The Virtues and Vices of Speech

On truthfulness, deception, flattery, and more

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, G. W. Pigman III
An image of an old coin.
Portrait medal of Giovanni Giovano Pontano. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano was prime minister to several kings of Naples and an important fifteenth-century humanist. In 1486 in Rome Pontano, as the ambassador of Ferdinando I (Ferrante I) of Naples, negotiated a peace treaty that ended the second rebellion of the aristocracy known as the Conspiracy of the Barons, in which Pope Innocent VIII had supported the barons. Pontano negotiated a second treaty in 1492 after Ferdinando broke the first. Best known today as a Latin poet, he also composed dialogues depicting the intellectual life of the academy of which he was the head, and moral essays that became his most popular prose works. This selection is taken from Book 2 of his Virtues and Vices of Speech (De sermone), which 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.

On Ostentation and SimulatioN
Ostentation sets itself head on against this truth which is involved with conversation, civil intercourse, and the life of men. By no means does it fairly measure itself or its own affairs, since either it makes them greater than they really are and than its natural capacity and faculties allow or it proclaims about itself things that are completely false and other than they are, as things very brilliant and very worthy of narration and honor. This is, of course, the vice of the most insignificant men, who deceive themselves and try to deceive others, too. For what else is simulation than wishing to deceive under the appearance of truth? But dissimulation is opposed to this, and as the former speaks and elevates itself above the truth, so the latter endeavors either to dissimulate what is in it or to throw it out and diminish and depress it below the truth. Thus, as truth is opposed to falsehood, so the truthful person is to the liar and mendacity to truthfulness. But the truthful man is indeed only one, single in nature, while the liar is double. For, as has been said, of the class of liars some are ostentatious and simulators, others dissimulators. I will speak about these later.

Now for truthful men: it doesn’t matter if on some [earlier] occasion we have called them true. Notwithstanding that, the truthful person declares the truth from habit, custom, and his own mode of life, follows it everywhere, and is so constituted in character and conversation, that is, in deeds and words, whereas someone nevertheless can be called true on the basis of some saying and opinion, even if he is a habitual liar. Therefore, since truth is praised and lying is censured in every action and the whole of life, it follows that truthfulness is a virtue but mendacity a vice, since vice is condemned, virtue on the contrary commended. Nor can anyone be devoted to truth without also having the highest integrity, just as there is no lying with integrity. Therefore those who are truthful are also honorable men and citizens; liars, on the other side, are dishonorable.

Of course, devotion to truthfulness and its power shine out not only in the greatest or in moderate actions, in less grave conversations and meetings, and in serious or joking matters, but also in some of the smallest. So the devotees and, as it were, professors of truth are just as anxious about some of the most minute and most trivial things as the most modest matrons are about their reputation for honor and modesty, and not only about their continence and excellence in modesty, about particular movements and words, but also about the slightest glance of the eyes or a way of walking that might perhaps be judged too sensual or about movements of the hands and too free a facial expression. And truly in no other way can one accomplish this than to be truthful both in life and in speech, as Aristotle says. Custom and an acquired habit are necessary to accomplish this so that truth itself, whenever needed and in whatever speech or however small an action, always hovers before his eyes and so that he reflects on nothing more eagerly or considers more important or holds more lasting and fixed than not diverging, under any circumstances, from the path of truth and falling from the chariot of truth. Therefore, that virtue which is named truth-telling follows devotion to the truth, and those who practice it, truth-tellers, whence those who prophesy truly, whether seers or soothsayers, are also called truth-tellers and likewise truth-sayers.

Although in those things that I said above I said enough in advance so that in this part and in this treatise I am not at all speaking about the truth involved in inquiring into the causes of things and of nature, or about right and wrong, or legal business or physical and mathematical investigations, nevertheless I want it declared again. And so we say indeed that falsehood is opposed to this kind of truth but instead that lying is opposed to the truth under discussion. For a man who is mistaken in his opinion and judgment is not immediately a liar or does it to deceive, and a man who sins only in his zeal for fabrication is insincere rather than deceptive or a deceiver. Moreover, speaking well follows from speaking the truth, since an honorable man speaks well and speaks the truth and is himself very honorable and both a good man and a good citizen. And assuredly, if sometimes it is necessary to censure a disgraceful action, the truthful man will not abstain from the truth, yet in such a way that he does not appear to act out of eagerness to speak ill or to censure but rather so that honor may thrive in the city and at the same time liberty, the common good of all citizens, and disgraceful action and wickedness may be driven far away.

But conversely, speaking ill is usually the companion of lying men, since for the most part liars are slanderers and triflers at the same time. For in order to make a profit and to expose their insincerity they have to say and make up many falsehoods, and, as the comic poets say, babble nonsensically; this group includes the good-for-nothings, the trumpery-peddlers, the babblers, the old cheats, and very insincere and servile men of this sort. Therefore the man devoted to and, as it were, a professor of the true itself, in all his life and in whatever action or speech, will assume such a role as belongs to truth, since he, even in things that perhaps do not matter, would not deviate even a little out of the path, much less stray from the line of the true. Yes, and in greater things and affairs he will always hold his course and head straight for the goal, since he always detests and flees lying, trifles, and tricks as things utterly base and to the highest degree unworthy of an upright and good man. For the first concern of truthful men is for the right and honorable. And so he must shrink both from baseness, which is opposed to honor, and from insinuation and deviousness, which are foreign to rectitude. Since, however, all virtue is disinterested and is sought for itself, and truthfulness itself is especially praiseworthy and most suited to preserving and increasing the society of men, of course truthful men are themselves devoted to the true solely on account of truth. They cherish it both for its own sake and because they understand that it is the firmest bond of human society and know that they were born to cherish it.

But since I am now speaking of that truth which is particularly involved in speech and conversation and both in praising and commending oneself and others and in blaming and censuring the base, the duty of a truthful man is to say, when necessary, true and acknowledged things about himself with absolutely no dissimulation but freely and openly, and to say nothing more than what is his due and not to make up anything far-fetched or secretly remove anything–and yet everything with moderation. He will avoid insinuations and shifts with words, he will not turn aside from the straight line, and he will say nothing with simulation or dissimulation but everything openly and without injury. Moreover, his conversation will by no means be either affected or slippery, nor indeed will it stink or be foul, and it will be completely free from artificial embellishment, effeteness, effeminacy, or softness. In short, it will be like the fair weather we seek at night, in which there is nothing cloudy, nothing windy, and nothing that brings either heat or cold; indeed, such as fair weather in spring, which, although it does not harm in any way–which is still the pleasantest thing–pours forth dew as useful and fruitful as possible for every bud. Therefore, someone who declares only true things, just as they are, about himself and his affairs will not, of course, be different from or contrary to himself in explaining and relating the affairs of others. He will so explain and relate them in companies, in councils, in dinners and meetings that he will not at all appear to speak to ingratiate and to flatter the ears but only on account of and in devotion to the truth.

Also, it somehow appears that this truthful man must even be deservedly praised for moderation if he takes something away from himself and his affairs when he speaks about himself, provided that he does not do so to dissimulate. In fact, if he adds ornaments while praising and relating the affairs of others, provided that he does so with moderation, it seems that one must rise in respect for him as a praiser of virtue, a commender of things well done. In this he imitates nature itself, which seems never to forget ornaments and adornments. For truly, as he is commended as moderate when he is more sparing in detailing his own affairs, provided that he does not do so with dissimulation, so he must make sure not to be thought envious if he is too concise in discussing the affairs of others.

Cicero, a man very eager for praise, wants his deeds to be glorified by Lucceius, that is, he wishes them to be amplified and to have ornament and splendor added to them. Who would blame Cicero for wanting the same thing that nature shows us we ought to want? Nevertheless, he would have behaved more modestly with his friend Lucceius and with his own deeds if he had asked him to fulfill the duty of a historian, to follow and stick to the example of nature itself. Jerome was a saintly man, very holy since he was a Christian and especially dear to God, yet Rufinus found him unbearable when he told how he was mistreated as a Ciceronian. But who would not be indulgent enough to concede even great praise to Jerome for his eloquence? Nevertheless, he is so far from Cicero’s manner of speaking, if that is why he was mistreated, and from that Attic simplicity dear to Cicero, that in fact Jerome’s style appears too recherché and too studied, as not only the words but also the structure of his periods reveals.

To judge from Scipio’s reply to him in Livy, Quintus Fabius Maximus, that famous delayer, was perhaps excessive in expounding those things which appeared to argue against the idea of transferring the war from Italy to Africa. And so he was judged by some to have discussed those things more because of envy than because of the truth itself–a judgment against which a truthful man will guard with every effort. Alexander Augustus related in the Senate his deeds against the Parthians very succinctly and briefly, and, although he did not express the main point of the battle with dissimulation, nevertheless it was attributed to his modesty that he said there was no need to relate those things grandiloquently. Thus Alexander did no injury to the truth but respected the modesty of a general. In that formidable terror of the advancing Germans, Caesar spoke perhaps less than the truth but by no means inopportunely about the valor of the enemy, depreciating it to his soldiers. He put on a show of being more convinced about the Tenth Legion than he actually was. Thus he by no means deceived himself or his soldiers but acted in accordance with a general’s prudence. So it happens that truth itself–this has also been conceded to modest matrons and priests in public rejoicing and solemn rites–sometimes allows some additional adornment, a fitting adornment nevertheless and by no means constant but suited to the circumstances.

Devotion to truthfulness and its power shine out not only in the greatest or in moderate actions...but also in some of the smallest.

Therefore, it is altogether characteristic of a truthful man not to speak of himself with simulation or dissimulation, not obscurely or insinuatingly and by no means covertly, but openly, plainly, directly, liberally, which is also characteristic of a magnanimous man, and to add nothing which is not in him or his doings or to make up by simulation something partially lacking. And as his speech will be free from all boasting, so it will be in no way excessive or sate his listener. It will lack haughtiness but still be severe and grave and yet grave in such a way that affability is joined to truth and gravity in its proper place. The arrangement and sequence of his speech will be orderly and his exposition appropriate. For truly there is nothing that harms the truth so much as when speech is far-fetched or counterfeit. Finally, the amplification of deeds should be so measured that he appears to wish it to be increased by his listeners rather than wishing to be the publisher of his own deeds and, as people are accustomed to say these days, their herald. But he will be especially brief and clear in speaking and the sort of man who proceeds in a well-arranged and orderly manner with what he has undertaken to say.

But in praising others’ deeds, provided it is not done to flatter the ears but rather to follow and establish the truth, he will be lengthier and more copious, and his speech more ornate, more magnificent and full, so that both virtue will receive the reward for its pains and others will be stimulated by example. Nevertheless, he must take the greatest care not to shoot past the goal while using the reins more slackly. Writers of panegyrics have been especially infected with this vice; they bring out many far-fetched things, some not true or fictional, so that it appears that even their readers or listeners ought to blush.

Since truth is a very delicate thing, however, in everything that pertains to setting it forth its professor will maintain such moderation that he will not think he is allowed to converse about it or to maintain the same method with everyone or in every place or time, in every company, assembly, gathering, or crowd, or everywhere with the same words and countenance, since the time, place, or state of affairs might be such that being silent is more profitable or, on the other hand, that talking too freely and heartily about oneself or one’s own or others’ affairs is harmful; and sometimes one must take refuge in reproaching men on account of the benefits conferred on them, yet not just for the sake of reproach but because necessity requires. Generals are accustomed to observe this method when they want to stop the flight of their soldiers or have ones less obedient or little prepared for carrying out orders and fulfilling their duties or when they want to decimate them or to inflict other punishments or ignominy.

At this point one may inquire whether it is permitted to this truthful man either sometimes to pass over the truth in silence or to simulate and feign something which is by no means the case. The power of the moment and of circumstances is great, and that of the role one assumes is not less. In adverse and dangerous situations wise men, both governors of public affairs and leaders of armies, now feign many things, now on the contrary conceal them, as many times the most expert physicians do when dealing with dangerous diseases and not a few times priests and those who are called preachers do in order to add authority to their case. Nevertheless, on account of this they are not held to be liars or less truthful, since it is not their intent to lie or to deceive but in this way to do good and to avert dangers, which is doubtless the task and duty of prudent men. Yet somehow that persistence in maintaining the truth obtains the greatest place in the minds and wills of men in every action and situation.

Pope Innocent VIII, in settling the discord between himself and Ferdinando, King of Naples, attributed this to me. For when some cardinals were admonishing him to take care, once matters had been settled, not to be deceived by Ferdinando, who in their opinion was not to be trusted, he said, “But Gioviano Pontano, with whom peace is being negotiated, will by no means deceive us. For truth and trustworthiness will never abandon him since he has never himself abandoned truth and trustworthiness.” But I have abundantly discussed this in the books that I wrote on obedience. So, having explained these things about truthful men and truthfulness, that is, about the mean itself, let us pass on to those extremes opposed to it that are called vices.

On liars
Therefore to the mean that I have decided to call truthfulness is opposed mendacity, of which both an excess and a deficiency exist, and indeed this excess is named ostentation, as I have already said. Nevertheless, there are some who prefer boasting and others, arrogance. But arrogance itself is more concerned with excessive striving after civic honors and offices than with speaking and using the truth, since the arrogant, by force and beyond what their role allows, arrogate such things to themselves above their merits, birth, actions, and kind of life. For they do not take account of their own ability. And so these arrogant people are indeed violent. But the ones who apportion more to themselves while talking about themselves and their affairs and claim more than can be truly and deservedly claimed are by no means to be considered violent or out of control but rather lying, insincere, futile, and light. Therefore, arrogance resembles haughtiness and pride, but ostentation resembles insincerity and a kind of empty conviction about or allotment to one’s own affairs. For the very word arrogate, from which arrogance is derived, is a word of violence and pride, but to be ostentatious is an expression of insincerity and a kind of empty shadow, as if it wishes something to appear in it that in no way is there. And indeed the arrogant person acts and strives to appear to be truly such as he wishes to appear, but the ostentatious one, only that he seem and appear.

On the boastful and ostentatious
For those who hold that this excess should be called and actually is boasting are mistaken in that while ostentation usually is insincere, boasting itself is always to be related to pride or stupidity. But in levity they hardly differ at all, and indeed ostentation either invents for itself things which belong to it in no way whatsoever or makes them greater than they are. But the boaster is excessive even while relating and extolling things that are true and violently offends because he does not preserve either moderation or measure, is haughty in gesture and words, and is too immoderate in argument. In almost all of which Ovid’s Ajax offends, since all the things he says are true and in fact so great that it is by no means necessary to magnify them by adding anything, and indeed the particulars were very well known to the leaders and Senate of the Greeks. Nevertheless, since these things are said too unrestrainedly by him, since it appears too indignantly spoken,

“Oh Jupiter,” he said, “we plead our cause
before the ships, and Ulysses is compared with me,”

and since, as is the custom of the indignant, his face, hands, and whole body were shaking unrestrainedly, he can rightly be charged and accused of boasting, yet by no means of ostentation or perhaps arrogance. So it happens that the boaster himself is excessive or immoderate whether he speaks true things or ones not true and far-fetched, while the ostentatious man is by no means excessive in boasting but not at all true with his words and for this reason untruthful rather than proud or arrogant. But I do not say these things from any inclination to detract from some recent writers but to teach, especially since this inquiry is about the truth.

There are several classes of liars
Some liars, therefore, when they intend to lie, lie to acquire honor but others to obtain money. For some the lie itself is the reward, and the very sweet pleasure of lying is itself what they enjoy; this class of liar must be judged to be especially untruthful. Moreover, men of this type appear to depart as far as possible from what they were naturally born for, since we have all been born for seriousness, constancy, and firmness, and, as Cicero says, nothing is more shameful than untruthfulness. Therefore they have rightly been called untruthful, since their thoughts and intentions are completely empty and their counsels inconstant, but the vice itself is called untruthfulness, since its intention is futile, light, empty, and vacuous, all of which indeed indicate the highest untruthfulness. Moreover, in that soldier boasting of his victories our Umbrian comic poet [Plautus] has taught how ridiculous this untruthfulness is, feigning things that never were and lying about ones that cannot be or come into being:

With my own hands I killed sixty thousand
fleeing men in one day;

and, to make his speech appear more untruthful, he adds:

I gave birdlime to the legion,
and they threw them down with their slings, like leaves of coltsfoot.
What need of many words? The ones they hit with the birdlime
fell to the ground as thick as pears.
As each one fell, I would kill him by inserting
a little feather through his brain, just like a turtledove.

What could be more insubstantial than this?

Who does not see, therefore, how untruthful liars of this type are, how ridiculous and contemptible? And indeed for this reason someone might say that all poets are ridiculous and despicable. But the fact that Aristotle uses the authority of Homer and other poets in the most important subjects and that many sayings of the poets are considered oracles teaches us that they are not to be despised but rather to be admired, while liars and the ostentatious trifle and chatter more than invent. And the fable itself was devised not for its falseness but so that by its art men might be either deterred from vices, as when the poets feign that Lycaon was changed into a wolf on account of his savage cruelty, or incited to virtues, when they sing over and over that Castor, Pollux, and Hercules were translated to heaven. The fable of Aesop can provide a model for life, especially for those who happen to have been born or raised and live in an obscure position. Moreover, the most saintly of men, Basil [of Caesarea], judges that Homer’s poem is virtue. For that famous poet neglects nothing that pertains both to heroic and civil virtues.

Furthermore, what is there pertaining to piety, religion, tolerance, courage, and likewise the inconstancy of human affairs and the variety of fortune, that the deeds of Vergil’s Aeneas does not reveal? One may even come clearly to learn in his work what rewards or punishments are appointed to each of those who have died according to his deserts. And Horace says of Homer:

who says, more clearly and fully than Chrysippus and Crantor,
what is honorable, what shameful, what useful, what is not.

And so these liars are indeed empty and untruthful, since their aim and goal is untruthfulness, indeed a moral and most evident untruthfulness. But the poets have been considered admirable and divine. For by delighting and influencing the minds of men with allurements they have tried to lead them towards the noblest things and away from the foulest and wildest behavior, entirely similar to that of the beasts, and draw them out of the forests. So on account of this endeavor, Orpheus was thought to have drawn after him with his song the forests and the animals inhabiting them, and Amphion the rocks and stones. Thus not only do the oldest poets teach the difference between fictions undertaken for public utility and instructing the human race and those undertaken only for vanity, but also the preachers of our time, with whom it is indeed customary to adduce things very prudently devised and feigned as examples. But enough of this kind of mendacity. For the more truth itself is praised and valued, the more ridiculous the vanity of boasting and the deceitful pursuit of fabrication.

What Aristotle thinks about this subject
Moreover, Aristotle teaches that this whole class that I have begun to discuss is involved in speeches and actions, and what is more, that the ostentatious feign and devise for themselves things that are by no means in them or are greater than they actually are, even in fictions and far-fetched counterfeits. He says that these men are the ostentatious, their proper name alazones, who are called vainglorious in Plautus. But Aristotle calls eirones those who deny or dissimulate what is in them, or take away much of it from themselves and diminish by dissimulation those things that are true. The mean between these he calls the aletheutikos, that is, the person who is truthful both in life and in speech, who admits what is in him and to what extent and does not by speaking take away from or add to his doings; and this habitually happens for a particular reason or for none. Moreover, he says that each person is just like his sayings, doings, and his whole life except when he is diverted for a particular reason. On the other hand, a lie by itself is base and shameful, while the truth itself is both honorable and praiseworthy.

And so the truthful man, because he keeps to the mean, is deservedly praised, as it were, as someone who weighs what is just; on the contrary, both classes of liars, the ostentatious and the self-deprecators, are blameworthy, but the ostentatious to a greater extent. Therefore a man is truthful who preserves and cares for the truth both in his life and in his speech, that is, in his deeds and words, and is such a person by character and custom. For this reason this man is upright, since he is completely devoted to truth even in the smallest things and even more in the greatest and most serious, for he shrinks from a lie and considers that it must be shunned in itself. Even though this deserves commendation and praise, nevertheless, such being the modesty of the truthful man, Aristotle thinks him more inclined by nature to subtract something from the truth, since he believes that all exaggeration and lack of moderation are odious and worthy of hatred. And this is what he has to say about the truthful man.

But the liar who, for no particular reason but only for the pleasure of lying itself, devises by simulation for himself and his affairs things that are greater than they are is indeed depraved by nature and a stranger to uprightness, which is the companion of truthful men. For if this were not the case, he would by no means take pleasure in lying. In addition, this man appears to Aristotle vain rather than evil. On the other hand, the liar who for honor, glory, or fame passes the bounds of truth and the actual state of affairs by vaunting his deeds and increasing them with falsehood and simulation is not so deserving of blame, but the one who lies because he is captive to money is without any doubt baser. For all liars come into existence by choice and character: the ones who in vain ostentation delight in lying; those who are captured by honor and glory and wish to appear to stand out from others; and those likewise who long for money and to profit from their domestic affairs so that they can be useful to themselves and their families. Moreover, they habitually invent things about themselves which they think can remain hidden and not become public–for example, men who have only a slight knowledge of medicine or divination yet boast that they have acquired the greatest skill in healing and divining and profess that they possess the most hidden secrets of those arts and extol themselves for these things with great ostentation and boasting.

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano was prime minister to several kings of Naples and an important fifteenth-century humanist.
G. W. Pigman III is author of Conceptions of Dreaming from Homer to 1800 as well as a translation of Pontano’s De Sermone.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019



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