ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 21 - Paradise XXIV, XXV, XXVI
Chapter 1. An Introduction to the Three Theoretical Virtues [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Today we are going to look at the three cantos in the eighth sphere of Dante’s cosmos; we are beyond the planets, beyond all this so called eighth sphere, or the Heaven of the Fixed Stars. Before we get to, which will be next week — next time, the Empyrean, the heaven of light and fire but now we are in the heaven of the fixed stars and Dante discusses the three theological virtues. The three theological virtues, unlike — they are so called to distinguish them from the cardinal virtues that Christians share with the classical tradition, namely the fortitude, prudence, and justice, etc.
These are the virtues that deal with the understanding of the divine; they open up this horizon of speculations about the language of God, the way God speaks to us, theology in this sense, the way in which we speak about God, theology, the logos. In theology there’s the word logos and the way God speaks to us, so it’s the place in paradise where Dante will focus on the meaning of what I call — it’s not my phrase, “basic words,” the words which are foundations of the way in which we come out to discover who we are; they are words that we use, the words that we many not even know exactly what they mean and yet Dante will try to define them, they are, I repeat faith, hope and charity.
The three virtues that Dante will — in this, using Paul’s letter to the Hebrews where he accounts or gives a definition at least of faith and hope, but they are words — they are terms that always implicate each other. You cannot go explaining faith without really talking about hope. You cannot go on talking about hope without explaining faith, and both of them are recapitulated and come together, gather within the question of — within the virtue of charity and the virtue of love. They are words that — they are very mysterious in many ways but there are degrees of understanding all of them.
The three examiners, because Dante will go through the equivalent of a university examination, a medieval Bachelor’s degree, that’s the term comes to us from the universities, medieval universities, the Bachelor. Dante is a bachelor who presents himself to the teacher, the teacher is testing him, and he will give an answer according to textbooks. Authentic — where the authentic — the departed of one’s own beliefs, one’s own hopes, and one’s own charity are gathered.
The three teachers are going to be three Apostles who are known as Peter for faith, St. Peter for faith and that makes sense because Peter himself, the name stands for the cornerstone on which the edifice of Christian belief is built; the second one is going to be for the virtue of hope is going to be James, known as the Galician because — why him; it would seem to be less obvious than the other two because he among of all the Apostles is the one whose death was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and so he lived in a certain expectation of a life to come, so he would seem to be the real figure of hopefulness of some idea of — some way of expecting a future and the life of eternity. The virtue of charity instead, is examined by John, the Apostle, to distinguish him from the seer, the writer of the Apocalypse. So it’s the three Apostles Peter, James, and John.
Are there ways in which we could — I could give you some summary ways of trying to understand some of these virtues. One thing that I would ask you to look through when you have time to go into detail of these texts, it seems to me that all the three cantos deal, or have as a kind of what I would call under text, the subtext of them, something running through but sometimes even visible but not all the time visible, is the question of exile. Dante is retrieving the language of exile as if these virtues are clearly virtues that don’t concern at all the blessed in heaven; they can only concern us here in time. The blessed in heaven certainly do not need faith, or hope, or they don’t really need to know about what love may be; either they have it or they wouldn’t be there so this is — but it’s the language of exile is running through these three issues just as the language of time, so the connection between time and exile probably needs not much explanation, much glossing. We are in time, we are fallen, and it’s only in the language of the fall that it’s possible to think about exile.
The other element running through this is really the question of, very visible, especially in Canto XXVI, the actual question of language itself. What is the language of God? What are the names of God? Dante asks that question. Are we talking about an entity with a name, and if so, you know the whole debate about the so-called tetragrammaton, the four letters that are supposedly that name God. That’s what the word means, the four letters. Are they known or is God just an effable? Is there some — Is He some kind of reality we can never even hope to name or are we going to be related and connected to this idea, this knowledge of God by analogical discourse. These are positions, the mystical position that denies even our knowledge of the name of God, the analogical position put forth by Aquinas, for instance, that we really talk about God analogically and know the qualities we attribute to God only they’re not real by what we may know in our own lives. Dante asks this question about what is the language of God? What are the names of God and how do we get to know God?
Chapter 2. The Virtue of Faith [00:07:59]
The first virtue then is the virtue of faith. There are many ways literally — I call it a basic word because it’s really a basic word because it founds us. It’s a stone, Peter asks for the foundation of all this poetic edifice of the Divine Comedy. I would like you to think about this — the actual — when we get into the text, there is actual apostrophe at the beginning of Canto XXIV of, “ ‘O fellowship elect to the great supper of the blessed Lamb, who feeds you so that your desire is ever satisfied, since by God’s grace this man has foretaste of that which falls from your table, before death appoints his time, give heed to his measureless craving and bedew him with some drops; you drink always from the fountain whence comes that on which his mind is set.’” He wants to know — what I do — what I would like to stress is the presence of this actual metaphor of a banquet. It is as if Dante is — clearly we’re dealing with two metaphors here; one which is exilic, the manna in the desert, the falling of this dew on the exiles, the wanderers, the Jewish wanderers in the desert, and the other one is the eschatological banquet.
It is as if any debate about faith has to be placed within a communal context. This is not going to be the professional faith the way you may have it, let’s say in 1550 roughly. I’m really alluding to, as a contrast, just to make you understand the case, the great debate between two figures of the Renaissance called Erasmus and Luther. They debated, at length, about the question of whether or not how a text written about a century earlier, around 1440, a text by Valla, a great humanist who wrote about the free will in the defense of the free will — on free will. He — they were — it was unclear to them what Valla really meant so they go on debating; the text in called On Free Will.
Erasmus maintains that Valla really had defended the existence of free will. Free will, which is a gift of God, it’s something that has been given to us and therefore we really have to come to know God through the acknowledgement of his authority because the freedom that we are talking — that he is talking about, he thinks Valla is talking about, actually comes from him, and so by the free will we come to know and come to choose also the existence of the divinity.
Luther had very radical ideas about the question of freedom. There was not such a thing he would argue as free will, and actually the world, the universe is a universe of absolute faith, and faith is freedom and it’s given to us by freedom because it releases us from all obligations, it frees us from all constraints, it just makes us understand that our own relationship to the Creator is without any other intermediary forces of the world. It’s a radical, theological claim of freedom, and faith together. It’s very possible; many people, just to extend this argument, there are many poets and thinkers who go on changing his scenario and believe that, for instance, freedom is actually the source of not faith but faithlessness. That the idea of — one’s own faithlessness may come, as a denial of God, may come from the assertion of one’s self and the assertion of one’s own total freedom. But this is — I’m giving you this to exemplify the nature of the debates and the force of the debates.
Dante insists — so removes the question of faith from one of radical subjectivity or radical faith, aware that there may be some kind — some flip side to it, that faith and lack of faith really both depend, if you reduce them to subjectivity, one can go on sliding into one of the two options very easily. Dante focuses on, with this first image, on the question of the communal experience, the banquet. That to me is part of the shared world, this eschatological banquet, where they’re all the — the vision where, at the end of time, but the allusion is also to the manna where these various figures are — the community comes together and then Dante goes on really focusing on the individuality, on the private professional faith, it’s really about him.
The interesting thing that I want to point out is Beatrice’s words to Peter, around lines 30, she goes on appealing to him to go on to examining, but she does so in a peculiar way. Let me read this passage, “And she,” lines 32, “ ‘O eternal light of the great soul with whom our Lord left the keys,” this is very canonical, it’s part of the hagiography, the account of the iconographic representation of Peter with the two keys, “which He brought down of this wondrous joy, test this man on points light and grave as thou seest good regarding the faith by which thou walkedst on the sea.” This is an allusion recorded in the Gospel of Peter walking out of an act of faith, walking on water, because Jesus asks him and tells him so.
The strange thing about this reference is that Peter did not want to walk on water. It is the moment of, let me call it the crisis of faith, the moment where Peter had no faith and in fact Jesus calls him, “Oh man of little faith why don’t you walk,” and then I guess feeling that he’s teetering on the brink of the abyss you can imagine, really see soaring over the waves, finally does manage to go on. This is a poignant moment because clearly Dante’s emphasizing that there are degrees of faith and that the so-called crisis of faith must not be seen as denials of faith. On the contrary, that somehow there is a sort of dialectical movement between a profession of faith and doubts about owning and that’s the — owning this gift, of having this gift of faith. This is one of the strange moments and it’s in the light of this strange fluctuation between faith and experience of not faith that I think that what happens later has to — the wait has to be understood, and then whether he loves rightly and rightly hopes, and believes, here are the three — three of the language — the three theological virtues all come together.
“Is not hid from thee, since thou hast seen it there,” and so on and then Dante uses both the language of the university, academic life, as if this were really an academic test. We’ll come back to this issue in a moment. Just as the bachelor — that’s the — the Bachelor of Arts, the baccalaureatus, as we call it arms himself so there are two. There is the weapon of knowledge, the academic, knowledge as a force, knowledge as a weapon, “just as the bachelor arms himself and does not speak to the master,” magister, “submits the question — for argument, not for settlement.” These issues are issues that always need the open-endedness of argumentation and not that of a settling of the point. “I armed myself with all my reasons while she was speaking, to be ready for such a questioner and for such a profession. ‘Speak, good Christian, declare thyself.’”
This is a knowledge that makes him visible, “declare thyself,” but a knowledge that does not keep him hidden, sort of brings him into existence, makes him visible to us. What is faith and that’s the question that he — that Peter asks. And the answer is, “ ‘May the grace which grants it to me to make my confession to the Chief Centurion,’ I began, ‘give me right utterance for my thoughts.’ And I went on: ‘As the truthful pen,’” an allusionist to Paul, a questioning an authority, and the word authority, as you know, is that which is — what do we mean by authentic and authorities are key words, the word is auctoritas. It means that comes which is worthy of faith. The teacher is not necessarily worthy of faith. You can question the opinions of the teacher and reject the question of the — there’s a distinction between the master and the author. The one — or the authority, the one who is an author is one who is worthy of belief, worthy of faith, so he quotes Paul, so this is a canonical answer, “ ‘As the truthful pen of thy dear brother,” Paul, “wrote of it with thee, father, put Rome on the good path, faith is the substance,” literally the foundation, that which lies under all the things.
The ground of all things, substance of things hoped for, so faith — if you want to understand faith we ought to probably go and read about hope, things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. This I take to be its quiddity, quiddity and medieval — part of the medieval lexicon meaning its constitutive essence, its specificity. Now if you thought that in the Middle Ages that we’ll go on talking about faith, the famous formulation of faith comes from Tertullian who says, “I believe because it is absurd,” so that faith becomes the consequence of, the extension of, the absurdity of all things. Because the claim made on what one believes has in itself the idea of going — being beyond reason, absurd in that sense would be beyond reason. That’s one of the ways in which faith is defined. It really means that faith exceeds the law of reason; it means that faith can never really quite be an object of knowledge. Dante does not pursue that line. He tries to make faith a reason co-extensive. This is the sense of the — I’ve got to qualify the term co-extensive, and I will in a moment, because obviously they are not, but they are — they belong together.
This is the sense of the whole metaphorical pattern of the university context. That is to say, you can know something about belief, knowledge and faith really belong together, they implicate each other. They are not the same thing because if you really could know everything of what you belief then there is no reason why you should belief, that which faith becomes necessary — a necessity only because they are — it’s a way of acknowledging limitations of what one knows. But linking knowledge and faith is not just simply a way of saying that reason can know some of the content of what Dante believes, that there is a reasonableness to what one believes, that’s all true. To say that reason and faith go together, there are certain claims about the reasonableness of what one believes. It really means, I think, at a deeper level, that faith itself is a mode of knowledge. That it is a mode of knowledge exactly the way you have the knowledge of philosophy though its modalities are going to be different, because philosophy submits to the rules of the rationality, but faith opens your eyes and it’s a way of showing you something about the world that the reason alone cannot do.
The binding of the two metaphors, that’s what I meant co-extensive but not identical. I didn’t mean they’re identical; the joining of philosophy and theology, reason and faith, makes and projects faith as a way of knowing. It makes you see the world in different ways then if you were trying to look at the world in the light of natural reason and from the point of view of rationality. So this seems to be the argument and I set the terms against, let’s say, a modern subjective idea of freedom, freedom of faith as freedom, that frees you from all, and you are only accountable to the Creator, or faith as a mode of responding to the absurdity around oneself, which is really the language of Tertullian and this scholastic argument that Aquinas, of knowledge and faith really needing to be together.
Then the examination goes on and I want to talk about 70, “ ‘Thou thinkest right,” this is the beginning, the top of the page Canto XXIV, line 68, “Then I heard: ‘Thou thinkest rightly if thou understandest well why he placed it among the substances and after among the evidences.’ And I then: ‘The deep things that so richly manifest themselves to me here are so hidden from men’s eyes below that there their existence lies in belief alone.” Now, it’s the distinction, this is a cesura between belief and what we are — the evidence of things not seen, the paradox remains, so there are things visible here in the heaven of the fixed stars and not available to those of us who are in time and in the fallen world. “On which is based the lofty hope; and therefore it takes the character of substance. And from this belief we must reason, without seeing more; therefore it holds the character of evidence.” This is a gloss on the medieval theological lexicon that Dante has been deploying.
“Then I heard: ‘If all that is acquired below for doctrine were thus understood, there would be no room left for sophist’s wit.’ This breathed from the kindled love; and it continued,” I want you to pay attention to this metaphor, for I wish you had — we’re really sitting around the table where I could ask you to speculate about the presence of the coming metaphor. “If all that is acquired below for doctrine,” I am sorry. “ ‘Now the alloy and the weight of this money have been well examined; but tell me if thou hast it in thy purse.’” All of a sudden the question of money and the question of faith — faith is literally given as said to be money. Do you have this coin in your purse? “I therefore: ‘I have indeed, so bright and round that of its mintage I am in no doubt.’ Then there came from the depth of the light that was shining there: ‘This precious jewel,’” that’s one reason why the metaphor of money is used for — clearly for faith. It’s a precious jewel on which every virtue rests, “whence did it come to thee?”
And the language is going to be — it’s from the plenteous reign of the Holy Spirit and the new parchments and so on, but that metaphor of money as faith really sort of has a way of lingering on in our minds. What is the connection? One connection, I repeat, is to indicate the preciousness of the faith one holds. It is really as rare maybe and it’s valuable as rare, beautiful jewels can be. That’s one thing, but clearly there is more, because the word money which Dante uses in Italian, moneta, is the same word becomes a character in an English epic, moneta comes from the Latin form meneo, the word money as you know comes from — meaning a warning, it’s an advice, it’s a warning, a warning about its mintage, it’s part of the language of — we have the word admonishment that comes from it. It admonishes that it’s not a counterfeit, that it is really pure, so that’s another way of referring to the purity of this faith, the preciousness before, now the purity of this faith, the authenticity of it so to speak.
Another trait of money is that money has — it’s that which establishes the value — it circulates first of all, has the power of circulating, that’s not said by the text but it’s implied by the metaphor. It is as if faith has that power, has that virtue that puts everything into motion, and therefore questions and establishes, that’s what makes it a basic word. It establishes, it’s the substance that establishes the values of all the things that are around us. Fourth, I cannot really get past my mind that Dante wants us to think about this kind of the resonance of prophenation that is in the language of money and link it with really this purity of faith. It is as if there is — the distinction is really never quite between prophenation and the purity of faith and that somehow the world of faith comes out of the world of prophenation. That it belongs to the world of time, it can be profane and yet it still manages to put things into circulation. It’s really the ambiguity of money, the ambiguity of the metaphor of money; I think sheds a lot of light on this virtue that Dante has been examining. He has been examined about it but he has been — he is examining it for us.
Chapter 3. The Virtue of Hope [00:28:22]
Let me go and see how — whether we can see more about this virtue by looking at the question of hope that comes immediately after with the examination by St. James. I begin to tell you here just a little story that — it’s not really an unusual story, but as you probably know, the Greeks never thought of hope as a virtue. There’s a reference to hope in — as being one of Pandora’s — being one of the entities available in Pandora’s Box. You know about Pandora’s Box, which was opened and all the evils of the world came out of Pandora’s Box, save for one, hope. It’s a statement, it’s a view that all is — that really casts hope as clearly, some kind of evil or a delusion, and in fact, for the Greeks the idea of hope is always a term that implies the delusion of exiles. It’s really what befalls an exile, someone who loses one’s land and what is left for him to do nothing but hope. It’s the radical illusion; it’s a kind of hope against hope. I have nothing more to do; it’s a self-deception, that’s really what it is.
Dante does not follow that route for hope, and in effect, I think that he finds in the Bible the idea that — or a kind of a new — a different horizon for the rethinking, the way in which hope can be viewed. Hope, first of all, is literally a virtue of time. More so faith — the language of the clock, you must have noticed in Canto XXIV introducing the world of hope. I did not want to talk about it because I know that I’ll be talking about it now. Hope is as much of faith a virtue of time, because it’s a virtue not only of time; it’s a virtue specifically of the future. It tells me whenever — if I have hope — I can’t really hope about the past, it would be — it would fly against all sense, against all logic. I hope yesterday it didn’t rain; it doesn’t make sense does it? I mean it’s — but I can hope that tomorrow it won’t snow. I can have that hope which would be a silly hope, but it’s a hope nonetheless because it’s a virtue of time in the future. It’s a way of experiencing time in the future, that’s one thing that Dante is doing, linking therefore hope and temporality.
But it’s not only a virtue of time; it’s the most realistic of virtues. Normally, we think, and the Greeks would sort of give us a cause to pause, that if you really hope it’s because you are really desperate. You hope because they have no rational reason, no realistic reason to believe that things are going to go the way you wish they went for you, so you go on hoping. Dante says no, hope is the most realistic of virtues because it tells me that nothing is really ever over. That’s what makes it realistic. The negation of hope, the opposite of hope would be despair. Dante, you remember, is the scene for Dante, is the scene that we find in canto — we never read it, and now retrospectively I can tell you that you should go and read it, Canto VIII of Inferno, and even in Canto IX, the encounter with the Medusa is that fear of despair, that idea of being petrified. The Medusa can turn you into a stone; that is to say, that you are imprisoned and you remain caught either in your standpoint or in that particular reality that you have or the idea of yourself as you like to — as you think you have been, and the idea of the past. Dante says, no hope is a virtue of the future; it’s a virtue that can even change the past.
In that sense, it’s effective on the past, though it’s — because it tells us that the past may not be what we thought it was. Whatever disaster you may have had, whatever disappointment you may have had in the past, that disappointment may contain seeds that really will reappear in the future, and maybe a preparing a future that will surprise you. This is a different understanding of time that Dante presents. It’s an understanding of time that once again Dante links with two moments of his which is — in that sense it’s really not different from faith, it fulfills faith, it unveils the element of faith. You cannot really go on hoping about something like that unless you have some — an act of faith. Dante goes on explaining it in existential terms and tying it to his own hope of returning to his homeland, his own native city, and the larger pattern of exile. I want to examine that with you.
The poem begins with a subjunctive; Canto XXV begins with an optative, what we call, “I wish” that things were going that way. “If it ever come to pass,” contingency, the word is contingency in Italian, it uses the Latinism because we don’t really use that in that sense, but I’ll read in Italian even if Margaret — I wish she were here se mai contingua, that’s a Latinism, if ever I were to — contingent, if it ever happened in that sense, “that the sacred poem,” “poema sacro,” “if it ever come to pass the sacred poem,” and the sacred means — remember that Dante uses the word “sacred” always in a double sense. A sacred, he’s not investigate with some kind of magic, idolatress power because for Dante the sacred is never reducible or localizable, that’s a verb, in one object or in one particular place. He means it ambiguously as that which contains the profane and the sacred within it, hell and heaven, the scriptures of heaven and hell.
“The sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have set their hand,” it’s an incredible moment of prophetic self-awareness. I am writing but I know that without God I would not be able to be writing this poem, “that it has made me lean for many years,” writing now. I’m sorry that I’m giving you this kind of simple paraphrase of it, but the ascesis of writing, writing is a — do you understand what I mean? Writing is an ascetic labor of the soul, it makes me lean as if he were undergoing fasting, the rituals of the commitment to a particular labor, so I call it the ascetic labor of the soul; “should overcome the cruelty that bars me from the fair sheepfold.” If I could ever go back home, but he called back home Florence, in the canto of hope where he’s an exile, and the city is described in passive terms.
The metaphor of the city as a sheepfold, the Passover language, the language you expect to have in the Eclogues of Virgil, the pastoral tradition. The idyllic world, that’s what we mean by the pastoral tradition. If there ever were some peace, some idyllic circumstances in that city, and you can continue, “where I slept as a lamb,” here he continues with the pastoral language, “an enemy to the wolves that make war on it, with another voice now, and other fleece I shall return a poet, and to the font of my baptism take the laurel crown; for there I entered into the faith that makes souls known to God, and after, because of it, Peter thus encircled my brow.” Dante is still in the circle of hope and the heaven of hope, and yet now he’s really thinking about the last ceremony of Peter on him who blesses him three times. It is as if literally faith, and hope are now converging, the two virtues come together.
What is Dante saying though here in this proem, at the beginning of this canto? He’s casting his hometown Florence in the pastoral language, as a sheepfold, and they know he’s alluding to a Messianic time where — when if it were just — when the peace were restored, when the factions, the wolves, the Guelfs, the pun of wolves and Guelfs, that’s very clear that’s what etymologically the word Guelfs comes from, from wolves and the lambs will lie together, almost a kind of impossible time, a Messianic time, when finally peace will be restored. He goes on adding that he would be acknowledged, that’s part of his hope, he will be acknowledged, there will be — at that time he would acknowledged as a poet on the font of his baptism, which as you know he refers to the Baptistery of St. John, where we do have records that he actually was christened.
That’s simple language, but you have to ask yourselves, why would Dante talk? Why would he use this particular metaphor? The baptism is clearly the place where a community is constituted, then the baptismal font has that value. Not only has that value, it’s actually the same baptismal font that Dante had — you remember there had been a prophenation of it in canto — described in Canto XIX of Hell where Dante says that he broke one of those Guelfs, which we try to understand in figurative terms since it would be inconceivable that Dante would be capable of breaking it. He says he began to rescue someone who was dying.
What is a baptismal font? For those of you who have no inkling of what this is it’s the — what we call the sacramental, the typological, if you really — more textual and historical about that sacrament, that ceremony, re-enactment of Exodus. When a child is baptized, he is literally said — he’s told actually that he is once again re-enacting the crossing of Exodus. To me this is extraordinary, that Dante says that he would be now acknowledged and be given the laurel of the poet on the baptismal font. The question you have to ask yourselves is, no doubt, is, Dante’s asking how does a poet come home? He imagines a triumph at the baptismal font, is there a home — what is the homecoming of poets? That’s the hope, hope for a homecoming where everybody will be at peace and there will be a feast, a festive mood and he was going to be welcomed back and he would hailed and acknowledged as a poet, a great fantasy of every — of the winner’s return. That’s literally what he is saying.
Yet, he’s using this language of a baptismal font which is the language of Exodus. It is as if he were saying that the poet can only come home in order to tell his community that I have to get out again. That all of them will have to do exactly what’s happening to him, that the exile that has been — with which he has been punished, and which has befallen him, is really the message that his poetry can only give to the community from which he has been exiled. He is convoking the whole community around the baptismal font, which is the figure of exile, to tell them this is really where we belong — in exile, in the language of spiritual exile, a language in which clearly implies some kind of re-making of oneself, re-thinking of oneself.
Now, with this in mind, Dante goes on seeing the barren for whom below they visit Galicia, an allusion to Santiago, and then she herself will go on. I want to — before we read the passage I want to give you this, “And that compassionate one,” line 50 that Beatrice’s presentation of Dante to St. James. “And that compassionate one who directed the feathers of my wings,” a flight of the soul, the name of the family Alighieri, “to so high a flight anticipated my reply: ‘The Church Militant,’” this is Beatrice, “ ‘has not a child more full of hope, as is written in the Sun that irradiates all our host; therefore is it granted him to come from Egypt to Jerusalem, that he may see it before his warfare is accomplished. The other two points about which thou didst ask — not for enlightenment, but for him to report how dear this virtue is to thee — I leave to himself; for they will not be hard for him, nor occasion for boasting,” and then like a pupil once again taking this language of school, the school child.
The main thing about this self — this presentation by Beatrice is that Dante’s journey is glossed through one figure, one figure that I have been telling you ever since we started this course, these classes in September through the figure of Exodus. Dante’s journey here is literally described as a journey from Egypt to Jerusalem, which is the master plot of the Hebrews’ exile from the bondage to the story of freedom and exile becomes really the — that of exile is the figure of — the master figure of the poem. Dante then therefore is linking now exile and hope, and I think I already have indicated to you that this idea of writing as writing in the mode of exile is also the — it’s not to be seen in a subjective way only relating to him, or the pre-condition to his own poetry but involves the whole of history.
History has to be seen from the standpoint of exile, so there’s at the top of page 363, line 69, “ ‘Hope’ I said,” again, “is a sure expectation of future glory,” as is the openness to time as futurity, “and it springs from divine grace and precedent merit. This light comes to me from many stars, but he first distilled it in my heart who was the sovereign singer of the Sovereign Lord,” David, who to Dante is the greatest of poets.
Chapter 4. The Virtue of Love [00:44:40]
Now we move on from here now to the last virtue, the last virtue of love. It is — there is a progression faith, hope, and charity, it is as if only — you have to know these virtues before the beatific vision can even be possible to you. You have to understand what it is that they do to you and they produce in you. We come to love, however, we are — we would be looking for a definition of it as at least in a formula, in a kind of a citational formula given and available in Canto XXIV and XXV, we would be looking for it in vain. There’s no definition of love, and it’s clear to me, it’s clear to you, I take that Dante really thinks that this is “the word.”
Love is the key word that seems to escape all possible definitions, which we know around us, in a variety of ways, we understand it and yet we cannot quite confine it and define it, and that to define it would really literally be a way of reducing its impact and reducing its value. It’s such a basic word that Dante says that the only word that is really left, imaginary, etymologizing in this treatise on language that he writes, this treatises on the De vulgari eloquentia, he says that the word love is the only residual term from the past that means that language is a way of — like food, the banquet, the beginning of Canto XXIV, is a way of gathering us and bringing us together, so love and food, food is given as a metaphor at the beginning, now love that escapes any particular definition and yet it’s the culmination of all these theological virtues.
What Dante does see and he has — I really want to turn to this scene at the end of Canto XXVI, Dante meets Adam. It’s the confrontation with the beginning, it’s the confrontation with the arch poet, because Adam is the one who names the world, and therefore brings it into existence; that’s really what we mean by poet and that’s what we’re expecting of poets to do, since this is the meeting, the encounter with him, lines 90 and following, Dante addresses him, “O fruit,” though the word really is apple, “O fruit that alone wast brought forth ripe.” What on earth does he mean? That’s a strange way of addressing someone, “oh fruit alone wast brought forth ripe.”
There were a lot of theological debates as to ripeness is an element of grace, a description of grace for Dante. If you’re not ripe, when you are ripe when you have received and been touched by grace. The argument was, Adam created in a natural state, or was he already created in a state of grace? How long was he in the earthly paradise before he fell? If he was in a state of grace why could he — why did he fall? If he was in a state of grace why could he commit this sin of transgression? Is it a transgression that he commits by eating of the fruit of the tree? Dante implies that he was in a state of grace, ripe, refers to him as ripeness, the idea of “fruit that alone was brought forth ripe.” “O ancient father of whom every bride is daughter, and daughter-in-law,” this is the very language that Dante will deploy in Paradiso XXXIII for the prayer to the Virgin and being the daughter of her son — the question of the divinity and humanity of Christ. “As humbly as I may I besiege thee to speak with me. Thou seest my wish, and to hear thee sooner I do not tell it.”
Let me just skip a few lines and see the answer that Adam will give, line 115 and following, “Know then, my son, that not the tasting of the tree in itself was the cause of so long exile,” so even Adam, the fall was in a state of exile, exile from the garden, falling into the wilderness where he had to transform the wilderness into a garden, so that the work would be the way in which he could regain that which he had lost, the garden, “but solely the trespass beyond the mark.” I’ll come back to this. “In the place from which thy Lady sent Virgil,” in Limbo, “I longed for this assembly during four thousand, three hundred and two revolutions of the sun.” He’s clearly thinking about the harrowing of hell by Christ so that added now years to the four thousand he counts. “I saw it return to all the lights on its track nine hundred and thirty times while I lived on earth. The tongue I spoke was all extinct before Nimrod,” we saw him as the founder, the giant, it’s a residue of gigantomachy, the classical idea of the giants fighting the gods, Nimrod who builds the Tower of Babel, so the debate between them hinges on language.
Language is the key now and retrospectively we really come to understand the language of theology, the question of what is the — what are the properties of theological language and what are the properties beyond that of all words? That’s the argument. “I spoke with… Nimrod’s race gave their mind to the unaccomplishable task,” the building of the Tower of Babel that would not be finished, “for no product whatever of reason — since human choice is renewed with the course of heaven — can last forever. It is a work of nature that man should speak, but whether in this way or that nature then leaves you to follow your own pleasure. Before I descended to the anguish of Hell the Supreme Good from whom comes the joy that swathes me was named I on earth.” “I” in Italian, not “I” in the sense of the subject; I don’t think that that’s what Dante meant. “And later he was called El;” Dante’s using two Hebrew words, what he takes them to be Hebrew words for the name of God. God was called “I” first and then he was called “El.” In fact, this is — one of my students suggested to me that if you read them backwards they really spell out the word Eli which would be a word that we would acknowledge maybe nowadays as being the word for an appeal to God, I and he was called El, “and that is fitting, for the usage of mortals is like a leaf on a branch, which goes and another comes. On the mountain that rises highest from the sea I lived, pure, then guilty from the first hour to that following the sixth, where the sun changes quadrant,” and that’s the end of this encounter.
Let me focus on this question of the language that Dante’s really with — encounter with Nimrod explicitly highlights. Adam changes Dante — through Adam is changing the account he had given in the De vulgari eloquentia, which is a story about the origin of words, of language, and where he had claimed that Hebrew persists; Adam’s language unchanged through history because it was inconceivable, he adds there, that Jesus would be using a language other than the primal language and not the corrupt language of human beings. Now the story changes, actually Adam’s language has suffered alterations already in the Garden, where the names of God keep changing. This, I think, is the key.
This is the whole question of theology then, the names of God, the way we speak about God. God was called “I,” and then he was called “El,” there is no proper name for God. We only have words or languages that keep changing according to our own historical circumstances, and Dante goes on changing his own paradigmatic account about the status of the sacred language. He says there is no such a thing as a persistent sacred language in history. What comes out is that language is the mark of our own distance from the divine, that we are — and the language that we use is a part of our own exilic circumstances and exilic predicament, and therefore all the language of theology that Dante has been describing is part of this exilic longing of human beings.
This is the story from XXIV, XXV, and XXVI. Dante uses theology and examination of theology only to place us back on the world — on this world where we go on hoping, believing, and loving, realizing that these are all mysterious terms, without which, however, that’s another meaning of the word for — the resonance of money, without which we — where we know faith is a form of trust without which you cannot really be functioning together. Where we have hope as the realization of faith, and where we have love as that which is — we are always longing for and somehow the meaning of which is mysteriously escaping us.
Chapter 5. Question and Answer [00:56:08]
These are, I think, the three fundamental issues that Dante is discussing and let me take some questions.
Student: You passed over briefly this statement of Adam that his transgression was not in the act of testamentary but in crossing a boundary. I wonder if you could unpack that a little more because it seems to me not — it seems to me a bit of a controversial statement first of all because the command was “do not eat from the tree,” so for Dante to say this, it seems like he’s — there’s something very specific that he wants to get across in this idea of boundary, maybe if you could elucidate that for me a little further.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is, a question that I really welcome, and I was hoping someone would ask. The question is that I did not — I read from, I did not really explain the Adam statement when he says that his sin was not in the tasting of the tree but in the trespassing of the limit, the mark, and therefore it seems that there is some issue of boundaries here and would I care to reply — try to give a response to that.
Yeah, I could give a response on a number of levels. First of all, I would remind you that this is Canto XXVI of Paradise, and Canto XXVI of Paradise is symmetrically connected with the other two Cantos XXVI, the canto of Ulysses who also trespasses the boundaries, who is a metaphysician of sorts, who is dealing with space and who himself — there is really nowhere on earth he is really going; he doesn’t know; he’s trying to go somewhere but doesn’t really know that. They are connected — and then Canto XXVI of Purgatory dealing with love in its perverted form of Guinizelli, of the poets and Caesar, so that’s one of the connections.
Another connection is that these are three cantos where Dante is using foreign languages. There’s a deliberate connection there in the Canto of XXVI of Inferno. You may remember that Virgil goes out of the way to speak — be the one who is the interlocutor of Ulysses and supposedly to speak Greek, in Canto XXVI of Purgatory, Dante uses the Provencal language of Arnault Daniel who now starts speaking in Provencal, and then now we are using — Dante’s using the foreign language, Hebrew, the names of God, so it’s — that’s one connection, so there are a lot of other, of these connections.
In the case of Adam, who makes that distinction, to come specifically to your point, who makes the distinction between the tasting of the fruit and it was not that he tasted the fruit, but that he trespassed the mark. That seems to be — you’re right, that was a very controversial subject, because indeed that was the command given to Adam, “Thou shall not taste of the fruit of this tree,” and Dante presents Adam who instead goes out to do that. It’s clear that he thinks that the tasting of the tree was not — he’s saying that that was not his sin. That’s Dante’s take on it. It’s not the tasting of the tree that was the sin; the sin was that he abolished all boundaries. I read that — I’m restating the — changing slightly so I’m giving a paraphrase of what has been — what seems to be the issue here. It’s clear that Dante thinks that Adam’s act of eating of the tree was good, and Adam’s act of the eating of the tree was actually the discovery of a knowledge that had — that managed to elevate him and that was good.
From this point of view this is — there seems to be a contrast between Ulysses’ form of knowledge and Adam’s form of knowledge. Ulysses’ form of knowledge is that he literally is — does not go, doesn’t even know where he is going, that’s part of the problem, in purely metaphysical terms. He had no directions, it was a gratuitous quest. In the case of Adam, getting to know of the fruit of the tree was not an issue. In fact, Dante says, that maybe real knowledge is always going to be tied to an act of making discoveries, making even transgressions. What was the problem is that there had been a loss of boundaries that he lost. How are we to understand the loss of boundary? It was the kind of knowledge that made Adam realize that he could be divine; that was his problem. As soon as you — the imposition of the boundary, God’s imposition of — or establishment of the boundary between the human and the divine was also a way of letting Adam know — I’m not going to read this as if it were a kind of atheistical statement at all, it’s letting Adam know that he had to be aware that he was not divine, that he was a human being. What he, Adam, wanted to do was grow in knowledge and discover that he could also be divine. Do you understand what I’m saying? That is the issue.
For him to fall then would be a way of re-establishing that boundary and realize that he is a human being and not divine. It’s a growth in self-knowledge. If you really know that you — if you really know who you are, you are really — you have grown. Do you see what I’m saying? Dante’s changing the sense of what the fall of man is, and the fall of man is not the fall in the growth of knowledge but that growth of knowledge that leads you to erasing the boundary, to believe that you are by virtue of that knowledge that you have gained, that you are now divine. This is really — the whole poem is trying to convey to us is that this is a steady temptation that human beings seem to have and we can’t — we need to be reminded, and when we hear it from God himself we don’t quite believe it, and then we have to grow into that recognition of boundaries between ourselves and something that we aspire to but we are not it yet.
Good question, but I had anticipated this answer, I must say, in a number of ways talking about Adam in the past. I hope that you don’t remember because more or less I said the same thing — I don’t know that I mentioned before. One might wonder, just to go back to that issue, one might wonder, does Dante really make it clear that he’s really not Adam but he still thinks that he is Ulysses at this point? One thing that he understands that he is — the canto before he acknowledges King David as the supreme — and he did earlier, the supreme poet, he’s really placing himself in David’s Psalms are the lyrical recapitulations of and glossing of Exodus. That’s really where he now I think is trying to move that he’s more — he cannot be like Ulysses, he knows he’s not — he does not want to be, he cannot be Adam, that’s the kind of model he’s trying to regain for himself. Okay, maybe you see the connection with where we said a little earlier with what I — the response I gave to your question. Yes.
Student: I’m just going off of Dante’s theological beliefs. In Canto XXIV he talks about his belief in the Trinity and I was wondering if you could just explain that further, because he seems to be saying both that the Trinity are three separate entities and the unity. I know there was controversy and different factions of different — different factions in Christianity believe different things about the Trinity and so I was wondering what Dante believed.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well, Dante has a number of references throughout Paradise to the Trinity. One of them actually, a very significant one, that we never talked about was in Canto XXV of Purgatory where Dante thinks that the way we human beings understand — can understand it — one of the ways which we can understand the Trinity is to think about the structure of the mind: memory, intelligence, and will because there are three but part of one thing, and three functions. Or, in Canto XXIV, of Purgatorio that Professor Lummus, I’m sure explained to you, is that the — if you want to understand Dante there seems to imply when he talks about, I am one when he declares his own poetic practice and one who when loved and dictates inside me, I go on using my language and so on.
One way, in which the Trinity was explained, they would say, think about speaking to make it existentially compelling and concrete. When you speak, you have an idea in your mind, otherwise it’s babble. You have an idea in your mind, you emit a sound, but to emit the sound you need the breath, and you cannot have the sound without the breath, and you cannot have the sound without the idea, so that speaking encompasses this three-fold components of one. The Trinity is always connected to one. Then in Canto X of Paradise, you remember, we spent some time there, having this idea of the love of the Father, and the Son, and the breath of love that joins them, they go on gazing together, this idea of the fecundity or this idea of the Trinity as source, or Dante who thinks about God in the form of the Mover, but he does go into that and yet he understands that that’s not the effective theology he wants to think of God as the Prime Mover, to think as the efficient cause, it makes God as such a mechanic or a clockmaker or something, one of these images of God who imparts order and recedes from creation. That’s really not Dante’s idea. He wants to think of a divinity that is partaking of creation’s love.
Dante’s idea of the Trinity — so he has many, many — he tests all of these paradigms. I don’t think that he ever excludes one. He does not really agree with the reading of Joachim of Flora who thought that the Trinity was the unity of — that Trinity could be dissolved into three separate beings, so that’s no longer a unity. To have a unity you got to have all three clearly present, that’s what Dante believes. A unity with a kind of — is it a prismatic unity let me call it, that’s why. Dante would say, we all have some recognition of the Trinity, whether it’s God and the Word of God being the Qu’ran from eternally or God and the Word of God being the Christ, etc. We all have the word made flesh, we all have some kind of idea of the Trinity, where one acknowledges God as a Father, or as a Spirit, ways in which we can understand this thing we call, I don’t mean irreverently, we call God. That’s the response to what you asked. Please.
Student: From what you said in answer to the other question, it seems like you were saying that if Dante takes the fall it’s good enough because it leads to self-knowledge. Dante thinks the fall is good because it leads to more self-knowledge. I understand how it’s different from — Adam is different from Ulysses in that he is trying to go somewhere, like he’s trying to become more like God and that’s good because it’s a definite end, but it still seems that if the means of trying to achieve that end is wrong. If he’s trying to become more like God by, like grasping instead of — like we’ve been talking a lot about how the — and that’s real essential and if he’s choosing the wrong way to get to his end, if that changes the end itself so that he’s not even really — Adam’s not even like having the proper end in his search for knowledge either. If it changes because he’s going about it in the wrong way and just how that kind of reflects on whether the fall — whether Dante thinks the fall itself feels like it’s good and is actually leading to something else, if that’s clear.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: No, it’s very clear. The question is — the earlier question, of course, was about what Dante thinks about the Trinity. Now the question is going back to the point of Adam, and my suggestion that the fall is good, and because ultimately Adam seems to be really wanting to reach God and I made a contrast to Ulysses and the limitation of Ulysses’ quest is that he really does not know — he’s driven by curiosity. That’s what I meant which we will talk about, this evil curiosity. But if the movement toward the good is bad, because after all, Adam does choose to trespass the boundaries, why should that really be thought as good? Is that — that was the question really?
Well, let me just restate this issue. The problem with Adam — I’m sorry, first of all, with Ulysses I call it now the curiosity, which as you know, eventually will become good in the Renaissance, scientific curiosity, that’s the good thing. In fact, I have a young colleague who is writing a thesis about curiosity — a book about curiosity. She has written a thesis about curiosity linking it with women’s curiosity, it’s a very interesting thesis to say that women are really smarter than men because they are — they have been attacked for being curious, so she has found Renaissance texts were — some written by women who go on making that kind of claim. I think it’s a great idea.
How did Dante understand curiosity? How do the Fathers of the Church understand curiosity? Why is it bad? Because that is the trait of Adam, because curiosity has a particular quality about it, it’s something that continues this whole understanding, and especially with curiosity I’m going to give you, well in to the eighteenth century. The curiosity is bad because it uses up; curiosity has a sort of restlessness within it. I am curious of a particular object, I observe it and I move onto something else. I literally consume, I use up a particular object and devalue it in that process, that’s really what made it so bad.
Ulysses, who goes from one thing to another and is always open, fascinating figure of the Renaissance spirit of discovery, but that’s really what undoes this element almost of desire, a kind of — a figure of — I don’t want to make — I’m using this to badmouth Ulysses, but a figure of this way of thinking of the curiosity of Ulysses is really the don Juan who goes from one woman to another in an endless movement of curiosity and knowledge, that he’s driven by knowledge to get to know certain particular situations and people.
Adam, to go back to the question of Adam, I’m only giving you Dante’s reading. Dante’s reading — he distinguishes very carefully between the testing, the tasting of the fruit and the trespassing of the mark. The trespassing of the mark meant you cannot really violate the boundaries that I want to place between you and myself, because once you get to know yourself for what you are you may get to know me, that’s what the part of the violation of boundaries. You may get to know me for what I am, so it’s a wall that protects both the essence of the divinity and the specific quality of the human that is at stake. Adam eats, which means that he wants to grow in knowledge, and Dante says, that’s not the issue. That was not a problem that I want to grow in knowledge.
The consequence of that growth in knowledge was the trespassing — actually very well be the cause, the trespassing of the boundary. Had he really grown, that’s really an acceptable aim; you have to grow in knowledge. I’m willing to say about Adam exactly the things that you may recall I said about the scene of pride when we discussed Canto X, XI and XII. It’s good that you have this love of excellence and love of the growth of your own mind. The consequence of it or the flip side of this quest for more knowledge is the violation of boundaries and that has to be re-established. The fall of man is only a re-establishment of the boundaries; it’s not a way of mortifying the quest for knowledge. I’m restating what I — different terms — slightly different terms what I said before, but I think that’s really a crucial distinction and I would ask you to try to think — I see a difference between the two situations. I hope you — I have time for another — no we don’t. See you next time.
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