Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between a Physicist and a Metaphysician
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Translated by Charles Edwardes

PHYSICIST -- Eureka! Eureka!

METAPHYSICIAN -- What is it? What have you found?

PHYSICIST -- The art of long life. (1)

METAPHYSICIAN -- And the book that you carry?

PHYSICIST -- Explains my theory. This invention of mine will give me eternal life. Others may live long, but I shall live for ever. I mean that I shall acquire immortal fame.

METAPHYSICIAN -- Follow my advice. Get a leaden casket; enclose therein your book; bury it; and leave in your will directions where it may be found, with instructions to your heirs not to exhume the book until they shall have discovered the art of living a happy life.

PHYSICIST -- And meanwhile?

METAPHYSICIAN -- Meanwhile your invention will be good for nothing. It were far better if it taught the art of living briefly.

PHYSICIST -- That has already been known a long time. The discovery was not a difficult one.

METAPHYSICIAN -- At any rate I prefer it to yours.


METAPHYSICIAN -- Because if life be not happy, as hitherto it has not been, it were better to endure a short term of it than a long one.

PHYSICIST -- No, no. I differ from you. Life is a good in itself, and is naturally desired and loved by every one.

METAPHYSICIAN -- So men think. But they are deceived. Similarly people deceive themselves in thinking that colours are attributes of the objects coloured; whereas really they are not qualities of objects, but of light. I assert that man loves and desires nothing but his own happiness. He therefore loves his life only inasmuch as he esteems it the instrument or subject of his happiness. Hence it is happiness that he always loves, and not life; although he very often attributes to the one the affection he has for the other. It is true that this illusion and that relating to colours are both natural. But as a proof that the love of life in men is unnatural, or rather unnecessary, think of the many people that in olden times preferred to die rather than live. In our own time too many people often wish for death, and some kill themselves. Now such things could not occur if man naturally loved life itself. The love of happiness, on the contrary, is innate in every living being; indeed the world would perish before they ceased loving and seeking it in every possible form. And as for your assertion that life in itself is a good thing, I challenge you to prove your words by any arguments you please, whether of physics or metaphysics. Personally I am of opinion that a happy life is undoubtedly a good thing. But this is because of the happiness, not the life. An unhappy life is therefore an evil. And since it is ordained that human life should be inseparable from unhappiness, I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

PHYSICIST -- Let us drop the subject, if you please; it is too melancholy. Answer me one question candidly, and without such subtleties. If man had the power to live for ever, I mean in this life and not after death, do you think he would be happy?

METAPHYSICIAN -- Allow me to answer you by a fable. Moreover, as I have never tasted immortality, I cannot reply to you from experience. Besides, I have never by any chance met an immortal, the very existence of whom is a mere matter of legend. If Cagliostro were alive, he could perhaps enlighten you, since he was said to have lived for several centuries. But he is now dead, like his contemporaries. To return to the fable. The wise Chiro, who was a god, in time became so wearied of his life, that he asked permission from Jove to die. This was granted to him; so he died. (2) If immortality wrought such an effect on the gods, how would it be with men? The Hyperboreans, an unknown but famous people, whose country is inaccessible by sea or land, were, it is said, rich in all manner of things, and possessed a race of asses of peculiar beauty, which they used to offer as sacrifices. They had the power, unless I am mistaken, of living for ever, and knew nothing of fatigues, cares, wars, discords, or crimes. Yet we learn that after several thousand years of life, they all killed themselves by jumping from a certain rock into the sea, where they were drowned. (3) Here is another legend. The brothers Biton and Cleobus, at a festival, when the mules were not ready, attached themselves to the chariot of their mother, who was a priestess of Juno, and drew her to the temple. Touched by their devotion, the priestess asked Juno to reward her sons for their piety by the greatest gift possible for men to receive. The goddess caused them both to die peacefully within an hour, instead of giving them immortality, as they had expected. The same happened to Agamede and Trophonius. "When these two men had finished the temple of Delphi, they begged Apollo to reward them. The god asked them to wait seven days, at the end of which time he would do so. On the seventh night he sent them a sweet sleep from which they have never awakened. They are so satisfied with their recompense that they have asked nothing more. On the subject of legends, here is one which introduces a question I would have you answer. I know that by you and your colleagues human life is generally considered to be, as a rule, of an uniformly average duration: this in all countries and under all climates. But Pliny relates that the men of some parts of India and Ethiopia do not exceed the age of forty years. They who die at this age are considered very old. Their children marry at seven ( years of age: and this statement is verified by the custom in Guinea, the Deccan, and elsewhere in the torrid zone. Now, regarding it as true that these people do not live more than forty years (and this as a natural limit, and not due to artificial circumstances), I ask you whether you imagine their lot ought to be considered more or less happy than that of others?

PHYSICIST -- Undoubtedly, more miserable, since they die so soon.

METAPHYSICIAN -- I am of the contrary opinion for the very same reason. But that does not matter. Give me your attention for a moment. I deny that life itself, i.e., the mere sensation of existence, has anything pleasurable or desirable in its nature. But we all wish for the other thing, also called life; I mean strength, and numerous sensations. Thus, all activity, and every strong and lively passion, provided it be neither disagreeable nor painful, pleases us simply because it is strong and lively, although it possess no other pleasurable attributes. Now these men, whose life normally lasts only forty years, that is, half the time granted by nature to other men, would experience every moment an intensity of life, twice as strong as ours, because their growth, maturity, and decline are accomplished twice as rapidly as with us. Their energy of life therefore ought to be twice as intense as ours at every moment of their existence. And to this greater intensity there must correspond a more lively activity of the will, more vivacity and animation. Thus they experience in less time the same quantity of life as we have. And the fewer years that these favoured people spend on the earth are so well filled that there is no sensible vacuum; whereas this same quantity of life is insufficient to vivify a term twice as long. Their actions and sensations, diffused over so limited a space, can duly occupy all their existence; but our longer life is constantly divided by protracted intervals devoid of all activity and lively passion. And since existence itself is in no sense desirable, but only in so far as it is happy; and since good or evil fortune is not measurable by the number of our days; I conclude that the life of these people, though shorter than ours, is much the richer in pleasures, or what are so called. Their life must then be preferable to ours, or even to that of the earliest kings of Assyria, Egypt, China, India, and other countries, who are said to have lived thousands of years. So that, far from being desirous of immortality, I am content to leave it to fishes, which are by Leeuwenhoek believed to be immortal, provided they are neither eaten by us nor their fellows. Instead of delaying the development of the body, in order to lengthen life, as Maupertuis (4) proposed, I would rather accelerate it until the duration of. our life was as short as that of the insects called ephemerals; which insects, although the most aged does not live beyond a single day, nevertheless preside over three generations before they die. If it were so, then there would at least be no time for ennui. "What do you think of my reasoning?

PHYSICIST -- It does not persuade me. I know that you love metaphysics, whereas I for my part hold to physics. To your subtleties, I oppose simple common sense, which is sufficient for me. Thus, I venture to assert, without appealing to the microscope, that life is better than death. Judging between the two, I would give the apple to the former, without troubling them to strip for the contest.

METAPHYSICIAN -- And I would do the same. But when I call to mind the custom of those barbarians, who, for every unhappy day of their lives, used to throw a black stone into a quiver, and for every happy day a white one, I cannot help thinking how few white stones compared to the black ones would be found therein on the death of the proprietor of the quiver. Personally, I should like to have now all the stones representing the days of life yet remaining to me, and permission to separate them, throwing away all the black ones and retaining only those that were white; even though the number of the latter was exceedingly small, and their colour a doubtful white.

PHYSICIST -- Many people, on the contrary, would be glad to increase the number of their black stones, even though they were blacker than they naturally would be; because they always, in their minds, dread the last as the blackest of all. And such people, of whom I am one, will really be able to add many stones to their normal quantity, if they follow out the instructions contained in my book.

METAPHYSICIAN -- Every one thinks and works in his own way. Death also will not fail to do the same. But if you wish, in prolonging man's life, really to be of service to him, discover an art to increase the number and strength of sensations, and their effects. This would be a genuine augmentation of human life, for it would fill up those long intervals of time, during which we vegetate rather than live. You could then boast of having truly prolonged human life; and without having sought after the impossible, or used violence to natural laws; rather, by having strengthened them. For does it not seem as though the ancients were more full of life than we are, in spite of the many and great dangers by which they were surrounded, and which generally shortened their existence? You will thus render a real service to man, whose life is, I will not say more happy, but certainly less unhappy, when it is better occupied and more violently agitated, without pain or discomfort. When, on the other hand, existence is so full of idleness and ennui as to be justly termed empty, the saying of Pyrrhus, "there is no difference between life and death," is literally realised. Were this saying true, I should be in no slight terror of death. But finally, unless life be active and vigorous, it is not true life, and death is far preferable to it.


(1) See Instruction in the Art of Long Life, by Hufeland.

(2) See Lucian, Dial. Menip. and Chiro.

(3) See Pindar, Strabo, and Pliny.

(4) See Lettres Philosophiques: let. II.

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