Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Nature and a soul
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illeopardi text integral passage complete quotation of the sources comedies works historical literary works in prose and in verses

Translated by Charles Edwardes

NATURE -- Go, my beloved child. You shall be regarded as my favoured one for very many centuries. Live: be great and unhappy.

SOUL -- What evil have I done before beginning to live, that you condemn me to this misery?

NATURE -- What misery, my child?

SOUL -- Do you not ordain that I am to be unhappy?

NATURE -- Yes; but only so far as to enable you to be great, which you cannot become without unhappiness. Besides, you are destined to animate a human body, and all men are of necessity unhappy from their birth.

SOUL -- It were more reasonable that you made happiness a necessity; or this being impossible, it were better not to bring men into the world.

NATURE -- I can do neither the one thing nor the other, because I am subordinate to Destiny, who decrees the contrary. The reason of this is as much a mystery to myself as to you. Now that you are created and designed to animate a human being, no power in the world can save you from the unhappiness common to men. Moreover, your infelicity will be especially great, owing to the perfection with which I have fashioned you.

SOUL -- I know nothing yet, because I have only just begun to live. Doubtless this is why I do not understand you. But tell me, is greatness the same thing as extreme unhappiness? If, however, they are different, why could not the one be separated from the other?

NATURE -- In the souls of men, and proportionately in those of all animals, they are inseparable, because excellence of soul implies great capacity for knowledge, which in exposing to men the unhappiness of humanity may be termed unhappiness itself. Similarly, a life of greater intensity involves a greater love of self, manifested in different ways. An increased desire for happiness is a consequence of this self-love and increased unhappiness, because of the impossibility of satisfying this desire, and as the unfortunate condition of humanity becomes realised. All this is decreed from the beginning of creation, and is unalterable by me.
Moreover, the keenness of your intellect and the strength of your imagination will lessen considerably your power of self-control. Brute animals readily adapt all their faculties and powers to the attainment of their ends; but men rarely do so, being usually prevented by their reason and imagination, which give birth to a thousand doubts in deliberation, and a thousand hindrances in execution. The less men are inclined or accustomed to deliberate, the more prompt are they in decision, and the more vigorous in action. But such souls as yours, self-contained, and proudly conscious of their greatness, are really powerless for self-rule, and often succumb to irresolution both in thought and action. This temperament is one of the greatest curses of human life.
Added to this, although by your noble talents you will easily and quickly excel most men in profound knowledge and works of the greatest difficulty, you will yet find it almost impossible to learn, or put in practice, a host of things, trivial enough, but very essential for your intercourse with others. At the same time, you will see your inferiors, and even men of scarcely any intelligence, perfectly at home with these things. Such difficulties and miseries as these occupy and surround great souls; but they are amply atoned for by fame, praise, and honours paid to their greatness, and by the lasting memory they leave behind them.

SOUL -- Whence will come these praises and honours, -- from heaven, from you, or from whom?

NATURE -- From men, who alone can dispense them.

SOUL -- But I thought my ignorance of those things necessary for the intercourse of life, which intellects inferior to mine so easily comprehend, would cause me to be despised and shunned, not praised by men. I thought too that I should surely live unknown to most of them, because of my unfitness for their society.

NATURE -- I have not the power to foresee the future, so I cannot say exactly how men will behave to you whilst you are on earth. But judging from past experience, I think they will probably be jealous of you. This is another misfortune to which great minds are peculiarly liable. Perhaps too, they will despise you, and treat you with indifference. Fortune herself, and even circumstances, are usually unfriendly to such as you. But directly after your death, as happened to one named Carnoens, or a few years later, like Milton, you will be eulogised and lauded to the skies, if not by every one, at any rate by the few men of noble minds. Perhaps the ashes of your body will be deposited in a magnificent tomb, and your likeness reproduced in many different forms, and passed about from hand to hand. Men will also study your life and writings, and at length the world will ring with your name. Always provided you are not hindered by evil fortune, or even by the very excess of your genius, from leaving undoubted testimonies of your merit; instances are not wanting of such unfortunates, known only to myself and Destiny.

SOUL -- O mother, I care not if I be deprived of all knowledge, so long as I obtain what I most desire, happiness. And as for glory, I know not whether it be a good or evil thing, but I do know that I shall only value it in so far as it procures me happiness, directly or indirectly. Now, on your own showing, the excellence with which you have endowed me, though it may be fruitful of glory, is also productive of the greatest unhappiness. Yet even this paltry glory I may not gain until I am dead, when I fail to see how I shall benefit by it. And besides, there is the probability that this phantom glory, the price of so much suffering, may be obtained neither in life nor after death. In short, from what you yourself have said, I conclude that far from loving me with peculiar affection, as you affirmed, you bear me greater malice than that of which I can be the victim, either at the hands of men or Destiny. Why else should you have endowed me with this disastrous excellence, about which you boast so much, and which will be the chief stumbling-block in the road to happiness, the only thing for which I care?

NATURE -- My child, all men are destined to be unhappy, as I have said, without any fault of mine. But in the midst of this universal misery, and amid the infinite vanity of all their pleasures and joys, glory is by most men considered to be the greatest good of life, and the worthiest object of ambition and fatigue. Therefore, not hatred but a feeling of especial kindliness, has prompted me to assist you as far as I could in your attainment of this glory.

SOUL -- Tell me: among the animals you mentioned, are there any of less vitality and sensibility than men?

NATURE -- All are so, in more or less degree, beginning with plants. Man, being the most perfect of them all, has greater life and power of thought than all other living beings.

SOUL -- Then if you love me, place me in the most imperfect thing existing, or that being impossible, at least deprive me of this terrible excellence, and make me like the most stupid and senseless soul you have ever created.

NATURE -- I can satisfy your second request, and will do so, since you reject the immortality I would have given you.

SOUL -- And instead of the immortality, I beseech you to hasten my death as much as possible.

NATURE -- I will consult Destiny about that.

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