Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Timandro and Eleandro
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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

TIMANDRO -- I am very anxious to have some conversation with you. It is about the matter and tendency of your writings and words, which seem to me most blamable.

ELEANDRO -- So long as you find no fault with my actions, I confess I do not much care; because words and writings are of little consequence.

TIMANDRO -- There is nothing in your actions, as far as I can see, for which I need blame you. I am aware that you benefit no one because you cannot do so, and I observe that you injure no one because you are unwilling to do so. But I consider your speech and writings very reprehensible, and I do not agree with you that they are of little importance. Our life may almost be said to consist of nothing else. For the present we will disregard the words, and simply consider the writings. In the first place, the incessant vituperation and continuous satire that you bestow on the human race are out of fashion.

ELEANDRO -- My brain also is out of fashion. It is quite natural for a child to resemble its father.

TIMANDRO -- Then you must not be surprised if your books, like everything contrary to the custom of the day, are ill received.

ELEANDRO -- That is a small misfortune. They were not written for the purpose of begging a little bread at the doors of the rich.

TIMANDRO -- Forty or fifty years ago, philosophers used to say hard things about the human race, but now they do just the contrary.

ELEANDRO -- Do you believe that forty or fifty years ago the philosophers were right or wrong in their statements?

TIMANDRO -- More often right than wrong.

ELEANDRO -- Do you think that in these forty or fifty years the human race has changed to the opposite of what it then was?

TIMANDRO -- Not at all. But that has nothing to do with the question.

ELEANDRO -- Why not? Has humanity progressed in strength and perfection, that the writers of to-day should be constrained to flatter, and compelled to reverence it?

TIMANDRO -- What have such pleasantries to do with so grave a matter?

ELEANDRO -- Then seriously. I am not unaware that the people of this century, although continuing to ill-treat their fellow-men as their ancestors did, have yet a very high opinion of themselves, such as men of the past century did not possess. But I, who ill-treat no one, do not see that I am obliged to speak well of others against my conscience.

TIMANDRO -- You must, however, like all men, endeavour to serve your race.

ELEANDRO -- If my race, on the contrary, does its best to injure me, I do not see that this obligation holds, as you say. But supposing you are right, what ought I to do, if I cannot be useful to my race?

TIMANDRO -- By actions, perhaps, you may be unable to be of much use. Such power is in the hands of but few people. But by your writings you can, and indeed ought to serve it. And the race is not benefited by books which snarl incessantly at men in general. Such behaviour is, on the contrary, extremely injurious.

ELEANDRO -- I admit that it does no good, but I also imagine it does no harm. Do you, however, think books are able to help the human race?

TIMANDRO -- Not I only, but all the world think so.

ELEANDRO -- What kind of books?

TIMANDRO -- Many kinds; but especially books treating of morals.

ELEANDRO -- All the world does not think so, because I, amongst others, do not, as a woman once said to Socrates. If books of morals could be useful to men, I should place poetry above all others. I use the word poetry in its widest sense, as including all writings, the aim of which is to excite the imagination, whether in prose or verse. Now I hold in little esteem that sort of poetry which, when read and meditated over, does not leave in the mind of the reader a sufficiently elevating sentiment to deter him for half an hour from giving way to a single base thought or unworthy action. If, however, the reader commits, for example, a breach of faith towards his best friend an hour after such reading, I do not condemn the poetry for that, because then the finest, most stirring, and noblest poetry the world possesses would come under condemnation. Exceptions to this influence are readers who live in great cities. These people, however great their concentration, cannot forget themselves for even half an hour, nor are they much pleased, or moved, by any sort of poetry.

TIMANDRO -- You speak, as usual, maliciously, and so as to leave an impression that you are habitually ill-treated by others. This, in most instances, is the true cause of the ill-humour and contempt exhibited by certain people towards their race.

ELEANDRO -- Indeed, I cannot say that men have treated, or do treat me very well. If I could say so, I imagine I should be unique in my experience. But neither have they done me any serious harm, because in demanding nothing from men, and having nothing in common with them, I scarcely give them a chance of offending me. I must confess, however, that recognising clearly, as I do, how ignorant I am of the simplest means of making myself agreeable to others, both in conversation and the daily intercourse of life, whether from a natural defect or fault of my own, I should esteem men less if they treated me better.

TIMANDRO -- Then you are so much the more to blame. For, had you even a mistaken ground of complaint, your hatred and desire for revenge against men would be in a measure justifiable. But your hatred, from what you say, is based on nothing in particular, except perhaps an extraordinary and wretched ambition of becoming famous as a misanthrope like Timon--a desire abominable in itself, and especially out of place in a century like the present, so peculiarly devoted to philanthropy.

ELEANDRO -- I need not reply to your remark about ambition, because I have already said that I want nothing from men. Does that seem incredible to you? You will at least grant that it is not ambition which urges me to write books, such as on your own showing are more likely to bring me reproaches than glory. Besides, I am so far from hating the human race, that I neither can nor wish to hate even those who particularly offend me. Indeed, the fact that hatred is so completely foreign to me, goes far to explain my inability to do as other men do. But I cannot change this, because I always think that whenever a man displeases or injures another, he does so in the hope of procuring some pleasure or advantage for himself. His aim is not to injure others (which can never be the motive of any action, nor the object of any thought), but to benefit himself,--a natural desire, and undeserving of odium. Again, whenever I notice a particular vice or fault in my neighbour, I carefully examine myself, and as far as circumstances will allow, I put myself in his place. Thereupon I invariably find that I should have done the same as he, and been guilty of the same faults. Consequently my mind loses what irritation it previously felt. I reserve my wrath for occasions when I might see some wickedness of which my nature is incapable; but so far I have never met with such a case. Finally, the thought of the vanity of human things is so constantly in my mind that I am unable to excite myself about any one of them. Hatred and anger seem to me great and strong passions, out of harmony with the insignificance of life. Thus you see there is a great difference between Timon and myself. Timon hated and shunned all men except Alcibiades, for whom he reserved all his affection, because he saw in him the initiator of innumerable evils for their common country. I, on the other hand, without hating Alcibiades, would have especially avoided him. I would have warned my fellow-citizens of their danger, exhorting them at the same time to take the requisite steps to preserve themselves from it. Some say that Timon did not hate men, but beasts in the likeness of men. As for me, I neither hate men nor beasts.

TIMANDRO -- Nor do you love any one.

ELEANDRO -- Listen, my friend. I am born to love. I have loved; and perhaps with as deep a passion as is possible for human soul to feel. To-day, although, as you see, I am not sufficiently old to be naturally devoid of passion, nor even of a lukewarm age, I am not ashamed to say that I love no one except myself, by the necessity of nature, and that as little as possible. Nevertheless, I would always rather bear suffering myself than be the cause of it to others. I believe you can bear witness to the truth of this, little as you know about my habits.

TIMANDRO -- I do not deny it.

ELEANDRO -- I try to procure for men, even at my own expense, that greatest possible good, which alone I seek for myself, viz., a state of freedom from suffering.

TIMANDRO -- But do you distinctly confess that you do not love the human race in general?

ELEANDRO -- Yes, absolutely. But in such a way that if it depended on me, I would punish those who deserved punishment, without hating them, as also I would benefit my race to the utmost, although I do not love it.

TIMANDRO -- Well, it may be so. But then, if you are not incited by injuries received, nor by hatred, nor ambition, why do you write in such a manner?

ELEANDRO -- For many reasons. First, because I cannot tolerate deceit and dissimulation. I may sometimes have to give way to these in conversation, but never in my writings; because I am often obliged to speak unwillingly, but I never write unless I please. I should derive no satisfaction from puzzling my brains, and expressing the result on paper, unless I could write what I really think. All sensible people laugh at those who now-a-days write Latin, because no one speaks, and few understand, the language. I think it is equally absurd to take for granted, whether in conversation or writing, the reality of certain human qualities no longer extant, and the existence of certain rational beings, formerly considered as divinities, but now really regarded as non-existent equally by those who mention them, and those who hear them mentioned. I could understand men using masks and disguises in order to deceive other men, or to avoid being recognised. But it seems childish for them all to conceal themselves behind the same kind of mask, and use the same disguise, whereby they deceive no one, but recognise each other perfectly, in spite of it. Let them lay aside their masks, and retain merely their clothes. The effect will be precisely the same, and they will be more at ease. Besides, this perpetual simulation, though useless, and this eternal acting of a part between which and oneself there is nothing in common, cannot be carried on without fatigue and weariness. If men had passed suddenly, instead of gradually, from the savage condition to their present state of civilisation, would the names of the things just mentioned be found in general usage, with the custom of deducing from them a thousand philosophical conclusions? In truth, this custom seems to me like one of those ceremonies and ancient practices so incompatible with our present habits, which nevertheless continue to exist by force of usage. I for my part cannot submit to these ceremonies; and I write in the language of modern times, not that of the Trojan era. In the second place, I do not so much, in my writings, find fault with the human race, as grieve over its destiny. There is nothing I think more clear and palpable than the necessary unhappiness of all living beings. If this unhappiness be not a fact, then all my arguments are wrong, and we may abandon the discussion. If it be true, why may I not lament openly and freely, and say that I suffer? Doubtless, if I did nothing but weep incessantly (this is the third cause which moves me), I should become a nuisance to others as well as myself, without profiting any one. But in laughing at our misfortunes, we do much to remedy them. I endeavour therefore to persuade others to profit in this way, as I have done. Whether I succeed or not, I feel assured that such laughter is the only solace and remedy that can be found. The poets say that despair has always a smile on its lips.

But you must not think that I am devoid of compassion for the unhappiness of humanity. Its condition is incurable by art, industry, or anything else, therefore I consider it far more manly and consistent with a magnanimous despair to laugh at our common woes, than to sigh, weep, and moan with others, thereby encouraging them in their lamentations.

Lastly, permit me to say that I desire as much as you, or any one else, the welfare of my race in general, but I am hopeless of its attainment; nor can I, like so many philosophers of this century, nourish and soothe my mind with anticipations of good. My despair is absolute, unchangeable, and so based on firm judgment and conviction, that I cannot imagine such a thing as a joyous future, nor can I undertake anything with the hope of bringing it to completion. And you are well aware that man is never inclined to attempt what he knows or thinks cannot succeed; or if he does, he acts feebly and without confidence. Similarly a writer, who expresses himself contrary to his real opinion, though this be erroneous, utters nothing worthy of consideration.

TIMANDRO -- But when his judgment is, like yours, a false one, he should rectify it.

ELEANDRO -- My judgment is of myself alone, and I am quite sure I do not err in announcing my unhappiness. If other men are happy, I congratulate them with all my heart. I know also that death alone can deliver me from my misfortune. If others are more hopeful, I rejoice once again.

TIMANDRO -- We are all unhappy, and have always been so. I scarcely think you can take credit for the novelty of your idea. But man's present condition, superior as it is to his past, will be greatly improved in the future. You forget, or seem to disregard the fact, that man is perfectible.

ELEANDRO -- Perfectible he may be. But that he is capable of perfection, which is of more importance, I know not who can convince me.

TIMANDRO -- He has not yet had time to reach perfection. Ultimately he will no doubt attain to it.

ELEANDRO -- I do not doubt it. The few years that have passed since the world began are, I agree with you, quite insufficient to complete our education. We cannot judge from what seem to us the nature and capabilities of man. Besides, humanity hitherto has been too occupied with other business to give itself up to the task of attaining perfection. But in future all its endeavours will be towards this one aim.

TIMANDRO -- Yes, the whole civilised world is working zealously towards this end. And, taking into consideration the number and sufficiency of the means employed, which have indeed recently increased in an astounding manner, we have every reason to think that the goal will be reached, sooner or later. This conviction itself is by no means one of the least stimulants to progress, because it gives birth to a host of undertakings and labours useful for the common welfare. If, then, at any time it was fatal and blamable to manifest despair like yours, and to teach men such doctrines as the absolute necessity of their wretchedness, the vanity of life, the insignificance of their race, and the evil of their nature, much more is it so in the present day. Such conduct can only result in depriving us of courage, and that feeling of self-esteem which is the foundation of an honest, useful, and glorious life; it will also divert us from the path of our own welfare.

ELEANDRO -- Kindly say distinctly, whether or not you regard as true what I have said about the unhappiness of mankind.

TIMANDRO -- You return to your old argument. Well, supposing I admit the truth of what you say, how does that alter the matter? I would remind you that it is not always well to preach truth simply because it is truth.

ELEANDRO -- Answer me another question. Are these truths, which I merely express, without any pretence of preaching, of primary or secondary importance in philosophy?

TIMANDRO -- In my opinion they are the very essence of all philosophy.

ELEANDRO -- In that case, they greatly deceive themselves who affirm that man's perfection consists in complet knowledge of the truth; that his misfortunes are theconsequence of his ignorance and prejudices; and that the human race will be happy when men have discovered the truth, and conform their lives to its teaching. Yet such doctrines are taught by most philosophers, ancient and modern. But you are of opinion that these truths though confessedly the substance of all philosophy, ought to be concealed from the majority of men. You would rather that they were unknown or disregarded by all men, because of the baneful influence they exercise over the mind. And this is equivalent to an admission that philosophy ought to be banished from the earth. I grant you, however, that the final conclusion to be drawn from true and perfect philosophy is that it were better to dispense with philosophy. It would therefore seem that, first of all, philosophy is superfluous, since its conclusions are attainable without its assistance; secondly, it is extremely injurious, because its conclusion is a very painful one to be accepted, and when accepted is useless: nor is it in man's power to disregard truths once recognised. Besides, the habit of philosophising is one of the most difficult habits to throw off. Thus, philosophy which at first inspires hope as a possible remedy for the ills of humanity, ends by seeking in vain a cure for itself. And now I would ask you why you imagine we are nearer perfection than our ancestors were? Is it that we are better acquainted with the truth? This cannot be, since we have seen that such knowledge is extremely prejudicial to man's happiness. Perhaps, however, it is because some few men in the present day have learnt that the truest philosopher is he who abstains from philosophy? But in what then are we superior to the men of primitive times, who were perfectly unacquainted with philosophy? And even in the present day savages abstain from philosophy, without feeling the least inconvenience.

In what, therefore, are we 'more advanced than our ancestors; and what means of attaining perfection do we possess, which they had not?

TIMANDRO -- We have many of great importance. To explain them would be a work of considerable time.

ELEANDRO -- Put them aside for the moment, and reconsider my theory. I say that if, on the one hand, I express in my writings certain hard and bitter truths, whether to relieve my mind, or console myself in laughing at them, I do not fail at the same time to deplore and disadvise the search after that cold and miserable truth, acquaintance with which reduces us to a state of either indifference and hypocrisy, or baseness of soul, moral corruption, and depravity. And, on the other hand, I praise and exalt those noble, if false ideas, which give birth to high-minded and vigorous actions and thoughts, such as further the welfare of mankind, or individuals; those glorious illusions, vain though they be, which give value to life, and which are natural to the soul; in short, the superstitions of antiquity, distinct from the errors of barbarism. These latter should be rooted out, but the former respected. Civilisation and philosophy having exceeded their natural bounds, as is usual with all things pertaining to humanity, have drawn us from one state of barbarism only to precipitate us into another, no better than the first. This new barbarism, born of reason and science instead of ignorance, manifests itself more in the mind than the body. Yet I imagine, that though these superstitions become daily more necessary for the well-being of civilised nations, the possibility of their re-introduction diminishes daily.

And as for man's perfection, I assure you if I had perceived any signs of it, I would have written a volume in praise of the human race. But since I have not yet seen it, and as it is improbable I ever shall see it, I think of leaving in my will a certain sum of money for the purpose of procuring an annual panegyric of the human race, to be publicly recited from the time of its perfection, and to pay for the erection of a temple, statue, or monument, as may be judged best, to commemorate the event.

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