St. Augustine revisited: on «conversion» in the Commedia [Caron Cioffi]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Caron Cioffi

Tratto da: Lectura Dantis

Numero: 5

Anno: 1989

Pagine: 68-80

Augustine's autobiography is an interior drama told as a direct confession to God, who is addressed at numerous points in the story. Its purpose is threefold: to reveal former sins in order to attain God's forgiveness, to stir the souls of other men from despair to hope, and to defend the validity of Christianity against the opinions of the Manicheans and Neoplatonists. The Confessions is told in chronological order, beginning with infancy and adolescent education, moving through the stages of pubescence and young adulthood, and ending with the conversion of Augustine at age thirty-two in the garden at Milan (8:12). A year later, he is baptized and has a mystical vision while with his mother at Ostia. He then relapses into sin and examines the ongoing process of resisting evil in the world. Within this strict chronological framework, the plot of the book encompasses the confessions of sin, of praise, and of faith that comprise its liturgical counterpart. Thus, the text moves from the account of past evil and contrition (Bks. 1-9), to the present state of the writer's soul, assailed by concupiscence, curiosity, and pride (Bk. 10), to an interpretation of Genesis (Bks. 11-13). This meditation on God's creation contains confessions of faith in the Trinity (13: 5-6), Christ (13: 12-13), and the Church (13: 34). Throughout the work, Augustine's citations of the psalms and personal prayers form a constant stream of praise for God and His works.
To claim, as John Freccero does (in his Dante: The Poetics of Conversion) that «we are to regard Dante's entire spiritual autobiography as essentialiy Augustinian in structure» (p. 2), is to overlook some glaring differences. Dante's poem is a vision of the Otherworld told as a series of encounters with external figures. It is not ordered according to the chronology of Dante's life. In fact, Dante seems to deliberately disregard any principle of temporal verisimilitude by mixing together ancient and contemporary characters who share the same fate. He begins the poem as a baptized Christian who has relapsed into sin (the point at which Augustine ends his work), moves toward a very special type of «baptism» at the end of the Purgatorio, and concludes with the Beatific Vision in Paradiso 33. His movement from sin to grace is linear, ending on the high note of mystical union which Augustine experienced only briefly (9: 10) before falling prey to temptation again.
The conversion scene in the Confessions is the dramatic climax towards which the other events of Augustine's life build. The moment of conversion is literally the change from one belief to another, pictured as the abandonment of Manichean and Neoplatonic heresies for the truths of Christianity. As such, it involves contrition for the sinful past and a total surrender of the self to God's Truth, which is antithetical to intellectual knowledge. Augustine listens to a child's recitation of the command «Take it and read,» remembers the example of St. Anthony's conversion through hearing the Gospel, and opens the Bible to a Pauline admonition against sensual indulgence. He immediately interprets this lesson as a divine order to reform his life, and all doubt and sorrow are dispelled from his heart. The transformation from old self to new is thus abrupt, unmistakable, and yet mysterious. It involves an act of God that challenges the convert to radically realign himself, to change his mind, heart, way of life, and allegiances to accord with the altered view of existence provided by God.
Given this Augustinian presentation of conversion, it is difficult to accept all the events in the Commedia as «conversions.» Only in the broadest sense, i.e., the turning «from vice to virtue» (p. 168), can we call the turning of the pilgrim on Satan's body a «conversion» (p. 185); but once we accept such a definition, every step the Pilgrim takes may be termed «conversion» also. The extratextual models that Freccero marshals to support this theme of conversion are also suspect. For example, to buttress the claim that conversion occurs on the inverted cross of Lucifer, Freccero cites as evidence the fact that St. Peter was crucified upside down (pp. 183-4). This act has to do with martyrdom and humility, with the conscious refusal to reenact, and thereby usurp, Christ's privilege to be crucified head-up. Peter is not converted in the process of being crucified; the episode does not provide a pattern for the motif of conversion on a cross. Even less convincingly, the meaning of conversion is further diluted to mean merely an ocular turning away from one thing to another: «Medusa is an interpretive as well as a moral threat ... The aversion from the Medusa and the conversion to the text are related temporally as the before and after of the same poetic event» (p. 121). Similarly, «a glance up to the light» becomes «symbolic of intellectual conversion in Plato's Republic and Timaeus» (p. 30).
Freccero wavers between viewing conversion as the Pauline dialectic between letter and spirit, blindness and sight, darkness and light, death and life, falsity and truth, and viewing it as a mere rhetorical category. Because poetry itself is based on tropes, quite literally the «tuming around» of all forms, one can easily go a step further and claim that poetry captures the essence of conversion. Thus, Dante's rhyme scheme in the Commedia is offered as a locus where poetry and theology are indistinguishable. The critic argues that the movement of Christian history and of biblical allegory is a forward movement toward recapitulation, defined as a summation of all preceding events and persons. Thus, the New Testament recapitulates (repeats and fulfills) the Old Testament. The faulty methodology and erroneous conclusions found in the essay will be treated at length further on. For now, consider the contention that the terza rima, «a form of advance and recovery leading toward a final recapitulation» (p. 264), embodies conversion, where the resurrected self recapitulates all its preceding sinful history and gives it compietion. That is, Dante's rhyme combines infinite movement forward with a sense of completion through repetition. But if the poet had truly wanted to capture in his verse form the principle of recapitulation, he had at his disposal an existing form, the sestina, in which entire words rather than mere end rhymes are recapitulated.
Since Freccero believes that the form of the Commedia concretizes Augustinian conversion, it comes as no surprise that the content of the poem, in his view, is «a series of conversions» (p. 265). Thus, the ending of the Inferno is marked by a literal conversion, and the ending of the Purgatorio depicts a conversion through sanctifying grace (Beatrice). The ending of the Paradiso involves no less than the conversion of the universe which «is turned to mirror the image of God surrounded by his angels» (p. 265). Similarly, «the retrospective illumination of Dante's own life by Cacciaguida» (p. 216) in Paradiso 17 is a conversion, and the term is applied to the actions in Inferno 1, 2, 9, 32, and 33. Let us grant that all these episodes, ranging from the poet's attempt to convert the reader to the true doctrine beneath the Medusa to the offer of flesh made by Ugolino's children that functions, for Freccero, like the words of the child who unintentionally led Augustine to conversion, are «conversions». But then how can Dante's structure be Augustinian? The Confessions, as we have seen, has a central conversion scene and is unified by the singular voice of the confessor. The Commedia lacks this unity, for each of the souls encountered by the pilgrim «confesses» the essentials of its life and reveals its hidden spiritual state, as damned (in Hell), sinful yet penitent (in Purgatory), or blessed (in Paradise). The pilgrim himself confesses his sins to Beatrice (Purg. 31), and his faith, hope, and charity to St. Peter, St. James, and St. John (Par. 24-26). Yet all these confessions are not incontrovertibly followed by conversions.
The claim that «the literature of confession needs a point outside of itself from which its truth can be measured» (p. 133) and that therefore «the logic of definitive autobiography demands conversion» (p. 265) must be qualified. There is no aesthetic difference between the confessions of the damned and those of the other two realms, but a huge moral gap does exist between them. The infernal souls have clearly not experienced conversion in order to tell their autobiographies, nor do they hope, as Augustine did, for personal absolution and for the salvation of their audience. Perhaps all that is demanded in the contexts of these confessions is literal death and not, as the critic would have it, symbolic death-rebirth. Curiously, the one conversion in the poem that seems modelled on Augustine's conversion by reading and subsequent baptism, that of Statius in Purgatorio 22, is totally neglected in the book.
Freccero feels confident in reading the poem according to the principle of conversion because «in the Epistola to Can Grande, Dante suggests that the poem is to be read according to this figure [of Exodus] by which is signified, among other things, "the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace"» (p. 56). It is true that Dante uses Exodus to explicate the fourfold levels of biblical allegory, but he never claims that it is the underlying figure of his poem. Instead, he states that the Commedia has two levels, the literal one which is the state of souls after death, and the allegorical one which is man using his free will to earn either the rewards or punishments of justice ($ 8). Dante, quite simply, makes the literal level anagogy, and the allegorical level tropology. This fact did not go unnoticed by Dante's sons, for in their commentaries on the poem Jacopo and Pietro read the Otherworld as a figure of this world, peopled by those living in vice (Hell), in penitence (Purgatory), and in happiness (Paradise). Dante himself undermines the possibility of theological allegory by asserting that the poem's forma tractandi is «poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, metaphorical...» ($ 9). He again stresses the need for metaphor in his text because «we see many things with the intellect for which there are no verbal signs» ($ 29). The meaning of the Lester is not as clearcut as proponents of the «allegory of theologians» approach would have it (let alone the problems of authenticity). Any critical procedure that immediately translates the Commedia into theological or biblical terms is therefore suspect.
Such is the case with Freccero's application of the journey from Egypt to Jerusalem to the actions in the first two cantos of the Inferno. Because the main typological components of the Exodus story are the crossing of the Red Sea, the wanderings in the desert, and the final crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Freccero looks for these elements so fervently that textual accuracy is compromised. For example, when the pilgrim is compared to a drowning man who looks back to the dangerous waters from the safety of the shore (Inf. 1, 22-24), the critic immediately equates the dark wood with the crossing of the Red Sea (p. 59). The next action of the pilgrim is to resume his way over the mountain slope, «la piaggia diserta» (29), later called the «gran diserto» (64). Freccero translates these two phrases as «the desert slope» (pp. 31, 33, 56, 59, 68, and 139) and thus associates the slope with the desert of Exodus. However, the words «diserta» and «diserto» mean deserted and deserted place, respectively. Sapegno and Barbi, in their glosses, take them to mean a solitary or abandoned place, empty because very few people are trying to overcome sin as Dante is. Freccero corrects his own mistranslation when he states that «the middle ground between sin and true Christian virtue is a deserted slope because few men have made it their land» (p. 53). Nevertheless, he goes on to identify Lucy's reference to «that river over which ‘the sea has no boast» (/nf. 2, 108) with the wolf that thwarts the pilgrim's progress, and to claim that from Lucy's heavenly perspective the barrier is really akin to the crossing of the Jordan, the third stage in the Exodus story. According to this interpretation, Lucy views the wolf as the Jordan because, although the beast threatens Dante with death, the death of the self is necessary before salvation can occur. The equation of the Jordan with the lupa is arbitrary, and it forces the critic to accuse the pilgrim of interpreting the menace in malo, while Lucy provides the in bono gloss on the same.
The Poetics of Conversion makes much of Augustine's three modes of vision to explain the different modes of representation in the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. In Augustine's scheme, the second mode, imagination or spiritual vision, can be stimulated internally (by memory or dreams) or externally (by the physical senses). Thus, Freccero explains that «writing belongs in the second realm, a sense experience requiring interpretation» (p. 95), and that «the interpretation of sensation» characterizes the Purgatorio (pp. 95, 210). He mentions the bas-reliefs sculpted on the terrace of pride (Purg. 10) and the numerous liturgical hymns sung by the purgatorial souls as examples of sense experience to which the pilgrim must respond (p. 210). Freccero notes as additional proof the apostrophe to imagination in Purgatorio 17 which, in his view, contains «a question concerning how the imagination can be moved directly without the intervention of the senses» (p. 94).
A closer examination of this passage, however, reveals that Dante's notion of imagination is not that of Augustine. Dante delineates the imagination as that which «steals us ... from outward things» (13-14), so that even the sound of a thousand trumpets doesn't reach us (15). Imagination is not dependent on the senses (16), and therefore it doesn't duplicate the outside world. Although the origin of the imagination is unclear, Dante defines it as an inner light that sustains its own images (17-18) and that dissipates when touched by the sense world (40-45). Dante focuses on the imagination as an internal and autonomous force that makes the mind withdraw completely within itself (22-24). Nowhere in his apostrophe does Dante espouse the Augustinian position that imagination can be moved by sensory phenomena; indeed, he seems to argue implicitly against such a position by setting the outside world at odds with the inner imaginings of the human mind. Most importantly, Dante terms imagination here the «alta fantasia» (25), a phrase used only one more time when, in Paradiso 33 (142), Dante sees the Beatific Vision. This final vision is Augustine's intellectual mode, for only the blessed see this way. Dante, in effect, collapses the difference between Augustine's imaginative and intellectual modes of vision because, from a poctic standpoint, imagination creates all of the Commedia, not just the Purgatorio.
The Pauline dialectic of blindness and sight, literalism and spiritual understanding, makes sense when applied to the threat of Medusa, for she is invoked in the context of heresy, the sin of non-believers. St. Paul, as Freccero notes, had used terms denoting mental obtuseness and petrification to describe the Jews, who refused to believe in Christ even though the Old Testament, properly understood, discloses Him (p. 122). But Freccero goes on to apply this hermeneutic to the episode of Ugolino and his sons, who belong to the Christian faith. Disregarding Paul's distinction between believers and non-believers, Freccero argues that Ugolino's «tragedy is a failure of interpretation» (p. 157), for he takes his children's offer of flesh literally and lapses into cannibalism. In Freccero's view, the children's suffering and sacrifice hold out the promise of redemptive hope, but their father cannot see the spiritual significance of their words. Citing the Christological echoes in the canto, Freccero claims that «the offer of the children to their father is the same as Christ's offer to his disciples: a spiritual eating of the living bread, which absorbs the recipient into the mystical body of Christ» (p. 163). According to this view, Ugolino cannot understand the mystery of the Eucharist. His turning to stone when the prison door is nailed shut and his subsequent blindness are to be seen as «Pauline signs of the obtuseness of non-believers» (p. 158).
Aside from the fact that there is no historical evidence to suggest that Ugolino was a non-believer, Freccero's reading ignores the possibility of a less allegorical interpretation of the dramatic events. Clearly, the children's offer of themselves as food results from their misinterpretation of Ugolino's self-biting, a gesture of desperation and grief that they interpret literally as hunger. If Ugolino is a literalist, so are his children, and to call them naive literalists (p. 165) is to beg the question. Freccero admits that the children see Ugolino's act as signifying natural desire for food (p. 161), but then contradicts himself three pages later by stating that they gloss the hand-biting as a «figure for [Ugolino's] spiritual hunger» (p. 164). Freccero tries to resolve the issue of the sons' understanding of their father's state of mind by comparing their words to those of the child who inadvertently led Augustine to conversion, because correct comprehension in both cases is irrelevant to the efficacy of the words themselves. Simply put, the argument depends on the assumption that the children don't really know what they are saying, but their incomprehension is of a different order than Ugolino's. This is an arbitrary and misleading distinction. To compare the attitudes of the children to «the naive obedience of Isaac and the resignation of the Saviour» (p. 157) is to ignore flagrant tonal and emotional differences.
The final essay in the book deserves attention because it typifies the flaws in the author's use of Augustinian sources to illuminate the Commedia, and to anul the difference between theology and poetry. In a decidedly anti-Crocean maneuver, Freccero selects what would seem to be an exclusively formal literary problem and finds a theological dimension to it. He focuses on the terza rima because he finds the theories of his predecessors, who have explained Dante's rhyme scheme as a reflection of the Trinitarian concept, too simplistic. Freccero digs deeper and finds that the terzina embodies the notion of recapitulation, which is eminently theological. He asserts that St. Augustine introduced the term to the Latin West in Book 3 of his De docirina christiana, where he criticizes the rule of recapitulatio given by Tychonius (p. 268).
The method used by Freccero to construct a brief semantic history of recapitulation is dubious at best. First, he cites the Greek patristic Irenaeus as the seeming founder of this «Christian theory of history» (p. 266). Irenaeus, who wrote in the second half of the second century, was not translated in Dante's time and therefore was unknown to him. Thus, we are given a source not available to Dante's culture to help prove a point about Dante's terza rima. Freccero then gives the definition of recapitulation, not according to Irenaeus or Augustine, but borrowed instead from a modern theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (Man in History, 1968). Had Freccero looked carefully at the definition and explanation given by Augustine, who after all is supposed to be the source for Dante's understanding of recapitulation, he probably would have abandoned his argument. But in order to remain faithful to his interpretation of this theological principle as the model for Dante's poetic form, Freccero persists. Drawing on Kenneth Burke's formulation of the interchangeability of linguistic and theological categories, Freccero states: «The theological principles that seem to underlie Dante's formal pattern are themselves in turn derived from literary principles. The Christian theory of recapitulation is derived from linguistic categories» (p. 269). To buttress this claim (that recapitulation is a rhetorical term as well as a theological one), Freccero provides Quintilian's definition, which involves verbal repetition. This definition has nothing to do with the notions of finality and time that supposedly characterize the process of recapitulation. Moreover, it is another spurious source, since Dante never read Quintilian. The book often exhibits a luxuriant bibliography that is irrelevant to Dante and has cogency only in so far as it helps support arbitrary assertions.
A close examination of the De doctrina christiana (Bk. 3, chapt. 36) reveals that, for Augustine, recapitulation is the sixth rule of Tychonius and a rule for reading (not writing) Holy Scripture. Augustine begins with an admonition against recapitulation, because Tychonius' rule is not always clear. In Augustine's view, the rule of recapitulation functions well in the example from Genesis where the narration of the creation of earthly paradise and Adam is done according to a narrative principle which does not respect the chronological order of the actual events. Augustine notes that we are told only after Adam's creation that there are four rivers in paradise, rivers which we are to understand as created before Adam was. This bringing into a story an element which on the temporal level should have been presented before is what Augustine calls recapitulation: «Sic enim dicuntur quaedam, quasi sequantur in ordine temporis vel rerum continuatione narrentur, cum ad priora quae praetermissa fuerant latenter narratio revocetur» (For indeed, certain things [in Scripture] are recounted, as if they followed in the order of time or were told in the sequence of events, although the narrative is returned to former things which had been secretly omitted, $ 122). A modern semiotician like TomaSevskij would make a distinction here between fabula (the order of events in their causal, temporal relation) and plot (the order of the same events as presented by the author). Similarly, recapitulation, as Augustine explains Tychonius, is essentially a problem of ordo artificialis which has nothing to do with the major concepts of Christian history that Freccero invokes. It is interesting to note that Freccero appropriates a term from Augustine without realizing that Augustine warned against the use of this rule in reading Scripture because an inexperienced or distracted reader can misunderstand and be misled by it.
A similar error occurs when Freccero uses two passages from the Confessions to demonstrate that Augustine's repeated analogies «between the realm of words and the realm of the Word» (p. 269) suggest that he saw no conflict between the two. This premise allows Freccero to claim Augustine as the precursor of Dante's alleged synthesis of poetry and theology. One must grant that in some periods and some thinkers (especially during the twelfth century) the distinction between poetry and theology was not clear-cut, but it was maintained in Dante's day, especially after the Thomistic indictment of poetry. Furthermore, Augustine's analogies do not abolish the gap between words, which have cognitive limitations, and the Word, which does not. It is true that, in the Confessions, the doctrine of the Incarnation makes possible rightly ordered language, because it restores man's words to God in Christ. But the very nature of analogy, as Etienne Gilson notes (in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy), is to draw near its principle and yet stand back from it. In his words, «we may regard it as having two functions, the one unitive, the other separative. An analogue is always drawn toward its principle in virtue of being an analogue, and at the same time departs from its principle in virtue of being no more than an analogue... Without the doctrine of analogy the identification of God and being leads to pantheism» (p. 447). Thus, all created things are like God yet radically different. But Freccero focuses only on the unitive function of Augustine's analogies and ignores the separative one.*
It must here be noted that The Poetics of Conversion quotes two passages from the Confessions out of context. The first, from Book 4 (10), compares the things in the created universe, which are born, grow, and die, to words in a sentence since «not all the parts exist at once, but some must come as others go, and in this way together they make up the whole of which they are parts.» This type of analogy is called Analogy of Proportionality (also Analogy of Being), in which a parallel in kind exists. This principle of analogy lies at the root of metaphor and is based on parity. Augustine's analogy between temporal things in the world and words in a sentence holds perfectly well, for a parallel in kind exists, i.e., as a thing proceeds in time from birth to death, to be replaced by other things, so a word is pronounced in time and ended, to be supplanted by subsequent words. All transient things, Augustine continues, are created by God's Word. However, the analogy between God's Word and the universe is one of cause-effect relationship (Causal Analogy or Analogy of Attribution). Since every cause produces an effect that resembles it, and since God is the First Cause of created things, the universe is an analogue of God. Thus, actual things are like God insofar as they reflect his goodness and truth to a degree befitting their own natures. Yet they are also radically different from God: they are created, and therefore contingent being; God is uncreated, and therefore necessary being.
Augustine is at pains to stress precisely the dissimilarity between partial (created) things and God: «It is always the same with the parts that together make a whole. They are not present at the same time... But far better than these is He who made them all, our God. He does not pass away, because there is none to take His place» (4: 11). Now if God, eternal and uncreated, is unlike human beings, temporal and created, how can human words, which are once removed, be absolutely equated with the Word? Human speech is not homologous to the Word made flesh in Augustine's passage.
In the second passage (Conf. 11: 28), cited on numerous occasions (pp. 27, 216, 270, 271), Augustine again uses the Analogy of Proportionality to scrutinize the progression of parts to form a whole. As a man recites a psalm, three mental functions (memory, attention, and expectation) are engaged, and they involve the temporal categories of past, present, and future, respectively. A recitation begins with expectation of the entire piece and ends with the psalm committed to memory. The faculty of attention is present throughout the entire process, and through it pass the words that, having been anticipated and then spoken, are now past. Because logically what is true of the whole is true of its parts, Augustine goes on to apply this theory of time to each word and each syllable of the psalm. He then formulates the following analogies: a psalm is to syllables as a human life is to actions and as history is to human lives. Because all the terms here are transient, with beginnings and endings, the analogies hold.
However, Augustine goes on to state that human creation and divine creation are radically dissimilar: «before all time began you are the eternal Creator of all time ... no time and no created thing is co-eternal with you, even if any created thing is outside time» (30). He further separates human and divine epistemology: «it is unthinkable that you, Creator of the universe, Creator of souls and bodies, should know all the past and ali the future merely in this way. Your knowledge is far more mysterious ... it is not like the knowledge of a man who sings words ... his senses are divided because he is partly anticipating words still to come and partly remembering words already sung. It is far otherwise with you, for you are eternally without change, the eternal Creator of minds. In the Beginning you knew heaven and earth, and there was no change in your knowledge. In just the same way, in the Beginning you created heaven and earth, and there was no change in your knowledge» (31). God is omniscient and creates from nothing; man is limited and creates from something.
This distinction is rigorously maintained by Augustine. In Book 9 (10) he says, «we returned to the sound of our own speech, in which each word has a beginning and an ending — far, far different from your Word, our Lord, who abides in himself forever yet never grows old.» Later we read: «For your Word is not speech in which each part comes to an end when it has been spoken, giving place to the next, so that finally the whole can be uttered. In your Word all is uttered at one and the same time, yet eternally, If it were not so, your Word would be subject to time and change, and therefore would be neither truly eternal nor truly immortal» (11: 7). Augustine ultimately disavows any connection between the nature of time and the nature of God, because time is constant motion while eternity is forever still: «in eternity ... all is present. Time, on the other hand, is never present all at once» (11: 11). This trend toward the separation of human and divine attributes continues in the De doctrina christiana, where Augustine discerns only a generic analogy between the physical utterance of words and the manifestation of the Word. He says that the Word of God was made flesh without change to dwell among us, just as when we speak, the thought is expressed in the forms of words yet suffers no deterioration on itself (1: 13). Freccero's claim that Augustine emphasizes the similitude between speech and the doctrine of the Incamnation is only half true, for Augustine is even more aware of the inadequacy of that analogy. As a medieval theologian, he knew very well that in order to speak of God and at the same time avoid pantheism he had to explore the separative as well as the unitive functions of his analogies.
The statement that human speech, with its three faculties of memory, attention, and expectation, later termed memory, intelligence, and will, «reflects the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit» (p. 271) again pushes the unitive direction of analogy beyond its proper limit. When Augustine speaks of these three faculties in Book 13 (11), he uses the Analogy of Proportionality, to connect, by parity of number, the triune structure of a single mind with the concept of three persons in one God. But he undermines his own analogy: human existence, knowledge, and will «are far different from the Trinity but I suggest them as a subject for mental exercise by which we can test ourselves and realize how great this difference is.» When one grasps the unitive principle in the three faculties, he still has not discovered the mystery of the Trinity, which immutably is, knows, and wills. Augustine formulates three possibilities: 1) immutable being, knowledge, and will are divided among the three persons and joined together in one God; 2) each of these attributes belongs to each of the persons of the Trinity; 3) both suppositions 1 and 2 are true in some wonderful way. He concludes the discussion by stating: «This is a mystery that none can explain.»
Even in the De Trinitate, where Augustine argues that the soul's knowledge and love of God, manifested in the activities of the memory, intellect, and will, is the best possible analogy of the Trinity, he qualifies his remarks. Having built up this analogy in the first fourteen books, he breaks it down in the final book. Here he restates the point made in the Confessions that God is ineffable and that He transcends anything man can say about Him. We know God in this life «per speculum in aenigmate» (Bk. XV, chapt. 9, 15-16). Augustine goes on to place the same limitations on the soul as an analogy of the Trinity as he had placed on words as an analogy of the Incarnation. The soul is mutable, created, and temporal, and therefore cannot perfectly represent the eternal and uncreated Godhead in whom meaning and being are simultaneous and identical (XV, 6, 9; 7, 11, 13).
Despite Augustine's methodological consistency in exploring the unitive function of analogies in order ultimately to stress the separative one, Freccero focuses only on the similitude between «God's poem» (i.e., Christian history and biblical allegory seen as synonymous, pp. 270, 267) and human speech to elucidate human poetry. He sets up the following analogies: Scripture (God's way of writing) is to the Word as the Commedia's terza rima is to Dante. The terms of these analogies are intrinsically defective. First of all, Augustine himself tells us that Scripture is not truly analogous to the Word, because Scripture speaks in time, whereas time does not affect the Word (Conf. 13: 29). Second, the relationship of Scripture to the Word of God is one of emanation, not of creation. The Word, incarnate in Scripture, procceds from the Divine Intellect and is eternal and uncreated. Third, the recitation of a psalm, however analogous to the unfolding of the Word in human history, is not equivalent to the writing of a poem, let alone the creation of a rhyme scheme.
Augustine knew, better than any modern critic, that God does not work as a human artist does, for God creates actual beings from nothing, while the artist creates virtual objects from the material which God made and utilizes in this process his mind, body, and senses, also made by God (Conf. 11: 5). This Augustinian notion allows Dante to call art «the grandchild of God» (Inf, XI, 105), because the artist is the child of God. God created Dante, and Dante, analogically, creates the Commedia. But the two modes of creating are infinitely different. It is one thing to say that art, in its own very special way, continues the labor of divine creation, and another to say that art, which for Aquinas is of the order of action belonging to the practical intellect, is indistinguishable from theology, which is of the order of contemplation belonging to the speculative intellect. In the Letter to Can Grande, Dante defines the ultimate function of the Commedia as the pragmatic one of redeeming mankind, and assigns the poem to the realm of ethics «in as much as [the poem has] been conceived for the sake of practical results, not for the sake of speculation» ($ 16). Here he seems in perfect accord with the definitions given by Aquinas.
A dubious methodology generally yields dubious results. Because Freccero places such primacy on poetic composition as an analogue of the Word made flesh, he views the fact that Cristo rhymes only with itself in the Paradiso as the clue to the meaning of terza rima. This leads to the conclusion that «rhyme is the movement of temporality and Christ transcends time ... Past, present, and future [are recapitulated] in His transcendence» (pp. 267-268). God and the Holy Spirit also transcend time, yet their names appear in rhyme as Freccero, without realizing the contradiction, admits (p. 267). The answer must lie not in Christ's eternal divinity but rather in his temporal human aspect. Despite the careful reading of the Confessions Freccero surely has done, he overlooks the highly pertinent remarks of Augustine concerning the name of Christ. According to Augustine, Christ's name is privileged above all others precisely because of his humanity. Quoting Philippians 2:7-10, Augustine recalls how Christ presented himself in human form and lowered his dignity to die on the Cross, «And that is why God has raised him from the dead, given him that name which is greater than any other name; so that everything must bend the knee before the name of Jesus» (Bk. 7: 9). If all of creation must acquiesce to Christ, so too must the exigencies of the terza rima.

Date: 2022-01-03