THE CONVIVIO, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 9 BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
by Dante Alighieri
translated by Richard Lansing
From all three of the above-mentioned conditions, all of which must be met in order for complete generosity to be found in a benefit, the Latin commentary was remote, whereas the vernacular is close to them, which can be plainly demonstrated as follows. Latin would not have served many, for, if we call to mind what was said above, the learned to whom the Italian language is foreign could not have availed themselves of this service; and regarding those who are native to this language, if we wish to consider who they are, we shall find that out of a thousand not one would have been served in a reasonable manner, because they would not have received it, so prone are they to avarice that it deprives them of all nobility of mind, a virtue that desires this food above all. To their shame I say that they should not be called learned, because they do not acquire learning for its own use but only insofar as through it they may gain money or honor; just as we should not call a lute-player someone who keeps a lute in his house for the purpose of renting it out, as opposed to playing on it.
Returning to the main proposition, I say that it may clearly be seen that Latin would have conferred its benefits on few while the vernacular will be of service to many. For goodness of mind, which this service attends to, is found in those who because of the world’s wicked neglect of good have left literature to those who have changed it from a lady into a whore; and these noble persons comprise princes, barons, knights, and many other noble people, not only men but women, of which there are many in this language who know only the vernacular and are not learned.
Moreover, Latin would not have been the giver of a useful gift as will the vernacular, because nothing is useful except insofar as it is used. Nor does its goodness reside in potentiality, which is not a perfect state of being, just as in the case of gold, pearls, and other treasures that lie buried, and I speak only of what is buried, because what is in the hands of the miser lies in a place lower than the ground in which treasure is hidden. The true gift of this commentary lies in the meaning of the canzoni for which it is made, meaning which is intended above all to lead men to knowledge and virtue, as will be seen in the full course of their treatment. This meaning can be of use only to those in whom true nobility is sown, in the manner that will be described below in the fourth book; and almost all of these persons know only the vernacular, like the noble men and women referred to earlier in this chapter. No contradiction arises even if there are some learned persons to be found among them; for, as my master Aristotle says in the first book of the Ethics, “one swallow does not make spring.” It is therefore evident that the vernacular will provide something useful and that Latin would not have provided it.
Moreover, the vernacular will give a gift unasked, which Latin would not have done, because it will give itself as a commentary, something that no one has ever asked for; and this cannot be said of Latin, which has already been asked for as a commentary and a gloss on many writings, as may readily be seen at the beginning of many of them. And so it is evident that complete generosity moved me to employ the vernacular rather than Latin.