Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Tristano and a Friend
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Translated by Charles Edwardes

FRIEND -- I have read your book. It is as melancholy as usual.

TRISTANO -- Yes, as usual.

FRIEND -- Melancholy, disconsolate, hopeless. It is clear that this life appears to you an abominable thing.

TRISTANO -- How can I excuse myself? I was then so firmly convinced of the truth of my notion about the unhappiness of life.

FRIEND -- Unhappy it may be. But even then, what good . . .

TRISTANO -- No, no; on the contrary, it is very happy. I have changed my opinion now. But when I wrote this book I had that folly in my head, as I tell you. And I was so full of it, that I should have expected anything rather than to doubt the truth of what I wrote on the subject. For I thought the conscience of every reader would assuredly bear witness to the truth of my statements. I imagined there might be differences of opinion as to the use or harm of my writings, but none as to their truth. I also believed that my lamentations, since they were aroused by misfortunes common to all, would be echoed in the heart of every one who heard them. And when I afterwards felt impelled to deny, not merely some particular observation, but the whole fabric of my book, and to say that life is not unhappy, and that if it seemed so to me, it must have been the effect of illness, or some other misfortune peculiar to myself, I was at first amazed, astonished, petrified, and for several days as though transported into another world. Then I began to think, and was a little irritated with myself. Finally I laughed, and said to myself that the human race possesses a characteristic common to husbands. For a married man who wishes to live a quiet life, relies on the fidelity of his wife, even when half the world knows she is faithless. Similarly, when a man takes up his abode in any country, he makes up his mind to regard it as one of the best countries in the world, and he does so. For the same reason, men, desiring to live, agree to consider life a delightful and valuable thing; they therefore believe it to be so, and are angry with whoever is of the contrary opinion. Hence it follows, that in reality people always believe, not the truth, but what is, or appears to be, best for them. The human race, which has believed, and will continue to put faith in so many absurdities, will never acknowledge that it knows nothing, that it is nothing, and that it has nothing to hope. No philosopher teaching any one of these three things would be successful, nor would he have followers, and the populace especially would refuse to believe in him. For, apart from the fact that all three doctrines have little to recommend them to any one who wishes to live, the two first offend man's pride, and they all require courage and strength of mind in him who accepts them. Now, men are cowards, of ignoble and narrow minds, and always anticipating good, because always ready to vary their ideas of good according to the necessities of life. They are very willing, as Petrarch says, to surrender to fortune; very eager and determined to console themselves in any misfortune; and to accept any compensation in exchange for what is denied them, or for that which they have lost; and to accommodate themselves to any condition of life, however wicked and barbarous. When deprived of any desirable thing, they nourish themselves on illusions, from which they derive as much satisfaction as if their conceptions were the most genuine and real things in the world. As for me, I cannot refrain from laughing at the human race, enamoured of life, just as the people in the south of Europe laugh at husbands enamoured of faithless wives. I consider men show very little courage in thus allowing themselves to be deceived and deluded like fools; they are' not only content to bear the greatest sufferings, but also are willing to be as it were puppets of Nature and Destiny. I here refer to the deceptions of the intellect, not the imagination. Whether these sentiments of mine are the result of illness, I do not know; but I do know that, well or ill, I despise men's cowardice, I reject every childish consolation and illusive comfort, and am courageous enough to bear the deprivation of every hope, to look steadily on the desert of life, to hide no part of our unhappiness, and to accept all the consequences of a philosophy, sorrowful but true. This philosophy, if of no other use, gives the courageous man the proud satisfaction of being able to rend asunder the cloak that conceals the hidden and mysterious cruelty of human destiny.

This I said to myself, almost as though I were the inventor of this bitter philosophy, which I saw rejected by every one as a new and unheard-of thing. But, on reflection, I found that it dated from the time of Solomon, Homer, and the most ancient poets and philosophers, who abound with fables and sayings which express the unhappiness of human life. One says that "man is the most miserable of the animals." Another that, "it were better not to be born, or, being born, to die in the cradle." Again, "whom the gods love, die young;" besides numberless other similar sayings. And I also remembered that from then even until now, all poets, philosophers, and writers, great and small, have in one way or another echoed and confirmed the same doctrines.

Then I began to think again, and spent a long time in a state of wonder, contempt, and laughter. At length I turned to study the matter more deeply, and came to the conclusion that man's unhappiness is one of the innate errors of the mind, and that the refutation of this idea, through the demonstration of the happiness of life, is one of the greatest discoveries of the nineteenth century. Now, therefore, I am at peace, and confess I was wrong to hold the views I previously held.

FRIEND -- Then have you changed your opinion?

TRISTANO -- Of course. Do you imagine I should oppose the discoveries of the nineteenth century?

FRIEND -- Do you believe all the century believes?

TRISTANO -- Certainly. Why not?

FRIEND -- You believe then in the infinite perfectibility of the human race, do you not?

TRISTANO -- Undoubtedly.

FRIEND -- Do you also believe that the human race actually progresses daily?

TRISTANO -- Assuredly. It is true that sometimes I think one of the ancients was physically worth four of us. And the body is the man; because (apart from all else) high-mindedness, courage, the passions, capacity for action and enjoyment, and all that ennobles and vivifies life, depend on the vigour of the body, without which they cannot exist. The weak man is not a man, but a child, and less than a child, because it is his fate to stand aside and see others live. All he can do is to chatter. Life is not for him. Hence in olden times, and even in more enlightened ages, weakness of body was regarded as ignominious.

But with us, it is very long since education deigned to think of such a base and abject thing as the body. The mind is its sole care. Yet, in its endeavours to cultivate the mind, it destroys the body without perceiving that the former is also necessarily destroyed. And even if it were possible to remedy this false system of education, it would be impossible to discover, without a radical change in the state of modern society, any cure for the other inconveniences of life, whether public or private.

Everything that formerly tended to preserve and perfect the body, seems to-day to be in conspiracy for its destruction. The consequence is, that, compared with the ancients, we are little better than children, and they in comparison with us may indeed be termed perfect men. I refer equally to individuals in comparison with individuals, as to the masses (to use this most expressive modern term) compared to the masses.

I will add also that the superior vigour of the ancients is manifested in their moral and metaphysical systems.

But I do not allow myself to be influenced by such trifling objections, and I firmly believe that the human race is perpetually in a state of progression.

FRIEND -- You believe also, if I rightly understand you, that knowledge, or, as it is called, enlightenment, continually increases.

TRISTANO -- Assuredly. Although I observe that the desire of knowledge grows in proportion as the appreciation for study diminishes. And, astonishing to say, if you count up the number of truly learned men who lived contemporaneously a hundred and fifty years ago, or even later, you will find them incomparably more numerous than at present. It may perhaps be said that learned people are rare nowadays because knowledge is more universally disseminated, instead of being confined to the heads of a few; and that the multitude of educated people compensate for the rarity of learned people. But knowledge is not like riches, which whether divided or accumulated, always make the same total. In a country where every one knows a little, the total knowledge is small; because knowledge begets knowledge, but will not bear dispersion. For superficial instruction cannot indeed be divided amongst many, though it may be common to many unlearned men. Genuine knowledge belongs only to the learned, and depth in knowledge to the few that are very learned. And, with rare exceptions, only the man who is very learned, and possessed of an immense fund of knowledge, is able to add materially to the sum of human science. Now, in the present time, it is daily more difficult to discover a really learned man, save perhaps in Germany, where science is not yet dethroned.

I utter these reflections simply for the sake of a little talk and philosophising, not because I doubt for a single moment the truth of what you say. Indeed, were I to see the world quite full of ignorant impostors on the one hand, and presumptuous fools on the other, I should still hold to my present belief that knowledge and enlightenment are on the increase.

FRIEND -- Of course, then, you believe that this century is superior to all the preceding ones?

TRISTANO -- Decidedly. All the centuries have had this opinion of themselves; even those of the most barbarous ages. The present century thinks so, and I agree with it. But if you asked me in what it is superior to the others, and whether in things pertaining to the body or the mind, I should refer you to what I said just now on the subject of progress.

FRIEND -- In short, to sum it up in two words, do you agree with what the journals say about nature, and human destiny? We are not now talking of literature or politics, on which subjects their opinion is indisputable.

TRISTANO -- Precisely. I bow before the profound philosophy of the journals, which will in time supersede every other branch of literature, and every serious and exacting study. The journals are the guides and lights of the present age. Is it not so?

FRIEND -- Very true. Unless you are speaking ironically, you have become one of us.

TRISTANO -- Yes. Certainly I have.

FRIEND -- Then what shall you do with your book? Will you allow it to go down to posterity, conveying doctrines so contrary to the opinions you now hold?

TRISTANO -- To posterity? Permit me to laugh, since you are no doubt joking; if I thought otherwise, I should laugh all the more. For it is not a personal matter, but one relating to the individuals and individual things of the nineteenth century; about whom and which there is no fear of the judgment of posterity, since they will know no more about the matter than their ancestors knew. "Individuals are eclipsed in the crowd," as our modern thinkers elegantly say; which means, that the individual need not put himself to any inconvenience, because, whatever his merit, he can neither hope for the miserable reward of glory, in reality, nor in his dreams.

Leave therefore the masses to themselves; although I would ask the wiseacres who illumine the world in the present day, to explain how the masses can do anything without the help of the individuals that compose them.

But to return to my book, and posterity. Books now are generally written in less time than is necessary for reading them. Their worth is proportioned to their cost, and their longevity to their value. It is my opinion that the twentieth century will make a very clean sweep of the immense bibliography of the nineteenth. Perhaps however it will say something to this effect: "We have here whole libraries of books which have cost some twenty, some thirty years of labour, and some less, but all have required very great exertion; let us read these first, because it is probable there is much to be learnt from them. These at an end, we will pass to lighter literature."

My friend, this is a puerile age, and the few men remaining are obliged to hide themselves for very shame, resembling, as they do, a well-formed man in a land of cripples. And these good youths of the century are desirous of doing all that their ancestors did. Like children they wish to act on the spur of the moment, without any laborious preparation. They would like the progress of the age to be such as to exempt them and their successors from all fatiguing study and application in the acquirement of knowledge. For instance, a commercial friend of mine told me the other day that even mediocrity has become very rare. Scarcely any one is fit to fulfil properly the duty which devolves upon him, either by necessity or choice. This seems to me to mark the true distinction between this century and the preceding ones. At all times greatness has been rare; but in former centuries mediocrity prevailed, whereas in our century nullity prevails. All people wish to be everything. Hence, there is such confusion and riot, that no attention is paid to the few great men who are still to be found, and who are unable to force a way through the vast multitude of rivals. Thus, whilst the lowest people believe themselves illustrious, obscurity and success in nothing is the common fate both of the highest and lowest.

But, long live statistics! Long live the sciences, economical, moral, and political; the pocket encyclopaedias ; the manuals of everything; and all the other fine creations of our age! And may the nineteenth century live for ever! For though poor in results, it is yet very rich and great in promise, which is well known to be the best of signs. Let us therefore console ourselves that for sixty-six (1) more years this admirable century will have the talking to itself, and will be able to utter its own opinions.

FRIEND -- You speak, it seems, somewhat ironically. But you ought at least to remember that this is a century of transition.

TRISTANO -- What do you infer from that? All centuries have been, and will be, more or less transitional; because human society is never stationary, and will never at any time attain to a fixed condition. It follows therefore that this fine word is either no excuse for the nineteenth century, or is one common to all the centuries. It remains to be seen whether the transition now in progress is from good to better, or from bad to worse. But perhaps you mean to say that the present age is especially transitional, inasmuch as it is a rapid passage from one state of civilisation to another, absolutely different. In which case I would ask your permission to laugh at this rapidity. Every transition requires a certain amount of time, and when too rapidly accomplished, invariably relapses, and the progress has to recommence from the very beginning. Thus it has always been. For nature does not advance by leaps; and when forced, no durable result is obtained. In short, precipitous transitions are only apparent transitions, and do not represent genuine progress.

FRIEND -- I advise you not to talk in this fashion with every one, because if you do you will gain many enemies.

TRISTANO -- What does it matter? Henceforth, neither enemies nor friends can do me much harm.

FRIEND -- Very probably you will be despised as one incapable of comprehending the spirit of modern philosophy, and who cares little for the progress of civilisation and the sciences.

TRISTANO -- I should be very sorry for that; but what can I do? If I am despised, I will endeavour to console myself.

FRIEND -- But have you, or have you not, changed your opinions? And what is to be done about your book?

TRISTANO -- It would be best to burn it. If it be not burnt, it may be preserved as a book full of poetic dreams, inventions, and melancholy caprices; or better, as an expression of the unhappiness of the writer. Because, I will tell you in confidence, my dear friend, that I believe you and every one else to be happy. As for myself, however, with your permission, and that of the century, I am very unhappy, and all the journals of both worlds cannot persuade me to the contrary.

FRIEND -- I do not know the cause of this unhappiness of which you speak. But a man is the best judge of his own happiness or unhappiness, and his opinion cannot be wrong.

TRISTANO -- Very true. And more, I tell you frankly that I do not submit to my unhappiness, nor bow the head, and come to terms with Destiny, like other men. I ardently wish for death above everything, with such warmth and sincerity as I firmly believe few have desired it.

I would not speak to you thus, if I were not sure that when the time came I should not belie my words. I may add that although I do not yet foresee the end of my life, I have an inward feeling that almost assures me the hour of which I speak is not far distant. I am more than ripe for death, and it seems to me too absurd and improbable, that being dead spiritually, as I am, and the tale of my life being told in every part, I should linger out the forty or fifty years with which Nature threatens me. I am terrified at the mere thought of such a thing. But, like all evils that exceed the power of imagination, this seems to me a dream and illusion, devoid of truth. So that if any one speaks to me about the distant future, as though I were to have a part in it, I cannot help smiling to myself, so sure am I that I have not long to live. . This thought, I may say, alone supports me. Books and studies, which I often wonder I ever loved, great designs, and hopes of glory and immortality, are things now undeserving of even a smile. Nor do I now laugh at the projects and hopes of this century. I cordially wish them every possible success, and I praise, admire, and sincerely honour their good intentions. But I do not envy posterity, nor those who have still a long life before them. Formerly I used to envy fools, imbeciles, and people with a high opinion of themselves, and I would willingly have changed my lot with any one of them. Now, I envy neither fools, nor the wise, the great, the small, the weak, the powerful. I envy the dead, and with them alone would I exchange my lot. Every pleasurable fancy, every thought of the future that comes to me in my solitude, and with which I pass away the time, is allied with the thought of death, from which it is inseparable. And in this longing, neither the remembrance of my childish dreams, nor the thought of having lived in vain, disturbs me any more as formerly. When death comes to me, I shall die as peacefully and contentedly as if it were the only thing for which I had ever wished in the world. This is the sole prospect that reconciles me to Destiny.

If, on the one hand, I were offered the fortune and fame of Caesar or Alexander, free from the least stain; and, on the other hand, death to-day, I should unhesitatingly choose to die to-day.


(1) Written in 1834.

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