Friday 23 December 2022

Ne evagemur in verbis floridis

This term I’ve been running scholastic Latin reading classes at three difficulty levels, and at the highest level I offered to cover not only difficult authors but also “flowery prefaces”, i.e. passages in which authors stray beyond the confines of workaday scholastic prose. In the event, nobody was interested in flowery prefaces, so we stuck to ordinary material by Scotus and (since he is often called difficult) Wyclif. As if on cue, though, I’ve just noticed a good illustration of the way that scholastic authors can confuse historians of philosophy by adopting a higher literary register, and I’m writing it up here so I can point to it in future.

The passage in question is from Alberto Fantini’s 1499 edition of Buridan’s Consequentie, and specifically from Fantini’s dedicatory epistle to his brother Giustiniano, which begins:

Compulisti me assiduis vocibus … ut tibi non minus ac germano cuius consequentiis te familiariter accommodare debeas significarem.
You have driven me with persistent words … to indicate to you no less than to a brother whose Consequentie you should intimately devote yourself to.

Besides the unhelpful word order, which was presumably intended to be elegant, the difficulty here is ‛non minus ac germano’, which complicates the syntax of the ‛ut … significarem’ clause while also including an unusual use of ‛ac’ (OLD s.v. atque 15).

And now here’s what Stephen Read made of it in his 2015 translation of Buridan:

You have supported me with assiduous words … so that I would signify to you no less as a brother whose needs you are bound to meet as a kinsman.

I can’t see how ‛compulisti’ and ‛consequentiis’ came out as ‛supported’ and ‛needs’, but I’m sure the sentence would have fared better if Fantini had written it in a less fancy way, e.g. ‛… ut tibi significarem cuius consequentiis te familiariter accommodare debeas.

The moral of the story? Even if you’re only interested in texts with simple syntax, you will occasionally be confronted with more complex prose, so you need to be able to handle it. Historians of philosophy sometimes deal with this by quietly ignoring difficult passages – Michael Loux’s 1974 translation of Part I of the Summa logice gives the impression that Ockham omitted to write a preface altogether! – but this is evidently not the wisest policy.