The title of the newest book in Harvard University Press's I Tatti series, "Ciceronian Controversies" (336 pages, $29.95), will not seem self-evidently arousing to a large sector of the reading public. Unless one labors under an acute addiction to lost causes, it is unclear what relevance an obscure 16th-century literary kerfuffle could possibly have for those who, at the moment, are pleased to count themselves among the living.
As regards the battles between the Ancients and the Moderns, the Poussinists and the Rubensists, and the Wagnerians and the Brahmsians, at least some people have heard of them today, even though few of us get agitated on their account. But the Ciceronian controversies of the 16th century will likely come as news even to students of early modern literature: Unlike those other controversies, these involve the proper composition of Latin prose, which few people today can even read let alone write. More precisely, the 11 texts collected in this volume inquire whether Latin prose-writers should follow Ciceroalone, or Cicero and a multitude of other ancient writers.
And yet, believe it or not, the central issues of the book still make a worthy claim upon our attention. And this new bilingual edition, edited by JoAnn DellaNeva and translated by Brian Duvick, brings before the public for the first time in one blue volume, as beautifully printed as its 20 predecessors in this series, the most crucial documents in a literary debate that once engaged the finest minds in Europe.
The Ciceronian controversies came in three waves over three generations. The first exchange dates from the mid-1480s, between Angelo Poliziano, possibly the finest of Neo-Latin poets, and a philosopher named Paolo Cortesi. Back then, intellectual jousting was little short of a blood sport, which is why Poliziano, who rejects the primacy of Cicero, responds thus to a collection of writings that Cortesi, an ardent Tullian, has sent him: "If I may speak freely, I am ashamed to have so badly spent so many good hours reading them. Except for a very few, they are unworthy of having been read by a learned man or having been collected by you."
Round two occurs in an exchange from 1512–13 between the anti-Ciceronian Gianfrancesco Pico (nephew of the more famous Pico della Mirandola) and Pietro Bembo, better known today for his services to Italian rather than Latin. The third and final episode, between 1532 and 1537, involved Giraldi Cintio and Celio Calcagnini, the former more than less a Ciceronian, the latter less than more. Though not included in this volume (which, like the entire I Tatti series, publishes Italians' writing in Latin), the great Erasmus became caught up in this question with his sarcastic dialogue, "Ciceronus," which pokes savage fun at the slavish imitators of the Roman orator.
There are three reasons in chief why this book should interest you. The first is that it raises the profound and important question of cultural imitation. We live in an age that demands of our artificers that, in Pound's famous dictum, they "Make it new!" In every province of culture, we esteem poets, painters, dancers, and composers for a certain rebellious novelty, rather than for the mastery of a precedent corpus of artistic expression. Now there is no one right answer to the question of whether to embrace or repudiate imitation in art. What is important is that, thoughtlessly, we have ceased to pose the question at all in more than a century.
A second valid claim of this book is paradoxically a consequence of its very remoteness, even irrelevance, to most of our daily lives. Recalling the civil wars that the Lilliputians fought over which side of the egg to break first, this volume gently if indirectly reminds us of the vanity of so many of those heated intellectual debates that vex us today, different from, and yet strangely akin to, the ones that vexed our forebears and will vex our grandchildren. At the same time, the book reminds us of Freud's "narcissism of small differences," and the fact that, in any age, the proponents on either side of a controversy are likely, for all their mutual animosity, to have more in common than either side has with apparently like-minded people from an earlier or latter age: Brahms sounds much more like Wagner than either sounds like Beethoven.
Finally, the authors included in this volume are writing Latin at a very high, even virtuosic level. And despite their apparent differences, they all agree, so implicitly that the matter is never raised, that the correct way to write is through the use of what is known as periodic syntax, long and involved sentences that achieve beauty not merely through the choice of words — as is overwhelmingly the case today — but also through the elegant fracturing of sense into interlocking subordinate clauses gracefully resolved into a satisfying whole.
By way of an English illustration, consider these sublime words from President Lincoln's first inaugural: "Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
In an age such as ours, when English teachers encourage listless students to write short and unadorned sentences, the art of syntax has been entirely lost. The glorious pauses and resumptions, the swirling syntactical eddies of Lincoln's prose, are now beyond the capacity, and even beyond the patience, of the average writer and the average reader. What once approached poetry has now been replaced by something that, in its denuded utilitarianism, approaches telegraphy. So much has been lost and no one has even perceived its disappearance! Yet that syntactical grace is evident to a supreme degree in the dazzling Latin prose that makes up this book.