The allegory of the Commedia [Robert Hollander]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert Hollander

Tratto da: Allegory in Dante's Commedia

Editore: Prineton University Press, Princeton

Anno: 1969

Pagine: 15-56

Although the allegory of the theologians lies at the heart of Dante's poem, giving it form and meaning, we do not - nor did Dante - need to be theologians in order to understand the process. We require only a single paragraph from St. Thomas, one which lists the four senses of Scripture as literal/historical, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The complex history of these four senses has recently been set forth in great detail by Father Henri de Lubac. We may merely note here that Augustine came close to stating the four senses as Aquinas eventually would, with the exception that he omits moral and anagogical meanings of a passage in Scripture as num..eering among the four. It is perhaps in Cassian (ca. 360 - ca. 435) that the later nomenclature of fourfold allegory first became established, if only tentatively so; but its roots issue from Origen (ca. 185 - ca. 254) and develop in the text of Aquinas for the men of Dante's time. As Father de Lubac puts it, "...saint Thomas ne fait que reproduire un scheme courant de son époque, fondé, suivant le principe déjà mis en oeuvre par Origène, sur le texte meme de la Bible."
One of the difficulties facing an apologist for Dante's use of fourfold allegory's techniques is that today the tradition seems forgotten lore to anyone but a student of the development of the Christian exegesis. And thus the arguments of Charles Singleton may seem arcane only because contemporary literary men look at Dante through the conventions of allegory peculiar to the Renaissance and later times. That is the simplest form of the problem against which we need only establish one fact: Dante's knowledge of the tradition as it was expressed in Aquinas. Therefore, we need not concern ourselves here with the history of the tradition; instead, we may refer to the large efforts of Father de Lubac and of others.
A second and larger problem is posed by what might be called the religious objection, a position which has many followers, all of whom take their clue from Aquinas himself, who said, "The author of Holy Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do) but by things themselves”. This is essentially the position of Bruno Nardi, who carefully examines the background of the argument in what is the most clearly enunciated of a large number of arguments in this vein, and then abruptly decides that no secular writer can write fourfold allegory. This position does not consider the possibility that Dante might have attempted things not yet attempted, things technically impossible or doctrinally incorrect, or that he might have written, as Singleton has explained, in imitation of Gods way of writing. The most amusing although infuriating characteristic of this approach to the problem is that it is always couched in hypothetical terms. That is, the question is not phrased, "Did Dante borrow the techniques of fourfold exegesis?” but “Could Dante have borrowed the techniques of fourfold exegesis?" It is a strange means of proceeding.
The third problem is the oldest. It can first be seen in the fourteenth-century commentaries on the Commedia. These often begin by citing Dante's famous Letter to Can Grande, and then go on to avoid completely any use there of, preferring to read Dante as Fulgentius and Bernardus Silvestris read Virgil, that is, as personification allegory, in which Beatrice becomes Theology, Virgil becomes Reason, and so forth. These commentaries are significant documents, for through them we can see that the habit of theological allegory so deeply ingrained in Dante was almost immediately lost or denied in all but one of the commentaries on his poem written in the first seventy-five years after his death. The documents are, I believe, fascinating. My interest in them here will be confined mainly to an appendix to which, at this juncture, I refer those who are similarly fascinated. For over six hundred years those commentators and critics of the Divine Comedy who have seen fit to deal with the allegorical problem at all have done so almost without exception through the philological approach, treating the Divine Comedy as one would with more justice treat The Faerie Queene. And those who have not been drawn to this approach have generally favored no method at all, objecting correctly that Beatrice and Virgil are primarily themselves, but for various reasons neglecting to think that the theological form of allegorical treatment is proper to the poem. These three groups typify the three major forms of evasion or negation of Dante's allegorical principles. In the twentieth century two major Dante critics, one German and one American, have led the way to the discovery of the allegorical method which lies behind the poem. Before putting this study into relationship with the work of Erich Auerbach and Charles Singleton, I think it would be useful to review, as briefly as possible, Dante's own statements about allegory, since Dante was not only the first but also the best critic of his own poem.
The first of these statements, as well as the later Letter to Can Grande, derives largely from Aquinas’ definition of fourfold exegesis; it is best to begin with that:

"The author of Holy Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do) but by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things sgnifed by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal and presupposes it. For as the Apostle says (Heb. 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law and [Pseudo-] Dionysius says: 'The New Law itself is a figure of future glory.' Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to terneal glory, there is the anagogical sense"*.
(S.T., 1, i, 10-tr. R. M. Grant)

The distinction with which Aquinas begins this celebrated passage, itself dependent, as Father de Lubac shows, on the formulations of earlier Fathers, goes back at least as far as Augustine, who makes his classical distinction in De Trinitate, XV, ix, 15: “But when the Apostle speaks of allegory, he refers not to words, but to fact [non in verbis eam reperit, sed in facto']; as when he shows that the two sons of Abraham, one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman (these are not words but facts), are to be understood as the two Testaments”. What both Augustine and Aquinas, as well as those who came between them, maintain is perhaps the most single significant distinction upon which Dante's own practice as a poet depends. The words of men are only vocables; the Word of God is a vocable but has the peculiarity of being also a thing, of having actual historical existence. This assertion resides with absolute perfection at the center of Christian theology, which is the Incarnation. Christ is no metaphor, although he is the Word. Similarly, the words of God, as these are recorded in Scripture, have the unique quality of representing actuality; and it is here that the Hebrew sense of history, as represented by the Old Testament, enters Christianity. Scripture is the verbal record of living history, of the covenant between God and historical man. In the Bible, then, all that is recorded as fact is fact. Both Augustine and Aquinas, as well as others, had one difficulty to confront in order to make this distinction workable; for any one who reads Scripture notices that not all the words therein represent similarly. That is, some of the words of the Bible represent actual persons, places, events, and things, while others do not. Some of the words of God are merely words, like the vocables of mere human fabulists, and these are the words of parable. We are not concerned, for instance, with actual green bay trees, or with actual talents. This parabolic speech is employed exactly as philological allegory is employed, only to make a meaning clear, to tell a moral lesson. The objects it uses have the names and the semblances of actual objects, but they have no unique, historical being. In other words, not all of Scripture (nor all of the Divine Comedy) is written in the historical mode; and only that part of Scripture which is in the historical mode may have fourtold meaning. A further distinction is also important: if parable is excluded from containing fourfold senses, so are certain non-further-signifying historical passages, those which merely buttress or adorn history that does have further significance. The locus classicus for this doctrine, which should have served as a restraining influence on some later exegetes whom it obviously failed to impress, is to be found in a justly celebrated passage of Augustine's De Civitate Dei:

"Nor are all the historical relations of these books mystical, but such as are not are added for the more illustration of such as are. It is the ploughshare only that turns up the earth, yet may not the plough lack the other instruments. The strings only do cause the sound in harps and other such instruments, yet must the harp have pins, and the others frets, to make up the music, and the organs have other devices linked to the keys, which the organist touches not, but only their keys, to make the sound proportionate and harmonious. Even so in those prophetic stories, some things are merely relations, yet are they adherent unto those that are significant, and in a manner linked to them."
(XVI, ii-tr. J. Healey)

I represent this additional distinction here because it is one which the Fathers made, and it is essential to their understanding of the limits of their own techniques. Thus we can see that Aquinas' opening distinction is not meant to cover all the words of Scripture, but only those which have what we could call historical meaning, and not all of these. The additional point is that no human author can write with other than parabolic words. If we accept, or if Dante accepted, Thomas’ distinction, it is literally impossible that he wrote the Divine Comedy in fourfold allegory. In concert with Charles Singleton and with others who have followed him, let us be content to say that Dante wrote in imitation of God's way of writing. For, if Aquinas makes it explicitly impossible for a mere human to write in fourfold allegory, he in no way proscribes nor could he possibly prevent any human author from imitating the technique. The technique, after all, had enjoyed tremendous use as a critical device in the nine hundred years before Dante when it was applied, to be sure, only to Scripture, but with Dante it received its first and perhaps sole use as the central technique of signification in a fictional invention.
Although for most readers it will be tiresome, I hope those who have not dealt with these questions before will find useful a brief recapitulation of the four senses as they are defined by Aquinas. The literal or historical sense (as opposed to a literal sense which is merely letters which in turn form mere words that have only parabolic significance) tells us what happened. Now, literal senses in Scripture which have the characteristic of also being significantly historical (e.g., Jonah in the belly of the whale, or Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt) have a further threefold signification. The second kind of meaning history has is spiritual, and the spiritual sense (which can only be found in words which make up history, and not in parable) itself is divided into three senses: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The following chart makes the relationship visually immediate:

The second sense, the allegorical, is the most difficult for the neophyte to conceptualize, and also the most important for our purpose in reading the Divine Comedy. The literal sense, as the record of a fact or deed, takes on greater significance by being related to other facts or deeds within the historical procession that is Scripture; this would be a simple and non-theological way of describing the second sense. A simple and theologjcal way would be simply to say typology: Jonah's three days in the seacreature followed by his emergence are a type of the three days Jesus is to spend in the earth after the Crucifixion, which are to be followed by His Resurrection. This is precisely the science which Aquinas points to in his use of the word figura, or in his brief sentence which defines the allegorical sense (the first spiritual sense) : Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense". Foreign as this way of thinking is to our time, it is simply enough understood. The letters of Scripture, when reporting events, have the peculiar quality of being able to signify words which simultaneously signify facts, which facts also simultaneously are figures, types, or shadows (umbrae) of other facts. Any significant event in Scripture will have a figural relationship to other events which either precede or follow it. Thus, the rib taken from Adam's side foreshadows for most exegetes the Church, which will be taken from the side of Christ, and which is the new Eve.
Migne, in his Index figurarum of the Old Testament, divides the types into five classifications: figuras quae spectant ad Christum; quae ad Ecclesiam; quae ad apostolos et justos; quae ad Judaeos et Gentiles; quae ad haereticos et impios”. Through his summary of the uses of typology during one thousand years of exegesis, we can see that the science was not restricted to finding prefigurations of Christ or of the Church (the essential respective positions of, to cite only two critics, A. C. Charity and D. W. Robertson, Jr.), though these were the most important uses; typology was used to find connections among all the major and many minor personages of the two Testaments. Thus Absalon is the type for Gregory the Great, Rabanus Maurus, Peter Damian, and others of those Jews who opposed David; while Judas, for Hilary, looking backward, "novus est Absalon”. Consultation of Migne's valuable indices shows how widely spread and how versatile were the uses of typology.
This historical view of Scripture, which capitalizes so largely upon Hebrew history in order to build a Christian world order, easily lends itself to the moral purpose that the writings of any religion must contain. If the Fathers were in fairly constant agreement on various typological co-referents, their moral readings, their lucubrations on the third sense, varied more widely. Let us return to Jonah. The narrative of his miraculous experience is a figure, in the second, the allegorical sense, of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Morally, a greater freedom of interpretation necessarily accrues. "When things look blackest, never lose faith in the saving power of the Lord" would be an acceptable moral gloss on the passage. The powers of tropological invention tend to be limitless; nevertheless, the moral sense is limited by the relatively strict historical order from which it issues. We should not, for instance, argue that the Jonah story is a warning against deep-sea fishing, rather, that Jonah, as type of Christ, teaches us faith in Him.
The anagogical sense, Aquinas says, relates the literal event to eternal glory; to be simple, it relates the history of this world to God's; or, it shows that things which have happened here point to the afterlife, which is eternal. The point of the anagoge is first to affirm that God's universal plan is operant, that this world is an umbra futurorum. In our language we might want to call it the teleological sense, which assures us, by revealing a divine pattern in the affairs of men, that God is indeed in His Heaven, and that in Jonah He has pointed to His Eternality, which is our future, when those of us who are saved shall, like Jonah and because of Christ, be resurrected.

Thus, although the four senses of Scriptural exegesis serve different aims, the medieval system had an enormous attraction because in a single method it found a way of representing history, morality, and metaphysics simultaneously. It is not surprising that nine hundred years of effort went into the establishment and maintenance of this system of exegesis; and it is not difficult to see how radically different this kind of allegory is from that of its Greek predecessors, who handled the literal only as a pretext for sententia.
Before we come to Dante, perhaps it will be useful in our summary to make one further clarification of Aquinas’ statement of fourfold allegory. Hardly a single treatment of medieval allegory likes to be without the following couplet, apparently a schoolmaster]y mnemonic device popular with budding clericals who wanted naturally enough to sort out the four senses in their own minds:

Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, quo ten as anagogia.

[The literal teaches the deeds, the allegory what to believe,
The moral what to do, the anagoge whereto you should strive.]

Notice that the second sense, the allegorical, is not immediately clear. What to believe about what? The answer is what to believe about, or how to read, the Old Testament's relation to the New. For the word allegoric, used to represent the second sense of fourfold exegesis, is a synonym for the words figura and umbra, and thus the medieval schoolboy was reminding himself that typology was the means by which he must govern his reading of the literal sense of the Old Testament.
A clarification is necessary concerning the word “allegory”. Those who have thought about this problem before, as well as those who may be dealing with it here for the first time, have noticed the many discrete meanings we have already found for this word merely within the Christian exegetical tradition. We began by discussing fourfold allegory, thus indicating the entire exegetical technique. We have also referred, as Dante did, to the three spiritual senses, which devolve from the literal sense, as the three allegorical senses. And we must remember that the second sense is itself called the allegorical sense, by which is indicated no more and no less than typology. It is a bit confusing, especially as the other kinds of allegory also involve different definitions of the word. We shall not review the others here, for we are about to come upon Dante's own distinction between the allegory of the theologians and the allegory of the poets in Convivio (II, i). This passage has been the cause of a great deal of confusion. The confusion, it seems to me, is to some extent justified in light of the confusions within the passage itself, and is aggravated by the lacuna in the original text, which has been filled in and then argued over by subsequent editors. Dante's statement in Convivio is perhaps of only peripheral interest here for the major reason that it describes his allegorical practice in Convivio, not in the Commedia. Yet, many of those who wish to argue against Dante's use of fourfold exegetical techniques in the Divine Comedy make their stand upon Dante's statement in Conrvivio. Even if the statement had never been contradicted by a later one, such as the one in the Letter to Can Grande, or more importantly, by practice in the Divine Comedy itself, this procedure would be dangerous. To argue that because Dante uses the allegory of the poets in Convivio he must also use it in the Commedia is so entirely without logic that I do not wish even to discuss the matter here. What can be immediately assented to is that Dante does use, when he writes allegorically in Convivio, the allegory of the poets. Because in the Divine Comedy he changes his mode of representation, the literal senses of the two works are not commensurate. The essential mode of Convivio is the veiled speech of philological allegory in which there is no literal sense in facto but only a tissue of fabrications of the sort indicated by Dante's own phrase bella menzogna, a tissue which must be puzzled over by the dotti, so that its meaning, which is all that is really important about it, will become clear. This is Dante's own position, and I find no more efficacious way to deal with this celebrated passage than to offer a brief commentary of my own, some of which will repeat what has already been said, and some of which will offer some tentative new judgments.
“I say that, as is narrated in the first chapter, it conforms that this exposition be literal and allegorical”. Dante, preparing to explicate the canzone “Voi che 'ntendendo il terzo ciel movete", the first canzone of Convivio, draws our attention to something he has said in the First Treatise (I, i, 18), where he announced his intention as follows: "per allegorica esposizione quelle [canzoni] intendo mostrare, appresso la litterale istoria ragionata" (“I intend to explain these canzoni by allegorical exposition, after having explained the literal story"). If by "literal" and "allegorical” Dante means the same things in each passage, and there is no reason to believe that he does not, we may still have some difficulty in knowing exactly which kind of allegory he claims to be using. Later in the Convivio passage he announces that he intends to follow the allegory of the poets, in which the literal story is non-historical, a fable invented by the poet; and it is probable that he means to say that here in this passage, as well as in the First Treatise. And yet in the First Treatise he uses the phrase la litterale istoria, which seems to reflect Aquinas' litteralis sive historicus, the literal sense we find in the Bible. Nevertheless, Dante would not seem to want to imply the presence of that distinction. Whatever the case, his next sentence points clearly to Biblical allegory:
"And to make this understood, one should know that writings [le scritture] are to be understood and should be mainly expounded in four senses”. A problem arises in the English translation of the word scritture, traditionally translated as “writings”. In French, for instance, a translator says écritures, which means either "writings" or Scripture", and at least may remind the reader of Holy Writ. Although it is not certain in Convivio, it is clear from Dante’s later uses of the words scrittura and scritture (scriptura in Latin) in the Commedia and in the Letter to Can Grande that by them he means Holy Writ (in nine out of ten uses in the Commedia) or pagan writing on divine subjects which for him has similar authority.
However, in Convivio his practice is mixed, or his meanings sometimes uncertain. Nevertheless, the reference in the passage above would certainly seem to be a reference to fourfold Biblical exegesis. After "…in four senses”, he continues: "One is called literal..." And here, at this crucial point, occurs the famous lacuna. What is clear and I believe beyond argument, despite various opinions to the contrary, is that Dante begins to enumerate and define allegory in accord with the four senses of Biblical exegesis. What is not clear and in my opinion never shall be is whether he intended to make a clear distinction between Scriptural allegory and that of the poets, which he here invokes for his own canzoni. In my opinion he did not. Otherwise stated, I find that Dante has either deliberately or confusedly elided the necessary distinction. If such is the case, the restoration of Busnelli and Vandelli makes sense, for it also elides that distinction. These editors would have Dante continue: "and this is that sense which does not extend beyond the letter of the fictive words, as in the fables of the poets. The other [sense] is called allegorical...". If that is indeed the way in which Dante did continue, we are forced to conclude that his critical theory of allegory, at the time of the writing of Convivio, was in some logical disorder, even if the practice of this sort of hybrid allegory is a common enough phenomenon. We need think only of Boccaccio's later setting forth of the four senses in Genealogia deorum gentilium (I, 3), which takes the example of Perseus' killing of the Gorgon and elucidates the four senses as follows: “Now, this may be understood superficially in its literal or historical sense. In the moral sense it shows a wise man’s triumph over vice and his attainment of virtue. Allegorically it figures [designatur] the pious man who scorns worldly delights and lifts his mind to heavenly things. It admits also an anagogical sense, since it symbolizes [per fabulam posset figurari] Christ’s victory over the Prince of this World, and his Ascension" (tr. Osgood). Here a literal sense, which Boccaccio treats sensibly enough as a made-up myth, is found to have three further significances, which are given the names of the three spiritual senses from fourfold exegesis. It should be immediately obvious, however, that Boccaccio is here playing fast and loose with the rules of exegesis. First, he has inverted the usual order from allegorical, moral, anagogical to moral, allegorical, anagggical. This inversion tells us a great deal immediately. Let me give a simple example. If one attempts to tell the significance of Jonah's three days in the belly of Leviathan by first elucidating the "moral" sense, without having established the typological equivalence of Jonah and Jesus, he will, of necessity, play fast and loose, as does Boccaccio in the Genealogia, and as does Dante in the Convivio. The inversion of the order of the second and third senses is the sure sign of an exegete (of things sacred or profane) who has missed the point of the technique, which is to treat the literal historically, and thus first to find the historical connective that links literal and spiritual. As for Boccaccio's actual analysis of the three spiritual senses, we find that the moral and allegorical are essentialy the same, or if not that, at least essentially of the same order; that order is personification allegory. We note further that Boccaccio's anagoge is far more a forced typology than a true anagoge. It is not my purpose to berate Boccaccio, for in literature the laws of theological explication de texte need not, and almost always do not, apply. I merely wish to take the example of Boccaccio to clarify the confusion of the allegory of the poets and the allegory of the theologians in Dante's text in Convivio. We may note in passing that Boccaccio is even more confused than Dante, even though it is more than likely that his own passage is borrowed from the one we are now examining.
Dante's missing definition of the second sense may then have been the one the editors have supplied, as Singleton maintains: "No one who knows the general argument of the whole work will, I think, make serious objection to the way the editors of the accepted critical text have filled the lacuna”. Nevertheless, it does seem to me worth the effort to keep the question open. For what Dante may have accomplished in the missing words of Convivio II, i, is a concise distinction between two kinds of allegorical sense. When we rejoin him, however, he is obviously discussing allegorical significance according to the poets: "One is called literal…and this is that sense which is hidden under the cloak of these fables; and it is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie: as when Ovid tells that Orpheus pacifies the wild beasts with his zither, and causes the trees and the stones to approach him; which means to say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice would make cruel hearts peaceful and humble, and would make move to his will those who live without science and art; and that those who have no life of reason are as stones". Clearly, as many have pointed out, this passage is in the tradition of secular allegory, in which the mere moral propensities of words, themselves parole fittizie making up a bella menzogna, lead the way to the hidden truth. This is not the process of Biblical exegesis, in which the Word of God, which exists as actual truth in itself in a literal sense that is also historical; and which in turn has further meanings, is the way to the revealed truth. Dante continues:
“And why this concealment was invented by the wise men will be divulged in the penultimate treatise". Although Dante did not finish Convivio, his thoughts on this matter are, I believe, almost the same as those which Boccaccio sets down, especially in his commentary on the first canto of the Divine Comedy. These thoughts in turn represent the ancient tradition of the Greek allegorists, who claim that the poet must not make his meaning immediately clear, but must use allegory so that only the dotti will understand what would be misunderstood and thus misapplied by the ignorant. “It is true that the theologians take this sense otherwise than do the poets; however, because it is here my intention to follow the method of the poets, I take the allegorical sense according as it is employed by the poets”.
And so he does, in Convivio. What is noteworthy is that Dante omits, or the lacuna omits, the treatment of the second sense of theological allegory which we would expect from Dante in light of his claim for the applicability of the two other spiritual senses, the moral and the anagogical, his discussion of which immediately follows. For in the next paragraph, to summarize briefly its content, Dante goes on to discuss the third sense, the moral sense, for which readers must intently study le scritture (returning to the subject of fourfold exegesis Dante returns to this word, which replaces favole, the word he uses for the fictions of the poets). He concludes by returning to Scripture for the fact that only three of the twelve apostles were allowed to accompany Christ when He climbed the mount to transfigure Himself, and which supposedly teaches that in the most secret things we should have little company.
And in the following paragraph Dante goes on to discuss the fourth sense, which is called the anagogical, or sovrasenso (literally, supersense), in which "the things signified signify the supernal things of eternal glory”. Once again he uses the word scrittura, and, taking a Biblical example, is at pains to point out its literal truth, this time alluding to the Exodus, as he will again in the Letter to Can Grande and in Purgatorio II, 46. This long paragraph goes on to assert, in good Aquinian fashion, the importance of the literal, upon which all the other senses depend. He would seem to be, with little room for doubt, still referring to the theological allegory he has said he is not using. This is not altogether surprising. It would be thoroughly typical of him, as a man of his time, to adumbrate what is really of little use to his poem or the treatise upon it, simply because he knows about the subject and feels it his pleasure and perhaps his duty to give us his knowledge.
However, in the concluding paragraph of Convivio II, i, the fourth paragraph of the statement of Dante's allegorical principles, all that has been kept separate, or at least can be understood as being so, comes puzzlingly together: “For these reasons, therefore, I shall always first discourse upon the literal meaning of each canzone, and after that I shall discourse upon its allegory, that is, the hidden truth; and I shall sometimes incidentally touch upon the other senses, as the place and the time make appropriate”. How can Dante claim that a poem made up of parole fittizie, a poem which is a bella menzogna, a poem of which the literal sense is not historical, that such a poem has four senses, including two of the senses which are precisely reserved for Holy Scripture, as he himself has apparently reserved them in the previous commentary? I have a simple suggestion which may help to ease the problem. If, as I believe the several preceding pages demonstrate, Dante was capable of making, and did in fact make, some clear distinction between the two kinds of allegory - a distinction which has been often forgotten, lost, or misunderstood during the six centuries since he wrotethere is one reason why he might conclude his essay on allegory in the Convivio by eradicating, or at least weakening, his own distinction, bringing the two kinds of allegory together after having previously kept them apart, and it is this: although he admits that the poetry of Convivio is a bella menzogna, he also insists that it is of such high purport that it can have the kind of significance usually found only in Scripture. And so, even though it is "against the rules" to do so, he tells us that he will occasionally apply the third and fourth (significantly enough, not the second) Biblical sense to his parole fittizie. Under this scheme the poetry of Convivio is to be understood as being literally and allegorically fictive, but occasionally, in the moral and anagogical senses, theological. This makes the poetry of Convivio a hybrid. Perhaps the difficulty of maintaining the truth and the comeliness of such a creature led Dante to abandon it. That the Convivio is unfinished is perhaps the most important single fact about the work.

The arguments that surround Dante's Letter to Can Grande are not particularly germane to this discourse. About all those who claim that the Letter is not genuine, or that only its first four paragraphs are genuine, one thing is clear: Their desire to cast doubt upon the authority of the Epistola in all cases depends upon a desire to discredit the notion that Dante used the allegory of the theologians in creating the Divine Comedy. However, it is astonishing that so much labor (which, according to most of the best scholarship on the question, has failed in its prime purpose) has gone into the destruction of the authenticity of this piece of literary criticism. Granting for the moment that it was not written by Dante, the Letter to Can Grande nevertheless tells us much about his poem. Had the detractors tested their theories against the poem rather than against this external piece of evidence, they might have come to wiser decisions regarding the poem. They might even have come round to acceptance of the authenticity of the Epistola, which, almost all of Dante's first commentators, including his son Pietro, quote approvingly. Thus, although I do not wish to become involved in the quarrel concerning the authorship of the Epistola, I do wish to refer to that text now, since it discusses more clearly than any other single document of Dante's time the allegorical conventions which inform the poem. In doing so it would be less than honest were I not to confess that the work seems to me to be in no way a forgery.
The dedication gives us the signature of the author, which contains the acerbic flavor of Dante and which is worth re-remembering for its own sake: “Dantes Alagherii florentinus natione non moribus” (“Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth, not by character”).
Paragraph I: “Verum ne diuturna me nimis incertitudo suspenderet, velut Austri regina Jerusalem petiit, velut Pallas petiit Elicona, Veronam petii..." Dante, paying Can Grande della Scala an exaggerated compliment, uses a technique that has often been noticed throughout the Divine Comedy: the coupling of a Christian and a pagan source in order to clarify a contemporary event. As playful as the compliment may be, I think it is worth noting that Dante here uses the technique of figuralism: Dante had heard so much of Can Grande's magnificence that he had to come to Verona to see for himself (“Lest immeasurable incertitude hold me in suspense any longer, just as the queen of the South sought Jerusalem, or as Pallas sought Helicon, sought I Verona”). The typology has to do with the place sought rather than the seeker: Verona is, playfully, the New Jerusalem, the New Helicon. I have paused over this passage because it is evidence that the writer is willing to borrow from Scriptural exegesis for a mundane purpose - an idea that has frequently been attacked by those who doubt that Dante would have thought of this kind of writing as being permissible or possible.
Paragraph 4: Dante concludes the fourth paragraph, which is the limit of his dedicatory praise, with the announcement that he will now assume the office of the lecturer (sub lectoris officio) in offering an introduction to his own work.
Paragraph 5: The introduction begins by quoting Aristotle's Metaphysics: “sicut res se habet ad esse, sic se habet ad veritatem” (“as a thing relates to existence, so it relates to truth”). This quotation is put to the task of the further Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident, the distinction which Dante employs to relate the Paradiso (the part of the poem dedicated to Can Grande and hence introduced here) to the whole, since the existence of this part depends upon the first two cantiche.
Paragraph 6: And thus the introduction of this part, Paradiso, is to be understood as the introduction to the whole. Dante continues: “Sex igitur sunt que in principio cuiusque doctrinalis operis inquirenda sunt, videlicet subiectum, agens, forma, finis, libri titulus, et genus phylosophie” (“There are six things, then, which must be investigated at the beginning of any instructional work; namely, subject, agent, form, end, the title of the book, as well as the branch of philosophy it concerns”). He goes on to say that it is clear that of these six there are three respects in which this part, Paradiso, differs from the whole: subject, form, and title; the other three are the same for the part as for the whole, and therefore he will begin with these three.
Paragraphs 7 and 8: These paragraphs constitute the part of the Epistola generally quoted in full, for it is here that Dante goes into the theory of allegory which is to be understood as the handling of the work's subject-that is made clear by the first sentence of paragraph 8 (paragraph 9 concerns the forma, paragraph 10 the libri titulus). I give these two paragraphs in full*:

(7) In evidence, then, of what should be said, let it be known that the sense of this work is not simple; nay, it may be said to be polysemous, which is to say, of a number of senses; for the first sense is that which is understood by the letter, another, that which is understood by those things signified by the letter. And the first is called literal, the second, to be sure, either allegorical, or moral, or anagogical. This mode of treatment, that it may be better revealed, may be considered in the following verse: 'When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judea became his sanctification, Israel his power'. For if we consider the letter alone, signified to us is the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, at the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace; if the anagogical, the departure of the holy soul from the servitude of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory. And although these mystic senses are called by many names, they may all in general be called allegorical, since they are different from the literal or historical. For allegory is meant by the Greek alleon, which is equivalent to the Latin alienum or diversum.
(8) “Once we grasp these facts, it is manifest that the subject, around which the senses run, one after the other, is of necessity twofold. And that such is the case concerning the subject of this work ought to be clear, as it is first to be understood literally, and then expounded allegorically. Thus the subject of the whole work, so far as it is to be understood in the literal sense, taken simply, is the state of the souls after death; for the process of the entire work situates itself in this and around this. If, to be sure, the work is to be understood allegorically, the subject is man, as he is liable to rewarding or punishing justice, according as he is worthy or unworthy in the exercise of the freedom of his will”.

The first thing we should notice about these passages when we compare them, as we inevitably do, with the passage on allegory in the C onvivio, is that this time Dante does not combine in any way at all the allegory of the poets and the allegory of the theologians. The Divine Comedy, the epistle informs us, is to be understood through the techniques of allegory which are specifically and only Christian, not, as was the Convivio, by means of the allegory of the poets. Here there is no reference to Orpheus, only to Scripture. For now, I should like to put aside the Epistola and other matters dependent upon it and call to the reader's attention that much of what has been presented up to now is far from new. To those for whom it is old stuff I must apologize for having to include it. And needless to say, I count upon the work of others, to whom I have referred, to buttress what I have summarized. I refer those readers who still have grave doubts about the large degree of acceptance enjoyed by medieval exegesis in Dante's time again to the keepers of theological history, especially to Henri de Lubac. I refer those who find it unlikely that Dante either knew or used this medieval system of thought to those few contemporary critics who have seen the matter clearly and put it well, above all to Erich Auerbach and Charles Singleton. I believe it is incumbent upon me to delineate, at least briefly, the differences between my position and that of these two illustrious precursors.
In all his many works on Dante, most of which are to some degree involved with Dante's use of this method of exegesis, Erich Auerbach never addresses himself to the full theoretical scope of the question. Rather, from the time of his important essay, "Figura," he concerns himself primarily with Dante's use of the central technique of fourfold exegesis, figuralism; but he does not take up, either theoretically or practically, Dante's awareness and use of the other spiritual senses or of the theory as a whole. I cite, for instance, his pages on the figural nature of Cato, which I believe achieve only a minimal insight into the complexity of Dante's poetic behavior at this juncture of the poem.
As for Charles Singleton, it is my belief that, after Filippo Villani, he is the first to see the structure of the Divine Comedy as Dante saw it. By that I mean that he is the first modern critic who became conversant with the actual poetic of the poem, which is, in his own phrase, the imitation of God's way of writing. And yet I do not find in his work what I expect to find: the proof of the allegorical theory in the pure evidence of the text itself. For instance, to my knowledge Singleton does not (nor does anyone else for that matter) discuss Dante's straightforward use of the very words of exegetical theory in his poem. Preferring to show Dante's awareness of the fourfold in more general ways, he does not, with a few notable exceptions, show how radically and beautifully Dante turns the techniques of theology to poetry. And the last is the task of this study.
It is my contention then, that the seventh and eighth paragraphs of the Letter to Can Grande, whoever wrote it, contain in germ all that the critic needs to know of the plan of the poem in order to elucidate its essential techniques. The poem has a literal sense which operates whenever the actual events and persons of the afterworld are described immediately, historically, as it were. It has a figural or allegorical sense as what we see there relates to history here (to keep in mind Dante's continual distinction between the two realms). It has a moral sense as what we see there tells us what we should do here. It has an anagogical sense as what we see there informs us of God's purpose for the future, or at least shows us that there is such a purpose by letting us see that nothing is either unknown to God or beyond His power, that all is in accord with His plan.
Let me at once confess that this is simplemindedness itself. Let me add, however, that this simple formulation has not been made before, except in the Letter to Can Grande. No one else seems to observe how simply stated Dante's subject is. And thus, even those who are in essential agreement with the document somehow balk at the notion of taking it perfectly straightforwardly. Let me continue by repeating the above formulation, this time making use of a concrete example from the poem. Take Ciacco the glutton (Inf. VI), for instance. (Any other character will serve as well.) The literal sense shows us, as Dante says, the state of this man's soul after his death. The allegorical sense makes evident the connection between his present life in the Circle of Gluttony and its past causes in Florence. The moral sense warns us against this particular sin. The anagogical sense asserts God's divine plan, which includes punishment for sinners. It is, I'm afraid, as simple as that. And, insofar as Dante's simple theory is concerned, I could end this book here, for it would be a great bore to move through the poem making similar observations, the only point of which is to assert that there is a valid constructive approach to the poem which accords with the practice and theory of medieval exegesis. As the mathematicians say, this is a true but not an interesting result.
Dante's use of the exegetical technique has two major effects, once we do realize that this is his technique. The first of these is amply discussed by Erich Auerbach and may be subsumed under the phrase figural realism, which sets Dante's work aside from that of his contemporaries, and prepares the way for the resurgence of Aristotelian ideas of imitation which typify the great works of literature at the close of the sixteenth century and after. The Judaeo-Christian historical tradition, centered for Christians in the doctrine of Incarnation, which for o s many centuries had been attacked by heretical Christians (who may generically be referred to as gnostics), met similar opposition from literary men; this gnostic impulse was reinvigorated by that part of the fourteenth century which turned away from the ideas of imitation and of "historicity" in art in favor of the treatment of this world, and the consequent representation of this world, as being merely a veil, a cloak, that concealed ancl revealed the way to the next. The Christian Incarnational art of Dante, while it agrees that this world is an umbra of the next, treats this world as substantial shadow, as being actually existent and hence the tangible counterpart of a heavenly paradigm. It is essentially a matter of emphasis. Incarnational art, like Aristotle's philosophy, takes its beginning here. The gnostic impulse likes neither fact nor flesh of this world, preferring the non-physical intimations of the next, the spiritual realm. In my opinion, the best brief discussion of this conflict, as it centers in Dante and simultaneously is applied to the history of Western literature, is to be found in Erich Auerbach's Introduction to his Dante, Poet of the Secular World. In the Commedia this world is to be treated literarily as historical fact, while for the-other - school, the school that embraces gnostic Christian poetic allegory and gnostic Christian allegorical criticism, this world and the literary works that are concerned with this world have only the currency of parable, and literature, to be worthy of the name, must be bella menzogna.
It is through such polarities that we can understand the major importance for the history of literature in Dante's borrowing of the techniques of fourfold exegesis. The principle of imitation that devolves from these techniques also has roots in the mimetic principles of the New Testament, in such remarkably vivid descriptions of human action as that which shows us Jesus writing with his finger in the dust while the scribes and Pharisees call for the stoning of the adulterous woman (John 8:6-8), or which shows us Peter, after denying his Lord, moving to a brazier in the dawn because he is so cold (John 18:18). It was this kind of imitation - which appeals to, and even demands, our total human attention, not merely that of a facile allegorical temper-which seems to have affected the Christian and poetic mimetic faculty of Dante. Although he almost certainly did not know Aristotle's Poetics, we can imagine how well he would have understood Aristotle's analysis of mimesis. In his mimetic intention Dante is greatly different from the poets of the thirteen hundred years since Virgil, the poets of his own time, and the poets of the three hundred years following him, with the single exception. of the author of that other fourteenth century "Divine Comedy," the Canterbury Tales. These are the only two major works until the sixteenth century which, like the Bible, treat the literal as historical, and thus must perfect the techniques of. mimesis as well as those of doctrine. (It is important to note that in this period the only "major minor'' work - or so its author considered it-to use this approach is the Decameron, and this work is in some ways modeled on the Divine Comedy, with its hundred "cantos" and its attention to the literal. The gulf between Dante and the first Dante professor is, however, evident in that Boccaccio could not see his way, sharing this blind spot with his master, Petrarca, to imitate the actual world in a work of doctrinal importance.) The great paradox of the medieval period is that the major writers who were concerned with the world as history were theologians, while most of the literary artists were concerned with a theory of literature which denied the importance or usefulness of imitation and thus of a literal-historical sense. From Prudentius onward the major tradition of medieval poetry, encompassing such works as the Roman de la rose (despite the magnificent mimetic proclivities of Jean de Meun), the De planctu naturae, Guinizelli’s canzoni, Dante's Convirvio, Petrarca's Trionf, and Chaucer's dream-visions - a tradition that went through the Renaissance to Spenser and Bunyan-was to accept the role of the poet as fabulist, to accept the Lucretian notion that fictions are all to be treated as made up, as the honey on the rim of the draught of doctrine. It is then perhaps not surprising to find even major scholar-critics neglecting, or failing to understand, the unique importance of the Divine Comedy, for it is not typical of its time, although it is the great work of its time and among the greatest works of all time.
If we were to see only this one ramification of Dante's use of fourfold exegesis, even if the actual demonstration of the technique's presence in his work were as simply and dully exposited as my brief examples above have been, we would see a major fact about the importance of Dante's poetic theory and practice. The aim of this study is to illuminate the Divine Comedy in the light of Dante’s allegorical technique, which is not the mere activity of seeing, implied in each “historical” moment of the work, a fourfold scheme of interpretation. Yet it is my claim that this approach gives us first a way of seeing, as the Letter to Can Grande states, Dante's structure of the Subject of the entire work; and second, more than any other critical approach so far directed at the Commedia, it helps us to understand the meaning of particular moments in the text itself, and thus serves as a bridge to the sense we may gain of the entire poem.

Date: 2021-12-25