An April breeze ruffled the new leaves on the mulberry tree in the very center of the courtyard. The Duke was proud of that mulberry; he examined it anxiously every day he was not away from the palace. The mulberry was visible through the broad triple-arched window of the library where Federico Polacchio, a Florentine scholar, sat across a heavy walnut table from his pupil, the Duke’s only daughter.
“You’ve read what I asked?” This was his standard opening, a meaningless formality because Lady Luciana always read what he asked.
“Why did you want me to read the seventh part rather than to start from the beginning of Book Eight?”
“Because I knew you would read it all anyway.”
She smiled. “But you wanted to draw my attention to Part Seven in particular? Is that it?”
Luciana was pretty but prettier when she laughed, which she now did.
“My Lady, you occupy an exalted station, though Heaven knows you’re far too naughty to deserve it. But it is because of this position that Part Seven is, for you, the most important not only of Book Eight but the whole of the Ethics.”
“More important than even the Golden Mean?” she teased.
“Ah, too naughty, you say? I, on the other hand, would argue that I am right on the mean between too much and too little.”
“Alarmingly ironic, proud—”
“Oh? And what else?”
“Intelligent and precocious, to a fault.”
“To a fault?”
“You would prefer a less apt pupil?”
“Plato might have thought so. In comparing Aristotle, who scarcely ever agreed with him, to a less bright student, who always did, he observed, One needs spurs, a bridle to the other.”
“You would have me less. . . unbridled?”
“Certainly. I would rejoice in a pupil who isn’t forever cross-grained and can’t pronounce Latin better than I do, one who doesn’t excel so at algebra, refrains from teasing her father and mocking her teacher.”
“As I recall the story Plato added, What an ass I have to breastfeed, and against a horse! At least you grant that I’m not an ass.” Luciana broke into a laugh. Prettier still. “Well then, do let’s be serious, Signor.”
Polacchio grimaced and took up the book. “Part Seven, of unequal friendships.”
“Such as ours? Is that why you asked me especially to read Part Seven.”
“I’d say we’re more like wrestlers on a market day, rivals rather than friends. No. I wasn’t thinking of us but of you and your parents—and the unlucky man you’ll marry one day.”
Luciana blushed. The word marriage made her think of the well-made Guido d’Ostiglia with whom she believed herself in love and who professed to love her. According to Guido, he adored her just as Dante had Beatrice or Petrarca his Laura—after all, girls of her own age.
The tutor brought his forefinger down on the table, a way he had of raising his voice by gesture rather than sound. “When Aristotle speaks of unequal friends he means to include a variety of relations: father to daughter, elder to younger, ruler to subject, man to wife.”
“He also insists all these relations are distinct and shouldn’t be conflated.”
“That’s so, but what they all have in common is proportion.” Here Polacchio opened his book and read. “Each party, then, neither gets the same from the other, nor ought to seek it. In all friendships implying inequality the love should also be proportional; that is to say, the better should be more loved than he loves.”
“He. Always he.”
“No, the elder too. And the ruler. It’s not just about the inferior position of women.”
“Signor, should I love you more because you are older than I am, and a man—and from Florence!—or should you love me more, because of my superior state, however undeserved?”
Polacchio threw up one hand and made an unpleasant noise, a familiar one.
“Come now,” said Luciana almost sternly. “Do you really agree with the Peripatetic that inequality in status can or even ought to dictate the measure of one’s love? That sort of thinking is, if you’ll pardon me, masculine, and I don’t intend that as a compliment to either Aristotle or to you.”
The tutor was accustomed to being challenged. He delighted in it, as she perfectly well knew; however, he scrupulously avoided showing that he took any pleasure in her provocations. It was their manner with one another; it suited them both.
Polacchio made a serious face. “Your brothers are good boys. They know their place. They bow to their father and treat me like a dung beetle. Giovanni courted the Farnese rather eagerly, I believe. As for Filippo, didn’t he marry the Visconti girl without even having met her?”
“Where Giovanni is concerned, I believe it was the Farnesi who did the really strenuous courting. As to my dear Filippo, what shall I say? He isn’t the brightest candle in our Parmesan chandelier.”
Polacchio pretended to be shocked. “They’re your brothers, and older than you!”
“And so twice as worthy of love as I. But look here, Signor, did you really think I wouldn’t read on?”
“I refer to Part Eight, of course, which, in part, undoes Part Seven.”
Polacchio leaned back in his chair, feigning surprise. “In part? Do, please, go on.”
“Very well then. I’ll explain it to you.”
Luciana drew the heavy book to her, hefted it, and turned a few vellum pages. “Like his teacher, Aristotle distinguishes loving from being loved. As you’ve insisted, he says the beloved is more elevated than the lover, yes? And we know he loved to contradict his teacher.”
“Like somebody else I know.”
“Doesn’t Plato have Socrates say the opposite, that The lover is more exalted than the beloved? To Plato the act of loving spiritualizes the lover while, for Aristotle, in Part Seven, it appears almost a degradation.”
“Oh yes. Part Eight shows he considered the matter more deeply and ended up thinking otherwise. Listen.” Luciana propped up the book and translated more quickly than her tutor would have been able to do. “Since friendship depends more on loving—he means, of course, more than being loved—it is those who love their friends that are praised. Loving seems to be the characteristic virtue of friends, so that it is only those in whom this is found in due measure that are lasting friends, and only their friendship that endures. It is in this way that even unequals can be friends; they can be equalized.”
She lay down the book and smiled at her tutor.
“By ‘due measure’ Aristotle certainly means equal measure. If, as you argue, I am to love younger people and subjects less, my elders and rulers more, then there cannot be what Aristotle calls a lasting friendship between us—which I take to mean a genuine one. Quod erat demonstrandum. Only by their mutual love are unequals equalized.”
Polacchio considered his pupil. “Everybody knows about you and young d’Ostiglia,” he said almost sadly. “He’s a fine fellow this Guido.”
“He sits a horse. He has a leg. He can even write passable sonnets.”
“I agree he does more than fill out his velvet doublets and slashed sleeves. But your father, I think, will have other plans for his daughter. And, of course, my Lady, you’ve only just turned fourteen.”
“Ah, but don’t forget, Signor Polacchio, my insufferable precociousness.”
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, "Life in the Temperate Zone" and "The Decline of Our Neighborhood", a book of essays, "Professors at Play", and the novel "Zublinka Among Women", winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.
His work in Offcourse: "Egon Gleicher", in #46, "The Story", in #41, "Inter Scoti et Scuti" in #39, "Ostbrück" in #35 and "The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik" in #34.