Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Parini on Glory
Other languages:   italian_flag                                   


illeopardi text integral passage complete quotation of the sources comedies works historical literary works in prose and in verses

Translated by Charles Edwardes


GIUSEPPE PARINI (1) was in our opinion one of the very few Italians who to literary excellence joined depth of thought, and acquaintance with contemporary philosophy. These latter attributes are now so essential to the cultivation of the Idles lettres, that their absence would be inconceivable, did we not find an infinite number of Italian litterateurs of the present day, in whom they are wanting.

He was remarkable for his simplicity, his compassion for the unfortunate and his own country, his fidelity, high-mindedness, and the courage with which he bore the adversities of nature and fortune, which tormented him during the whole course of his miserable and lowly life. Death however drew him from obscurity.

He had several disciples, whom he taught, first of all, to gain experience of men and things, and then to amuse themselves with eloquence and poetry. Among his followers was a youth, lately come to him, of wonderful genius and industry, and of very great promise. To him one day Parini spoke as follows:

"You seek, my son, the only avenue to glory which is open to people who lead a private life, such glory as is sometimes the reward of wisdom, and literary and other studies. Now you are not unaware that this glory, though far from being despised, was by our greatest ancestors held in less esteem than that derivable from other things. Cicero, for instance, though a most ardent and successful follower of glory, frequently and emphatically makes apology for the time and labour he had spent in its pursuit. On one occasion he states that his literary and philosophical studies were secondary to his public life; on another, that being constrained by the wickedness of the age to abandon more important business, he hoped to spend his leisure profitably amid these studies. He invariably rated the glory of his writings at a lower value than that acquired from his consulship and his labours on behalf of the republic.

"Indeed, if human life be the principal subject of literature, and to rule our actions the first lesson of philosophy; there can be no doubt that action itself is as much more important and noble than thoughts and writing, as the end is nobler than the means, or as things and subjects in comparison with words and reasoning. For no man, however clever he be, is naturally created for study, nor born to write. Action alone is natural to him. And we see the majority of fine writers, and especially illustrious poets in the present age (Vittorio Alfieri, for instance), impelled to action in an extraordinary degree. Then, if by chance the deeds of these men prove unacceptable, either from the nature of the times or their own ill-fortune, they take up the pen and write grand things. Nor can people write who have neither the disposition nor power to act. From this you will easily understand why so few Italians gain immortal fame by their writings; it is that they are by nature unfit for noble actions. Antiquity, especially that of the early Greeks or Komans, is, I think, comparable to the design of the statue of Telesilla, who was a poetess, a warrior, and the saviour of her country. She is represented holding her helmet, at which she looks intently and longingly, as though she desired to place it on her head; at her feet lie some books almost disregarded, as forming but an insignificant part of her glory.

"But men of modern times are differently situated to the ancients. Glory is less open to them. They who make studies their vocation in life show the greatest possible magnanimity; nor need they, like Cicero, apologise to their country for the profession they have chosen. I therefore applaud the nobility of your decision. But since a life of letters, being unnatural, cannot be lived without injury to the body, nor without increasing in many ways the natural infelicity of your mind, I regard it as my duty to explain to you the various difficulties attendant on the pursuit of that glory towards which you aspire, and the results that will follow success should you attain it. You will then be able to estimate, on the one hand, the importance and value of the goal, and your chance of reaching it; and, on the other, the sufferings, exertions, and discomforts inseparable from the pursuit. Thus, you may be better able to decide whether it be expedient to continue as you have begun, or to seek glory by some other road."


"I MIGHT first of all say a great deal about the rivalries, envy, bitter censures, libels, injustices, schemes and plots against your character, both in public and private, and the many other difficulties which the wickedness of men will induce them to oppose to you in the path you have chosen. These obstacles, always very hard to overcome and often insuperable, exercise a further influence. It is owing to them that more than one author, not only in life, but even when dead, is robbed of the honour that is due to him. Such an one, not having been famous when alive, because of the hatred or envy with which he was regarded by others, when dead remains in obscurity, because he is forgotten; for it rarely happens that a man obtains glory after he has ceased writing, when there is no one to excite an interest in him.

"I do not intend to refer to the hindrances which arise from matters personal to the writer, and other more trivial things. Yet it is often owing to these latter that writings worthy of the highest praise, and the fruit of infinite exertions, are for ever excluded from fame, or having been before the world for a short time, fall into oblivion, and disappear entirely from the memory of men. Tor the same causes other writings, either inferior to or no better than these, become highly honoured. I will merely expose to you the difficulties and troubles which, apart from the malice of men, will stubbornly contest the prize of glory. These embarrassments are of ordinary, not exceptional occurrence, and have been experienced by most great writers.

"You are aware that no one can be called a great writer, nor obtains true and lasting glory, except by means of excellent and perfect works, or such as approach perfection. The following very true utterance of Castigiione is worthy of being engraved on your mind: -- 'It is very seldom that a person unaccustomed to write, however learned he be, can adequately recognise the skill and industry of writers; or appreciate the delicacy and excellence of styles, and those subtle and hidden significations which abound in the writings of the ancients.'

"In the first place, consider how very few people practise or learn the art of composition; and think from how small a number of men, whether in the present or the future, you can in any case look for the magnificent estimation which you hope will be the reward of your life. Consider, too, how much influence style has in securing appreciation for writings. On this, and their degree of perfection, depends the subsequent fate of all works that come under the heading of 'light literature.' So great is the influence of style, that a book presumably celebrated for its matter often proves valueless when deprived of its manner. Now, language is so interwoven with style that the one can hardly be considered apart from the other. Men frequently confuse the two together, and are often unable to express the distinction between them, if even they are aware of it in the first place. And as for the thousand merits and defects of language and style, with difficulty, if at all, can they be discerned and assigned to their respective properties. But it is certain, to quote the words of Castiglione, that no foreigner is 'accustomed to write' with elegance in your language. It follows therefore that style, which is so great and important a necessity in composition, and a thing of such unaccountable difficulty and labour, both in acquirement and usage, can only properly be judged and appreciated by the persons who in one single nation are accustomed to write. For all other people the boundless exertions attached to the formation of style will be almost useless, and as if entirely wasted. I will not refer to the infinite diversities of opinion, and the various tendencies of readers; owing to which the number of persons adapted to perceive the good qualities of this or that book is still more reduced.

"You must regard it as an undoubted fact that, in order to distinctly recognise the value of a perfect or nearly perfect work, deserving of immortality, it is not enough merely to be accustomed to write. You yourself must be able to accomplish the work in question almost as perfectly as the writer himself. And as experience gradually teaches you what qualities constitute a perfect writer, and what an infinity of difficulties must be surmounted before these can be obtained, you will learn how to overcome the latter, and acquire the former; so that in time knowledge and power will prove to be one and the same thing. Hence a man cannot discern nor fully appreciate the excellence of perfect writers until he is able to give expression to it in his own writings; because such perfection can only be appreciated by what may be termed a transference of it into oneself. Until this be done, a man cannot really understand what constitutes perfection in writing, and will therefore be unable to duly admire the best writers.

"Now most literary men, because they write easily, think they write well; they therefore regard good writing as a facile accomplishment, even though they assert the contrary. Think, then, how the number will be reduced of those who might appreciate and laud you when, after inconceivable exertions and care, you succeed in producing a noble and perfect work. In the present day there are scarcely two or three men in Italy who have acquired the art of perfect writing; and although this number may appear to you excessively small, at no time nor place has it ever been much greater.

"I often wonder to myself how Virgil, as a supreme example of literary perfection, ever acquired the high reputation in which he is now held. For I am certain that most of his readers and eulogisers do not discover in his poems more than one beauty for every ten or twenty revealed to me by continuous study and meditation. Not that 1 imagine I have succeeded in estimating him at his proper value, nor have derived every possible enjoyment from his writings. In truth, the esteem and admiration professed for the greatest writers is ordinarily the result of a blind predisposition in their favour, rather than the outcome of an impartial judgment, or the consequence of a due appreciation of their merits.

"When I was young I remember first reading Virgil, being on the one hand unbiassed in my judgment, and careless of the opinion of others (a very rare thing, by the by); and, on the other hand, as ignorant as most boys of my age, though perhaps not more so than is the unchanging condition of many readers. I refused to admit that Virgil's reputation was merited, since I failed to discover in him much more than is to be found in very ordinary poets. Indeed, it surprises me that Virgil's fame should excel that of Lucan. For we see the mass of readers, at all times, equally when the literature of the day is of a debasing or an elevating tendency, much prefer gross and unmistakable beauties to those that are delicate and half-concealed. They also prefer fervour to modesty; often indeed even the apparent to the real; and usually mediocrity to perfection.

"In reading the letters of a certain prince, exceptionally intelligent, whose writing was remarkable for its wit, pleasantry, smoothness, and acuteness, I clearly discerned that in his heart he preferred the Henriad to the Æneid; although the fear of shocking men's sensibilities might deter him from confessing such a preference.

"I am astonished that the judgment of a few, correct though it be, should have succeeded in controlling that of numbers, and should have established the custom of an esteem no less blind than just. This, however, does not always occur, and I imagine that the fame gained by the best writers is rather a matter of chance than merit. My opinion may be confirmed by what I say as we proceed."


"WE have seen how very few people will be able to appreciate you when you succeed in becoming a perfect writer. Now, I wish to indicate some of the hindrances that will prevent even these few from rightly estimating your worth, although they see the signs of it.

"In the first place, there can be no doubt that all writings of eloquence or poetry are judged, not so much on their merits, as by the effect they produce in the mind of the reader. So that the reader may be said to consider them rather in himself than in themselves. Consequently men who are naturally devoid of imagination and enthusiasm, though gifted with much intelligence, discernment, and no little learning, are almost quite incapable of forming a correct judgment of fanciful writings. They cannot in the least immerse their minds in the mind of the writer, and usually have within themselves a feeling of contempt for his compositions, because unable to discover in what their so great fame consists. Such reading awakens no emotion within them, nor does it arouse their imagination, or create in them any especial sensation of pleasure. And even people who are naturally disposed and inclined to receive the impression of whatever image or fancy a writer has properly signified, very often experience a feeling of coldness, indifference, languor, or dulness; so that for the time they resemble the persons just mentioned. This change is due to divers causes, internal and external, physical and mental, and is either temporary or lasting. At such times no one, even though himself an excellent writer, is a good judge of writings intended to excite the affections or the imagination. Again, there is the danger of satiety due to previous reading of similar writings. Certain passions too, of more or less strength, from time to time invest the mind, leaving no room for the emotions which ought to be excited by the reading. And it often happens that places; spectacles, natural or artificial, music; and a hundred such things, which would ordinarily excite us, are now incapable of arousing or delighting us in the least, although no less attractive than formerly.

"But, though a man, for one or other of these reasons, may be ill disposed to appreciate the effects of eloquence or poetry, he does not for that reason defer judgment of books on both these subjects which he then happens to read for the first time. I myself sometimes take up Homer, Cicero, or Petrarch, and read without feeling the least emotion. Yet, as I am quite aware of the merits of these writers, both because of their reputation, and my own frequent appreciation of their charms, I do not for a moment think them undeservedly praised simply because I am at present too dull to do them justice. But it is different with books read for the first time, which are too new to have acquired a reputation. There is nothing in such cases to prevent the reader forming a low opinion of the author and the merits of his book, if his mind be indisposed to do justice to the sentiments and imagery contained in the work. Nor would it be easy to induce him to alter his judgment by subsequent study of the same book under better auspices; for probably the disgust inspired by his first reading will deter him from a second; and in any case the strength of first impressions will be almost invincible.

"On the other hand, the mind is sometimes, for one reason or another, in such a state of sensibility, vivacity, vigour, and fervour, that it follows even the least suggestion of the reading; it feels keenly the slightest touch, and as it reads is able to create within itself a thousand emotions and fancies, sometimes losing itself in a sort of sweet delirium, when it is almost transported out of itself. As a natural result of this, the mind, reviewing the pleasures enjoyed in the reading, and not distinguishing between its own predisposition and the actual merits of the book, experiences a feeling of so great admiration, and forms so high a conception of it, as even to rank the book above others of much greater merit, read under less felicitous circumstances. See therefore to what uncertainty is subject even the truth and justice of opinions from the same persons, as to the writings and genius of others, quite apart from any sentiment of malice or favour. So great is this uncertainty that a man varies considerably in his estimation of works of equal value, and even the same work, at different times of life, under different circumstances, and even at different hours of the day."


"PERHAPS you may think that these difficulties, due to mental indisposition on the part of readers, are of rare occurrence. Consider, then, how frequently a man, as he grows old, becomes incapable of appreciating the charms of eloquence and poetry, no less than those of the other imitative arts, and everything beautiful in the world. This intellectual decay is a necessity of our nature. In the present day it is so much greater than formerly, begins so much earlier, and progresses so much more rapidly, especially in the studious, as our experience is enlarged in more or less degree by the knowledge begotten of the speculations of so many past centuries. For which reason, and owing to the present condition of civilised life, the phantoms of childhood soon vanish from the imagination of men; with them go the hopes of the mind, and with the hopes most of the desires, passions, and energy of life and its faculties. Whence I often wonder that men of mature age, especially the learned and those inclined to meditate about human affairs, should yet be subject to the influence of poetry and eloquence, which are, however, unable to produce any real effect on them.

"It may be regarded as a fact that, in order to be greatly moved by imagination of the grand and beautiful, one must believe that there is something really grand and beautiful in human life, and that poetry is not mere fable. The young always believe such things, even when they know their fallacy, until personal experience forces them to accept the truth. But it is difficult to put faith in them after the sad discipline of practical life; especially when experience is combined with habits of study and speculation.

"From this it would seem that the young are generally better judges of writings intended to arouse the affections and the imagination, than men of mature and advanced age. But, on the other hand, the young are novices in literature. They exact from books a superhuman, boundless, and impossible pleasure, and where they fail to experience this they despise the writer. Illiterate people have the same idea of the functions of literature. And youths addicted to reading prefer, both in their own writings and those of others, extravagance to moderation, magnificence or attractiveness of style and ornamentation, to the simple and natural, and sham beauties to real ones. This is partly due to their limited experience, and partly to the impetuosity of their time of life. Consequently, although the young are doubtless more inclined than their elders to applaud what seems good to them, since they are more truthful and candid, they are seldom capable of appreciating the excellences of literary works. As we grow older, the influence exercised over us by art increases, as that of nature diminishes. Nevertheless both nature and art are necessary to produce effect.

"Dwellers in large towns are compelled to sacrifice the beautiful to the useful. Even though of warm and sensitive natures and lively imagination, they cannot experience as an effect of the charms either of nature or literature any tender or noble sentiment, any sublime or delightful fancy; unless indeed, like you, they spend most of their time in solitude. For few things are so opposed to the state of mind necessary to appreciate such delights, as the conversation of these men, the riot of these places, and the sight of the tinselled splendour, the falseness, the miserable troubles, and still more miserable idleness which abound there. I also think that the littérateurs of large towns are, as a rule, less qualified to judge books than those of small towns; because, like everything else, the literature of large towns is ordinarily false and pretentious, or superficial.

"And whereas the ancients used to regard literature and the sciences as a pleasing change from more serious business, in the present day the majority of men who in large towns profess to be students regard literature and writing as merely an agreeable variation of their other amusements.

"I think that works of art, whether painting, sculpture, or architecture, would be much more appreciated if they were disseminated throughout a country in different-sized towns, instead of being, as at present, accumulated in the chief cities. For in the latter places men are so full of thoughts, so occupied with pleasurable pursuits and vain and frivolous excitements, that they are very rarely capable of the profound pleasures of the intellect. Besides, a multitude of fine things gathered together have a distracting influence; the mind bestows but little attention on individual things, and is sensible of no especial gratification; or else it becomes satiated, and regards them all as indifferently as though they were objects of the commonest kind.

"I say the same of music, which is nowhere so elaborate, or brought to such perfection, as in large towns, where men have less appreciation for the wonderful emotions of the art, and are indeed less musical than elsewhere.

"Nevertheless, large towns are a useful home for the fostering and perfecting of the arts; although their inhabitants are less under the influence of their charms than the people of other places. It may be said that artists, who work in solitude and silence, strive laboriously and industriously to please men, who, because accustomed to the bustle and noise of cities, are almost totally incapable of appreciating the fruit of their exertions.

"The fate of writers may in a measure be compared to that of artists."


"WE will now return to the consideration of authors.

"It is a characteristic of writings approaching perfection that they usually please more when read a second time, than they pleased at first. The contrary effect is produced by many books written carefully and skilfully, but which really possess few merits. These when read a second time are less esteemed than at first. But both kinds of books, when read only once, often deceive even the learned and experienced, so that indifferent books are preferred to excellent ones. In the present day, however, even students by profession can rarely be induced to read new books a second time, especially such as come under the heading of light literature. This was not so in olden times, because then but few books were in existence. Now, it is very different. We possess the literary bequests of all past times. Every nation has its literature, and produces its host of books daily. There are writings in all languages, ancient and modern, relating to every branch of science and learning, and so closely connected and allied that the student must study them all as far as possible. You may therefore easily imagine that a book does not obtain full consideration on a first reading, and that a second reading is out of the question. Yet the first opinion that we form of a new book is seldom changed.

"For the same reasons, even in the first reading of books, especially those of light literature, very rarely sufficient attention and study is given to discover the laborious perfection, the subtle art, and the hidden and unpretentious virtues of the writings. Thus, in the present day the condition of excellent books is really worse than that of indifferent ones. For the charms and qualifications of most of the latter, whether true or false, are so exposed to the eye, that, however trivial they may be, they are easily discernible at first sight. We may therefore say with truth, that the exertion necessary to produce perfect writing is almost useless for fame. But, on the other hand, books composed, like most modern ones, rapidly and without any great degree of excellence, though perhaps celebrated for a time, cannot fail to be soon forgotten. And many works of recognised value are also lost in the immense stream of new books which pours forth daily, before they have had time to establish their celebrity. They perish for no intrinsic fault of their own, and give place to other books, good and bad, which each in turn live 'their short spell of life. So that whereas the ancients could acquire glory in a thousand ways, we can only attain it by one single avenue, after much more exertion than formerly.

"The books of the ancients alone survive this universal shipwreck of all later writings. Their fame is established and confirmed; they are diligently and repeatedly read, and are made the subject of careful study. And it is noteworthy that a modern book, if intrinsically equal to any of the ancient writings, would rarely, if ever, give its readers as much pleasure as the ancient work. This for two reasons. In the first place, it would not be read with the care and attention that we bestow on celebrated writings; very few people would read it twice; and no one would study it (for none but scientific books are studied until made venerable by age). In the second place, the world-wide and permanent reputation of writings, whether or not due to their internal excellence, adds to their value, and proportionately increases the pleasure they give; often, indeed, most of the charm of such literature is simply due to its celebrity.

"This reminds me of some remarkable words of Montesquieu about the origin of human pleasures. He says: 'The mind often creates within itself many sources of pleasure, which are intimately dependent on each other. Thus, a thing that has once pleased us, pleases us again simply because it did so before; we couple together imagination of the present and remembrance of the past. For example, an actress who pleased us on the stage, will probably please us in private life: her voice; her manner; the recollection of the applause she excited; perhaps, too, her rôle of princess joined to her real character, -- all combine and form a mixture of influences producing a general feeling of pleasure. Our minds are always full of ideas subordinate to one or more primary ideas. A woman famous for one cause or another, and possessed of some slight inherent defect, is often able to attract by means of this very defect. And women are ordinarily loved less because they inspire affection than because they are well born, rich, or highly esteemed by others.' (1) . . . .

"Often indeed a woman's reputation for beauty and grace, whether well or ill founded, or even the mere fact that others have been under the influence of her charms, suffices to inspire a man with affection for her. And who does not know that most pleasures are due to the imagination rather than to the inherent qualities of the things that please us?

"These remarks refer to writings no less than to all other things. Indeed I will venture to say that were a poem to be published equal or superior to the Iliad, and carefully read by an excellent judge of poetry, it would give less satisfaction and appear less charming than the Greek masterpiece, much less would its fame be comparable with that of the Iliad; for its real merits would not be aided by twenty-seven centuries of admiration, nor the thousand reminiscences and other associations that connect themselves with Homer's poem. Similarly I affirm that if any one were to read carefully either the ,Jerusalem' or the 'Furioso,' without knowing anything of their celebrity, he would be much less pleased than others who were aware of their fame.

"In short, it may be accepted as a general rule that the first readers of every remarkable work which in after ages becomes famous, and the contemporaries of the writer, derive less enjoyment from such reading than all other people.

"This fact cannot but be very disadvantageous to the interest of writers."


"SUCH are a few of the obstacles that may prevent you from acquiring glory from the studious, or even from those who excel in knowledge and the art of writing.

"Now there are many people who, though educated sufficiently for the purposes of daily life, are neither writers nor students to any very great extent. They read simply for amusement, and, as you know, are only capable of appreciating certain qualities in literature. The chief reason of this has been already partly explained. There is, however, another cause. It is that they only seek momentary pleasure in what they read. But the present in itself is trivial and joyless to all men. Even the sweetest things, as says Homer,

'Love, sleep, song, and the dance,'

soon weary us, if to the present there be not joined the hope of some pleasure or future satisfaction, dependent on them. For it is contrary to human nature to be greatly pleased with that of which hope does not form a constituent part. And so great is the power of hope that it enlivens and sweetens many exertions, painful and laborious in themselves; whereas, on the other hand, things innately charming, when unaccompanied by hope, are scarce sufficiently attractive to be welcomed. We see studious people never tired of reading, often even of the driest kind; and they experience a constant delight in their studies, carried on perhaps throughout the greater part of the day. The reason of this is that they have the future ever before their eyes; they hope in some way, and at some time, to reap the benefit of their labours. Such people always have their interests at heart. They do not take up a book, either to pass time or for amusement, without also distilling from it more or less definite instruction. Others, on the contrary, who seek to learn nothing from books, are satisfied when they have read their first few pages, or those that have the most attractive appearance. They wander wearily from book to book, and marvel to themselves how any one can find prolonged pleasure in prolonged reading.

"It is clear that any skill or industry displayed by the writer is almost entirely wasted on such people, who nevertheless compose the mass of readers. And even men of studious inclinations, having later in life changed the nature of their studies, almost feel a repugnance for books which would formerly have given them intense delight; and though still able to discern their value, are wearied rather than, pleased by their merits, because instruction is not at all what they desire."


"HITHERTO we have considered writings in general, and certain things relating to light literature in particular, towards which I see you are more especially attracted. Let us now turn to philosophy, though it must not be supposed that this science is separable from the study of letters.

"Perhaps you will think that because philosophy is derived from reason, which among civilised people is usually a stronger power than the imagination or the affections, the value of philosophical works ought to be more universally recognised than that of poems, and other writings which treat of the pleasurable and the beautiful. It is, however, my opinion that poetry is better understood and appreciated than philosophy. In the first place, it is certain that a subtle intelligence and great power of reasoning are not sufficient to ensure much progress in philosophy. Considerable imaginative power is also requisite. Indeed, judged from the nature of their intellects, Descartes, Galileo, Leibnitz, Newton, and Vico would have made excellent poets; and, on the other hand, Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare might have been great philosophers. This subject would require much elaboration; I will therefore merely affirm that none but philosophers can perfectly appreciate the value and realise the charm of philosophical books. Of course, I refer to their substance, and not to whatever superficial merit they may have, whether of language, style, or anything else. And, just as men are by nature unpoetical, and consequently rarely catch the spirit of a poem or discern its imagery, although they may follow the meaning of its words; similarly, people unaccustomed to meditate and philosophise within themselves, or who are incapable of deep sustained thought, cannot comprehend the truths that a philosopher expounds, however clear and logical his deductions, arguments, and conclusions may be, although they understand the words that he uses and their signification. Because, being unable or unused to analyse the essence of things by means of thought, or to separate their own ideas into divisions, or to join and bind together a number of these ideas, or simultaneously to grasp with the mind many particulars so as to deduce a single general rule from them, or to follow unweariedly with the mind's eye a long series of truths mutually connected, or to discover the subtle and hidden connection between each truth and a hundred others; they can with difficulty, if at all, grasp and follow his working, or experience the impressions proved by the philosopher. Therefore, they can neither understand nor estimate rightly all the influences that led him to this or that opinion, and made him affirm or deny this or that thing, and doubt such and such another. Possibly they may understand his ideas, but they neither recognise their truth nor probability; because they are unable to test either the one or the other. They are like those cold and passionless men who are incapable of appreciating the fancies and imagery of the poets. And you know it is common to the poet and the philosopher to penetrate into the depths of the minds of men, and thence to bring into light all their hidden emotions, profundities, and secret working, with their respective causes and effects; thus, men who are incapable of sympathy with the poet and his thoughts, are also incapable of entering into the thoughts of the philosopher.

"This is why we see daily many meritorious works, clear and intelligible to all, interpreted by some people as containing a thousand undoubted truths, and, by others, a thousand patent errors. They are attacked in public and private, not only from motives of malice, interest, and other similar causes, but also because of the incapacity of the readers, and their inability to comprehend the certainty of the principles, the correctness of the deductions and conclusions, and the general fitness, sufficiency, and truth of the reasoning put forward. It often happens that philosophical writings of the most sublime nature are accused of obscurity, not necessarily because they are obscure, but either because their vein of thought is of too profound or novel a nature to be easily intelligible, or because the reader himself is too dense to be a competent judge of such works. Think, then, how difficult it must be to gain praise for philosophical writings, however meritorious they may be. For there can be no doubt that the number of really profound philosophers, who alone can appreciate one another, is in the present day very small, although philosophy is more cultivated than in past times.

"I will not refer to the various sects into which those who profess philosophy are divided. Each sect ordinarily refuses to allow that there is aught estimable in the others; this is not only from unwillingness, but also because it occupies itself with different principles of philosophy."


"IF, as the result of your learning and meditation, you chanced to discover some important truth, not only formerly unknown, but quite unlocked for, and even antagonistic to the opinions of the day, you must not anticipate in your lifetime any peculiar commendation for this discovery. You will gain no esteem, even from the wise (except perhaps from a very few), until by frequent and varied reiteration of these truths the ears of men have become accustomed to their sound; then only, after a long time, the intellect begins to receive them.

"For no truth contrary to current opinion, even though demonstrable with almost geometrical certitude, can ever, unless capable of material proof, be suddenly established. Time, custom, and example alone are able to give it a solid foundation. Men accustom themselves to belief, as to everything else; indeed they generally believe from habit, and not from any sentiment of conviction within their minds. At length it happens that the once-questioned truth is taught to children, and is universally accepted. People are then astonished that it was ever unknown to them, and they ridicule their ancestors and contemporaries for the ignorance and obstinacy they manifested in opposing it. The greater and more important the new truths, so much the greater will be the difficulty of procuring acceptance for them; since they will overthrow a proportionately large number of opinions hitherto rooted in the minds of men. For even acute and practised intellects do not easily enter into the spirit of reasonings which demonstrate new truths that exceed the limits of their own knowledge; especially when these are opposed to beliefs long established within them. Descartes, in his geometrical discoveries, was understood by but very few of his contemporaries. It was the same with Newton. Indeed, the condition of men pre-eminent in knowledge is somewhat similar to that of literary men, and 'savants' who live in places innocent of learning. The latter are not deservedly esteemed by their neighbours; the former fail to be duly appreciated by their contemporaries. Both are often despised for their difference in manner of life and opinions from other men, who neither do justice to their ability nor to the writings they put forth in proof of it.

"There is no doubt that the human race makes continual progress in knowledge. As a body, its march is slow and measured; but it includes certain great and remarkable minds which, having devoted themselves to speculation about the sensible or intelligible phenomena of the universe, and the pursuit of truths, travel, nay sometimes flash, to their conclusions in an immeasurably short space of time. And the rapid progress of these intellects stimulates other men, who hasten their footsteps so as to reach, later on, the place where these superior beings rested. But not until the lapse of a century or more do they attain to the knowledge possessed by an extraordinary intellect of this kind.

"It is ordinarily believed that human knowledge owes most of its progress to these supreme intellects, which arise from time to time, like miracles of nature. (2) I, on the contrary, think that it owes more to men of common powers than to those who are exceptionally endowed. Suppose a case, in which one of the latter, having rivalled his contemporaries in knowledge, advances independently, and takes a lead of, say ten paces. Most other men, far from feeling disposed to follow him, regard his progress in silence, or else ridicule it. Meanwhile, a number of moderately clever men, partly aided perhaps by the ideas and discoveries of the genius, but principally through their own endeavours, conjointly advance one step. The masses unhesitatingly follow them, being attracted by the not inordinate novelty, and also by the number of those who are its authors. In process of time, thanks to the exertions of these men, the tenth step is accomplished; and thus the opinions of the genius are universally received throughout the civilised world. But their originator, dead long ago, only acquires a late and unseasonable reputation. This is due partly to the fact that he is forgotten, or to the low esteem in which he was held when living; added to which men are conscious that they do not owe their knowledge to him, and that they are already his equals in erudition, and will soon surpass him, if they have not done so already. They are also his superiors, in that time has enabled them to demonstrate and affirm truths that he only imagined, to prove his conjectures, and give better form and order to his inventions, almost, as it were, maturing them. Perchance, after a time, some student engaged in historical research may justly appraise the influence of this genius, and may announce him to his countrymen with great éclat; but the fame that may ensue from this will soon give way to renewed oblivion.

"The progress of human knowledge, like a falling weight, increases momentarily in its speed; none the less very rarely men of a generation change their beliefs or recognise their errors, so as to believe at one time the opposite of what they previously believed. Each generation prepares the way for its successor to know and believe many things contrary to its own knowledge and belief. But most men are as little conscious of the increasing development of their knowledge, and the inevitable mutation of their beliefs, as they are sensible of the perpetual motion of the earth. And a man never alters his opinions so as to be conscious of the alteration. But were he suddenly to embrace an opinion totally discordant with his old beliefs, he could not fail to perceive the change. It may therefore be said, that ordinarily no truths, except such as are determinable by the senses, will be believed by the contemporaries of their discoverer."


"NOW let us suppose that every difficulty be overcome, and that aided by fortune you have actually in your lifetime acquired not only celebrity, but glory. What will be the fruit of this? In the first place, men will wish to see you, and make your acquaintance; they will indicate you as a distinguished man, and will honour you in every possible way. Such are the best results of literary glory. It would seem more natural to look for such demonstrations in small than in large towns; for these latter are subject to the distracting influence of wealth and power, and all the arts which serve to amuse and enliven the inactive hours of men's lives. But because small towns are ordinarily wanting in things necessary to stimulate literary excellence, they are rarely the abode of men devoted to literature and study. The people of such places esteem learning and wisdom, and even the fame men seek by these means, at a very low value; neither the one nor the other are objects of envy to t^iem. And if a man who is a distinguished scholar take up his residence in a small town, his notability is of no advantage to him. Rather the contrary. For though his fame would secure him high honour in towns not far distant, he is there regarded as the most forlorn and obscure individual in the place. Just as a man who possessed nothing but an abundance of silver and gold would be even poorer than other men in a place where these metals were valueless; similarly a wise and studious man who makes his abode in a place where learning and genius are unknown, far from being considered superior to other men, will be despised and scornfully treated unless he happen to have some more material possessions. Yet such a man is often given credit for possessing much greater knowledge than he really has, though this reputation does not procure him any especial honour from these people.

"When I was a young man, I used occasionally to return to Bosisio, my native place. Every one there knew that I spent my time in study and writing. The peasants gave me credit for being poet, philosopher, doctor, mathematician, lawyer, theologian, and sufficiently a linguist to know all the languages in the world. They used to question me indiscriminately on any subject, or about any trifle that chanced to enter their minds. Yet they did not hold me in much esteem, and thought me less instructed than the learned people of all other places. But whenever I gave them reason to think my learning was not as extensive as they supposed, I fell vastly in their estimation, and in the end they used to persuade themselves that after all my knowledge was no greater than theirs.

"We have already noticed the difficulties to be overcome in large towns before glory can be acquired, or the fruit of it enjoyed. I will now add that although no fame is more difficult to merit than that of being an excellent poet, writer, or philosopher, nothing is less lucrative to the possessor. You know that the misery and poverty of the greatest poets, both in ancient and modern times, is proverbial. Homer, like his poetry, is involved in mystery; his country, life, and history are an impenetrable secret to men. But, amid this uncertainty and ignorance, there is an unshaken tradition that Homer was poor and unhappy. It is as if time wished to bear witness that the fate of other noble poets was shared by the prince of poetry.

"But, passing over the other benefits of glory, we will simply consider what is called honour. No part of fame is usually less honourable and more useless than this. It may be that so many people obtain it undeservedly, or even because of the extreme difficulty of meriting it at all; certain it is that such reputation is scarce esteemed, if regarded as trustworthy. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that most clever half-cultured men imagine they either are, or could easily become, as proficient in literature and philosophy as those who are successful in these studies, and whom they accordingly treat as on an intellectual equality. Possibly both causes combine in their influence. It is certain, however, that the man who is an ordinary mathematician, natural philosopher, philologist, antiquary, artist, sculptor, musician, or who has only a moderate acquaintance with a single ancient or foreign language, is usually more respected, even in large towns, than a really remarkable philosopher, poet, or writer. Consequently, poetry and philosophy, the noblest, grandest, and most arduous of things pertaining to humanity, and the supreme efforts of art and science, are in the present day the most neglected faculties in the world, even in their professed followers. Manual arts rank higher than these noble things; for no one would pretend to a knowledge of them unless he really possessed it,, nor could this knowledge be acquired without study and exertion. In short, the poet and the philosopher derive no benefit in life from their genius and studies, except perhaps the glory rendered to them by a very few people. Poetry and philosophy resemble each other in that they are both as unproductive and barren of esteem and honour, as of all other advantages."


"FROM men you will scarcely derive any advantage whatever from your glory. You will therefore look within you for consolation, and in your solitude will nerve yourself for fresh exertions, and lay the foundation of new hopes. For like all other human benefits, literary glory is more pleasing in anticipation than in reality, if indeed it can ever be said to be realised. You will therefore at length console yourself with the thought of that last hope and refuge of noble minds, posterity. Even Cicero, richly renowned as he was in life, turned his mind yearningly towards the future, in saying: 'Thinkest thou I should have undertaken so many labours, during day and night, in peace and war, had' I imagined my glory was limited to this life? Far better were a life of idleness and peace, devoid of cares and fatigue. No. My soul, in some inexplicable way, used ever to fix its hopes on posterity, and looked for the dawn of its true life from the hour of death.' (3) Cicero here refers to the idea of immortality innate in the minds of men. But the true explanation lies in the fact that all earthly benefits are no sooner acquired than their insignificance becomes apparent; they are unworthy of the fatigues they have cost. Glory is, above all, an example of this; it is a dear purchase, and of little use to the purchaser. But, as Simonides says, 'Sweet hope cheers us with its phantom beauties, and with its vain prospect stimulates us to work. Some men await the friendly dawn, others the advance of age, and others more auspicious seasons. Every mortal cherishes within him hopes of coming good from Pluto and the other gods.' Thus, as we experience the vanity of glory, hope, driven and hunted from place to place, finding at length no spot in the whole of life whereon to rest, passes beyond the grave and alights on posterity. For man ever turns instinctively from the present to the future, about which he hopes much in proportion as he knows little. Hence, they who are desirous of glory in life, chiefly nourish themselves on that which they hope gain after death. For the lack of enjoyment in the present, man consoles himself with hopes of future happiness, as vain as that of the present."


"BUT what, after all, is this appeal that we make to posterity? The human imagination is such that it forms a more exalted conception of posterity than of the men of past or present times, simply because we are totally ignorant of the people who are yet to be. But, reasonably, and not imaginatively, do we really think our successors will be better than ourselves? I am of a contrary opinion, and for my part put faith in the proverb that says 'the world grows worse as it ages.' It were better for men of genius if they could appeal to their wise ancestors, who, according to Cicero, were not inferior in point of numbers, and far superior in excellence to their successors. But, though such appeal would be sure of a truer judgment, it is certain that the greatest men of our day would be held in little esteem by the ancients.

"It may be allowed that the men of the future, being free from any spirit of rivalry, envy, love, or hatred, not indeed amongst themselves, but towards us, ought to be better qualified than ourselves to pass impartial judgment on our writings. For other reasons, too, they may be better judges. Posterity will perhaps have fewer excellent writers, noble poets, and subtle philosophers. In which case the few followers of these sublime influences will honour us the more. It is also probable that their control over the minds of the people will be still less than that exercised by us. Again, will the affections, imagination, and intellect of men be, as a rule, more powerful than they are at present? If not, we shall gain by the comparison.

"Literature is peculiarly exposed to the influence of custom. In times of debased literature, we see how firmly this or that barbarism is retained and upheld, as though it alone were reasonable and natural. At such times the best and greatest writers are forgotten or ridiculed. Where, then, is the certainty that posterity will always esteem the kind of writing that we praise? Besides, it is a question whether or not we ourselves esteem what is really praiseworthy. For men have different opinions about what constitutes good writing, and these vary according to the times, the nature of places and people, customs, usages, and individuals. Yet it is to this variety and variability of influences that the glory of writers is subjected.

"Philosophy is even more diverse and changeable than other sciences. (4) At first sight the contrary of this would seem to be true; for whereas the 'belles lettres ' are concerned with the study of the beautiful, which is chiefly a matter of custom and opinion, sciences seek the truth, which is fixed and unchangeable. But this truth is hid from mortals, though, as centuries go by, some little of it is revealed. Consequently, on the one hand, in their endeavours to discover it, and their conjectures as to its nature, men are led to embrace this or that resemblance of truth; thereupon opinions and sects multiply. And, on the other hand, it is due to the ever-increasing number of fresh discoveries, and new aspects of truth obtained daily, that even these divisions become subdivided; and opinions which at one time were regarded almost as certainties change shape and substance momentarily. It is owing to the changeability of sciences and philosophy that they are so unproductive of glory, either at the hands of contemporaries or posterity. For when new discoveries, or new ideas and conjectures, greatly alter the condition of this or that science from its present state, how will the writings and thoughts of men now celebrated in these sciences be regarded? Who, for instance, now reads Galileo's works? Yet in his time they were most wonderful; nor could better and nobler books, full of greater discoveries and grander conceptions, be then written on such subjects. But now every tyro in physics or mathematics surpasses Galileo in his knowledge. Again, how many people in the present day read the writings of Francis Bacon? Who troubles himself about Malebranche? And how much time will soon be bestowed on the works of Locke, if the science almost founded by him progresses in future as rapidly as it gives promise of doing?

"Truly the very intellectual force, industry, and labour, which philosophers and scientists expend in the pursuit of their glory, are in time the cause of its extinction or obscurement. For by their own great exertions they open out a path for the still further advancement of the science, which in time progresses so rapidly that their writings and names fall gradually into oblivion. And it is certainly difficult for most men to esteem others for a knowledge greatly inferior to their own. Who can doubt that the twentieth century will discover error in what the wisest of us regard as unquestionable truths, and will surpass us greatly in their knowledge of the truth?"


"FINALLY, you would perhaps like to know my opinion, and decided advice to you, about your intended profession. The question is one as to the advisability of your pursuing or abandoning this path to glory, a thing so poor in usefulness, and so hard and uncertain both to secure and retain, that it may be compared to a shadow which you can neither feel when you hold, nor yet keep from fleeing away. I will tell you then briefly my true opinion. I consider your wonderful genius, noble disposition, and prolific imagination to be the most fatal and lamentable qualities distributed by Fortune to humanity. But since you possess them, you will scarcely be able to avoid their harmful influence. In the present day there is but one possible benefit to be gained from such endowments as yours; viz., the glory that sometimes rewards industry in literature and study. You know those miserable men, who having accidentally lost or injured a limb, try to make as much profit as possible from their misfortune, which they ostentatiously display to excite the pity and consequent liberality of passers-by. In the same way I advise you to endeavour to procure by means of your endowments the only possible advantage, trifling and uncertain though it be. Such qualities as yours are usually regarded as great natural gifts, and are often envied by those who do not possess them. But this feeling is opposed to common sense; as well may the sound man envy those wretched fellows their bodily calamities, or wish to mutilate himself in the same way, for the sake of the miserable profit he might gain. Most men work as long as they can, and enjoy themselves as much as their nature will permit. But great writers are naturally, and by their manner of life, incapable of many human pleasures: voluntarily deprived of many others; often despised by their fellow-men, save perhaps a very few who pursue the same studies; they are destined to lead a life like unto death, and to live only beyond the grave, if even that be granted them.

"But Destiny must be obeyed; duty commands us to follow it courageously and nobly whithersoever it may lead us. Such resignation is especially necessary for you, and those who resemble you."


(1) Ex: Fragment Sur le goût, &c.

(2) It is in the order of Providence that the inventive, generative, constitutive mind should come first; and then that the patient and collective mind should follow, and elaborate the pregnant queries and illumining guesses of the former. - S. T. Coleridge, Table Talk, Oct. 8, 1830.

(3) De Senectute.

(4) Compare the following from H. Rogers' Essay on Leibnitz: "The condition of great philosophers is far less enviable than that of great poets. The former can never possess so large a circle of readers under any circumstances ; but that number is still further abridged by the fact that even the truths the philosopher has taught or discovered form but stepping-stones in the progress of science, and are afterwards digested, systematised, and better expounded in other works composed by inferior men."

eXTReMe Tracker
        Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia  -  edited by ilVignettificio  -  Privacy & cookie  -  FRIEND WEBSITES : English literature OperaOmnia

w3c xhtml validation w3c css validation