A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.
Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
The “wisdom of age” or what we can learn about human nature and culture through the experience of individuals across thousands of years of history can teach us how to meditate, to reflect, in a word how to think. Let’s take Leopardi for example: as a poet he was a master, one of the most famous of the Italian literature, but as a thinker he is only a little less powerful; he belongs in the history of thought as a follower of Rousseau and a forerunner of Nietzsche and many others. To combine these two forms of intellectual achievement is surpassingly rare, as Leopardi himself knew. “Truly remarkable and lofty minds that scoff at precepts and warnings and scarcely care about the impossible,” he wrote, “can overcome any obstacle and be supreme modern philosophers able to write perfect poetry. But because this phenomenon borders on the impossible, it cannot help but be very rare and singular.” He was also a prodigious scholar of classical literature and philosophy, and a voracious reader in numerous ancient and modern languages. For most of his writing career, he kept an immense notebook, known as the Zibaldone, or “hodge-podge,” as Harold Bloom has called it, in which Leopardi put down his original, wide-ranging, radically modern responses to his reading. His comments about religion, philosophy, language, history, anthropology, astronomy, literature, poetry, and love are unprecedented in their brilliance and suggestiveness, and the Zibaldone, which was only published at the turn of the twentieth century, has been recognized as one of the foundational books of modern culture.
The laboratory of Leopardi’s mature thought was in fact the notebook he began to keep in 1817, when he was nineteen years old. Over the next six years, the same years in which he was writing some of his greatest poems, he filled more than four thousand pages, ranging from brief notes to long draft essays. By the end of 1823, the notebook was mostly complete, and Leopardi returned to it only occasionally; the last entry is dated 1832, and he died in 1837. Two thirds of the whole notebook, more than three thousand manuscript pages, were written in just two years, 1821 and 1823. In these years, living in his parents’ home and with no profession of his own, Leopardi returned to his notebook many times a day, barely able to keep up with the rush of his own insights.
The Zibaldone is emphatically not a diary; it tells us nothing about the writer’s daily life or, except indirectly, about his inner emotional weather. But once in a while Leopardi describes, usually abstractly and in the third person, the mood out of which his intellectual discoveries grow: suffering or despair that arises … from any misfortune in life is not comparable to the drowning feeling that results from the certainty and vivid sense of the nothingness of all things, and the impossibility of happiness in this world, and from the immense void you feel in your soul…. The death produced directly by misfortunes is a more living thing, whereas this death is more sepulchral, without action, without movement, without warmth, almost without pain, but with a boundless oppression and distress like that provoked by the fear of ghosts in childhood or by the idea of hell.
That’s why one of the most effective ways to create valuable speech and writing is to use quotations by influential people, because the “wisdom of ages” as Mills taught us it is best and most naturally embodied in the form of quotes, aphorisms and thoughts. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. President, once said, “I not only use all the brains I have, but all that I can borrow.” The same meaning of that other quote by the Latin poet Marcus Lucan who wrote: “Pygmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves.” Jim Rohn, a well-known success coach and motivational speaker, suggests, “Don’t be afraid to borrow if someone else has said it well. Winston Churchill said, ‘The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it and ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.’ That’s so well said. You could stay up all night and not think of that.”
The American author and lawyer, Christian Nevell Bovee, observed this about quotations many decades ago: “Next to being witty yourself, the best thing is being able to quote another’s wit.”
Isaac D’Israeli, the British historian, commented, “The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, may be preserved by quotation.” The French philosopher and essayist, Michel Eyquem De Montaigne, said in the 16th century, “I quote others in order to better express myself.” The famous American essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, declared, “Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it. Many will read the book before one thinks of quoting a passage. As soon as he has done this, that line will be quoted east and west.”
Henry W. Fowler, the British lexicographer, suggested, “Quotation… A writer, or speaker, expresses himself in words that have been used before because they give his meaning better than he can give it himself, or because they are beautiful or witty, or because he expects them to touch a cord of association in his reader, or because he wishes to show that he is learned and well read.”