Understanding Dante [John A. Scott]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John A. Scott

Tratto da: Understanding Dante

Editore: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

Anno: 2004

Pagine: 112-117

Book 2 (allegory and cosmology)

1. Allegory

After this long introduction, book 2 opens with a canzone probably written some ten years earlier: Voi che ’ntendendo il terzo ciel movete. The first lines of the commentary tell us that Dante’ exposition will be both literal and allegorical, since “writings [the tantalizing term le scritture] can be understood and must therefore be expounded chiefly according to four senses” (Conv. 2.1.2). First, we have the literal meaning. Then comes the allegorical sense, which reveals “a truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie’—as when Ovid speaks of Orpheus taming the wild beasts and moving the trees and stones with his lyre, “which signifies that the wise man, with the instrument of his voice, can make cruel hearts tender and humble, and sway according to his will those whose lives are empty of knowledge and art: for those who are quite devoid of rational life are virtually like stones” (Conv. 2.1.3). We note in passing that the reason why this hidden, allegorical meaning was first used was to have been discussed in the fourteenth book of Convivio. Third is the moral or tropological sense, which maybe found in the Gospels’ accounts of the Transfiguration, when they tell'us that Christ took with him only three of the twelve apostles: “from which the moral may be deduced that we should have few companions in whatever is most secret” (Conv. 2.1.5) —an intriguing example of medieval allegorical exegesis! The fourth sense is the anagogical, which points to “heavenly things of eternal glory” (Conv. 2.1.6), as may be seen in Psalm 113 [114]. This psalm narrates the story of Exodus, a historical fact which also points to the sanctification and the liberation of the soul from sin (cf. Purg. 2.43-48 and Ep. 13.7.21-22). Dante insists on the need for a thorough understanding of the literal sense before the others can be approached. He will therefore explain the literal sense of his poems before going on to discuss their allegorical meaning, their “hidden truth” (Conv 2.1.15), while touching upon other senses, should the need arise.
Many modern scholars claim that in Convivio Dante asserted a fundamental distinction between the two types of allegory familiar to medieval exegetes: the allegory of the theologians, as exemplified in Scripture, which was based on a literal sense regarded as historically true; and the “allegory of poets”; whereby a truth was superimposed on a literal sense that was a beautiful fiction or lie.
If, however, we turn to what Dante in fact wrote, we find that at this point the text of Convivio is riddled with omissions and scribal errors. This means that in 2.1.3, editors have had to supply their own conjectural readings in order to fill the obvious gap between two phrases found in the manuscript tradition: “The one is called literal… and this is the one which is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie.” In the extant text, there is no referent specified for “these fables.” Scholars suggest that the term “these fables” indicates that all poetry consists of mere lies (as Aquinas and others maintained). However, there is nothing in Dante’s text, as we have it, that justifies this supposition. The example given (Orpheus) may well point to specific “fables,” such as those contained in the most widely read of pagan texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. On the other hand, the fable or myth of Orpheus’s descent to the underworld was also capable of receiving a Christological interpretation, whereby his descent to the underworld was regarded as a prefiguration of Christ’s harrowing of hell. It is in fact after referring to Orpheus's powers and their allegorical meaning that Dante makes his controversial aside (Conv. 2.1.4): “Truly, the theologians understand this allegorical sense in a different way from the poets; but since it is my intention to follow the poets’ way, I shall understand the allegorical sense in the way it is used by poets." The terms “understand” (literally, “take”: prendono) and “used” (usato) also point to another essential difference: the theologians’ task uses allegory in order to interpret a given text, Holy Scripture, whereas poets structure their texts allegorically.
Instead of assuming that, at the time of writing Convivio, Dante judged all poetry to be nothing but a “beautiful lie) we should in fact take into account the following points. Convivio was written partly in order to rescue his reputation from the “infamy” of having betrayed Beatrice's memory by loving another woman (Conv. 1.2.15-16). In other words, the authors intention is to play down or devalue the literal sense of the love poems selected (Voi che ’ntendendo and Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona), in order to claim that when the text refers to love and feminine charms its true meaning lies elsewhere. We must also realize that Dante never in fact uses the term “allegory of the theologians”: this phrase does not exist in his writings. Nor does he indicate in the slightest way that he is concerned with a literal sense as understood by the theologians. It must also be remembered that even the text of the Bible was not always taken to be historically or literally true: for example, the erotic Song of Songs must not be taken literally; instead, it was to be understood as “a truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie,” signifying the human soul’ longing for God. As so often in his Convivio, Dante is here displaying his erudition by pointing out that theologians always use the term “allegory” as referring to Christ and the Church. Augustine of Dacia put it in a nutshell: allegory teaches you what you must believe (quid credas allegoria). For the theologians, allegory was concerned with the Christian faith.
Any blanket devaluation of poetry as a mere lie is unthinkable for the author of the poems written in praise of Beatrice and then set in the elaborate framework of Vita Nova. What is more, even in Convivio, allegory is jettisoned in the poem chosen for the fourth book, Le dolci rime, whose subject—the true nature of nobility—was of such universal import that “it was not right to speak under any rhetorical figure… therefore, no allegory needs to be revealed, but only the literal meaning discussed” (Conv. 4.1.10-11). Clearly, the author of Convivio did not believe that the literal sense of the text of his canzone on nobility was a beautiful lie concealing a profound truth; it was instead judged capable of “bringing people back on to the right path regarding the proper understanding of true nobility” (Conv. 4.1.9). Even Ovid, the pagan mythographer, is quoted as a reliable historical witness, together with Lucan “and other poets, in this same work (Conv. 3.3.7-9), and Vergil’s Aeneid is treated as a reliable historical source (Conv. 4.26.9). Where his first two poems were concerned, however, Dante was bent on minimizing their literal text/message in order to reveal their hidden, “true meaning... which no one can discover if I do not explain it” (Conv. 1.2.17; cf. 2.12.1 and 15.2).
All this in no way undermines the claims made by Dante in his Comedy. ‘The vexed question of how much Dante expects of his readers in his epic has been examined, most recently and convincingly, by Hollander (2001, 94—104). Convivio, with its astonishing claim that secular writings may be structured and expounded according to the four senses traditionally—and exclusively (Aquinas, Quodlibetales 7.6.16)—reserved for the interpretation of the Bible, represents an intermediate stage between the rudimentary discussion of allegory and figures of speech in Vita Nova 25 and Dante’s complex use of allegory in the Comedy. There, ina unique amalgam that combines fabulous mythological figures such as the Minotaur and Pluto with the most sacred personages of Christian history, we find what may truly be called Dante figural allegory, something he made utterly his own.

2. The literal sense of Voi che ‘ntendendo

Chapters 2-11 are concerned with glossing the literal sense of Voi che ’ntendendo. We are told that the noble lady mentioned at the end of Vita Nova first appeared to Dante “accompanied by Love,” when the planet Venus had accomplished two full revolutions after Beatrice” death in June 1290 (Conv. 2.2.1). According to Dante’s astronomical lore, this brings us to a date near the end of August 1293 —and to the first contradiction with the account given in Vita Nova, to which Dante himself refers us. In that earlier work (VN 35.1), we read that the Noble Lady (donna gentile) appeared to the grieving lover “some time after” the first anniversary of Beatrice’s death (June 8, 1291). Even more disturbing is the fact that the account given in Convivio insists that a long struggle was waged in Dante’ mind between the memory of Beatrice and his love for this Noble Lady, whereas Vita Nova speaks of the poet’s sorrow and repentance after being tempted by the latter “for some days against the constancy of reason” (VN 39.2; emphasis mine). Convivio celebrates Dante’s enduring love for the Noble Lady; Vita Nova, on the other hand (composed some ten years previously), had spoken of his definitive return to Beatrice. Nowhere in the later work does Dante attempt to iron out the discrepancies between the two accounts. This has led some scholars to suppose that there existed a first version of Vita Nova which agreed with what we read in Convivio, because it ended with the episode of the Noble Lady (chapters 35-38), and that the present ending, celebrating the triumph of his love for Beatrice, was added after Dante had abandoned his Convivio (c. 1308) in an attempt to prepare the way for BeatriceS victorious return in the Comedy. There is, however, not a shred of hard evidence to support this idea. We are therefore left with the contradictions (but also with the possibility that Dante might have decided to remove the discrepancies by changing the account given in Vita Nova, if he had ever finished Convivio). On the other hand, Peter Dronke (1997a, 16) puts forward the fascinating suggestion that perhaps “for some brief time near their beginning, Dante” philosophical studies… were not purely disinterested—and that he then came to recognize that some element… had been leading him towards philosophically false positions.” This would explain the apparent contradictions in Dante’s writings concerning the donna gentile.
As things stand, however, we must also take into account the fact that, in Vita Nova 35.4, 37.5, 39.7, Dante insists that the meaning of the sonnets describing this interlude is plain enough and without need of further explanation. If the object of Dante’s attraction was indeed Lady Philosophy, as we are told in Convivio 2.12.9 and 2.15.12, the author-commentator of Vita Nova could only with a degree of subterfuge assure readers that his sonnets’ true meaning was obvious from their texts. The identification of the Noble Lady with Lady Philosophy is even more difficult to square with the description of his thought of her, which was noble only “in so far as it spoke of a noble lady; for the rest, it was most base” (VN 38.4): surely the strangest and most illogical way of describing what was later purported to be desire for true knowledge and wisdom— a description which then culminates in the identification of this desire as the “adversary of reason” (39.1). As Dronke remarks (1997a, 20), Dante “expected much both of his immediate and his future readers… At least part of his artistic originality lay in his refusal to harmonize.”
What little evidence we have points to late 1293 and 1294 as the period when both poems were written that were later glossed in Convivio as exalting Dante’ love of philosophy. Both in fact presuppose the present ending of Vita Nova with its vision of Beatrice in glory and the sonnet Oltre la spera (VN 41.10—13). We recall that Beatrice lover had already been charged with inconstancy by his beloved (VN 12.6). After her death, for the author of Convivio to have laid himself open to a similar accusation would have been utterly incompatible with the dignity and authority Dante sought to acquire, especially given his lowly state in exile. It would therefore seem likely that the episode of the Noble Lady as recounted in Vita Nova was inspired by Dante’s infatuation with a real woman (cf. Purg. 31.49-60), whereas Amor che ne la mente and Voi che ’ntendendo (especially the latter’s envoi, II. 53-61) were written to celebrate his newfound love for philosophy.

3. Astronomy and angels

In the third chapter of book 2, Dante explains that the third “heaven” is that of Venus. This leads to a long astronomical digression. Aristotle had stated that the heavens were eight in number. The truth, discovered by Ptolemy, is that there are nine heavens, ascending from the earth in the following order (which was retained in Dante’s Paradiso): Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, and the Primum Mobile. The ninth, invisible heaven answered the need to explain motion in Aristotelian physics. According to the Greek philosopher, physical motion cannot be explained solely in terms of physical principles; it must depend on some immaterial cause, in order to break through the vicious circle of mover and object moved. This immaterial cause—the unmoved mover—is, in Christian terms, God, whose power of attraction over the Primum Mobile is so strong that the latter is propelled by the swiftest motion, since motion, when not due to a physical cause, is the result of unsatisfied longing. The Primum Mobile is motivated by its intense desire to be united with God, while it transmits motion to the rest of the universe. Finally, outside both space and time is found the tenth heaven or Empyrean, “posited by Catholics” (Conv. 2.3.8), the abode of God and the blessed souls, “according to the teaching of Holy Church, which cannot lie; and Aristotle seems to indicate this to those who understand him correctly” (Conv. 2.3.10). Possessing all that can possibly be desired, the Empyrean is a place of perfect peace, hence motionless, situated in the very mind of God and encompassing the entire universe (Conv 2.3.11).
The moving spheres are propelled by ‘“substances separate from matter, namely Intelligences, commonly called Angels” (Conv. 2.4.2). Medieval angelology is hardly likely to make the modern reader’s pulse beat faster. As we shall see, however, this apparently unrewarding subject holds an important clue for an understanding of Dante’s philosophical (and idiosyncratic) outlook in Convivio. According to the Scholastic method, Dante first examines various contradictory opinions regarding these angelic propellers. Aristotle and others limited the number of angelic intelligences to the number of celestial movements; others, like Plato, extended their number to include all the different species of things. Plato called them Ideas, while the gentiles called them gods and goddesses, adored their images, and built temples in their honor (Conv. 2.4.6). Dante’s syncretism is nowhere more in evidence than in this highly personal assimilation of the pagan deities of classical antiquity into Christian angelology (with lasting results, for no Olympian is found in Inferno and the same belief underpins Beatrice’s discourse in Par. 4.58-63). Nevertheless, the pagans were defective in both their reasoning and knowledge (Conv. 2.4.8)—a significant statement, when we realize that this is the first reference to the limitations of human reason (an important theme that does to a certain extent temper the rational optimism so evident in this work).
Everyone—“philosopher, Gentile, Jew, and Christian” —agrees that angels enjoy a state of blessedness. Moreover, “since human nature here on earth has not just one beatitude, but two, the one belonging to the life of practical affairs, the other to the life of contemplation, it would be irrational (for we see that they [angels] possess the beatitude of the active life in guiding the world) if they did not also possess the beatitude of contemplation, which is more excellent and more divine” (Conv. 2.4.9-10). This flatly contradicts Dante’s basic premise that, since their intellect “is one and perpetual; angels can enjoy only one or the other type of beatitude, so that there must be a majority of angels who engage only in contemplation (Conv. 2.4.11-12). Dante further muddies the waters by agreeing that the contemplative life is the only one fit for the angelic nature.

Date: 2022-12-26