Tag Archives: imagination

The Other

Your Christ is Jewish; your car, Japanese; your pizza, Italian; your democracy, Greek; your coffee, Brazilian; your holiday, Turkish; your digital numbers, Arabic; and your letters, Roman. Only your neighbour is a foreigner (Poster on the Streets of Berlin, 1990s).


Building up diversity

“I is another”, wrote Arthur Rimbaud, by forcing not just the syntax, but the unity and the integrity of the person – of the I –too.An I who assists at his shell crumbling, this shell on which we build up our identity, our uniqueness and that emerge from a continuous braiding starting in the past and going on in the present.

Rimbaud’s subject was an I, but we should say the same about the plural us and find out that this same us, that we use to think as a natural subject, is actually more the product of history than the product of nature: a result of the stories, the ideologies and the identity politics we construct. An history made with our feet: it could sound like a joke, but the paleontologist and anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan actually affirmed, about humanity, that « we were prepared to accept anything except to learn that it all began with the feet! » (Leroi-Gourhan, 1977: 65). While walking, our ancestors the Sapiens left the Afar Valley in Ethiopia for colonizing the whole earth. While walking they found on the way those new environments, climates and conditions that needed new responses: so cultural differences were born.

Walking human beings used to meet, to struggle, to exchange ideas and genes, such that scientists can today state the inconsistency of the idea of race when applied to human beings. As we all have an extremely diverse gene pool, so we can affirm that any culture reveals a certain variety of signs coming from some others. No us is defined by nature, nor other exists. Just our constructions of the usand the other exist. Often, what we consider our natural community is actually the result of an untrue story. In many cases, it is what Jean Pouillon calls «camouflaged retro-projections», for assessing that «those societies which call themselves modern are not forgetting their past, but handling it according to their present needs» (Pouillon, 1975: 160). By these stories, you can even theorize a people, even a nation – as medievalist Walter Pohl says, «nothing changing in language, in culture, nor in the seed and line of the men and the women. Just something has changed: the history, or, more precisely, the image people have of their history» (Pohl, 2000: 2). As in Orwell’s 1984, the past is manipulated according to the present.

Ancient Greeks used to call barbarians those who were not able to speak their language in a proper way; in Uganda, lugbara people call the strangers “reversed people”. The most of the ethnonyms,  the names every people use for defining themselves, mean “the men”, “the warriors”, “the best ones”: that shows the ethnocentric tendency of any society in thinking themselves as the best ones and in considering the others as less brave, less valuable, less human, if not… not human.

As Benedict Anderson showed, every human group going further the restraint community where relationships are “face to face” is an imagined community (see Anderson, 2006). “Imaged” means that the common feeling of belonging we experience about either our people, our country, or any other group, no mind on what it is founded, is not actually produced by the direct connection with every member of the group itself, but by the idea they share with us some common and unique characters, instead. Hence, the idea of us, that springs out from an hypothetic peculiarity distinguishing us from the others, for some reasons different, or considered as different.

As Ernest Renan says about the nation, for creating an identity you need a good dose of memory as much as a good dose of oblivion: «Oblivion, and even historical mistake, are an essential component for building a nation […]. The essence of a country is not just that all its members share a common heritage, but also that they forgot the same things. No French citizen knows about his or her possible Burgund, Alan or Visigoth origin; anyone has forgotten Saint Barthelemy’s night as well as the Southern massacres of the XIII century» (Renan 1993: 7-8). We should minimize, and even forget, what united us and emphasize what divided us in the past. Or then accept, with Julian S. Huxley e Alfred C. Haddon, that «a country is a society united by a common mistake about its origins and a common aversion towards its neighbors» (Huxley-Haddon, 2002: 15). Are those neighbors always others? Are the others always and fully different from us?

Other, French autre, Italian altro, Spanish otro, German ander always indicates an unusual dimension and often blurs with strange, uncommon, not standard, not normal.

The Latin word alter generates the Italian verb alterare, French altérer, Spanish alteràr, the English one to alter, meaning to change, to modify, also used in its intransitive form for a change of mood. In almost all these cases, the meaning is pejorative: it marks the deviation from the routine, from the dangerous custom we use to think as natural, pointed by Michel de Montaigne as «a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. (…) She soon uncovers to us a furious and tyrannical face against which we no longer have the liberty of even raising our eyes. We see her at every turn forcing the rules of nature» (Montaigne 1965: 77).

We find the same etym in the Latin particle ultra (beyond) and in the Italian altrove (elsewhere), a spatial application of the concept. But the Latin root al- generates also the word alias, that is, standing for. We are our alias when we want to appear as someone else: we change our name, without changing our essence. We should maybe admit, in a whisper, that Rimbaud was right.


Dividing for gathering

«All societies produce strangers; but each kind of society produces its own kind of strangers, and produces them in its own inimitable way». We could think this is a paraphrase of Tolstoj’s incipit of Anna Karenina, but these words of Zygmunt Bauman’s show us the production process of the stranger as an individual bypassing the borders we have created and we often hardly bear. «Strangers», according to Bauman, are the people who do not fit the cognitive, moral or aesthetic map of the world (…) and, by their sheer presence, make obscure what ought to be transparent (see Bauman, 1995).

Producing the other, the stranger, is an essential step in the definition of ourselves, at least in the definition of what we would like to be or to look like. Any process of construction of a collective identity rests on two basic and complementary operations: in order to define, to “enclose” our collective us, we need to mark a close line, including those we think part of our community and excluding someone else. In drawing this line, we cut out the border that divide us from the other. Therefore, identity is not an ascribed fact, as supporters of the “roots” affirm, but the result of a relational work: in order to be someone, or something, I need the other. No definition exist without an other.

This is what Kostantin Kavafis masterfully says in verse: its poem Waiting for the Barbarians describes a whole city where the souverains, the nobles and the dignitaries of the courts wear their best clothes for welcoming the sensed upcoming barbarians. All of them prepared their best talks, but the strangers do not arrive. The poem ends with a desperate call:

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

Those people were a kind of solution.

Barbarians are a kind of solution for giving us a measure of our advancement: without them it’s hard to us to say we are civilized people. That is why we mark borders and frontiers, for defining ourselves. For thinking us better than the others, we need some worse other. This mechanism produced, for example, the accusation of sorcery: while identifying an enemy, a responsible for what goes wrong, we expel from our community any guilt, any threat that could disgregate the group. So we can finally think us as the good, the best ones.

In a recent volume, Umberto Eco tells us of an odd episode: travelling around the US, he got on a cab driven by a Pakistani guy. During the conversation, the driver asks Eco where he came from, then where Italy is and finally which kind of adversary Italians have got. The philosopher was surprised by such a question and spent some time asking himself who Italians consider as an enemy. But the same surprise affected the driver in learning that countries can exist without an historical adversary. Maybe because – Eco suggests – we have so many conflicts among ourselves, «but rethinking about that fact, I was persuaded that the worst disgrace of our country, for the last sixty years, had been the lack of a common and real enemy». Eco’s essay goes on from a quote to another for showing us, through literature and history, the many different ways we can produce an adversary. For example, in exploiting and emphasizing strangers’ differences: «having an enemy is important not just for defining our identity, but also for providing us an obstacle which is useful for testing our values, our system and our virtue» (Eco, 2011: 10).

In fact, for increasing the cohesion of our community, we have to put in light the shared characters as well as to stress the differences from the others. These others are created and fashioned in the more functional shape for our project. A well-shaped other is essential for strengthening the community and defining the limits of us.

In many cases, the image we have of the others is not just based on the effective knowledge, but on stereotype. Stereotype is the rhetorical declination of caricature: as the cartoonist grabs a marking feature of someone for emphasizing it and reducing the individual to this trait (a huge nose, oversized breasts…), so the stereotype reduces a person, or a society, to its supposed characteristic signs.

Each stereotype entails a distortion, which is often, but not always pejorative. Travelling means meeting people, but in a faulty way: the lack of time and pre-existing opinions we all bring with us often generate misunderstandings. Together with clothes, medicines and guidebooks we carry with us our perspective on the place and the people we are going to meet (Aime, 2005). These perspectives are often shaped by exoticism: another less bloody way for stating differences.

The act of drawing borders for producing different identities leads at considering any society and any culture as closed entities, pure and uncontaminated objects which inextricably evolved from their own specific and peculiar origins. Better would be to think at cultures as moving beings, mutually and constantly affecting themselves. If we want to speak about divisions, we ought to do that in terms of frontier more than of borders. Common language seldom distinguishes the difference between these words, used as synonyms, while the first actually means a limit not to be bypassed, and the second is an area instead: not a line, but a strip of earth where two different entities stand the one in front of the other, and meet. A border is strict, a frontier is floating. As Franco La Cecla says: «Frontiers are the “face to face” of two teams, two cultures, two countries (…). Frontiers should be the place where the meeting replaces the struggle, where a relationship can be realized either through indifference in no man’s land or through the difference of the demarcations, which our strangers stay beyond» (La Cecla, 2003: 133-34).

It happens, nonetheless, that these different cultural identities, in spite of their historical and multi-perspective origin, are thought to be natural. One of the most important warning in anthropology is about naturalness: what we often suppose to be natural is indeed the product of the habits along the time.

Mistaking habits for nature can drive us to think that everything different is not natural. This idea is typical of ethnocentrism and can lead us to find in the others an inferior condition, a barbarian one. Montaigne argued that when he wrote: «I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation, from what I have been told, except that each man  calls  barbarism whatever is not his own practice» (Montaigne, 1965: 152).

Two centuries later, Montesquieu designed some Persians travelling to Paris for triggering the development of a feeling of confusion and of a gaze on the other free from the conditioning of habits. This perspective only could replace the habits of a community into the larger map of several communities. Those Persians looked at us with stranger eyes, they were surprised, amazed and disgusted: they admired the Western world as much as they criticized it. Montesquieu uses their disillusioned and astonished eyes for addressing with an ironic and sarcastic voice his critics to our society. So one of them writes: «The King of France is the most powerful of European potentates. He has no mines of gold like his neighbor, the King of Spain; but he is much wealthier than that prince is, because his riches are drawn from a more inexhaustible source, the vanity of his subjects. (…) Then again, the king is a great magician, for his dominion extends to the minds of his subjects; he makes them think what he wishes. If he has only a million crowns in his exchequer, and has need of two millions, he has only to persuade them that one crown is worth two, and they believe it. (…) What I have told you of this prince need not astonish you: there is another magician more powerful still, who is master of the king’s mind, as absolutely as the king is master of the minds of his subjects. This magician is called the Pope. Sometimes he makes the king believe that three are no more than one; that the bread which he eats is not bread; the wine which he drinks not wine; and a thousand things of a like nature» (Montesquieu, 2008: 31).

This is the witness of Montesquieu and his Eastern characters, ironic but never insolent. «I think, Usbek, that we never judge of things otherwise than by a secret reference to ourselves. I am not surprised that the Negroes paint the Devil in shining white color and their Gods as black as coal (…). It has been well said that if the triangles made themselves a God, they would give him three sides» (Montesquieu, 2008: 79). As Claude Lévi-Strauss says, «the barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism» (Lévi-Strauss, 1967: 106).


Culture as fundamentalism

Identities, says Zygmunt Bauman, are more a bunch of problems than a single question: «Identity is revealed to us only as something to be invented rather than discovered; as a target of an effort, ‘an objective’; as something one still needs to build from scratch or to choose from alternative offers and then to struggle for and then to protect through yet more struggle» (Bauman, 2003: 13). Albeit the most of social scientist agree in considering identities as a cultural product, we are witnessing wars, battles, political fights struggled in the name of these identities. However fake and invented they are, identities are practically operating on our world. Not enough to call them «cultural constructions, never settled, never absolute, never determinate» and to look at them from outside. Out of university classrooms practice and theory are running on parallel rails.

Whilst we can say there is no essence in identities, we cannot deny the existence of a practice of identities, whether for attacking or defending themselves. This practice is based on what Verena Stolcke brilliantly defined «cultural fundamentalism» in her essay on borders and rhetoric of exclusion in contemporary Europe. The process of unification of the old continent is simultaneously at work on two sides: on the first one, internal borders are becoming the more and the more permeable, on the second one, external borders are becoming the more and the more rigid and exclusive of the others: extra-communitarian people.

Besides any political and moral consideration, we cannot pretend to be blind face of a growing mass feeling of hate towards immigrants, nourished by the simplification (not to say the falsehood) according to which each evil comes with strangers, bringing difference and menace with them. This assumption is also combined with an emphatic presentation of the problem, described as larger than it is in real. This strategy allows several European leaders to hide beside cultural incompatibility some socio-economic problems arisen from recession and the more extreme capitalistic adjustments.  «We are the measure of the good life which they are threatening to undermine, and this is so because they are foreigners and culturally different» (Stolcke, 1995: 3).

According to this perspective, people would prefer to live among their own kind rather than in a multi-cultural society, and this inclination would be natural. Although no theorist of xenophobia can explain its reasons, we take for granted that people are naturally scared by strangers and inclined to refuse them, because they are different. This explanation is however quite functional in hiding the socio-economic reasons that often generate tensions.

There are several ways of thinking the other, but just one line essentially dividing the two possible construction of diversity. This line draws the border – now clear – between revocability and irrevocability of its condition. We told that ancient Greeks used to distinguish themselves from Barbarians, but if a Barbarian managed to learn Greek language and the customs of the polis, he could become to all effects a full-fledged Greek. Romans also had this rule: more than one emperor were actually foreigners, Adrian from Spain to mention just one. Both for Greek and for Romans you could emancipate not just from your condition of extraneousness, but even from your condition of inferiority. Division was actually established on a cultural level, and everything is cultural let us the chance of choosing, and changing things.

Much different is the case of the natural level, where any choice is impossible: in nature things are determined and predictable. This is the way leading to racism, prelude to the worst solutions.

Anyway, the reason of incompatibility in modern politics of exclusion is apparently no more the race, but culture – as in a throwback. In ancient times indeed, exclusion from Europe was due to religion, rather than to race: miscreants could threaten Christian hegemony. Scientific racism in XIX century tried to legitimate differences based on biologic nature. Nowadays the problem of scaring strangers away from our societies is solved by shifting from the unacceptable level of the genetic race to the one of culture, which allows xenophobic right parties to restore their politic respectability. Will of purge remains, but now we have racism without race. This new form has been defined by Paul Mercier «supertribalization» (Mercier, 1962: 64), a very suitable expression for representing the ethnic and cultural stretch adopted by many political élites and contemporary movements. Contamination threatening is no more referred to the bloodline: according to the fundamentalist rhetoric, culture instead becomes stronger, more tangible and homogeneous.

Ethnicity, identity and culture has become slogans used by politicians in look for preferences, betting on the local dimension as a last rampart against foreign invasion. A supposed cultural purity is then fashionable again, and delicate enough to need protection from foreigners’ contamination (in all its depreciative semantic charge, immediately associated to medical domain). This image would presuppose a sort of zero degree where to place the objective limits of any culture, considered as an indivisible unit, impermeable to external contributions and therefore opposed to any kind of other. Such cultures are cages where individuals would have been imprisoned since they were born and impossible to escape from.

This perspective is synthesized by the expression of the «clash of cultures» and by its symmetric counterpart, the «cultural encounter»: those mottoes are the more common and suitable for any situation. In fact, nobody ever saw any cultures either meeting or struggling: men instead, women and children rather than cultures do, and each one has many options among which choosing how to realize their life. Why then should we put the others in cages through identity labels we invented ourselves? As Eric Wolf affirms, «It is an error to envisage the migrant as the protagonist of a homogeneously integrated culture that he either retains or yields up as a whole (…). It is not harder for a Zulu or a Hawaiian to learn or forget a culture that for a Pomeranian or Chinese» (Wolf, 1990: 502).

Cultural fundamentalism tends instead to present as natural the reasons of deficit and socio-economic inequalities among individuals. If we consider these unbalances as natural ones, we can also easier accept their insolvable character: we cannot defy nature! Naturalizing the cultural forms we consider being the most far from us means anyway dehumanizing them, as says Pierre-André Taguieff (Taguieff, 1999: 11).


Fixing Movement

«At my age, and with so much mixing of bloodlines, I am no longer certain where I come from» said Delaura. «Or who I am». «No one knows in these kingdoms» said Abrenuncio. «And I believe it will be centuries before they find out» (Garcia  Marquez, 1994: 154). This gloomy exchange between two Gabriel Garcìa Marquez’s characters intensely and evocatively summarizes the tension between the search of a precise origin, that is the zero-point of cultures we often call «identity», and the historical, social and cultural thicket we experiment everyday in real. As for containing the supposed fear of being dissolved in an undefined magma or being contaminated by the foreigner, we create frames, borders and limits.

Reality, today as in the past, is not built upon well-defined opposites, easy-to-counterpose especially for those who try to take advantage of such conflicts. We are watching, instead, the screening of Arjun Appadurai’s «moving images that meet deterritorialized viewers» (Appadurai, 2012). The ambiguity of his title, Modernity at large, stays in the fact that «at large» means at the same time «as a whole» but «on the lam», too. Why should modernity go into hiding? Because the frontiers that previously established territories, cultures and societies are no more as meaningful as in the past. Because today we can find Turkish immigrant employees sitting on their German sofas in their German living rooms while watching their Turkish movies; as well as Filipinos singing old-style American songs much better than original ones, even if their lives are not synchronized at all with United States’ present. Because, following Appadurai, globalization opened a rift between the place of production of a culture and its place(s) of use. Thanks to the growing speed and presence of the mass media, imagination became something collective and evolved into an organized field of social practices. As a consequence, the fragmented multiplicity of cultural worlds threaten any traditional paradigm in social sciences. Social, ethnic, cultural, political and economical landscapes are the more and the more confused, and mutually superposed, divided by broken and irregular lines. Moreover, these landscapes are crossed by constant and global cultural streams, and are reflected the one into the other until shaping a complicated and always renewing kaleidoscope.

Appadurai quotes the image drawn by Benedict Anderson. According to him, thanks firstly to «print capitalism» (that is the spreading of publishing business at the industrial scale) and to following mass literacy, and secondly to «electronic capitalism», imaged communities could appear – that is, groups of people who never interact in real, but share a same and common idea as, for example, thinking themselves as Indonesian, while living far from Indonesia (see Anderson, 2006).

Deterritorialization is a feature of modern world that, together with an increasing circulation of information, creates the more and the more complex images, ideologies and universal usages, being appropriated by local communities and transformed into something that is often quite far from its starting point. A good example can be, as Appadurai shows, the case of cricket, imported in colonial India by aristocrats and now, also by the action of the media, transformed into a very popular sport for Indian middle and lower-class. The sport that the ex-sons of the Empire now play is not just an imported product, but is inserted into its very Indian moral system as a whole.

This reflection highlights how, besides the three spatial dimensions and the fourth one of the time, there is also a fifth one – the one of imagination – that shapes humanity. This constructive (poietic) «fiction», in Francesco Remotti’s words, is the foundation of human building (Remotti, 1996: 23). Humanity arises more often from a common project than from an objective reality, and its foundations are neither always recognizable and measurable nor coherent with the history of the community who believes to be grounded on. The unease of traditional space matches with a new concept of the time, sprung out from consumption, that in spite of its organic practices is now placed into a sort of global bath, which needs a referral. Any object (either shaped for consumption or not) has its own cultural story, meaningful for the culture that produced it; nonetheless, when this same object falls into the hands of new players, its story does not match with their one anymore, and is often written again at their own sake (see Appadurai, 1986).

From being a place of action for memory, furthermore, our past has become a synchronic deposit for cultural scenarios, says Appadurai. It is a kind of cultural archive of time that we can use, as we need and like. This global diaspora generates new markets which, themselves, generate new needs and preferences, emerged from outsiders’ urge of maintaining a contact with their – often invented – motherland. So-called globalization does not realizes itself through an indiscriminate invasion of common elements driving to homogenization. Its process is much more articulated, but this kind of assumptions is presented in every discourse assessing local and national supremacy.

We live «in a world of OPEC, ASEAN Things Fall Apart, and Tongan running backs with the Washington Redskins», says Clifford Geertz, a world that «has its compartments still, but the passages between them are much more numerous and much less well secured» (Geertz, 1990: 142-43). Fluidity of everyday life is opposed to the stabilizing nature of establishment. Almost all around the world governments hate nomads and implement sedentarization (and even elimination) policies; almost all around the world governments hate and are wary of «cultural nomads», people who do not fix themselves in a clear and easily-classifiable position.



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Anderson B. (2006), Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, London-New York.

Appadurai A. (ed.) (1986), The Social Life of Things, Cambridge UP, Cambridge.

Appadurai A. (2012), Modernità in polvere, Raffaello Cortina, Milano.

Bauman Z. (1995), Making and Unmaking of Strangers, Thesis Eleven, 43, 1, 1-16.

Bauman Z. (1999), La società dell’incertezza, il Mulino, Bologna 1999.

Bauman Z. (2003), Intervista sull’identità, a cura di B. Vecchi, Laterza, Roma-Bari.

Huxley S.-Haddon A.C. (2002), Noi Europei. Un’indagine sul problema «razziale» [1935], edizioni di Comunità, Torino.

Eco U. (2011), Costruire il nemico e altri scritti occasionali, Bompiani, Milano.

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Garcia Marquez G. (1994), Dell’amore e altri demoni, Mondadori, Milano.

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Brief Notes on Solidarity and Political Imagination

The title of the present paper is inspired by David Graeber’s essay “Revolutions in Reverse”.[1] In this piece, the anthropologist and activist – who had been deeply involved in Occupy Wall Street – offers theoretical reflections on the experiences of modern social movements. He suggests that there is a crucial difference between the political ontology of violence or force on one hand (the right) and the political ontology of imagination on the other (the left). This, however, should not be mistaken as a distinction between purportedly ‘realist’ and ‘utopian’ politics. Graeber evokes a traditional concept of imagination as a passageway between experience and reflection, and between intentions and action:

The common Ancient and Medieval conception, what we call ‘the imagination’ was considered the zone of passage between reality and reason. Perceptions from the material world had to pass through the imagination, becoming emotionally charged in the process and mixing with all sorts of phantasms, before the rational mind could grasp their significance. Intentions and desires moved in the opposite direction. It’s only after Descartes, really, that the word ‘imaginary’ came to mean, specifically, anything that is not real: imaginary creatures, imaginary places (Middle Earth, Narnia, planets in faraway Galaxies, the Kingdom of Prester John…), imaginary friends.[2]

Graeber’s essay is not the topic at hand, but I want to explore the idea of a political ontology of imagination by commenting on a semi-classical text: Discours de la Servitude volontaire by Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563). Even if it does not belong to the central canon of modern philosophy, it has been of inspiration for diverse political currents, from anarcho-communists like Graeber to right-wing libertarians.[3]

Imagination – and precisely in a sense like the one Graeber point towards – is in fact central to de La Boétie’s writing. The discourse on voluntary servitude was most probably written in the early 1550ies; it circulated as a manuscript and was printed for the first time in 1576. Note, however, that Michel de Montaigne did not include it when he published his friend’s papers posthumously in 1571.

The main idea of de La Boétie’s Discourse is simple as it is disturbing: People don’t obey because tyrants are powerful, tyrants are powerful because people obey. This disrupts the idea of an inherent stability of dominance and introduce a relational and dynamic concept of power, which is seen to emerge from below, rather than to emanate from above. De La Boétie does not only criticize tyranny, but he offers a critique, in the sense of investigating the conditions of possibility of tyrannic rule. In addition, he gives a brief sketch of the alternative, an image of how society might be, if people stuck to what nature and reason demand: acting freely, they would treat each other as equals, or rather as brethren, as he puts it. At the end of this paper, I’ll return to the concept of solidarity implied by this. First, I want to expand somewhat on the relational and dynamic concept of power. This serves as an introduction to the second part of my paper: Reflections on the politics of imagination, both as an explicit topic and as a performative aspect of the Discourse on voluntary servitude.

A disturbing concept of power

Without making any claims on the historical reception of de La Boétie’s writings, we may nevertheless say that he the topos of ‘voluntary servitude’ introduced by him has been of lasting importance to subsequent and contemporary social and political theory. That power is relational and emerging from below, rather than emanating from above, is central to Foucault’s conception, to name but one example.

A relational and dynamic concept of power calls for a decentered analysis, and maybe for giving the social priority over against the political. At least, centralized, and hierarchical structures are to be seen as effects, not as causes: Commanding power is the result of obedience, not the other way around. How then, are we to explain obedience? On de La Boétie’s account, pervasive obedience cannot be explained by reference to neither physical force, moral obligation, nor self-interest, but rather as a weakness of the will, the result of habituation, and – crucially – defective imagination. We will return to that in a moment.

De La Boétie’s simple idea is disturbing, I claimed. First, to those enjoying the privileges of power because it implies that the dominant are more dependent on their subordinates than the other way around. This is indeed how revolutions occur; governments are toppled, and state institutions may crumble, when enough people cease to obey. This, however, seem to be the exception; most of the time, most people do in fact obey, and they do so voluntarily, de La Boétie claims. Thus, his idea is no less disturbing to the dominated, who appear to be complicit in domination, and thus (at least partially) responsible for their own situation.

Last, but not least, the idea of voluntary servitude is disturbing to those in intermediary positions of authority. Public servants, teachers, intellectuals, etc., can never be quite sure of whether they act on behalf of the dominant or the dominated. Note that Etienne de La Boétie as well as Michel de Montaigne held positions of this sort, as judges in the Parlement of Bordeaux. Montaigne deplored the publication of the Discourse and maintained that de La Boétie himself would not have endorsed it, precisely because of the disturbance it might provoke. This does not, however, preclude that Montaigne may very well have sympathized with his friend’s views.

Forgetful habits

According to de La Boétie, custom is the first reason for voluntary servitude, i.e., obedience becomes a habit. Habituation occurs when the reason for a practice is forgotten. When people act as usual, simply because they are used to, they demonstrate a lack of imagination. Man is denatured, de La Boétie claims, so that he lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it.[4] Memory is a primary act of imagination, and it is precisely the faculty of imagining a situation prior to the state of servitude that is broken when people submit:

It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement. It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born.[5]

It is worth drawing attention to the relationship between experience, reflection and intentionally that comes into view in de La Boétie’s account of voluntary servitude. People who have never experienced freedom themselves, and live in ‘complete forgetfulness’ of previous states, will unreflectively consider the status quo as ‘quite natural’. Thus, the status quo is conceived of as the limiting condition of intentional action. Put in slightly different terms than the ones de La Boétie uses, we might say that imagination constitute the link between experience, reflection, and intention, i.e., the basis of consciousness. Perception becomes experience when what is passing is preserved as images that are emotionally charged, and thus fuel desire.

One never pines for what he has never known; longing comes only after enjoyment and constitutes, amidst the experience of sorrow, the memory of past joy. It is truly the nature of man to be free and to wish to be so, yet his character is such that he instinctively follows the tendencies that his training gives him.[6]

In other words, if you have never enjoyed freedom, you just don’t know what you are missing. And if you don’t know what you’re missing, the idea of achieving it won’t even cross your mind – and you will go on as you are used to. Right before the quoted passage, de La Boétie express pity for those who are born under the yoke: “We should exonerate and forgive them, since they have not seen even the shadow of liberty, and, being quite unaware of it, cannot perceive the evil endured through their own slavery.”[7] If the subordinates are complicit to their own condition, it is not by their own fault, and it would even seem that by lack of imagination, they also lack the capacity to do anything about it.

Writing and the shadow of liberty

If this was the end of the story, there would hardly be any point in writing a discourse – or at least, it seems odd to consider its dissemination as a possible source of disturbance. However, the end of the story is not told. The point of telling it, is to remind the recipient of what was forgotten, and thus to disturb the reader’s habitual ways of thinking. The reader is included in the ‘we’ that should exonerate and forgive those born under the yoke. If this invitation is accepted, it is because the reader’s own imagination is activated. This is decisive for the performative force of de La Boétie’s writing.

Imagination – and the lack thereof – is thus not only a theme, i.e., an important part of the explanations de La Boétie puts forward in the Discourse. His writing is an exercise of political imagination, and notably so on the part of the implied reader. The point of writing, we might say, is to make the shadow of liberty visible. The task of the reader is to imagine what have been forgotten. We tend to forget that that tyranny is parasitic on obedience, and that obedience itself rest on forgetful habits. Obedience is nothing but the shadow of a liberty that has forgotten itself. Liberty, as forgotten, is present in its absence, so to speak.

To show this, de La Boétie plays the oldest trick in the book. He makes use of an ancient, simple, and efficient rhetorical twist. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t make statements, but suggestions, in the form of a rhetorical question: It seems like this, but maybe it’s the other way around?

This could be said to be the very essence of how Socrates’ was doing philosophy, e.g., as portrayed in Plato’s dialogue on rhetoric, Gorgias. Here, Socrates confronts common opinion in this way: It seems good to be able to serve one’s egotistical desires ruthlessly and get away with it, but maybe it’s the other way around? That it is better to suffer injustice than to perform it, must have been rather counterintuitive to the Greeks. This is at least what Hannah Arendt claims, in her lecture on thinking and moral considerations. Also note that ‘thinking’, on her account, consist in active imagination.[8]

This Socratic move seem to be the very prototype of the ‘epistemic rupture’ that distinguish philosophy from sophistry (and for later generations: science from ideology). But maybe it’s the other way around? If philosophy’s superiority over sophistry is based on a rhetorical trick, it may be that those of the ancient writers who placed Socrates himself among the sophists were on to something, after all. – As far as I get it, the case that Barbara Cassin makes in her comments on Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, is of this sort: Even if it does not seem so, “rhetoric” was invented by philosophy, as an invective, a rhetorical tool for establishing true (platonic) philosophy as superior to “sophistics”.[9]

In a section of the essay “Seeing Helen in Every Woman: Woman and Word”,[10] Cassin comments on the grand-scale performance the historical Gorgias made upon arrival in Athens: To demonstrate his oratory skills, Gorgias first gave a speech that corroborated the common opinion on Helen’s guilt – she was responsible for the Trojan wars. In the speech he gave the very next day, preserved as the Encomium of Helen, he acquitted her. For once, it’s unreasonable to make anyone responsible for their fate, and neither could she be guilty of her own abduction. And even if she was seduced, she is not to blame – because in this case, she has been carried away by the power of logos. – Now, the point of this is of course that Gorgias himself demonstrates the power of logos, to the extent that it makes the Athenians perceive the story of Helen in a different way and revise their judgement of her. But even if Gorgias employs the power of logos, it does not emanate from him as an orator, but rather emerges from the audience; they could have chosen not to listen to him, but they let themselves be persuaded. So, the persuasive power of speech or writing, rest on the audience’s experience of freedom. (On reflection, Helen of course remains an ambiguous figure – a main point of Cassin’s essay.)

Rhetoric – or ‘sophistical practice’ – is disturbing, not least to professional philosophers (or teachers in general), who can never be quite sure if they serve a dominant ideology or the intellectual liberation of the dominated. De la Boétie is indeed an irresponsible writer, who release the power of logos, leaving it to the readers to make sense of his text. This power of logos rest on an experience of freedom in the readers – who might be persuaded, who might change their minds, when imagining things in ways different from what they were accustomed to.

Another World is Possible: Images of solidarity

By reminding his readers that even tyranny is dependent on liberty, De La Boétie deconstructs the received concept of power as something that emanates from above. It follows that domination cannot be a necessary trait of human society; it only seems so, because we are accustomed to think it is. Keeping that in mind, we might be able to at least imagine what could be different. And indeed, De La Boétie does suggest an image of what kind of society free human beings would be able to establish. What would happen if people did act from the freedom they possess anyway?

[I]f there is anything in this world clear and obvious, to which one cannot close one’s eyes, it is the fact that nature, handmaiden of God, governess of men, has cast us all in the same mold in order that we may behold in one another companions, or rather brothers. If in distributing her gifts nature has favored some more than others with respect to body or spirit, she has nevertheless not planned to place us within this world as if it were a field of battle, and has not endowed the stronger or the cleverer in order that they may act like armed brigands in a forest and attack the weaker. One should rather conclude that in distributing larger shares to some and smaller shares to others, nature has intended to give occasion for brotherly love to become manifest, some of us having the strength to give help to others who are in need of it.[11]

What de La Boétie describe here, is an image of freedom, equality, and brotherhood – liberté, egalité, fraternité, as the French would later phrase it. Liberty is the natural condition of each and every human being, and in this respect, we are also equal (“cast in the same mold”). This is the basis for imagining our fellow humans as “companions, or rather brothers”, paving the way for a concept of solidarity: Superior capacities could be seen as sources of contributions to the common good, rather than as entitlement to superior positions. De La Boétie’s image of brotherhood is one of mutual aid. Some might even say communism: from each according to ability, to each according to needs.

Another world is possible, de La Boétie seems to say. The crucial point, however, is that he suggests this image of peaceful cooperation without imagining any fundamental change in human nature. On the contrary, he imagines this to be the natural condition of the human race. Once again, he turns the table: Domination seems natural, but maybe it is the other way around. To “behold [i.e., to imagine] one another as companions” would mean that we remember that to have something in common, and to act in concert (Arendt), is primary and available to all. To exploit and command – the modus operandi of tyrants – is only possible as a deviation from nature – which nevertheless is habituated into something like a ‘second nature’. Remembering this could be the first condition for a common hope.

This brings us back to Graeber, whose 2008 essay “Hope in common” turns around a rhetorical twist of the kind outlined here. The gist of his argument is that it that capitalism seem to be based on competitive individualism, i.e., the very opposite of solidarity. However, its real basis is cooperation:

Communism then is already here. The question is how to further democratize it. Capitalism, in turn, is just one possible way of managing communism — and, it has become increasingly clear, rather a disastrous one. Clearly, we need to be thinking about a better one: preferably, one that does not quite so systematically set us all at each other’s throats.[12]

To pose the problem this way, is rhetorically ingenious, its aim is to fuel the political imagination of the reader. The thinking in need, must be imaginative – but not fanciful. If another world is indeed possible, it is not because we might imagine, fancy, a completely different world. It is possible because we can imagine this world differently. This is a necessary (albeit insufficient) condition for change, and thus an important task for social movements. As Graeber puts it, it is a matter of seeing what we already do in a new light: “To realize we’re all already communists when working on a common project, all already anarchists when we solve problems without recourse to lawyers or police, all revolutionaries when we make something genuinely new.”[13] For my own part, I imagine that there is plenty of tasks for philosophy in this, too.



Arendt, Hannah: “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Social Research, 38:3 (1971: Autumn)

Cassin, Barbara. Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism. Fordham University Press, 2014. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt13wzzx6.

De La Boétie, Etienne: The Politics of Obedience. The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Introduction by Murray N Rothbard, translated by Harry Kurz. Auburn, Alabama, 2008. Online: https://cdn.mises.org/Politics%20of%20Obedience.pdf

Graeber, David: Revolution in Reverse, 2007, Retrieved on May 16th, 2009 from news.infoshop.org theanarchistlibrary.org. Online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-revolution-in-reverse

Graeber, David: Hope in Common, theanarchistligrary.org, online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-hope-in-common



[1] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-revolution-in-reverse

[2] Ibid.

[3] Case in point: The English version cited here was published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The Politics of Obedience. The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Introduction by Murray N Rothbard, translated by Harry Kurz. Auburn, Alabama, 2008. Online: https://cdn.mises.org/Politics%20of%20Obedience.pdf Kurz’ translation was first published under the title Anti-Dictator in 1942, full-text available online: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Discourse_on_Voluntary_Servitude

[4] Cf. The Politics of Obedience, p 52.

[5] Ibid., p 54

[6] Ibid, p 58f.

[7] Ibid, p. 58.

[8] Arendt, Hannah: “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Social Research, 38:3 (1971: Autumn), pp 417-446.

[9] Cassin, Barbara: “Rhetorical Turns in Ancient Greece”, Sophistical Practice. Towards a Consistent Relativism. Fordham University Press, 2014, pp 75-86.

[10] Cassin, Barbara: “Seeing Helen in Every Woman: Woman and Word”, ibid. pp 57-71. (On Gorgias, p 66-68)

[11] The Politics of Obedience, p 50.

[12] Graeber, David: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-hope-in-common

[13] Ibid.

L’incerto: Paura e bisogno del confine

Parto da quello che, credo, sia un assioma: io sono immagine, sono costituito di immagini e continuamente creo immagini di me e del mondo; inoltre, sono pieno di pregiudizi. Tutti noi siamo portatori di pregiudizi. Sul pregiudizio si è spesso caduti, credo, in fraintendimenti. I pregiudizi sono come le strisce luminose poste nei corridoi degli aerei e che illuminano il mio sentiero, dandomi le coordinate per procedere. Ho una fortuna, però: quella di incontrare il mio prossimo, che è quel mondo verso cui ho pregiudizi. Saranno i fatti, le mie sensazioni e i miei sentimenti che confermeranno, modificheranno o scardineranno i miei pregiudizi. Tendo ad una certa perplessità quando qualcuno si dichiara libero da pregiudizi. I miei pregiudizi preferisco riconoscerli, anziché ignorarli, perché ciò che ignoro può diventare pericoloso. La propria Ombra, se viene ignorata, può essere pericolosa. Ecco quale significato attribuisco alla parola “ascolto”: ascolto di ciò che arriva da fuori o che arriva da dentro. Non potremo noi direttamente risolvere i mali del mondo, almeno non io; potremo, però, contribuire al cambiamento; un cambiamento consapevole, che non sia distratto o, peggio, imitativo. Un cambiamento individuale che tracima dal mio Sé e tocca, contamina l’altro in un reciproco gioco di scambi.

Proviamo a separare l’idea di trasformazione da quella di crescita. Diceva James Hillman che le uniche cose che in natura dovrebbero crescere sono le piante e i bambini; tutto il resto, quando cresce, lo fa a spese di qualcos’altro, sia che si tratti di una economia nazionale, di una rivendicazione territoriale, di un processo forzato di evangelizzazione o di un tumore. Purtroppo, però, la storia, la mia storia individuale, la storia del mondo, rimangono spesso una sterile narrazione. Dobbiamo impegnarci, tutti noi, affinchè la storia, le storie, si trasformino in esperienze.

Alla mia visione di confine attribuisco una necessità ontologica, che per me trova il proprio senso nella clinica e nella psicoanalisi, che non sono luoghi remoti o avulsi dal mondo reale ma sono, per me, luoghi fisici e luoghi dell’anima ove il mio essere individuo e membro dell’umanità si esprime e dove, a volte, trova il senso della vita, se pur transitorio ed effimero.

Vorrei provare a raccontare pensieri, storie, esperienze, astenendomi dalla pretesa che spesso ci porta a “spiegare” le cose. Spiegare vuol dire stendere, togliere le pieghe. Credo che la contemporaneità richieda a tutti noi un impegno supplementare, che è quello di rinunciare al porto sicuro della spiegazione definitiva e confortevole, della superficie chiara e omogenea, non fosse altro che la realtà non è così, e quando parlo di realtà, di “verità”, parlo sia di una verità reale che di una verità psichica, entrambe vive e potenti. Questa posizione pone la psicoanalisi fuori dal “recinto” scientifico, ma credo che soltanto attraverso la rinuncia a qualsivoglia paradigma scientifico la psicologia del profondo possa servire ai propri scopi. Non è questa la sede, però, per approfondire questo argomento.

La nostra componente puer ci fa tendere verso un atteggiamento bidimensionale, che è anche rassicurante, perché ci situa solitamente dalla parte del bene e colloca il male lontano da noi, in una visione orizzontale e di superficie che nega le contraddizioni, i dubbi, i dissidi, le sfumature, i misteri e le zone grigie del mondo e della nostra anima. Nega il riconoscimento della mia Ombra, che diventa l’errore, la colpa e il peccato dell’Altro.

Proverò ad assumere una posizione empirica, nel senso che quello che vorrei incontrare è la comprensione, più della spiegazione di ciò di cui parliamo e che accade dentro e intorno a noi, approcciandoci ai fatti dell’anima con la consapevolezza che ciò di cui parliamo è, almeno per me, un enigma.

Parlo di confine attraverso l’anima, alla cui parola attribuisco un significato insieme laico e religioso, ma comunque sacro, per la sua natura ambigua e perché la nostra conoscenza su di essa è sempre incompleta. Mi aspetto, traslando un termine proprio della psicologia analitica junghiana, che le nostre azioni, le azioni della nostra anima, portino a delle amplificazioni. L’amplificazione, in analisi, “costringe” la coscienza ad affrontare paradossi e tensioni, nonché alla rinuncia alla propria cornice di protezione e conforto, dandole, inoltre, accesso alla complessità. Cosa, forse, ancor più importante, però, è la possibilità di costruire simboli (sym ballo, mettere insieme). Amplificare, in analisi, significa procedere in modo euristico dentro e intorno ad un tema, amplificandone, appunto, i contenuti e l’essenza, fino al loro apparentemente definitivo svolgimento; girare dentro e intorno alla questione, amplificandola, percorrendola, ascoltandola, attraverso le risonanze che in noi scaturiscono: noi come singoli individui ma noi anche come collettività.

Parliamo di confini. L’esistenza del confine consente la permanenza della immaginazione: non so cosa c’è oltre il limite del confine, quindi devo provare a immaginarlo, cioè costruire uno scenario nella mia mente, nella mia fantasia. Immagino ciò che è diverso da me. L’atto della immaginazione è consustanziale all’uomo; l’uomo “è” immagine; pensa, ragiona, sogna, vive per immagini. L’uomo, secondo una definizione del filosofo Carlo Sini, è un animale immaginante[1].

La mia idea di confine è una trasposizione “sul campo” di un altro termine che caratterizza la psicologia analitica, che è “individuazione”. L’individuazione, per Jung, è un processo di differenziazione che ha per mèta lo sviluppo della personalità individuale. Mi servo di un altro paradosso: un dibattito sulla definizione di confine, opposta alla idea di una abolizione dello stesso, equivale, in termini psicoanalitici, alla differenza che separa la ricerca della individuazione dalla ricerca della guarigione del paziente in cura. Separare me da voi, dall’altro, dal mondo, significa individuarmi, garantirmi una identità, che non equivale al disprezzo dell’altro o alla negazione di una identità collettiva e “altra”, ma rappresenta una prima fase di separazione e distinzione, indispensabile alla scoperta e valorizzazione delle proprie e altrui risorse, valori, rituali, storie, progetti, tutti unici e irripetibili. Ogni distinzione, più che separazione, è una forma di amplificazione che estende e connette.

La distinzione tra due soggetti può sfociare nel racconto. Nel racconto c’è chi parla e chi ascolta e nella narrazione c’è il mio mondo, che conosco o di cui penso di conoscere l’essenza; poi c’è il mondo dell’altro, che ha aspetti simili, aspetti segreti e aspetti misteriosi. È nel mistero e nei miti personali che si sviluppano la prossimità e la relazione, da cui potrà nascere un nuovo mito e – conseguentemente – una nuova visione personale. È ciò che Jung definiva “Mysterium coniunctionis”, che è anche il titolo dell’ultimo dei grandi saggi scritto in vecchiaia da Jung, che dice in una lettera: “Il vivente segreto della vita è sempre nascosto tra Due, ed è questo il vero mistero, che le parole non possono svelare e le argomentazioni non possono esaurire”[2].

Ancora in termini analitici, è la separazione che consente lo svolgersi del tempo e dello spazio; in uno dei miti della creazione più conosciuti ciò è narrato in modo encomiabile: l’amore onnipresente, assoluto e totale di Urano per la propria sposa Gea paralizza e nega qualunque cambiamento, spostamento o crescita. Non c’è né interno, né esterno; né vita, né morte. Urano, presago di quanto la sua eternità sia garantita dalla inalterabilità del Tutto, impedisce la “venuta alla luce” dei suoi figli, nati dalla sua perenne unione con la sposa Gea. Essa, però, decide di interrompere questa condizione per sempre, servendosi dell’aiuto del più piccolo dei figli-Titani, Crono, che accetta, armato dalla madre, di evirare il padre e permettere, così, lo svolgersi del Tempo, fatto di spazio e di trasformazioni, di ampliamenti e contrazioni, di vita e di morte[3].

La mia soggettività è garantita e protetta dalla esistenza dell’altro. Nella analisi è la separazione tra analista e analizzando, o tra terapeuta e paziente, che consente alle energie psichiche di fluire e creare, così, la relazione. Inoltre, sono proprio la distanza e la separazione che consentono la proiezione, il transfert e il controtransfert. Due entità sovrapposte, o una delle due contenuta nell’altra, devono separarsi per sopravvivere, a condizione, però, che la propria e altrui esistenza fuori dall’altra sia mutualmente condivisa e accettata. Il senso del confine è legato alla importanza della identità, separazione, riconoscimento, centratura, focalizzazione. Senza confini la vita corre il rischio di frammentarsi. Mi rifaccio ad Helmuth Plessner, che è stato uno dei fondatori della antropologia filosofica e che elaborò una forte critica al comunitarismo, che collega intimamente l’individuo ai propri legami culturali, religiosi o sociali. L’intuizione geniale di Plessner, però, a mio avviso, è quella secondo cui la cellula diventa un essere vivente grazie alla membrana cellulare; grazie, cioè, alla concentrazione del materiale nucleare. La semipermeabilità della membrana, però, consente gli scambi tra la cellula e il mondo esterno, garantendo, al contempo, differenziazione, scambi e trasformazione[4].

Facendo un brevissimo excursus nella clinica, una grave forma di patologia è la psicosi schizofrenica: la mancanza del senso di identità dà il senso della disgregazione, perché manca la consapevolezza del centro e della differenza. In analisi e in terapia la distanza analista-analizzando o terapeuta-paziente permette il contatto empatico, intimo e trasformativo, evitando la sovrapposizione e l’identificazione, che non consentirebbero l’aiuto ma esporrebbero il terapeuta-analista al rischio di essere coinvolto, travolto, assimilato, trascinato. L’abolizione del confine può esporre l’individuo all’assenza della misura, intesa come assenza di limite. Il rischio conseguente è una forma attualizzata di narcisismo, inteso come intolleranza alla alterità e alle differenze psichiche.

Riprendo il pensiero di una psicoanalista italiana, Laura Pigozzi, che definisce claustrofiliche quelle famiglie apparentemente perfette alle quali manca, però, l’anelito verso l’alterità. L’altro è “accettato” solo se assimilato e reso simile, se non identico, al conosciuto. È una forma di addomesticamento in senso letterale. L’altro è un oggetto psicologicamente prevedibile: non ha misteri, né enigmi. Il mistero è consustanziale al diverso, all’alieno; il segreto, invece, è una forma di esercizio del potere. Tutti gli scambi emotivi e affettivi devono avvenire all’interno. Il confine con sé è esteso a includere gli altri e il sé e gli altri vengono trattati come se fossero all’interno dello stesso involucro, della stessa pelle[5]. Servendomi ancora una volta di uno spunto offerto dalla mitologia, l’affermazione della famiglia claustrofilica dissolve la coppia archetipica Hestia-Hermes, trasformando i confini in una entità rigida e non permeabile, dove l’Uno si separa inesorabilmente e dolorosamente dall’Altro. Non a caso, infatti, nella mitologia greca Hestia ed Hermes sono spesso rappresentati insieme, non per vincoli di consanguineità, ma per una concreta affinità funzionale. Tra i due, Hestia è la garante della permanenza, della residenza e della continuità, mentre Hermes è movimento, cambiamento di stato e contatto tra istanze diverse; ma è anche l’imprevedibile, l’inarrestabile e il sorprendente. Hermes, inoltra, dimora nei luoghi di transizione: agli incroci, nei pressi delle tombe o alle porte di accesso alla città.

La vita rischia di ammalarsi quando rimane adesa a sé stessa e alla propria tendemza alla conservazione, in una visione narcisistica, ingessata e dogmatica del senso del confine. Se il confine abdica alla propria funzione di scambio e di “respiro”, diventa asfittico e impedisce la vita stessa che, secondo una definizione di Spinoza, può conservarsi solo grazie alla sua espansione[6]. I confini diventano barriere da proteggere a ogni costo, per scongiurare ogni irruzione di oggetti alieni, al fine di tutelare la presunta “positività” contenuta all’interno, che è contrapposta ad un fuori che è inevitabilmente popolato da creature sconosciute e per questo percepite come pericolose. Il confine, quindi, secondo la mia tesi, è un oggetto psichico indispensabile, a patto che siano garantiti e ricercati gli scambi e i movimenti tra “interno” ed “esterno”, per non cadere nel rischio della fobia verso lo “straniero”, che a seconda del contesto storico e ambientale sarà il nero, l’omosessuale, l’ebreo, il palestinese, il disabile, il povero o l’extraterrestre. Temo, però, che il vero straniero, l’alieno, alberghi in noi stessi. Noi siamo e saremo stranieri a noi stessi finchè non accetteremo le nostre quote di Ombra che abbiamo a lungo ignorato e proiettato. Faccio mio il monito pronunciato già parecchi anni orsono da Deleuze e Guattari circa il rischio di alimentare il fascista che abita in noi[7] e al quale, forse nostro malgrado, tendiamo pericolosamente ad affezionarci o, aggiungo io, ad abituarci ad una “silente violenza”.

La “forma” claustrofilica non riconosce il negativo contenuto all’interno della famiglia (ma al posto del termine “famiglia” possiamo motivatamente utilizzarne altri, come nazione, gruppo politico, squadra di calcio, associazione professionale, ecc.), che viene ciecamente proiettato all’esterno, con l’esito di accrescere la divisione e l’opposizione valoriale tra ciò che è dentro da ciò che è fuori. Questa struttura psichica, oltre a richiedere un cospicuo dispendio energetico, instaura uno status interno di apparente armonia, mantenuta grazie, o a causa, dell’annullamento ed evitamento di qualunque elemento conflittuale, ma anche di qualunque diversità o creatività. Ogni eventuale situazione problematica, pertanto, deve essere negata, pena la frammentazione della struttura. Sembra emergere, al di là di una competitività esasperata, una inconfessata e inconfessabile paura di affrontare il conflitto, al di là delle apparenze, che è una delle cause, ipotizzo, di una forma depressiva collettiva sempre più diffusa, soprattutto nelle società più tecnologiche[8]. Il conflitto, qualunque conflitto, al cui termine attribuisco non soltanto il significato di contrasto e disagio, ma anche di scelta e di cambiamento, richiede tempo: il suo tempo, che non possiamo stabilire a priori. Scriveva Agostino nelle sue Confessioni: “Che cosa è dunque il tempo? Se nessuno me ne chiede, lo so bene: ma se volessi darne spiegazione a chi me ne chiede, non lo so[9].

La società attuale, che richiede velocità, sintesi e brevità, non favorisce la cultura del conflitto, fatta di riflessione, approfondimento e di mediazione intrapsichica e interpersonale, la cui durata, ripeto, non è predefinibile ed è potenzialmente infinita: Kairos, più che Chronos. La rinuncia alla lentezza e al naturale scorrere del tempo è rinuncia al particolare e rende l’essere umano un essere “digitale”, imprigionato in una logica on-off. Noi esseri umani, però, non siamo digitali. Noi siamo analogici.

Tornando alla coppia archetipica Hestia-Hermes, in una condizione simile, un confine rigido e impermeabile impedisce ad Hermes di svolgere la propria funzione connettiva di passaggio e depaupera il confine di mistero, fascino e di potere trasformativo. Non c’è più alcun confine da attraversare, ma soltanto impercettibili variazioni in cui degradare in modo inconsapevole e “asintomatico”. A proposito del concetto di sintomo e sulla sua irrinunciabilità per l’anima (e quindi per la clinica, oltre che per l’analisi), vorrei, se pur brevemente, fare un accenno circa la necessità del trauma (Ananke), nonché della patologia come ineluttabile oggetto psichico. Su tale inevitabilità si espresse già nel 1913 Sigmund Freud: “Possiamo afferrare l’inconscio soltanto nel materiale patologico[10], anche se l’idea del sintomo come componente fondamentale della nostra natura umana troverà una potente e quasi iconoclasta risonanza nel concetto di patologizzazione espresso da James Hillman[11]. La tendenza attuale, infatti, spinge la grande maggioranza degli individui alla ricerca della similitudine nell’altro, anziché verso la curiosità e il dialogo verso ciò che è diverso, anche se in misura profonda. La zona di contatto non è più un luogo dove desiderare e costruire una relazione, fatto anche di differenze, ma bensì è un luogo ove si ricerca aprioristicamente una rassicurante similitudine. Questo stato di cose causa una riduzione della complessità e di un abbassamento intrapsichico di ogni tendenza trasformativa ed evolutiva.

L’idea di un mondo senza confini rischia di essere assimilabile ad una uniformità che nega l’alterità e la soggettività dell’Altro, che è irripetibile e inimitabile. In questo scenario tutto è uguale a sé stesso, tutti fanno le stesse cose nello stesso modo, consumando gli stessi prodotti ovunque e perseguendo l’idea autocentrica di forme di governo o concezioni religiose valevoli per tutti. La rinuncia ideologica ad una idea di confine rischia di diventare una forma di oceanica forma di illimitatezza. L’esasperazione della civiltà contemporanea induce le nuove generazioni ad immaginare il mondo nella loro totale e perenne disponibilità; un mondo in cui chiunque può fantasticare di essere, fare e avere ciò che vuole (ciò è plasticamente rappresentato, per esempio, da certi messaggi pubblicitari in cui il successo o la ricchezza sono gli unici ideali, le uniche mète cui ambire), in una atemporalità e in una negazione dello spazio inteso come ente finito: siamo immersi in un incessante “rumore” fatto di scambi continui, attività compulsive e comunicazioni continue e ridondanti, alle quali sempre più individui non riescono a sottrarsi, solleticati e sollecitati a cercare e accumulare di più, oltre ogni limite.

Troviamo in particolare nelle ricerche di due psicoanaliste, entrambe collocabili temporalmente nel primo periodo della psicoanalisi, Melanie Klein e Margaret Mahler, alcuni studi pionieristici ma estremamente illuminanti sul concetto di spazio infinito: all’inizio della sua vita il neonato non ha la consapevolezza del limite. Lui, o lei, non ha semplicemente l’universo a disposizione: lui è universo. Le prime, naturali frustrazioni permettono al bambino di differenziare il sé dall’universo, che è comunque inconsciamente ancora nella sua totale disponibilità. Occorrerà qualche mese perché nel bimbo si consolidi progressivamente la consapevolezza che a volte l’oggetto desiderato, quasi sempre il latte, il seno materno, la voce, il sorriso, il calore, l’abbraccio, può immediatamente essere disponibile, oppure no; a volte, infatti, questo non accade o accade solo in parte.

Secondo Margaret Mahler, a cui dobbiamo la teorizzazione secondo cui la “nascita psicologica” del bambino segue tre fasi (“autismo normale”, fase “simbiotica” e fase della “separazione-individuazione”), nella psicosi la relazione simbiotica con la madre impedisce al bambino di sperimentare sufficiente separazione per poter stabilire dei limiti solidi tra ciò che si è e ciò che non si è: egli avrà per sempre bisogno di oggetti-sé che gli ricordino quel suo essere infinito a cui non riesce a rinunciare[12].

Riprendendo il filo principale, il luogo di confine, di frontiera, è per definizione mutevole per innumerevoli cause: guerre, compromessi, cessioni, trattati, accordi politici, economici… Nella nostra epoca, fatte salve alcune realtà, assistiamo ad una progressiva relativizzazione del concetto di confine, che diventa fluttuante, incerto, poroso, secondo una definizione dello psicoanalista Wilfred Bion. D’altro canto, però, possiamo cogliere anche istanze diverse, volte ad un rafforzamento di certi confini che, ipotizzo, nascono da sentimenti di angosce identitarie. Se parliamo di confini, spesso siamo portati a considerarli come luoghi di separazione; proviamo, invece, a leggerli come funzione il cui scopo è quello di contenere e proteggere l’individuo, a guisa di pelle che, per evidenziarne l’importanza nell’organismo umano, è l’organo più pesante, costituendo il 18% dell’apporto ponderale nell’adulto, per arrivare al 20% nel bambino molto piccolo.

Quali sono i rischi che, credo, l’intera umanità rischia di correre? La paura di smarrire la propria identità oscilla tra una idea di confine sempre più fluttuante, impalpabile e confusa, e quella di un rafforzamento drastico, ossessivo e diffidente. Entrambi i limiti espongono i singoli individui e le collettività alla perdita di certezza e di stabilità, se pur mutevoli.

La tendenza attuale pretende la eliminazione psichica dell’Altro, psichicamente inteso come mistero, immaginazione, eros, fantasia, desiderio, mancanza, ecc. L’Altro (il Diverso), che assume in sé inesorabilmente le caratteristiche del Negativo, soccombe di fronte alla Positività dell’Uguale[13]. La diffusione esponenziale dell’Uguale contribuisce al progredire di quelle varizioni patologiche che stanno occupando il corpo sociale; ciò che ammala l’individuo e la collettività non è tanto la norma, il divieto o il tabù, quanto il consumo esorbitante, la competitività parossistica e il bisogno cieco di affermazione, a qualunque costo.

Il Diverso è diverso solo di facciata; le differenze sono tali solo nell’apparenza. Il superamento del Confine è un fatto iniziatico; è una azione psicologica con la quale ci inoltriamo in regioni in cui possiamo sperimentare l’altro-da-noi e dove possiamo confrontarci con luoghi ove dobbiamo mettere alla prova le nostre capacità di adattamento, trasformazione e assimilazione, offrendo, specularmente, il nostro Essere. In breve: esperire, dando a questo termine il senso che Heidegger gli attribuiva, cioè che ogni cosa può diventare fonte di esperienza purchè ci accada, ci incontri, ci sconvolga, ci sopraggiunga e, in definitiva, ci trasformi[14].


[1] Carlo Sini, Immagini di verità. Dal segno al simbolo, Spirali, 1985.

[2] C.G. Jung, Letters (1906-1961); trad. it Lettere, Vol. I-III, a cura di A. Jaffè, G. Adler, Ma.Gi., 2006, Lettera del 12 agosto 1960.

[i3 Robert Graves, I miti greci, Longanesi, 1992.

[4] Helmuth Plessner, L’uomo come essere biologico, in Filosofi tedeschi d’oggi, a cura di A. Babolin, Il Mulino, 1967.

[5] Laura Pigozzi, Mio figlio mi adora, Nottetempo, 2019.

[6] Baruch Spinoza, Tutte le opere, Bompiani, 2010.

[7] G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, Mille piani, Orthotes, 1980.

[8] Alain Ehrenberg, La fatica di essere se stessi. Depressione e società, Einaudi, 2010.

[9] Agostino, Le confessioni, XI, 14 e 18, Zanichelli, 1968, pp. 759.

[10] Stanley A. Leavy, The Freud-Journal of Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Hogarth Press, 1965, p.64.

[11] James Hillman, Re-visione della psicologia, Adelphi, 2019.

[12] Margaret Mahler, Le psicosi infantili, Boringhieri, 1972

[13] Byung- Chul Han, L’espulsione dell’altro, Nottetempo, 2017.

[14] Martin Heidegger, Dall’esperienza del pensiero, Il Nuovo Melangolo, 2011.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Sociologia dell’agire politico (Rome: Studium, 2014)


In his recently published Sociologia dell’agire politico (Sociology of Political Action) Francesco Giacomantonio focuses on the material and cultural conditions that are adversely affecting the possibility for effective political action, where the latter is broadly understood as “the set of all the activities that influence politics or have political repercussions” (16). Notwithstanding the book’s title, in fact, its main concern does not appear to be the study of political action itself, but rather a reflection on the nature and causes of its current crisis.

Giacomantonio understands the analysis undertaken in the book as an exercise in “theoretical sociology”, meaning by this that he does not engage directly with the sociological facts at stake, but tries instead to reconstruct the conceptual coordinates through which such phenomena can be understood and analysed. The central part of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of three leading paradigms that have had an enormous influence on the debate about the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies, as they are expounded in the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek.


Bauman’s account is presented by Giacomantonio as the most “apocalyptic” of the three; its dismal description of the “liquid society” cannot be redeemed by the counter-measures Bauman advocates, such as the appeal to personal responsibility and the re-establishment of a public agora, which appear to be vacuous and unfeasible. A more optimistic outlook, Giacomantonio points out, is the one proposed by Habermas. Even if Habermas insists on the depoliticization of the public sphere brought about by late capitalism and on the technocratic turn of the liberal state, his theory of democracy also points to the communicative resources that can still be mobilized in our societies. Giacomantonio also pauses to consider how Habermas tackles the challenge of multiculturalism and the role of religion in the public sphere. Žižek’s position, finally, is presented as a bold call for radical social change and the re-thinking of the very conceptual landscape on which our politics is taking place. Giacomantonio stresses the importance of Zizek’s reflection on the subject, his appeal to the re-politicization of the economic sphere, and his critique of the neo-liberal order.


In the final part of the book the author draws from the works of the authors discussed in the previous chapters in order to summarize the major sources of the crisis of political action in our societies. The main focus, here, is on the erosion of a shared social space, and of the common meanings and practices that are needed for individual action to have content and purpose, thus creating a world of “freedom without autonomy” (89). The erosion of a shared social space is connected to the privatization of the public sphere, which leaves individuals isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless, as public intellectuals are relinquishing their role and the leading cultural trends promote what Marcuse would have called a “closing of the universe of discourse” (94). Giacomantonio does not seem to have any ready solutions to this predicament; however, he suggests that a good starting point might consist in the rejection of radical individualism, by “freeing ourselves from egocentrism and utilitarianism” and learning “to be better rather than to have the best” (102). The closing pages of the book also remind us of the importance of imagination in politics, because only through imagination we can open the door to moral, cultural and social progress.


Giacomantonio’s reconstruction of the thought of Bauman’s, Hayek’s and Žižek is clear and accurate (only a couple of reservations might be raised, about the idea that Žižek can be taken as “last true heir” of the tradition of the Frankfurt School (84), and what I believe to be an overstatement of the role of religion in Habermas’s account of cohesion in contemporary societies (61-2)). Moreover, Giacomantonio’s choice of Habermas, Žižek and Bauman as guiding references for the critical analysis developed in the book is considered and fruitful; there is no doubt that these three authors deserve attention by whoever wants to reflect on the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies.


Still, Giacomantonio’s way of tackling the issue of political agency seems to be somehow off-target. His analysis throughout the book focuses on the social processes that are depriving members of contemporary societies of the psychological and social resources that are needed for individual action to be meaningful, effective and genuinely free. There is no doubt that the erosion of these preconditions for successful individual action is also affecting the chances for constructive political engagement. However, in democratic politics – and indeed, we might argue with Arendt and other eminent thinkers of our tradition, in any kind of politics – political action is always and essentially the product of joint or collective action, rather than individual action. The crisis of politics in our time concerns above all the constitution and the operation of collective political subjects, and focusing on the sociology of individual action, like Giacomantonio does, tends to obscure this important fact about the ontology and the sociology of politics.


Giacomantonio’s discussion, then, should be taken as a useful – indeed, necessary – preliminary analysis of the sociological conditions that we need to consider when thinking on the possibility of political action. The study of the modes and sources of present and future political action needs to come next, and should have in view collective action as an essential element of politics.

Introductory note


This was the last symposium of our circle in a cycle of six symposia devoted to the discussion of ethics in cosmopolitan world society. We had selected the special theme of good governance for this workshop and the title Good Governance and Cosmopolitanism.

The headlines for the discussion of the topic of good governance were the following: What is good governance in a changing world of cosmopolitanism and globalization? What is the relation between network governance and good governance? How can we contribute to the democratization of governance within international institutions, political systems, civil society organizations and private businesses? The study group focused on the theory and practice of good governance in a historical, philosophical, managerial and international perspective.


We also elaborated additional discussions of theories and empirical sociological work about a variety of ethical problems arising in areas such as human responsibility towards the environment, international diplomacy and administrative bureaucracy. In connection with them, we continued our general discussions about democracy as a concept, its justification in jurisprudence and the relation between ethics, law and democracy. Here we also continued our general discussion on the classical theme of morality and the ethical life, in particular with emphasis on critical theory.


Indeed the study group worked also on the continued examination of the paradoxes, dilemmas and tensions in recent debates about ethical, political and social values in contemporary cosmopolitan societies, furthering the research pursued by its members over the past few years. With the papers presented in this special issue you have some examples of the content and output of these discussions. We are thankful to their participants in the working circle 3 in the Nordic Summer University for their constructive comments and contributions to the debates and work of the study circle. 

A note on the papers from the winter symposium of the Nordic Summer University held in Akureyri, Iceland, March, 1st-3rd 2013



Among the themes tackled at the symposium there was one that gained special prominence, namely the sociological study of contemporary ethics, given that different papers presented and discussed current sociological theories and empirical sociological work about practical ethical issues. This theme revolved in particular around the foundations of ethical values in today’s societies and focused upon some developments in Scandinavia, such as the Protestant ethics of the environment and the ethical challenges arising from ongoing scientific research.


Another important issue debated at the symposium was the foundation of the ethics of capitalism, in particular in relation to the current crisis of the global capitalist system. In this context we discussed the relation between ethics and economics and the possibility of developing an ethics of the common good in the capitalist system.


Further, the symposium included different papers on democracy and ethics within the context of critical political philosophy. This also extended to the debate about the relation between ethics, law and democracy, conceived from the perspective of different influential social and political philosophers.


Concerning the Arctic theme, the discussion focussed upon select aspects of the many environmental, ethical, political and legal issues facing the Arctic region today. We had in particular a discussion of the new Icelandic constitution and the challenges that Iceland faces as a member of the Arctic community.


In this special issue we have collected some of the papers from this wonderful meeting, which benefitted from intense and thought-provoking discussions. We hope that the reader will be able to feel the same enthusiasm as the participants did during the two days of presentations and discussions.

Conference Papers from the Winter Symposium “Towards a New Ethical Imagination: Political and social values in a cosmopolitan world society”, Turku, Finland, 10-12 February 2012


The winter meeting took place at the University of Turku in Finland, 10-12 February 2012. We had different themes for our discussion.

The first theme was about “Recognition, freedom, dignity and social battles for justice in intercultural democratic society”. This theme consisted in the analysis of the concept of recognition in relation to the recent discussions on societal ethics, politics and justice. The workshop examined recognition and identity struggles that have emerged around the world as a result of post-secular society. We discussed this both in the theoretical perspective, such as philosophical, sociological and political views, and in the empirical perspective as well. The workshop looked at the cultural and social consequences of globalization and it dealt with proposals for world justice as a response to this. We focused on different battles of recognition and considered how recognition can be institutionalized under the condition of democracy.

In particular we discussed the latest work of Axel Honneth about freedom, recognition, institution and justice: Das Recht der Frieheit (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2011). Honneth has changed his focus from recognition to the problem of how freedom can be institutionalized in a modern bourgeois capitalist society. This could also be called the problem of how a societal ethics could be constituted.

The model for Honneth is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Hegel has, as it is well known, tried, as a critique of Kant, to conceptualize the institutionalization of freedom in modern society. It was interesting to bring Hegel’s discussion into play, not least his Wirkungsgeschichte or significant influence on later philosophical, political and sociological discussions of Sittlichkeit or Ethical Life, and its forms of institution in modern society.

The second theme of the meeting was “Environmental Ethics: Climate change and justice in the context of globalization of capitalism”. This part of the workshop dealt with environmental dilemmas due to the global environmental crisis. We debated climate change issues in the perspective of proposals for a new economy and we asserted how we should consider the climate change issue in relation to topics of identity struggles and poverty in developing countries.

The third theme of the meeting was the “Foundations of ethics”. Here we continued our ongoing discussions concerning possible foundations of ethical theory. Since the group started in 2010, it has been focusing on discourse ethics and ethics and closeness. The theme for the meeting in Turku involved discussions of consequentialism and utilitarianism as an ethical theory, but also broader themes about bioethics and environmental ethics were elaborated.

Finally, we had some papers that addressed the open theme of ethics in relation the general purpose of the study group.

As an overall theme, we investigate ethical and social values in a cosmopolitan world society. We examine the paradoxes, dilemmas and tensions appeared in recent debates about ethical, political and social values in contemporary societies. We can observe that ethical problems have been increasingly a central problem in public debates in Nordic societies and in the international community. Both political decisions and daily practices in public institutions and private business organizations are increasingly faced with ethical problems and issues. Moreover, there are more and more problems and practices where ethical issues are central themes and where ethical reflection is a central theme. This tendency has been very present in: the relation between democracy and administration; the obligations of business corporations in relation to profit maximization and economic efficiency; public and private management and governance; health issues; the relation to the environment and the use of natural resources; the social obligations and responsibilities towards global poverty, democracy and environmental problems. Every discussion over the prioritization of the social use of resources has, today, to be oriented towards different ethical dilemmas, problems and paradoxes of different kinds with very far reaching implications for the life of people in society and nature.

Indeed, we had a very fruitful meeting in Turku and we would indeed like to thank warmly Professor Juha Räikkä from the Philosophy department at Turku University who supervised the local organization. Moreover, we would also like to thank the participants in this symposium for their interesting contributions to the general discussions of our study group.

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.