The Italian writer Count Giacomo Leopardi was born in the provincial town of Recanati, in Marche, Italy. His home environment was oppressive. Leopardi was also plagued by continual physical maladies from an early age, including a spinal condition that made him a hunchback. Precocious from childhood, by the age of 16 Leopardi had read all the Latin and Greek classics, could write in several languages, and had written essays on classics, astronomy, and history. In 1816, partly under the influence of his friend Pietro Giordani, Leopardi turned his attention to literature: he began work on the 61-poem collection I canti (1831, 1835, 1845), containing poems written from 1819 to 1837. In these poems, Leopardi espoused a pessimistic philosophy, revealing a belief in a meaningless and alienating universe that offers no hope. He presents a philosophy of despair, exhibiting the triumph of evil, the insignificance of existence, and the allurement of death.
In 1822, Leopardi left Recanati for a three-month stay in Rome, which he found to be a corrupt society hostile to novel ideas. Disillusioned and unable to find work, he reluctantly returned to his oppressive hometown. In 1825, he went to Bologna and Milan to continue his writing, but physical and financial problems forced a return; trips to Florence and Pisa in 1827–28 also ended in a return. Two years later, he received a loan from friends and was finally able to leave “that horrible nightmare of Recanati.” Leopardi’s other writings from this time are united in their search for beauty and truth in an antagonistic world. Leopardi retired to Naples in 1833, where he lived with continuous physical suffering and hopeless despondency until his death in 1837.
Leopardi asserts that suicide, unlike death, is not a grand negation of existence but an act directed against the share of unhappiness that pervades human life, and therefore solves nothing. In the “Dialogue between Plotinus and Porphyrius,” published in Opperette Morali (1827, 1834, and 1835), Leopardi simulates a debate between two neo-Platonist Roman philosophers about whether suicide violates the rules of nature. Plotinus (204/205–270) [q.v.], ascetic and otherworldly, was the teacher of Porphyrius (known in English as Porphyry, c. 234–305), who became disillusioned with life and suicidal after studying his teacher’s philosophy. Porphyry’s arguments for suicide include the claim that all perception is false except for “ennui” (described by Leopardi as a sublime sentiment experienced only by the intelligent), that Plato’s [q.v.] restrictions on self-destruction and his idea of heaven are ruinous, and that the unnatural effects of civilization upon human life justify an unnatural means to end the suffering they inflict. Plotinus counters him with assertions that suicide is selfish, against strict natural laws, and overemphasizes the gravity of suffering in the brief span of a human life.
Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogue between Plotinus and Porphyrius,” in Essays and Dialogues of Giacomo Leopardi, tr. Charles Edwards. London: Trübner and Co., 1882, pp. 182-196.
from DIALOGUE BETWEEN PLOTINUS AND PORPHYRY
“One day when I, Porphyrius, was meditating about taking my own life, Plotinus guessed my intention. He interrupted me, and said that such a design could not proceed from a healthy mind, but was due to some melancholy indisposition, and that I must have change of air.”
The same incident is recounted in the life of Plotinus by Eunapius, who adds that Plotinus recorded in a book the conversation he then held with Porphyrius on the subject. Plotinus. You know, Porphyrius, how sincerely I am your friend. You will not wonder therefore that I am unquiet about you. For some time I have noticed how sad and thoughtful you are; your expression of countenance is unusual, and you have let fall certain words which make me anxious. In short, I fear that you contemplate some evil design.
Porphyrius. How! What do you mean?
Plotinus. I think you intend to do yourself some injury; it were a bad omen to give the deed its name. Listen to me, dear Porphyrius, and do not conceal the truth. Do not wrong the friendship that has so long existed between us. I know my words will cause you displeasure, and I can easily understand that you would rather have kept your design hid. But I could not be silent in such a matter, and you ought not to refuse to confide in one who loves you as much as himself. Let us then talk calmly, weighing our words. Open your heart to me. Tell me your troubles, and let me be auditor of your lamentations. I have deserved your confidence. I promise, on my part, not to oppose the carrying out of your resolution, if we agree that it is useful and reasonable.
Porphyrius. I have never denied a request of yours, dear Plotinus. I will therefore confess to you what I would rather keep to myself; nothing in the world would induce me to tell it to anyone else. You are right in your interpretation of my thoughts. If you wish to discuss the subject, I will not refuse, in spite of my dislike to do so; for on such occasions the mind prefers to encompass itself with a lofty silence, and to meditate in solitude, giving itself up for the time to a state of complete self-absorption. Nevertheless, I am willing to do as you please.
In the first place, I may say that my design is not the consequence of any special misfortune. It is simply the result of an utter weariness of life, and a continuous ennui which has long possessed me like a pain. To this may be added a feeling of the vanity and nothingness of all things, which pervades me in body and soul. Do not say that this disposition of mind is unreasonable, though I will allow that it may in part from physical causes. It is in itself perfectly reasonable, and therein differs from all our other dispositions; for everything which makes us attach some value to life and human things, proves on analysis to be contrary to reason, and to proceed from some illusion or falsity. Nothing is more rational than ennui. Pleasures are all unreal. Pain itself, at least mental pain, is equally false, because on examination it is seen to have scarcely any foundation, or none at all. The same may be said of fear and hope. Ennui alone, which is born from the vanity of things, is genuine, and never deceives. If, then, all else be vain, the reality of life is summed up in ennui.
Plotinus. It may be so. I will not contradict you as to that. But we must now consider the nature of your project. You know Plato refused to allow that man is at liberty to escape, like a fugitive slave, from the captivity in which he is placed by the will of the gods, in depriving himself of life.
Porphyrius. I beg you, dear Plotinus, to leavePlato alone now, with his doctrines and dreams. It is one thing to praise, explain, and champion certain theories in the schools and in books, but quite another to practically exemplify them. School-teaching and books constrain us to admire Plato, and conform to him, because such is the custom in the present day. But in real life, far from being admired, he is even detested. It is true Plato is said to have spread abroad by his writings the notion of a future life, thus leaving men in doubt as to their fate after death, and serving a good purpose in deterring men from evil in this life, through fear of punishment in the next. If I imagined Plato to have been the inventor of these ideas and beliefs, I would speak thus to him:—
“You observe, O Plato, how inimical to our race the power which governs the world has always been, weather known as Nature, Destiny, or Fate. Many reasons contradict the supposition that man has that high rank in the order of creation which we are pleased to imagine; but by no reason can he be deprived of the characteristic attributed to him by Homer—that of suffering. Nature, however, has given us a remedy for all evils. It is death, little feared by those who are not fully intelligent, and by all others desired.
“But you have deprived us of this dearest consolation of our life, full of suffering that it is. The doubts raised by you have torn this comfort from our minds, and made the thought of death the bitterest of all thoughts. Thanks to you, unhappy mortals now fear the storm less than the port. Driven from their one place of repose, and robbed of the only remedy they could look for, they resign themselves to the sufferings and troubles of life. Thus, you have been more cruel towards us than Destiny, Nature, or Fate. And since this doubt, once conceived, can never be got rid of, to you is it due that your fellow-men regard death as something more terrible than life. You are to blame that rest and peace are for ever banished from the last moments of man, whereas all other animals die in perfect fearlessness. This one thing, O Plato, was wanting to complete the sum of human misery.
“True, your intention was good. But it has failed in its purpose. Violence and injustice are not arrested, for evil-doers only realise the terrors of death in their last moments, when quite powerless to do more harm. Your doubts trouble only the good, who are more disposed to benefit than injure their fellow-men, and the weak and timid, who are neither inclined by nature nor disposition to oppress anyone. Bold and strong men, who have scarcely any power of imagination, and those who require some other restraint than mere law, regard these fears as chimerical, and are undeterred from evil doing. We see daily instances of this, and the experience of all the centuries, from your time down to the present, confirms it. Good laws, still more, good education, and mental and social culture,—these are the things that preserve justice and mildness amongst men. Civilization, and the use of reflection and reason, make men almost always hate to war with each other and shed one another’s blood, and render them disinclined to quarrel, and endanger their lives by lawlessness. But such good results are never due to threatening fancies, and bitter expectation of terrible chastisement; these, like the multitude and cruelty of the punishments used in certain states, only serve to increase the baseness and ferocity of men, and are therefore opposed to the well-being of human society.
“Perhaps, however, you will reply that you have promised a reward in the future for the good. What then is this reward? A state of life which seems full of ennui, even less tolerable than our present existence! The bitterness of your punishments is unmistakable; but the sweetness of your rewards is hidden and secret, incomprehensible to our minds. How then can order and virtue be said to be encouraged by your doctrine? I will venture to say that if but few men have been deterred from evil by the fear of your terrible Tartarus, no good man has been led to perform a single praiseworthy action by desire of your Elysium. Such a paradise does not attract us in the least. But, apart from the fact that your heaven is scarcely an inviting place, who among the best of us can hope to merit it? What man can satisfy you inexorable judges, Minos, Eacus, and Rhadamanthus, who will not overlook one single fault, however trivial? Besides, who can say that he has reached your standard of purity? In short, we cannot look for happiness in the world to come; and however clear a mans conscience may be, or however upright his life, in his last hour he will dread the future with its terrible incertitude. It is due to your teaching that fear is a much stronger influence than hope, and may be said to dominate mankind.
“This then is the result of your doctrines. Man, whose life on earth is wretched in the extreme; anticipates death, not as an end to all his miseries, but as the beginning of a condition more wretched still. Thus, you surpass in cruelty, not only Nature and Destiny, but the most merciless tyrant and bloodthirsty executioner the world has ever known. “But what cruelty can exceed that of your law, forbidding man to put an end to his sufferings and troubles by voluntarily depriving himself of life, thereby triumphing over the horrors of death? Other animals do not desire to put an end to their life, because their unhappiness is less than ours; nor would they even have sufficient courage to face a voluntary death. But if they did wish to die, what should deter them from fulfilling their desire? They are affected by no prohibition, nor fear of the future. Here again you make us inferior to brute beasts. The liberty they possess, they do not use; the liberty granted also to us by Nature, so miserly in her gifts, you take away. Thus, the only creatures capable of desiring death, have the right to die refused them. Nature, Destiny, and Fortune overwhelm us with cruel blows, that cause us to suffer fearfully; you add to our sufferings by tying our arms and enchaining our feet, so that we can neither defend ourselves, nor escape from our persecutors.
“Truly, when I think over the great wretchedness of humanity, it seems to me that your doctrines, above all things, O Plato, are guilty of it, and that men may well complain of you more than of Nature. For the latter, in decreeing for us an existence full of unhappiness, has left us the means of escaping from it when we please. Indeed, unhappiness cannot be called extreme, when we have in our hands the power to shorten it at will. Besides, the mere thought of being able to quit life at pleasure, and withdraw from the miseries of the world, is so great an alleviation of our lot, that in itself it suffices to render existence supportable. Consequently, there can be no doubt that our chief unhappiness proceeds from the fear, that in abbreviating our life we might be plunged into a state of greater misery than the present. And not only will our misery be greater in the future, but it will be so full of the refinement of cruelty, that a comparison of these unexperienced tortures with the known sufferings of this life, reduces the latter almost to insignificance.
“You have easily, O Plato, raised this question of immortality; but the human species will become extinct before it is settled. Your genius is the most fatal thing that has ever afflicted humanity, and nothing can ever exist more disastrous in its effects.”
That is what I would say to Plato had he invented the doctrine we are discussing; but I am well aware he did not originate it. However, enough has been said. Let us drop the subject, if you please.
Plotinus. Porphyrius, you know how I revere Plato; yet in talking to you on such an occasion as this, I will give you my own opinion, and will disregard his authority. The few words of his that I spoke were rather as an introduction, than anything else. Returning to my first argument, I affirm that not only Plato and every other philosopher, but Nature herself, teaches us that it is improper to take away our own life. I will not say much on this point, because if you reflect a little, I am sure you will agree with me that suicide is unnatural. It is indeed an action the most contrary possible to nature. The whole order of things would be subverted if the beings of the world destroyed themselves. And it is repugnant and absurd to suppose that life is given only to be taken away by its possessor, and that beings should exist only to become non-existent. The law of self-preservation is enjoined in every possible way on man and all creatures of the universe. And, apart from anything else, do we not instinctively fear, hate, and shun death, even in spite of ourselves? Therefore, since suicide is so utterly contrary to our nature, I cannot think that it is permissible.
Porphyrius. I have already meditated on the subject from all points of view; for the mind could not design such a step without due consideration. It seems to me that all your reasoning is answerable with just as much counter reasoning. But I will be brief.
You doubt whether it be permissible to die without necessity. I ask you if it be permissible to be unhappy? Nature, you say, forbids suicide. It is a strange thing that since she is either unable or unwilling to make me happy, or free me from unhappiness, she should have the power to force me to live. If Nature has given us a love of life, and a hatred of death, she has also given us a love of happiness, and a hatred of suffering; and the latter instincts are much more powerful than the former, because happiness is the supreme aim of all our actions and sentiments of love or hatred. For to what end do we shun death, or desire life, save to promote our well-being, and for fear of the contrary?
How then can it be unnatural to escape from suffering in the only way open to man, that is, by dying; since in life it can never be avoided? How, too, can it be true, that Nature forbids me to devote myself to death, which is undoubtedly a good thing, and to reject life, which is undoubtedly an evil and injurious thing, since it is a source of nothing but suffering to me?
Plotinus. These things do not persuade me that suicide is not unnatural. Have we not a strong instinctive horror of death? Besides, we never see brute beasts, which invariably follow the instincts of their nature (when not contrarily trained by man), either commit suicide, or regard death as anything but a condition to be struggled against, even in their moments of greatest suffering. In short, all men who commit this desperate act, will be found to have lived out of conformity to nature. They, on the contrary, who live naturally, would without exception reject suicide, if even the thought proposed itself to them.
- Well, if you like, I will admit that the action is contrary to nature. But what has that to do with it, if we ourselves do not conform to nature; that is, are no longer savages? Compare ourselves, for instance, with the inhabitants of India or Ethiopia, who are said to have retained their primitive manner and wild habits. You would scarcely think that these people were even of the same species as ourselves. This transformation of life, and change of manners and customs by civilization, has been accompanied, in my opinion, by an immeasurable increase of suffering. Savages never wish to commit suicide, nor does there imagination induce them to regard death as a desirable thing; whereas we who are civilised wish for it, and sometimes voluntarily seek it.
Now, if man be permitted to live unnaturally, and be consequently unhappy, why may he not also die unnaturally? For death is indeed the only way by which he can deliver himself from the unhappiness that results from civilization. Or, why not return to our primitive condition, and state of nature? Ah, we should find it almost impossible as far as mere external circumstances are concerned, and in the more important matters of the mind quite impossible. What is less natural than medicine? By this I mean surgery, and the use drugs. They are both ordinary used expressly to combat nature, and are quite unknown to brute beasts and savages. Yet, since the diseases they remedy are unnatural, and only occur in civilised countries, where people have fallen from their natural condition, these arts, being also unnatural, are highly esteemed and even indispensable. Similarly, suicide, which is a radical cure for the disease of despair, one of the outcomes of civilisation, must not be blamed because it is unnatural; for unnatural evils require unnatural remedies. It would indeed be hard and unjust that reason, which increases our misery by forcing us to go contrary to nature, should in this matter join hands with nature, and take from us our only remaining hope and refuge, and the only resource consistent with itself, and should force us to continue in our wretchedness.
The truth is this, Plotinus. Our primitive nature has departed from us for ever. Habit and reason have given us a new nature in place of the old one, to which we shall never return. Formerly, it was unnatural for men to commit suicide, or desire death. In the present day, both are natural. They conform to our new nature, which however, like the old one, still impels us to seek our happiness. And since death is our greatest good, is it remarkable that men should voluntarily seek it? For our reason tells us that death is not an evil, but, as the remedy for all evils, is the most desirable of things.
Now tell me: are all other actions of civilised men regulated by the standard of their primitive nature? If so, give me a single instance. No, it is our present and not our primitive nature, that interprets our action; in other words, it is our reason. Why then should suicide alone be judged unreasonably, and from the aspect of our primitive nature? Why should this latter, which has no influence over our life, control our death which rules our life? It is a fact, whether due to reason or our unhappiness, that in many people, especially those who are unfortunate and afflicted, the primitive hatred of death is extinguished, and even changed into desire and love, as I have said. Such love, though incompatible with our early nature, is a reality in the present day. We are also necessarily unhappy because we live unnaturally. It were therefore manifestly unreasonable to assert that the prohibition which forbade suicide in the primitive state should hold good. This seems to me sufficient justification of the deed. It remains to be proved whether or not it be useful.
Plotinus. Never mind that side of the question, my dear Porphyrius, because if the deed be permissible, I have no doubt of its extreme utility. But I will never admit that a forbidden and improper action can be useful. The matter really resolves itself into this: which is the better, to suffer or not to suffer? It is certain that most men would prefer suffering mixed with enjoyment, so ardently do we desire and thirst after joy. But this is beside the question, because enjoyment and pleasure, properly speaking, are as impossible as suffering is inevitable. I mean a suffering as continuous as our never satisfied desire for pleasure and happiness, and quite apart from the peculiar and accidental suffering which must infallibly be experienced by even the happiest of men. In truth, were we certain that in continuing to live, we should continue thus to suffer, we should have sufficient reason to prefer death to life; because existence does not contain a single genuine pleasure to compensate for such suffering, even if that were possible.
Porphyrius. It seems to me that ennui alone, and the fact that we cannot hope for an improved existence, are sufficiently cogent reasons to induce a desire for death, even though our condition be one of prosperity. And it is often a matter of surprise to me that we have no record of princes having committed suicide through ennui and weariness of their grandeur, like other men in lower stations of life. We read how Hegesias, the Cyrenaic, used to reason so eloquently about the miseries of life, that his auditors straightway went and committed suicide; for which reason he was called the “death persuader,” and was at length forbidden by Ptolemy to hold further discourse on the subject. Certain princes, it is true, have been suicides, amongst others Mithridates, Cleopatra, and Otho. But these all put an end to themselves to escape some peculiar evils, or from dread of an increase of misfortune. Princes are, I imagine, more liable than other men to feel a hatred of their condition, and to think favourably of suicide. For have they not reached the summit of what is called human happiness? They have nothing to hope for, because they have everything that forms a part of the so-called good things of this life. They cannot anticipate greater pleasure to-morrow than they have enjoyed to-day. Thus they are more unfortunately situated than all less exalted people. For the present is always sad and unsatisfactory; the future alone is a source of pleasure.
But be that as it may. We see that there is nothing to prevent men voluntarily quitting life, and preferring death, save the fear of another world. All other reasons are probably ill-founded. They are due to a wrong estimate, in comparing the advantages and evils of existence; and whoever at any time feels a strong attachment to life, or lives in a state of contentment, does so under a mistake, either of judgment, will, or even fact.
Plotinus. That is true, dear Porphyrius. But nevertheless, let me advise, nay implore, you to listen to the counsels of Nature rather than Reason. Follow the instincts of that primitive Nature, mother of us all, who, though she has manifested no affection for us in creating us for unhappiness, is a less bitter and cruel foe than our own reason, with its boundless curiosity, speculation, chattering, dream, ideas, and miserable learning. Besides, Nature has sought to diminish our unhappiness by concealing or disguising it from us as much as possible. And although we are greatly changed, and the power of nature within us is much lessened, we are not so altered but that much of our former manhood remains, and our primitive nature is not quite stifled within us. In spite of all our folly, it will never be otherwise. So, too, the mistaken view of life that you mention, although I admit that it is in reality palpably erroneous, will continue to prevail. It is held not only by idiots and the half-witted, but by clever, wise, and learned men, and always will be, unless the Nature that made us—and not man nor his reason—herself put an end to it. And I assure you that neither disgust of life, nor despair, nor the sense of the nullity of things, the vanity of all anxiety, and the insignificance of man, nor hatred of the world and oneself, are of long duration; although such dispositions of mind are perfectly reasonable, and the contrary unreasonable. For our physical condition changes momentarily in more or less degree; and often without any especial cause life endears itself to us again, and new hopes give brightness to human things, which once more seem worthy of some attention, not indeed from our understanding, but from what may be termed the higher senses of the intellect. This is why each of us, though perfectly aware of the truth, continues to live in spite of Reason, and conforms to the behavior of others; for our life is controlled by these senses, and not by the understanding.
Whether suicide be reasonable, or our compromise with life unreasonable, the former is certainly a horrible and inhuman action. It were better to follow Nature, and remain man, than act like a monster in following Reason. Besides, ought we not to give some thought to the friends, relatives, acquaintances, and people with whom we have been accustomed to live, and from whom we should thus separate for ever? And if the thought of such separation be nothing to us, ought we not to consider their feeling? They lose one whom they loved and respected; and the atrocity of his death enhances their grief. I know that the wise man is not easily moved, nor yields to pity and lamentation to a disquieting extent; he does not abase himself to the ground, shed tears immoderately, nor do other similar things unworthy of one who clearly understands the condition of humanity. But such fortitude of soul should be reserved for grievous circumstances that arise from nature, or are unavoidable; it is an abuse of fortitude to deprive ourselves for ever of the society and conversation of those who are dear to us. He is a barbarian, and not a wise man, who takes no account of the grief experienced by his friends, relations, and acquaintances. He who scarcely troubles himself about the grief his death would cause to his friends and family is selfish; he cares little for others, and all for himself. And truly, the suicide thinks only of himself. He desires nought but his personal welfare, and throws away all thought of the rest of the world. In short, suicide is an action of the most unqualified and sordid egotism, and is certainly the least attractive form of self-love that exists in the world.
Finally, my dear Porphyrius, the troubles and evils of life, although many and inevitable, when, as in your case, unaccompanied by grievous calamity or bodily infirmity, are after all easy to be borne, especially by a wise and strong man like yourself. And indeed, life itself is of so little importance, that man ought not to trouble himself much either to retain or abandon it; and, without thinking greatly about it, we ought to give the former instinct precedence over the latter.
If a friend begged you to do this why should you not gratify him?
Now I earnestly entreat you, dear Porphyrius, by the memory of our long friendship, put away this idea. Do not grieve your friends, who love you with such warm affection, and your Plotinus, who has no dearer nor better friend in the world. Help us to bear the burden of life, instead of leaving us without thought. Let us live, dear Porphyrius, and console each other. Let us not refuse our share of the suffering of humanity, apportioned to us by destiny. Let us cling to each other with mutual encouragement, and hand in hand strengthen one another better to bear the troubles of life. Our time after all will be short; and when death comes, we will not complain. In the last hour, our friends and companions will comfort us, and we shall be gladdened by the thought that after death we shall still live in their memory, and be loved by them.