Giacomo Leopardi

Italian poet, philosopher, and writer (1798-1837)

Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi (29 June 179814 June 1837) was an Italian philosopher, poet, essayist, and philologist. He is considered the greatest Italic poet of the nineteenth century and one of the most important figures in the literature of the world, as well as one of the principal of literary romanticism; his constant reflection on existence and on the human condition—of sensuous and materialist inspiration—has also earned him a reputation as a deep philosopher. He is widely seen as one of the most radical and challenging thinkers of the 19th century.

Pleasure is always in the past or in the future, never in the present.




  • Death is not an evil, because it frees us from all evils, and while it takes away good things, it takes away also the desire for them. Old age is the supreme evil, because it deprives us of all pleasures, leaving us only the appetite for them, and it brings with it all sufferings. Nevertheless, we fear death, and we desire old age.
  • In every land the universal vices and ills of mankind and of human society are noted as peculiar to that place. I have never been anywhere where I have not heard, "Here the women are vain and inconstant; they read little and they're poorly educated. Here the public are curious about other people's affairs, and they're very talkative and slanderous. Here money, favour and baseness can achieve anything. Here envy rules, and friendships are hardly sincere," and so on and so on, as if things went on differently elsewhere. Men are wretched by necessity, and determined to believe themselves wretched by accident.
  • Boredom is in some ways the most sublime of human feelings. It is not that I think an examination of this feeling gives rise to those consequences that many philosophers have claimed to have inferred. Nevertheless, not being able to be satisfied with any earthly thing or, so to speak, with the whole earth; considering the immeasurable extent of space, the number and the wonderful size of the worlds, and finding that everything is small and petty in comparison with the capacity of one's own mind; picturing to oneself the infinite number of worlds, and the infinite universe, and feeling that the soul and our desire must be still greater than such a universe; always accusing things of insufficiency and nothingness; and suffering a huge lack and emptiness, and therefore boredom — all this seems to me the greatest sign of grandeur and nobility which there is in human nature. And so boredom is seldom seen in men of no account, and very seldom or never in other creatures.

Essays and Dialogues (1882)


Full text online at Project Gutenberg, trans. Charles Edwardes with Biographical Sketch, London: Trübner & Co., 1882.

Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander

  • NATURE: So flees the squirrel from the rattlesnake, and runs in its haste deliberately into the mouth of its tormentor. I am that from which thou fleest.
  • ICELANDER: Thus I reply to you. I am well aware you did not make the world for the service of men. It were easier to believe that you made it expressly as a place of torment for them. But tell me: why am I here at all? Did I ask to come into the world? Or am I here unnaturally, contrary to your will? If however, you yourself have placed me here, without giving me the power of acceptance or refusal of this gift of life, ought you not as far as possible to try and make me happy, or at least preserve me from the evils and dangers, which render my sojourn a painful one? And what I say of myself, I say of the whole human race, and of every living creature.
  • ICELANDER: So say all the philosophers. But since that which is destroyed suffers, and that which is born from its destruction also suffers in due course, and finally is in its turn destroyed, would you enlighten me on one point, about which hitherto no philosopher has satisfied me? For whose pleasure and service is this wretched life of the world maintained, by the suffering and death of all the beings which compose it?
  • Whilst they discussed these and similar questions, two lions are said to have suddenly appeared. The beasts were so enfeebled and emaciated with hunger that they were scarcely able to devour the Icelander. They accomplished the feat however, and thus gained sufficient strength to live to the end of the day.

The Song of the Wild Cock

  • It seems as though death were the essential aim of all things. That which has no existence cannot die; yet all that exists has proceeded from nothing. The final cause of existence is not happiness, for nothing is happy. It is true, living creatures seek this end in all their works, but none obtain it; and during all their life, ever deceiving, tormenting, and exerting themselves, they suffer indeed for no other purpose than to die.

Zibaldone (1898)

  • [T]he recognition of the irredeemable vanity and falsity of all beauty and all greatness is itself a kind of beauty and greatness that fills the soul when it is conveyed by a work of genius. And the spectacle of nothingness is itself a thing in these works, and seems to enlarge the reader’s soul, to raise it up and to make it take satisfaction in itself and its despair.
    • 260, 5th October 1820. Translation by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino et al. [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN 9780141194400], p. 177
  • Il piacere è sempre o passato o futuro, non mai presente.
    • Pleasure is always in the past or in the future, never in the present.
    • 29th September 1823, Festival of Saint Michael the Archangel.
  • Everything is evil. I mean, everything that is, is wicked; every existing thing is an evil; everything exists for a wicked end. Existence is a wickedness and is ordained for wickedness. Evil is the end, the final purpose, of the universe...The only good is nonbeing; the only really good thing is the thing that is not, things that are not things; all things are bad.
    • 19th April 1826.
  • No one can truthfully boast or say in anger: I cannot be unhappier than I am.
    • 13-14th August 1821.
  • 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.
    • 2nd January, 1829. Translation by W. S. Di Piero.
  • Two truths that most men will never believe: one that we know nothing, the other that we are nothing. Add the third, which depends a lot on the second: that there is nothing to hope for after death.
    • 1832. Passions. Translation by Tim Parks. [Yale University Press, 2014, ISBN 9780300186338], p. 8
  • I found myself desperately bored with life, with a very strong desire to kill myself, and had an intimation of something bad, which frightened me at the very moment that I wanted to die, and placed me immediately in a state of apprehension and anxiety. I have never felt so strongly the absolute conflict of the elements that form the present human condition, forced to fear for its life and to seek at all costs to preserve it, just then when it was most burdensome, and when it could resolve to be ended by its own will (but by no other cause).
  • Children find everything in nothing, men find nothing in everything.
  • No one thing shows the greatness and power of the human intellect or the loftiness and nobility of man more than his ability to know and to understand fully and feel strongly his own smallness. When, in considering the multiplicity of worlds, he feels himself to be an infinitesimal part of a globe which itself is a negligible part of one of the infinite number of systems that go to make up the world, and in considering this is astonished by his own smallness, and in feeling it deeply and regarding it intently, virtually blends into nothing, and it is as if he loses himself in the immensity of things, and finds himself as though lost in the incomprehensible vastness of existence, with this single act and thought he gives the greatest possible proof of the nobility and immense capability of his own mind, which, enclosed in such a small and negligible being, has nonetheless managed to know and understand things so superior to his own nature, and to embrace and contain this same intensity of existence and things in his thought.
  • Those innumerable and immense questions about time and space, argued over from the beginnings of metaphysics onward, by metaphysicians of every century, are none other than wars of words, caused by misunderstandings, and imprecision of thought, and limited ability to understand our mind, which is the only place where time and space, like many other abstract things, exist independently and for themselves, and are something.
  • You laugh openly and loudly about something, even entirely innocently, with one or two people in a café, in a conversation, in a street: everybody who hears or sees you laughing like this will turn and look at you with respect; if they were talking, they will stop, they will seem humbled; they will never dare to laugh at you; if they had previously looked at you boldly or condescendingly, they will lose their boldness and condescension toward you. In the end, simply laughing out loud gives you a definite superiority over all those near and around you, without exception. The power of laughter is terrible and awful: anyone who has the courage to laugh is master over others, in the same way as anyone who has the courage to die.


  • Stato che sia, dentro covile o cuna,
    È funesto a chi nasce il dì natale.
    • To that creature, being born,
      Its birthday is a day to mourn.
    • Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell'Asia (Night song of a nomadic shepherd in Asia) (1829-1830). Translation by Eamon Grennan, Leopardi: Selected Poems [Princeton University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-691-01644-5], p. 62
  • Non ha natura al seme
    Dell'uom più stima o cura
    Che alla formica: e se più rara in quello
    Che nell'altra è la strage,
    Non avvien ciò d'altronde
    uor che l'uom sue prosapie ha men feconde.
    • Nature has no more esteem
      or care for the seed of man
      than for the ant
    • La ginestra (The broom or The desert flower) (1836). Translation by Jonathan Galassi Canti: Poems [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN 0141193875]
  • Nature, mother feared and wept for
    since the human family was born,
    marvel that cannot be praised,
    that bears and nurtures only to destroy,
    if dying young brings mortals pain,
    why let it come down
    on these blameless heads?
    And if good, then why is it unhappy,
    why make this leaving inconsolable,
    worse than any other woe,
    for those who live, as well as those who go?
    • Sopra in basso relievo antico sepocrale (Bas-Relief On An Ancient Tomb). Translation by Jonathan Galassi Canti: Poems [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN 0141193875]
  • Rest for ever (heart) enough
    Hast thou throbbed. Nothing is worth
    Thy agitations, nor of sighs is worthy
    The earth. Bitterness and vexation
    Is life, never aught besides, and mire the world.
    Quiet thyself henceforth. Despair
    For the last time. To our race fate
    Has given but death.
    Henceforth despise Thyself, nature, the foul
    Power which, hidden, rules to the common bane,
    And the infinite vanity of the whole.

Quotes about Leopardi

  • Leopardi is a poet who is very dark. It fascinates me that Mark Strand did that lovely, heartbreaking version of his poem. It's the way that Leopardi makes his incredibly courageous attempt, even though he knows he cannot excel Dante and Petrarch. He's a great literary critic, as his great notebook, Zibaldone, shows. He does it by going back to Lucretius (rather than Virgil), by treating all of Latin poetry as what changes into the Tuscan of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. He is a signal instance of the modern sublime, which is always a Lucretian-Epicurean sublime as it is in Walt Whitman. It's no surprise Whitman reads Lucretius in translation, and we know his father bought it. He comments on it. Leopardi, of all later Italian poets, is not only the greatest after Dante and Petrarch, but his sensibility is closest to that of high Romanticism in English, that is England and the United States. So far as I know, Hart Crane never mentions Leopardi, but I can't read Leopardi without thinking of Crane.
  • What is Leopardi's place in literature? That assigned to him by his countrymen is very high, higher than they would concede to any other Italian poet born since the close of the sixteenth century.
  • For him, death does not just end life; it nullifies life, and the fact that we are going to die is the only fact that matters. The key to the terrible power of his work is that we can never totally banish the suspicion that he might be right.
  • How should the endless rush of events not bring satiety, surfeit, loathing? So the boldest of us is ready perhaps at last to say from his heart with Giacomo Leopardi: "Nothing lives that were worth thy pains, and the earth deserves not a sigh. Our being is pain and weariness, and the world is mud—nothing else. Be calm."
    • Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. (1874). Translation by Adrian Collins.
  • Yet no one has so thoroughly and exhaustively handled this subject as, in our own day, Leopardi. He is entirely filled and penetrated by it: his theme is everywhere the mockery and wretchedness of this existence; he presents it upon every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such wealth of imagery that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, is throughout entertaining and exciting.

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