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Posts Tagged ‘Leon Battista Alberti’

Read this in December of 2013.   A short work, translation of De Commodis litterarum atque incommodis.  More accurate translation would be On the usefulness and uselessness of scholarship.

The short work, written sometime between 1428 and 1430 and dedicated to Alberti’s elder brother, Carlo, is a long diatribe complaining about the poor regard that society has for scholars.  Scholars, he says, should be the most revered people, but instead they are disdained.  Their work is considered useless, it does not pay, and it leads in the long run to penury and illness.  One must wonder what Carlo, who took over the family’s business thought of all this.
Overall, I find his arguments rather tedious, especially with all their classism and sexism, but there are a couple of passages that stand out for their resonance even today:
“Yet, at present the crowd is more pleased with malice than with righteousness, with deception, frivolity, and insolence than with humane and modest conduct, and it is the crowd without whose approval the man of learning can never escape poverty.  The crowd, unable itself to beat the cunning bent on conquest and pillage with which their masters enter into lawsuits, when they see schemer colliding with schemer, glorify the one who wins by more successful scheming.  This, if an unscrupulous learned legalist takes up an unjust case, they will call him a great master, the best of men, and a great friend.  They have come to think deception a virtue, they admire the art of creating a mask and a false image as a remarkable mobilization of knowledge, and they believe that malice and wickedness and deliberate misinformation are derived from recondite knowledge.  When a man is good and just and holy, when he argues cases for the merit they have in terms of justice and equity, when he stands for law and truth, not employing deceit and audacious lies, not shifting his allegiance at will, not hoping to win for the sake of money, but fighting for the sake of honor, they call him useless, ignorant, and a loser of cases.”  (p. 36)
“But let us return to our populace, who have always given the highest honors to gold and wealth.  Indeed, it is no mystery why the crowd is moved, not so much by virtue as by outward splendor.  For the ignorant are attracted by the things they can see with their eyes while those things that can and ought to enlighten them do not move them.  So the ignorant desire the riches they can see and disregard the wisdom they do not have, follow after property and despise virtue.”  (p. 47)
Leon Battista Alberti, The Use and Abuse of Books (De commodis litterarum atque incommodis), translation and introduction by Renee Neu Watkins (Project Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1999).    @RPB: PA8450.A5U84x 1999
Have things changed very much?
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