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Authors: Dante Alighieri

The Portable Dante (4 page)

In the third book Dante expounds the
canzone “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona”
(“Love that converses with me in my mind”), which Casella in the
Divine Comedy
will sing to the newly arrived souls on the shores of Purgatory. In discussing the literal level of this ode he gives most of his attention to the meaning of

Dante begins the fourth book, which treats the third and final

Le dolci rime d’amor ch’i’solìa
“ (“Those sweet rhymes of love that I was wont”), by stressing the fact that. his love of philosophy has led him to love all those who pursue the truth and despise those who follow error. He also tells us in
chapter 1
of this book that in order to have the utmost clarity he will discuss the poem only on the literal level. The lady involved, however, is still Philosophy.

Critics have proposed a number of theories on why Dante completed only four of the projected fourteen books of the
Thomas Bergin goes as far as to suggest that the
might be thought of as the
selva oscura
(dark wood) of the
Divine Comedy,
from which the poet’s lady, Beatrice, in a more graceful and harmonious work of art, felt obliged to rescue her poet-lover. I tend to agree with Rocco Montano, who suspects that it was some kind of personal crisis or “conversion” that made Dante stop working on this project. Montano assigns such a conversion and the writing of the
Divine Comedy
to the insight that resulted from Dante the poet’s great disappointment at the failure of Henry VII’s expedition into Italy. In any case, whatever Dante’s reason for cutting short his work on the
whether it was personal
or political, if this meant he could get on with the
Divine Comedy
and complete his masterpiece, we should be grateful that he did.

In all his works Dante shows his concern for words and the structure of language. In
chapter XXV
of the
Vita nuova
he takes time to explain and illustrate the use of personification, as he does in the early chapters of the
where he defends the use of Italian rather than Latin. But this concern is most evident in his Latin treatise
De vulgari eloquentia.
Before it there was no such scholarly treatment of a language. Dante completed only the first and second books, but he refers to a fourth; it is not known if that one was to be the last.

In book I Dante deals with the origin and history of the Italian language. The first five chapters cover the basic definitions of human speech while a good deal of the rest is given over to a discussion of dialects and the principles of poetic composition in the vulgar tongue, which he calls the “illustrious” vulgar tongue—the language of Guido Guinizzelli and, most perfectly, of Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia, and Dante himself.

The second book of the De
vulgari eloquentia
is devoted to a more thorough discussion of Italian, which, Dante asserts, is just as appropriate for works of prose as for poetry. Early in this book (
chapter II
) he discusses what kind of subject is worthy of this vernacular and concludes that it is suited for only the most elevated subjects. And they are three: war (or prowess of arms), love, and virtue (or direction of the will). He states that the greatest writers using a vulgar tongue wrote only on these three subjects. Among Provencal poets, Dante cites Bertran de Born, who wrote about war, Arnaut Daniel on love, and Guiraut de Bornelh on virtue; he also mentions that in Italian Cino da Pistoia wrote about love and “his friend” (Dante), about virtue, citing an example of verse from each poet and including one of his own. Then he admits that he can find no Italian poet who has written on the topic of war. In
chapter III
of this book we learn that while poets have used a variety of forms (
canzoni, ballate,
sonnets, and other irregular types), the most excellent form remains the
and it is this form that is most suited to lofty subjects. In the remaining chapters of book II the author goes on to discuss style and the rules and form of the
; the work ends abruptly with the incomplete
chapter XIV
, in which he intended to treat the number of lines and syllables in the stanza.

Most scholars agree that the
De vulgari eloquentia
is not a finished work, but is rather an unfinished first draft. There are three basic reasons for this belief: the paucity of manuscripts (there are only three),
the way the work breaks off in
chapter XIV
, and the fact that references to points the author promises to discuss in coming chapters are never followed up. Perhaps Dante stopped writing the work, as Aristide Marigo suggests, because he was not certain of the direction he was taking. There is an obvious difference between the wide, humanistic scope of book I and the dry, manual-like approach of book II. Or could Dante simply have become bored with it?

The date of composition of the
De vulgari eloquentia
has not been definitively resolved. Boccaccio claims that it was written in Dante’s old age. Marigo, who has done the standard edition of the work (Florence, 1938), dates it between the spring of 1303 and the end of 1304. And because in the
Dante makes an allusion to this work in progress we must assume, at least, that he had the project in mind during this time.

It is also difficult to assign a date of composition to Dante’s
De monarchia
On Monarchy
), primarily because it contains no references to the author’s contemporaries or to events taking place at the time. Some say that it was written before Dante’s exile because the work contains no mention of it; others tend to think that it was written even later than the
because a number of ideas appearing in an embryonic stage in that work are fully developed in the
De monarchia.
Nevertheless, it was probably written between 1312 and 1313 (sometime before or after the coronation of Henry VII) to commemorate Henry’s advent into Italy.

The treatise is divided into three books. In the first book Dante attempts to prove that temporal monarchy is necessary for the welfare of the world. Temporal monarchy, or the empire, means a single command exercised over all persons; that is, in those things that are subject to time as opposed to eternal matters. In the opening sentence of the
De monarchia
the author pays tribute to both God and Aristotle while he establishes the reason for undertaking the present work: “All men whom the higher nature has imbued with a love of truth should feel impelled to work for the benefit of future generations, whom they will thereby enrich, just as they themselves have been enriched by the labors of their ancestors. ” According to Dante (and we find the idea throughout his writings), the man who does not contribute to the common good fails sadly in his duty.

Clearly Dante is convinced that he is doing something new in his treatise. There is nothing new, however, in his ideas of justice, freedom, and law—they are very much in line with the medieval philosophy of
his day. The idea so elaborately set forth in book I, that a higher jurisdiction is necessary whenever there is a possibility of discord or strife, was an argument that had already been used by Pope Boniface VIII and his followers. The originality of the
De monarchia,
the new element that Dante brings to the old idea of empire, rests precisely in its main premise, upon which and around which the treatise is constructed: Dante’s justification from a philosophical point of view of a single ruler for all the human race. It is in his concern with founding a “universal community of the human race” (“
universalis civilitas humani generis
“) that he is new and even daring—daring because in Dante’s day this idea of a universal community existed only as a religious one, in the form of the church. His new idea, then, took its shape from universal Christendom; it is, in a sense, an imitation of it elaborated from a philosophical point of view. Working from the Averroistic concept of the “possible intellect, ” Dante affirms that the particular goal of mankind as a whole is to realize to the fullest all the potentialities of this intellect (to have all the intellectual knowledge it is capable of having); this can happen only under the direction of a single ruler, under one world government. And the most important essential, if we are to secure our happiness and if the human race is to fulfill its proper role, is universal peace.

Dante considers the monarch to be the purest incarnation of justice, for there is nothing for him to desire, nothing more to be greedy about. He is a man who has everything, having authority over all territories. Dante also tells us that the human race is at its best when it is most free—meaning self-dependent. Under the monarch the citizens do not exist for his sake; on the contrary, it is the monarch who exists for his citizens.

In the closing paragraph of the first book we hear the desperate voice of Dante the poet warning all humanity. Rarely do we hear this voice in the poet’s Italian or Latin prose works, where his intention is to remain as objective as possible. It is a preview of what is to come, for Dante makes frequent and effective use of this device of authorial intervention in the
Divine Comedy.
After presenting his case for the necessity of a monarch in a logical and scholastic fashion, as Saint Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle might have done, Dante the poet bursts forth:

O humanity, in how many storms must you be tossed, how many shipwrecks must you endure, so long as you turn yourself into a many-headed beast lusting after a multiplicity of things! You are ailing in both your intellectual powers and heart. You pay no heed
to the unshakable principles of your higher intellect, nor tune your heart to the sweetness of divine counsel when it is breathed into you through the trumpet of the Holy Spirit: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. ”

In book II Dante is primarily concerned with showing that the Romans were justified in assuming imperial power. He attempts to prove his thesis first by a number of arguments based on rational principles, then by the principles of the Christian faith.

In book III the poet proposes the question he has from the start wanted to ask and can ask only now that he has prepared the way in books I and II: whether the authority of the Holy Roman emperor is directly dependent on God or whether his authority comes indirectly from another, a vicar or minister of God, meaning the pope. Dante ignores the vast historical distance between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, preferring to see the two governments joined by historical and political continuity. First Dante must refute those scriptural arguments (based on Genesis 1:16: “And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night”) used by his opponents to show the dependence of the emperor on the pope. Having done this, he turns to those historical arguments that must be refuted. The main one he must deal with is the very one that up to this point in his treatise he has been able to cope with only in a rather subjective, emotional, and even poetic way: the painful reality of the Donation of Constantine, a document that purported to prove that the emperor Constantine had invested Pope Sylvester with temporal authority. Dante proceeds by means of his two preferred sources: Scripture and philosophy (from Matthew and, on this occasion, Aristotle).

Man, who participates in two natures—one corrupt (the body), the other incorruptible (the soul)—has a twofold goal, and since he is the only being who participates in both corruptibility and incorruptibility, he has a goal for his body and a goal for his soul. God, who never errs, has, then, given man two goals: happiness in this life and happiness in the eternal life. The pope leads mankind to eternal life in accordance with revelation, while the emperor leads mankind to temporal happiness in accordance with philosophical teaching. The temporal monarch, who must devote his energies to providing freedom and peace for men as they pass through the “testing time” of this world, receives his authority directly from God.

Intellectual perfection, the happiness of this world, can therefore be
attained without the Church. With proper guidance from the universal monarch, man can regain the happiness of the earthly paradise—this is a dangerous conclusion that can easily follow from Dante’s arguments in his treatise, and one that Dante himself does not draw. Not surprisingly, the book was placed on the
Index of Forbidden Books.
Unfortunately for Dante, what he wished and wrote for in the
De monarchia
did not come about. It is for this reason that the poet’s main political focus shifted from the empire to the Church when he wrote the
Divine Comedy.
With the death of Henry VII, Dante’s hopes for the empire and the universal monarch began to fade; he was forced to put aside his ideal and face facts: a monarch and an empire would not overcome the power of the pope and the Church.

While Dante divides temporal and spiritual authority in the De mon-
by means of ingenious logic and scholastic arguments (and in the
Divine Comedy
by its larger allegorical structure), his masterpiece reveals the sad truth that temporal and spiritual authority are often in the same hands. There are many passages that lament this fact. In the
(canto XVI), to cite one of the more famous passages, Marco Lombardo tells the pilgrim why the world has gone bad (“
la cagion che ‘l
mondo ha fatto reo”:

On Rome, that brought the world to know the good, once shone two suns that lighted up two ways: the road of this world and the road of God.

The one sun has put out the other’s light, the sword is now one with the crook—and fused together thus, must bring about misrule,

since joined, now neither fears the other one.

No one is quite sure if Dante is the author of a pedantic little essay written in Latin with the title
Questio de aqua et terra
Discourse on the Nature of Water and Earth
). According to a statement attached to the original manuscript, the essay is in essence a lecture delivered at Verona in 1320. It consists of twenty-four brief chapters that debate in detail the question of whether or not the water of the sea anywhere rises higher than land emerging from it. The document was first published in 1508 by G.B. Moncetti, who claimed that he had copied it from an autograph manuscript of Dante’s; the manuscript, however, was never found.

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