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Persuasion and Rhetoric

Persuasion and Rhetoric

by Carlo Michelstaedter, Russell Scott Valentino (Translator), Cinzia Sartini Blum (Translator), David J. Depew (Translator)

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This translation of Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric brings the powerful and original work of a seminal cultural figure to English-language readers for the first time. Ostensibly a commentary on Plato’s and Aristotle’s relation to the pre-Socratic philosophers, Michelstaedter’s deeply personal book is an extraordinary


This translation of Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric brings the powerful and original work of a seminal cultural figure to English-language readers for the first time. Ostensibly a commentary on Plato’s and Aristotle’s relation to the pre-Socratic philosophers, Michelstaedter’s deeply personal book is an extraordinary rhetorical feat that reflects the author’s struggle to make sense of modern life. This edition includes an introduction discussing his life and work, an extensive bibliography, notes to introduce each chapter, and critical notes illuminating the text.
Within hours of completing Persuasion and Rhetoric, his doctoral thesis, 23-year-old Michelstaedter shot himself to death. The text he left behind has proved to be one of the most trenchant and influential studies in modern rhetoric, a work that develops Nietzschean themes and anticipates the conclusions of, among others, Martin Heidegger. Publication of the book in English is an event of great magnitude for students of Italian philosophy, rhetoric, and literature as well as the culture of Mitteleuropa.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Michelstaedter's book is a still undervalued masterpiece of the XIXth century."—Umberto Eco

"Like his contemporaries Otto Weininger and Franz Kafka, Carlo Michelstaedter was an intriguing ‘double’ minority figure in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His one short book remains an extraordinary document of the early twentieth-century, offering a summa of many spiritual currents issuing into German and Austrian expressionism. It is essential reading for anyone interested in modern European literature and philosophy."—Thomas Harrison, author of 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Italian Literature and Thought Series
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Persuasion & Rhetoric


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10434-9

Chapter One


TRANSLATORS' NOTE: The point of this short but important chapter is to illustrate Michelstaedter's key concept of persuasion (persuasione), by which the author means to translate and amplify the Greek word pithenon, in the sense of complete conviction.

He begins by claiming that all beings, inanimate as well as animate, are defined by what they lack. A weight, for example, always seeks to fall. If having been let free it comes to rest, it is no longer a weight. "Its life is its want of life." The general implication is that, as centers of desires, nothing (and in particular nobody) can be entirely satisfied and remain what it actually is. Michelstaedter infers from this that anything that exists is also future-oriented, as he illustrates in the story about climbing to the top of a mountain. Every entity, he claims, indeed every person, is both alone and lonely, for, as long as we remain individuals, by definition we are separate centers of insatiable desire.

When Michelstaedter puts this point by maintaining that "the weight can never be persuaded," he implicitly defines persuasion as a hypothetical, counterfactual state in which an entity is at one withitself and its environment. Only those beings, we are given to understand, who will the suspension of their own will can ever approach such a state. The theme is Schopenhauerian. But the sources on which Michelstaedter relies are classical. For Parmenides, the majority of people who live immersed in the Way of Seeming, and who accordingly take what is transitory and contradictory as reliable Being itself, are in a state of self-deception and illusion. They can never be "persuaded," Parmenides says, for only the Way of Being, which recognizes that there is nothing stable in experience, is "the path of persuasion (peithos). For it alone attends to truth (aletheia)" (Diels 2). It is in this sense that Michelstaedter uses the term persuasion throughout his work.


Because the power of the ether smothers them in the sea, / the sea spits them out on the land, the land towards the fierce heat / of the indefatigable sun, which burns them in the vortices of the ether; / one receives them from the other, and all detest them. -Empedocles

I know I want and do not have what I want. A weight hangs suspended from a hook; being suspended, it suffers because it cannot fall: it cannot get off the hook, for insofar as it is weight it suspends, and as long as it suspends it depends.

We want to satisfy it: we free it from its dependence, letting it go so that it might satisfy its hunger for what lies below, and it falls independently for as long as it is content to fall. But at none of the points attained is it content to stop; it still wants to fall, for the next point below continually overtakes in lowness that which the weight has just attained. Nor will any future point be such as to render it content, being necessary to the weight's life insofar, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], as it awaits below; but every time a point is made present, it will be emptied of all attraction, no longer being below; thus does it want at every point the points below it, and those attract it more and more. It is always drawn by an equal hunger for what is lower, and the will to fall remains infinite with it always.

If at some point its will were finished and it could possess in one point the infinite descent of the infinite future, at that point it would no longer be what it is-a weight.

Its life is this want of life. If it no longer wanted but were finished, perfect, if it possessed its own self, it would have ended its existence. At that point, as its own impediment to possessing life, the weight would not depend on what is external as much as on its own self, in that it is not given the means to be satisfied. The weight can never be persuaded.

Nor is any life ever satisfied to live in any present, for insofar as it is life it continues, and it continues into the future to the degree that it lacks life. If it were to possess itself completely here and now and be in want of nothing-if it awaited nothing in the future-it would not continue: it would cease to be life.

So many things attract us in the future, but in vain do we want to possess them in the present.

I climb to a mountaintop: its height calls me, I want to have it, and I ascend and dominate it. But how can I possess the mountain? I am truly high above the plain and sea, and I see the wide horizon from the mountain. But none of that is mine: What I see is not within me, nor does seeing more ever mean, "I have seen": the sight, I don't possess it. The sea shines bright in the distance-that will be mine in a different manner. I shall descend to the coast. I'll hear its voice, sail along its back and ... be content. But now on the sea, "the ear cannot be filled with hearing," the boat rides ever new waves, and "an equal thirst takes hold of me." I may plunge into it, feel a wave across my body, but where I am the sea is not. If I want to go where the water is and have it, the waves make way before the swimming man. I may drink in the saltiness, exult like a porpoise, drown myself, but I still won't possess the sea: I am alone and distinct in its midst.

Nor can a man seeking refuge in the persona he loves satisfy his hunger: neither kisses nor embraces nor any other demonstrations invented by love can interpenetrate one with the other: they will always be two, each alone and distinct. Men lament this solitude, but if they find it lamentable it is because being with themselves they feel alone: they feel themselves to be with no one, in want of everything.

He who is for himself ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) has no need of what would be for him ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in a future time but instead possesses all within himself.

"Has been," "shall be," and "was" will take place no more, But "is" only in the present, and "now" and "today," And only the whole of eternity assembled.

But man wants from other things in a future time what he lacks in himself: the possession of his own self, and as he wants and is busied so with the future he escapes himself in every present.

Thus does he move differently from the things different from him, as he is different from his own self, continuing in time. What he wants is given within him, and wanting life he distances himself from himself: he does not know what he wants. His end is not his end, nor does he know why he does what he does: his activity is being passive, for he does not have himself as long as an irreducible, obscure hunger for life lives within him. Persuasion lives not in him who does not live from his own self, who is son and father, slave and master of what lies around him, of what came before, of what must come after-a thing among things.

Hence is each alone and distinct among others, for his voice is not his voice, and he neither knows it nor can communicate it to others. "Words exhaust themselves" (Ecclesiastes). Each pivots on his own fulcrum, which is not his own, and he cannot give to others bread he does not have himself.

He who does not have persuasion cannot communicate it ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'Surely a blind man cannot lead the blind') (St. Luke).

Persuaded is he who has his life within himself, a soul naked amongst the islands of the blessed ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (Gorgias).

But men look for [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'life,' and lose [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'life' (St. Matthew).

Chapter Two

The Illusion of Persuasion

TRANSLATORS' NOTE: This chapter exhibits the consequences of the main claim of Part One, Chapter I: that the existence of all things lies in striving; that striving is the essence of existence. From this beginning point, Michelstaedter implies that all things possess philopsychia, the love of one's own sweet (physical) existence. This is a key concept in the rest of the section and one of the major motifs of the entire work. Such love implies that each of us has a desire, a conatus, for something that defines us, which is the focal point of all our "hunger, as if that thing could provide all [our] life." This focal concentration is an index of the state of being "persuaded," in the sense of being totally identified with. Persuasion is, as Kierkegaard says, "to will one thing."

It would seem from this claim that it is well-nigh impossible for persons who are dominated by philopsychia ever fully to be persuaded; rather, they are distracted, and so at the mercy of rhetoric. In this, they differ from animals and plants, which are always identical with their desires, always focused on the specific object that defines their striving, hence always inadequately persuaded. This raises a question: How can humans, who always live, as Heidegger says, ex-statically, standing out from themselves, toward a future, ever be persuaded? That is the central question of the treatise. An answer is sketched at the end of the chapter: by ability to bear pain, which counteracts the attachment to pleasure that defines philopsychia.

At this point in the text, Michelstaedter's reflection is focused on physical things and their tendencies; only in Part Two does Michelstaedter turn to the human scene as a site of reflection. He is slowly working his way from things to persons and from persons to particular forms of culture, as in Hegel's Phenomenology. Even here, however, Michelstaedter is using the categories of life to model physical and chemical processes. He maintains that everything that exists is the product of striving, desire, conatus. As a result, he is something of a panpsychist, at least rhetorically, as is clear in his references to the "striving" of chlorine and hydrogen to come to "life" in the form of hydrogen chloride: the concept of life is not restricted to living things but is extended to inanimate objects and processes. Michelstaedter's consistently voluntaristic perspective shows itself in the form of an apparent panpsychism-the claim that there are stirrings of consciousness in all things-and indicates the wide ambiance of vitalism and Lebensphilosophie that were philosophically in the ascendant during his formative years, and these, in turn, are used to code for the primacy of will over intellect in a variety of thinkers.

In this connection, Michelstaedter's assimilation of chemical bonding to Lebensphilosophie runs by way of a philological identification based on the term "valency." The valency of one chemical kind measures its affinity for another kind. The term "valency" derives from the Latin for choice. Hence the conflation, and also the inference that the chemical kinds must have some sort of consciousness, based on the notion that consciousness requires will. The same set of tropes is at work as far back as Goethe's Elective Affinities.


They drag themselves, mute and blind, stupefied, a confused multitude for whom being or not being has the same value and does not have the same value. -Parmenides

Each thing that lives persuades itself that this continuous deficiency, by which every living thing dies in continuing each instant, is life.


In order to possess itself, to reach actual being, it flows in time: and time is infinite, for were it to succeed in possessing itself, in consisting, it would cease to be will for life ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'an infinity beyond which there is always something'); likewise space is infinite, for there is nothing that is not will for life ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'an infinity beyond the bounds of which lies nothing'). Life would be if time did not constantly distance its being into the next instant. Life would be one, immobile, formless if it could consist in one point. The necessity of flight in time implies the necessity of the dilation of space: perpetual mutation, from which comes the infinite variety of things: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'the yearning to live assumes every form reaching for life.' Because at no point is the will satisfied, each thing destroys itself in coming into being and in passing away: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'everything flows,' so that it transforms itself without respite in varied desiring. And without end, without change, the indifferent transfiguration of things remains in every time whole and never completed: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'this they call life.'

But who [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'calls'? Who says life? Who has consciousness?

If life were to secure itself in a haven, content in itself, and if it consisted in itself, fixed and immutable, the deficiency would cease and there would be no consciousness of absolute being; in the same manner, in the infinite infinitesimal fluctuation of variations there is nothing that can have consciousness of this fluctuation.

1. But the will is at every point a will for determinate things. And as it is deprived by time of consisting at every point, so it is deprived of persuasion at every point. There is no possession of any thing-only changing with regard to a thing, entering into a relation to a thing. Each thing has inasmuch as it is had.

2. Determinacy is an attribution of value: consciousness. Each thing at every point does not possess but is the will for determinate possession: that is, a determinate attribution of value: a determinate consciousness. At that point of the present when it enters into a relation with a given thing, it believes it is in the act of possession, but it is only a finite potenza, 'power,' 'potency': finita potestas denique cuique, 'each thing has a limited power' (Lucr. I, 70). In the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'lifeless life,' potency and act are one and the same, for the transcendent Act, "only the whole of eternity assembled," that is, persuasion, denies time and the will in every deficient moment.

L'attualità, 'presentness,' 'actuality'-every present moment, that which in every case and every manner is called life-is the infinitely various conjoining of potency finitely localized in infinitely various aspects-as consciousness, according to which in every case its correlate is stable amid the instability.

3. Nothing is for itself but with regard to a consciousness. "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'there is any hope at all for me, there is something for me'-for as long as I want in some manner, attribute value to some thing, there is something for me.

4. Life is an infinite correlativity of consciousnesses. The sense of life [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'varies as when one mixes fragrances with fragrances' (Heraclitus).


Excerpted from Persuasion & Rhetoric by CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Carlo Michelstaedter (1887–1910), a philosopher, painter, and poet, is considered an emblematic intellectual of the twentieth century. Russell Scott Valentino is associate professor of Russian and of comparative literature, Cinzia Sartini Blum is associate professor of Italian, and David J. Depew is professor of communication studies and executive director of the Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry, all at the University of Iowa.

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