THE CONVIVIO, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 11 BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
by Dante Alighieri
translated by Richard Lansing
To the perpetual disgrace and humiliation of those contemptible men of Italy who praise the vernacular of others and disparage their own, I say that their impulse arises from five detestable causes. The first is blindness in discernment; the second, disingenuous excusing; the third, desire for glory; the fourth, reasoning prompted by envy; the fifth and last, baseness of mind, that is, pusillanimity. Each of these faults has so great a following that few are those who are free from them.
Of the first we may reason as follows. Just as the sensitive part of the soul has eyes by which it apprehends the difference in things with respect to their external coloring, so the rational part has its own eye by which it apprehends the difference in things with respect to how they are directed to some end: and this is discernment. Also, just as he who is blind in the eyes of sense always follows others in judging what is good and what is evil, so he who is blind to the light of discernment always follows the popular cry in his judgment, whether true or false. And so whenever the one who cries is blind, he and the other who leans upon him, being likewise blind, must come to a bad end. For this reason it is written that “if the blind lead the blind, so shall they both fall into the ditch.”(20)
This popular cry has long been turned against our vernacular, for reasons which will be discussed below after the present one. And the blind mentioned above, who are almost infinite in number, with their hands placed on the shoulders of these liars, have fallen into the ditch of false opinion from which they do not know how to escape. The common people especially are bereft of the habit of this discerning light because, being occupied from the beginning of their lives with some kind of trade, they direct their minds to it by force of necessity, so that they are mindful of nothing else. Since the habit of virtue, whether moral or intellectual, cannot be had of a sudden, but must be acquired through practice, and since they devote their practice to some craft and do not trouble themselves with perceiving other things, it is impossible for them to have discernment. As a result it often happens that they cry “long live their death” and “death to their life,” if someone but raises the cry. This is the most dangerous defect of their blindness. Hence Boethius deems popular glory to be vain because he sees that it lacks discernment.(21)These people should be called sheep, not men, for if a sheep were to cast itself over a cliff a thousand feet high, all the others would follow after it; and if while crossing the road a sheep for any reason leaps, all the others leap, even though they see nothing to leap over. I have seen many jump into a well after one that jumped in, perhaps believing that they were jumping over a wall, even though the shepherd, weeping and shouting, tried to check them with this arms and body.
The second group against our vernacular arises out of disingenuous excusing. There are many who love to be considered masters rather than to be such, and to avoid the opposite, that is, not being so considered, they always lay the blame on the material furnished for their craft, or on their tools. For example, a bad smith blames the iron supplied to him, and the bad lute player blames the lute, thinking to throw the fault of the bad knife or the bad music on the iron or the lute, and to remove it from himself. In the same way there are some, and not a few, who wish to be considered writers; and to excuse themselves from not writing or from writing badly, they accuse and blame their material, that is, their own vernacular, and praise another which they have not been required to work with. Whoever wishes to see in what way this iron is deserving of blame should look at the works which good craftsmen make with it and he will recognize the disingenuousness of those who think to excuse themselves by blaming it. Against men of this sort Tully cries out at the beginning of one of his books called The Book on the End of Good, because in his time they found fault with Roman Latin and praised the Greek language for reasons similar to those for which these men judge the Italian language vile and Provençal precious.(22)
The third group against our vernacular arises out of empty desire for glory. There are many who think that they will be more admired by depicting things in some other language, and by praising it, than by depicting things in their own. Unquestionably the talent of learning a foreign language well is not undeserving of praise; but it is blameworthy to praise it beyond the truth in order to boast of such an acquisition.
The fourth group arises out of reasoning prompted by envy. As was said above, envy always exists where there is some kind of common ground. Among men sharing the same language there is the common ground of the vernacular; and because one cannot use it as another person does, envy springs up. The envious man then argues, not by blaming him who writes for not knowing how to write, but by blaming that which constitutes the material of his work, so that by disparaging the work on that account he may deprive the poet of honor and fame–just like someone who would blame the iron of the sword in order to find fault not with the iron but with the whole work of the craftsman.
The fifth and last group is moved by baseness of mind. The pretentious man always magnifies himself in his heart, and likewise the pusillanimous, conversely, always holds himself for less than he is. Because magnifying and minimizing are always relative to something by comparison with which the pretentious man deems himself great and the pusillanimous himself small, it happens that the pretentious man always deems others to be less than they are, and the pusillanimous always greater. And since man measures himself in the same way he measures his belongings, which are almost a part of himself, it happens that the pretentious man’s belongings always seem to him better than they are and those of others worse; the pusillanimous always believes that his belongings are worth little and those of others worth much. Therefore many by means of such abasement disparage their own vernacular and praise that of others.
All of these together make up the detestable wretches of Italy who despise this precious vernacular, which, if it is base in anything, is base only insofar as it issues from the meretricious lips of these adulterers under whose guidance go the blind of whom I made mention in treating the first cause.
20. “if the blind lead the blind . . .” Matthew 15:14.
21. Boethius deems popular glory to be vain De consolatione philosophiae III, 6, 5.
22. Tully The traditional name for Marcus Tullius Cicero. The reference is to De finibus I, 1.