Musings on Dante

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Divine Comedy is not so much meant to be a reflection of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as such but is meant to be a good and entertaining story that, by poetic device, reflects the entire moral order as understood by Thomistic philosophical and theological principles. This is achieved in a three-fold way reflected through the three respective parts that make up the Comedy. First, Dante takes his Pilgrim (the veritable Everyman) with Virgil (natural reason unaided by grace) through the Inferno (hell) wherein we are shown the gravity and nature of sin with ranking commensurate with Thomistic principles. Then we travel with the Pilgrim and Virgil through the Purgatorio wherein we are presented a consideration of the virtues through looking at their respective opposing vices -the capital sins; Purgatory, where nature and grace meet, and thus so does the moral philosophy and moral theology of St. Thomas. Lastly, Dante leads us through the Paradiso -Heaven- which admits of no imperfection, and is therefore the appropriate place to consider the infused virtues, the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. By the end, we have traversed the moral order, from a consideration of sin (and virtue apart from grace) through sin conquered and virtue acquired through effort and grace, to virtue infused by grace apart from the efforts of man.

Moral actions are those human actions emanating from the will.i As such they are judged as good or evil to the extent those actions have fullness of being.ii But though actions are separable from the ends in the abstract, they are inseparable from the ends in re, for one of the ways “goodness” can be predicated of an action is to the extent “it has goodness from its end, to which it is compared as to the cause of its goodness.”iii Natural reason, as attested to by Plato and Aristotle, and grace-endowed reason culminating in faith, as attested to by St. Thomas Aquinas and all the Fathers of the Church and Divine Revelation, note that God is the Good, for not only does He have fullness of being, but is being itself. (Exodus 3:14) Thus, God who is Being itself and therefore Goodness itself, must be the ultimate end of human action. Actions are good and therefore moral to the extent they can be compared to the cause of its goodness. Conversely, actions are immoral to the extent they are removed from the end and cause. Thus immoral actions (or inactions) can be defined as a word, deed, or desire, contrary to the eternal law.iv

Virtues are habits of moral action, vices are habits of immoral or vicious actions. A habit is “a disposition whereby that which is disposed is disposed well or ill.”v Therefore virtue more distinctly defined is: a power of a thing is that which makes its work good; or: virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without Furthermore, both Aristotlevii and St. Thomas assert that virtue is a mean between excess and defect, Aquinas allowing for the fact that there is no excess in the exercise of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.viii

Charity or love (of God) is the highest virtue, for “charity is the mother and the root of all the virtues, inasmuch as it is the form of them all.”ix As it is the form, it is the virtue that therefore acts as the standard, the measure, of the other virtues. Thus the goodness or wickedness of acts are to be measured against this infused theological virtue as it acts as the form of the others.

Dante moves through the three parts of the Divine Comedy with this understanding of the moral order and constructs his poem accordingly. Let us examine each of the three parts to see this.

iSt. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-IIae, q.6, a.1.

iiibid. q.18, a.1.

iiiibid. a.4.

ivibid. q.71, a.6. (quoting St. Augustine’s Contra Faust. xxii, 27)

vibid. q.49, a.1. (quoting Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Bk. V, Ch. 20, 1022b10)

viibid. q.55, a.2 & 4.

viiAristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Ch. 2, 1103b27-1104b3.

viiiSt. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-IIae, q.64, a.4.

ixibid. q.62, a.4.


Written by Paleo Thomist

December 6, 2010 at 7:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. I enjoyed the summary of the different parts of the Comedy according to the virtues very much; well done! But I have a few questions concerning the thesis.

    “Dante’s Divine Comedy is not so much meant to be a reflection of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as such but is meant to be a good and entertaining story that, by poetic device, reflects the entire moral order as understood by Thomistic philosophical and theological principles.”

    I note that you confine yourself largely to the primary sources (Aristotle, Aquinas, Dante) which is quite laudable. But you are not then addressing your subject matter, unless Dante was an Averroist. See, you cite the Commedia, which is well, and you say it is “meant” to be a good and entertaining story. This is a bold claim, since his audience was part of the story at the time of its writing, so that it was also a direct rhetorical address; moreover, he refers to it in the last part of La Vita Nuova as a mystical experience, so you’d have to address that to be complete; and then, while he does address the allegorical meaning of the Comedy in the Letter to Cangrande della Scala, he also says that this meaning is secondary with respect to the “literal” meaning, the fate of souls after earthly death.

    I say that you are acting the Averroist, because primary sources really only speak to internal interpretation. To talk about what a text is “meant” to say brings in, in any given instance, the question of authorial intent. Dante may occasionally shed light on his own text within the Comedy, but rarely in a way that is so meta-critical as you seem to pose it. Yet you use Aquinas and Aristotle to address authorial intent, and they are not the author, except if all authors be human by the one agent intellect; hence, my crack about Averroes.

    So to recap my question:

    On what basis can you possibly prove your thesis without bringing in at least La Vita Nuova or the Cangrande letter?

    If you brought Vita in, how would you answer the claim of Dante that it was a mystical experience? Was it a merely rhetorical claim? If so, how do you address the fact that he is then deceiving the reader supposedly out of a desire to serve truth? Would Dante allow for this?

    If you used the Cangrande letter, does that not say the opposite? Why would he put the literal meaning first, if this is not the case? Is this a merely rhetorical move? What would be the end in this comparison to Thomistic-Augustinian Scriptural interpretive senses? Is Dante claiming infallibility?

    I apologize if this seems like a lot; I did enjoy all the posts, but it seems like they don’t quite make your point demonstratively. The final reflection was also quite touching as my experience with Dante has been a lot like that.

    Thomas Sundaram

    March 20, 2011 at 12:13 am

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