THE CONVIVIO, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 7 BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
by Dante Alighieri
translated by Richard Lansing
Having proved that a Latin commentary would not have been an understanding servant, I will tell why it would not have been obedient. He is obedient who has that good disposition which is called obedience. True obedience should have three things, without which it cannot exist: it should be sweet and not bitter, entirely under command and not self-willed, and within measure and not beyond measure. These three things a Latin commentary could not possibly have possessed, and therefore it would have been impossible for it to be obedient. That this would have been impossible for Latin, as has been said, is made clear by the following reasoning: everything that proceeds by inverse order is disagreeable, and consequently is bitter and not sweet, as, for example, sleeping during the day and lying awake at night, or going backwards and not forwards. For the subject to command the sovereign is to proceed by inverse order (for the right order is for the sovereign to command the servant); so it is bitter and not sweet. And since it is impossible to obey a bitter command with sweetness, it is impossible for the sovereign’s obedience to be sweet when a subject commands. Therefore, if Latin is the sovereign of the vernacular, as has been shown above by many reasons, and the canzoni which play the role of commander are in the vernacular, it is impossible for its obedience to be sweet.
Moreover, obedience is entirely under command and in no way self-willed when the person who obeys would not have acted on his own initiative without a command, either entirely or in part. Therefore if I were commanded to wear two robes, and without being commanded should put on but one, I would say that my obedience is not entirely the result of a command but in part self-willed. Such would have been the obedience of the Latin commentary, and consequently it would not have been entirely the result of a command. That such would have been the case is clear from this: that without having been commanded by this master, Latin would have explained many aspects of his meaning–and it does explain them, as he who carefully examines writings written in Latin knows–which the vernacular in no way does.
Moreover, obedience is within measure and not beyond measure when it goes to the limit of the command, and not beyond it, just as individual nature is obedient to universal nature when it gives a man thirty-two teeth, neither more nor less, and when it gives the hand five fingers, neither more nor less; and man is obedient to justice when he makes a sinner pay his debt to society, neither more nor less than justice demands. Now Latin would not have done this, but would have sinned not only through deficiency, and not only through excess, but through both; and so its obedience would not have been within measure, but beyond measure, and consequently it would not have been obedient. That Latin would not have fulfilled the command of its master and that it would have exceeded it can easily be shown. This master, that is, these canzoni to which this commentary is constituted as 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 no one doubts, were they to make their command heard, that this would be their command. Latin would not have explained them except to the learned, for no one else would have understood it. Therefore, since among those who desire to understand them the unlearned are far more numerous than the learned, it follows that Latin would not have fulfilled their command as well as the vernacular, which is understood by the learned and the unlearned alike.
Moreover, Latin would have explained them to people of other languages, such as the Germans and the English and others, and here it would have exceeded their command; for it would have been against their will (broadly speaking, I say) for their meaning to have been explained where they could not convey it together with their beauty. Therefore everyone should know that nothing harmonized according to the rules of poetry can be translated from its native tongue into another without destroying all its sweetness and harmony. This is the reason why Homer has not been translated from Greek into Latin as have been other writings we have of theirs. And this is the reason why the verses of the Psalter lack the 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 fully dealt with what was promised at the beginning of the chapter immediately preceding this one.