5.05 The Rhetoric of the Preface

The Syntaxis was published before Alvares was truly done writing and the early editions have no authorial preface. When finally the first student editions of the complete Libri tres appeared in 1572-1573, the new textbook bore two prefaces, a half-page addressed "to the reader," and a second, three-page preface without specific addressee. The first preface is very brief. It simply remarks that the student edition was "almost naked of commentary ... without the multitude of scholia which might impede beginners." It was appearing before the fuller, scholarly grammar was ready. This preface is probably the basis for the assertion by some historians that the full version was the original and the student text an abbreviation, but in fact it evidences just the opposite fact, that Alvares already had a workable student text that he had used in his own classrooms. He was reluctant to publish it, however, because it incorporated the fruits of years of scholarly study without citing his sources in full.

In most student editions the first, short preface is followed by two small poems by Alvares. These poems were probably explicated in class, because they also appear in the teacher's edition, usually after the second preface. The first poem was addressed "to the book" itself and invited criticism from any learned reader. This humanist commonplace would sit well with teachers of any sort. A second poem is addressed to the "Christian teacher," and contains another conventional notion, that the first duty of the schoolmaster is to be a good moral model to his students. Only if the he joins the ornament of good Latin to true piety will the teacher be counted a success and attain salvation himself. This commonplace was a nod to the older tradition of teaching Latin as if it were in itself a moral discipline; but it embodied as well the more modern, Jesuit notion that morals are a study apart and that Latin is merely a tool of the learned man.

The three-page, general preface that followed these preliminaries was self-justifying and also highly conventional, but, unlike most grammar book prefaces of the century, it was not boastful. Alvares assumed a modest, apologetic tone rather than an advertising one. He did not say that all previous books were woefully inadequate, merely that it was frustrating to discover that no existing book was so clearly superior to all the others as to justify its adoption in Jesuit schools around the world. This is a theme Alvares had been hearing from his superiors, that the order needed a grammar book of its own. He rephrased it with a simple, aphoristic account of Jesuit religious ideals. The Jesuit founders admonished all in the brotherhood to live in concord, agreeing among themselves in great matters as well as small. Even matters of apparently small moment, then, like the choice of an elementary grammar, should be made in common by all in the order. With this assertion Alvares recalled his brethren to the centrality of Latin study as part of their mission, what a contemporary Jesuit writing about the new grammar called "a practice so important to the Company [of Jesus], and upon which so much depends, and on which account indeed our colleges were founded." (25)

Beyond these few observations on the genesis of the book, Alvares offered a brief account of his compiling method. He named his sources among ancient grammatical writers (a very thorough list of those known to the Renaissance) and then ticked off the literary authors he used for examples of pure Latin style. Not a single Renaissance grammarian or writer appears in this list, neither as source, authority, or stylistic model, not even Lorenzo Valla. (26) The omission of Valla, who had been an almost obligatory reference in grammar book prefaces for fully a century, is significant. Alvares's implied claims are two. First, the only sure way to imitate classical usage is to limit oneself strictly to classical sources. Secondly, hypercorrectness and the showy learnedness of most professional grammarians has no place in the elementary classroom. Perhaps Alvares wanted to avoid entering into contemporary scholarly controversies or giving potential critics the opening to do so. He surely thought it unwise to offer his bickering contemporaries as models to schoolchildren.

The method of the remainder of the book is in perfect concord with this rigorist stance. Alvares provided a wealth of examples drawn from ancient authors and thus instructed his students from the start to use classical models. They were to see grammar as a descriptive discipline based on real but strictly classical usage. In this he followed the sense as well as the letter of the late antique grammarians, Priscian and Donatus, and he ignored much grammatical tradition. Matters of disagreement among Alvares's contemporaries were relegated to the commentary sections of the teacher's edition and even then were not attributed to modern authors, merely exemplified with quotations from the ancients. (27) Sometime between the first appearance of the Syntaxis in 1570 and its final incorporation into the teacher's editions of the Libri Tres in 1573 and 1575, Alvares also added a little exhortation to the beginning of his treatment of syntax which is the clearest single statement of his convictions about the descriptive nature of grammar. It may be a response to criticisms of the early editions of the Syntaxis:

I would like to ask those who will read this book that they should not be annoyed that the rules of syntax are illustrated with so many examples, for this was not done by chance or causally, but with thought and consideration. For grammatical concepts are dry, trite, and insipid in and of themselves; and unless they be seasoned with the elegance and beauty of the ancient writers, uncultivated usage will in short order besmirch the Latin tongue with barbarities. (28)

Even for beginners, then, it is essential to stay close to classical models, for studying rules can only be valuable if the learner keeps his goal, the beauty of ancient Latin, constantly in mind.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (25) Sebastiano Morales, S.J. in MPSI 4:347; 1998, 161-162.
  • (26) Colombat 1999, 210-217.
  • (27) Colombat 1993, 214-217 remarks that in this regard Alvares' claims to be an empiricist were disingenuous; in fact he depended heavily on De Spauter and Thomas Linacre (1450-1524).
  • (28) Alvares 1575, 245: etiam eos rogatos velim, qui hunc libellum sunt lecturi, ut ne aegre ferant, si Syntaxeos praecepta pluribus interdum illustrata exemplis offenderint; neque enim casu, aut temere, sed consulte, et cogitato id factum est. Nam cum Grammatica praeceptiones aridae, ieiuniae, et insulsae ipsae per se sint, nisi veterum scriptorum nitore et elegantia condiantur, brevi domestica barbarie Latinae linguae rudes infuscabunt.
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