Si lingua non esset immortalis…
It’s an old percept of statecraft—or if it isn’t, it ought to be—that nations should not go to war unless losing the war is a better result than not fighting it at all. By that light, we owe the various Royal Academies and National Commissions a respite from the traditional sarcasm they endure for their doomed efforts to preserve the purity of their various native tongues. The point is apparently never made, but losing the war to create a stable language is a very useful futility. The professors and orthographers have, after all, succeeded in fashioning a whole series of literary languages from a local Babel of dialects and patois. It’s hard enough to understand human history or conduct its affairs when dealing with, reckoning from Sumerian to Tok Pisin, perhaps two hundred regularized languages. Absent the literary and sometimes political effort it required to cut the continuum of ever changing dialects into intelligible units and retard their mutation, human affairs would be illegible instead of merely chaotic. The language police always lose in the long run, but it makes all the difference in the world that it is a long run.
I am minded to make these remarks by the recent appearance of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, a whole series of modern Latin classics presented like Loeb editions of the Classics with an English translation on facing pages. Books written in neo-Latin have a difficult time finding readers, both because translations are often not available and because of the prejudice that even great writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio couldn’t write anything worthwhile in a dead language. This last notion is really quite peculiar since those of us who write in literary English are also writing in a dead language, even if we are working with a fresher corpse. Anyhow, there really are a great many fine books written in neo-Latin. The literary quality of writers like the original renaissance man, Leon Batista Alberti, and the Florentine historian Leonard Bruni is obvious in the high-quality I Tatti translations. The translations also help correct the record in other ways. I’ve just begun to read The Platonic Theology of Marsilio Ficino, but I’ve already discovered that he is a more a serious philosopher than I had ever realized.
I append a list of the current and forthcoming volumes in this series:
LEON BATTISTA ALBERTI
Platonic Theology, 3 Volumes
HUMANIST EDUCATIONAL TREATISES
HISTORY OF THE FLORENTINE PEOPLE
Volume 1, Books I-IV
RAPHAEL LIPPI BRANDOLINI
Republics and Kingdoms Compared
CYRIAC OF ANCONA
GIOVANNI PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA
Lamps of the Thirty Statues
History of the Popes