Tag: Giacomo Leopardi

Reason is the Enemy of Greatness

“There can be no great genius without a touch of madness.”
— Seneca

This is a beautiful passage from Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone on the conflict between reason and nature.

Reason is the enemy of all greatness: reason is the enemy of nature: nature is great, reason is small. I mean that it will be more or less difficult for a man to be great the more he is governed by reason, that few can be great (and in art and poetry perhaps no one) unless they are governed by illusions.

Thus it happens that those things which we call great (an undertaking, for example) are generally out of the ordinary and consist of a certain disorder. Now, this disorder is condemned by reason. Example: Alexander’s undertaking: all illusion. The extraordinary seems to us to be great. Whether it is actually greater than the ordinary, abstractly speaking, I am not sure: perhaps sometimes it will even measure quite a lot smaller on an abstract scale, and when this strange and famous man is strictly compared with another ordinary and unknown man, he will be found to be the lesser.

Nevertheless, because he is extraordinary he is called great: even smallness when it is extraordinary is believed to be, and is called, greatness. Reason does not allow any of this, and we are in the age of reason (if only because the world has aged and is more experienced and colder) and few can now be or are great, especially in the arts. Even someone who is truly great now knows how to weight and understand this greatness, how to dissect his character in cold blood, examine the merit of his actions, fortell how he may act, write meticulously with acute and detailed reflections about his life. Great enemies, terrible obstacles to greatness: even illusions are not clearly understood as such, and they are fostered with a certain self-satisfaction, in the full knowledge, however, of what they are. How is it possible, therefore, for such illusions, once discovered, to be sufficiently lasting and strong? And for them to inspire us to great things? And, without illusions, what greatness can exist or be hoped for?

(An example of when reason is in conflict with nature: a sick man is absolutely incurable and will certainly die in a few days. His relatives, in order to feed as his illness now requires, suffer real hardship in providing for him: they will sustain losses from doing so even after the sick man’s death, and the sick man will obtain no benefits and may perhaps even be harmed because he will suffer longer. What does naked, dry reason suggest? You are mad if you feed him. What does nature say? You are barbarous and wicked if you do not do everything possible to feed him. It should be noted that religion sides with nature.) It is nature, therefore, that presses great men to great actions. But reason pulls them back: and so reason is the enemy of nature, and nature is great and reason is small. Another proof that reason is often the enemy of nature can be seen in the benefit of toil (as much for health as for everything else), which nature finds repugnant, and, in the same way, in the repugnance of nature to a hundred other things that are either necessary or highly beneficial and therefore encouraged by reason, and vice versa in the inclination of nature toward many other things that are harmful or useless or forbidden, unlawful, and condemned by reason: and with these appetites, nature often tends to harm and destroy herself.

Compliment with Divine Fury: A History of Genius.


I picked up a copy of the first complete English edition of Giacomo Leopardi‘s Zibaldone.

Giacomo Leopardi is the most radical and channelling of nineteenth-century poets and thinkers, yet the recognition of his genius outside his native Italy has been sporadic, at times enthusiastic and engaged, at others distracted.

Herman Melville turned him into a character in Clarel (a skeptic “stoned by Grief”). Nietzsche, “in the second of his Unfashionable Observations,” was describing Leopardi as the model of the modern philologist and the greatest prose writer of the century.”

According to editor Franco D’Intino, one of the reasons around Leopardi’s “waxing and waning” reputation was because he “lived and wrote in that shadowland that lies between the impetuous fire-bust of the first Romantic generation and the generation that came after him, that of the founders of the modern lyric. The shadowland was called, in post-Napoleonic Italy, the Restoration, and age of discontent, frustration, melancholy, eyes cast toward the past or the future, but a future beyond this world.”

He became a philosopher without knowing Kant, he became a poet without knowing Goethe—except for what he could learn of either from mme de Staël, his poor Baedeker guide to modern philosophy—because in himself he was able to find the strength to reach beyond the confines of his age, and, with comparable acuity, to see forward and backward in time.

Nature and the ancients were his salvation and his true teachers. … [H]is ability to go beyond disciplinary boundaries and codified languages, his extreme intellectual flexibility and freedom, open up new roads before him, along which, for example, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Benjamin will travel, and many post-structuralist thinkers after them.

Far from a book, this is more like a monstrously wonderful manuscript, which for a long time, no one knew anything about. It only came to light posthumously, more than half a century after Leopardi passed. “The book,” writes I’Dintino, “was, with few exceptions, confined to specialists in Italian literature, who had no interest in the ways in which Leopardi had reflected on man, society, and nature, or in the implacable originality with which he had set about interrogating all the fields of knowledge.”

At over two thousand pages, the odds of me reading it anytime soon are pretty low. Recently, however, I’ve taken to pulling it off the shelf, selecting a random page, and reading a few passages.

To give you a quick idea of the sort of thinker and writer Leopardi was, I flipped to a random page and found this passage on boredom.

Let us observe the animals. They often do very little or stay in their lairs, etc. etc. etc., without doing anything. Man does much more. The activity of the most inert man surpasses that of the most active animal (whether internal or external activity). And yet animals don’t know what boredom is, nor do they desire greater activity, etc. Man is bored and feels his nothingness at every moment. But he does and thinks things that are not intended by nature. With animals it’s the opposite.

Or this on imitating.

The difficulty of imitating: easier to do more than the thing itself: how difficult it is to be equal: how rare prefect equality is in nature: hence the wonder born of imitation and the delight born of wonder.

And one more, on the effectiveness of expressions.

The effectiveness of expressions is very often the same as their novelty. It frequently happens that the much-used expression is more robust, truer, more energetic, and yet its being much used enervates it and takes away its strength.

I’ve found something awesome on nearly every page I’ve looked at.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy to put on your bookshelf and pull out when you need some inspiration or just to flip to a random page on a rainy day.