THE CONVIVIO, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 8 BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
by Dante Alighieri
translated by Richard Lansing
Now that it has been shown by sufficient reasons that to avoid an inappropriate relationship a commentary in the vernacular and not in Latin would be necessary for unfolding and explaining the canzoni mentioned above, I intend also to show how complete generosity made me choose the former and forgo the latter. Now complete generosity may be observed in three things which are a consequence of using the vernacular and which would not have been a consequence of using Latin. The first is giving to many; the second is giving useful things; the third is giving a gift without its being asked.
It is good to give to and to help one, but it is complete goodness to give to and to help many in that it resembles the beneficence of God, who is the most universal benefactor. Moreover, to give to many without giving to one is impossible, since the one is included in the many; however, it is quite possible to give to one without giving to many. Therefore he who helps many does the one good and the other as well; he who helps one does only the one good; and hence we see that lawmakers keep their eyes fixed chiefly on the common good when making laws. Moreover, to give things that are not useful to the recipient is also good, in that he who gives knows at least that he is a friend; but it is not perfectly good, and so it is not complete, as, for example, if a knight were to give a shield to a doctor, or a doctor were to give a knight a copy of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms or Galen’s Art. Therefore the wise say that the face of a gift must resemble that of the recipient, that is to say, it should be appropriate and useful to him; and in this the generosity of him who is discerning in his gifts is called complete.(14) But since a discussion of ethics usually engenders a desire to ascertain their origin, I intend in this chapter briefly to point out four reasons why a gift, in order for it to manifest complete generosity, should be useful to the person who receives it.
First, because virtue must be cheerful, and not sad in any of its acts; therefore, if the gift is not cheerful in the giving and in the receiving, there is in it neither perfect nor complete virtue. This cheerfulness can be vouchsafed by nothing but usefulness which abides in the giver through giving and which comes to the recipient through receiving. The giver, therefore, must have the foresight to act so that on his side there remains the usefulness of integrity which surpasses every usefulness, and so that the usefulness of using the thing given passes to the recipient; in this way both will be cheerful, and consequently generosity will be the more complete.
Second, because virtue must always move things toward the better; for, as it would be a blameworthy act to turn a fine sword into a spade or a beautiful lute into a beautiful goblet, so it is blameworthy to move a thing from a place where it is useful and convey it to a place where it will be less useful. And since it is blameworthy to work in vain, it is blameworthy not only to put a thing in a place where it is less useful but even in a place where it is equally useful. Therefore, for a change in things to be praiseworthy, it must always be for the better, because it should be praiseworthy in the highest degree, and it cannot do this in a gift unless the gift becomes more precious through its transfer; and it cannot become more precious unless it is more useful to the recipient than to the giver. From this we may conclude that the gift, if it is to manifest complete generosity, must be useful to the person who receives it.
Third, because the exercise of virtue in itself should be to acquire friends, since our life has such a need, and the end of virtue is to make ourselves content. Therefore, for a gift to make a friend of the recipient, it must be useful to him, because usefulness stamps the image of the gift in his memory–which is the nourishment of friendship–and much more strongly the greater it is. Thus Martin is used to saying, “The gift that John gave me will never fade from my mind.”(15) So that, for the gift to have its virtue, which is generosity, and for it to be complete, it must be useful to the person receiving it.
Finally, virtue must be free in its action and not compelled. Action is free when a person goes willingly in some direction, as is evident from his keeping his face turned in that direction; action is compelled when a man acts against his will, as is shown by his not looking in the direction in which he is going. Now a gift looks in such a direction when it is directed to the needs of the recipient. Since it cannot be so directed if it is not useful, it is necessary that virtue, in order for it to move with free action, accompany the gift in the direction in which it goes, which is to the recipient; consequently the gift must be useful to the recipient in order for there to be complete generosity in it.
The third trait in which complete generosity can be observed is giving without being asked, because a thing asked for is on one side a matter of commerce, not virtue, since the recipient buys even though the giver does not sell. This is why Seneca says that “nothing is so dearly bought as that which is paid for with prayers.”(16) In order therefore that there may be complete generosity in the gift and that it be manifest in it, it must be free from every act of commerce: the gift must be unasked. Why what is prayed for costs so much I do not intend to discuss here, because it will be discussed sufficiently in the last book of this work.
14. the wise say See, for example, Seneca, De beneficiis II, 1; II, 17; IV, 9.
15. Thus Martin is used to saying Martin and John are conventional names, typical of the Scholastic practice (compare Thomas Aquinas, S.T. I, 119, 1r.).
16. This is why Seneca says De beneficiis II, 1.