Dialectic and Drama in Compendio

“Raphael, Plato and Aristotle” by profzucker is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Even though I’m only a quarter of the way through Dialogue 2, In Pacheco’s Compendio, his very heavy redaction of Carranza’s Philosophy of Arms, the contrast between it and Dialogue 1 is stark. I kind of feel a kinship with Carranza, because as formal as he is in the First Dialogue, he lets his inner playwright run rampant in the second. (As much as I do research and fact-based work, my true love lies with fiction and dialogue.)

This is just an early analysis, a sort of feeling things out about the book itself, but I think there’s much to be learned from the differences in these two sections. The first hews pretty closely to dialectic teaching structures. The second, however, is much more dramatic, much more like what you might see on stage. Why would Carranza do that? Was it caprice? What might it achieve? Let’s look at dialectics first, then dramatic text, and see what we find.


Despite the kind of university degrees I attained, I hadn’t really tackled a dialectic text before, not formally. Pacheco’s edit of Carranza’s work is my first.
Briefly, the dialectic method is a conversation with each participant having their own point of view, but with a mind to establish the truth through reason and argument. The Socratic Method is one example, but by no means the only one.

Medieval logicians, relying strongly on Aristotle, built a framework for formal dialectics:

  • Set out the question
  • Set out a tentative answer
  • Declare the arguments for that answer
  • Declare one or more arguments against that answer
  • Resolve the question after synthesizing the arguments and evidence
  • Reply to the initial objections (folks who read Rada — this look familiar?)

So, to give a quick and dirty example:

  • Are cup hilts a form of cheating (as compared to sidesword guards or swept hilts)?
  • No.
  • Cup hilts:
    • are a structural response to evolving technique and technology
    • are a natural evolution of hand protection on the sword
  • Oh yes they are a form of cheating. Cup hilts:
    • weaken the fencer’s strategic thinking by obviating a target requiring defense
    • are no more protective than shell or lobed guards or Pappenheimers
  • Resolved: Cup hilts are not a form of cheating
  • Replies to objections:
    • A fencer must still defend against strikes to the forearm, so avoiding hand snipes through a guard is a bit of a specious argument
    • If shell, lobed, and Pappenheimer guards protect the hand as well as a cup hilt, are they not “cheating” as well? Either all of these guards, cups included, are cheating, or they’re not.

If you’ve read the First Dialogue, this will feel eerily familiar.

First Dialogue

In a later post, I may take a much closer look at how Carranza follows dialectic structure in the first part of his work, but for now, we only have to consider that he has subsumed the personalities into the service of getting ideas across. It’s clear that C(h)arilao (Carranza calls him Charilao, but Pacheco kills the |h| for some reason) is the actual diestro, and, I posit, Carranza’s self-insert. The other characters, with their own vocational backgrounds, serve to ask questions relevant to their points of view.

The conversation is courteous, as one might expect of well-born men chatting in the courtyard of their benefactor’s estate. But the conversation, except in brief bursts, is pretty mechanical. He’s working hard to convey these fairly Aristotelian arguments across. Here’s the first exchange, which features some of that artistic spark — but note that spark is quickly suborned into being the impetus for the start of the dialectic.

It’s been well said, Carilao, that the imagination is powerful, and with great violence can overcome all of the faculties of man. You’ve been quiet, and haven’t heard us, as we’ve spoken of the greatness of this house.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I haven’t heard you, because I’ve been consumed by an unhappy memory of past events.

In that sense, your imagination is very different from what Eudemio thought, because seeing you so absorbed in thought, I feel like you were more considering arms and destreza, than in anything else.

You abuse what’s owed to a good friendship, because why would you want me to put thoughts into what I deal with least, and hate the most: because the skill at arms is nothing more than a vanity ignorant men give themselves to, heavy with leaves but without hope of fruit, like the árbol loco. But once the tree falls to the ground, whoever comes by makes firewood of it, like ignorant people have made of poor destreza. I can’t take it anymore.

Certainly, you have reason to be infuriated by the diestros’ damaged traditions. And leaving that now for another time, tell me something of the true theory, and how it should be applied to the movements of the sword, to be correct in them, and about the things considered in the true skill.

I apologize now, because it’s a wall of text, but let’s take a look at an exchange just a couple of pages later. While you can’t really have Carilao asking questions of himself, you could have any of his companions ask the follow-up questions and have it make sense. And while there is a stilted formality in the previous example that comes from outmoded language being rendered through translation, there’s still an appeal to humanity, a depiction of people who know one another, and are concerned about their well-being, and interested in what they have to say. Compare that with this.

The truth is that the things you have doubts about are difficult for people who don’t know the science, which we can undo by understanding the order carried by the universal attacks, because there’s no exception to them between tall or short bodies; between montantes or pikes; swords or montantes; daggers or swords.

The reason for the whole is also the reason for its parts, because the postures of any category of weapon are divided according to the angles (as we’ll talk about further on), among which, according to Euclid, is one that reaches further than the rest, which is the one that corresponds to the firearm, and is between the strong and the weak, because between the increase and the decrease is the mean.

There is also another angle, stronger than all the others, which corresponds to the greatest strength, and another angle, that is weaker, [corresponding] to the weakest strength, in such a way that they suborn and interrelate with each other according to the movements made by the body that produces them.

It’s clear the universal technique is regulated against the strongest posture of the body, and against the longest posture of the sword (which is the one that corresponds to the greatest length of whichever weapon is being used, regardless of the length of the person’s body, but in relation to the disposition of the angle, which is the hardest thing to understand, due to it being the door through which the techniques enter and exit).

It’s also clear that when the body is small, the proportion, angles made of short lines, the posture the body has, will also correspond, if they are to equalize with the disposition of the body.

You would do well to consider that the body will perform a technique more easily when the body is not in the middle, nor when the sword and the arm are in the longest posture; [better to be] in a weak angle, with the body in one of the extremes it can have: because the one who could do the most, will be able to do the least.

And these propositions – know that they’re not particular to the sword alone. They’re universal to all the weapons that exist, decreasing and increasing movement, and moving the end[point]s, according to the measure of proportion that each one has.

This is difficult for me because of how unfamiliar these terms are, in this science. Say something about strength, maybe that will be easier for me to understand.

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, or a playwriting/scriptwriting class, this is the opposite of their advice, where the emotional drives of characters inform what they say, and what they say is not often so on-the-nose. And in this case, that’s okay — Carranza was never writing something to be put on stage. He’s establishing theses and supporting them with arguments, and with refutations of arguments against them. There’s conversation, but it’s not necessarily about emotions or narrative in the sense that you get to watch a person develop or a villain get his just desserts.

Dramatic fiction

As much as the First Dialogue has no driving emotional narrative, the Second Dialogue does. How can Aristotelian didacticism possibly be engaging?
By introducing a foil for the characters to play against. A fall guy. In this case, Carranza creates a “vulgar maestro” (who so far is not named) to prove, through his folly, the truths revealed in the First Dialogue.

Now that we have motives (Carilao intentionally invited this vulgar maestro to talk with his friends, and Polemarco, recognizing that the maestro won’t do anything brash or foolish if Carilao’s around, convinces him to leave for a time to let the maestro hoist himself by his own petard), now we see bits of personality coming through.

Polemarco, who seemed a bit restrained before, employs a good bit of sarcasm to defend his friend’s character.

Carilao has won his reputation with the nobility, and with men in the know, and in that, this is not opinion, like with it with other people — instead, it’s truth determined through experience.

And wouldn’t it be good (says now the gentleman) that we all could see it, so that we wouldn’t have anything to say against him?

It would be good, if you and those you talk about could understand. And according to your perception, Carilao did wrong, any time that something happened, to not hire a town crier, like a puppet show player, to inform everyone, so they’d know, and they’d see; and they would have confirmed it, because the things that the vulgars or lower classes have done, they wouldn’t have held as impossible.

Let’s leave that aside, I was only joking around with you….

Eudemio starts to show some backbone, too.

Tell me first — when will I learn to attack someone cleanly, without getting hit myself?

When? When you hit him from behind, and understand, that these techniques we’ve just done, are of the unbeatable kind, rich, examine them well, because with any of these, if there were any of those diestros who wanted to fight me over a couple of reales, throw them into my hands because I’ll make their reputation drop hard to the blade and the right hand.

And while before, in the prior dialogue, we had no implied action, it happens twice in the second (so far).


Do you know who learns from me the rodela, which I know extremely well, and the punch thrust, fingernails down? But they have to learn in secret, because if they know it, they wouldn’t use it often, and no one would dare [attack them] in their lives.

—Poorly done, sir, that hurt, that cut to the maestro! Not so long [on the reach]!

My apologies, I didn’t think I’d get so close.

It’s all right, [because it shows] you’re improving. I believe it….

That em-dash is my addition, to help get the idea across that Eudemio’s just smacked the maestro, who wasn’t expecting it because he’d pulled Eudemio aside to try to get him to buy some rodela lessons. There is nothing in the text saying Eudemio struck the maestro, not even narrator text, which does exist in other parts of the dialogues.

Why would Carranza do this?

A part of me believes it’s because one soul can only write so much Aristotelian argumentation before they wither into dust, and a bit of a creative break was needed. I mean, dramas of that era often contain small comedic scenes to break things up (any Shakespearean tragedy, for example). But consider what Carranza and Pacheco and other later verdadera destreza authors have maintained about the practice: that it’s a science and an art.

As much as Carilao talks about relying on reason to determine truth, and to not let emotion be in the driver’s seat, emotion exists and will try to do at least some of the navigating. That’s part of what it means to be human. So, following up a very formal dialogue that builds an iterative argument for treating swordplay as a science with a scene that shows a science-convinced student “learning” from an emotionally driven master of the vulgar style makes the same argument from the emotional side.

Seriously, the Maestro’s a jerk. There’s plenty more jerk-ness in the Second Dialogue.

Why I think it’s genius

From biographical information on Carranza, we get a picture of someone who understands people. This is meaningful on two levels. You can’t write good dialogue until you start getting a better sense of people, and why they do things, and it takes this kind of understanding to consider that a comedic scene is just the thing to help the crunchy ideas settle in, and give the reader a break.

Also, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve responded to a term paper assignment with “lemme write you a play/short story” and have gotten away with it. I understand the need to just write something without hewing to formalities.

Why I think it’s a pain, but love it anyway

The First Dialogue was difficult to translate, but once I understood it was soaking in Aristotelian frameworks, I had a key to follow in figuring out Spanish that wasn’t quite making sense. The formality, initially an obstacle, ended up giving me a set of rules I could rely on. But in the Second Dialogue, there’s a lot of idioms there, and there’s a lot of natural speech — self interruptions, statements that aren’t full formal sentences.

This leads to … complications. But I’m fortunate that I grew up in a bilingual household, on the US border with Mexico. Sure, it’s not the same in terms of region or time frame, but being accustomed to hearing spoken Spanish absolutely helps untangle the turns of phrase and understood bits of sentences that never quite get uttered. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to work with my playwright’s ear, and it’s the first time I get to do it in Spanish. So as difficult as it can be, it’s also enormously rewarding.

A few last words

If you’re one of my Patreon subscribers, thank you for your support! If you’re not, and you’d like to read more of the translation whose excerpts pepper this post, you can find me here.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.