The OF Blog: "The question of whether suicide helps man or not"

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"The question of whether suicide helps man or not"

Currently reading (and sometimes thumbing through passages) the just-released English translation of 19th century Italian poet/writer Giacomo Leopardi's epic Zibaldone, a notebook of jotted-down thoughts and short essays and other assorted hodge-podges of thought.  Here is a lengthy quote taken from manuscript pages 2549-2552, which deals with suffering.  Here is the first part:

The question of whether suicide helps man or not (which is what knowing if it is reasonable or not, and can be chosen or not, comes down to) can be reduced to these simple terms.  Which of the two is better, suffering or not suffering?  As for pleasure, it is certain, [2550] immutable, and eternal that man in any condition of ife, even if he is happy according to the common definition, cannot feel it, since, as I have shown elsewhere [–>Z 532-35, 646-50], pleasure is always future, never present.  And just as, consequently, each man can be physically certain of never feeling any pleasure in his life, so, too, each can be certain of not spending a day without suffering, and the majority of men can be certain of not spending a day without suffering, and the majority of men can be certain of not spending a day without many serious sufferings, and some of not spending one without long-lasting and extremely serious sufferings (these are the so-called unhappy:  poor, incurably ill, etc. etc.).  Now I ask again, which is better, suffering or not suffering.  Certainly enjoyment, and maybe also enjoyment and suffering, would be better than simply not suffering (since nature and self-love propel us and carry us so strongly toward enjoyment that enjoyment and suffering is more pleasant than not being and not suffering, and, by not being, being unable to enjoy), but since enjoyment is impossible for man, it remains necessarily and naturally [2551] excluded from the whole question.  And we conclude that since not suffering is more helpful to man than suffering, and since he cannot live without suffering, it is mathematically true and certain that absolute not being is more beneficial and more fitting to man than being.  And that being is, precisely, harmful to man.   And therefore anyone who lives (if you take away religion) lives because of a pure formal error of calculation:  I mean the calculation of utility.  An error multiplied as many times as there are instants in our life, in each of which we prefer living to not living.  And we prefer it in fact no less than in intention, in desire, and in the mind's more or less deliberate, more or less tacit and implicit discourse.  An effect of self-love, deceived as in many other bad choices that it makes by thinking of them from the point of view of good, and the greatest good that is proper to it in those [2552] circumstances.

– Quoted from p. 1069 of the Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino translation of Zibaldone  
I am going to have to think on this some while before providing my thoughts (plus I should note that Leopardi continues for another book page on this topic; this is a preface of sorts), but I think this quote should underscore why Leopardi's Zibaldone (just only now being translated in full into English) is an important work even in the early 21st century, nearly two centuries after the author's early death.

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