließen, um nicht gesehen zu werden. Fruchtloses Bemühen! Wo das lebendige Wort gefürchtet wird, da bringt auch dessen Tod der unruhigen Seele keinen Frieden. Die Geister der ermordeten Gedanken ängstigen den argwöhnischen Verfolger, der sie erschlug, nicht minder, als diese selbst im Leben es getan. Der freie Strom der öffentlichen Meinung, dessen Wellen die Tagesschriften sind, ist der deutsche Rubikon, an welchem die Herrschsucht weilen und sinnen mag, ob sie ihn überschreiten und das teure Vaterland und mit ihm die Welt in blutige Verwirrung bringen, oder ob sie sich selbst besiegen und abstehen soll.“ Ludwig Börne, Die Freiheit der Presse in Bayern, 1818, http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/B%C3%B6rne,+Ludwig/Schriften/Aufs%C3%A4tze+und+Erz%C3%A4hlungen/Die+Freiheit+der+Presse+in+Bayern.

[19] Unser Hauptfeind, der Hauptfeind aller gesunden Entwicklung des deutschen Geistes und des deutschen Volkstums, das ist heutzutage die Presse. (…) Ihre Lügenhaftigkeit, ihre Verkommenheit, ihre Unsittlichkeit werden von nichts anderen überboten als vielleicht von ihrer Unwissenheit.“ Ferdinand Lassalle, Die Presse. Ein Symptom des öffentlichen Geistes, 1863, hier zitiert nch Pressefreiheit, S. 222.

[20] P. 232.

[21] „Wenn jemand Geld verdienen will, so mag er Cotton fabrizieren oder Tuche oder auf der Börse spielen. Aber dass man um schnöden Gewinstes willen alle Brunnen des Volksgeistes vergifte und dem Volk den geistigen Tod täglich aus tausend Röhren kredenze – – es ist das höchste Verbrechen, das ich fassen kann.“ Ferdinand LASAALLE, Die Presse, 1863, hier zotiert nach, Pressefreiheit, S. 232.

[22] „Die erste Freiheit der Presse besteht darin, kein Gewerbe zu sien. Dem Schriftsteller, der sie zum materiallen Mittel herabsetzt, gebuehrt als Strafe dieser inneren Unfreiheit die aeussere, die Zensur.“, Karl Max, Die Verhandlungen des 6. Rheinischen Landtags, in Rheinische Zeitung, Nr. 139, 19 May 1842, hier zitiert nach Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Pressefreiheit und Zensur, edited by Iring Fetcher, Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt am Main 1969, p. 92

[23] For the defintitions of negative and positive freedom, see: Isaiah Berlin, Two concepts of freedom.

[24] Immanuel Kant, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, in: Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784, pp. 484-485.

[25] Immanuel Kant, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, in: Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784, p. 484.

[26] Eckart Hellmuth, Enlightement and Freedom of the Press: The Debate in the Berlin Mittwochsgesellschaft, 1783-1784, p. 431.

[27] „Insofern kann man sagen, dass zwar die Vorstellung von Meinungsfreiheit als Menschenrecht, nicht aber ihre überlieferte utilitaristische  Begründung in die Weimarer Reichsverfassung einging.“ Pressefreiheit, hrsg. Jürgen Wilke, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1984.  P. 34.

[28] „Hohen Wert der Meinungsfreiheit für die individuelle Entfaltung der Persönlichkeit anerkannt.” Katja Stamm, Das Bundesverfassungs-Gericht und die Meinungsfreiheit, AUS POLITIK UND ZEITGESCHICHTE (B 37-38/2001), http://www.bpb.de/apuz/26023/bundesverfassungs-gericht

[29] David Irving two pages  after dealing with Mill as “from discredited historian to free speech martyr.” Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction. By Nigel Warburton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 36.

[30] Paul McMullan lays bare newspaper dark arts at Leveson inquiry, The Guardian 29 November 2011,  http://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/nov/29/paul-mcmullan-leveson-inquiry-phone-hacking, retrieved the 7 April 2014

[31] See German press code, first article: http://ethicnet.uta.fi/germany/german_press_code, last visited 29 April 2014.

[32] THE COMMISSION ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS,  A FREE  AND RESPONSIBLE PRESS, A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspapers, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines, and Books https://archive.org/details/freeandresponsib029216mbp. Last visited 29 April 2014.

[33] Juilian Petley, Censorship and Freedom of Speech, in: The Media. An Introduction, edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Paul Cobley, Third edition, Pearson Essex, 2010, p. 322.

Francesca Bregoli, Mediterranean Enlightenment. Livornese Jews, Tuscan Culture, and Eighteenth-Century Reform (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014)


The archaeology of Etruria (e.g. the Phoenician elements in the royal tombs of Pisa and the temple of Pyrgi), the Islamic contribution to the Romanesque Art of Pisa and Florence, and the life of Leonardo Fibonacci da Pisa (i.e. the mathematician who introduced Arab numbers in Europe) are only a few notable examples of this long and intense relationship that needs to be better known, both by scholars and by the public at large.


The last main chapter of this long Semitic history of Tuscany is the one related to the Jewish communities of the region. The main Jewish community in Tuscany was that of Livorno, the new harbour-city of Pisa, created by Medici dynasty as the new commercial hub of Tuscany and one of the main commercial centres of the Mediterranean region. Livorno, once called simply “Porto Pisano” was from the very beginning of its history declared porto franco and put under the protection of the Tuscan Navy of the Military Order of Saint Stephen, which had its monastic and educational buildings in Pisa, but its arsenal and fortress in Livorno. Together with its mother-city Pisa, the site of the Tuscan University and of the Royal Palace, Livorno, which was well-linked to Pisa by a large network of canals, was a kind of second capital of Tuscany, after Florence.


In Livorno, Tuscany offered full protection from any interference to everybody ready to participate in the economic life and growth of the country. Religious freedom was guaranteed to everybody and even the Papal Inquisition could not enter the city. The interaction between Tuscan culture and the minority cultures in Livorno produced very interesting fruits, both in demotic and educated cultural forms. Studies like those conducted by Fabrizio Franceschini on the linguistic and literary landscape of Livorno during the 18th and 19th centuries have proved it clearly.


Today, after the end of the porto franco, the devastation of the second world war and the damnatio memoriae enacted by the Italian Kingdom as well as by Fascist and Republican industrialism and urbanization, visitors have no easy task finding the remains of the long and glorious past of Livorno. But with a good guide and a boat, you can find in the network of canals the still-standing monuments of the “Venice of Tuscany”: the Jews’ ghetto, the Protestant churchyard, the Dutch docks, the Armenian and Greek-Orthodox church, the Greek-Catholic church and the Church of the Corsican Nation.


If you are not going to visit Livorno in near future, then the book by Francesca Bregoli, assistant professor at the Queens College of the City University in New York, is a valid alternative that offers you an impressive experience of Livorno’s past. The book brings you to know the life of Livorno’s Jewish community during the 18th century, at the time when many Jewish intellectuals participated actively in the economic, cultural and scientific life of the Tuscan nation. Despite the scholarly character of the book, meant to clarify how Jewish minorities related to non-Jewish cultural traditions in 18th-century Mediterranean regions, the book is very enjoyable even to a reader that is not specialized in Jewish studies.


Combining the analysis of economic data, judicial and governmental documents with cultural analyses of the nazione ebrea of Livorno, the book covers the development of Jews cultural institutions in Livorno during the period going from the final two decades of Medicean rule over Tuscany to the departure of Grand Duke Leopold I for Vienna in 1790. The first four chapters trace the participation of the Jewish community, protected by the Tuscan rulers, in Tuscan culture, its awareness of Enlightenment thought, and the related scientific reformist aspirations. These first chapters show also how Tuscan Galilean culture helped local intellectuals, including the nazione ebrea, to adopt Enlightenment culture. Particular focus is cast upon Joseph Attias, Angelo de Soria, Joseph Vita Castelli, Graziadio Bondì, and how attendance of studies at the University of Pisa strengthened the ties between Jewish intelligentsia and the Tuscan State.


Chapter Five is dedicated to Tuscan Enlightenment reformism, which was appreciated and studied all over Europe at that time, and it shows how changes in Tuscan public health did not diminish the spiritual concerns of benevolent confraternities. The three final chapters concentrate on Jewish reactions to Tuscan reformist efforts that had important consequences on the economic and political life of the nazione ebrea. In particular, chapter Six explores 18th-century Jewish and Tuscan governmental attempts to regulate social behavior by focusing on Jewish coffeehouses and the laws on gambling within those premises. The chapter shows, for example, that in the sphere of leisure time, developments in the nazione ebrea paralleled and mirrored reformist endeavours championed by the Tuscan authorities at large. Chapter Seven is dedicated to the study of Leopold I’s reforms on the cultural life of the nazione ebrea, especially on Livornese Hebrew printing activity.


The final chapter takes a comparative look at the processes of Jewish inclusion in the 1780s, suggesting the need to look at the Tuscan example in a different way from that used to explain better-known cases of continental Western Europe and in already studied “port Jews” cases. Among the most interesting conclusions of the study we can mention the fact that commercial utility justifying the many rights of the Livornese Jewish community bolstered its corporatist understanding and hindered the political emancipation of its individual members.


The book is without doubt an important contribution to the knowledge of Tuscan history and it also demonstrates the importance of studying Tuscany as a separate cultural and institutional reality, therefore inviting to be cautious vis-à-vis applying to Tuscany what has been concluded about other parts of 18th-century Italy and Europe.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Introduzione al pensiero politico di Habermas. Il dialogo della ragione dilagante (Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2010)

Our age of crisis has taken many more forms than just the widespread rejection of Enlightenment ideals. Possibly, its most visible contemporary manifestations are: (a) the devastation of the planet’s “ecological equilibrium” (25); (b) the consistent anthropological impoverishment and individualistic atomisation of human societies (e.g. “social conflicts” read as individual “psychic problems” [26]; “anomie” [31]; “confusion between… [individual] success and… [collective] understanding” [32]); and (c) the undiminished international instability (e.g. religion’s “self-destructive forms” [63]; “Western military interventions in various areas of the planet” [77] ).

Patiently and laboriously, Habermas has addressed in his complex oeuvre all of the aforementioned forms of crisis of our age. It is Giacomantonio’s task to survey Habermas’ accounts in this slender book (99 pages).

Specifically, Giacomantonio praises the erudite, articulate and abstract “theoretical wealth” of leading German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) as a rare exception to current scholarly and scientific trends (78). Avoiding academic partisanships and specialist parochialisms, Habermas is said to have scrutinised and engaged with an “ample spectrum of stances” in the attempt to provide a reasoned, synthetic as well as analytical understanding of the enduring age of crisis (77). Swimming against the current, Habermas believes the Enlightenment project—modernity itself—to have to be brought to completion, not discarded.

Habermas’ first major intellectual accomplishments are claimed to be his 1960s and 1970s studies in the economic and administrative structures of late-modern Western industrial societies. Then, Habermas focused primarily upon the legitimisation of such structures via political procedures of mass participation, as well as upon the growing class fluidity, which Giacomantonio describes as the “dissolution” and “fragmentation” of traditional class consciousness and discourses (25).

According to Habermas, the post-war decades had seen capitalist societies benefiting from large-scale entrepreneurial pursuits, under the cooperative scrutiny and sophisticated direction of the State, which allowed these pursuits to serve vastly accepted inclusive social aims (e.g. “urban and regional planning”, “research and development”, “unemployment benefits”, “public welfare”; 25). These aims facilitated the legitimisation of the pursuits themselves, as well as the State’s own authority. Then, this virtuous circularity ended. For Habermas, the 1970s mark the beginning of the age of crisis.

The 1970s “late” or “mature” capitalism (23) continued to display massive State intervention in the economy. Yet, an increasing outgrowth of private interests started to escape from State control, leading to “systemic” failures (24) and to a generalised loss of faith in the State. This reduction of legitimacy was indicated by declining political participation, which was due too to the opacity of class consciousness in now tertiary-dominated economies. A variety of rescue plans were implemented by national governments, often via ever-increasing State intervention and techno-scientific legitimisation thereof. Regularly, these plans proved of little success, at least as the previous inclusive social aims were concerned.

Rather, the recurring reliance upon science and technology as grounds for political action induced considerable “de-politicisation” (28) of collective life and institutional decision-making. Within this novel frame of reference, whereby political issues were turned into “technical problems”(28), the public opinion was morphed into a passive spectator or sheer recipient of the diktats of a self-enclosed—and often self-serving—“expert” bureaucracy. In any case, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decades started to wane, becoming a more and more remote memory of better, foregone times.

It is Habermas’ opinion that the highly educated “expert” bureaucrats of recent decades have failed consistently to perceive the unavoidable connection between factual scientific investigation and value-driven technical application. To counter this phenomenon, Habermas has recommended the establishment of a more open critical exchange amongst experts and between experts and the public at large. In this perspective, communication should serve as an antidote to the former’s intellectual insularity and to the latter’s political disaffection.

Concerned with the de-politicisation of socio-political phenomena and populations of democratic countries, Habermas began to explore the socio-political relevance of “communication and linguistic dimensions” that were to become the hallmark of his later intellectual production (31). Indeed, the 1980s witnessed a vast output of studies by Habermas on the deeper structures of anthropological impoverishment and atomisation in modern nations. In them, Habermas came to conceive of “society” as comprising: (a) the “system” of professional, formal networks of “strategic behaviour”; and (b) the personal, informal “life-world” of existentially meaningful behaviour (“Lebenswelt”; 31). On the one hand, human activity was being described by Habermas as the “success” or “influence” of the competitive individual; whilst on the other stood the truly life-defining, cooperative linguistic (“communicative”) praxes seeking mutual “understanding” and engendering shared “identities” (32).

Initiating the age of crisis, the former dimension had been invading the latter by using communication instrumentally, i.e. the shared linguistic means for genuine self-expression and social cohesion were turned into sheer means of self-maximisation. To respond to this invasion, Habermas has recommended the overcoming of national barriers and the creation of a “cosmopolitan… deliberative democracy” centred upon ethical and normative issues and aims (35). Roughly speaking, more conversation about justice, the common good and the like–as already anticipated in his reflections on science and technology of the 1970s–would mean more democracy; more democracy would mean more legitimacy; more legitimacy more effective laws; and more effective laws more social and socially acceptable results. All of this, however, should be taking place on a global scale.

Habermas’ reflections on democracy became even more relevant in the 1990s. Then, in the face of an even faster-paced post-Cold-War economic and cultural globalisation, it was the very cradle of modern democracy that was to experience its deepest crisis, i.e. the nation State as such. Apart from intensifying the problems that Habermas had already tackled in the 1970s and 1980s, fin-de-siècle globalisation further deprived States of the crucial means of control over the “economic dimension” (40). In particular, free capital trade robbed the State of those vital “fiscal” resources that were needed for its administrative functions (44). Weaker States became even less credible to the populations, whose interests they were still expected to serve. The legitimacy of their power and even their own raison d’être became shakier. In the process, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decadeswere even openly rejected by leading parties and statesmen, who engaged actively in the persistent reduction of the public sphere. Deprived of the State’s support, larger and larger sectors of the population found themselves poorer, marginalised, and more vulnerable.

In the final decade of the 20th century, Habermas stressed further his commitment to a “cosmopolitan” solution of the ongoing crisis (43). In his view, a global economy needs a global deliberative democracy. This is not the same thing as to say that the world needs a world State. Rather, the world needs actual world politics and actual world policies. International organisations are already in place (e.g. the “United Nations”, the “World Trade Organisation”, the “International Monetary Fund” [46]). What is missing is the democratic appropriation of those institutions as positive means for global governance.

Interestingly, the “European Union” has been described by Habermas as an example of existing trans-national coordination and a possible force for progress, which he understands as the generation of a new political community reflecting truly democratic values and substantial ethico-political aims, such as solidarity and social inclusion (45). As an opposite model of global governance, Habermas has often highlighted the “hegemonic unilateralism” of the United States of America, which has accompanied throughout an economic globalisation capable of producing a “more unjust… more insecure” world and a threat to our “survival” as a species (48).

In particular, Habermas has stressed of late the centrality of the rule of law for the proper functioning of any complex social arrangement. As opposed to the brutal force exemplified by military intervention, a binding legal framework springing from democratic deliberation would constitute in his view a powerful means to a noble, desirable end: “to include the other without assimilating him” (50).

As further explained and substantiated in Habermas’ works of the 2000s, democracy should be thought of as much more than just a set of public institutions and formal procedures, for it is also an array of informal social praxes and individual forms of conduct. Within his deliberative and cosmopolitan model of democratic rule, Habermas has ended up combining the “liberty of the ancients” with the “liberty of the moderns” (51). In other words, both republican active participation and liberal individual-rights-protecting public guarantees are embraced as important components of actual democracy. Societies need both enduring compromises amongst rights-endowed self-interested individuals and the formation and expression of collective will via societal “self-clarification” (37).

Habermas resolves in an analogous manner the tension between liberals and communitarians on the much-debated issues of multiculturalism (51-6) and religious tolerance (61-8). Both universal, trans-cultural principles and cultural rights are said to be important for the socially inclusive survival of democratic States in a more and more inter-connected international reality. Disagreements and problems are bound to arise; still, what matters most is to have enough institutional and conceptual resources as to be able to tackle such disagreements and problems without falling into either coercion or social disintegration, which destroy genuine social cohesion and solidarity (54-6).

This, albeit sketchy, is the overview of Habermas’ intellectual production that Francesco Giacomantonio offers in his new book. It is indeed a clear and effective account of Habermas’ nearly unique oeuvre, as the author of the Introduction to the Political Thought of Habermas cites Touraine and Castoriadis as the only other equally daring grand theorists of recent times (80). The book comprises six chapters, an introduction, some final considerations and an appendix by another author. The presentation waves between a thematic subdivision and a chronological organisation of the material. Either way, the book addresses all the essential aspects of Habermas’ vast production. By this feat alone, it deserves much praise.

If any criticism is to be passed on it, then it must be pointed out that the book could be even more slender: the appendix by Angelo Chielli is redundant and unnecessary (83-90); whilst the 6th chapter, which deals with Habermas’ relevance to contemporary academic pursuits (69-75), could have been reduced to, and included with, the author’s final considerations (77-81). Also, the book would benefit from an analytical index of cited topics and authors.

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.