Dante Alighieri, Hermetism, and Renaissance Italy [Brittan Simon]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Brittan Simon

Tratto da: Poetry, symbol, and allegory. Interpreting Metaphorical Language from Plato to the Present

Editore: Univesity of Virginia Press, Charlottesville - London

Anno: 2003

Pagine: 38-48


The long tradition of scriptural interpretation from Augustine to Aquinas essentially appropriated the spiritual world for itself. We have seen that in this tradition it is only in a scriptural context that any spiritual interpretation is allowed: the “real” world is now officially devoid of mystic symbols. Umberto Eco points out that one of the effects of this is that it becomes “uncertain under the inspiration of whom (God, Love, or other) the poet unconsciously speaks” but that at the same time “the theological secularization of the natural world implemented by Aquinas . . . set free the mystical drives of the poetic activity” (Limits 17). In other words, poets began not only to seek justification within the tradition for seeing their work as conveying spiritual meaning but also to look beyond that tradition to other authorities. One of these was the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of Gnostic writings produced in the late Hellenic period. We shall be looking at the Corpus in some detail in this chapter.
In the Augustinian-Thomist tradition, the poet, surely concerned with aspects of human existence that are also the concem of Scripture—love, God, metaphysical anxieties, death, for example—is in effect denied all scriptural and spiritual authority. At best he might claim that his writings speak parabolically of the spiritual. Though the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was not the first to question this limitation, he was the most famous poet to do so. His now-celebrated dedicatory letter to Cangrande della Scala, accompanying Paradiso, the final book of the Divina Commedia, discusses Psalm 114 in such a way as to make clear his conviction that his own poem is to be read as spiritual allegory. His comments on the psalm are in themselves orthodox and conventional—he follows Aquinas in considering the four accepted allegorical “senses”— but at the same time the letter contradicts Aquinas’s view of worldly poetry as having only a literal sense.
Dante begins discussion of his poem by pointing out that its sense is not simple: “rather, we should call it ‘polysemous} having many senses; the first being that which comes from the letter, the second that which is signified by the letter. The first sense is called the literal, the second, allegorical or moral or anagogical." He then goes on to discuss this method of reading his poem in the context of Psalm 114. In the King James Version, the psalm runs as follows:

When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;
Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.
The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back.
The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like rams.
What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? thou Jordan that thou wast driven back?
Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams; and ye little hills, like lambs?
Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob;
Which turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.

Dante interprets the lines in this way:

If we look at it in the literal sense, it means the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt ar the rime of Moses; the allegorical sense is our redemption through Christ; the moral sense is the conversion of the soul from the misery of sin to a state of grace; while the anagogical sense speaks of the departure of the sanctified spirit from the corruption of the flesh to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are given different names, all of them can be called allegorical, because they are different from the literal or historical sense.

Having distinguished between a literal sense and a generalized allegorical one, he begins to discuss his own poem in the same way. He states that the literal sense of the Commedia is the condition of the soul after our death, whereas the allegorical sense is the progress of man, “either gaining or losing merit” through the exercising of his free will, and his subsequent punishment or reward according to divine justice. It is clear that in all of this Dante interprets his own poem as spiritual allegory; furthermore, he goes on to discuss the linguistic devices of the Commedia not only in terms of the “poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, transumptive”— traditional terms of poetic discourse—but also in terms of the “definitive, divisive, probative, improbative, and the giving of examples;” all of which are terms from theological or philosophical discourse. In other words, in accordance with his claim that there are two senses in which the Commedia is to be read, he himself talks about the poem as a literary construct, on the one hand, but as a theological or philosophical work, on the other. That he considers his work to have moral and spiritual purposes is clear from his statement that the poem is intended “to remove those living in this life from misery and to lead them into a state of bliss.”
Even so, we should beware of thinking of Dante’s approach to the interpretation of allegory as revolutionary. It is certainly true that he makes a number of comments that we can take to indicate a growing distance between what poets thought about their work and the official opinion of the theologians, but he also makes comments that seem to place him firmly in the Thomist tradition. His interpretation of Psalm 114 is unusual not because ofwhatit says about its subject but because of the context in which he gives it; and he seems to think of the event he discusses, the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, as an example of allegoria in factis, rather than allegoria in verbis: that is to say, he does not imply a belief that the events described in the psalm are not historical fact. Moreover, the ideas he expresses are not always consistent with his other writings. In the Convivio, for example, he distinguishes between the allegory of secular poets and that recognized by theologians in Scripture, and again this distinction seems to realign him with Aquinas, since poetic allegory can be read as “parabolic” reality.
The Convivio (c. 1304) is essentially a lesson by Dante in how to read his own poems, and in fact begins by establishing itself as an allegorical representation of the poems and of the commentary it contains. He tells us that he intends to prepare us a banquet consisting of meat (the poems themselves) together with the bread (his own commentary) that always accompanies the main course: “Blessed are those few who sit at the table where the bread of Angels [i.e., wisdom] is eaten, and most unhappy are those who share the food of sheep!... Therefore… I offer to all men a banquet of what I have shown them [i.e., the poems] and of the bread which should accompany such food, and without which it could not be digested” (Convivio 1.1). This sounds rather precious; and indeed what Dante is saying is that his poems cannot be properly understood by the general reading public unless he himself offer a detailed explication of them. The poems in question here, the canzoni (literally, “songs”), were not well received initially; furthermore, in 1302 Dante had for political reasons been exiled from his native Florence and sentenced to death, and these combined factors are likely to be responsible for the sometimes bitter tone of the Convivio. But the point here is that this work contains a lengthy discourse on the function and interpretation of allegory in worldly poetry and is representative of a changing attitude to interpretation generally, not only of literary texts but of the natural world and everything in it.
Dante admits that it is quite possible to read the canzoni without his explication. In this case, however, “their beauty [will be] more pleasing than their goodness” (Convivio 1.1), by which he means that the cleverness of their physical structure, the sound of the words themselves, their musicality, will be appreciated for themselves rather than for any intellectual and moral meanings they convey. He therefore sets out to deal with the poems, just as though he were a theologian elucidating a passage from Scripture, by first distinguishing the literal from the allegorical meaning and then discussing each in turn (insisting, by the way, on the relevance of authorial intentions in the process): “Since my real meaning was different from that which the previously mentioned canzoni superficially reveal, I shall explain these canzoni by means of an allegorical exposition, having first discussed the literal sense, so that both dishes will be tasted by those who have been invited to this dinner” (Convivio 1.1). At the same time, he is insistent that his explication is necessary for a full understanding of the canzoni, and tells us that he intends to show us the true meaning of his poems, which “nobody can perceive unless I myself reveal it, because it lies hidden beneath the figure of allegory” (Convivio 1.2). This last statement confirms Dante as a medieval writer who does not question the existence of an unalterably true meaning that can be discerned according to certain rules of interpretation. The rules he employs are the same as those formulated by Aquinas in his discussion of the four senses of scriptural allegory. He also, incidentally, shows himself to be a good Renaissance reader when in the same passage he goes on to echo Aristotle by saying that his explication “will not only delight the epupiar, but provide useful instruction concerning both this manner of speaking [i.e., the explication itself] and this way of understanding the writings of others.”
All the same, Dante was certainly aware that what he was attempting in the Convivio was something new. Apart from the fact of his applying Aquinas's rules for scriptural interpretation to his own, worldly, poetry, he celebrates the Italian vernacular by employing it for a literary-scholarly work. This, too, was a new idea, so new in fact that Dante felt able to eulogize the Convivio as “a new sun to rise where the old shall set and to give light to those who find themselves in shadows and in darkness because the old sun no longer casts its rays upon them” (Convivio 1.13).
Much of the first chapter of the Corvivio is taken up with Dante’s reasons for using the vernacular rather than Latin, and it is only in the second that he begins the actual discussion of the first poem, the canzone beginning Voi che ‘ntendeno il terzo ciel movete. Here he begins by exemplifying the four senses in which his poem is to be read: the literal, the sense that “does not go beyond the surface of the letter”; the allegorical, “the sense hidden beneath the cloak” of the literal; the moral, “the sense that teachers should assiduously seek in the Scriptures, both for their own profit and for their pupils'”; and the anagogical, which is what lies “beyond the senses:’ He describes the allegorical as “truth hidden beneath beautiful fiction” and gives as an example the story of Orpheus, who tamed wild animals and made rocks move toward him with the beautiful sound of his lyre (Metamorphoses 10.86-147). The truth behind this fiction is, Dante says, that with the instrument of his voice the wise man is able to make cruel hearts grow tender, and that those who have no rational life are “like stones.” As an example of the moral significance of scriptural “fact; he tells us that when Christ ascended the mountain to be transfigured, he took only three of the apostles with him, which tells us that matters of great secrecy should be revealed to only a chosen few. Finally, to exemplify the anagogical sense he refers back to Psalm 114. Here he tells us that, although the psalm speaks of historical fact and should therefore be read in the literal sense, there is a spiritual sense that “signifies by means of the things signified” the higher things of the eternal glory of God (Convivio 2.1). To say that the spiritual sense signifies something by means of the things signified means that spiritual truth is revealed through the literal sense: the historical event is an allegoria in factis and is both true in itself and stands for something else.
But what does Dante mean when he says in the same chapter that the allegorical sense is understood differently by theologians and by poets? Perhaps his term “beautiful fiction” provides an answer. Aquinas insists that all four senses are true, but also that the truth of the three allegorical senses depends on the historical truth of the literal. In the example just cited from the Convivio, Dante clearly does not believe in the historical truth of the story of Orpheus—this is what he calls “beautiful fiction." In addition, in the case of a theological reading of the Old Testament as referring forward to the deeds of Christ on earth, the allegorical sense is clearly also referring to “historical truth." The distinction made by Dante seems, then, to lie in these two senses, the literal and the allegorical. Dante’s point is that even if the literal sense does not equate to the truth, it is still possible for it to convey a valid spiritual message. In any case, the moral and the anagogical senses hold for both the theologians and the poets.
But now let us examine the canzone in question, the first two stanzas of which run as follows:

You who with your thought the third sphere move,
Now hear the words that lie within my heart,
For so rare are they, whom else should I tell?
The heaven that moves obedient to your power
Draws me, O noble beings that you are,
Into the state in which I find myself.
Therefore it seems most fitting that these words
About the life I lead should be addressed
To you; and so I pray that you will hear
While I tell of the strangeness in my heart,
And of the tears of my unhappy soul,
And how against her speaks a spirit now
Descending on the beams of your own star.

The reading Dante gives is rather long-winded and involves, among various excursions, a quite technical discussion of astronomy. I shall cite the most relevant details here.
The sphere he refers to is the third from the earth in the medieval universe , and in the beginning of the stanza he addresses “those Intelligences, or angels, as we usually call them, who preside over the heaven of Venus [i.e., the third sphere] as its movers." At this point we need ro know (so Dante tells us) that after the death of his beloved Beatrice, “Venus star had twice moved through her sphere” when he began turn to another love, only this time a spiritual and intellectual rather than a physical one: Dame Philosophy. Therefore, to excuse himself for this change of heart (since as a true lover he should of course have mourned Beatrice until the end of his days), he addresses the angels who move the sphere of Venus because Venus is the Latin name for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, whose son is Cupid, or Amor, or Love with a capital L.
He deals with each line in the same way, explaining the literal meaning of each and the reason for its presence in his poem: we learn, then, that when he addresses those who move the sphere of Venus with their thought alone, and asks them to hear his words, he does not mean that they should really listen as humans do, for “they have no sense perception.” These heavenly creatures “hear” by means of the intellect. He then goes on to explain that throughout this canzone, heart is meant allegorically as “the secret place within” from which his words come, and not literally as a part of the body (Convivio 2.6). The last point Dante makes here on the nature of heart is interesting because he discusses it in precisely the same way that Aquinas talks of God’s arm, as something recognizable by its effect rather than by its physical presence, in order to give an example of the parabolic sense. Eco makes the same point when he says that Dante does not detach himself wholly from the Thomistic point of view and that “the allegorical sense of his poems still is a parabolic one because it represents what Dante intended it to mean” (Limits 16). But we need to remember, too, that so far Dante has discussed his poem only in the context of its literal-parabolic sense; he has not yet pointed to an allegorical significance of heart.
He tells us that he is justified in addressing these angels of Venus’s sphere, firstly, because of his condition, which he claims to be unique and therefore unintelligible to other human beings; secondly, because “when a person receives either benefit or injury, he should first inform the one who has caused it.” In other words, the sphere of Venus and its accompanying Intelligences are responsible for the benefit he has reaped from this new love, and he now wants to tell them about it. He very craftily sets out to charm these Intelligences into listening to him by assuring them that it is his intention to speak of “rare” things—the division of his soul caused by the memory of Beatrice, on the one hand, and his new love on the other—and “momentous” things—the influence of the star of Venus that they themselves govern. On the final three lines of this stanza, he says that the spirit who descends on the beams of Venus’s own star is in fact a recurring desire “to praise and adorn this new lady” and that his “unhappy soul” is simply “another thought together with an act of assent, which, though in opposition to the former [thought], praises the memory of the glorious Beatrice." The star of Venus, Dante finally tells us, exercises enormous influence on our souls; and this, he says, is the literal exposition of the first stanza of his poem.
Book 2.12 of the Convivio begins by introducing the “allegorical and true” exposition of the poem. Here we are reminded of the distinction he made earlier between theological and poetic readings, for if the allegorical reading is the true one, this must mean that the literal reading is untrue, that it is a “beautiful fiction) like the tale of Orpheus. Nonetheless, it is clear that this literal untruth—the story of Dante’s encounter with his new “love” — has been constructed specifically to lead us to a spiritual truth, and this is a very important point. It is important because it means that every thing and event in the literal poem (“heart} “spirit” “soul; and so on) must be read as a symbol standing for something else. Dante’s symbols therefore lead to truth (or, at least, to “truth"), and this idea is essentially the same as that espoused centuries later by the French symbolist poets, who in turn influenced the way twentieth-century poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound thought about poetic symbols. For the moment, though, let us see what Dante has to say about the allegorical meaning of his poem.
He tells us that in his despair at the loss of Beatrice he turned to philosophy. This idea was suggested to him by “that book of Boethius” — that is, the Consolation of Philosophy, composed in 523 A.D. while its author was in prison: “So, in my search for solace, I found also… sciences, and books. Contemplating these, I realized that Philosophy… was a great thing. I imagined her as a gentle lady, and could see her only as full of compassion, so that the part of my mind that perceives truth gazed at her so willingly that I could scarcely turn it away from her” (Convivio 2.12). Dante falls in love with Dame Philosophy, and he does so (necessarily) according to the laws of Renaissance psychology and physiology, under which all the major organs and faculties are ruled by “spirits” or “essences” These were not insubstantial ideas but, like “hnumors) were tangible, physical phenomena distilled by physical processes of the human body. They worked as follows: when Dante fell under the spell of Beatrice, the spirit that governed his sight, the spirito visivo, was so enchanted by this beautiful apparition that it felt unable to remove itself from her presence. Certainly, though, it would have hurried off to tell the spiriti governing the other organs—the brain, liver, and heart. All of these spirits would then have crowded into the eyes to witness this beautiful creature. This explains why lovers’ sight grows dim when they behold the object of their desire. In absolute awe, the spirits would then have hidden themselves away in a special chamber of the heart, where they would have trembled in ecstasy—hence the palpitations that begin at the appearance of the beloved.
But Dante’s new love is no mere human being, and this is not erotic love, the physical love of one human being for another, for he feels himself “raised from the memory of that first love to the virtue of this one” (Convivio 2.12). The key word here is raised, and it tells us that Dante's attitude to this love is a Neoplatonic one. According to Plato, we can ascend a “heavenly ladder” toward God, leaving behind more and more of the worldly and ephemeral with each rung we pass. In this way, we can progress from earthly love, the love of one human being, to the (spiritual or idealistic) love of two, three, many, on so on. From the love of human beings we can then progress to the love of “institutions” — ideas such as the State, the Law, Philosophy. As we ascend, our soul feels the increasing nearness of God, and begins to sprout wings in its desire to reach him, thereby drawing us closer and closer to him. This, Dante tells us, is what is happening to him. He now sets out to explain to us what he means by the “third heaven?” His explanation is rather technical and very discursive, and again I cite only those passages most relevant to this study:

It remains to be understood why the “third” heaven is mentioned, and here we can compare the order of the heavens with that of the sciences… the seven heavens nearest to us are those of the planets; next come two heavens above them, which are in motion, and one above them all, which is immobile. The first seven correspond to the seven sciences of the Trivium and the Quadrivium: Grammar, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astrology. To the cighth sphere [i.e., the sphere of the “fixed stars”] corresponds natural science, which is Physics, and the first science, which is Metaphysics; Moral Science corresponds to the ninth sphere, and Divine Science, or Theology, corresponds to the immobile heaven… The heaven of Venus can be compared to Rhetoric because of two properties: one is the brightness of its aspect [i.e., “face,” appearance], which is sweeter than that of any other star; and the other is its appearance both in the morning and in the evening. And these two properties are found also in Rhetoric, for Rhetoric is sweeter than all the other sciences… and it appears in the morning when the rhetorician speaks directly to his listeners, and it appears in the evening . .. when the rhetorician speaks through writing… therefore, we can see that by the third heaven I mean Rhetoric. (Convivio 2.13-14)
Why is rhetoric “sweet” — sweeter indeed than “all the other sciences”? To answer this question we need to return to Dante’s comments on the literal reading of his poem, to the point where he tells his readers that, even if they are unable to perceive the “true” meaning of the canzone, they can still appreciate its beauty, which is apparent in its composition, in “the order of its discourse;’ and in its rhythm and musicality (Convivio 2.11). Sweetness seems to mean the beauty inherent in “the order of [a poem's] discourse;” not the same thing as its syntax (the concern of grammarians) or its rhythm. In this case, “order of discourse” seems to refer to classical notions about the construction of arguments, which emphasized the logical progress from one point to another. As we have seen in Dante” literal explication, he is certainly concerned to emphasize the same aspect of his poem, insisting that the progress from one idea to the next is both logical and necessary. Moreover, this quality of rhetoric is apparent not only when the rhetorician addresses his audience by speaking to them, but also, as is the case here with Dante, when he addresses them by means of the written word. We can say, though, that he orally addresses those “whose thought the third sphere moves” in that the poem opens with a plea for an audience. Like Augustine in De doctrina christiana, what Dante produces in the opening lines is something very like the request for the assistance of a Muse typically employed by classical poets, especially in epic poetry. Here, though, it ultimately turns out from his own allegorical reading that he addresses historical figures whose circumstances he felt comparable to his own: Boethius and Tully, who “guided me with the sweetness of their discourse” toward “this most gentle Dame Philosophy." Once this is understood, he tells us, we can understand the true meaning of the first stanza of the canzone “by means of the fictive and literal exposition” (Convivio 2.15).
How far are we really justified in seeing Dante's interpretive methods as new? If we begin with his own assessment of the Convivio as “a new sun” designed to give light where the old sun sets, to illuminate with a new kind of knowledge “those in shadows and in darkness} we can agree with him (perhaps in slightly less rhapsodic terms) that a seriously analytical work of literary criticism written in his own widely comprehensible vernacular, rather than in Latin, is indeed a new thing. Whether we see Dante’ decision to write in Italian as the result of democratic instincts or of his belief in the expressive possibilities of his native language (an agenda that became important to English Renaissance theorists), or simply of his sense of national pride, it is certainly true that in doing so he set an example for future critics. And it is also certainly true, as we have seen, that he set a further example by applying to worldly poetry the rules for allegorical interpretation laid down by Augustine and Aquinas for the study of Scripture. On the other hand, he still clearly believed in poems as closed texts: they were interpretable within fixed limits, and these limits depended on the intention of the author—this he makes perfectly clear in the discussion of his own poetic intentions in the Convivio. Furthermore he accepts the form of the limits as laid down by Aquinas—the four senses; and even in opening up interpretive possibilities by constructing relationships between the “spheres” of the planets and the sciences, he is limiting them at the same time by labeling, defining, and attributing fixed symbolic meanings.
But Eco (Limits 17) makes the point that Dante also saw poets as “prophets” continuing in a way the work of the authors of the Scriptures:

In the Comedy Statius says of Virgil that he was to him “as the one who procceds in the night and bears a light, not for himself but for those who follow him?” (Purgatory 22.67-69). This means that—according to Dante—Virgil was a seer: his poetry, and pagan poetry in general, conveyed spiritual senses of which the authors were not aware. Thus for Dante poets are continuing the work of the Holy Scriptures, and his poem is a new instance of prophetic writing. His poem is endowed with spiritual senses in the same way as the Scriptures were, and the poet is divinely inspired. If the poet is the one that writes what love inspires in him, his text can be submitted to the same allegorical reading as the Holy Scriptures, and the poet is right in inviting his reader to guess what lies hidden “sotto il velame delli versi strani” (under the veil of strange verses).

Eco sees this as indicating the advent of a new mystical approach to the poetic text (encouraged, ironically, by the very theological authorities who sought to demystify worldly poetry); and, as we shall see, he is right when he suggests that this new way of reading has survived, through various lines of descent, until the present day.

Date: 2023-01-02