Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


11   18   25  


2   9   16   23   30  


6   13   20   27  


4   11   18  



8   15   22   29  


5   12   19   26  


5   12   19  


2   9   16   23   30  


7   14   20   28  

Unit IX: Romance and Mysticism A.D. 1100-1330

Week 31: Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274;
Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321

For this week, please read:

Thomas Aquinas, Carlo Crivelli, Altar piece from San Domenico, Ascoli, 1476.This week we will prepare for reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. The whole work is very large, often highly symbolic, and always challenging; it is partly an outgrowth of the allegorical romance, and partly something entirely new, and ultimately unique, in the history of literature. Certainly it deserves more than the three to four weeks we have to give it, but we will probably get more out of it if we approach it with Dante’s own ideas in mind and a disciplined method of our own. Accordingly, I would like to have you read two short items, themselves only marginally literary, but suggestive of what Dante thought he was doing.

The first is Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.1.10. Thomas was a Dominican friar (not a monk!) from the Italian town of Aquino, but he did most of his life’s work at the University of Paris. He was primarily a philosopher and a theologian, though in fact we have a few hymns surviving from his pen as well. He was characterized by some of his early acquaintances as “The Dumb Ox”, and by the ages since as one of the most brilliant thinkers of his or any other age. His thought was as neat and disciplined as the world has ever witnessed, and his handwriting was worse than any you have ever seen.

To understand this passage you need to know something about the mode of writing characteristic of scholastic philosophy. This was derived from the procedures of practical (live) debate in the mediaeval university — a form called disputation. As formalized in Thomas’ Summa and other works, it tends to be broken down into a series of systematic answers to questions, which are themselves grouped fairly loosely under general topical headings. Each individual question is the outline of a kind of mini-debate. The form of argument brought to bear in each case is virtually unchanging, but it works with a logical simplicity that is hard to deny. As an intellectual model it is extremely spare: Thomas (unlike other scholastics in slightly more rough-and-tumble contexts) tends not to heap up arguments for his position, instead preferring to make his positive case on the basis of a single point. He does amass as much opposing evidence as possible, however, and then rigorously demolishes it, one point at a time. One has to read Thomas for a time to become aware of the almost poetical elegance of the thought behind the typically rather mechanical and plodding phrases. But it is elegant, and Thomas’ question-structure would not be a bad model at all for student essays. Assuming that he intends to show that x is true, Thomas will proceed this way:

Question: Is x true?

Provisional (and wrong) answer: It would appear that x is not true, for the following reasons:

...etc. — for how ever many reasons can be found

On the other hand, it would appear that x is true, based on the following important piece of contrary evidence (usually only one).

Refutation of the first list of reasons: I respond to the objections, saying:

...etc. — for how ever many reasons there were in the first list

Summation: x is true.
Thomas may then go on to give some attention to the contrary evidence, etc., but this is seldom a long discussion.

Logically, the proof of the point is typically based on the single piece of contrary evidence, but it is framed by a larger argument showing that opposing positions are all impossible. When all the contrary evidence has been eliminated, the assumption is that even a single positive piece of evidence should be enough to tip the scales. It usually is. Not a lot could evade Aquinas’ slow and careful method.

I've included here a chart, too, to help you understand some of the fundamental differences between the two kinds of exegesis Aquinas is talking about. This may not make sense till after we've discussed it in class, but I'm linking it here for your edification.

Florentine singerWhen Thomas died in 1274, Dante Alighieri, a Florentine, was about nine years old, if we are right in our calculations and assumptions: the vision the Divine Comedy purports to relate was set “midway through life” (age 35, by the Biblical standard of 70 years) in the year 1300. Aquinas’ work had become sufficiently widely disseminated that Dante had access to it in the course of his education. More to the point for our purposes here, it occurred to Dante to take Thomas’ approach to scripture and to apply it more generally to literature — including his own. We can discuss in class whether his understanding of Thomas’ ideas is complete or correct: I am not sure it is. It is nevertheless powerful and organic to Dante’s way of doing business. In his Letter to Can Grande, we have one of the few examples of a pre-modern author’s description of his methods and intentions. He specifically tells us that he wants his poem to be able to express meaning on multiple levels (for it to be “polysemantic”, as the attached Marchand translation has it) — and specifically the same levels that the Biblical exegetes find in scripture. Though it won’t hurt to read the whole thing (which only comes to about six pages in print) I would like you to concentrate on sections 6-11, comparing this description with the Aquinas question assigned above. Note that “The Philosopher” refers specifically to Aristotle, whose works had (after the twelfth century) finally been introduced into the West in translation, and were revolutionizing the thought of the period.

It may strike some readers as peculiar or even arrogant that Dante himself thought to write a poem that could be read as if it were scripture (though of course he did not claim the same status for it). In fact, however, this homogeneous approach may not so much betoken arrogance as the extraordinary integration of the world-view of the later Middle Ages. Though obviously imperfect, as are all human products, the culture of the West from about 1150 to about 1350 expresses a society that is remarkably secure in its common understanding of God, man, and nature. It is hard to imagine, in a pluralistic society like our own, what this would mean in a practical sense, but for Dante and his contemporaries there was no particular boundary between religious experience and the day-to-day life of the world. Thus Dante’s fundamentally religious vision can also take into view things as disparate as his love life and his politics. The separation of the two that marks much of modern society is largely an outgrowth of the Italian Renaissance; and though Dante was one of the cultural forebears of this movement, he was not writing from that tradition at all.

People interested in further investigating some of the intellectual background of the mediaeval world-view should look at one of C. S. Lewis’ most remarkable professional (i.e., academic, as opposed to apologetic or fictional) products, The Discarded Image. And certainly if you find yourself with time to do so, it would help to begin to read the Divine Comedy. Pay attention as well to Mark Musa’s notes, which are quite good.