An Incitement Either to Teamwork or to Rivalry

Lorenzo Valla, Speech on the Beginning of Study:

It is so arranged by nature that nothing can achieve perfection or grow which is not composed, elaborated, and cultivated by many, especially when they are vying with each other in turn and competing for praise. What sculptor, or painter, or other artist could have stood out as perfect or at least great in their own art, if they had been the only practitioner of it? One person discovers one thing, and each person tries to imitate, emulate, and surpass whatever excellence they notice in the work of another. Thus is zeal kindled, thus is proficiency achieved, thus do the arts increase and reach the heights, indeed all the better and all the swifter when many people work toward the same thing, as in the case of creating a city, where completion is achieved faster and better if the hands of many, rather than of few, are applied to the task.

Nanque ita natura comparatum est, ut nihil admodum proficere atque excrescere queat quod non a plurimis componitur, elaboratur, excolitur, precipue emulantibus invicem et de laude certantibus. Quis enim faber statuarius, pictor item et ceteri in suo artificio perfectus aut etiam magnus extitisset, si solus opifex eius artificii fuisset? Alius aliud invenit et quod quisque in altero egregium animadvertit id ipse imitari, emulari, superare conatur. Ita studia incenduntur, profectus fiunt, artes excrescunt et in summum evadunt et eo quidem melius eoque celerius quo plures in eandem rem homines elaborant, veluti in extruenda aliqua urbe et citius et melius ad consumationem pervenitur, si plurimorum quam paucissimorum manus adhibeantur

The Intellectual Importance of Translation

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, (Chp. 6)

The intellectual importance of translation is so obvious that it is often overlooked. No language, no nation is sufficient unto itself. Its mind must be enlarged by the thoughts of other nations, or else it will warp and shrivel. In English, as in other languages, many of the greatest ideas we use have been brought in through translation. The central book of the English-speaking peoples is a translation — although it comes as a shock to many to realize that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translated by a committee of scholars. There are many great books which none but specialists need read in the original, but which through translation have added essential ideas to our minds: Euclid’s Elements,  Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Marx’s Capital, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The artistic and linguistic importance of translation is almost as great as its importance in the field of ideas. To begin with, the practice of translation usually enriches the translator’s language with new words. This is because most translations are made from a language with a copious vocabulary into a poorer language which must be expanded by the translator’s courage and inventiveness. The modern vernacular languages — English, French, Spanish, &c. — grew out of spoken dialects which had little or no written literatures, were geographically limited, and were used largely for practical and seldom for intellectual purposes. They were therefore simple, unimaginative, and poor in comparison with Latin and Greek. Soon after people began to write in them they set out to enrich them and make them more expressive. The safest and most obvious way to do so was to borrow from the literary language at their side and bring in Latin words. This enlargement of the western European languages by importations from Latin and Greek was one of the most important activities which prepared for the Renaissance; and it was largely carried on by translators.

Faded Elegances in Faded Latin

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (Chp. 12):

Du Bellay’s thesis was this. It is unpatriotic for a Frenchman to write in Latin. It is an admission of inferiority for a Frenchman to write in French without trying to equal the grandest achievements of Greek and Latin literature. Therefore French poetry should loot the Roman city and the Delphic temple’, raising the literature of France to a higher power by importing into it themes, myths, stylistic devices, all the beauty of Greece and Rome. Abandon the old medieval mystery-plays and morality-plays. But also abandon the idea of writing plays in Latin. Write tragedies and comedies as fine as those of the classical dramatists, but in French. Abandon the old-style French lyrics, leave them to provincial festivals and folk-gatherings: they are ‘vulgar’. But also abandon the idea of writing lyrics in Latin or Greek. Write ‘odes still unknown to the French muse’ containing all that makes Pindar great, but in French.

Du Bellay was right. Nationalism narrows culture; extreme classicism desiccates it. To enrich a national literature by bringing into it the strength of the continent-wide and centuries-ripe culture to which it belongs is the best way to make it eternally great. This can be proved both positively and negatively in the Renaissance. It was this synthesis of national and classical elements that produced, in England, Shakespeare’s tragedies and the epics of Spenser and Milton. It was the same synthesis in France that, after a period of experiment, produced the lyrics of Ronsard, the satires of Boileau, the dramas not only of Racine and Corneille but of Molière. It was the failure to complete such a synthesis that kept the Germans and certain other nations from producing any great works of literature during the sixteenth century, and made them spend their efforts either on imitating other nations, writing folk-songs and folk-tales, or composing faded elegances in faded Latin.

Learn Some Vices!

Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 23:

In the Roman Curia Fortune has the most sway, since there is very rarely any place for talent or virtue. Everything is offered up either by ambition or by chance (I will remain silent about the influence of money, which seems to command influence everywhere in the world). A certain friend, who was vexed that many people inferior to him in learning and morals were nevertheless preferred to him, was complaining with Angelottus, a cardinal of St. Mark, that no account was made of his virtues, but that he was placed behind the men who were in no way equal to him. He then added some recollections of his own studies and his labors in learning. Then, the Cardinal, ever prompt in chastising the vices of the Curia, said, ‘Here knowledge and learning are of no use. But persevere, and set aside some free time to unlearn some things and acquire some vices, if you want to be accepted by the Pope.’

In Curia Romana ut plurimum Fortuna dominatur, cum perraro locus sit vel ingenio, vel virtuti; sed ambitione et opportunitate parantur omnia, ut de nummis sileam, qui ubique terrarum imperare videntur. Amicus quidam, qui aegre ferebat praeferri sibi multos doctrina et probitate inferiores, querebatur apud Angelottum cardinalem Sancti Marci nullam haberi suae virtutis rationem, sed postponi his, qui nulla in re sibi pares essent. Sua insuper studia commemoravit, et in discendo labores. Tum promptus ad lacessendum Curiae vitia cardinalis, “Hic scientia et doctrina” inquit “nihil prosunt. Sed perge et aliquod tempus ad dediscendum et addiscendum vitia vaca, si vis Pontifici acceptus esse”.

“Glad You Like Greek – Now Where Are My F**king Books?”

Lorenzo Valla, Epistolae (6):
Lorenzo Valla gives his greetings to that exceptional man Giovanni Tortelli
I have received news that you are wondrously dedicated to Greek literature, which is exceptionally pleasing news to me. I hope, for our friendship, that you will be a totally singular man in the humanities, as even in other arts. But more about this at another time. I am writing to you now in haste wishing to be informed whether you returned my books to my brother, or whether you still have them with you? This way I’ll know who I can run to when the need arises. Farewell.

Accepi te mirifice deditum litteris grecis, quod mihi pergratum est. Pro nostra amicitia spero te singularem virum fore in studiis humanitatis, ut et in ceteris artibus. Sed hec alias. Nunc per festinantiam scribo volens abs te certior fieri an libros meos fratri meo reddideris,?an? tecum retinueris, ut sciam, quando opus erit, ad quem possem recurrere. Vale.

Dangers of Delegated Authority

Petrarch, Epystole Seniles 14.1.28

On this side, I am scarcely able to advise and exhort you enough not to put anyone of these people in charge of the country committed to you, thus making someone else the lord and not you. For there have been many in power who, while they wish to raise up their own people, have depressed their own standing and made themselves both contemptible and hated to the people, sold out and mocked by the very people whom they had promoted to the heights of power. In which especially Claudius, who preceded Nero in power, was considered vile because he so far elevated his freedmen (Narcissus and Pallas, men of no account) that they ruled provinces and stole both from him and from the empire. Yet he was needy while his slaves were rich. As Tranquillus says, “addicted both to the freedmen and to his wives, he conducted himself not like a prince, but like a minister.” By their counsel and driving, he did many things stupidly and cruelly.

Elegabalus is noted for the same thing, because he kept among him those who held exceptional sway to the suffering of all, and those who would sell everything, and some wicked familiars, who, as Lampridius says, “were turning him from a stupid man into a stupider man.” The same fault may be found in Didius Julianus, because he had put in charge of ruling the empire those whom he ought to have ruled with imperial authority.

Yet all of these things are tolerable enough under stupid or middling princes. But I suspect nothing middling, nothing not outstanding or singular from you. You will not satisfy my hopes nor those of the many unless you reach good and noble men, or sail past them and leave them behind your back. If anything should be lacking, I will attribute it not to nature but to you. Why do we delay over these minor examples, when it has been established that under Marc Antony, such a man and such a prince, his freedmen had substantial influence?

For which reason, both you and those to whom power and beneficence has been granted ought to take rather diligent care lest, under the pretext of humanity (in which you excel), you allow yourself to slip into this vice into which even famous princes have lapsed. For even if all illustrious men are to be imitated, yet not all of the vices of illustrious men should be embraced. There is no one who would not err in some way, and none who are not occasionally dissimilar to themselves.

Lawrence Alma Tadema, Proclaiming Claudius Emperor

Hac parte unum hoc monere satis atque hortari vix sufficio, ne quem talium sic commisse tibi patrie preficias, ut alius dominus sit quam tu. Fuerunt enim multi in imperio qui, dum suos attollere cupiunt, sese depresserunt et contemptibiles atque invisos populis effecerunt, per eos ipsos, quos ad alta promoverant, venditi et irrisi. In quo maxime Claudius, qui Neronem precessit in imperio, vilis est habitus, qui libertos suos, nullius precii homines, Possidem et Felicem, Narcissum et Pallantem, usque adeo evexit, ut provincias regerent eumque ipsum atque imperium spoliarent: et ille infelix servis suis affluentibus indigeret. «His et uxoribus addictus», ut Tranquillus ait, «non se principem sed ministrum egit»; horumque consilio et impulsu multa stulte gessit, multa crudeliter.

Eadem in re notatus est Heliogabalus, quod haberet qui apud eum plurimum possent omnium cum dolore, quique omnia venderent, et familiares improbos, «qui eum», ut Lampridius ait, «ex stulto stultiorem faciebant». Idem reprehensum in Didio Iuliano, quia quos regere auctoritate imperii debuisset, eos regendo imperio prefecisset.

Verumtamen hec sub stultis aut mediocribus principibus utcumque tolerabilia. Ego autem ex te nichil mediocre, nichil non egregium et singulare suscipio; non mee quidem et multorum spei satisfeceris, nisi bonos quoslibet et claros viros aut attigeris aut prevectus post terga reliqueris; si quid forte defuerit, non nature imputem sed tibi. Quid vero minoribus immoremur, cum sub Marco Antonio, tali viro et principe, libertos quoque multum potuisse compertum sit?

Quo tibi et omnibus quibus preesse et prodesse propositum, diligentius providendum est, ne humanitatis obtentu, qua plurimum polles, in hoc te vitium labi sinas, in quod clari etiam principes lapsi sunt. Etsi enim viri omnes illustres imitandi, non tamen omnia virorum illustrium amplectenda sunt. Nemo est qui aliqua in parte non erret sitque sibi ipse dissimilis.

The Son Also (Surp)rises

Petrarch, On the Remedies of Fortune Good and Bad (2.79):

You don’t have the raw material for perpetuating your tyranny. For indeed, what is a kingdom if not a tyranny grown august with antiquity? That which is bad in its nature cannot become good with time. Add to this the fact that quite often, those who succeed to a throne often step off the well-trod footpath of their ancestors. Examples of this include Hieronymus the Sicilian tyrant and Jugurtha the Numidian, who violated the friendship of the Romans which was cultivated with such faith and so felicitously for a long time by their grandparents. One of them did it with insolence, the other through perfidy, but both of them suffered destruction.

So, you don’t have a successor to your throne? Well then, you will not have an overturner of your acts, but you will still have a population, a lover and cultivator of your name, one that remembers you and owes its liberty to you through the ages. Consider that Fortune has done you a solid favor, because it either took away your son or denied one to you, which is far better even than the fact that it gave you the kingdom in the first place.

Non est tibi materia perpetuande tyrannidis. Nam quid sunt aliud regna quam vetuste tyrannides? Non sit bonum tempore, quod natura est malum. Adde quod persepe qui in regna succedunt, a maiorum suorum calle discedunt. Exemplo sunt Hieronymus Siculus tyrannus, et Iugurtha Numidicus, qui Romanorum amicitiam tanta fide ab avis tamque feliciter diu cultam, cum sua uterque pernicie alter insolentia, alter perfidia, violavit. Non habes igitur successorem regni? Non habebis tuorum actuum eversorem, sed habebis populum, tui nominis amatorem et cultorem, tui memorem, libertatis tibi per secula debitorem. Bene tecum egisse fortunam credito, et melius multo, quod filium tibi vel abstulit vel negavit, quam quod regnum dedit.

Sorry for the Late Response…

Lorenzo Valla, Letter to Giacomo Moro (March 1433)

Your letters seemed so decorated, so serious, so crammed with the best lines, that I have not dared to write to you until now. And so, you ought to be angry with and impute the delay to your superabundance of good taste than to my superfluity of negligence. Come on, who could look at the rays of the sun? In just such a way, your letters have wounded my eyes with their excessive splendor. And so it is now, after a long time, with my sight regained and my strength recovered, that I write to you.

Littere tue ita ornate, ita graves, ita optimis sententiis referte vise sunt, ut adhuc scribere ad te non sim ausus. Itaque debes magis succensere et imputare tue nimie elegantie quam mee nimie negligentie. Quis enim audeat in solis radios inspicere? Ita tue littere pernimio fulgore oculos meos perstrinxerunt. Nunc itaque post longum tempus quasi resumpto visu recuperatisque viribus ad te scribo.

How Would You Like Some Recycled Classical Wisdom on Oratory?

Petrarch, On the Remedies of Fortune Both Good and Bad (1.1.9:

You read in Sallust that there was in that most crime-steeped man, Catiline, enough eloquence but too little wisdom. Nor indeed did he seek any glory for that eloquence – although a more elevated judgment might consider it not eloquence, but loquacity. For one cannot be a true orator, that is to say the master of eloquence, unless he is also a good man. If you, being good and wise yourself, thought that this impetus for words, which is often found in the talkative and shameless, or that this experience in speaking was enough for oratorical glory and the perfect gift of eloquence, then you have been deceived. Volubility of language, a stock of words, and even a certain verbal art can be the common property of criminals and pious people alike. What you are looking for belongs to the good – not all of them, to be sure, but to very few, such that all wicked people have no part in the praise for which virtue and wisdom (spiritual goods which they lack) are required.

If you can’t understand it this way, I will explain. But keep in mind two things of which I speak: distinctions come to mind, one of Cato and the other of Cicero. One says, “The orator is the good man versed in speaking.” But the other says that “Eloquence is nothing but wisdom speaking copiously.” From these tags you can see that both goodness and wisdom are needed for the essence of the speaker and of eloquence, and yet they are not enough without both experience and copiousness. So, as the first two qualities may be enough to make a man good and wise, these others alone make him neither good, nor wise, nor even eloquent, but loquacious. All taken together, however, bring the orator and his art to completion, which is to be sure a rarer and loftier thing than those who hope to find it in abundant speech. Therefore, if you are looking for the name of orator and the true palm of eloquence, study virtue and wisdom first.

Petrarch - Wikiquote

Satis eloquentie, parum sapientie fuisse in homine illo scelestissimo Catilina apud Crispum legis, neque is quidem gloriam eloquentie quesivit ullam — quamquam altiore iudicio non eloquentia, sed loquacitas illa fuit —. Verus enim orator, hoc est eloquentie magister, nisi vir bonus esse non potest. Quod si bonus et sapiens putabas ad oratorias laudes perfectumque munus eloquentie hunc verborum impetum, qui sepe procacibus atque inverecundis uberior est, sive hanc ipsam dicendi peritiam satis esse, fallebaris: lingue volubilitas et verborum copia atque etiam ars quedam sceleratis piisque communia esse possunt; id quod queris bonorum est, non omnium quidem, sed paucissimorum, ita ut mali omnes huius laudis exortes sint, ad quam scilicet animi bona quibus carent, virtus ac sapientia, requiruntur.

Quod si sic esse non intelligas, dicam. Sed memineris duarum, de quibus loquor, rerum: diffinitiones in mentem redeant, quarum altera Catonis, Ciceronis est altera. Ille ait: “Orator est vir bonus dicendi peritus”; iste autem “nichil est” inquit “aliud eloquentia nisi copiose loquens sapientia”. Ex his vides ad oratoris atque eloquentie essentiam et bonitatem et sapientiam exigi nec tamen sufficere, nisi et peritia adsit et copia. Ita ut prime ille due virum bonum sapientemque duntaxat, he autem sole nec bonum nec sapientem nec eloquentem quidem efficiant sed loquacem, omnes vero coniuncte perficiant oratorem eiusque artificium, quod profecto rarius atque altius est quam putent qui in multiloquio situm sperant. Tu ergo, si oratoris nomen et eloquentie veram laudem queris, virtuti et sapientie primum stude.

“Okay, I Hung Around With Tyrants…Socrates Did It Too!”

Petrarch, Against a Man of Noble Status (31-32):

It is time for the speech to return to me and vindicate me of the charge which you lay upon me, namely that of living with and enjoying the friendship of tyrants. As though it were necessary for people living together to share everything too, when we see that the worst people often live with the good, and the good often live with the worst. Did Socrates not take his place among the Thirty Tyrants in Athens? Did Plato not live with Dionysius, Callisthenes with Alexander, Cato with Catiline, Seneca with Nero? Virtue is not infected by its proximity to vice. For, even if trifling causes are enough to shake delicate spirits, contagion is unable to touch a solid mind. But to this calumny and many others which now already stupidity and anger have impeded me with, I think that I have already responded, and indeed broken the traps of their inane ramblings.

As for the present, I will say one thing. If you believe it, your jaw will drop; if you don’t, you will laugh at me. I place myself under no spirit except That one which gave spirit to me, or at any rate under one whom I am well convinced is a friend to Him – a rare type indeed. I will add that there are some souls of a similar disposition to which love has thrust me under a most pleasing yoke. It is not a light power, but so rare, that from youth up to this age I have been under only a very few such yokes. In this company were both the humble and the noble and some popes and some kings, but it was such that fortune and dignity did not matter – virtue and love drove the entire affair, so I was subjected to them freely, and I grieved greatly whenever death released me from such a service.

“Why sir, might I kiss your ass?”

Tempus est ut ad me ipsum sermo redeat, idque expurget quod michi obicis, convictum atque amicitiam tyrannorum, quasi simul agentibus omnia esse comunia sit necesse, cum sepe tamen inter bonos pessimi, inter pessimos boni habitent. An non inter triginta tyrannos Athenarum Socrates fuit? Plato cum Dyonisio, Callisthenes cum Alexandro, Cato cum Catilina, Seneca cum Nerone? Nec infecta est virtus in vicinitate nequitie; nam, etsi teneros animos sepe leves cause quatiant, solidas mentes morum contagia non attingunt. Huic tamen calumnie multisque aliis quibus non nunc primum me stultitia livorque impedit, uno pridem toto volumine respondisse videor et verborum inanium tendiculas confregisse. Quod ad presens attinet, unum dicam, quod si credas, stupeas, si minus, irrideas: animo quidem sub nullo sum, nisi sub Illo qui michi animum dedit, aut sub aliquo quem valde Illi amicum ipse michi persuaserim, rarum genus. Addam aliquot michi conformes animas, quibus me amor iugo subiecit amenissimo: non leve imperium sed tam rarum, ut ab adolescentia ad hanc etatem perpaucis talibus iugis obnoxius fuerim. Quo in genere et humiles et illustres et pontifices fuerant et reges, ita tamen ut in his fortuna nichil aut dignitas, sed totum virtus amorque ageret, quo illis sponte subicerer, graviteque doluerim quotiens tali me servitio mors absolvit.