THE CONVIVIO, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 5 BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
by Dante Alighieri
translated by Richard Lansing
Now that this bread is cleansed of its accidental impurities, it remains to apologize for one pertaining to substance, that is, for its being in the vernacular and not in Latin; which is to say, by way of metaphor, for its being made of oats and not of wheat.(11) This impurity is excused in few words for three reasons which have moved me to choose this language rather than the other: the first arises from precaution against creating an inappropriate relationship; the next from zealous generosity; the third from natural love of one’s native tongue. And to counter an objection that might be made for the above-mentioned reason, I intend to discuss these points on their own basis in the following order.
What most adorns and commends human actions and what most directly leads them to a good end is the habit of those dispositions which are directed to an intended end, as, for example, boldness of mind and strength of body are directed to the end of chivalry. So anyone who is placed into the service of another must have those dispositions which are directed to that end, such as submission, understanding, and obedience, without which a man is not equipped to serve well. For if he is not submissive in all of his functions, he will always perform his service with effort and strain and will rarely continue in it; and if he is not understanding of the needs of his master and is not obedient to him, he will never serve except according to his own judgment and his own will, which is more the service of a friend than that of a servant. Hence, to avoid this inappropriate relationship, it is fitting that this commentary, which is made to play the part of a servant to the canzoni placed below, be subject to them in all of its functions and be understanding of the needs of its master and obedient to him.
All of these dispositions would be lacking if it had been in Latin and not in the vernacular, since the canzoni are in the vernacular. For in the first place it would not have been subject but sovereign, because of its nobility, its virtue, and its beauty. Because of its nobility, for Latin is eternal and incorruptible, while the vernacular is unstable and corruptible. Thus in the ancient Latin comedies and tragedies, which cannot undergo change, we find the same Latin as we have today; this is not the case with the vernacular, which, being fashioned according to one’s own preference, undergoes change. Thus in the cities of Italy, if we care to take a close look, we find that within the last fifty years many words have become obsolete, been born, and been altered; if a short period of time changes language, much more does a greater period change it. Thus I say that if those who departed this life a thousand years ago were to return to their cities, they would believe that they were occupied by foreigners, because the language would be at variance with their own. This will be more fully discussed elsewhere in a book I intend to write, God willing, on Eloquence in the Vernacular.(12)
Moreover, Latin would not have been subject but sovereign because of its virtue. Everything is virtuous in its nature which fulfills the purpose toward which it is directed; and the better it does this, the more virtuous it is. Therefore we call a man virtuous who lives a contemplative or an active life, which he is by nature constituted to do; we call a horse virtuous which runs fast and far, which it is constituted to do; we call a sword virtuous which cuts through hard objects easily, which it is constituted to do. Thus language, which is constituted to express human thought, is virtuous when it does this, and the more completely it does this, the more virtuous it is; therefore, since Latin expresses many things conceived in the mind which the vernacular cannot, as those who speak both languages know, its virtue is greater than that of the vernacular.
Furthermore, Latin would not have been the subject but the sovereign because of its beauty. One calls a thing beautiful when its parts correspond properly, because pleasure results from their harmony. Thus a man appears beautiful when his limbs correspond properly; and we call a song beautiful when its voices are harmonized according to the rules of the art. Therefore that language is the most beautiful in which the words correspond most properly; and they correspond more properly in Latin than in the vernacular, because the vernacular follows custom, while Latin follows art;(13) consequently it is granted that Latin is the more beautiful, the more virtuous, and the more noble. And this concludes my main point: that is, that Latin would not have been the subject of the canzoni but their sovereign.
11. accidental impurities “Accident” and “substance” are formal terms of Scholastic philosophy, applied to the ruling metaphor of the bread (commentary). Substance is the thing itself, accident a condition in a substance. The “accidental” impurities are not inherent in the essence of the bread itself. The choice of Italian as opposed to Latin as the language of the commentaries is, however, a matter of substance and not of accident. The distinction between “oats” and “wheat” expresses the qualities of the Italian and Latin languages. “Oats” refers to all cereals except “wheat.”
12. Eloquence in the Vernacular Since Dante was at work on the De vulgari eloquentia in February of 1305, it is virtually certain that the Convivio was begun in the year 1304.
13. while Latin follows art Latin follows, that is, the rules of grammar and rhetoric.