For Leopardi, unlike Shelley and Keats, nature provoked no ecstasies, so he might seem an Olympian mind of an antique cast, icy, sublime, and forbidding. Yet in a crucial sense he was a Romantic rather than a Classicist. Whereas Sophocles saw the world steadily and saw it whole, Leopardi beheld his own pitiable self wherever he looked. What he touted as the rarest magisterial vision of the world exactly as it is was in fact the special pleading of an unfortunate whom nature had selected for a very hard time. Rather than a disinterested neo-pagan sage, he was a soul in torment, who could not forgive the Creator for his deformity and loneliness, and therefore preferred to cut God out of the picture altogether, replacing him with immemorial philosophic abstractions such as cruel Nature and inexorable Fate.
This does not mean that Leopardi was not a great artist and an intellect to reckon with. His principal artistic persona, the spirit who negates and who takes pity on human beings for the agonies they must suffer, is the most straightforward of nihilists, alluring in his clarity of vision and unwavering fortitude. In the closing lines of Leopardi’s best-known poem, “La ginestra, o il fiore del deserto” (Broom, or the Flower of the Desert), he addresses the only plant to grow on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and praises its good sense as against human folly: “Far wiser and less fallible / than man is, you did not presume / that either fate or you had made / your fragile kind immortal.” Men choose to live within reach of the volcano’s devastating eruption because they are foolish, whereas the broom lives and dies there because it can’t do otherwise. “And unresisting, / you’ll bow your blameless head / under the deadly scythe” of the lava flow. To know your place in the world is to recognize that nature can snuff out your life in one terrifying instant, and when that time comes, men are as helpless as the broom. Acceptance—of sorrow, boredom, failure, and death—is the hardest part of wisdom.
It is of course Nietzsche who urges his readers to build their houses on the slopes of volcanoes, to live dangerously and say yes to life no matter how awful it gets. Leopardi’s is the more honest nihilism, the purest distillation of nothingness. Accepting one’s own particular portion of the universal lot is a far cry from love of life. Whereas Nietzsche preaches the supreme wisdom and moral excellence of amor fati, loving your fate so intensely that it seems entirely the working of your own will, Leopardi sees nothing to love even in the fate of the man who is clear-sighted and strong enough to gaze imperturbably upon life and death stripped to their hideous core. Leopardi’s is the more severe teaching, offering no hope of transcending Christian transcendence (in Erich Heller’s phrase) as do Nietzsche and his acolyte Rainer Maria Rilke in their glamorous prospectus of free-spirited modernity. One sees in Leopardi what godless life really is.
Read it all.