When Dante’s Commedia became divine

0107virgil.jpgDante may have been the most imaginative and transgressive medieval poet, but he was also one of the most immodest authors since Antiquity. It is well known that what we came to call ‘The Divine Comedy’ (“La Divina Commedia“) was initially known simply as ‘La Commedia di Dante Alaghieri di Fiorenze‘. It was Boccaccio who later added the epithet ‘divina‘, as we know it today. It may be that Boccaccio, famous for his veneration for Dante, retitled the Commedia as a homage to its author – or as a gloss on the sacred matter it treats of –, but, as I argue below, he may have done it mainly because he, before everyone else, really understood what Dante was trying to do. As Dante claimed to know the mind of God, so Boccaccio, by ‘deifying’ the Commedia, claimed to know the mind of Dante.

There are two main ways to read the Commedia, either from within the text, or from outside it, as it were, although the best way is both at once. If we read from within, we are tempted to take Dante at face value and to accept his truth claims as he chooses to introduce them to us. If we look from without, we get to see the backstage and the props, naturally, but much of the world the poet creates vanishes before our eyes. As far as the sacrality of the Commedia goes, Dante builds a delicate scaffolding. Before he meets the Roman poet Statius in Purgatory (Purgatorio 21), there is no suggestion that Dante’s poem might aspire to anything sacred, saintly or divine, in the way that Scripture or the Sibylline prophecies were understood to be at the time. The words sacro, divino and their cognates were indeed sacred in Dante’s time, and not subject to playful and elastic poetizing. Although Dante’s theological pilgrimage was already booked, no reader in Dante’s time, I think, would have dared qualify his work as ‘divino’. Yet, that is what Dante is doing, if only very subtly and furtively. The key to understanding Dante’s strategy here is his encounter with Statius in Purgatorio 21. Statius was a Roman poet of the 1st century AD (he died in 96), whose major work The Thebaid concluded with a panegyric of Virgil’s Aeneid, its chief model and inspiration:

Wilt thou endure in the time to come, O my Thebaid, for twelve years object of my wakeful toil, wilt thou survive thy master and be read? Of a truth already present Fame hath paved thee a friendly road, and begun to hold thee up, young as thou art, to future ages. Already great-hearted Caesar deigns to know thee, and the youth of Italy eagerly learns and recounts thy verse. O live, I pray! nor rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps. Soon, if any envy as yet o’erclouds thee, it shall pass away, and, after I am gone, thy well-won honours shall be duly paid.

Statius, Thebaid, XII, 810, trans. J. H. Mozley, (1928)

Dante picked up on Statius’ adulation of Virgil and created two ripples in his poetic creation. One has been satisfactorily acknowledged by the critics, the other less so. Dante’s treatment of Statius is one of the most transgressive and risqué poetic choices in the whole of his work. Statius is one of the four pagans who, for various reasons, don’t end up in Hell. For Dante’s time, that is outrageous enough. But to turn Statius into a redeemed soul who converted to morality through the Aeneid and to Christianity through Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue would have been, for later centuries, unforgivable heresy. Not only does Dante astound us with this unprecedented move, but he further confuses us by refusing this honour to Virgil, who has to return to Limbo at the end of his guided tour of Purgatory. Less noticed, however, has been Dante’s triangulation of himself, Virgil and Statius around the words ‘divina fiamma’ in Purgatorio 21:

Stazio la gente ancor di là mi noma:
cantai di Tebe, e poi del grande Achille;
ma caddi in via con la seconda soma.

Al mio ardor fuor seme le faville,
che mi scaldar, de la divina fiamma
onde sono allumati più di mille;

de l’Eneïda dico, la qual mamma
fummi, e fummi nutrice, poetando:
sanz’ essa non fermai peso di dramma.

On earth my name is still remembered—Statius:
I sang of Thebes and then of great Achilles;
I fell along the way of that last labor.

The sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor,
were from the holy fire—the same that gave
more than a thousand poets light and flame.

I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote
verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse;
my work, without it, would not weigh an ounce.

Purgatorio 21:91-9, trans. A. Mandelbaum, (1988)

It is clear from the two texts quoted above that Dante glosses Statius’ concluding remarks about the Aeneid in the Thebaid. Dante’s ‘holy fire’ or ‘divine flame’ (“divina fiamma”) echoes Statius’ ‘the divine Aeneid’ (in Latin, ‘divina Aeneida’), the poem that inspired ‘more than a thousand poets’ since him – also a witness to Virgil’s stellar reputation in the medieval period. Just as Statius embedded Virgil in his poem, so Dante embeds both poets in his ‘Comedy of mirrors’ (read my comments on Dante’s technique of mise en abîme here). The only thing missing from this stratigraphy of authorities and authorships is the stasis of the divine poetic attribute. If Statius bestows the divine epithet on the Aeneid and Dante bestows it on Statius as reflecting his own assignation, then who bestows it on Dante’s? This question is bound up with the concept of Dante as author and reader (auctor et lector), brilliantly analysed by Albert Ascoli. Of particular interest here is the idea of self-reading, that is Dante’s own exegesis of the Commedia in his other works, which, according to many critics, prepared that impressive commentary tradition that put the Commedia on a par with Holy Scripture and the classical canon almost immediately after Dante’s death – something no other ‘modern’ or vernacular writer could boast in the Middle Ages.

In Purgatorio, Dante has some unresolved business about poetic pride, and he leaves us on a note of humility regarding the divine poem. He comes back to it from the safety of Paradiso 25, in a grand act of self-anointment, as Teodolinda Barolini nicely put it. Not only does he crown himself poet (‘poeta‘) at the expense of everyone else in Paradiso, but he does something that no-one else had done before – though one would later do – and that is denominate the Commedia as a sacred poem, poema sacro:

Se mai continga che ’l poema sacro
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra,
sì che m’ha fatto per molti anni macro,

vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra
del bello ovile ov’ io dormi’ agnello,
nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra;

If it should happen . . . If this sacred poem—
this work so shared by heaven and by earth
that it has made me lean through these long years—

can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it …

Paradiso 25:1-6, trans. A. Mandelbaum, (1988)

To my knowledge, none of the early commentators or contemporary critics, except perhaps Boccaccio, realised just how defiant this gesture is in relation to Purgatorio 21. Like a seasoned general, Dante manages to conceal his strategy underneath fine-tuned manoeuvres. We swallow the sacred poem and focus on his weeping for lost Florence. We forget his subversion and turn our affection towards his bitterness for an exile which would never end. All this while under our beguiled noses Dante manages to reverse the humility of Purgatorio 21 into outright self-glorification. By describing his work as sacred, Dante invites us to recall his discussion of the formative role of the Aeneid for Statius in Purgatorio 21. The Commedia is divine not only because it provides a vision of the divine plan, but also because it has the ability to do for others what the Aeneid had done for Statius, namely to turn readers from the dark woods (“selva oscura“) of perdition to “that forest—dense, alive with green, divine” (“la divina foresta spessa e viva“, Purg. 28) of Eden and up the heavenly spheres into the Empyrean with God, the resting-place of redeemed humanity. As Virgil and Statius guided Dante in his vision, so Dante can naratologically guide the readers of his Commedia through the three realms and be a master and an author (“mio maestro e ’l mio autor”, Inf. 1) to them, while his masterpiece can be mother and nurse to them (“mamma … nutrice“, Purg. 21). In a way, Dante the pilgrim crowns Dante the poet and assures that the Commedia receives its guarantee of authority from within.

We can see, therefore, that the concept of poema sacro, understood as divine flame of inspiration, cascading down from Virgil to Statius to Dante-pilgrim to Dante-poet, creates a context in which the Commedia can aspire to the same status as the Scriptures. It has also been suggested that in authoring the Commedia, Dante was trying to write something like a ‘Third Testament’, or at least a totalising synthesis of the Old and the New, a liber caelestis, a heavenly book, in the words of John Ahern. The foregoing discussion seems to lend plausibility to this view.

So where does that leave Boccaccio, with whom I started this post? If Boccaccio had written a visionary poem modelled on the Commedia, then, I think, he would have re-enacted the encounter in Purgatorio 21, casting Dante as Statius and himself as Dante. Boccaccio’s single-handed amendment of the generic title of Commedia strongly suggests he wished to be the one to close the circle on the idea of poetry as a divine mission. If that’s true, then he was successful, for 700 years on, we still acknowledge the Commedia as divine enterprise, set under the Ptolemaic spheres of vision and poetic genius.

Dante’s angels as movers of the heavenly spheres

And so we must first know that the movers of the heavens] are substances separate from matter, namely Intelligences, which the common people call Angels.’ (Dante, Convivium, 2.2)


Scholastic barbecue: Angels turning the heavens, London, British Library, Royal 19 C I f. 34v (via @melibeus1)

Dante’s doctrine of the angels comes from the amalgamation of traditions typified by thirteenth-century Scholastic angelology, whose two essential threads are the Judeo-Christian angels, or messengers, who intercede between God and man in the Bible; and Aristotle’s “intelligences” responsible for the apparent motions of astronomical entities, in turn derived from Plato’s Ideas. In his harmonization of these divergent traditions in the Convivio, Dante notes that the separated were the species or models of sensible things. For Aristotle, they were species of an altogether superior order, which nonetheless acted upon lower bodies, affecting their variety, mutations, and reproduction and bringing about their degradation. Because this plethora of unmoved-movers considered as the final causes of particular celestial movements seemed to contradict Aristotle’s other tenet of a single Prime Mover, it fell to Neoplatonists to derive these multiple intelligences from the first in a series of “emanations,” each the cause of subsequent, inferior beings. Arab philosophers who were heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, like Alfarabi and Avicenna, were the first to identify the Aristotelian intelligences with the angel-messengers of revealed religion. With the notable exception of Albertus Magnus, most Scholastic thinkers assumed that Aristotle’s intelligences were in fact angels.

There is no doubt that Dante emphatically subscribed to the notion of angels as movers of the astronomical spheres (Conv. 2.2.7, 2.4.2). As the intelligences responsible for the apparent motions of the stars and planets, angels explain celestial mechanics. They move the spheres, not by means of physical contact but by pure understanding, solo intendendo—by spiritual contact with their virtue, tatto di vertù (Conv. 2.5.18; cf. Summa contra Gentiles 2.92: per intellectum movent; 2.56 tactus . . . virtutis). In the Convivio, Dante assumes that there must be at least three movers of the Heaven of Venus in order to account for the three distinct proper movements discernible in the behavior of that planet. In that text, angels whose sole operation is to move the spheres seem to belong to a special class devoted to the active life, while the vast majority of these creatures are wholly engaged in pure contemplation (Conv. 2.4.9–12). In an effort to conform better to Aristotle, however, Dante goes on to make the apparently contradictory claim that even the sphere-movers contemplate, but that from their speculation results the circulation of Heaven (Conv. 2.4.13). Dante’s assignment of angels from every hierarchy to the task of moving a planetary sphere is essentially unique. (Aquinas, for example, supposed such movers came only from the hierarchy called Virtues.) Dante may be reflecting a Thomistic distinction between ministers and contemplators when he claims that we receive gifts from the bottom hierarchy of angels because it is closest to us (Conv. 2.5.8).

In the Paradiso, the causal link between planets and angels is even stronger, as Beatrice denies (against Jerome) that the one could have preceded the other in the order of Creation, because the “perfection” of the “movers” is to turn the material heavens (Par. 29.44–45). Aquinas explicitly states that the moving of the spheres may be considered a ministry of angels, but it by no means constitutes the fulfillment of their nature (De potentia Dei 3.19 ad 3). Beatrice further seems to suggest that the whole array of angelic hosts, with the exception of those who sinned, are involved in the “art” of celestial circulation (Par. 29.52–54), although some scholars strenuously insist that this circling refers to their activity of contemplation, not sphere moving.’

The Dante Encyclopedia, ed. R. Lansing, pp. 39b-41a)

Canto 34 of Dante’s Paradiso?

There can be no doubt that if Dante had gone on to compose canto 34 of Paradiso (adjustment made to the numerical format of the Commedia, i.e. 34+33+33=100), that would have been the world’s greatest poem of silence.
One of the major topics in the Commedia are the limits of representation. Dante explores this time and again in all three canticles. In Paradiso 33 he reaches the outermost limit of poetic representation, the nec plus ultra of human art. Previously, he had compared himself, not without ambiguity, with Ulysees, had hoisted the sails of his ‘little boat’, and gone all around the orbs significandi, proving his skill and turning the sign into referent, the art into fact. At the very end of his journey, where the Celestial Rose and the three circles of light in the Empyrean preclude even the possibility of post-representation, the poet detonates his vision into silence. It does not represent the end of being, but the end of representation. Our tools can carry us only this far.
Botticelli understood this, and so did Wittgenstein, I think – in his own way. As is well-known, Botticelli illustrated his commentary of the Commedia with a series of drawings. Reaching the end of the Paradiso, he left the last drawing blank, except for the figures of Dante, St Bernard and the Virgin, all in the background. The rest of it, foregrounded, is silence(d):
Now imagine a slightly different end to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (6.54-7):
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Dante and Milton

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For many, Dante’s Divina Commedia remains more a description of the three metaphysical realms than the author-protagonist’s journey understood as a phenomenological analysis of sin and redemption. It remains, in other words, a work of fantasy rather than an exploration of a personal drama. Everyone remembers the topography of Hell, the extravagance of sin and of those who are punished therein, but few would recall that this is a reality which presents itself to Dante-the-pilgrim, whose journey is the cause of the insight.
Today I told my students that Petronius’ Satyricon is similar to the Commedia (don’t gasp!) in the sense that they were both, generically, literary singularities, without direct models or subsequent imitators. One student disagreed, arguing that Paradise Lost may be seen as a progeny of the Commedia. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, in my opinion. Milton’s great epic dramatizes the Fall and its consequences, but the point of view is as though ‘from nowhere’. The Miltonian spectacle may be as poignant as Dante’s encounters in the Lower Hell, for instance, but it is mannerist by comparison. For me, the Commedia‘s nuclear reactor lies in its ability to convey the theatre of sin, purgation and exaltation through the eyes of a human agent, free, rational, pasional, incarnate. Rather than objectifying the human condition and its divine destiny, the Commedia puts us first, and orders everything around the discerning, ethical self, creating a narrative that straddles tragedy and comedy in a way that remains without equal to this day.

Vide cor tuum

A great thing happened today. My friend Jaff Seijas, a most talented and delicate artist, sent me one of his works all the way from Florida:


Gouache and inks on a medieval manuscript fragment. This is perhaps the best gift I got in many years. Now to find a fitting mount and frame for it.

Jaff said the interpretation of the artwork was up to me. Gazing at the collage, my mind is irresistibly drawn to a passage from Dante’s Vita Nuova, the opening dream-vision in which Beatrice makes her first appearance before becoming the poet’s existential fulcrum:
And betaking me to the loneliness of mine own room, I fell to thinking of this most courteous lady, thinking of whom I was overtaken by a pleasant slumber, wherein a marvellous vision was presented to me: for there appeared to be in my room a mist of the colour of fire, within the which I discerned the figure of a lord of terrible aspect to such as should gaze upon him, but who seemed therewithal to rejoice inwardly that it was a marvel to see. Speaking he said many things, among the which I could understand but few; and of these, this:
Ego dominus tuus.
In his arms it seemed to me that a person was sleeping, covered only with a blood-coloured cloth; upon whom looking very attentively, I knew that it was the lady of the salutation who had deigned the day before to salute me. And he who held her held also in his hand a thing that was burning in flames; and he said to me,
Vide cor tuum.
But when he had remained with me a little while, I thought that he set himself to awaken her that slept; after the which he made her to eat that thing which flamed in his hand; and she ate as one fearing. Then, having waited again a space, all his joy was turned into most bitter weeping; and as he wept he gathered the lady into his arms, and it seemed to me that he went with her up towards heaven: whereby such a great anguish came upon me that my light slumber could not endure through it, but was suddenly broken. And immediately having considered, I knew that the hour wherein this vision had been made manifest to me was the fourth hour (which is to say, the first of the nine last hours) of the night.

Good Friday blues or the things we didn’t know


We killed him on a Friday, when the birds had just begun to sing again. They will never forgive us. The trees won’t forgive us either. The leaves withered like a silly chicken embryo in a failed egg. The heavens were silent, but there was a murmur across the great plains. The prophet was right, after all. His words echoed from afar into the wilderness of the Valley of Ashes. They were as distressing as they were inescapable:

“But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. His most curious, overobtrusive, overpitying one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have revenge or not live myself.  The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness live.”

The eyes of Dr Eckleberg saw everything beneath the rusty frames. The stare was unbearable. Sartre was wrong. Staring into one another’s being doesn’t lead to a second life, but to a deeper death. Besides, we didn’t know that we didn’t stare, but that He stared at us. Like Dr Eckleberg’s eyes He stared at us, seeing down the abyss of despair that we are. A pile of corpses on the forest floor. Each staring into one another, but never beyond.

Death is contagious, silently killing everything in its path. We didn’t know that either:

“Altogether elsewhere, vast

Herds of reindeer move across

Miles and miles of golden moss

Silently and very fast”

God didn’t just die, we killed him. We killed him first thing in the morning, before anyone could see it. We didn’t kill Him in the night, so that we could have no excuse  for getting the wrong guy. We killed him, but that wasn’t enough. We hanged him, but we hung with him, that we didn’t know. We didn’t expect that. We didn’t expect to die with him. Killing Him, we killed ourselves, but we didn’t notice. The dagger went through, but we went about our business. They pointed it out, but we didn’t care. The dagger is still there, it has a golden hilt. Soon it will be dark again. The birds refuse to budge. The light is fading, but we don’t care, for we have torches. The same torches we used last night. They are still with us. We, on the other hand, are not.

We hoped to find ourselves, but we didn’t. We thought we would possess ourselves, at last, at will. We hoped that joy would follow the deed, but there was only mourning. So we mourned. But only for a little while. If only we’d known.

[review] Roger Scruton’s ‘On Human Nature’: What makes us who we are

Roger Scruton’s latest book ‘On Human Nature’ is a delightful book. It is pithy, incisive, and written in a clear, flowing style. Although the title makes one think of ancient philosophical treatises (such as Aristotle’s or Cicero’s), it resists objectifications of what makes us human. The starting as well as the end point are not so much ‘what makes us human’ (a topic on which books are being produced now more than ever before), but what our experience of our own humanity is.

Indeed, the personal pronoun, with its three persons, is the protagonist of this book. Scruton starts with the “I” of personal experience and ends with the “us” of morality, faith and social intercourse. Thus, this book is the antithesis of any objective, scientific account of human nature.
Moving through four short chapters (the book itself is only 140 pages long), Scruton takes the reader on a tour de force of the world of intersubjectivity as it opens to the reflective self. On at least one reading, this is a journey of discovery. Human individuals are not subjects, but selves, irreducible to the idiom of science. The embodied person is not merely a cocktail of biological ingredients, but a centre of “I”-thoughts which can only thrive in the encounter with the “Other”. Human relations reveal themselves in dialogue, understood not so much as discursive communication but as recognition of our shared likeness.

The dialogue between two first-person perspectives creates obligations that are essentially neither contractual nor functionalist. The parable of the Good Samaritan, Scruton argues, is not so much about openness and religious tolerance, but about the demands that fellow human beings make on us. The Samaritan helps the traveller not by virtue of any religious commandment, but because of the sacred obligation toward his neighbour. (pp. 106-7). The deep structure of our moral life depends on a kind of mirroring of our self in others. It is not a response to the environment, as evolutionary biology would have it, but to the imperatives of our human predicament: that I am aware of myself only insofar as I am aware of you.

The first chapter (“Human kind”) is both a direct attack on materialist and biologist reductionism and a compelling introduction to the peculiarity of personhood. Readers familiar with Scruton’s other works, particularly The Soul of the World and The Face of God will recognize many oft-visited themes. The author argues that the deep grammar of our first-person perspective on the world creates a vocabulary that only art and philosophy can render an account of. As rational agents, we do not simply think, but think about things. When we laugh, we laugh at something. This aboutness is, for Scruton, the key to the mystery of self-consciousness.

In Chapter 2 (“Human Relation”), the focus is on how our first-person point of view shapes our understanding of other people. Scruton is here as faithful to the work of the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber as ever. Human relationships emerge from the encounter between two first-person perspectives, the “I” and the “You”: “hence the word you does not, as a rule, describe the other person; it summons him or her into your presence, and this summons is paid for by a reciprocal response” (p. 69). All human experience is relational and no isolated selves exist apart from relationship to another. Pleasure and sexual desire are two examples which illustrate that relationships between individuals cannot be reduced to either a social function or an evolutionary imperative, but that they obey a higher logic. I enjoy your presence in the body only when I acknowledge you as an end, never as a means only.

Even more telling is the case of the moral codes and configurations that humans have developed over time. In Chapters 3 (“The Moral Life”) and 4 (“Sacred obligations”), Scruton looks at our deepest moral cravings. The author’s attack on materialist reductionism rages on. Morality does not emerge out of our response to the natural environment. It is rather because our encounter with others creates duties and deserts that hold us accountable to one another. Scruton rejects the view that our acts are morally right only if their consequences are right. Instead, he says, we derive our sense of right and wrong from a recognition of the other person’s freedom which reminds us, as it were, of our own. The sovereignty of the human person is the underlying principle of all morality.

Scruton is at his finest when he discusses sexual morality and the notions of defilement and contamination. Persons are embodied selves, not floating heads with hanging bodies, as Descartes thought. This fundamental truth explains why rape is experienced as desecration, and not merely as denial of consent: “forced against her will to experience her sex as a bodily function rather than as a gift of herself, she feels assaulted and polluted in her very being. And how the victim perceived the act is internally connected to what the act is” (p. 119). I do not have a body, I am my body.

Virtue, purity, piety (understood as “posture of submission and obedience toward authorities that you have never chosen” (p. 125)) are all categories of the sacred, which Scruton discusses in some detail in the last chapter. This is a polemical and I might say apologetical book, but it is not in the service of a specifically Christian understanding of humanity. Yet, there is nothing in it that wouldn’t provide substance for a discussion of our God-made nature.

Take forgiveness, for instance, which Scruton explains that “cannot be offered arbitrarily and to all comers – so offered it becomes a kind of indifference, a refusal to recognize the distinction between right and wrong. Forgiveness is only sincerely offered by a person who is aware of having been wronged, to another who is aware of having committed a wrong.” (p. 85). God’s forgiveness in Christ has been fully and freely given, but it nevertheless requires the sinner’s repentance in order to be enjoyed personally: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).

Roger Scruton has written a clear-eyed book on what makes us who we are. We may be thrown into the world, as Heidegger used to say, but we are thrown together, and we share the same experience of the downthrow. Materialists won’t enjoy the book for sure, but if you think, like Scruton, that the person emerges from the biological “in something like the way that the face emerges from the coloured patches on a canvas”, then you will appreciate it.

On Human Nature by Roger Scruton is published by Princeton University Press (2017).

This review first appeared at Theos on 30 March 2017.