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Civilization and Human Progress: Leopardi, Kant and Condorcet


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Trimite pe Messenger
The Rupture of War Crisis and Reconstruction of the Left, 1914–1917
New Social Movements Politics Out of Doors
Defining the Left Socialism, Democracy, and the People
People’s War and People’s Peace Remaking the Nation, 1939–1947
The Center and the Margins Decline or Renewal?
Closure Stalinism, Welfare Capitalism, and Cold War, 1945–1956
Remolding Militancy The Foundation of Communist Parties
The Rise of Labor Movements History’s Forward March

Civilization and Human Progress:

Leopardi, Kant and Condorcet

While thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet, believe that the proof of human perfectibility lies in man’s civilization, Giacomo Leopardi contests this idea in his dialogue, “The Wager of Prometheus”.   In an attempt to prove that his invention, the human race, was the best amongst the gods, Prometheus strikes up a wager with Momos. They travel to three different parts of the Earth witnessing examples of man’s immorality, but before the last two parts, Prometheus forfeits and pays Momos his wager. Momos voices Leopardi’s views through his sarcastic quips about the behavior of the human race.  Both Kant and Condorcet acknowledge that man does not come into being in a perfect state; but whereas animals remain in their instinctual state, man becomes more civilized and more aware of his actions. The progress of mankind, socially and intellectually, is what they believe points to how man is able to improve his own nature. Leopardi shows how human progress just makes for a greater possibility of immorality. In comparison with the arguments in Leopardi’s dialogue, Kant and Condorcet represent two different types of optimistic arguments.

This dialogue illuminates two key arguments for the optimistic view of mankind, historical change and human progress. Kant’s position is founded on the role of historical events in the actions of the individual as well as an entire society.  His works, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” and “Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History” address the importance of how history helps mankind understand how man has progressed and how man may continue to progress. Both of these works emphasize the historical development of man’s faculties with respect the world around him. Kant uses history as a platform for his argument; he states, “The will’s manifestations in the world of phenomena [. . .] are determined in accordance with natural laws, as is every other natural event. History is concerned with giving an account of these phenomena,” and “they [people] are unwittingly guided in their advance along a course intended by nature” (Kant, 41). Since man’s free will is a product of nature, as stated by Kant, then the historical developments of mankind are in accordance with the natural laws, and the history of mankind is a reliable reference tool for the future developments of mankind. Kant does not idealize the behavior of man but rather uses his historical analysis as a way to show the progression of mankind limited only by nature. While progression is limitless, Kant also acknowledges that the faults in human nature are part of nature’s plan for the human species the nature-guided argument tends towards an optimistic viewpoint by the belief that our reasoning skills will only improve with each passing generation. Kant says:

If nature has fixed only a short term for each man’s life (as is in fact the case), then it will require a long, perhaps incalculable series of generations, each passing on enlightenment to the next, before the germs implanted by nature in our species can be developed to that degree which corresponds to nature’s original intention” (Kant, 43).

If man is a product of nature then, it would only make sense to assume the same about mankind. Man’s progress, according to Kant, adheres to the natural progress that occurs in the world because the human species is shaped by nature.

Kant presents a solid argument; Leopardi uses three different experiences across history to prove that man’s behavior is stagnant despite the efforts of civilization. Prometheus and Momos first travel to man’s beginnings in the Americas, then Asia at a later time period, and finally a civilized London. At all three places, three different stages of the historical development of man, man is found distasteful and selfish. A man eats his son for nourishment, a woman endures a religious ritual without a care for the religion itself, and a man kills himself and two children out of boredom. The fact that the civilized state of man increases with each visit, man does not demonstrate a propensity towards moral behavior whereas Kant argues that, “resultant evils still have a beneficial effect. For they compel our species to discover a law of equilibrium” (Kant, 49). Kant argues that with the fits and starts of human civilization will man finally learn to work with his fellow companions in a harmonious fashion. Kant says:

Each must accordingly expect from any other precisely the same evils which formerly oppressed individual men and forced them into a law-governed civil state. Nature has thus again employed the unsociableness of men, and even of the large societies and states which human beings construct, as a means of arriving at a condition of clam and security through their inevitable antagonism” (Kant 47).  

Unlike many optimists, Kant addresses the evident shortcomings of human behavior, but he justifies them by showing how man’s faults are what provide the opportunity for progress. Well argued, this point fails to explain how humans are indeed a superior species as compared to the rest in nature.  Leopardi also addresses this point by revealing in each story how the appearance of progress is actually only stagnant immorality and selfishness. The discovery of fire was a crucial one to the survival of mankind, but the Agra story, with the woman who is ritually burning herself, is ironic with the original use of fired. She endures the ritual, while inebriated, to rejoin with her dead husband, who she did not like; one has to wonder what meaning the ritual has if there is no emotional investment. While Kant does not preach the purity of man, he does believe in the power of reflection, but what kind of reflection occurs in any of these stories? The man in London seems to hardly think of his own two children before he shoots them, but he does think of his dog, something he is not even biologically related too. This is not to say Kant’s argument is invalid, but it merely suffers from shortcomings that Leopardi’s transhistorical dialogue addresses.

The shortcomings in Kant’s works can be attributed to his style versus Leopardi’s style. Leopardi’s dialogue contains a transhistorical element that allows him to present his views on human behavior without being too focused on one period of time or another. Kant uses a syllogism structure that deduces how history plays an important role in development of mankind in his essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.” Kant’s method is certainly logical and effective, but it does not delve into the workings of the human condition.  At times his argument can generalize the evils and justifications for those evils without considering the natural variance of human behavior. He states that man has a tendency to either live in a society or live alone but that “through the desire for honour, power, or property, it drives him to seek status among his fellows, whom he cannot bear yet cannot bear to leave” (Kant, 44).  In other words, man is made imperfectly; he is not inclined towards a social lifestyle but feels the need to indulge in it because it develops his skills. Leopardi’s response to this statement is the story of the London murder-suicide. Prometheus and Momos arrive in London during a civilized period of time and find themselves at the scene of a dead man and his two children, whom he killed. After some questions the two gods find out that this man was lacking nothing in his life and was well received in society. When asked by the gods why this man killed himself, the man’s servant replies, “Boredom with life, according to the note he left,” which just further shows how little civilization has done to correct the imperfections of man’s character (Leopardi 84). Leopardi’s focused examples of human immorality are a response to the historical argument presented by thinkers like Kant. Kant believed that nothing in the future could be really truly known but that there is an established natural pattern of human behavior. His argument stands in stark contrast with Leopardi’s argument about human nature because Leopardi presents these three examples of the imperfectability of human nature in three different time periods. In each example there is a form of technology or sign of human progress, but it’s use is warped and turned against mankind: The skill to kill and prepare food is used against the Savage’s own family, the discovery of fire is used to burn a woman who cares nothing for the religious ritual, and the invention of guns is used in an murder-suicide-infanticide.  Leopardi’s use of three different time periods for his examples of human behavior serves to attack the historically based argument presented by Kant. The transhistorical setting allows for Leopardi to address the historical argument for mankind’s progress, as presented by Kant.

While Kant focuses on the historical argument for progress, Condorcet uses human reasoning skills as a basis for the argument for the possibility of a utopian society. Leopardi and Condorcet are members of opposing philosophies except for the fact they both believe there is no definition of man’s perfect existence. Interestingly, this idea plays a strong role in both of their arguments about the nature of mankind. The two portions, “Introduction” and “The Tenth Stage: The Future Progress of the Human Mind” from Condorcet’s main work, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, emphasizes how the construct of human senses and behavior will generate social, political, and economic progress in a limitless upward direction. Since there is no limit to human progress, Condorcet believes that humans can continuously progress in a positive direction towards a sort of utopia. Leopardi takes the undefined nature of the human species and uses it to explain man’s perpetual pendulum-like behavior between progress and regression. For Leopardi, there is no limit for man’s behavior because it man’s behavior has an oscillatory-like pattern. Leopardi states this through Momos, who says, “human civilization, so hard to obtain, and perhaps impossible to bring to completion, is not even stable to the extent that it might now collapse: as we find it has in fact, several times, and in a number of peoples who had acquired a good measure of it”  (Leopardi, 83). In a sense, Leopardi is saying that man is not swaying towards endless progress or constant regression but that he is in this state because no limit has been defined for man’s existence.  This same idea seems to be restated from an optimistic argument for progress in the “Introduction” when Condorcet says, “nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe” (Condorcet, 4). For Condorcet, this idea of the limitless suggests that man will continue to progress towards unity because of the superior nature of man’s senses and reasoning skills.  While these two opposing thinkers share a similar belief, Leopardi’s dialogue attacks Condorcet’s argument for the superior nature of man’s senses and reasoning skills.

Leopardi’s dialogue argues against the idea that man is perfectible and that man is the most perfect creation. Coming from the Enlightenment period, Condorcet’s argument is rooted in the idea that man is a superior being because he has the ability to understand the world around him. In addition to senses, reasoning allows men to have problem solving skills which in turn can only make the world better, in Condorcet’s eyes. Like Kant, his conjectures on the future state of man are based on the natural sciences. For this Condorcet says, “why should this principle be any less true for the development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man than for the other operations of nature” (Condorcet, 173).  Condorcet acknowledges the faults of man’s character, but he also goes on to say the very core of man, his free will, will guide him in a more positive direction and that opposition will lead to moral reform. This reform will lead to the eradication of inequality in society and thus progress will continue in a positive direction (Condorcet, “Introduction,”4-5). Leopardi’s response to this argument is that human reasoning does not bring people together but rather can serve against the unification of a civilization. Momos states this at the end of the dialogue when he says, “when men talk and make judgments they constantly confuse the one with the other; arguing from certain presuppositions they have themselves thought up, and hold as palpable truths” (Leopardi, 83). Leopardi’s argument against the superiority of man’s reason is that if man’s reasoning is so great then why have all civilizations been incapable of staying united?  Condorcet attributes the failures of a given society to the presence of inequality in society which has its origins in the early developments of mankind. The beginnings of the human race gave rise to inequality because “Some people adopted the practice of exchanging part of their surplus for labour from which they would then be absolved” (Condorcet, “Introduction,” 6). This practice of exchange produced social, economic and political inequalities that forced the growing societies to adjust to the needs of the people around them. Leopardi does not disagree with the healing power of struggle, but he does not believe that pain and suffering can be eradicated from the human race. Against Condorcet’s argument and the argument of other optimists, Momos says, “but for the world to be perfect it must, among other things, also contain all the evils imaginable: for in fact we find in it as much evil as can be contained there” (Leopardi, 83). Condorcet and Leopardi share a similar view on the limitlessness of human nature, but they apply this idea to different schools of thought. Leopardi’s dialogue is a more pointed attack on the utopian argument of the optimists like Condorcet. Despite Momos’ reflection on the past three trips to human civilizations at the end of the dialogue Leopardi is able to challenge the ideas Condorcet puts forth in his own work

Both optimistic writers use different types of arguments that get critiqued by Leopardi’s dialogue, “The Wager of Prometheus.” Kant’s argument is targets by the transhistorical nature of the dialogue as well as the examination of mankind at different stages of civilization. The historical argument that Kant uses is put into question when Momos and Prometheus realize that man has not changed his behavior over the three different stages. The setting of dialogue also shows how time is not really an important consideration in the analysis of man’s behavior. Condorcet and Leopardi, surprisingly, share a common belief in the lack of a limit to mankind. Condorcet sees man as moving towards a progressive utopia whereas Leopardi sees man as stuck between moral and immoral behavior. Leopardi’s argument sheds light on how Condorcet does not really acknowledge the negative human behaviors, which is what weakens Condorcet’s argument. By looking at these two optimistic writers in comparison with Leopardi, one can see how sometimes optimists and pessimists come from the same foundation and how pessimists call into question the pieces missing in optimistic arguments

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