Pontano, “The Virtues and Vices of Speech”

A new English translation of this wonderful 15th century work by the poet, scholar, man Pontano.jpgof letters, and Neapolitan statesman Giovanni Pontano. From a time when scholars thought about whether speech was healthy or not for the polity, and sought to influence public policy accordingly. I’m sure that there are more than a few things of use in this old work, originally titled De Sermone, for today’s interminable debates about the value of free speech in American society. The book is The Virtues and Vices of Speech, by Giovanni Pontano (Harvard University Press) (translated by G.W. Pigman III).

Giovanni Pontano, who adopted the academic sobriquet “Gioviano,” was prime minister to several kings of Naples and the most important Neapolitan humanist of the quattrocento. Best known today as a Latin poet, he also composed dialogues depicting the intellectual life of the humanist academy of which he was the head, and, late in life, a number of moral essays that became his most popular prose works. The De sermone (On Speech), translated into English here for the first time, aims to provide a moral anatomy, following Aristotelian principles, of various aspects of speech such as truthfulness and deception, flattery, gossip, loquacity, calumny, mercantile bargaining, irony, wit, and ridicule. In each type of speech, Pontano tries to identify what should count as the virtuous mean, that which identifies the speaker as a person of education, taste, and moral probity.

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