Book Review: Dialectical Disputations

Dialectical DisputationsLorenzo VallaBrian Copenhaver, Lodi Nauta, translatorsHarvard University Press, 2012Nowhere is the central, burning dichotomy of the Italian Renaissance - the veneration of/challenging of the past - better embodied than in the figure of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), who valued the peace of patronage but waged literary wars his whole life, who venerated ancient authors of Greece and Rome but didn't hesitate to castigate them, and who sought (and eventually received) a clerical berth while at the same time levelling against the Church the most devastating attack since martyrs faced arena lions. Valla made that attack upon the so-called "Donation of Constantine," a document (lovingly promulgated by ecclesiastical authorities) in which the emperor Constantine cedes the Church temporal authority over vast tracts of land. Using a purely historical method comprised of research, philology, and deduction, Valla exposed the document as a fraud - and yet he'd have cuffed the head of anybody who described this as an attack on the Church itself. Rather, he might have said, it was itself an act of faith: faith in words.The greatest expression of that faith in Valla's collected works is the powerful and detailed thesis he sometimes called Retractatio totius dialecticae cum fundamentis universae philosophiae, and in two recent volumes from I Tatti Renaissance Library from Harvard University Press, translators Brian Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta give this extended virtuoso performance its first full-dress translation into English, under the much catchier title of Dialectical Disputations. Valla finished the first version of this book in 1439, when, as our tell us, "he was already notorious for bad temper and bad manners but also famous for his fertile intellect."Valla spent years trying to find that intellect a paying home. He was denied a position in the Curia, taught rhetoric ("and picked fights with lawyers") at the University of Pavia, and eventually ended up at the court of King Alfonso of Aragon (called - not least by himself - "The Magnanimous") in 1435, where he found a measure of security sufficient to write his greatest works. The core of those works, as Copenhaver and Nauta write, remains the same - to weed the garden of rhetoric and yank out the thorny infiltrations of medieval scholasticism:

Throughout a brilliant career, his purpose never wavered: to read the classics - especially the Latin classics - as an archive of common usage in speaking and of common sense in thinking.

The problem with Valla - at least from a popularizer's point of view, is that he spent his entire life writing scholarly books for scholars and about scholars. The ardent passions behind those books are unmistakably the birthing-fires of modern intellectual inquiry, but the works themselves in the 21st Century are tough sells to anybody who isn't a Renaissance scholar. Our translators face this problem head-on, writing, for instance, about Refinements of the Latin Language (which Valla finished in 1441):

As its title suggests, the Elegantiae linguae latinae is no book for beginners. It is a handbook of diction, syntax, and style for readers and writers of Latin who already have a good command of the language.

As counterweight to such problems, Copenhaver and Nauta have found precisely Valla's inimitable voice. Throughout their Dialectical Disputations, the reader can hear the utterly infectious immediacy with which Valla read the works of the ancient world. The glowing gift of the Renaissance was its refusal to think of those works as dead - buoyed by the ongoing re-discovery of manuscripts and armed with a revived knowledge of Greek and Latin, scholars and bookworms like Valla embarked on entirely new ways of reading, and our translators perfectly capture how personal an endeavor it was:

In the seventh book of the City of God, Augustine had nothing more than this to say: "it does not bother writers of our language to use this word 'godness' to translate more precisely from Greek what they call theotes." But I see that you were bothered, Augustine, since in a work so vast I never find you using that term. Why does one read nothing here about the other word, which exists in the ancient authors - theiotetos, I mean - and conforms to the rules of grammar? Why did you not mention it? Because you were not an excellent Hellenist?

(In this passage poor St. Augustine can get no help from St. Thomas Aquinas, who, according to a clearly-enjoying-himself Valla, "who was no better at Latin than you were at Greek.")Absent a winning popular biography of Valla in English (and lacking, as we probably always will, a sturdy Penguin Classic of his Greatest Hits), these I Tatti volumes must do lonely duty in attempting to bring one of the greatest Renaissance scholars to the broader audience he deserves. And whether or not that attempt succeeds, these volumes, these Dialectical Disputations, are wonderful, worthy things on their own. Readers seeking lively, challenging company can't do much better than Valla, and now they have his greatest work in an English language version he would have loved.