Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)

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Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy, was born in Florence of a middle-class family with some pretensions to nobility. It is likely that he frequented the church schools, and he probably spent a year at the University of Bologna. He fought in the battle of Campaldino (1289) and a few years later married Gemma Donati, by whom he had at least three children. He took part in the government of his native city, serving on various city councils (12951297, 1301), as prior (1300), and as ambassador to San Gimignano (May 1300) and later to Rome (October 1301), where his mission was to negotiate with the pope to bring about a just peace between the warring factions of White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. Aided by the intervention of Charles of Valois, the Blacks took over the city and Dante, a White, went into exile. He wandered from court to court of medieval Italy, with especially long sojourns at Verona and at Ravenna, where he spent the last three years of his life. He seems to have served his patrons as adviser and on occasion specifically as ambassador; it was after an embassy to Venice on behalf of Guido da Polenta, Lord of Ravenna, that the poet died.

By choice Dante might well have devoted himself to political life: circumstance deprived him of this opportunity and constrained him to put his great gifts to the service of letters; his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is generally regarded as the supreme poetic achievement of the Western tradition and has assured his fame. His Vita Nuova is the story of his idealistic love for Beatrice, presumably of the Portinari family, who married Simone de' Bardi and died in 1290. The Convivio, composed after the author went into exile, is a didactic work; the De vulgari eloquentia is a milestone in the history of linguistics, being the first serious study of a vernacular tongue; and the De monarchia is the vehicle for Dante's expression of his political theory. Mention should also be made of his Rhymes, a collection of verses of varying kindssome purely lyrical, some moralistic, and some, one might say, philosophical.

To what extent Dante may properly be considered a philosopher depends on one's definition of the term. Richard McKeon does not consider him such "by the crucial test that, despite the philosophic doctrines that crowd his poems, scholars have been unable to agree concerning what his attitude toward the philosophers he uses is." But this is to make a very special category of philosophers. The best statement of Dante's attitude is found at the beginning of the Convivio (Banquet), where he represents himself not as one of the great (scholars and philosophers) who actually sit at the banquet table but rather as one who, sitting at their feet, passes on to others the crumbs that he is able to pick up. This would make him on the one hand at least an eager student of philosophy and on the other what we should now call a popularizer, if the term may be used without disparagement. And within the great area of philosophy his major interest was in ethics and politics. Let us concede that in the field of pure speculation his mind was alert and curious rather than original. Like his contemporaries he was for the most part content to follow Aristotle as interpreted by Thomas Aquinas, with recourse to what he thought of as "Platonic" where it suited him. His use of his authority, his stature as a poet, and his influence, which still endures, make it worthwhile to study his philosophical posture in some detail.

The Vita Nuova and Convivio

If a drive to seek eternal truth, permanent universals, and order in things is the proper attribute of a philosopher, as it would seem to be, then Dante's claim to the cherished title is reasonable. Perhaps his first work, the Vita Nuova, is the most dramatic example of this precisely because, paradoxically, it is not a philosophical work at all. It is a love story of intimate and personal nature, grounded, it would seem, in historical fact but taking on the air of a spiritual parable; its immediate sources are not in works of philosophy but in the love cult of the Middle Ages. Yet the construction and the apparatus betray a disciplined intent; the prose and poetry are mingled in a strict architectural pattern; and each of the poems is followed by an analysis composed in the tradition of Scholasticism. Digressions on the nature of personification and the meaning of certain terms are evidence of what one might fairly call the philosophical manner. Beatrice herself becomes in the course of the confessional narrative something very close to a theological and thus a quasi-philosophical concept.

It is, however, the Convivio that is the most purposefully "philosophical" of Dante's canon. It was inspired, the author tells us, by the reading of Cicero and Boethius, and Dante in fact seems to see himself as having much in common with the latter, also a victim of political injustice, and as turning to the same source for consolation. It is noteworthy, too, that Dante, like Boethius, attemptsconsciously, one suspectsto set philosophy free from its entanglement with Christian theology. His definition of philosophy in the third tractate goes back to Pythagoras, and in Book IV, in the course of enumerating the virtues appropriate to the successive ages of man, he turns to the pagans (such as Aeneas and, very strikingly, Cato), to exemplify such virtues. All but startling is his eulogy: "And what earthly man was more worthy than Cato to signify God? Truly none." Such an attitude toward the "ideal pagan" dramatizes the author's celebrated exposition of the two beatitudes (II, 4): one in speculation and contemplation, the other in proper conduct of the active life; the former is "higher" than the latter, which, however, clearly is not "subordinate": "It is typical of Dante," says Étienne Gilson, "to base the autonomy of an inferior order on its very inferiority."

In this connection the plan of the Convivio (if it may be called a plan, for, unlike most of Dante's works, the book seems to have grown of itself) is very revealing of the author's concept of the uses, if not the nature, of philosophy. The first tractate is highly personal, stating that the genesis of his interest was his need for consolation in his exile and his feeling that his "image" in Italy had suffered somewhat from the youthful and impassioned portrait that emerged from the pages of the Vita Nuova. In the second tractate he avows that in effect philosophy, "the fairest and noblest daughter of the universe," is the new lady who has replaced Beatrice in his heart. In the third tractate he discusses the meaning of philosophy, which he finds to signify "love of and zeal for wisdom," adding that philosophy has "as its subject understanding and as its form an almost divine love of the thing understood." Presumably "understanding" can be applied to the various fields of study Dante had enumerated in the second tractate, composing an ingenious correlation between the sciences and the heavens of the Ptolemaic system. Of these branches the highest for any medieval theologian (theology itself is in the empyrean, beyond the physical cosmos) would be metaphysics, but it is significant that Dante brackets it with physics in the starry heaven and puts ethics in the loftiest physical sphere, the primum mobile, morality being "the science that disposes us rightly for the other sciences" even as the crystalline heaven sets in motion all the other spheres. In fact, the largest part of the work, the fourth treatise, is given over to a study of true nobility, its source and its effects.

Dante finds this human excellence to be not the Aristotelian "inherited wealth and good manners" but rather a God-given grace, the nature of which is evident in its fruits. The fruits, which are enumerated in chronological order, are all of such a nature as to be properly called social virtues. Dante's ideal is not a mystic or a visionary but, in the best sense of the term, a man of the world, living in a community and serving it to the best of his abilitycertainly an Aristotelian concept. Only in the stage of "decrepitude" does Dante say that the good man's thoughts should turn to God and the afterlife, and even this passage, beautiful as it is, has about it a tone more pagan than Christian. It is noteworthy that all the men chosen to exemplify the appropriate virtues are men of action, in many cases pagans but also including such ambiguous characters as Lancelot and Guido da Montefeltro, the condottiere. Thus the Convivio, dedicated to the glorification of philosophy, ends by being a rule of good living, high-minded, to be sure, but practical as well. Noteworthy too is the rather lengthy excursus of Book IV (Chs. 45) that is inserted to justify the Roman Empire. Dante finds historical correspondences between the empire and the church, affirms that Christ chose to come to Earth at the time the world was best governed and at peace (that is, under Augustus), and concludes with a panegyric to Rome. This is the more interesting because some of his data are traceable to St. Augustine, whose view of imperial Rome was quite opposite.

The De Monarchia

The De monarchia, developing the latent and the tentative attitudes of the Convivio, may well contain Dante's most original contribution to philosophical thought. Written, it seems likely, either during or shortly after Henry VII of Luxembourg's descent into Italy (c. 1313), it is an eloquent defense of the imperial cause or, more accurately, principle. The work is divided into three parts: in the first Dante shows the necessity for the rule of one monarch in temporal affairs; in the second he argues that for historical reasons such a monarch should be the Roman emperor; and in the third he defends the thesis that the emperor, although he owes deference to the pope, should not be subordinate to the pontiff in temporal matters.

It is the first book that is the most fascinating to the student of Dante the philosopher. Briefly, the main argument is that peace is a necessity if humanity is to actualize its potential intellect in the highest degree; and there can be no assurance of peace, national rivalries being what they are and greed being as strong as it is, unless the world is governed by one prince, supreme above all nations and beyond the temptations of cupiditas. In the course of defining the collective potential intellect, Dante invokes the name of Averroes, thus laying himself open to a charge of heresy (and indeed the De monarchia was solemnly burned and remained on the Index for many years).

Gilson, however, has well made the point that the collective potential intellect of humanity as conceived by Dante was not a "being," as was the "possible intellect" (or kind of oversoul) of Averroes, but rather a "community." Indeed, in the course of his arguments in the first book Dante follows Thomistic reasoning, but unlike Thomas, who never so much as mentioned the word emperor, he applies it to secular purposes. Conceding the superiority of contemplation over action and, by inference, of the spiritual over the temporal, he nevertheless stresses the importance of the machinery necessary to perfect the fulfillment of man's proper endowment in the active life and his happiness in this world. So too at the end he readily concedes that the emperor owes the pope the respect of a younger brother, but while thus indicating that the spiritual life is superior, he seems also to imply that it is separate and independent; both pope and emperor would, in his theory, derive their authority directly from God. The result is in fact a kind of political facet of the Averroistic double truth, as contemporary critics were quick to point out. Gilson, for whom Dante is no Averroist, nevertheless commends him for seeing clearly "that one cannot entirely withdraw the temporal world from the jurisdiction of the spiritual world without entirely withdrawing philosophy from the jurisdiction of theology" and adds that Dante's perception of this fact gives him "a cardinal position in the history of mediaeval political philosophy." In this sense and with a practical intent characteristic of Dante, the De monarchia reaffirms the underlying thesis of the Convivio.

The Divine Comedy

It has been argued by some critics that the Divine Comedy is in essence a repudiation of the secular and independent Convivio and De monarchia and is evidence of a kind of "Conversion" of the poet, resulting either from some inner crisis or from his despair at the defeat of Henry VII. Perhaps if we say that in the Comedy the substance of the earlier works is utilized as a preparation for the vision, a basis for the mystic superstructure rather than as a finality in itself, we may speak of "conversion," but not, in the opinion of this writer, if the word carries any suggestion of rejection. It is true that the devotional element is novel and important: the intercession of the Virgin Mary makes it possible for the poet to undertake the supernatural journey and to enjoy the vision that crowns it. The vision itself is of a mystical nature, adumbrated perhaps in the Vita nuova but totally absent from the "philosophical" works. Concern with purely theological mattersthe Incarnation, predestination, divine justice, and the likebulk large in the Comedy, which also contains (in Paradiso XI) a very interesting example of the contemptus mundi posture, otherwise quite uncharacteristic of Dante. The poet is also very careful to point out the error of the belief in Averroistic oversoul (Purgatorio XXV). Such elements have led to discussion of Dante's Augustinianism as opposed to his Thomism. (T. K. Swing has argued that in his manipulation of these doctrines "Dante is the first to accomplish a consistent elucidation of the teleological destiny of the Christian soul through a metaphysical scheme.") It is true that the presence of St. Bernard as Dante's last guide and, as it were, sponsor for his ultimate vision, gives dramatic emphasis to the Neoplatonic or Augustinian strain. But if the substitution of rapture for reason represents the victory of Augustine over Thomas, it also carries us beyond the limits of philosophy and perhaps out of the area of our proper concern here.

We may yet affirm, in the face of all such elements as noted, that the Comedy is, in the author's intent, primarily an exposition of ethics; the letter to Can Grande specifically defines it as having for its subject "man, liable to the reward or punishment of Justice, according as through the freedom of the will he is deserving or undeserving." And in this area the frame of reference is, as it was in the Convivio, Aristotelian and Thomisticnot without some original sallies of Dante's own. The presence in the Paradiso of the Latin Averroist Siger of Brabant, for example, may be interpreted as an affirmation of the autonomy and dignity of the "contemporary profane science" (Pierre Mandonnet) of Aristotelian philosophy. But from the point of view of ethical investigation, the Inferno is the most interesting part of the work, for here, dealing not with the way of salvation, which is no longer possible to the damned, nor with the ultimate doctrines, interesting only to saints, Dante is in a sense free to formulate his own code of morality. Clearly his inclusion of pagans and other non-Christians in hell indicates his intent to establish a code of behavior for all men; his hell is nonsectarian, broadly speaking. His main divisions of incontinence, violence, and fraud are ingeniously worked out from a combination of Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas; interesting too is his creation of the "vestibule" for the lukewarm spirits and his peopling of the limbo with the souls of the virtuous pagans. Nor does the "converted" Dante abandon his appreciation of the second beatitude; not only do the pagans in limbo enjoy quite a comfortable immortality but Cato, so much revered in the Convivio, reappears as the guardian of purgatory, where he symbolizes free will; and, most startling of all, in the heaven of Jupiter the Trojan Ripheus is shown as an example of the "baptism of desire" that would make it possible for a good man, totally ignorant of the Mosaic or Christian message, to win salvation. To be sure, this is rare and does not avail to save Vergil or Aristotle, but on the other hand salvation in Christian terms also is ultimately a matter of predestined grace: without being unorthodox, Dante, in the example of Ripheus, has revealed his deep concern for ultimate justice. Indeed, the analysis of sin in the Inferno, as Kenelm Foster has pointed out, has its genesis in a conception of justice and presupposes society. The souls in the Inferno have "injured" others, have broken the social fabric in one way or another; even the heretics seem to be there because they have misled their followers rather than because of their own arrogant pride (a sin not specifically classified in the Inferno ). We may also remark that Dante's concern for the good life on Earth does not desert him: The theory of the two "suns" necessary for the proper illumination of humankind reappears in the Purgatory ; the emperor is glorified (a reserved seat awaits Henry VII in the celestial rose); and certain cabalistic prophecies indicate Dante's hope for a dux who will lead the temporal world back to order and sanity. "The Divine Comedy is as much a political as it is a religious poem," says A. Passerin d'Entrèves, and surely in that climactic work both politics and religion are seen sub specie philosophiae. If Dante is not a true philosopher, he is certainly a magnificent amateur.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Augustinianism; Averroes; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Continental Philosophy; Gilson, Étienne Henry; Love; Neoplatonism; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Siger of Brabant; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Thomism.


works by dante

Convivio. Translated by Philip Wicksteed. London, 1903.

Epistolae. With English translation by Paget Toynbee. Oxford, 1920.

Le opere di Dante. Florence: R. Bemporad, 1921; 2nd ed., 1960.

The Portable Dante. Edited by Paolo Milano. New York: Viking, 1947. Selected translations.

Divine Comedy. Translated by H. R. Huse. New York: Rinehart, 1954. A useful, prose, line-for-line version.

Monarchy. Translated by Donald Nicholl. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1954.

works on dante

Davis, C. T. Dante and the Idea of Rome. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.

Entrèves, A. P. d'. Dante as a Political Thinker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Foster, Kenelm. "The Theology of the 'Inferno.'" In God's Tree. London: Blackfriars, 1957.

Gilson, Étienne. Dante et la philosophie. Paris: J. Vrin, 1939. Translated by David Moore as Dante the Philosopher. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1949.

Mandonnet, Pierre. Dante le théologien. Paris, 1935.

Mazzeo, J. A. Medieval Cultural Tradition in Dante's Comedy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960.

Mazzeo, J. A. Structure and Thought in the Paradiso. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958.

McKeon, Richard. "Poetry and Philosophy in the Twelfth Century." In Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, edited by R. S. Crane et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

Nardi, Bruno. Dante e la cultura medievale. Bari, Italy, 1949.

Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1910; New York, 1953. Latter edition is paperback.

Swing, T. K. The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan. Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962.

Thomas Goddard Bergin (1967)

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