Man is almost always as wicked as his needs require.
G. Leopardi. Thoughts, 1831.
Giacomo Leopardi, often considered the first classic poet of modern Italian literature, is well known for his many musings on the subject of human nature. Leopardi’s poem, “Bruto Minore,” sheds light on the meaning of the quotation above. This poem concerns Brutus, the murderer of the Roman dictator Caesar. In Leopardi’s telling, Brutus resents Caesar’s rise above him. Although thinking of his own honor, Brutus justifies slaying Caesar based on his moral commitment to liberty. After the murder, Brutus realizes that all he has done is fruitless and that his moral claims did not justify his actions.
While based on ancient history, the poem “Bruto Minore” was probably influenced by the chaotic time in which it was written. Shortly before Leopardi was born, the French Revolution ended and was closely followed by politically motivated killings of people in power. The stark realization that people would murder for political opportunity, while justifying their actions with false moral claims, likely led to Leopardi’s insight about man’s wickedness. Leopardi’s time was not the only one fraught with death and misery rationalized by social and political needs. Even in today’s “advanced” society, murders are numerous and war casualties are treated lightly. Killing is still a normal part of how people advance their own agendas and ideas with self-serving interpretations of morality.
Leopardi’s quoted view of man, however, is not entirely dark. While not approving wickedness, Leopardi is understanding of the wickedness of his fellow men. The fact that man’s wickedness arises from his “needs” in comparison to, for example, man’s desires, suggests that man has no choice. “Needs” suggests that the actions, no matter how unsavory, are necessary to achieve man’s ends. The addition of the word “almost” to “always as wicked as his needs require” also shades the meaning of the original quote. Man is not quite as wicked as his needs require. The morality of men like Brutus bends their wickedness somewhat. Leopardi’s apparent sympathy for mankind, compelled by needs but not quite always failing, is affirmed when Brutus comes to the conclusion that his hypocritical morality has failed him. At least in reflection and at the end, Brutus realizes the truth.