Dante: Convivio (The Banquet)

Book I

© Copyright 2008 A. S. Kline, All Rights Reserved

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Contents


Chapter I: The Nature of the Banquet

As Aristotle states at the commencement of his Metaphysics, all men by nature desire to know. The reason for this is that everything, impelled by the force of its own nature, inclines towards perfection of itself; therefore, since knowledge is the ultimate perfection of our spirit, in which our ultimate happiness lies, we are all by nature bound to desire it. However, many are deprived of this most noble of perfections for various reasons lying within man, and outside him, which prevent him from forming the habit of seeking knowledge.

Within man there exist two defects and impediments: one appertaining to the body, the other to the spirit. The defect of body occurs when its parts do not function correctly, so that it cannot receive anything, as with the deaf, the dumb, and such like. That of the spirit occurs when evil conquers it, so that it follows vicious pleasures, by which it is so deceived that through it everything becomes vile. Similarly two causes outside of man can be identified, one of which condemns him to duty, the other to idleness. The first is domestic and civic responsibility, which properly engages most men, so that they have no time for contemplation. The other is the defect arising from the location where someone is born and raised, which often not only lacks all places of learning, but is distant from educated people.

Two of these defects, the first within man and the first outside him, are not a reason for criticism, but are deserving of excuse and pardon; the other two merit our censure and scorn, though one more than the other. Anyone who reflects deeply can plainly see that there are few who can attain to that habit of knowledge desired by all, while those who live deprived forever of this nourishment are innumerable. Oh, blessed are the few who sit at that table where the bread of angels is eaten! And wretched are those who must graze along with the sheep!

But since every man is by nature a friend towards every other, and every friend is grieved by a defect in one he loves, those who are fed at so noble a table are not without pity for those they see grazing on grass and acorns where the animals pasture. And since pity is the mother of generosity, those who have knowledge always give freely of their great riches to the truly impoverished, and are like a living fountain with whose waters the natural thirst referred to above is quenched. So I who do not sit at the table of the blessed, I who have fled the common pasture, and merely gather a part of what falls at the feet of those who do sit there, and know the wretched life of those I have left behind by the sweetness I taste in what I gather piecemeal, and am moved by compassion for all, including myself, I then have reserved for the wretched those poems which I set before their eyes a while ago to stimulate their desire.

Wishing to lay the table, I intend to present a communal banquet of what I showed them, with the bread of commentary that must accompany such poetic meat, and without which it could not be eaten. And this banquet, deserving of such bread, offers meat which I do not intend to serve in vain. And therefore I’d have none there whose organs are badly served because they lack teeth, tongue or palate; nor any addicted to vice, with stomachs so full of poisonous and unbalanced humours that they would be unable to retain my meat. But come all whose hunger arises from domestic or civic duty, and sit at the table with those similarly affected; and let all those sit at their feet who are not worthy through idleness of a higher place; and let both eat of my meat and bread, for I wish them to both taste and digest it. The meat at this banquet will be prepared in fourteen ways, in fourteen canzoni that is of love and virtue, which lacking bread were to some degree obscure, so that for many their beauty pleased more than their goodness. But the bread, that is, the present explanation, will be a light to make visible ever shade of their meaning.

If the matter is treated more maturely, as I wish, in this work, the Convivio, than it was in the Vita Nuova, I do not wish to disparage the latter in any way, but to give it greater support by this work; seeing that it was appropriate for it to be ardent and passionate, and for this to be mature and temperate. It is right to speak and act differently according to one’s age, since certain manners are laudable and fitting at one age that are blameworthy and inappropriate at another, as I will show later in the fourth book. I wrote the former work at the threshold of youth, and this when I had passed beyond it. And since aspects of my true meaning were other than that which the canzoni I mentioned show, I intend to reveal them by allegorical exposition, after giving a literal account; so that both may be savoured by those invited to this feast. I ask all for whom this banquet fails to match the splendour of their desire, to attribute every defect to my capability and not to my will; since it is my wish to be wholly and lovingly generous.

Chapter II: Speaking about Oneself

At the commencement of every well-run banquet the servants normally take the bread set out, and cleanse it of any impurity. So I, who play their role in the present work, intend first of all to remove two impurities from this exposition, which forms the bread I am serving. The first is that to speak of oneself seems impermissible; the second that to expound things in too much depth seems unreasonable; and the knife of my argument must remove both the impermissible and the unreasonable.

The rhetoricians forbid anyone to speak of themselves except of necessity, and the reason for this restriction is that one cannot avoid praising or criticizing the person about whom one speaks, and such things are coarse, when spoken of self, on anyone’s lips. And to dispel a doubt that arises here, I say it is worse to criticize than to praise, though neither should be indulged. The reason is that anything blameworthy in itself is worse than something which is so only by accident. To disparage oneself is blameworthy in itself, since one should tell a friend of his faults in private, and no one is a greater friend than a man is to himself; so that one should reprimand oneself and sorrow over one’s defects in the chamber of one’s own thought, and not publicly.

Then, a person is not usually blamed for being unable or ignorant of how to behave properly, but always for being unwilling to do so, because good and evil are judged by our willingness or unwillingness; therefore he who criticizes himself shows that he endorses his faults, endorses his lack of virtue: thus criticizing oneself is, of itself, to be rejected. Praising oneself is to be avoided only as an accidental ill, since one cannot praise oneself without it being mostly blame. It is surface praise, but blame to him who looks beneath: for words are made to reveal what is unknown; and he who praises himself shows that he does not think himself valued, which implies a bad conscience, which he discloses in praising himself, and by disclosing it criticizes himself.

Then, self-praise and self-criticism are to be avoided for the same reason as giving false testimony; since no one can truly take their own measure truly and justly, so greatly does self-love deceive. Everyone measures themselves like a dishonest trader who buys with one measure and sells with another; since everyone uses a large measure for his bad deeds, and a short measure for his good ones, so that number, weight and size of the good seem greater than if a true measure was used, and lesser in the case of the bad. So, in speaking of oneself, with praise or its opposite, one either speaks falsely concerning the matter one talks of, or falsely regarding its importance, which covers both cases. And then, since silence signifies consent, he who praises or blames someone to their face acts discourteously, since the person addressed can neither agree or disagree without falling into the error of self-blame or self-praise: except when punishment is merited, and it cannot be exercised without reproving the error to be corrected, or when honour and praise are deserved, and they cannot be given without mention of virtuous deeds and honours virtuously won.

To return, however, to the main topic, I say that, as touched on above, speaking of oneself, of necessity, is allowed: and among the cases of necessity two are obvious. One is when great infamy or danger cannot be avoided except by doing so; and then nit is permitted, because to follow the lesser of two evils is equivalent to following the good. This necessity is what moved Boethius to speak of himself, so that under the guise of his Consolation he could defend himself against the endless infamy of his exile, and show it to be unjust, since no other defender presented himself. The other is when, by speaking of oneself, great benefit accrues to another by way of education; and this is what moved Augustine in his Confessions to speak of himself, because through the progress of his life from bad to good, good to better, and better to best, he provided an example and instruction which only true testimony such as his could give.

Now, if these two reasons provide a justification, the bread from my wheat is sufficiently cleansed of the first impurity. Fear of discredit moves me, and a desire moves me to give that instruction which others truly cannot give. I fear discredit for having yielded to the great passion, which anyone who reads the canzoni mentioned above will see as having once ruled me; which infamy will cease utterly if I speak of myself and show that the driving force was not passion but virtue. I intend to show also the true meaning of the canzoni, which none will see if I do not reveal it, because it is hidden beneath a veil of allegory: and doing so will not only bring delight to the ear, but useful instruction concerning this mode of speech and the understanding of similar works.

Chapter III: Detailed Exposition: Fame’s Effect

That action is deserving of severe censure which introduces the defect it seeks to remove; as if one sent to end a quarrel begins another before doing so. And now my bread has been cleansed on one side, I must cleanse it on the other to escape such censure, since this writing, which can almost be called a commentary, is intended to eliminate the defect of obscurity in the canzoni mentioned above, and this may prove in part somewhat difficult. The difficulties are intentional in order to avoid a greater defect, and are not due to lack of thought. Ah, if only it had pleased the Maker of the Universe for the cause of my apology never to have existed! Since others would not have sinned against me and I would not have suffered an unjust punishment: that of exile and poverty.

Since it pleased the citizens of Florence, the most beautiful and famous daughter of Rome, to cast me from her sweet bosom – where I was born and nurtured to maturity, and where, with her goodwill, and with all my heart, I desire to rest my weary mind, and end the span of life given to me – I have wandered, like a beggar almost, through virtually all the regions where our language holds sway, displaying against my will the wounds of fate, for which the wounded man is often unjustly held accountable. Truly, I have been a ship without sail and without rudder, carried to various harbours, bays and shores by the dry wind of grievous poverty; and I have been seen by many who perhaps because of some report imagined me as other than I am, such that not only was my person held in low esteem, but all my works were valued less, those done as well as those yet to come. The reason why this happens – not just to me, but to everyone – I wish to touch on briefly: it is firstly because fame alters things with respect to their truth; and then because proximity diminishes them in the same respect.

A fine reputation is principally created by fine thoughts in the mind of a friend, and is first born from them; for the mind of one inimical, though it receives the seed, does not conceive. The mind which first gives it birth, to make its gift fairer, and out of love for the friend who will receive it, does not keep within the confines of truth, but goes beyond them. When the mind exceeds them so as to embellish what it says, it acts against conscience; when it exceeds them in an error arising from love, it does not act so. A second mind, receiving what has been said, is not content merely with the excesses of the first, but seeks to embellish it in report, as if it were of its own making; and so much so that through this action and the error born of love, it swells a reputation beyond what it first was, like the first mind, whether in accord or discordant with conscience. A third mind receiving it does the same, and a fourth, and so it is endlessly inflated. And so, by taking the opposite motive to that mentioned above, one sees the cause of poor reputation, which is distorted in the same manner. Thus Virgil says, in the fourth book of the Aeneid, that Fame thrives on movement and gains by circulation. Anyone can clearly see that the image formed by fame is always greater, no matter what kind of fame it is, than the true state of the thing imagined.

Chapter IV: Detailed Exposition: Proximity’s Effect

Having shown the reason why fame extends good and evil beyond their true dimensions, it remains for this chapter to present reasons to show why proximity by contrast diminishes them; and having shown them, to move swiftly to the back to the main topic, that is, my excuse for the defect mentioned above.

There are three reasons why a person’s presence makes him seem less worthy than he truly is: the first of these is immaturity, not of age but of mind; the second is envy – and these two reside in the one making the judgement – the third is human imperfection, and this is an attribute of the one being judged.

The first, immaturity, can be discussed briefly as follows. The majority of men live through the senses, like children, and not according to reason; as such they understand things only simply, by their exterior, and the goodness within things, which is ordained to a proper end, they do not see, because the eye of reason is closed which penetrates to sight of it. Thus they quickly see all that they can, and judge according to their sight. And since they only form their opinion of another’s fame by hearsay, which opinion clashes, in that person’s presence, with their imperfect judgement, since it judges by the senses only and not by reason, they regard what they have previously heard as a lie and disparage the person they previously valued. So for these people, who, alas, comprise almost all humanity, proximity diminishes every quality. Such people are quickly charmed and quickly sated, are often happy or sad in brief delight or sorrow, quick to make friends, and quick to become enemies; doing everything like children, without the aid of reason.

The second, envy, can be dealt with in this way: that in the vicious apparent equality causes envy, and envy is a cause of poor judgement, because it prevents reason from arguing on behalf of whoever is envied, and the power of judgement is then like a judge who only hears one side. So when people like these meet a famous person, they are immediately envious, because they see similar limbs and faculties to their own, and fear, because of the excellence of that person, that they will be less valued. And not only do those filled with passion judge badly but, by denigrating those they judge, cause others to judge badly too; so for these people proximity diminishes the good and bad in everyone presented to them; and I say bad, because many people, delighting in bad deeds, are envious of wrongdoers.

The third is human imperfection, which applies to the person who is judged, and is not apparent without some familiarity and intimacy with him. As evidence of this, we know that humanity is imperfect in many respects, and, as Augustine says, no one is without imperfection. Sometimes a man is marked by a passion he cannot withstand; sometimes by some physical deformity; sometimes by a stroke of misfortune; and sometimes by the notoriety of his parents or someone close to him. Fame does not carry these things about with it, but proximity does, revealing them by intimacy. And these blemishes cast a shadow on the brightness of virtue, so that they make it seem duller and less worthy, That is the reason every prophet is honoured less in his own country; that is the reason why a virtuous man should allow few into his presence, and be intimate with still fewer, so that his name is known, but not devalued. This third cause applies to evil as well as good, if each stage in the argument addresses that opposite. So it is clearly seen, that through imperfection, which no one is free of, proximity diminishes the good and bad in everyone more than truth warrants.

Thus, as I said above, I have met nearly everyone of note in Italy, so that I have made myself appear less than the truth warrants, not only to those who were already aware of my fame, but others also, so that doubtless my works as well as my person are made light of. Therefore it is appropriate for me to add weight to this present work, by means of a nobler style, so that it may evidence greater authority. And this should be enough to excuse the difficulties of my commentary.

Chapter V: The Vernacular: Sovereignty

Now the bread is cleared of its accidental impurities, it remains to excuse one of substance; that is, its being in the vernacular and not in Latin; speaking metaphorically, that it is made of oats and not of the finest wheat. Briefly it is excusable for three reasons, which led me to choose the one language rather than the other: the first arises from caution, in not creating an inappropriate relationship; the second from zealous generosity; and the third from natural love of the native tongue. And I intend to comment on these three points individually and in turn, so as to counter any objection made on the above basis.

What most adorn and commend human action, and lead it to a good end by the most direct route, are habitual traits of character directed to the intended end, as, for example, boldness of mind and strength of body directed towards chivalry. And thus anyone who is set to serve another must have traits directed to that end, such as submissiveness, understanding and obedience, without which a man is not equipped to serve well. For if he is not submissive in all his functions, he will always carry out his service with effort and strain and will rarely persist in it; and if he fails to understand his master’s needs and is not obedient, he will serve only in accord with his own will and judgement, which is to serve rather as a friend than as a servant. So, to avoid an inappropriate relationship, it is right that this commentary, which plays the role of a servant to the canzoni which follow later, should be subject to them in all its functions and recognise the needs of its superiors and obey them.

These traits would be lacking if it were in Latin and not the vernacular, since the canzoni are in the vernacular. In the first place it would not have been subject to them but sovereign over them, due to its nobility, virtue and beauty. Nobility: because Latin is everlasting and incorruptible, while the vernacular is unstable and corruptible. Thus in the ancient Latin tragedies and comedies, which cannot alter, we find the same Latin as we have now; this is not the case with the vernacular, which, fashioned to our liking, undergoes change. So, in the last fifty years, in the cities of Italy, if we care to look closely, many words have become obsolete, been created, or been altered; if such a short time can alter things, what can a longer time not do. Thus I say that if those who departed this life a thousand years ago were to visit their city again, they would consider it under foreign occupation, the language would be so different from their own. This will be discussed elsewhere in a book I intend to write on Eloquence in the Vernacular.

Then, Latin would have been not subject but sovereign because of its virtue. All is virtuous in nature which fulfils the purpose towards which it is directed; and the better it does this the more virtuous it is. So we call a man virtuous who lives the contemplative or active life to which he is naturally ordained; we say a horse has virtue which runs fast and far, and is constituted so to do; and we say a sword has virtue which is so constituted as to cut through hard objects easily. Thus language, which is constituted so as to express human thought, has virtue when it does this, and the more completely it does so the more virtue it possesses; therefore, since Latin expresses many things that the mind conceives while the vernacular cannot, as those conversant in both languages know, its virtue is greater than that of the vernacular.

And then, Latin would have been not subject but sovereign because of its beauty. Men call a thing beautiful when its parts correspond fittingly, since their harmony results in beauty. So a man appears beautiful when his limbs are in proportion; and we call a song beautiful when its voices harmonise according to the rules of art. And it follows that the most beautiful language is that in which the words agree most perfectly; and they agree more perfectly in Latin than in the vernacular, because while the vernacular is established through usage, Latin follows art; consequently we deem Latin more beautiful, more virtuous and nobler. This concludes my main point: that is, that Latin would have been not subject to my canzoni but sovereign over them.

Chapter VI: The Vernacular: Understanding

Having shown how the present commentary would not have been subject to the vernacular canzoni if it had been in Latin, it remains to show how it would not have comprehended them nor have been responsive to them; so that we can reach conclusion that it was essential to use the vernacular to avoid creating an inappropriate relationship. I say that Latin would not have served a vernacular master with comprehension for the following reason. The servant is required to comprehend two things perfectly.

The first is the nature of his master. Now there are masters of so stupid a nature that they request the opposite of what they desire, and others who expect to be understood without uttering a word, and others who do not wish the servant to act as necessary unless ordered to so. I don’t intent to explain now why there are these differences among men (as it would form too long a digression) except to say that in general such men are like the beasts, who gain little from use of reason. If the servant does not understand his master’s nature, it is clear that he cannot serve him effectively.

The second is that the servant must understand his master’s friends, since otherwise he could not honour or serve them, and in consequence could not serve his master perfectly; for friends are like parts of the whole, since wholeness consists in willing as one and not willing as one.

The Latin commentary could not have comprehended those things which the vernacular does. That Latin does not understand the vernacular and its allies is demonstrated as follows. He who knows something in general does not know it perfectly, just as someone who identifies a creature from a distance recognises it imperfectly since he does not know if it is dog, wolf, or goat. Latin comprehends the vernacular in general, but not in particular, for if it understood it in particular it would recognise each of the vernaculars, having no reason to recognise one more than another. Thus anyone having perfect knowledge of Latin would be able to understand any particular vernacular. But this is not the case, since a person with perfect knowledge of Latin cannot thereby distinguish, if he is from Italy, the English vernacular from the German; nor if he is a German, the Italian vernacular from the Provençal. Thus it is clear that Latin does not comprehend the vernacular.

Furthermore it does not comprehend its allies, since it is impossible to understand someone’s friends without understanding that person; thus, if Latin does not comprehend the vernacular, as shown above, it cannot know its allies. And then, without familiarity and intimacy it is impossible to know people, and Latin is employed less between people in any one country than is the vernacular, with which all are allied; consequently it cannot comprehend all the friends of that vernacular. There is no contradiction in stating, as one might, that Latin nevertheless is allied with certain friends of the vernacular; since, that still does not give it familiarity with all of them, and so its friends are not comprehended perfectly, and it is perfect and not defective knowledge that we require.

Chapter VII: The Vernacular: Obedience

Having demonstrated why a Latin commentary would not have been an understanding servant, I will say why it would not have shown obedience. He is obedient who possesses that favourable disposition which is called obedience. True obedience requires three things without which it cannot exist: it should show sweetness, and not bitterness; should be wholly subservient and not wilful; and should be measured and not beyond measure. These three things a Latin commentary could not have possessed, and therefore it could not show obedience. That this would have been impossible for Latin, as has been said, is clarified by the following argument.

Everything that progresses inversely is disagreeable, and consequently tastes bitter and not sweet, such as to sleep during the day and lie awake all night, or to walk backwards and not forwards. For the subject to command the sovereign is to progress inversely (since the correct process is for the sovereign to command the servant); thus it tastes bitter and not sweet. And since it is impossible to obey a bitter command sweetly, it is impossible for the sovereign to obey sweetly if the subject commands. Thus, if Latin is sovereign over the vernacular, as has been shown variously above, and yet the canzoni which play the commanding role are in the vernacular, it is impossible for Latin to show sweet obedience.

Then obedience is entirely subservient and in now way wilful when the person obeying would not have acted without being commanded to do so, wholly or in part. Thus if I am ordered to don two robes, and wear only one without being so commanded, I would say that my response is not wholly the result of being commanded but partly wilful. Such would the response of a Latin commentary have been, and consequently it would not have been wholly the result of being commanded. That such would have been the case is apparent from this: that without being so directed by its master, Latin would have exposed many alternative meanings – and it does so, as he who carefully examines works in Latin knows – which the vernacular in no way contained.

Then, obedience is measured and not beyond measure when it acts within the bounds of what is commanded and not beyond them, just as individual nature obeys universal nature when it endows a man with thirty-two teeth, neither more nor less; and man obeys the nature of justice when he makes a wrongdoer pay his debt to society, to the degree, neither more nor less, that justice demands. Latin would not have done this, and would have sinned not only through deficiency or excess, but through both; and so its obedience would not have been measured, but beyond measure, and consequently it would not have been perfectly obedient.

That Latin would not have fulfilled its master’s command, and would have exceeded it is easily shown. The masters that is the canzoni to which this commentary plays the role of servant, command and desire that their meaning be explained to all who can comprehend it, so that when their words are heard they will be understood. And there is no doubt that if they made their command heard, this is what it would be. Latin though would not have explained them except to the learned, since no one else would have understood. Therefore, since the unlearned are far more numerous than the learned among those who desire to understand them, it follows that Latin would not have fulfilled their desire as well as the vernacular, which is understood by the learned and unlearned alike.

Then, Latin would have explained them to people of other countries, such as the Germans, English and others, and here it would have exceeded what was commanded; for it would have been wilful (speaking broadly) for their meaning to be explained when their beauty could not be conveyed with it. Thus all should know that nothing harmonised according to the rules of poetry can be translated from its native tongue into another without destroying its original sweetness and harmony. That is the reason why Homer has not now been translated from Greek into Latin as other Greek writings have. And this is the reason why the verses of the Psalter lack sweetness of music and harmony; for they were translated from Hebrew into Greek, and from Greek into Latin, and in the first translation all their sweetness was lost. Thus I have dealt fully with what was promised in the preceding chapter.

Chapter VIII: The Vernacular: Generosity

Now it has been sufficiently demonstrated that, in explaining the canzoni mentioned above, a commentary in the vernacular and not in Latin was necessary to avoid an inappropriate relationship, I intend to show also how perfect generosity made me choose the former and forego the latter. Now perfect generosity may be noted in three characteristics of the vernacular which would not have been consequential on the use of Latin. The first is that of giving to many people; the second is that of giving things of use; the third is that of giving without being asked.

To give to and assist one person is good, but perfect goodness is to give to and assist many in that this resembles the beneficence of God, who is the universal benefactor. Then, to give to many people without helping individuals is impossible, since the individual is included in the many, though it is quite possible to give to one without giving to the many. Thus he who helps many acts well in both ways; he who helps one person does good in only that case; hence we see that lawmakers keep their eyes fixed on the common good in the main when making law. Then, to give things that are not of use to the recipient is good, in that he who gives at least shows that he is a friend; but it is not perfectly good, and so is not complete, as, for example, a knight were to give a doctor a shield, or a doctor to give the knight a copy of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms or Galen’s Art. Thus the wise say that the nature of a gift should reflect the nature of the recipient, that is to say, it should be appropriate and useful to him; and in this way the generosity of one discerning in his gifts is said to be complete. But since a discussion of moral concepts usually creates a desire to understand their rationale, I intend to indicate briefly, in this chapter, four reasons why a gift should be useful to the person who receives it in order for it to display complete generosity.

Firstly, virtue should be joyful and not sorrowful in it actions: so that, if the gift is not joyous in the giving and in the receiving, its virtue is neither complete nor perfect. This joyousness is given only by usefulness, which accrues to the giver through giving, and which is transferred to the receiver in receiving. The giver, therefore, must have the foresight to act so that on his side lies the usefulness of integrity, which is above all usefulness, and so that the usefulness of the thing given passes to the recipient; in this way both will be joyful, and thus generosity will be the more complete.

Secondly, virtue must always work towards the better: for, just as it would be reprehensible to turn a good sword into a spade, or a beautiful lute into a decent bowl, so it is reprehensible to transfer something from a place where it is useful to one where it will be less so. And just as it is reprehensible to work in vain, it is reprehensible to place it where it is equally useful, not merely where it is less useful. So, for a change of place to be praiseworthy, it must always be for the better, because it should aim to be in the highest degree praiseworthy, and it cannot be so unless the gift increases its value through its transfer, and it cannot increase its value unless it is more useful to the recipient than the giver. From this we conclude that the gift must be useful to the person who receives it, if the giving is to display complete generosity.

Thirdly, the exercise of virtue should of itself aim to acquire friends, since our life requires them and the end of virtue is to make ourselves content. For a gift to stimulate friendship in the recipient, it must be useful to him, since usefulness stamps the gift’s image in his memory, which nurtures friendship, and does so the more strongly the greater the usefulness is. So the scholar says: ‘The gift he gave me will never fade from my mind.’ Thus, for the gift to have virtue, and display generosity, and for it to be complete, it must be useful to the person receiving it.

Finally, virtue must be exercised freely and not under compulsion. Action is free when a person moves in a certain direction willingly, evidenced by his turning his gaze in that direction; while action is exercised under compulsion when a man acts against his will, shown by his not gazing in the direction where he is going. Now a gift directed towards the needs of the recipient is turned in his direction. Since it cannot be so directed if it is not useful, it must be the case that in order for it to be transferred freely, virtue must accompany the gift as it is moves in that direction, which is towards the recipient: thus the gift must be useful to the recipient in order for it to reveal complete generosity.

The third trait, mentioned at the start of this chapter, which reveals complete generosity, is giving without being asked; because what is requested is a subject of commerce not of virtue, since the recipient buys even though the giver does not offer for sale. That is why Seneca says in De Beneficiis that: ‘Nothing is so dearly purchased as that which is paid for with prayers.’ In order for a gift to manifest complete generosity, it must be free from every taint of commerce: the gift must be unasked. Why what is prayed for costs so dearly, I do not intend to discuss here, since it will be discussed adequately in the final book of this work.

Chapter IX: The Vernacular: Generosity Displayed

Latin would have failed to meet all of the three conditions mentioned above, all of which must be met for a gift to display complete generosity, and this can be clearly shown, as follows. Latin would not have served many, for, recalling what was previously said, the learned to whom the Italian language is foreign, being unable to read the canzoni, would not have availed themselves of this service; while if we consider those who are natives of the Italian language, we will find that not one in a thousand would indeed have been served in any rational manner, because they would not have accepted this gift, being deprived of all nobility of mind, which desires this food above all, by their proneness to avarice. I say that, to their shame, they should not be considered learned, since they do not acquire learning for its own sake but only in order to gain wealth or honour; just as we should not consider someone a lute player who keeps a lute in his house in order to rent it out, rather than play it.

Returning to the main proposition, I say it may clearly be seen that Latin would have benefited few, while the vernacular will be of service to many. For goodness of mind, which this work addresses, is found in those who, because of the sinful world’s neglect of good, have abandoned literature to those who have turned her from a lady to a whore; and these noble persons comprise princes, barons, and knights as well as many others, women as well as men, who know only the vernacular of this language, and are not learned.

Then, Latin would not have been the giver of a useful gift as the vernacular is, since nothing is useful unless it is used, nor does goodness lie in its potential, which is not a perfected state of being, just as with gold, pearls or other treasure that lie buried; and what is in the hands of avarice is buried deeper than hidden treasure. This commentary’s true gift is the meaning of the canzoni for which it was made, a meaning which is intended to lead men to knowledge and virtue, above all, as will be seen in the full course of their analysis. This meaning can only be of use to those in whom true nobility is seeded, in the manner that will be described in the fourth book; and virtually all these people only know the vernacular, like the noble men and women I referred to above. Even if there are some learned ones among them, there is no contradiction; for as my master Aristotle says in the first book of the Ethics: ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer.’ It is thus evident that the vernacular offers something useful which Latin would not have provided.

Then, the vernacular gives the gift without being asked, which Latin would not, because it offers a commentary, which none have asked for; while this cannot be said of Latin, which is often requested to provide a commentary and a gloss on many writings, as can readily be seen in the preface to many of them. And so it is clear that I was moved to employ the vernacular rather than Latin by complete generosity.

Chapter X: The Vernacular: Love of the Native Tongue

At a banquet so noble in its fare, and so distinguished by its guests, a full apology is necessary for serving bread made of oats and not wheat; and the reason for departing from what has long been established practice, namely the use of Latin in commentaries, should be made evident. The reason should be made clear thus because the fate of new things is uncertain, since the experience is lacking though which things long observed and in use are measured, as to the progress they represent and their aim. That is why the Digest of Roman Law was moved to command that a man should enter a new path with care, since: ‘when establishing something new the reason for departing from established custom should be made evident.’

So, no one should be surprised if the digression I have made, in order to present my apology, proves lengthy; and since it is necessary let them suffer its length patiently. Pursuing my apology further, now that I have shown how I was moved to employ the vernacular and not Latin firstly in order to avoid an inappropriate relationship, and secondly for reasons of complete generosity, I now need to show, thirdly and lastly, how I was moved to do so through innate love of my native tongue. I say that innate love moves the lover to do three things above all: firstly to enhance the beloved object; secondly to be solicitous on its behalf; and thirdly to defend it, which happens continually as anyone can observe. These three motives made me adopt the vernacular, which I love and have loved both innately and contingently. I was moved firstly to enhance it, and the way in which I do so can be seen by the following argument.

Now things can be enhanced, that is made greater, by many kinds of greatness, and nothing makes them as great as through their own goodness, which is the mother and preserver of all other kinds of greatness, for man can possess no vaster greatness than that of virtuous action, which is his own proper excellence, by means of which the greatnesses of true dignity, true honour, true power, true wealth, true friends, and true and glorious fame are acquired and preserved; and this greatness I endow this friend, the vernacular, with, since what it possesses of latent and potential goodness I make it express, actively and openly by means of its own proper activity, which is to make manifest the meaning conceived.

Secondly, I was moved by solicitousness on its behalf. Solicitousness on a friend’s behalf makes a man anxious to provide for future events. Thinking that the desire to comprehend the canzoni might induce some unlearned person to initiate a translation of a Latin commentary into the vernacular, and fearing that the translation might have been carried out by someone who would have made the vernacular appear crude, as did Thaddeus the Hippocratist who translated Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics from the Latin, I decided to carry it out myself, trusting my own skill more than another’s.

I was moved also to defend the Italian vernacular from its numerous detractors who disparage it, while commending other vernaculars, especially the language of oc, calling it better and more beautiful than this one, and thereby deviating from the truth. For by means of this commentary the great goodness of the language of will be evident, because its virtue will be displayed, namely how it expresses the noblest and freshest concepts almost as fittingly, fully and gracefully as Latin. This virtue could not be displayed as effectively in verse, since verse has the contingent adornments of rhyme and metre bound to it, just as a woman’s beauty cannot be effectively displayed when her adornments of dress and cosmetics do more to make her admired than she herself. Thus, if one wishes rightly to assess a woman’s beauty, look at her when her natural beauty alone attends her, unaccompanied by any contingencies of adornment; and likewise with this commentary, in which the flow of its syllables, the appropriateness of its construction, and the smoothness of its oration will be noted, such that whoever studies it deeply will find it to be filled with the sweetest and most exquisite beauty. But since the best way to reveal the defects and malice of an accuser is to probe his intentions, I will explain why they are moved to disparage the Italian language, so as to confound them, and I will now write a separate chapter on this matter, so that their infamy can be rendered even more obvious.

Chapter XI: The Vernacular: Its Detractors

I say that the motive which leads these contemptible men of Italy to praise the vernacular of others, and disparage their own, to their perpetual shame and humiliation arises from five vile causes. The first is blindness in discernment; the second the making of disingenuous excuses; the third, desire for glory; the fourth reasoning rooted in envy; and the fifth and last, baseness of mind, that is pusillanimity. Each of these faults is committed so widely that few are free of them all.

Of the first we may argue as follows. Just as the sensory part of the mind has a faculty of sight, by means of which it apprehends the difference between things with respect to their external colour, so the rational part has a faculty by which it apprehends the difference between things with respect to how they are directed to some aim: and this is discernment. And just as he whose eyes are blind always follows where others lead him for good or ill, so he who is blind to the light of discernment always follows the popular cry in his judgement, whether true or false. So whenever the one who cries out is blind, he and the others who depend on him, being likewise blind, must come to a sad end. That is why it is said that: ‘if the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch.’

This popular cry has long been directed against the vernacular, for reasons which will be discussed further below. And so the blind, mentioned above, almost infinite in number, their hands placed on the shoulders of these deceivers, have fallen into the ditch of false opinion from which they are unable to escape. The common populace especially lack the use of this light of discernment because, occupied with some trade or other from their youth, they direct their minds to it by force of necessity, so that they are concerned with little else. Since virtuous habits, whether moral or intellectual, cannot be acquired suddenly but must be gained through practice, and since their practice is devoted to some craft, and they do not trouble themselves by perceiving other things, it is impossible for them to possess discernment. As a result they often follow the cries of, ‘Long live their name!’ and ‘Death to their memory!’ if someone but begins them. This is the most dangerous aspect of their blindness. Thus Boethius in the Consolation judges popular approval to be idle, because he sees that it lacks discernment. These people are to be called sheep and not men, since if a sheep throws itself from a thousand-foot high cliff, all the flock will follow; and if one sheep leaps while crossing a road for some reason, the rest will leap too though there is nothing there to leap over. I have seen many vanish into a well after one leapt in, thinking perhaps that they were leaping a wall, even though the shepherd, weeping and shouting, tried to check them with his arms and his body.

The second group who disparage our vernacular are disingenuous in the excuses they make. There are many who love to be thought masters even when they are not, and to avoid the contrary, that is not being so considered, they always blame the materials provided for their craft, or their tools. For example, a poor blacksmith criticises the iron supplied, and a bad lutanist criticises his lute, seeking to blame the bad knife-blade or the poor music on the iron or the lute, and deflect it from himself. In the same way there are quite a number who wish to be considered authors; and who, to excuse their not writing at all, or writing badly, accuse and blame their material, that is their own vernacular, and praise some other which they are not required to use. Whoever wants to know whether the iron deserves blame should look at what the fine craftsman makes of it, and he will then recognise the disingenuousness of the man who seeks to lay the blame on it, and thereby excuse himself. Cicero cries out against men of this sort, at the start of De Finibus, because in his day men found fault with Latin and praised Greek, for reasons similar to those men who judge Italian vile and Provençal beautiful.

The third group who disparage our vernacular are possessed by an empty desire for glory. Many think they will be admired more for describing things in another language, and for praising it, than by doing so in their own. Certainly ability in learning a foreign language well is not unworthy of praise; but it is wrong to praise it beyond all truth in order to glory in its acquisition.

The fourth group are driven by envious reasoning. As was said above, envy always arises from apparent equality. Among men sharing the same language there is common use of the vernacular; and because one man cannot deploy it as another does, envy arises. The envious man then blames that which provides the medium of his work, rather than his lack of ability in not knowing how to write, so that by disparaging the work on that basis he may deprive the poet of honour and fame; just like a man who blames the iron of the sword-blade in order to find fault not merely with the iron but with the craftsman’s entire labour.

The firth and last group are motivated by baseness of mind. The pretentious man always magnifies himself in his own eyes, and, conversely, the pusillanimous man always considers himself less than he really is. Because magnifying and diminishing are always relative to something compared to which the pretentious man deems himself great and the pusillanimous small, the pretentious man always deems others less than they are, and the pusillanimous greater. Since a man rates himself as he rates his possessions, which are almost a part of himself, the pretentious man’s belongings always seem better than they are, to him, and those of others worse; the pusillanimous always believes his belongings to be worth little, and those of others to be worth much. Likewise many disparage their own vernacular, by devaluing it in this way, while praising that of others.

All these groups taken together comprise the vile Italian wretches who despise this rich vernacular, which, if it is base in any way, is base only insofar as it issues from the meretricious lips of these adulterers, by whom the blind are lead, whom I mentioned in discussing the first group.

Chapter XII: The Vernacular: How Love of it is Engendered

If flames were seen issuing from the windows of a house, and one man asked if there was a fire inside, and another answered ‘yes’, I could not say which of the two more deserved ridicule. The question and answer would be just as ridiculous if someone were to ask me whether love of my native tongue resides within me and I answered ‘yes’, and for the same reason. Nevertheless, in order to demonstrate that not merely love but perfect love for the vernacular resides within me, and to censure its adversaries once more by demonstrating this to anyone who rightly understands, I will say how I became its adherent and how that adherence was strengthened. I say then, as Cicero writes in De Amicitia, agreeing with Aristotle’s opinion expressed in the eighth and ninth books of the Ethics, that closeness and virtue are the natural causes that engender love, while benefit, harmony of purpose, and familiarity are the causes of its increase. All these were present to engender and strengthen my love of the vernacular, as I will show briefly.

A thing is said to be closest when, of all of its kind, it is most nearly related to another thing: so, the son is closest of all men to the father; the doctor adheres most closely to medicine of all the arts, and the musician to music, because their practice relates most closely to those arts. And so a man’s vernacular is closest to him, since it is the first and sole language in his mind before any other; and it is not only related to him per se but also contingently, since it is connected to those nearest to him, his kin, his fellow citizens, and his people. Such is one’s own vernacular, which is not merely close but supremely close to all. Therefore, if closeness is the seed of friendship, as has been said above, clearly it has been a cause of my love of my language, which is closer to me than others. The cause mentioned above, namely that what exists first and alone in the mind is most nearly related to it, led people to make the firstborn their heirs by custom, since they are the closest, and being closest the most loved.

Then, the vernacular’s virtues make me its friend. Here it should be noted that every virtue proper to something is worthy of love, as a full beard in a man and a face devoid of hair in a woman, as keen scent in a foxhound and turn of speed in a greyhound. The more appropriate to it, the more it is deserving of love; so, though every virtue in man is deserving of love, that which is most human is the most deserving, which is justice, residing in the rational or intellectual part, that is in the will. It is so deserving of love that, as Cicero says in De Officiis, even its enemies, such as thieves and robbers, love it; and therefore we see that its opposite, injustice, is most hated, for example as displayed in treachery, ingratitude, lying, deceit, petty theft, larceny, and the like. All of these are such inhuman sins, that to avoid being disgraced by them age-old custom allows a man to speak about himself, as has been mentioned earlier, in order to declare that he is true and loyal. Of this virtue I will speak more fully in the fourteenth book; and leaving it for now, I return to my subject.

It has thus been shown that there is a virtue most fitting to a thing; and that what is most loved and praised in it is this virtue. Now we see that in all things relating to speech what is most praised is the fitting expression of thought: therefore this is its prime virtue. Since this virtue is found in our vernacular, as has been shown clearly in an earlier chapter, then this is a cause of the love I bear it, since virtue, as has been said, is the thing that engenders love.

Chapter XIII: The Vernacular: How Love of it is Strengthened

Having described the two characteristics of my native tongue which had made me adhere to it, that is its closeness to me and its proper virtue, I will say how that adherence is strengthened and increased through its benefits, through harmony of purpose, and through a sense of benevolence born of long familiarity. Firstly I affirm that I have myself received great benefit from it. We know that among benefits, the greatest is that most precious to the recipient; and nothing is as precious as that for which all else is desired, and all else is desired for the perfection of him who desires it. Thus, since man has two perfections, one primary and one secondary, the first causing him to exist, the second causing him to be virtuous, then, if my native tongue has been the cause of both, I have received great benefit from it. That my native tongue has been the cause of my existence and of my being virtuous, unless I should fail through my own fault, may be shown briefly.

According to Aristotle, in the second book of his Physics, it is possible for things to have several efficient causes, though one among them is the principal; so fire and hammer are efficient causes of the forged blade, though the blacksmith is the principal one. This vernacular of mine brought my parents together, since they conversed in it, just as the fire prepares the iron for the smith who forges the blade; and thus it is evident that it contributed to my generation, and was the cause of my being. Moreover, this vernacular of mine was what led me into the path of knowledge, which is our ultimate perfection, since through it I entered upon Latin and through its means Latin was taught me, which then formed the path to my future progress. So it is clear that the vernacular has been of great benefit to me, and this I acknowledge.

Then, it had the same purpose as I, and this I can show as follows. Everything by nature seeks its own preservation; thus if the vernacular could seek anything itself, it would seek this; that is to secure itself greater permanence, and it could only achieve greater permanence by binding itself to metre and rhyme. This has so clearly been my aim that it needs no proof. Thus, its purpose and mine have been one and the same, and through this harmony my adherence has been strengthened and increased. Also, there has been a sense of benevolence born of familiarity; for from childhood I have looked on it with benevolence and been intimate with it, and have utilised it in order to think, explain and question. Thus, if friendship increases through familiarity, as seems obvious to the senses, it is clear that it has greatly increased in me, since I have used it all my life. So we see that all the causes that engender and increase friendship have united in this friendship, from which we must conclude that what I ought to show, and do show for it, is not simply love but perfect love.

Looking back then, and gathering together all the reasons noted, we can see that this bread, with which the following canzoni should be eaten, is adequately cleansed of its impurities, and excused for being made of oats. Thus it is time to think of serving the meat. This commentary is the bread made of finest wheat with which thousands shall be satiated, and my basket shall be full to overflowing with it. This shall be a fresh light, a fresh sun that will rise where the old sun sets, and give light to those who lie in shadow and darkness since the old sun no longer sheds its light on them.


End of Book I