Books Europe

Rx for America: Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues

Photograph of The Little Virtues by Natlaia Ginzburg

I first read Natalia Ginzburg’s essay collection, The Little Virtues, in a class on post-World-War-II Italian literature during a college semester abroad in Venice. It felt like the first time I had really discovered a writer as an adult reader, despite the fact that Ginzburg was assigned reading. She resonated deeply, especially the last and eponymous essay in the book, in which Ginzburg gives parenting advice on, among other things, the subject of money. The thrust of the piece is that we tend to focus on little virtues at the expense of the great ones, like thrift over generosity. The problem here, Ginzburg points out, is that “the great can also contain the little, but by the laws of nature there is no way that the little can contain the great.”

Even then, thirty years ago, I thought I probably wouldn’t have kids (I didn’t), so my smittenness with the essay wasn’t over the idea of saving nuggets of wisdom for my future as a mother. Rather I was struck by how at odds Ginzburg’s advice was with what I had gotten from my own parents, and how much her advice made sense. 

For example, Ginzburg writes “As soon as our children begin to go to school we promise them money as a reward if they do well in their lessons. This is a mistake. In this way we mix money—which is an ignoble thing—with learning and the pleasures of knowledge, which are admirable and worthy things.” I had been rewarded for scholastic achievement starting in the fourth grade when I was paid to memorize multiplication tables, all the way up to a $2,500 check at the end of grad school.

I wasn’t particularly mad at my parents for what I deemed their deficiencies at parenting (although being nineteen, I was judgmental), but rather I think that in reading Ginzburg some part of me opened up to the idea of reading as a way to perpetually parent yourself. I still feel that way about books at forty-eight, and I don’t mean self-help, but mostly memoirs and non-fiction and especially novels, which somehow have a way of using fiction to get at the truest things. For this, her role in making me a lifelong reader, Ginzburg will always hold a special place on the shelves of my heart and home, where I have two copies of The Little Virtues, the better to always have one near at hand.

Periodically something will happen that reminds me of the wisdom of The Little Virtues. Last year it was the occasion of my niece’s thirteenth birthday. She badly wanted a MacBook Pro, and in the months ahead of her birthday started a lobbying campaign with her grandmother (my mother) and me. 

She knew better than to ask for the laptop as a gift outright—too extravagant by the norms of birthday gifts in our family—so a couple months before her birthday, she sent my mother a letter with a plan for how she could save up for it, taking into account the money she would receive from my parents for good grades (old habits die hard). 

In follow-up calls she planted the suggestion that we might be inclined to contribute to her MacBook-Pro fund as a birthday gift, thus accelerating the realization of her well-thought-out plan. I was onboard, and I was going to suggest to my sister and mother that we all pitch in and give my niece, say, $500 between us to help her reach her goal. But then the spirit of Ginzburg seized me and I decided to just buy her the laptop. I could afford it comfortably, as could my parents and my niece’s parents. Why was the norm of our family not to buy it?

As Ginzburg writes, “moderation in the midst of wealth is pure fiction, and fiction always leads to bad habits. In this way he [a child] will only learn to be greedy and afraid of money…the true indifference to wealth is an indifference to money. There is no better way to teach a child this indifference than to give him money to spend when there is money—because then he will learn to part with it without worrying about it or regretting it.”

In the end, the laptop was not mine to give. I called my sister and her wife with the intent of telling them I would buy the MacBook only to find out they had already bought her a Chromebook for the occasion. It was a well-researched choice, a fancy Chromebook as Chromebooks go, and quite the find in that particular era of the pandemic when laptops and tablets of all sorts were scarce. I was asked to enliven it with gifts of a mouse and stylus which I did, but silently worried about my niece’s potential disappointment. I couldn’t help thinking back to my own parents’ similar displays of frugality, like the time they gave us an Odyssey game console instead of the longed-for Atari. 

When my niece’s birthday arrived and the family Zoomed for the opening of presents, the tantrum I feared never arrived. Her reaction was largely one of gratitude with a hint of indifference. Would it have been radically different if she had received the MacBook Pro? I don’t know, but I do know that if I had bought it for her, I would have been disappointed if she had reacted with the same detachment. 

My desire to follow Ginzburg’s advice to be “moderate with oneself and generous with others” was pure, but my own hang-ups with money lingered. Ours was never, as Ginzburg described, “a family in which money is earned and immediately spent, in which it flows like clear spring water and practically does not exist as money.” Instead, ours was a home where my father constantly had CNN on mute to monitor the stock ticker, where money existed sometimes “heavily, where it is a leaden stagnant pool that stinks and gives off vapours,” and my schemed generosity had been tainted with the whiff of my own bullshit in the form of expectation. Just as well that my plan had been averted.

More recently I thought of Ginzburg when watching Fran Lebowitz kvetch on the Netflix documentary, Pretend It’s a City. In episode 4, Lebowitz explains to Scorsese, “There’s only two kinds of people in the world: the kind of people who think there’s such a thing as enough money and the kind of people who have money.”

I am definitely the kind of person who thinks there is such a thing as enough money, and with the not-so-small exception of worrying about how I will pay for healthcare in America for the rest of my life, I feel like I have enough money. In the days after the 2020 presidential election, Roxane Gay touched on this same divide among Americans in an opinion piece in The New York Times, writing:

“The United States is not at all united. We live in two countries. In one, people are willing to grapple with racism and bigotry. We acknowledge that women have a right to bodily autonomy, that every American has a right to vote and the right to health care and the right to a fair living wage. We understand that this is a country of abundance and that the only reason economic disparity exists is because of a continued government refusal to tax the wealthy proportionally.

The other United States is committed to defending white supremacy and patriarchy at all costs. Its citizens are the people who believe in QAnon conspiracy theories and take Mr. Trump’s misinformation as gospel. They see America as a country of scarcity, where there will never be enough of anything to go around, so it is every man and woman for themselves.”

What struck me most in these two paragraphs was the insight into our polarization stemming from one’s fundamental view of America as a country of abundance or scarcity, and how as Lebowitz suggested, this point of view doesn’t necessarily correspond with how much money you actually have. We have all read the narrative about Trump voters being the economically deprived who neoliberalism forgot. But we also know that plenty of rich, educated white people voted for him, not once but twice.

Two places where the discrepancy between the abundance and scarcity mindset shows up in policy disputes is college debt and healthcare. The idea of cancelling college debt rankles people, particularly those who were burdened with it and paid if off. It is not fair: about this they are correct. But on this point I am reminded of Ginzburg’s argument for why we should not reward children for good grades. 

“…I think we should be very cautious about promising and providing rewards and punishments. Because life rarely has its rewards and punishments; usually sacrifices have no reward, and often evil deeds go unpunished, at times they are even richly rewarded with success and money. Therefore it is best that our children should know from infancy that good is not rewarded that that evil goes unpunished; yet they must love good and hate evil, and it is not possible to give any logical explanation for this.”

(I can’t help but think of current events at the time of writing this, namely Marjorie Taylor Greene, an antisemitic conspiracy theorist who is newly elected to Congress and who, in the face of reporting on some of her lunatic rhetoric, was apparently rewarded with a slew of campaign contributions. The fact that Ginzburg’s father was Jewish, that she was married to an anti-fascist who was tortured and murdered in a prison in Rome in 1944 for being an anti-fascist, and that she later served in the Italian parliament makes this even more jarring.) 

In other words, not cancelling college debt because it’s “not fair” is beside the point, a prime example of mistaking a little virtue for the great one. (And if we want to argue in little virtues, we can look to Germany, which funds college tuition for everyone, even foreigners, because it knows it has a declining birth rate and funding skilled workers is in its best economic interests for the future.)

The same can be said for the line of reasoning that reckons other people’s illnesses are not their financial responsibility and therefore are not in favor of universal healthcare. And yet many of the same people will donate to a GoFundMe for medical bills of somebody, often a stranger, with a financially ruinous illness. The difference between this and voting for candidates who support universal healthcare is that the narrative in the GoFundMe gives the benefactor the illusion of both fairness—the victim seemingly verifiably didn’t deserve this, whereas with universal healthcare maybe the person who is sick smoked or abused drugs—and the feeling of beneficence. Like me and the MacBook Pro for my niece, we need to be appreciated for our generosity. Taxes to fund healthcare just don’t give us that same warm, fuzzy feeling.

One of the criticisms leveled at America by “old world” countries is that we are literal babies, a country less than 250 years old. Our insistence on adhering to a narrative of fairness in a world where history has proven century after century that this is not the case is one way we show our immaturity. The task before us now is to “love good and hate evil,” to side with the great virtues instead of the little ones, lest we permanently become a country of little virtue. We must grow up, and we must parent ourselves. Truth and facts and knowledge still exist, much of it recorded in books. Reading Ginzburg is one way to start.

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