Speak No Evil, Speak No Good


Amongst research for some other posts, I was thumbing through Dante’s Convivio. While nowhere near as well known as his Divine Comedy, (at least popularly) it offers some intriguing insights into his underlying philosophical approach to reality, especially as it is worked out in his writing.

In Convivio (which means The Banquet) Dante gives full expression to an intense period (some 2+ years) of philosophical study, both in metaphysics (and other disciplines to which it was conjoined in his day) and even in considerations of philosophy itself. To some extent Convivio is a philosophical analogue to St. Augustine’s Confessions, as we witness the introspective journey of Dante from the nascent buds of philosophical curiosity into the bloom of a more fully developed method, interspersed (and undergirded by) poetical celebrations of the love of Wisdom.

In the first Book Dante creates an introduction of sorts- he will in following books craft poetical Odes and then provide commentaries in prose for the Odes. (This will be rendered in Italian, although in his day most works of this sort were in Latin.) But this opening Book also acts as an apologia for the style, the presentation and even the work itself.

While the Odes and the Commentaries are noteworthy in and of themselves, it was this opening apology that caught my attention. After all, it is often in the defense that one can savor the true intentions of an author.

Presentation is everything

In Book 1, Chapter 2 Dante finds cause to purge his work of the knots and warts which might be occasioned by the nature of the presentation, heading critique off at the pass, so to speak. Under the figure of the banquet, (the convivio) he characterizes his exposition as the bread- in any good dinner party, you have to make sure the food looks nice. In Dante’s time as much as our own, presentation is everything:

At the commencement of every well-run banquet the servants normally take the bread set out, and cleanse it of any impurity. So I, who play their role in the present work, intend first of all to remove two impurities from this exposition, which forms the bread I am serving.

Of the two impurities Dante has in mind here, the first caught my attention:

1. It is a rhetorical no-no to talk about yourself unless absolutely necessary

In the modern world this an almost incomprehensible notion. After all, things like Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and, yes, even this blog, exist primarily to talk about oneself. Many of the structures of modern society are built around talking about oneself, whether that be with words or other mediums. Being able to ‘express yourself’ in any variety of different ways (from your blog to your burgers) form much of the substratum of how moderns perceive their individuality.

But what are Dante’s reasons for having this concern? Is it some sort of misplaced modesty that wishes to conceal less worthy motives under a guise of humility? Or do rhetoricians suffer from some measure of self-loathing?

Watch your words

In the rhetorical theory of Dante’s time, the utility of words carried a moral connotation, especially when used of an individual. Thus, any words used of somebody carry either a measure of praise or of blame. There was simply no getting around this.

…the reason for this restriction is that one cannot avoid praising or criticizing the person about whom one speaks, and such things are coarse, when spoken of self, on anyone’s lips.

But surely praise is better than blame? Dante would agree, but thinks it’s best to avoid either when referring to oneself. As he gets into the reasoning behind this he offers some extremely insightful glances into the relation of self-knowledge to self-exposition.

To disparage oneself is blameworthy in itself, since one should tell a friend of his faults in private, and no one is a greater friend than a man is to himself; so that one should reprimand oneself and sorrow over one’s defects in the chamber of one’s own thought, and not publicly.

Instead of beginning with the intra-personal dynamic of self-knowledge, Dante starts with the interpersonal dynamic. Setting himself squarely in the command of Jesus to privately rebuke a friend’s wrong, Dante reasons that if one shouldn’t publicly ridicule or correct a friend, even more so one should not publicly reprimand oneself. Dante looks at the lower case with the greatest relational distance and then extrapolates the ethic to the higher case with the least relational distance.

Having expressed this logical movement, he applies it to the case of self-blame to demonstrate that is not the higher of the the two, (in the sense of expressing humility or the like) but rather divulges a lack of virtue.

Then, a person is not usually blamed for being unable or ignorant of how to behave properly, but always for being unwilling to do so, because good and evil are judged by our willingness or unwillingness; therefore he who criticizes himself shows that he endorses his faults, endorses his lack of virtue: thus criticizing oneself is, of itself, to be rejected.

Dante’s point here is that we don’t criticize people for their inabilities, but for their willing something un-virtuous or not willing to do something virtuous. For example, we don’t blame someone who is asleep for not warning someone about a fire, but we would probably do so for someone who is awake. In the former case it would simply betoken ignorance, but in the latter malice at worst, indifference at best, both falling far short of virtue.

Going on from this foundation, only the self (and God, which is implied) can truly know motivations of oneself. Thus, if one publicly blames oneself, it is not a form of modesty or humility but is rather an admission of a bad conscience; speaking of it becomes an endorsement, and if couched in the language of humility, only further perpetuates the lie since the blame itself attempts to become a smokescreen for the underlying lack of virtue.

But for Dante praise of oneself is hardly better- at best the lesser of the two evils. In the cases that one is forced to speak of oneself, Dante would prefer praise, and as little of it as possible.

Praising oneself is to be avoided only as an accidental ill, since one cannot praise oneself without it being mostly blame. It is surface praise, but blame to him who looks beneath: for words are made to reveal what is unknown; and he who praises himself shows that he does not think himself valued, which implies a bad conscience, which he discloses in praising himself, and by disclosing it criticizes himself.

Dante makes an extremely valuable point here- self-praise is mostly blame. His reason for this conclusion is simple- words are meant to give insight into things and knowledge of them. True self-praise on the surface is good and honorable; if one is prudent even the intent can survive the exigency. But as Dante warns, praise lies only on the surface- the more you dig, the dirtier things become.

The implication is that those who indulge in self-praise have something to hide, as the words are used to give a false impression and serve as a replacement for knowledge. (i.e., that what lies beneath is not what the words convey.) The more words one uses to praise oneself, the deeper the hole becomes. Eventually it becomes clear to all that the words are making up for what doesn’t exist, and soon the words themselves can become a conduit of blame. As the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The more words one uses for oneself, the more teeth the grow to bite back.

The one who confident of their virtue and reputation has no need for self-praise, for their virtue is evidence of itself. There is no room for preemptive laudations, since the truth of the matter is a sufficient defense. Likewise, sin is also evident to all eventually. Declaring one’s faults is no more indication of virtue than hanging up dirty laundry is of cleanliness.

Know thyself, or shut thyself up

Then, self-praise and self-criticism are to be avoided for the same reason as giving false testimony; since no one can truly take their own measure truly and justly, so greatly does self-love deceive.

This insight of Dante’s should probably rank higher than nearly any other, for it gives an absolutely chilling corrective to any sorts of words we might use of ourselves. It follows in much the same vein as St. Paul who says:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. (Romans 12:3b)

Aristotle (whom Dante is following in the Convivio) realizes the same thing:

Since then it is both a most difficult thing, as some of the sages have said, to attain a knowledge of oneself, and also a most pleasant (for to know oneself is pleasant) — now we are not able to see what we are from ourselves (and that we cannot do so is plain from the way in which we blame others without being aware that we do the same things ourselves; and this is the effect of favour or passion, and there are many of us who are blinded by these things so that we judge not aright); as then when we wish to see our own face, we do so by looking into the mirror, in the same way when we wish to know ourselves we can obtain that knowledge by looking at our friend. (Aristotle, Magna Moralia)

Dante’s point is that while we know ourselves better than others know us, there is still a measure of ourselves that we simply cannot know for a multitude of reasons. He goes back to one of his earlier arguments- we don’t publicly admonish a friend (about whom we have limited knowledge) for their faults; in the same way we must realize that our self-knowledge is also limited and thus constrains our ability to praise or blame it properly.

The bottom line argument is that anything one says about oneself is based on incomplete knowledge. Since this is invariably the case, one should careful consider the words one uses of oneself- the best case scenario being that one says as little as possible. As Dante admits, in some cases it is inescapable, but to engage in self-praise or self-blame as a matter of course is to become more and more dishonest.

 keep your coinage pure

Everyone measures themselves like a dishonest trader who buys with one measure and sells with another; since everyone uses a large measure for his bad deeds, and a short measure for his good ones, so that number, weight and size of the good seem greater than if a true measure was used, and lesser in the case of the bad. So, in speaking of oneself, with praise or its opposite, one either speaks falsely concerning the matter one talks of, or falsely regarding its importance, which covers both cases.

Dante uses the figure of a dishonest merchant who buys with one weight and sells with another. In like manner we know ourselves with one degree of knowledge but then often speak with another, the effect being that either praise or blame become methods of deception. The blame is weightier (we make ourselves out to be miserable wretches who can do no right!) and the praise is lighter. (It was only a trifle! I’m not a saint!)

But then the measures get flipped for others- the same wrong becomes merely a trifle, the same virtue a heroic act. In our relations with others this very act of dishonest weights causes others to fall into the same trap. Someone praises another for a virtue and the other must make it out to be less than it is. Someone reproaches another and the other must bear the burden by which they blame themselves. In other words, the dishonest weight is forced upon the customers and becomes the new standard.

A vicious cycle begins.

Shut it!

Of course, one might wonder if Dante isn’t being too strict here. After all, how can we get away without talking about ourselves? Dante is not oblivious to objections, and lays out two escape routes, the only times to mention one’s virtue or vice:

1. To prevent infamy or danger (that is, clearing up misconceptions and the like- Dante’s example is Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy)

2. Serving as an example for a progression from vice to virtue (Dante’s example is St. Augustine’s Confessions)

Other than that, the door is shut.

Like your mouth should be.


Convivio translation found here.

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