(Christian) Theologians vs. (Pagan) Philosophers: Another Look at Dante’s Allegory [Aldo Scaglione]

Dati bibliografici

Autori: Aldo Scaglione

Tratto da: Essays on the arts of discourse. Linguistics, rhetoric, poetics

Editore: Lang, New York - Frankfurt a. M. - Bern

Anno: 1988

Pagine: 335-344

In attempts to reconstruct the historical context of Dante’s notions of allegory of the theologians vs. allegory of the poets, the terms of the question may have suffered from a misunderstanding. If Dante meant that his DC was written in the code of the allegory of the theologians, so the debate goes, he was likening his poem to the Bible and wanted his vision to be, or at least, according to one interpreter’s refinement, to be accepted by the reader as “true” by the kind of truth we grant by faith to the Bible. Thus the DC was not a poem like all others, i.e., a message of truth presented under the veil of a fiction, a story that is the fruit of the poet’s imagination rather than a report of historically ascertainable events. As a corollary, we wonder whether he meant that, suspending disbelief, the reader was to receive his poem as a true vision, or he really felt either that he had had a vision from God or that he had actually been in the other world, like Saint Paul (if not also Eneas).
These provocative questions are probably unanswerable hence perhaps not very productive. Furthermore, they may not be the right questions for Dante’s true context. I submit that what Dante meant was that he was writing a true Christian allegory and not an allegorical poem like those of the pagans—the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid. The “poets” in his reference to the allegory of the poets are the ancient pagan poets and, by extension, also the medieval poets like the authors of the Romance of the Rose, where the “vision” is a dream, not a “fact.” This misunderstanding of the historical context comes from mistaken terminology and from confusion of divergent strains in using the terms. Let us look at the facts.
St. Paul laid the foundation for the Christian use of allegory. Those who see in early Christian allegorism simply an application to the Scriptures of Hellenistic allegorism as it had been applied to myth and early poetry, principally Homer, overlook: first, that the Hellenistic “other meaning” referred mainly to physical or physiological causes (i.e., natural phenomena and movements of the psyche); second, that the Christian use can be clearly traced to Paul through Tertullian and Origen. It involves a spiritalis sensus which is what the Platonists or, rather, the Aristotelians would have called metaphysical and the Christians, mystical, theological, and Christological. Another difference is that the historia embodying the first sense, the signum as distinct from the signatum, is only a poetic figment for the pagans, a factual truth for the Christians. No medieval allegorism within biblical exegesis contemplated “a lying discourse that expresses the truth in images,” as Theon of Alexandria and others explained the myths or poems of ancient Greece.
According to a historian of Israel quoted by De Lubac (S. W. Baron, Histoire d'Israel, French ed., 2, 1957, 1193), we have paid insufficient attention to the differences between Greek ways of explaining poets or myths and the Rabbinical methods of interpreting the Bible. Christian allegorism was like Rabbinical exegesis in this respect, not like Greek allegorism, although the Christian differed from Jewish exegesis too in one fundamental respect: its allegorism was both mystical and “historical” insofar as it established both a moral or spiritual sense for the letter of the Scriptures and a direct concord between Old and New Testament, two literal and historical sets of events, the second of which was the definitive (mystical, metaphysical, supernatural, and theological) meaning of the first The connection with Greek allegorism was the term and the relationship between the textual story and a higher, hidden message. The difference was that it was not meant to justify the absurdity of a story but to explain its reference to another equally true yet higher event.
Speaking of Sarah and Agar in Genesis, Paul said (I Galatians iv, 24): “hattinà estin allegoroumena,” ‘these things are said allegorically.’ De Lubac says Paul’s term was of recent coinage, perhaps by the grammarian Philodemus of Gadara, ca. 60 BC, for a trope. Critics, Stoics, and NeoPlatonists had so explained Homer's irrational or impious tales, in interpretations that were from time to time cosmological, psychological, moral, or metaphysical, but were essentially physical or physiological, as the Christians characterized them: physiologia, physikos, etc. Dionysius of Halicarnassus used both Syporoia and allegoria, and so did Philo of Alexandria. ‘Tertullian and Origen followed Paul in the use of this term: see Tertullian’s “allegorica dispositio,” Adversas Valentinianos ch. i (De Lubac 177), and Adv. Marcianos IV, ch. xvii (576), where he cites Paul, as Origen does, In Genesim: h. 5, n. 5 (64); h. 6, n. 7 (69), etc., also using his own verb “tina tropon allegoretai.” So did Augustine and others.
The “hardness” or true historical density of the letter is stated by Paul's followers: John Chrysostom knows that Paul’s term ‘allegoroumena” is “katachrestikòs, praeter usum,” innovative, since the grammarians invented that term to mean that the literal meaning was fictitious, the things stood for something else, whereas for Paul the thing stands for itself and for something else too (De Lubac 677). For Jerome allegory is the spiritalis intelligentia: the manna and the stone of I Corinthians are factual, but their value lies in prefiguring the New Testament. For the anonymous author of the treatise on Isaiah VI, 1-7, Paul “apertissimam historiam nequaquam negat” ‘in no way denies the story’s patent validity.’ This is an important corrective to the influential opinion of Miss Beryl Smalley, who saw up to 1150 a “widespread contempt for the letter” in medieval exegesis. All this is in Henri De Lubacs well known Exégèse médiéval. Les quatre senses de l'Écriture (along with the studies of Jean Pépin and others), and yet, curiously enough, the contents of this book have not been duly digested into the critical discourse on Dante.
We may well debate how Dante looked upon his vision, what kind of psychological experience it was to him. We can only answer conjecturally since such questions allow little documentation, and they would have to be analyzed on the basis of his psychological attitudes as witnessed by the texts, not on the basis of his ideas on criticism and poetry. In other words, it is a related yet separate problem from his notion of his allegory.
Jean Pépin (ED, “Allegoria”) has taken a sensible position. He denies other than a fictional reality to the journey and to Beatrice?s apparition, so that Dante’s “types” would not be like biblical types, who have, by necessity, historical reality. Like Arnold Williams (1968), Pépin (Dante 1970) protests that allegory has a twofold meaning, an expressive one and an interpretative one, since it can be creative or hermeneutical. Cv. I ii 17 does make this distinction, indicating that allegory is useful to declare the intentio auctoris as well as the (even unintended) deep meaning of the text.
The Letter to Cangrande should show that the apparently central question, the one that has received most attention in the “American” thesis on allegory, i.e. the journey as “historical” (‘biblically’ factual), is neither central nor useful. Just listen to the poet (if he is the author of the letter). He does not say that the literal sense of the DC is the journey, but the state of souls after death: status animarum post mortem. This literal sense is undoubtedly and absolutely historical and factual, even if the denizens of the nether and upper realms may not be precisely the ones we see, doing what we sce (Beatrice explains that the blessed are in the Empyrean, one and all, and not in the spheres where Dante and we see them). This sense is as true as the events of the Bible and more so than many of them, and the imagery also shares with the Bible its being needed as a concession to human weaknesses, like God’s biblical arms which are not arms but power. Pépin wonders whether the journey should still be given as the true literal meaning, and goes on entering Thomistic and other semantic distinctions for which I see no need here. In fact he (ED 155C) mentions Nardi’s Nel mondo di Dante for the opinion that in Ep. XIII we may have the Thomistic distinction of the double sense of the letter, whereby the status animarum post mortem would be the true intentio auctoris but the journey the true literal sense. If so, I should say, this second (or rather first) literal sense is ostensibly fictional (Cv. II i 3: parole fittizie, bella menzogna, Ep. XIII 9: the form of the DC, forma sive modus tractandi, is poetica and fictiva, ‘fictitious,’ like the biblical parables).
Pépin’s (ED 162C) term “autoallegoresis” (like Curtius’s “autoexegesis” apropos of the Letter to Cangrande) refers to Dante’s unprecedented practicing of both sides of allegory simultaneously: allegory as expression-creation and as interpretation—criticism. Arnold Williams’s and Jean Pépin’s (ED I, 151B, 163B and Dante 1970) semantic and semiotic distinction between allegory of composition and of interpretation applies to Dante’s original use of the pagan gods, whom he turns into allegories for natural forces and Platonic ideas of justice, love, greed, lust, incontinence, chastity, divine inspiration, etc. Dante’s gods are also allegories, not in the biblical sense but in the pagan poetic sense. And it is appropriate to stress, as Pépin and Gilson do, the difference between Dante’s symbols in the DC and elsewhere (“Amore” in the VN and the “donna gentile” in the Cv are like personifications of the Roman de la rose).
Indeed, since Dante’s allegorism derived from biblical exegesis, we may also wonder how he could avoid applying it in its biblical form, that is, as allegory of the theologians. Yet he did use the allegory of the poets too, and in the same works, including the DC, for instance with the obviously fictitious Matelda, even while he. also used historical non-biblical figures for allegorical interpretation, as with Cato and Marcia.
In his essay “Figura” Eric Auerbach proposed a history of figuralism as distinct from allegorism which would apply to the Comedia despite the fact that what Auerbach calls figura was commonly referred to by Dante and his contemporaries as allegory. In this view, the Commedia would be analogous to the Old Testament as figura rerum or phenomenal prophecy according to the tradition of Fulgentius’ De continentia vergiliana 90, 1. Fulgentius claimed to have shown how under the figurative character the Aeneid displays man’s whole life and destiny: “sub figuralitate historiae plenum hominis monstravimus statum” (Auerbach 47). In this sense Dante achieves what Virgil had achieved, with transference to the other world (this world being projected upon the screen of eternity, “status animarum post mortem”). Therefore, once again, within this frame of reference too it is neither important nor necessary for us to posit the question of Dante’s self-consciousness as a new Paul in a real vision: he did what Virgil, a pagan poet, did, but as a Christian, and his allegorism is then true figuralism. His historia is figuralitas: the journey describes the true status of humankind through eternity because this is the way the world will be after Judgment Day. The figura or appearance of this world will pass away, but not its natura (54), so Christianity is “realistic” and figuration differs from allegory in that it contains hard facts on all sides. Dante could have said that his allegory is not the allegory of the poets but the figrralism of the Bible because he was writing of facts that were true when they happened on earth, are true again now in the other world, and will be true a third time after the Second Coming.
Pompeo Giannantonio (1983) maintains that the sharp division between allegory of the poets and allegory of the theologians is unnecessary because what Dante achieved was a fusion between the human and the divine as represented by the Aeneid and the Bible, flowing together as convergent parts of the providentially-guided course of history.
Dante started early to draw on biblical material in “secular” poetry, hence to mix sacred and profane. In VN vii the first three lines “Voi che per la via d’Amor passate, / attendete e guardate / s’elli è dolore alcun, quanto il mio, grave,” directly render Jeremiah’s O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus. The referent is changed, being Love here, grief at Israel’s predicament there, yet we cannot say that a profanation has occurred, as, for example, in Petrarca’s “Movesi il vecchierel canuto e bianco,” given the divine end of Dante’s “new” love.
Dante’s use of three figrrae from Joachim of Fiore?s Liber figurarum in the Paradiso also seems pertinent, though in a marginal way, to a more sharply focused understanding of Dante’s allegorism. In Par XIV 28-33 and XXXIII 115-20 two Trinitarian figures of interlinked circles appear to derive from Joachim. More specific and relevant for Dante’s ultimate goals is the fact that the M in the heaven of Jupiter appears related to one of Joachim?s complex tree-figures: “a formalized pair which, turned upside down, have the shape of a Gothic M, while they also become eagles, with the head as the tree-root and the wings and tail-feathers as the branches... Joachim’s tree-eagles have a concealed prophetic message pointing to the coming of the new age... This... is also expressed in the lilies which entwine the branches, the flowers of the Third Age, and in the figure of the Eagle itself which, for Joachim, is the Eagle of St. John and of the contemplative life of the coming age” (Marjorie Reeves 1980, 55).
But a central point is Dante’s way of configuring his judgments as revelations he has received, rather than as results of rational analysis. T. S. Eliot remarked that Dante’s peculiar artistic mode is one of “making us see.” Surely he makes us see because he is one who “sees.” More specifically, he sees himself and explicitly conceives of himself as a “seer.” In short, he has adopted the attitude of a convinced prophet and uses the traditional avenues of prophecy. Reeves (47) emphasizes how Monarchia II i 2 f. presents Dante’s shift from the view of Roman history as one of conquest by force to one of providential design as a discovery that did not come about by sheer reasoning but by seeing infallible signs through the eyes of his mind: “But now that, with the eyes of the mind, he had pierced to the core, all the signs convinced him that this had been the work of divine providence.” As Dante puts it: “Sed postquam medullitus oculos mentis infixi et per efficacissima signa divinam providentiam hoc effecisse cognovi, admiratione cedente, derisiva quedam supervenit despectio” (i.e., a certain ironic contempt for the opposite view). Reeves concludes: “These words surely convey the sense of a moment of prophetic enlightenment.... ‘This is the language of the seers and, although by no means peculiar to him, ... Joachim of Fiore often described his sense of prophetic vision in terms of penetrating to the marrow or the core with the eyes of the mind” (Reeves 1972, 2-3, 20).
Joachim’s original thinking about the Age of the Spirit was entirely ecclesiastical and religious, but “in the pseudo-Joachimist literature of the thirteenth century a transformation took place. A political Joachimism was developing in Dante’s lifetime. The programme that emerges envisages the overcoming of the great Antichrist by a holy alliance of emperor and pope and then a period of bliss before history is wound up at the Last Judgment. Under its divinely appointed leaders human society is to attain, not perfection, but at least its earthly beatitude” (Reeves 1980, 53). This corresponds to Dante’s view of a balanced alliance between Church and Empire as necessary to ensure man’s guidance toward the deatitudo huius vitae, to be ensured by the emperor, and the beatitudo vitae aeternae, which is the pope’s function. The originality of this view will stand out sharply if we only think of the Augustinian philosophy of the world of history as the world of corruption, sin, and at best splendida vitia. For Augustine (De av. Dei IV iv) “No state of justice is possible on earth and therefore no realization of human potentiality” is possible within the state (Reeves 45). Dante, instead, wanted to believe that not only the ancient Roman empire, but a contemporary monarchy had the divinely appointed mission to bring man to an carthly happiness, foreshadowing the celestial beatitude to come. Hence Reeves concludes (50 f.): “I take the view that the DC is in many ways a this-worldly poem, still concerned with all that hinders the realization of the earthly beatitude.”” For Dante (as for Joachim) “the belief in the providential development of history is still there, and it still has to be prophetically fulfilled within time.”
If we set Dante’s allegory against this aspect of his thinking and of his art, do we not realize the difference between the traditional use of allegory and what Dante does with it? For allegory had been consistently, for thirteen centuries, a mode of reading the Old Testament as a foreshadowing, figura, of the New and, concomitantly, the whole Bible as document of the imitation of Christ. But Dante’s allegory is radically new to the extent that it gives us clues on how to pass from the historical stage of the Antichrist to that of an earthly bliss through: 1) our understanding of a new kind of love based on his revelation of Beatrice as the intermediary to God; 2) our acceptance of the mutual independence of pope and emperor that will enable them to perform their functions. Only thus can we have the supreme harmonization, bridging heaven and earth, among the convergent forces of Love-Beatrice, Grace-Church-Christ, and ethical righteousness-political order-Empire.
In the Fathers’ and the Doctors’ allegorism the only figurae are the historical ones of the Scriptures, but Dante’s “figures” are Beatrice, the Veltro, the DXV, the Giant, and the Harlot, which are not in the Scriptures, not even in the Apocalypse, and which Augustine would have disqualified because for him the DXV could only be Christ in person, certainly not an emperor. As De civitate Dei IV xxxiii had it: “And therefore earthly kingdoms are given by Him both to the good and to the bad, lest His worshippers, still under the conduct of a very weak mind, should covet these gifts from Him as some great things.” Yet Dante feels that these gifts, the citizens’ felicity warranted by good government, are great things granted by God to good men and also to the ancient Romans for their virtues, which Augustine derided. Hence, to conclude, Dante’s figural allegorism is his own, new and revolutionary—neither that of the poets nor that of the theologians.
This brings me to a positive development of allegorical interpretation concerning the two crucial allegories of the Comedia, namely the two guides, Virgil and Beatrice. Somewhat ironically, modern allegorism has reduced rather than enlarged the allegorism of these two figures and has come to perceive them rather as typological figurae than as allegories. This shows an increasing realization of their basic humanity and individuality, whereas they had traditionally been read as essentially allegories of Reason and the Empire (Virgil) and Revelation, Theology, Grace, and the Church (Beatrice). So concludes Francesco Mazzoni’s lectura of Par. XXXI, and Kenelm Foster’s agrees. Virgil embodies wisdom as the historical individual poetic personality that came to “typify” and symbolize Dante’s dedication to poetry and reason. Differently though similarly Beatrice is a real, living person who embodies theology because in Dante’s whole career she incarnated Dante’s own longing for the divine and the supernatural. This is indeed Dante’s greatest and unique poetic achievement and his true poetic orthodoxy.

Date: 2022-12-26