THE CONVIVIO, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 4 BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
by Dante Alighieri
translated by Richard Lansing
Having presented just now the reason why fame inflates good and evil beyond their true dimension, it remains in this chapter to present those reasons which reveal why presence on the contrary diminishes them; and after presenting them, we will quickly come to the main topic, that is, the excuse mentioned above.
I say then that there are three reasons why a man’s presence makes him less worthy than he really is. The first of these is immaturity, and I do not mean of age but of mind; the second is envy–and these two reside in the one who judges; the third is human imperfection–and this resides in the person judged.
The first can be briefly discussed as follows. The majority of men live according to the senses and not according to reason, like children; as such they do not understand things except simply by their exterior, and they do not perceive the goodness of things, which is ordained to a proper end, because they keep shut the eyes of reason which penetrate to a vision of it. Therefore they quickly see all that they are able to, and judge according to their sight. And since they form some opinion regarding another man’s fame by hearsay, with which, in the person’s presence, their imperfect judgment clashes, which judges not by reason but only by the senses, they regard as a lie what they have previously heard and disparage the person they have previously esteemed. Hence with these, who comprise, alas, almost all of humanity, a man’s presence diminishes the one and the other quality. Such people as these are soon charmed and soon sated, are often glad and often sad with brief delights and sorrows, soon become friends and soon enemies; they do everything like children, without the use of reason.
The second is seen by these reasons: that in vicious people equality causes envy, and envy causes bad judgment, because it does not allow the reason to argue on behalf of whatever is envied, and the faculty of judgment is then like a judge that hears only one side. Hence when such people as these see a famous person, they become immediately envious, because they see limbs and powers very much like their own, and they fear, because of the excellence of that person, that they will be less esteemed. These people who are moved by passion not only judge wrongly, but by defaming cause others to judge wrongly too; consequently with them presence diminishes the good and evil in each person presented to them; and I say “evil” because many, taking delight in evil deeds, are envious of evil-doers.
The third reason is human imperfection, which attaches to him who is judged and does not obtain without some familiarity and intimacy with him. To make this clear, we must observe that man is blemished in many ways, for as Augustine says, “no one is without blemish.” Sometimes a person is blemished by a passion which occasionally he cannot resist; sometimes he is blemished by some physical deformity; sometimes he is blemished by some stroke of misfortune; and sometimes he is blemished by the infamy of his parents or someone close to him. Fame does not bear these things with itself, whereas presence does, revealing them through intimacy. These blemishes cast a shadow on the brightness of his goodness, so that they make it seem less bright and less worthy. This is the reason why every prophet is less honored in his own country; this is the reason why a good man should vouchsafe his presence to few and his intimacy to still fewer, so that his name may be known, but not disparaged. This third cause may obtain for evil as well as for good, if each term in the argument is turned to its opposite. Thus it is clearly seen that because of imperfection, from which no man is free, presence diminishes the good and the evil in everyone more than truth warrants.
Therefore since, as has been said above, I have presented myself to virtually everyone in Italy, by which I have perhaps made myself more base than truth warrants, not only to those to whom my fame had already spread but also to others, whereby my works as well as my person are without doubt made light of, it is fitting that I should add, with a loftier style, a little weight to the present work, so that it may seem to take on an air of greater authority. This should suffice to excuse the difficulty of my commentary.