The Commedia and Medieval Modes of Reading [Peter Dronke]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Peter Dronke

Tratto da: Dante and Medieval Latin Traditions

Editore: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Anno: 1986

Pagine: 1-31

1. 1. Allegory and Vision

It often looks as though medieval poetic theory is lamentably incapable of characterising, or even of recognising, what it is in medieval poetry that stili moves and excites us today. Nowhere has there seemed to be a greater chasm between theory and poetry than with regard to Dante's Divina Commedia. Is this because of the poverty and inadequacy of medieval notions of poeti e interpretation? Or do we as modem readers fail sufficiently to perceive the 'otherness' of medieval poetry, so that our responses to it are in large measure subjective and anachronistic? Should we, to achieve a more authentic approach, return as far as possible ro that of the medieval inrerpreters, and resign ourselves to their limitations, even if our poetic response is diminished by this?
There is a disconcerting unanimity about those old interpreters of the Commedia in some of their basic assumptions. The problem is made more acute by the fact that one ofthe earliest testimonies to those assumptions purports to be a statement by Dante himself about the lines along which his poem should be intcrpreted. In six of the nine extant manuscripts, Dante's letter dedicating the Paradiso to his patron, Cangrande della Scala, continues with a generai introduction to the Commedia and an exposition of the opening verses of Paradiso. The author of this introduction affirms that the whole Commedia has many meanings, and he proceeds to distinguish these as if the poem could be read as the Bible was traditionally read: it has a literal meaning, and another which can be alternately allegorical, moral, or anagogical (leading the mind aloft to contemplate the heavenly). The Commedia has a twofold subject (duplex subiectum): literally, its subject is 'the condition of souls after death, considered in itself'; allegorically, its subject is 'man, inasmuch as he is exposed to the justice of reward and punishment, through the merit and demerit he has attained by free will'.
I shall say a little more about the vexed question o fwhether this passage is by Dante presently. For the moment, I hope it is nor irreverent to suggest that, if this is indeed the mature Dante's own definition of the subject of his Commedia, he has nor defined it well. It is true that many poets and artists, even today, can say little that is satisfying about their own work - yet Dante had previously, in his De vulgari eloquentia, shown exceptional criticai acumen, about his own earlier Iyrical poetry as well as that of onhers. 'The condition of souls after death' might seem superficially to correspond to the literal subject of the Commedia - yet it could apply equally to any of the dozens of medieval visions of the otherworld that were set down in literary form; it in no way indicates that Dante's poem is radically different from these. The authors of such visions, who claimed to have been shown diverse conditions of souls in the beyond, never made claims as farreaching as those thar Dante makes within the context of his poem. No medieval author before Dante had measured hirnself against Aeneas and St Paul, as one impelled by divine grace to undertake an otherworld journey for the sake of mankind, in order to right the world's injustices at a crucial moment of its history.
At the opening of the second canto of Inferno, Dante, alone with Vergil, reveals both the height of his conception of his own mission as poet-propher (vates) and his intense fear of embarking on it:

O muse, o alto ingegno, or m'aiutate;
o mente che scrivesti ciò ch'io vidi,
qui si parrà la rua nobilitate.

Io cominciai: 'Poeta che mi guidi,
guarda la mia virtù s'ell' è possente,
prima ch'a l'alto passo tu mi fidi...'

Muses, high imagination, help me now -
you, memory that have written what I saw,
here will your worth be seen.

I began: 'Poet, you who guide me,
see if my nature has strength enough
before you commit me to the vast leap...'

Aeneas' political mission and Paul's spiritual one were divinely sanctioned, it was not unfitting that they should have journeyed into the beyond –

'Ma io, perché venirvi? o chi 'I concede?
Io non Enea, io non Paulo sono;
me degno a ciò né io né altri 'I crede.'

'But why should I go there? or who allows it?
I am not Aeneas, I am nor Paul -
neither I nor others think me worthy of that.'

And Vergil, though in this very scene he is called both magnanimo and cortese, answers Dante wirh a brutal reproach: he accuses him of baseness of spirit (viltade), of an ignoble cowardice, because of his hesitation before so great a venture.
For Dante the unswerving truth of his memory is vital, since, however much literary elaboration we may have to reckon with, this begins from the visionary perceptions which had ignited his mind and which it mattered to him intensely to record aright:

O isplendor di Dio, per cu' io vidi
l'alto triunfo del regno verace,
dammi virtù a dir com' io il vidi!

Oh splendour of God, through which I saw
the high triurmph of the true kingdom,
give me the power to tell how I saw it!
(Par. XXX 97-9)

Dante is not embodying familiar ideas about the conditions of souls in hell, purgatory, and heaven in a poetic fiction; he is not 'feigning', in the way he had done, with keen self-consciousness, in his Convivio, as he unfolded the tale of his love for the Donna Gentile, Filosofia - the lady whose eyes are her demonstrations and whose smile, her persuasions.
The early commentators on the Commedia, however, speak again and again of Dante's feigning - at times probably in order to shield the poet and his poem from accusations of hubris, indeed of blasphemy. Even St Paul had thought it unlawful to utter the words he had heard in the third heaven. At other times the commentators seem to attenuate the reality of Dante's mental experiences because they can hardly conceive that so great a claim as Dante appears to make could have been meant literally. But Dante is uncompromising. He intimates many times throughout the poem that he has had visions in the same sense as Paul and the prophets had, and that his concern is to remember and relate these faithfully. This visionary element tells us little of itself about his poetic and imaginative processcs. Dante was clearly an intellectual as well as a seer; his prophetic insights were nourished by, and developed out of, what he had read and thought. Yet his insistence on memory, on the experiential aspect of his work, remains important. It is far this reason that, setting forth on the task of remembering, he prays for aid: the muses and high imagination (alto ingegno) are not only the poetic powers within him, they embody his sense that a force greater than himself is ar work in him as he writes.
It is a question of striving for absolute fidelity to the inner imaginative process and reality that are his own, but are also beyond him - that are at moments perceived as the god speaking in the vessel he has chosen. These moments of conviction of divine direction also reveal the deepest aspect of the bond between Dante and Vergil, his cherished guide. Vergil, who had imaginatively experienced an unearthly journey, by taking Aeneas through the underworld, is equally the poet in whom an alto ingegno had been at work greater than he could consciously express: it was a true prophetic gift that had led Vergil to foretell a divine child in his Fourth Eclogue, and to show in the Aeneid the divine revelation which led to the founding of Rome, and, through Rome, to what Dante saw as the order that God's providence had established for the world's just government. As poet, Vergil became the prophet of that world-order, Roman flowering into Christian, prophct of ‘that Rome of which Christ is a Roman’ (Purg. XXXII 102).
Through Vergil's answer to the frightened Dante, we Iearn that Dante's venture - as visionary and as poet - has been granted to him solely because of Beatrice, whom he had loved since boyhood. It is not because Dante is more perfect than other men. On the contrary, as Beatrice tells Vergil –

...temo che non sia già sì smarrito,
ch'io mi sia tardi al soccorso levata,
per quel ch'i' ho di lui nel cielo udito.

...I fear he may already be so far lost
that I have moved tao late to rescue him -
by whar I have heard in heaven about him.
(Inf. II 64-6)

No, Dante's special capaciry to expericnce and record the more-than-earthly stems from the fact that the more-than-earthly had been revealed to him in an unparalleled way: through the highest moments of earthly love that he had known. And it is as Dante fully fathoms that the revelation comes through his beloved, who is now in heaven, and realises that if anyone can bring him to heaven's blessedness it is she, that he conguers his doubts and becomes sure that his mission is a true one, not one spurred by some manie delusion of grandeur of his own.
The literal subject of the Commedia, then, is the itinerarium mentis of Dante Alighieri, the poet guided by Vergil and inspired by a dead Florentinc woman, Beatrice. To her he attributes exceptional intellectual powers: indeed she epitomises that conjunction of intellecrual and visionary insight which he is trying to communicate in his verse. The Commedia tells the inner experience of this poet who saw himself called to the role of prophet, in order to fight for peace and justice in the temporal sphere Iike Aeneas, in the spiritual like Paul. It is a subject of such daring that, if Dante really wrote the exegesis far Cangrande, we should have to say that here for once his courage failed him. Here he drew back from what he had affirmed with passionate earnestness throughout the Commedia, and relied instead on a kind of timorous captatio benevolentiae, telling his patron reassuringly, 'this is a poem about souls in the otherworld', and thereby assigning it as it were to a familiar genre. Was Dante really beset by such faintheartedness that, having completed the Commedia, he no longer dared to avow what mattered to him supremely about its composition?
According to the explanation in the Epistle, 'the condition of souls after death', which the poem shows literally, has as its hidden meaning that each of these souls justly receives its reward or punishment after death, in accordance with its free choice of worthy or unworthy deeds on earth. This may be a salutary moral reflection, and one that many of the descriptions of souls in the Commedia might stimulate. Yet it is also a perfectly obvious reflection; it has nothing of hidden meaning about it. I cannot see that it belongs with what the author of the Epistle himself calls isti sensus mistici - the three hidden senses which, he goes on, can all be called, in general terms, allegorical. To say that the destinies of souls in the otherworld match their choices in this life - is that really to reveal the hidden meaning of the Commedia?
There are moments in the Commedia, to be sure, where the overt sense has a hidden or allegorical meaning. At times Dante explicitly signals the latent presence of such a meaning - as in Inferno IX, when he admonishes his readers:

O voi ch'avete li 'ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s'asconde
sotto 'l velame de li versi strani

Oh you that have sound understanding,
note the doctrine that hides
beneath the veil of the strange verses

– the enigmatic verses, that is, about the Furies and the heavenly messenger. But the very fact thar Dante sets certain moments in relief in this way should make us wary of fallowing those early commentators who wished to find allegorical meaning hidden everywhere. It is not enough far them that Dante, at the opening ofhis journey, evokes swift, violent experiences – of being lost and terrified in a dark forest, his way barred, at the foot of a sunlit hill, by a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf; that Dante calls out far help to a human apparition he sees, who, to his joy, turns out to be the shade of Vergil. The real meaning, allegedly, is not this at all, but that Dante and, implicitly, all mankind stray in the forest of the sinful life; they cannot ascend the bright hill of virtue; their way is cut off by three bestial vices - lust, pride, and covetousness. In this harsh plight hurnan reason - embodied in Vergil - guides the sinner on his cathartic journey, after explaining that the journey has been sanctioned by theology - which, needless to say, is embodied in Beatrice.
I do nor wish to suggest that this venerable tradition of seeking specific allegories at every point is wholly baseless. It represents one way of recognising what every alert reader must recognise: that the forest and beasts, the lostness and the dangers, the guide and the journey mean more than they say - that they are no simple elements of an adventure-story, but evoke complex states of mind and conscience, complex responses to the outer world. Yet, apart from the fact that there have always been disagreements about what particular elements signify, this time-honoured exegetical method cannot easily illuminate the imaginative purpose of the poem. It tries to make the poet's vision into something else. If Dante chose to stimulate his readers' imagination by mystery, what do we gain by reducing this to commonplaces, that take us no trouble to comprehend? It is something undefined and evocative that here challenges understanding, not a tract on sin and repentance. (Those are much easier to understand.)
It looks as if we must rescue Dante the poet from the conceptions of poetic meaning that were current in his time, and perhaps even - if he is the author of the explanatory part of the Cangrande letter - rescue Dante from himself. Yet the picture, if we look more attentively, is not quite so bleak. The range of ways of thinking about poetic meaning in the period up to Dante is greater than most modem scholars have realised.
A notable contribution to showing this was made by Erich Auerbach, in his essay 'Figura' and a group of related studies. Auerbach suggested that, while allegory undeniably plays an intermittent part in the structure of the Commedia, it is far from being the dominant principle of structure. It is much less important for the imaginative workings of the Commedia than figura, the concept which Auerbach documented systematically, and rightly distinguished from the more familiar modes of allegory, though recognising that often it interacts with these and cannot be wholly separated from them. Historically and critically, however, the distinction remains vital:

Figural inrerpretation establishes a relationship berween two persons or events... that are both real and within time... it is not concerned with concepts or abstractions: these are entirely secondary... Figura is clearly distinguished from most of the allegorical forms known to us from other contexts, by the historical reality of both what signifies and what is signified.

This is evident when the persons and events that are figurally related belong to the Old and New Testaments - when Adam, for instance, is a figura of Christ, or Isaac's sacrifice a figura of the crucifixion. But it is Auerbach's merit to have seen that this same concept of figura can likewise illuminate certain key characters and situations in the Commedia. Thus Cato, Vergil, and Beatrice can 'mean more' than themselves precisely because Dante conceives them as fully alive and real, and not as allegories. The Cato who guards the shore of Purgatorio fulfils the figura of the historical Cato; he is 'nor an allegory for freedom; rather, he remains Cato of Utica, the unique individuai, just as Dante saw him'.
But even if the concept figura is fertile for the understanding of Dante's poetic art, it seems to me that a number of other medieval concepts should likewise be considered for what they may be able to contribute to this understanding. In particular, the concepts of image (imago) and metaphor (metaphora and its synonyms), hidden comparison (collatio occulta), symbol (symbolum), and mythopoeic fiction (integumentum) had all been elaborated in diverse subtle ways by the time that Dante wrote. Given the sheer breadth of his imaginative range, would it not be surprising if some medieval uses of these concepts were not also pertinent to Dante's artistry and intentions? Figural interpretation can admittedly shed much light, correcting what is simplistic in allegorical interpretation, yeti t too can cope with only one aspect of Dante’s multifarious ways of generating poetic meaning.
It is true that in the high Middle Ages there was no comprehensive critical vocabulary comparable to that of the present day; yet there are many intimations in medieval Latin texts that critical insight could be acute. In particular, while theologians were stili often concerned, as the Church Fathers had been, with fixed allegorical meanings in Scriprure, in non-theological writing we can find evidence of an awareness of unfixed, open meanings - meanings such as could be incorporated in a text but could hardly be spelt out. It was possible to think profoundJy about the creative aspect of poetic imagination. It was possible, too, to see a poet's imagery not just as a pretext for allegorical meaning, nor again as mere ornament (ornatus) - though these were familiar scholastic notions - but as a direct means of cognition: neither hiding meaning nor adorning it, but creating it. This conception clearly has a greater bearing on Dante's art than the more conventional ones. Again, it was possible ro think about the art of conveying hidden meaning in terms that went beyond allegory, and indeed beyond figura, to creative uses of symbol and of myth. I should like to adumbrate one or two of these less familiar ways of thinking about poetic meaning up to Dante's time, indicating how they are germane to Dante's art.


2. 4. Symbol and Myth

Another mode of considering metaphor in Dante takes us in the direction of the concepts 'symbol' and 'myth', that are central to much present-day critical inquiry. In his writings Dante does not employ the principal medieval counterparts to these terms - symbolum and integumentum (or involucrum) - which had loomed large in the writings of the twelfth-century Platonists. Yet he recognises the nature and possibilities of symbolum and integumentum more splendidly than anyone before him.
The twelfth-century mystic to whom Dante paid special tribute, Richard of St Victor, gave the definition: Symbolum est collectio formarum visibilium ad invisibilium demonstrationem - 'a symbol is a gathering of visible forms for showing invisible ones'. Here, that is, Richard takes cognisance of the unpredictable, inexhaustible aspect of symbols, which many scholars have wrongly thought was ignored by the Middle Ages and not emphasised before Goethe. It is of the essence of Richard's symbolum (as of Goethe's Symbol) that it means more than can be said, that it shows what cannot be said, intimating those invisible realities that elude language's known categories.
Richard's conception is rooted in the Neoplatonism of Dionysius. But in a different way, a concern with what remains mysterious and can never be fully stated through images can also be seen in one of the basic textbooks of the medieval schools. As Goethe was anxious to distinguish allegory from symbol, so Isidore of Seville, eleven hundred years before him, distinguished allegory from enigma:

The difference berween allegory and enigma lies in this, that the force of allegory is twofold - it indicates something figuratively beneath other things; but an enigma is a dark meaning alone, adumbrated by means of certain images.

As an enigma 'means more' than the images that adumbrate it, so too such 'meaning more' is implied in the twelfth-century Platonists' concept integumentum. Literally a covering, integumentum is used both for a myth that conceals hidden meanings and for the hidden meanings themselves, that lie covered beneath its narrative surface. In principle there is no limit to the meanings that an integumentum can conceal and generate; like a symbolum, it can 'show invisible forms', taking the reader to the unfathomable realm of the intelligible and the divine. This holds even if the literal meaning of the myth should be a scandalous account of pagan gods and goddesses - indeed, in the mystical Platonic tradition that Dionysius had transmitted to the medieval West, the unfitting and the monstrous is, by its sheer bafflement of hurman attempts to imagine the divine, most apt to convey truly how far the divine is beyond all imagining.
Dante in the fourth canto of Paradiso hears from Beatrice's lips a profound account of the principles that underlie the use of symbol and myth. At the opening of the canto, he is troubled by two perplexities: since he has just beheld souls in the sphere ofcthe moon, does this mean that the Platonic myth, that each soul returns to a particular star at death, is true? Secondly, these souls, according to Beatrice, have been 'relegated here (in the lunar sphere) for failure to fulfil their vows' (Par. III 30). And yet Dante has also learnt that this failure was due to coercion - that Piccarda Donati, for instance, the sister of his Florentine friend Forese, had been snatched away from her convent unwillingly, forced to enter an arranged marriage. How can souls be said to have failed in will - so that, in their lack of steadfastness, they are linked with 'the inconstant moon' - if they were forced? Such a thought seems to undermine the Aristotelian concept of free choice. Both Dante's difficulties conjure up the problem of determinism: Plato's myth of the return of souls at the macrocosmic level, Aristotle's analysis of human will at the microcosmic.
Plato in his Timaeus had laid the foundation for that conception of the bonds between the Creator and the created universe which, variously adapted in the medieval Platonic tradition, was still alive in Dante's imagination. For Dante as for Plato, it is by way of the spheres, and the intelligences who govern and animate them, that the divine creative power is tranmitted downwards, as far as the sublunary world. Thus in the Timaeus the Creator (Demiurgos) addresses the intelligences, saying:

'It is right that you should carry out the rest, so that you wrap the immortal and celestial nature in a mortal fabric, command it to be born, previde it with sustenance and cause it to grow, and that, after its dissolution, when soul secedes from body, you take back your loan.'... And soon when the whole mechanism of the universe had been compacted, the Creacor chose souls equal in number to the stars, and macched each soul to its own star... And to those who overcame their passions it would be open to return to the habitation of their consort star and thenceforth live a true and blessed life.

Dante thought particularly keenly about this myth in the form in which it was summarised by Boethius, in a poem set at the centre of his Consolation of Philosophy, some Iines of which are consciously echoed in the second canto of Paradiso and others in the seventh. This poem, O qui perpetua, is a hymn invoking the Demiurgos - 'you who by perpertusl reason govern the universe'. For Boethius, he is the profound mind that sets the whirling spheres in motion, because lovingly they take the image of that mind; he is devoid of envy, and so communicates beaury spontaneously to the spheres, by diffusing the world-soul through the harmonious limbs of the cosmic body. From the same principles as determined the worldsoul, Boethius goes on, 'you fashion souls and lesser lives; setting those souls upon lighr chariots, you sow them in heaven and on earth; then, by a benign law, you let them turn again, returning to you impelled by the heavenward-guiding fire'.
Dante had to confront the question which was crucial to any medieval Christian who was both a believer and an intellecrual: to what extent could Plato's and Boethius' myth of the origin and return of souls be true, or a symbol of something true? How could the divine influences, that Plato and Boethius evoke with such imaginative power, leave room for the Christian conviction that the human will is free? Beatrice begins by explaining that the appearance of souls in the lunar sphere does not mean that the Platonic myth - that souls retum to particular spheres and stars at death - is literally right.
For it is only an appearance: all souls in paradise, from the least to the most exalted, subsist in the first heaven, the empyrean. This particular cluster of souls showed itself in the lunar heaven

not because their lot
lies in this sphere, but to provide a sign
of that celestial state which has risen less high.

This is how one must speak to your imagination,
for only from the sensible can it grasp
what later it makes apt far intellection.

Because of this the Scriptures make concession
to your mode of knowing, and attribute feer and hands
to God, and yet intend another meaning.

So, too, far your sake Holy Church portrays
Gabriel and Michael with a human semblance,
and the other who made Tobit whole again.

What Timaeus propounds concerning souls
does nor resernble what can be seen here,
for the seems to apprehend it in the way he says.

He says the soul rerurns to its own star,
believing it was cut off from that star
when nature gave the soul as an earthly form.

Yet perhaps his theory is of another kind
than the words proclaim, and may contain
an attempted meaning that should not be mocked.

If he intends to give back to these spheres
the credit and blame of their influence, perhaps
his bow does hit the mark of something true.

This principle, ill-understood, once led astray
almost all the world, inducing men to apply
the names of Iove and Mercury and Mars.
(IV 37-63)

The human mind needs images, far only by way of images can it begin to understand something superhuman. This principle is clearly stated in Plato's Timaeus, and is explained, with slightly different emphasis, in Aristotle's De anima, where imagination (phantasia) gathers sensory images and enables the intellect to abstract knowledge from them. Intellection, that is, must have both a sensory and an imaginative base. Beatrice adds (43ff) that this is also the principle underlying the anthropomorphic biblical images of God and angels. But when Timaeus in Plato's dialogue spoke of the souls descending from their stars at birth and returning to these at death, did he mean it scientifically? Did he envisage an earthly existence totally determined by those stars, in which the souls bring down their natures from the planetary spheres, and are jovial or mercurial, martial or venereal in nature just because of this and not because of any choices they can make? That was the problem which had particularly troubled earlier medieval interpreters of this myth: in what sense had Plato meant it? Thus for instance the Chartres Platonist William of Conches, whom I cite here not as the specific source for Dante, but as an illustration - indeed the finest known to me - of the kind of thought about Plato's myth-making which Dante will have encountercd in his studies:

When Plato says God chose as many souls as there are stars, and set each soul on its own star, some people, expounding this literally, say that Plato here taught heresy, for Scripture says that God creates new souls each day... Yet if one comes to know not only Plato's words but his sense and mind, he will find not only no heresy but the most profound philosophy, under the cover of mythopoeic language (integumentis verborum tectam), which we who love Placo shall show. When he said that the stars are the vehicles of the soul... Plato meant that souls are set on stars causally, not spatially: they are the soul's vehicles in that, through the effect of the stars, the body becomes apt for a soul to be created in it...
One muse not think, as some expound, that Plato meant the soul was first among the planets and thence descended to earth: no, he meant that the beginnings of human generation are on earth and in the planets, for without the sustenance and fruits of the earth, and without the warmth of the planets, the body would not be capable of life, and without life there would be no soul...
But lest anyone think that all things come about for man out of necessity and nothing out of free choice, Plato adds 'all things except... the adversities, whose source and cause could lie with them' - with men, that is, for on account of our sins, which stern from us, we do suffer certain adversities: so if we did not sin out of free choice, how perfectly we could be ruled by God through the effect of the stars and the administration of their spirits! Or again, the source of ills might lie in the planets: for the planets are the cause of all our evils, of famine, death, and other things: they are the cause through which, nor on account of which, the evils happen - for the planets are the ministers of the Creator...

It was possible, then, to see Plato as using the cover of myth in order to adumbrate insights so profound that they could scarcely be analysed conceptually. Aristotle, on the other hand, distrusted the use of myth in metaphysical inquiry, and this distrust, even disdain, was shared by the medieval Aristotelian tradition. Thus Aquinas went so far as to write that Plato had 'a bad method of teaching... by way of symbols (per symbola), meaning by the words something other than the words themselves proclaim'. The phrase is very dose to the one Beatrice uses of Plato, though she does so without any hint of distaste: 'perhaps his theory is of another kind / than the words proclaim' (IV 55f).
Here Dante does not take the part of Aquinas, but is dose in outlook to the twelfth-century Platonists, 'we who love Plato'. The reason for this is simple: for Dante as poet, and specificaliy as poet of the Paradiso, the use of an integumentum was essential. What we can see in Beatrice's words is not only a possible defence of Plato's myth-making, but the poetic principle underlying the Paradiso itself. Had Dante simply set all the paradisal souls in the empyrean, without differentiation, his description of paradise could hardly have been sustained for more than one or two cantos. To give paradise a poetic geography and an imaginative richness matching those of hell and purgatory, Dante had to assume an integumentum like the Platonic one, making different souls appear in different spheres. And to give this differentiation a poetic logie and motive, Dante had to go further and assume that the souls in each planetary sphere had been inclined and conditioned by it: that those in the sphere of the Moon would show traces of inconstancy, those in the sphere of Venus, of amorous sensuality; there would be warriors in the sphere of Mars, rulers in that of Jove. The architectonics of Dante's paradise are an integumentum in precisely the sense that medieval Platonists understood this of the Timaeus.
An integumentum is not an arbitrary fiction: it has an intenzio, to use Dante's expression - it strives towards an understanding of what cannot be fully known. Dante indeed believed there was some truth in the notion that planets could, for good or ill, determine the inclination of the souls born under them. Thus for instance in Paradiso IX, Cunizza, who had been well known for her sensual life on earth, says, 'The light of the star (of Venus) over came me... it was the cause of my destiny'; so too, in Paradiso XXII, Dante himself invokes the sign of Gemini, under which he was born, 'Oh glorious stars (O gloriose stelle)', and recognises all his own genius as deriving from their power (virtù). At the same time Beatrice affirms that Dante's disposition was brought about 'not only by the work of the great wheels' - that is, by the planetary spheres - but also 'by largess of divine graces'.
The planets, for Dante as for the twelfth-century Platonists, are ministers of the Christian God; they are not gods. To see them as such was the error that Beatrice referred to (IV 61-3) - when the world applied the names of gods to what were only created forms. The planets do not have the Creator's omnipotence: they can condition human beings and determine their character, but not eliminate the power of free choice. It has nor, I think, been observed by scholars that the macrocosmic, Platonic question raised by Dante in Paradiso IV is set by him in precise parallel to the microcosmic, Aristotelian one that follows. The soul descending from its star at birth, and returning to that star as its final goal, is an exemplification of that universal sea-voyage - all creation proceeding from God and returning to God - which the divine will ordained. But the complexities and anguish of the human will, trying, even when oppressed by force, to rejoin the sea of the absolute divine will, are equally an exernplification of that voyage. The relation between the soul and its star is mirrored in the relation between the individual will and the absolute will. Both Piccarda and Constance, the mother of Frederick II, were violently seized from their cloisters. But does that mean it was wholly against their will? Or was there some element of compliciry with their ravishers, some degree of consent, because of fear? Beatrice analyses the question in the language of Aristotle's Ethics and of Aquinas' commentary on the Ethics (a work that Dante refers to on two occasions in his Convivio).
Violence is defined as the situation in which 'the one who suffers / brings nothing (to the deed)': Aristotle's words, nihil conferi... patiens, are rendered literally in Beatrice's quel che pate / niente conferisce. And Beatrice explains that the two victims, Piccarda and Constance, were not heroines to that extent: they could have fled back to their convents –

ché volontà, se non vuol, non s'ammorza,
ma fa come natura face in foco...

for will, if it's unwilling, is not quenched,
but it behaves as nature does in fire...

The inner flame, like the physical one, will always leap upwards again, no matter how often it is forcibly diverted. (Implicit in her image, perhaps, is the cosmological image from Boethius' hymn - the flame that impels each soul heavenwards, back to its star.) To evoke such absolute heroism, Beatrice subjoins two horrifying mages of flame: St Laurence refusing to stir from the grid on which he was burnt alive (it was Aquinas who had introduced this exemplum when expounding Aristotle's theory of will in the Ethics ), and the pagan Roman hero Mucius Scaevola, who, as Livy tells, when he was prisoner of the Etruscan king Porsena, cried out, '"Look, that you may grasp how paltry is the body to those whose eyes are set upon great glory!" and thrust his right hand into the fire which had been kindled for a sacrifice, letting it burn there as if he were unconscious of the pain'.
At the dose of Beatrice's analysis of the less heroic will, that 'abcts force (segue la forza)', she distinguishes, again in words that echo the language of Aquinas' commentary:

Voglia assoluta non consente al danno;
ma consentevi in tanto in quanto teme,
se si ritrae, cadere in più affanno.

Absolute will does not consent to the wrong,
yet will consents inasmuch as it is afraid,
if it resists, to sink to grearer anguish.

Absolute will is the person's highest or divinest aspiration; it is like Plato's star to which the soul longs to return. But the soul on earth has more of the fallible timebound will, still longing far its star (as Constance, according to Piccarda, continued to love the ideal of the nun's life, even after she had abandoned it); but only the heroic can set their course to that star unswervingly.
Thus Dante makes the Aristotclian account of the will reflect in the microcosm Plato's myth of the soul's cosmic journey, and the related Neoplatonic myth of the return of all beings to God. In Dante's new creation, the Aristotclian concepts parallel the Platonic ones, but also in a sense refine and correct them: they show in detail why the myths of return do not necessarily entail a deterministic image of the universe, but can still leave room for human freedom of choice.
The Platonic myths and the Aristotelian concepts (as well as the Christian and pagan exempla - Laurence and Scaevola - that Dante associates with these) qualify and mirror one anothcr in integumento. In his use of Plato and Aristotle in Paradiso IV, Dante is theoretician as much as creator: here he shows, even more than the twelfth-ccntury Platonists had done, the vast poetic and intellectual potential of which an integumentum is capable.

Date: 2021-12-25