Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning


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The intellect and the soul of which it is a function thus partake of the character of the separate intelligences. Soul is not the actualizing essence of the human creature, as in Thomas, but is related to body through the mediation of its organic faculties. That this fulfillment is attained through natural understanding, with no recourse to the theology of grace and revelation, marks a crucial difference between Albert and Thomas, who devotes several chapters of the Summa contra gentiles to a forceful refutation of the notion that final happiness as defined by Aristotle is possible in this life [SCG 3.

The poet of the Paradiso is at one with Thomas on the value of philosophy as consisting finally in its power to prepare the mind for faith [ Par. How far this reflects his responsiveness to neo-Platonism as mediated by Albert or in such works as the Liber de causis is hard to determine. Nardi, who argued successfully for seeing Dante as an eclectic thinker [Diomedi , 1—23], stressed the importance of the Liber de Causis.

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However, the work, which was probably, written around —, was abandoned with only four of its treatises completed. In these surviving treatises, Dante describes the genesis of his love of philosophy, and reflects on the ability of philosophical understanding to mediate religious truth, tracing the desire for knowledge from its origin as an inherent trait of human nature to the point at which the love of wisdom expresses itself directly as love of God.

His poetry, comes into being out of love and virtue [ Conv. Their cosmic activity is a continual translation of understanding into love and natural process, and it is this which causes Dante to sing [ Conv.

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The intellective power or intendimento of the intelligences moves Dante to an utterance which only these same powers can fully understand. The second book provides a delineation of the Ptolemaic universe which the intelligenze govern, capped by a description of the Empyrean Heaven [2. This is the reason for the extremely rapid movement of the Prime Mover: through the exceedingly fervent desire of each part of the ninth heaven which is right next to that one to be united with each part of that most divine and tranquil heaven, it revolves within it with so much desire that its speed is practically incomprehensible.

And tranquil and peaceful is the place of that supreme Deity which alone completely sees itself.

This is the place of the blessed spirits, according to the Holy Church, which cannot tell lies; and Aristotle also seems to hold this view, to anyone who follows what he is saying, in the first book of On Heaven and Earth. This heaven is the overarching edifice of the universe, in which all the universe is enclosed, and outside of which nothing exists; and it is not in any place but was formed alone in the First Mind, which the Greeks call Protonoe.

The role of the Empyrean in thirteenth-century thought is equivocal. Some thinkers attempt to explain it scientifically, as a comprehensive cosmic principle, while for Thomas and Albert any such realm must be spiritual in nature and can bear no natural relation to the astronomical universe—though both at times seem to grant it a certain influence on the natural order [Nardi , —; Vasoli a , 94—].

If God dwells in this place, the Empyrean resides equally in Him, and the universe at large is encompassed, causally and locally, by the Empyrean. Dante deploys the Aristotelian physics of desire to explain the relationship of the Empyrean to the lesser heavens, yet it is at the same time beyond space, a wholly spiritual realm where blessed spirits participate in the divine mind.

Dante seems to emphasize this double status by mingling theological and philosophical language, and invoking Aristotle and the neo-Platonists side by side with the poet of the Psalms. Since in governing the several heavens the intelligences engage in a kind of civil life, they must enjoy an active as well as a contemplative existence. But the latter is of a higher order than the former, and no single intelligence can partake of both. Aristotle, NE He argues that the circular motion of the heavens, by which the world is governed, is really a function of the contemplative activity of the intelligences [2.

This synthesis of the natural and the intellectual universe expresses an ideal of education which harks back to the late-antique sources of twelfth-century Platonism, but which Dante has imbued with new life. His emphasis on the ordering function of moral wisdom, and on the happiness attainable through intellectual contemplation, reflects an engagement with the philosophical tradition, and a commitment to philosophy as such, which belong to the later thirteenth century.

The human soul, noblest of all created forms, loves all things to the degree that they manifest the divine goodness, but desires above all to be united with God. All of this may appear sheer fantasy, but we should remember that the aim of philosophy as the Convivio pursues it is to attain, through natural reason, the greatest happiness of which we are capable in our earthly state.

Such felicity is of course circumscribed by our mortality, and the Dante who celebrates philosophical understanding as a quasi-mystical union with God also maintains that true union can be granted only through grace to a soul made receptive by the infusion of the theological virtues which wholly transcend the workings of rational, natural virtue. But for Dante, as for Thomas Aquinas, the modus essendi of the soul joined to the body differs from that of the soul in separation: though they are the same in nature, the separated soul understands, not by means of sensory images, but through species in which it participates by virtue of the divine light [cf.

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To desire what is beyond the capacity of our intellectual nature would be ethically and rationally incoherent, a desire for imperfection rather than perfection of understanding. But the Convivio continually strains against these same limits that it claims are appropriate to the proper scope of human knowledge in our temporal condition. For Dante, first and foremost a poet of love, the experience of acquiring philosophical understanding has an important psychological component. By enabling us to analyze the processes of perception, philosophy brings us into contact with the true nature of things, and for Dante, as Kenelm Foster observes, the slightest such contact could have a metaphysical value:.

It did not in one sense matter to Dante what the particular object of his knowing might be, since the joy of knowing it was already a foretaste of all conceivable knowledge and all joy; and this precisely because, in knowing, the mind seized truth…once intelligence, the truth-faculty, had tasted truth as such, that is, its own correspondence with reality, it could not help desiring truth whole and entire, that is, its correspondence with all reality.


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At this point, knowledge and the joy of possessing it combine to prepare the ground for faith. And here our good faith has its origin; from which comes hope, which is desire for what is foreseen; and through this arises the act of charity. Through these three virtues one ascends to philosophize in that celestial Athens, where the Stoics and Peripatetics and Epicureans, by the light of eternal truth, in a single will, concur in total concord one with the other. Philosophy thus conceived can still be regarded as the handmaid of theology, but as Dante develops his philosophical ideal metaphorically in terms of the beauty of the donna gentile , it assumes a religious value of its own.

But having provided this caution, Dante seems to ignore it, as if unable to resist the conviction that philosophy satisfies our desire in a manner proper to itself. Thomas, Exp. But philosophy, as embodied in the donna gentile , is not just the consummation of natural understanding. For Dante, as for Aristotle, the human intellect as such is somehow more than human, and he is at times similarly unclear on the question of whether human beings can attain happiness through the exercise of virtue, and to what extent it is a gift of the gods [Foster , —].

Repeatedly he draws a distinction between merely human happiness and that attainable through grace, only to seemingly disregard it in subsequent discussion. Since certain things—God, eternity, and primal matter are named—exceed the capacity of our intellect, our natural desire to know must remain unfulfilled in this life [3. Dante answers this by affirming, as noted above, that the natural desire for perfection is always proportionate to our capacity to attain it; for to desire the unattainable would be to desire our imperfection [3. Yet philosophy offers the promise of more.

When the human mind is fully informed by philosophy, it would appear, it becomes virtually one of the intelligenze , who know both what is above them and what is below, God as cause and the created universe as effect [3. The Liber de causis says that each cause infuses into its effect the goodness it receives from its own cause, or, in the case of the soul, from God [ Conv. When in gazing on the body of the donna gentile we are perceiving the effect of a cause which is ultimately God, and thus, Dante asserts [3.

And so it is demonstrated by this appearance that, beyond the due of our nature which is most perfect in her, as was stated above , this lady is favored by God and made a noble thing. Thus in effect the donna gentile is the perfection we desire. Through her we experience the divine goodness, by an outflowing, a discorrimento , which Dante glosses with a further reference to the Liber de Causis [3. In the quasi-continuous series of gradations that descends from angel to brute animal, there is no intervening grade between man and angel, so that some human beings are so noble as to be nothing less than angels [Aristotle, NE 7.

Such is the donna gentile ; she receives divine virtue just as the angels do [3. She is a thing visibilmente miraculosa , ordained from eternity by God in testimonio de la fede for us [3. Thomas, SCG 1. She has assumed the status of Wisdom, sapientia , the divine mind as expressed in the order and harmony of creation. Like the separate substances and God Himself, her beauty can only be described in terms of its effects.

And it is in such terms that Dante ends his account of philosophy-as-wisdom. Oh, worse than dead are you who flee her friendship! Open your eyes and look; for, before you were, she loved you, preparing and ordering the process that created you; and once you were made, to show you the way she came to you in your likeness.

The fourth treatise of the Convivio seems to have been written later than the first three, and it is markedly different in orientation. The principal theme of its canzone is the true nature of nobility. So, since this lady of mine had slightly altered her sweet expressions toward me, above all where I investigated and researched whether the prime matter of the elements was comprehended by God—because of which I refrained for a while from being the presence of her face—living more or less without her, I started to reflect on the human defect related to the above-mentioned error [i.

That God is the creator of prime matter was an article of faith, and Thomas had dealt decisively with the role of divine will and intellect in the creative act [SCG 2. That Dante should admit to having entertained doubts about such a question is perhaps a way hedging against or concealing the heterodox implications of his claims in book 3 [Ardizzone ].

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The anger of the donna gentile would then express his sense of a corresponding loss of focus, a failure to affirm her unique and transcendent role in the expression of the divine will. Or perhaps Dante had come to regard the metaphysical exposition of books 2 and 3 as incidental to what he regarded as a more significant philosophical theme that emerges in book 4.

Whatever the precise nature of the dilemma to which Dante alludes, the fourth treatise is marked by a noticeable shift away from metaphysics in the direction of ethics and rhetoric. Philosophical knowledge is redirected to the purposes of social and political life, and the treatise, while punctuated like the others by numerous digressions, pursues a single sustained argument. Dante begins by explaining that social order is a necessary condition for human happiness and that it requires a single governor whose authority embraces that of all particular governors and directs their several efforts to a single end [4.

The gesture nicely epitomizes the project of the Convivio , a vernacular discourse which defines for its lay audience the limits of political and scholastic authority and affirms the autonomy and potential dignity of individual human reason. The later portions of the fourth treatise are grounded in another Aristotelian definition of nobility, as the perfection of a thing according to its nature [ Conv.

The human expression of this perfection is virtue, moral and intellectual. Electing to address the moral virtues, as more accessible to a lay understanding, Dante begins by describing how nobility is implanted in the nascent soul as the seed of virtue, from which spring the two branches of the active and the contemplative life. The final chapters of the Convivio show how the virtues that stem from nobility can direct the natural appetite of the mind, enabling it to evolve through love of them to the happiness which is the end of virtue [ Conv. The Contra gentiles may seem an odd choice of model.

Bruno Nardi considers that Dante had at most a superficial knowledge of this work at the time when he wrote the Convivio , and it is certainly the case that he is fundamentally at odds with Thomas over such specific matters as the origin of the soul, the role of the celestial intelligences in creation, and, more important, in claiming for philosophy the power to fulfil the human desire for knowledge in this life [Nardi , 28—29].

On all of these matters, Dante is closer to the position of Albert. In any case, having dwelt at length on the insatiability of the base desire for riches, Dante addresses the question of whether our desire for knowledge, too, since it continues to grow as knowledge is acquired, is not similarly base. This is because anything which grows in the proper sense is always one; the desire for knowledge is not always one but is many—when one is completed, another comes along—so that properly speaking, its expansion is not growth but a progression from something small to something large.

For if I desire to know the principles of natural things, no sooner do I know them than this desire is satisfied and fulfilled. And if I subsequently desire to know the what and the how of each of these principles, this is another, new desire, the occurrence of which does nothing to take away the perfection to which the other desire led me; and this expansion is not a cause of imperfection, but of greater perfection or completeness. Thomas can speak of the natural desire to know as a force like gravity, whose attraction intensifies as it approaches its object [SCG 3.

During the same period in which Dante was writing the Convivio he was also composing the De vulgari eloquentia. Composed in Latin, this treatise was, like the Convivio , abandoned sometime around In it, however, many of the lengthy discussions of ethics and politics from book 4 of Convivio are put in the service of a discussion of the capacity of poets possessing both scientia et ingenium— that is, those who possess both knowledge and genius [ DVE 2. Underwriting this purpose, Dante offers a wholly unique treatment of the origins and development of language in book 1 before proceeding in book 2 to set down specific rules that ought to govern the proper poetic deployment of this illustrious vernacular.

There are nineteen chapter divisions to part one. Chapters 1—3 lay the groundwork by discussing the basic purposes of human language.

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Here, Dante quite rightly recognizes that, even were we to regard intellectual content as immaterial, human beings are nevertheless constituted in such a way as to derive intellectual content initially from sensation directly as in the case of induction arriving at a first principle or through the sensory communication of intellectual content from one human being to another as in the case of dialectical or rhetorical engagement. Languages thus convey thinking but do so in a material medium e. Chapters 4—10 then proceed to offer an investigation of the origins of the diversity of vernaculars in the world.

In chapters 11—15, Dante describes his supposed hunt among the existing Italian vernaculars of his day for an illustrious version of Italian. But rather than locating an illustrious vernacular among any of the existing modes of Italian, he mainly heaps scorn on most of the regional vernaculars, including his own native Tuscan vernacular. Unfortunately for them, however, Dante explains that his praise for their language is not absolute but is only relative to his disdain for the sad state of the other existing vernaculars.

After all, he says, had the dialect of the Bolognese been absolutely the best of the existing Italian vernaculars, why would praiseworthy poets such as Guido Guinizelli, Guido Ghislieri, Fabruzzo, and Onesto have abandoned it? Here Dante draws an implicit analogy between what is he is seeking in the case of the Italian vernaculars and the ways in which we are able to identify through intellectual insight a law or principle that provides a determination of what is good or bad with respect to some distinct capacity for action.

As he will eventually make clear in 2. That is, this mode would only be appropriate for use by those who are equipped by their own perfection to generate virtues in others.

Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning
Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning
Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning
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