Read an Excerpt
By Giacomo Leopardi, Tim Parks
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Donzelli Editore
All rights reserved.
Happiness and Sadness
People will already have noticed that just as happiness prompts us to communicate with others (so that even a normally taciturn person will grow talkative when happy, easily falling into conversation with people he would otherwise have avoided or not wanted to speak to, etc.), so sadness leads us to shun society and shrink into ourselves with our own thoughts and distress. Still, I'd like to point out how this tendency to expansiveness in happiness and contraction in sadness also affects a person's movement and gait; when happy he throws out his arms and legs, swinging his hips and opening up, in a way, by moving swiftly back and forth, as though looking for room and space; but when sad he shrinks into himself, his head drops, his arms fold and close on his chest, and he walks slowly, refraining from any movement that might be lively or, as it were, ample. I remember once (I noticed this as it happened) I was sitting down absorbed in happy or at least neutral thoughts; then a sad thought came along and at once my knees, from being relaxed and loosely apart, clamped tight together and my chin, which had been tilted upward, dropped down on my chest.
Satirical Thoughts—Envy—Memories of My Life
I used to think the Capuchins were crazy when they excused themselves for treating their novices badly—something they do with great satisfaction and intense personal pleasure—by saying that they themselves had been treated the same way. Since then experience has taught me that this is a natural feeling; the fact is I had just reached an age to free myself from the trammels of a harsh and extremely strict upbringing, but was still living in my father's house with a brother much younger than myself, but not so young as not to be in full command of all his faculties and foibles, etc. Now, although it was absolutely not something my parents wanted, but simply because the kind of life we were all living together had changed, this brother to a large degree shared our freedoms and enjoyed a lot more comforts and nice little treats than we other children had enjoyed at his age; he also had far fewer duties and restraints and rules and punishments to bother him than we had had, as a result of which he was much cheekier and more brazen than we were at his age. In natural response I felt a very real envy; I wasn't envious of the privileges he enjoyed, since I now had the same privileges myself and could hardly hope now to have them retrospectively for the time past; I simply felt irritated that he should have them and wished rather that he be harassed and tormented as we had been. This is pure, unadulterated envy of the worst variety, and I felt it naturally, without wanting to feel it. But I understood then (and that was when I wrote this down) that this is human nature, and I saw how the privileges, whatever they amounted to, that I was now enjoying were becoming less attractive to me because I was sharing them with him; perhaps they no longer seemed a sufficient reward for what I had had to put up with since someone else who was now in the same position I'd once been in, someone less deserving than myself, had acquired them with no effort at all. Let's apply this to the Capuchins: finding that they hold the fate of their younger brothers, the novices, in their hands, they act on impulses dictated by the inclination I've been describing; they can't bear the idea that the privileges they've acquired be cheapened by allowing others to have them with less trouble than themselves, nor that these youngsters, now in the same circumstances they were once in, not suffer the same tribulations they suffered.
Envy—Memories of My Life
I've never envied anyone for talents I believed I had myself, literary talents, for example; on the contrary, in those cases I've always been more than ready to praise. No, I think I first experienced envy (toward someone very close to me) when I wanted to be good at something I knew I wasn't good at. But I have to be fair to myself and admit that it was a very vague sort of envy, not altogether mean, and it ran against the grain of my character. All the same, having to hear about this person's successes in this particular field would make me extremely unhappy, and when he told me about them I treated him as though he were being naïve, etc.
Boredom—Memories of My Life
Even the pain arising from boredom and a sense of life's pointlessness is far more bearable than the boredom itself.
Revenge is so sweet one often wishes to be insulted so as to be able to take revenge, and I don't mean just by an old enemy, but anyone, or even (especially when in a really bad mood) by a friend.
Friendship between Two Young People—Friendship
Once heroism was gone from the world, to be replaced by universal egoism, real friendship, sacrificial friendship between people who still have active interests and ambitions, became extremely improbable. So even though people have always said that equality is one of the most powerful catalysts of friendship, these days I reckon it's less likely for two young people to be friends than for a young person with someone older, someone who has strong feelings but is already disenchanted with the world and hence has ceased to expect happiness for himself. No longer gripped by urgent ambitions, the older man is more able to ally himself with someone who is still very involved and to develop a lively and useful interest in him, thus forming, always assuming the other has the spirit to reciprocate, a real and solid friendship. Such a situation seems rather more conducive to friendship than when both people are disenchanted, since if neither has ambitions or interests, there is nothing to build the friendship on; it would all be mere words and feelings and find no expression in action. Apply this observation to the case of myself and my fine and unusual friend, and to the fact of my having found no other such friend, despite having known and loved and been loved by people of great feeling and talent.
Notice how attractive we all find weakness in this world. If you see a boy coming toward you with an uncertain step and a helpless look about him, you're endeared and fall in love with the lad. If you see a pretty woman, looking faint and fragile, or if you happen to see any woman trying to do something but unable to because of the weakness of her sex, you feel moved and are perfectly capable of prostrating yourself before her weakness and accepting her as mistress of yourself and your strength, to the point of subjecting and sacrificing yourself entirely to the business of loving and protecting her. The cause of this effect is compassion, which I consider the one human passion and quality not tainted in any way by self-love. I say the one passion because even the heroism of sacrificing oneself for one's country, one's morality, or one's beloved, or likewise any other action however heroic or altruistic (and any affection however pure), is always the consequence of our feeling that this line of behavior offers greater satisfaction than others available in the circumstances. And every product of our minds, whatever it may be, always has its certain and inevitable origin in egoism, however chastened the egoism and however remote from it the consequent action may seem. But the compassion that springs in our hearts when we see someone suffering is a miracle of nature, a feeling totally independent of personal advantage or pleasure, entirely directed toward others and in no way mixed up with ourselves. That is why compassionate men are so rare and why pity, especially these days, is rated one of the most praiseworthy and distinguishing qualities of the sensitive, virtuous man. Unless of course the compassion turns out to be partly grounded in the fear that we might ourselves one day be subject to the same frailty we are observing. (Because self-regard is extremely subtle, it creeps in everywhere, lurking in the most hidden corners of our hearts, places you would never have thought it could penetrate.) Still, when you think it over, you'll find that spontaneous compassion does exist, entirely free of such a fear and wholly directed toward the sufferer.
Compassion toward Animals
Having sold an ox to a butcher and taken the animal to be slaughtered, at the crucial moment a peasant from the town of Recanati hesitated; he couldn't decide whether to stay or go, whether to watch or turn away, and when finally curiosity got the better of him and he saw the ox crash to the ground, he burst into tears. I heard this from someone who was there.
Paradoxes—Moral Etiquette—Serious Misfortune
When someone is suddenly given some really bad news, the intensity of his reaction doesn't increase in proportion to the seriousness or otherwise of the loss. In situations like this a person considers his misfortune total and vents all the grief he's capable of, so that even if things turned out to be twice as bad he would hardly be able to weep twice as much. I mean if at the start the news had been twice as bad, because if on the other hand he first hears of one disaster then another, this would indeed lead to greater grief, though even then the increase would hardly be in proportion to the extent of the new disaster because his mind would already be worn out and as it were numbed by the first. Yesterday, at a fair, two boys were killed by a stone falling from a roof. Word went round that the sons were brothers, children of the same mother. Afterward people were relieved when it turned out that actually they had different mothers. So here we have people cheering up in response to a grief actually doubling, since now two women will be feeling awful, while one would have felt more or less the same grief over one boy as over two. Stunned by the news, she would hardly have been able to suffer more if the catastrophe doubled. Unless of course the death of these two meant the death of all her children, which would alter the nature of the calamity and move it into a different category. It might also be true that a single child lost was an only child, in which case again these thoughts wouldn't apply.
Glory is not a passion of the absolutely primitive, solitary man, but the first time a group of men got together to kill a wild beast or do something that required their helping each other, then the most obviously courageous ones would have heard the others tell them, "Well done," frankly and without flattery, since there was no flattery in those times. The words sounded good, and so for the first time these men and any other magnanimous spirits present experienced a desire for praise. Thus the love of glory was born.
Civilization. Process of Civilization—Glory. Fame—Of Nature
So glory is a passion typical of man in society, and so natural that even now, with the world moribund as it is and in the absence of any kind of stimulus, young people still feel the need to distinguish themselves, and not finding any of the previous paths to glory open to them they burn up their energy and youth studying all the [libidinous] arts, risking their health and shortening their lives, not so much out of a craving for pleasure, but so as to be noticed and envied and to crow over conquests that are shameful but that the world applauds anyway these days, since young people just don't have any other way of taking advantage of their bodies and winning attention for what they do with them. Even the mind has only a tiny chance these days, though it may still find some paths to glory, but the body, the part of ourselves that is busiest, and that in the nature of things constitutes for most men the greater part of valor, has no other road at all.
Civilization. Process of Civilization—Glory. Fame—Physical Strength—Of Nature
A young man entering the world wants to make his mark. It's everyone's inevitable desire. But these days an ordinary young man has no other way of doing that than the one described above, the only alternative being literature, which is equally disastrous for the body. So today glory lies with activities that are bad for one's health, whereas in the past the opposite was true. As a result, generation after generation of people are growing feebler, and this consequence of our having lost those illusions that animated people in the past then becomes another reason for the disappearance of those illusions, since people just don't have the strength to sustain them, something I've spoken about elsewhere, since great illusions of the mind demand a corresponding physical strength. We know all too well the terrifying effects of the way young people live today, something that will gradually reduce the world to a hospital. But what can you do? What other employment or hope is there today for an ordinary young man? Do you suppose he can resign himself to a life of inactivity, with no prospects, and nothing to look forward to but endless monotony and unremitting boredom? In ancient times vanity was thought to be peculiar to women, since of course women share the same desire to distinguish themselves and as a rule the only way they could do that was through their beauty. Hence their cultus sui [cult of themselves], which, as Celso claimed, adimi feminis non potest [you can't take away from a woman]. These days we still think vanity is peculiar to women, but wrongly so, because it's now almost equally typical of men, since when it comes to making a mark in the world men are reduced to more or less the same condition as women, while most older men have become useless and contemptible, lifeless, pleasureless and hopeless, just as most women used to be and still tend to become, first having the whole world talking about them, then outliving their fame in old age.
Civilization. Process of Civilization—Glory. Fame—Of Nature
We can exclude from these considerations tradesmen, farmers, craftsmen, and workers in general, since this collapse in morals and the catastrophe consequent on it is peculiar to the leisured classes.
Notice how our compassion and sympathy are aroused when we see someone, anyone, going through unhappiness, trouble, or pain and too weak and feeble to come out from it. It's the same when we see someone being mistreated, however mildly, and unable to deal with it.
Man's Inclinations—Hope and Fear
If you have a bitter enemy in a certain town and you see a thunderstorm over the place, do you even vaguely hope it might kill him? So why are you afraid yourself if the same storm hovers over you, when the chances of its striking are so remote you couldn't even find a reason for hoping it would dispatch your enemy, despite the fact that hope can perfectly well spring with hardly any reason at all? The same is true of a hundred other dangers; if they were opportunities for something positive you'd feel it was ridiculous to place any hope in them, yet as dangers you fear them. So it is: however easily and groundlessly hope may spring, fear does so even more readily. But this reflection seems rather useful for calming it. So fear creates more illusions than hope.
Hope and Fear
As with hope, or any other state of mind, an advantage in the future is always greater than what we have now, so ordinarily with fear a distant calamity is more terrible than anything in the present.
Hope and Fear
So the good and bad things we're expecting are usually greater than what we have in the present. The reason for both situations is the same: imagination driven by a self-regard that is taken up with hope on the one hand or fear on the other.
No grief arising from misfortune is comparable to one caused by some serious and irremediable damage that we feel we brought on ourselves and could have avoided; that is, to deep and sincere regret.
Reactions to Trouble—Consolation—Necessity—Regret—Handbook of Practical Philosophy
Once when Pietrino was crying because Luigi had thrown his play stick out the window, my mother said: Don't cry, don't cry, I would have thrown it out if he hadn't. And Pietrino cheered up because he would have lost his stick anyway. Another similar and equally common reaction is when we feel better and much relieved because we've persuaded ourselves that some advantage we've missed out on was not ours for the taking, or some trouble we're in not ours to avoid; consequently we struggle to convince ourselves of this, and when we can't we feel desperate, even though the trouble is the same either way. On this point, see Epictetus's Handbook.
Excerpted from Passions by Giacomo Leopardi, Tim Parks. Copyright © 2010 Donzelli Editore. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.