Saturday, May 08, 2004

An Aphorism of Giacomo Leopardi and a Comment

Giacomo Leopardi (1798 – 1837) was just a name to me until Michael Gilleland inspired me to read some of his work. Here is an aphorism from Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri, Bilingual Edition, trans. W. S. Di Piero (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. 105:

Men are shamed by the insults they receive, not by those they inflict. So the only way to shame people who insult us is to pay them back in kind.

The only way? This ignores a second way, namely, by turning the other cheek. In some circumstances, this is the most effective way to shame the aggressor. Recognizing this, Nietzsche has Zarathustra say,

But if you have an enemy, do not requite him evil with good, for that would put him to shame. Rather prove that he did you some good. (Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche,Viking Press, 1968, p. 180.)

Now I can’t be sure, but I would not be surprised if these lines from “The Adder’s Bite” in the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra were written with Leopardi’s aphorism in mind. According to Di Piero in his Introduction to Pensieri, Nietzsche ranked Leopardi as “the greatest stylist of
the century.” (p. 1)

But there is a second problem with Leopardi’s aphorism. If you insult me, and I insult you back, you are more likely to feel justified in having insulted me in the first place rather than to feel shamed. In addition, you may feel that a further insult is called for to answer mine. Being perverse, human beings rarely take repayment in kind as settling the matter. If Hamas orchestrates a murderous attack on Israeli noncombatants, and the IDF responds with a
counterstrike against Hamas combatants, the latter never consider that the score has been settled.

To read more aphorisms by Leopardi and others from Gilleland’s collection, go here and here.