THE CONVIVIO, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 2 BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
At the beginning of every well-ordered banquet the servants customarily take the bread placed on the table and cleanse it of any impurity. So I, who stand in their place in the present work, intend first of all to cleanse two impurities from this exposition, which passes for bread in my provision. The first is that for someone to speak of himself seems impermissible; the other is that to speak of matters by going into them too deeply seems unreasonable; and in this way the knife of my judgment will strip away the impermissible and the unreasonable. The rhetoricians grant no one the right to speak of himself, except in the case of necessity, and one is restricted from doing this because in speaking about someone the speaker cannot avoid praising or blaming the person about whom he speaks, and these two kinds of speech are crude since they come from one’s own lips.
To dispel a doubt that may arise here, I say that it is worse to blame than to praise, although one should refrain from doing either. The reason is that anything that is blameworthy in itself is more repugnant than something only incidentally blameworthy. To disparage oneself is in itself blameworthy, because a person should tell a friend of his faults in private. No one is a better friend than one is to himself; therefore it is in the chamber of one’s thoughts that a person must reprimand himself and bemoan his faults, and not openly. Moreover, a person is usually not blamed for not being able or not knowing how to conduct himself properly, but always for not being willing to, because good and evil are determined by what we will or fail to will; therefore he who blames himself shows that he accepts his faults, accepts that he is not good; thus speaking of oneself with blame is in itself to be rejected. Self-praise is to be avoided as an incidental evil, since one cannot give praise without its being mostly blame.(6) It may be praise on the surface of the words, but it is blame to him who seeks out their substance; for words are made to reveal what is not known; hence one who praises himself reveals that he does not believe himself to be esteemed, which is something that does not happen unless he has a bad conscience, which he discloses by praising himself; and by disclosing it, he blames himself.
Moreover, self-praise and self-blame must be avoided for the same reason, just like bearing false witness; for there is no one who can take measure of himself in a manner that is true and just, so much are we deceived by our self-love. It happens that in judging the self everyone uses the measures of a dishonest merchant who buys using one measure and sells using another; for everyone measures his bad deeds with a long measure and his good deeds with a short one so that the number, size, and weight of the good deeds appear to him greater than if he had assessed them with a true measure, and less in the case of the bad deeds. Thus in speaking of himself with praise or its contrary, he either speaks falsely with respect to the circumstance he is talking about, or he speaks falsely with respect to its importance, which comprises both falsehoods. Furthermore, because silence signifies agreement, he who praises or blames someone to his face acts discourteously, since the person so judged can neither agree nor disagree without falling into the error of praising or blaming himself–except in those instances in which correction is deserved, which cannot be accomplished without reproving the error meant to be corrected, and in those instances in which honor and praise are deserved, which cannot be accomplished without some mention of virtuous deeds and honors virtuously acquired.
To return to the main topic, however, I say that (as touched on above) speaking about oneself is allowed in cases of necessity, and among the several cases of necessity two are very evident. One is when great infamy or danger cannot be avoided except by talking about oneself; then it is permissible, for the reason that to take the less evil of two paths is almost the same as taking a good one. This necessity moved Boethius to speak of himself, so that under the pretext of consolation he might defend himself against the perpetual infamy of his exile, by showing it to be unjust, since no other apologist came forward.(7) The other arises when by speaking of oneself very great benefit comes to another by way of instruction; and this reason moved Augustine to speak of himself in his Confessions, because by the progress of his life, which proceeded from bad to good, good to better, and better to best, he gave us an example and instruction which could not be provided by any other testimony so true as this.(8)
Consequently, if each of these reasons may serve as my excuse, the bread made from my wheat is sufficiently cleansed of its first impurity. A fear of infamy moves me, and a desire to give instruction moves me, which in truth others are unable to give. I fear the infamy of having yielded myself to the great passion that anyone who reads the canzoni mentioned above must realize once ruled me. This infamy will altogether cease as I speak now about myself and show that my motivation was not passion but virtue. I intend also to show the true meaning of the canzoni, which no one can perceive unless I reveal it, because it is hidden beneath the figure of allegory. This will not only bring true delight to the ear but as well useful instruction concerning both this mode of speaking and this mode of understanding the writings of others.
6. Self-praise is to be avoided See the Vita Nuova, Ch. XXVIII, for a similar example of this literary topos.
7. Boethius The author (d. 524) of the De consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy), one of the literary models for the Convivio. Dante locates him among the saved in the Sphere of the Sun, Par. X, 124-129.
8. Augustine The reference is to St. Augustine’s Confessions, Book XIII. He is also one of the saved in the Sphere of the Sun; see Par. XII, 130.