Giacomo Leopardi was born in Recanati, a hilltop town in the Marches, on June 29, 1798, and died (of cholera) in Naples on June 14, 1837. In addition to poems considered among the greatest produced in nineteenth-century Europe, he wrote literary, philosophical, and philological essays, edited the classics, and composed a series of imaginary dialogues, the Operette morali. In 1817 he began keeping daybooks he called the Zibaldone di pensieri, which in my Sansoni edition fill twelve hundred double-columned, small print pages. The Zibaldone was his intellectual workshop. It contains notes and reflections on all sorts of things: life in society, human development, antiquity, vanity, suicide, memory, and whatever else his mind was turning over on a particular day. He was thinking with pen in hand—he circles round a subject, or suddenly angles from one subject to another, or leaves a thought hanging. (Before he died he was preparing an extremely reduced and more shapely book of material from the Zibaldone, later published as the Pensieri.) My selections are just a sampler of Leopardi’s preoccupations: nature and reason, ancients and moderns, illusion and reality. He was especially concerned with the passage from antiquity’s embrace of illusion (gods and myth) to modernity’s romance with rationality and (de-sacralizing) disillusionment.
Certain passages here, like hundreds in the mother book, are pinched off with an “etc.” Ellipses indicate omissions. Entries can be loose-limbed or tidily aphoristic, fragmentary or rounded off, poundingly repetitive or succinct. His syntax can be slippery, and I’ve tried to allow some feeling of that into English. Leopardi frequently used the word noia: the best translation is Baudelaire’s ennui. The word for Leopardi carries a variety or compound of meanings depending on context: boredom, tedium, nuisance, moral lassitude, disillusioned torpor, dreary indifference, defeated or depleted aspiration. Whenever “noia” or “tedium” or “boredom” appears, I’d ask the reader to fold in some of those other qualities. —W.S. Di Piero
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A jealous husband said to his wife: Don’t you realize what a devil you are, lovely angel that you are?
The more we brood on time, the more we despair of having enough: the faster it comes at us, the faster it rushes away.
Everything since Homer has improved, except poetry.
O infinite vanitas of truth!
—Sometime in 1819
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Just about the strongest inducement to suicide is self-loathing. Example: a friend of mine deliberately went to Rome intending to throw himself into the Tiber because someone somewhere had called him a nobody. My own first experience with self-hatred provoked me to expose myself to all kinds of danger—to kill myself, in fact. How amour propre works: it prefers death to admitting one’s worthlessness. And so: the more egotistical you are, the more strongly and continually you will feel driven to kill yourself. Meaning: love of life equals love of one’s well-being, so if life no longer seems of value, etc.
January 8, 1820
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The ancients assumed that the dead thought only about the things of this life, that they were always preoccupied remembering the facts of their lives, that they grieved or felt contented depending on what had hurt or pleased them here in life, and so as they saw it—and as Christians do not—this world is mankind’s home, that other world is exile.
June 8, 1820
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As a poet my spirit has run the same course as the human spirit generally. At the beginning, Fancy was my strength: my poems were full of images, and I read poetry to feed my own imagination. I was already intensely aware of the life of feeling but didn’t know how to express it. I hadn’t reflected enough on things, of philosophy I had only the faintest grasp, and I lived constantly with the illusion we all create, that the world and life will always make an exception for us. I’ve always experienced misfortune, but back then it seemed especially intense, and it devastated me because it seemed (not to my rational faculty but to my very active imagination) that misfortune denied me the happiness others believed they possessed. My condition was in every way that of the ancients.
It’s quite true that even then, when I felt so pressed by misfortune and trouble, I was capable of certain effects in my poetry. The complete change in me, my passage from ancient to modern, happened within about a year, in 1819, when I lost the use of my sight and couldn’t pass the time reading, I felt my unhappiness darkening terribly, and I began to give up hope, to reflect deeply on things (in one year I filled twice the space in these daybooks as I had in a year and a half, and my thoughts were all centered on our nature, unlike previous entries that were nearly all about literature), to become a professional philosopher (instead of the poet I once was), to feel the world’s inevitable unhappiness instead of just acknowledging it, and this also because of a certain physical torpor that made me less like the ancients and more like men of my time. My imagination then became much feebler, and although my faculty of invention increased enormously and finally began to function, it took form in prose or sentimental poetry. And when I did try to versify, images came only with enormous effort, my imagination was almost dried up (even apart from poetry; I mean, in contemplating Nature’s beauty, etc., I was cold as stone), even though my lines gushed with feeling. So one could say that in the strictest terms only the ancients were poets, and now the true poets are children, or the very young, and moderns who pass themselves off as poets are in fact philosophers.
July 1, 1820
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Two kinds of imagination: the strong, the promiscuous. One can exist without the other. Homer’s and Dante’s were strong, Ovid’s and Ariosto’s promiscuous. An important distinction when praising poets, or anyone, for their imagination. A strong imagination fast makes a man unhappy because his feeling runs so deep, but a promiscuous imagination cheers him because of its variety, because it nimbly visits then leaves all its objects and does so with a heady heedlessness. The two have very different characters. The first weighty, impassioned, usually (nowadays) melancholic, with deep emotion and passion, all fraught with life hugely suffered. The other playful, light, fleet, inconstant in love, high spirited, incapable of really strong, enduring passions and mental pain, quick to console itself even during the hardest times, etc. These two characters also yield clear portraits of Dante and Ovid: you see how the difference in their poetry corresponds exactly to the difference in their lives. Even more, you see how differently Dante and Ovid experienced exile. The same faculty of the human spirit is thus mother to contrary effects, qualities so different as to make the imagination seem virtually two different faculties. I don’t think that the deep imagination inspires courage, because it makes danger, pain, etc., so much more real and immediate than reflection does. What deliberation tells, deep imagination shows. And I believe that an imagination that does foster courage—such poets certainly don’t lack imagination, because enthusiasm always goes hand in hand with imagination and derives from it—belongs more to the deliberative, promiscuous type.
July 5, 1820
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Man or bird or four-legged creature killed in the countryside by hail.
August 30, 1820
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No law can impede violation or disobedience of the law.
August 31, 1820
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He put on eyeglasses made of half the meridian connecting the two polar circles.
A house hanging in the air held by ropes to a star.
October 1, 1820
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Too much of anything gets you nowhere. Even logicians warn that someone who tries to prove too much ends up proving nothing at all. We see excess everywhere in life. Excessive or profuse sensation turns to numbness. It produces indolence, inaction, a culture of sluggishness among individuals and whole populations. A poet overcome by enthusiasm, passion, etc., isn’t a poet—I mean he isn’t able to make poetry. Confronted with nature, his mind is swamped imagining the infinite, ideas swarm in his head and he’s unable to separate, select, or grasp any of them; he’s completely incapacitated, in other words; he can’t harvest the fruit of his sensations—he can’t conceptualize and formulate, can’t apply himself and write, can’t theorize or practice. The infinite expresses itself only when it goes unfelt, or rather after it’s felt. When the great poets were writing things that rouse in us an astonishing sense of the infinite, their spirit wasn’t at all occupied by sensations of the infinite; when depicting the infinite, they weren’t feeling it. The reason we don’t feel the worst possible physical pain is because it either knocks us senseless or kills us. We don’t feel the worst sorrow while it’s at its worst; it stuns us, confuses or overwhelms us, makes us unrecognizable and unknowable to ourselves, estranges us from our feelings and the objects of our feeling; we’re immobilized, our inner (and, so to speak, outer) life ceases to stir. Thus we don’t feel the worst sorrows, don’t feel them in their entirety, when they first befall, we know them, one by one, as we advance through time and space. And not just peak pain, but every peak passion, every sensation that, even if it’s not the greatest, is yet so extraordinary and (in whatever way) great, that our spirit can’t contain it all at once. Supreme joy would be just the same.
March 4, 1821
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Today only a crazy person, or someone mean and cowardly, or weak and wretched, would choose the path of righteousness.
With the invention of gunpowder, the energy humankind once possessed is passed on to machines, and humans are turned into machines in a way that essentially alters mankind’s nature.
April 23, 1821
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Isn’t the fact that babies and children remember so little—we infer this from the way our own memories of early life diminish, proportionally and gradually, the farther back we go—attributable at least in large part to a baby’s lack of language, and to the imperfect, impoverished language of very young children? Certainly human memory, like thinking and cognition, is powerless without the help of signs that fix ideas and reminiscences. Limited memory isn’t due to organic inadequacy, since we all know that we continuously remember—and remember more vividly as we mature—childhood impressions, even while forgetting things of the present and recent past. Our oldest reminiscences are the most alive and lasting. But they begin right at that point where the child has acquired sufficient language, they begin with those first ideas that we fused to signs and could fix in words. Like my own earliest memory, of some musk pears I saw and heard named in the same moment.
May 28, 1821
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The past in memory, like the future in our imagination, is more beautiful than the present. Why? Because only the present has a true shape in our mind, it’s the only image of truth, and all truth is ugly.
August 18, 1821
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A horse or dog in the habit of obeying a particular voice, of recognizing its master by a particular scent, can break these habits at any time, get used to new voices, new smells and commands from a new owner, etc. It can form new habits, learn new things. But other species and individuals less susceptible to habit (whether by nature or nurture) find it harder to break habits, precisely because they are so slow to form them in the first place. Isn’t the same true of our own species and its individuals?
To function, memory requires a fixed, stable object. It can remember indeterminate things only with great difficulty, or piecemeal, or in relation to other fixed objects. Whoever wants to remember something has to fix an object in mind; we do this all day without being aware of it. Words stabilize. Lines of poetry stabilize: the material has an inherent, sharp, recognizable definition, every line marking limits and boundaries. The whole secret to enabling memory comes down to giving the sharpest possible physical shape to things or ideas. The more you can do this, the better your memory will recollect things. The more you train the memory faculty, the easier it becomes to remember things even more vaporous than those you could remember as a baby or child.
September 22, 1821
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Noia is the most sterile of human feelings. It’s the child of spiritual numbness and mother of nothing. It isn’t merely sterile in itself, it renders sterile everything it invades or gets close to, etc.
September 30, 1821
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Uniformity guarantees noia. Uniformity is boredom, boredom uniformity. Uniformity comes in many forms. Endless variety produces uniformity, thus more noia...Constant pleasure, too, is uniformity, therefore boring, though its medium is pleasure. Certain foolish poets, realizing description gives pleasure, reduce poetry to nonstop description: they drain all pleasure from poetry and replace it with boredom...I know non-literary people who avidly read the Aeneid, which you would think could be enjoyed only by the happy few, but who toss aside the Metamorphoses after reading the first book or two even though it offers immediate pleasures. Remember what Homer has Menelaus say: “There is satiety in everything—in sleep, in sweet song,” etc. The constancy of pleasure, even of different sorts of pleasure, or of near- or pseudo-pleasure, this too is uniformity, and therefore noia, and therefore pleasure’s enemy.
August 7, 1822
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People cry out that poetry has to be contemporary, it has to adopt the language and ideas of our time, depict its mores and idiosyncrasies. And so readers condemn the use of ancient stories, events, practices, opinions. But I believe poetry is the one thing in our time that cannot be contemporary. How can a poet use the language and follow the ideas and conventions of a generation for whom glory is a pipe dream, when liberty, patria, love for patria, do not exist, when true love is childish folly and all illusions have vanished, when all passion—not only grand, noble, exquisite passion—is dead? How, I ask, can one be party to all this and still be a poet? A poet, a poetry, without illusions, without passion—do these logically go together? Can a poet, as poet, be entirely self-engrossed and private and still be a poet? Yet aren’t these the salient characteristics of our time? So how can a poet, as poet, be distinctively contemporary?
Remember that the ancients wrote poetry for the masses, or at least for people who mostly were not learned or philosophical. The moderns quite the contrary: today’s poets have only educated, cultured readers, so when it’s said that poets must be contemporary it’s meant that a poet must conform to the language and ideas of this narrow class of people, not the language and ideas of the masses (who know nothing really about poetry present or past and do not engage it in any way). Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet? What is poetic in them, in their language, thoughts, opinions, tastes, affections, customs, habits, deeds? What did or does or can poetry ever have in common with them?
Be forgiving, then, if a modern poet follows the old ways, if he takes up the style, manner, and language of earlier times, if he uses ancient stories and the like, if he seems to hew close to older ways of viewing reality, if he prefers older traditions, manners, events, if he stamps his work with the impress of another time. Be forgiving if the modern poet and modern poetry do not seem, or are not, contemporary to our century, because being contemporary means, or crucially entails, not being a poet, not being poetry. The poet cannot at the same time be and not be a poet, and it’s inappropriate for serious minds and a serious-thinking century to demand what’s by nature impossible, self-contradictory, a contradiction in terms.
July 12, 1823
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We say that someone of serious intelligence and determination is bound to achieve great things in the world, that surely he won’t remain obscure, whatever his circumstances. But the habit of prudence in matters requiring careful thought inevitably precludes quick, deft resolution; prudence retards progress and delays execution. Because of this, men of great, hard-working genius are often, almost always really, prisoners of their own irresoluteness—they are indecisive, shy, tentative, uncertain, fragile, inept at following through. Quite unlike those who rule the world, where decisiveness, not prudence, gets more done more quickly—that’s why the world is always left at the mercy of mediocrities.
July 26, 1823
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The poet must pretend to pursue a greater purpose than merely whipping up images and describing things, and if he does he has to make it seem he’s not really interested in description but is aiming at more serious things; he uses images and description as if they’re simply flowing from his pen, as if he cares little about them. He introduces imagery with some measure of gravitas or seriousness but with no hint of self-satisfaction or studiousness, without paying much heed to images or fussing over them, as if he doesn’t want the reader to linger. Homer, Virgil, and Dante do this, they pour forth incredibly vivid imagery and description yet never seem to notice that’s what they’re doing; they make a show of having a much higher purpose, which in fact is the only one that truly matters to them, the one they are actually always pursuing, namely the narrating of actions, their unfolding and final outcome. Ovid does the opposite: he doesn’t dissemble, doesn’t hide anything, he demonstrates and more or less confesses what is in fact the case—he has no higher or more serious aim, really no aim at all other than to describe, to arouse and frame images, little pictures, to figure things forth, to represent, unstintingly.
September 20, 1823
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There’s no one so intolerable or less tolerated in society than someone who’s intolerant.
October 14, 1823
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Everything about Homer is vague, everything surpassingly poetic, in the broadest, most relevant, far reaching and influential sense of the word. Start with his person and history, so wrapped and buried in mystery, not to speak of the ever-increasing ancientness, distance, and otherness of his time from subsequent ages, most of all our own, and he’s not just the oldest to come down to us, he’s a monument of pagan antiquity, the oldest piece of surviving antiquity—all these qualities themselves stir the imagination. Yet Homer himself is a vague idea, a poetic idea. So much so that some have doubted, still doubt, whether he was ever really more than an idea. I’m recording such doubt, stupid as it is—though serious minds indeed entertain it—only as an instance of what I’ve been saying.
The only poetry appropriate to our time, no matter the subject, is melancholic. So, too, poetic tone. If any true poet exists today, if he feels truly inspired to write, if he sets out to write poetry about himself or some other subject, his inspiration, whatever its occasion, is bound to be melancholic. And the tone he naturally assumes with himself or others in pursuing his inspiration (no poetry worth the name lacks inspiration) will be a melancholy tone. Whatever his way of life, whatever his nature and circumstances, even if he comes from a civilized culture, a poet will be melancholy, as will others who share nothing with him except melancholy. Among the ancient poets it was just the opposite. The music that came naturally to them was joyful, or grandly solemn, etc. Their poetry always wore festive clothes, even when the subject caused them sorrow. What does this mean? Either that the ancients suffered less misfortune than we do (which may or may not be true), or that they felt misfortune less or were less conscious of it, which amounts to the same thing and produces the same result: they were less unhappy than we moderns are.
December 12, 1823
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Noia is plainly an evil: to suffer it is to suffer utter unhappiness. So what is noia? Not a specific sorrow or pain (noia, the idea and nature of it, excludes the presence of any particular sorrow or pain) but simply ordinary life fully felt, lived in, known; it’s everywhere, it saturates an individual. Life thus is an affliction; and not living, or being less alive (by living a shorter or less intense life) is a reprieve, or at least a lesser affliction—absolutely preferable, that is, to life.
March 8, 1824
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What is life? The journey of a sick cripple carrying an enormous load on his back across steep mountains and impossibly bleak, barren, unforgiving lands through snow, frost, rain, wind, and scorching heat, walking days and nights on end to arrive at some precipice or ditch into which he’s fated to fall.
January 17, 1826
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Certain ideas, certain images of things, surpassingly vague, fantastical, chimerical, impossible, in poetry or in our imaginings—they bring peak pleasures, because they bring back our oldest memories, memories from childhood, when such ideas and images and beliefs were ordinary, commonplace. And the poets who most possess these (supremely poetical) visions are the ones we love most. Examine your own most poetical feelings and imaginings, those that most awe you, that take you out of yourself and the real world, and you will find that they and the pleasures they bring (at least after childhood) are mainly or wholly constructed of remembrances.
May 21, 1826
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For the Manual of Practical Philosophy. Patience, how it mitigates physical pain, makes it easier, more bearable, even lighter—as I myself experienced and observed during chest spasms I suffered in Bologna on May 29, 1826, where impatience and restlessness increased my pain. It’s a question of non-resistance, mental resignation, a certain quieting of mind while suffering. You can sneer at this virtue or call it cowardice if you like. But it’s still necessary to mankind, which is born, fated—inexorably, inevitably, irrevocably—to suffer, suffer greatly, with few reprieves. A virtue born or acquired (unwillingly sometimes) along with the necessity of enduring arduous or nagging experiences. Patience and quietude are largely what renders tolerable over a long term (to a prisoner for example) the awful tedium of solitude or idleness. A tedium almost unbearably grating because of how hard a man resists his troubles, because of his impatience and vehemence, his anxious craving to escape it. When resistance ceases, troubles and suffering become easier, lighter.
December 30, 1826
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If all you seek from something is pleasure, you’ll never find it. All you will feel is noia, often disgust. To feel pleasure in any act or activity, you have to pursue some end other than pleasure. (This would figure in a Manual of Practical Philosophy.) It happens (I could give a thousand instances) when we’re reading. If you read a book seeking only pleasure (it can be the finest, most delectable book in the world), expect to be bored or turned off by page two. A mathematician, though, loves reading a geometry proof, which you can be sure he’s not reading for pleasure. Maybe this explains why public amusements and entertainments are in themselves, without meliorating circumstances, the most boring, excruciating things in the world. Because their only end is pleasure; pleasure is all that’s wanted and expected. And something from which we expect and demand pleasure (as if it were a debt owed) of course never yields pleasure, it yields the opposite. It’s entirely safe to say that pleasure comes only when least expected, where we’re not looking for it, not hoping for it. That’s why in the ardor of youth, when we pitch all desire and hope toward the pursuit of pleasure, we find in life’s exquisite delights nothing but scary, tortuous disgust. We can’t begin to sample the world’s pleasures until we squelch and cool that impulse, until we turn our backs on pleasure, give up on it. Pleasure, in its way, is like quietude: the more we desire and seek it and nothing else, the less of it we find and enjoy (see what I say in the next entry). The very desire for tranquility excludes and is incompatible with it.
The need for patience I talk about elsewhere regarding pain and suffering applies to all sorts of occasions. When waiting on a transaction that you know will be drawn-out, monotonous, irksome; when you suffer tedious company while having more important things to do; or listen to a boring conversation or to a poet or writer reading aloud something he’s written—whenever, in other words, impatience, haste, restlessness, and the desire to be shut of things double the aggravation.
March 31, 1827
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Believing the universe infinite is an optical illusion. At least that’s how it seems to me. I don’t mean that metaphysics can already prove this, or that there’s factual proof that it isn’t infinite. But putting aside metaphysical arguments, I think that an earthly analogy virtually proves that the infinity of the universe is nothing but a natural illusion of the imagination. When I look at the sky (someone was saying to me) and think that beyond all these visible celestial bodies there are yet more and more, my thought pushes past all limits and leads me to presume there are yet more heavenly bodies beyond the beyond, and beyond even that. The same thing (I say) happens to a child, or an unreflective adult, on a mountaintop or high seas or soaring tower: he sees a horizon but knows that beyond it lies even more land or water, and more beyond those, and yet more beyond the beyond, and he concludes, or would happily conclude, that the land or sea is infinite. But just as experience has proved that our world, infinite as it may seem and for a long time was believed to be, does indeed have limits, so too we must believe, by analogy, that the whole mass of the universe, the assemblage of all worlds that seem infinite for the same reason—we cannot see its limits and are tremendously far from being able to see them—that this vastness isn’t absolute after all but relative, is in fact bounded. The child, the savage, and primitive peoples would swear, have sworn, would have tricked themselves into believing, that the earth and sea are boundless, and so they believed, and believe still, that the stars we see can’t be numbered, that their numbers are infinite.
September 20, 1827
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We can now truthfully say that, in Italy more than anywhere, writers outnumber readers (since most writers don’t read, or read less than they write). So how much glory can we expect from literature today? In Italy it’s safe to say that people read only so that they can write, so they’re thinking really only about themselves, etc.
February 5, 1828
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If a good book hasn’t become famous, the best way to make it happen is to say it has already happened, to speak of it as a famous book, famous everywhere, etc. These things become true by force of saying they’re true. Let many people affirm and repeat it and they’ll make it true beyond all doubt. And if for some reason this tactic doesn’t work, the best play is to keep quiet, seem indifferent, and wait for time to do its work. There’s nothing worse than de se fâcher avec la public, to rail against injustice, against contemporary bad taste for not paying attention to the book. Even if these complaints make perfect sense, even if the book is a classic, once its failure is publicly acknowledged the best it can hope for is to be seen as one of those pretenders who, for lack of an army, have only their rights and legitimacy to back their claim.
August 10, 1828
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With society’s improvement and civilization’s progress, the masses gain and the individual loses—loses strength, value, advancement, and thus happiness, and this is how modernity differs from antiquity. So say all the true, deep modern thinkers, even those who side strongly with civilization. The proper path for mankind’s improvement now is the monastic way, the penitential way.
September 5, 1828
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To a sensitive, imaginative man who lives—as I have for a long time—a life of constant feeling and imagining, the world and its objects in a sense have doubles. He sees with his eyes a tower, a landscape, with his ears he hears a bell ringing, and at the same time his imagination sees another tower, another landscape, hears another ringing. All the beauty and pleasure of things lives in this second world. Sad is the life (and it’s like this for most) that simply sees, hears, and feels objects that only the eyes, ears, and other sensations register.
November 30, 1828
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My philosophy isn’t only not conducive to misanthropy, as it might appear to a superficial reader, and as many have accused me. It essentially rules out misanthropy, it tends toward healing, to dissolving discontent and hatred. Not knee-jerk hatred but the deep-dyed hatred that unreflective people who would deny being misanthropes so cordially bear (habitually or on select occasions) toward their own kind in response to hurts they receive—as we all do, justly or not—from others. My philosophy holds nature guilty of everything, it acquits mankind completely and directs our hate, or at least our lamentations, to its matrix, to the true origin of the afflictions living creatures suffer, etc.
January 2, 1829
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Someone who doesn’t spend much time among men usually isn’t misanthropic. True misanthropes don’t live in isolation, they live in the world. They praise isolation, yes, of course, but they live in the world. If such a man withdraws from the world, his misanthropy dissolves in his solitude.
May 21, 1829
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We do not just become impervious to praise though never to denigration (as I say elsewhere) but in all kinds of circumstances the praise of thousands of esteemed people do not console us or counterbalance the pain inflicted by the derision, ill words, or disrespect by those most looked down upon, by a porter.
July 29, 1829
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Original men not as rare as we think.
May 23, 1832
Translated from the Italian by W.S. Di Piero