Two Mediterranean Moralists Quotations

Baltasar Gracián / 1601–1658 / Aragón, Spain / Jesuit Priest, Novelist, Essayist, Aphorist

Note: All quotations are taken from Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia [The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion] (1647); also translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle (1892).


Do something well, and that is quickly enough.

Don’t live by generalities, unless it be to act virtuously, and don’t ask desire to follow precise laws, for you will have to drink tomorrow from the water you scorn today.


Honorable beginnings should serve to awaken curiosity, not to heighten people’s expectations. We are much better off when reality surpasses our expectations, and something turns out better than we thought it would


Complaints will always discredit you. 


When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see.


Not believing others implies that you yourself are deceitful. 


Many owe their greatness to their enemies. Flattery is fiercer than hatred, for hatred corrects the faults flattery had disguised.


Freedom is more precious than the gift that makes us lose it


Knowing how to keep a friend is more important than gaining a new one.


Because the ignorant do not know themselves, they never know for what they are lacking. Some would be sages if they did not believe they were so already.


If you cannot make knowledge your servant, make it your friend.


The one rule for pleasing: whet the appetite, keep people hungry.


Politeness and a sense of honor have this advantage: we bestow them on others without losing a thing.


Readiness is the mother of luck.


Some die because they feel everything, others because they feel nothing. Some are fools because they suffer no regrets, and others because they do.

Royal Confidant

To hear a prince’s secrets is not a privilege but a burden. Many smash the mirror that reminds them of their ugliness. 


The person who does not know how to put up with others should retire into himself, if indeed he can suffer even himself.


Some marry the first information they receive, and turn what comes later into their concubine. Since deceit is always first to arrive, there is no room left for truth.


To overvalue something is a form of lying.


Virtue alone is for real; all else is sham. Talent and greatness depend on virtue, not on fortune. Only virtue is sufficient unto herself. 


Those who want to look like hard workers give the impression that they aren’t up to their jobs.


Giacomo Leopardi / 1798–1837 / Marche, Papal States (now Italy) / Poet, Philologist, Essayist

Note: Many quotations are taken from Zibaldone [Hodge-Podge, or Miscellany], an enormous work composed between 1817 and 1832, first published in toto posthumously in 1898. Various compilations of extracts from the Zibaldone, in both Italian and English, are noted below.


. . . the 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.

Zibaldone, complete English version (2013).


Boredom is in some ways the most sublime of human feelings. . . . 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.

Pensieri [Thoughts], selection from the Zibaldone, published in 1837.


Children find everything in nothing, men find nothing in everything.

Zibaldone, complete English version (2013).


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.

Pensieri [Thoughts], selection from the Zibaldone, published in 1837.

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.

Passions, English selection from the Zibaldone (2014).


In every land the universal vices and ills of mankind and of human society are noted as peculiar to that place. . . . Men are wretched by necessity, and determined to believe themselves wretched by accident.

Pensieri [Thoughts], selection from the Zibaldone, published in 1837.

No one can truthfully boast or say in anger: I cannot be unhappier than I am.

Zibaldone, complete English version (2013).

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. 

Zibaldone, complete English version (2013).


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.

Zibaldone, complete English version (2013).

Leopardi’s Philosophy

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. . . . 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.

Pensieri [Thoughts], selection from the Zibaldone, published in 1837.


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

Zibaldone, complete English version (2013).

Purpose of Life

Icelander: . . . 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?

“Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese” [Dialogue Between Nature and an Icelander], composed in 1824 and collected in Operette Morali [Little Moral Essays], first published in 1827.

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.

“Cantico del gallo silvestre” [Song of the Wild Cock], composed in 1824 collected in Operette Morali [Little Moral Essays], first published in 1827.


Revenge is so sweet one often wishes to be insulted so as to be able to take revenge, and I don’t mean just by an old enemy, but anyone, or even (especially when in a really bad mood) by a friend.

Passions, English selection from the Zibaldone (2014).

Value of Existence

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.

Zibaldone, complete English version (2013).

Vision of Vesuvius

And you, gentle broom,
who adorn this despoiled countryside
with fragrant thickets,
you too will soon succumb to the cruel power
of the subterranean fire,
which returns to the place
it already knows, to stretch over your soft copses
its voracious tongue. And you’ll bow
beneath its mortal flow without a struggle
your innocent head:
but a head not bent in vain
cowardly begging before
a future oppressor; nor raised
with insane pride to the stars,
nor above the desert,
where your home and birthplace were
not through choice but chance:
far wiser and much less
fallible than man, since you never believed
that your frail species
could, by fate or yourself, become immortal.

“La Ginestra” [The Wild Broom], composed in 1836, and first published in the 1837 edition of Canti [Songs].