Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi (June 29 1798 – June 14 1837) was an Italian philosopher, poet, essayist, and philologist. He is considered the greatest Italic poet of the nineteenth century and one of the most important figures in the literature of the world, as well as one of the principal of literary romanticism; his constant reflection on existence and on the human condition—of sensuous and materialist inspiration—has also earned him a reputation as a deep philosopher. He is widely seen as one of the most radical and challenging thinkers of the 19th century.
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- Death is not an evil, because it frees us from all evils, and while it takes away good things, it takes away also the desire for them. Old age is the supreme evil, because it deprives us of all pleasures, leaving us only the appetite for them, and it brings with it all sufferings. Nevertheless, we fear death, and we desire old age.
- Thoughts. Translation by J.G. Nichols [Hesperus Press, 2002, ISBN 9781843910121], p. 6
Essays and Dialogues (1882)
Full text online at Project Gutenberg, trans. Charles Edwardes with Biographical Sketch, London: Trübner & Co., 1882.
Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander
- NATURE: So flees the squirrel from the rattlesnake, and runs in its haste deliberately into the mouth of its tormentor. I am that from which thou fleest.
- ICELANDER: Thus I reply to you. I am well aware you did not make the world for the service of men. It were easier to believe that you made it expressly as a place of torment for them. But tell me: why am I here at all? Did I ask to come into the world? Or am I here unnaturally, contrary to your will? If however, you yourself have placed me here, without giving me the power of acceptance or refusal of this gift of life, ought you not as far as possible to try and make me happy, or at least preserve me from the evils and dangers, which render my sojourn a painful one? And what I say of myself, I say of the whole human race, and of every living creature.
- ICELANDER: So say all the philosophers. But since that which is destroyed suffers, and that which is born from its destruction also suffers in due course, and finally is in its turn destroyed, would you enlighten me on one point, about which hitherto no philosopher has satisfied me? For whose pleasure and service is this wretched life of the world maintained, by the suffering and death of all the beings which compose it?
- Whilst they discussed these and similar questions, two lions are said to have suddenly appeared. The beasts were so enfeebled and emaciated with hunger that they were scarcely able to devour the Icelander. They accomplished the feat however, and thus gained sufficient strength to live to the end of the day.
The Song of the Wild Cock
- It seems as though death were the essential aim of all things. That which has no existence cannot die; yet all that exists has proceeded from nothing. The final cause of existence is not happiness, for nothing is happy. It is true, living creatures seek this end in all their works, but none obtain it; and during all their life, ever deceiving, tormenting, and exerting themselves, they suffer indeed for no other purpose than to die.
- [T]he recognition of the irredeemable vanity and falsity of all beauty and all greatness is itself a kind of beauty and greatness that fills the soul when it is conveyed by a work of genius. And the spectacle of nothingness is itself a thing in these works, and seems to enlarge the reader’s soul, to raise it up and to make it take satisfaction in itself and its despair.
- 260, 5th October 1820. Translation by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino et al. [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN 9780141194400], p. 177
- Il piacere è sempre o passato o futuro, non mai presente.
- Pleasure is always in the past or in the future, never in the present.
- 29th September 1823, Festival of Saint Michael the Archangel.
- Everything is evil. I mean, everything that is, is wicked; every existing thing is an evil; everything exists for a wicked end. Existence is a wickedness and is ordained for wickedness. Evil is the end, the final purpose, of the universe...The only good is nonbeing; the only really good thing is the thing that is not, things that are not things; all things are bad.
- 19th April 1826.
- No one can truthfully boast or say in anger: I cannot be unhappier than I am.
- 13-14th August 1821.
- My philosophy isn’t only not conducive to misanthropy, as it might appear to a superficial reader, and as many have accused me. It essentially rules out misanthropy, it tends toward healing, to dissolving discontent and hatred. Not knee-jerk hatred but the deep-dyed hatred that unreflective people who would deny being misanthropes so cordially bear (habitually or on select occasions) toward their own kind in response to hurts they receive—as we all do, justly or not—from others. My philosophy holds nature guilty of everything, it acquits mankind completely and directs our hate, or at least our lamentations, to its matrix, to the true origin of the afflictions living creatures suffer, etc.
- 2nd January, 1829. Translation by W. S. Di Piero.
- Two truths that most men will never believe: one that we know nothing, the other that we are nothing. Add the third, which depends a lot on the second: that there is nothing to hope for after death.
- 1832. Passions. Translation by Tim Parks. [Yale University Press, 2014, ISBN 9780300186338], p. 8
- Stato che sia, dentro covile o cuna,
È funesto a chi nasce il dì natale.
- To that creature, being born,
Its birthday is a day to mourn.
- Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell'Asia (Night song of a nomadic shepherd in Asia) (1829-1830). Translation by Eamon Grennan, Leopardi: Selected Poems [Princeton University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-691-01644-5], p. 62
- To that creature, being born,
- Non ha natura al seme
Dell'uom più stima o cura
Che alla formica: e se più rara in quello
Che nell'altra è la strage,
Non avvien ciò d'altronde
uor che l'uom sue prosapie ha men feconde.
- Nature has no more esteem
or care for the seed of man
than for the ant
- La ginestra (The broom or The desert flower) (1836). Translation by Jonathan Galassi Canti: Poems [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN 0141193875]
- Nature has no more esteem
- Nature, mother feared and wept for
since the human family was born,
marvel that cannot be praised,
that bears and nurtures only to destroy,
if dying young brings mortals pain,
why let it come down
on these blameless heads?
And if good, then why is it unhappy,
why make this leaving inconsolable,
worse than any other woe,
for those who live, as well as those who go?
- Sopra in basso relievo antico sepocrale (Bas-Relief On An Ancient Tomb). Translation by Jonathan Galassi Canti: Poems [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN 0141193875]
Quotes about Leopardi
- What is Leopardi's place in literature? That assigned to him by his countrymen is very high, higher than they would concede to any other Italian poet born since the close of the sixteenth century.
- Henry Cloriston, "Some New Versions of Leopardi". The Quarterly Review 218: 1–31. January 1913, p. 1
- For him, death does not just end life; it nullifies life, and the fact that we are going to die is the only fact that matters. The key to the terrible power of his work is that we can never totally banish the suspicion that he might be right.
- Adam Kirsch, "Under the Volcano: Giacomo Leopardi's radical despair.". The New Yorker. October 25 2010.
- How should the endless rush of events not bring satiety, surfeit, loathing? So the boldest of us is ready perhaps at last to say from his heart with Giacomo Leopardi: "Nothing lives that were worth thy pains, and the earth deserves not a sigh. Our being is pain and weariness, and the world is mud—nothing else. Be calm."
- Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. (1874). Translation by Adrian Collins.
- Nobody more than Leopardi could look disaster in the face, never denying that it was disaster, yet at the same time turning unhappiness itself into a colour or fragrance that would help you through the day.
- Yet no one has so thoroughly and exhaustively handled this subject as, in our own day, Leopardi. He is entirely filled and penetrated by it: his theme is everywhere the mockery and wretchedness of this existence; he presents it upon every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such wealth of imagery that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, is throughout entertaining and exciting.
- Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea (Vol. 3 of 3). Sixth edition (1909) p. 401