Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge

Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge

Giuseppe Mazzotta
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 348
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge
    Book Description:

    In a masterly synthesis of historical and literary analysis, Giuseppe Mazzotta shows how medieval knowledge systems--the cycle of the liberal arts, ethics, politics, and theology--interacted with poetry and elevated the Divine Comedy to a central position in shaping all other forms of discursive knowledge. To trace the circle of Dante's intellectual concerns, Mazzotta examines the structure and aims of medieval encyclopedias, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the medieval classification of knowledge; the battle of the arts; the role of the imagination; the tension between knowledge and vision; and Dante's theological speculations in his constitution of what Mazzotta calls aesthetic, ludic theology. As a poet, Dante puts himself at the center of intellectual debates of his time and radically redefines their configuration. In this book, Mazzotta offers powerful new readings of a poet who stands amid his culture's crisis and fragmentation, one who responds to and counters them in his work. In a critical gesture that enacts Dante's own insight, Mazzotta's practice is also a fresh contribution to the theoretical literary debates of the present.

    Originally published in 1992.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6304-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-2)
    (pp. 3-14)

    I conceived and wroteDante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledgeas a companion volume toDante, Poet of the Desert. Dante, Poet of the Desertis primarily a critical reflection on history, and I still take Dante’s sense of history to be both the ground and the core of theDivine Comedy. Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledgepresupposes Dante’s sense of history as the economy of redemption and as the realm of exile, as the place where contradictory and yet real possibilities of human existence are decisively played out, but it undertakes different paths of investigation. The...

    (pp. 15-33)

    It has long been acknowledged that theDivine Comedyis a poetic encyclopedia or asumma medievalis. This conventional view of the poem’s encyclopedism is still restated in our own time, and it can even be said to account for the scholarly recognition of the necessity of tools such as theEnciclopedia dantescaor the sundry general dictionaries and interdisciplinary volumes meant to provide bald summaries of the themes, concerns, and characters the poem draws from the most disparate sciences. But the definition of the poem’s encyclopedic compass is hardly new.¹

    One could mention Guido da Pisa’s suggestion that the...

    (pp. 34-55)

    Since the work of Smalley, de Lubac, and Chenu, we are familiar with the polemic which developed in the thirteenth century between the theologians and the biblical exegetes.¹ In essence, the debate revolved around the problem of how to situate the Bible within the larger scheme of the intellectual disciplines, without going so far as to question or misconstrue its fundamental authority. The exegetes took the Scholastics to task for their emphasis on systematic theology. In their view, the theologians’ attempt to rationalize and to establish norms for grasping the truths contained in thedoctrina sacrain point of fact...

  9. Chapter 3 THE LIGHT OF VENUS
    (pp. 56-74)

    The title of this chapter refers to the passage in theConvivioin which Dante classifies the seven liberal arts according to a conventional hierarchy of knowledge. Grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy are the disciplines of thetriviumandquadrivium, and each of them is linked to one of the planets in the Ptolemaic cosmology.¹ Venus is the planet identified with rhetoric because the attributes of Venus are those of rhetoric:

    E lo cielo di Venere si può comparare a la Rettorica per due proprietadi: l’una si è la chiarezza del suo aspetto, che è soavissima a...

    (pp. 75-95)

    There can be little doubt that the unifying thread of theDivine Comedyis the question of justice and, more generally, of ethics. Justice, as has been correctly said in a study on Dante’s conception of it, “lies at the heart of theCommedia,”¹ but it also plays a central role in most of Dante’s other texts. The argument by Etienne Gilson about the sovereignty of ethics in theConvivio, as we saw in the preceding chapter, depends on the link Dante posits between ethics and the Primum Mobile (Conv. II, xiv, 14).² In Aristotle’s thought ethics is, like politics,...

  11. Chapter 5 LOGIC AND POWER
    (pp. 96-115)

    “By itself, logic is practically useless.” So states John of Salisbury toward the end of hisMetalogicon(IV, 28). He quickly goes on to add that “only when it is associated with other studies does logic shine, and then by a virtue that is communicated by them.” John’s perplexity over the intrinsic utility of logic as an end in itself or as a tool that retards or promotes progress in philosophy or encourages verbosity has to be understood in terms of his broad concern over thetrivium, under attack by “Cornificius” and the detractors of the liberal arts.¹ Logic to...

    (pp. 116-134)

    InPurgatorioXVII the pilgrim is passing through the circle of wrath, and we are told that because of the hour of the day (it is dusk) and because the terrace is covered by a cloud of black smoke—an overt literalizatdon of the biblical cloud of wrath—his physical vision is blurred. The difficulties the pilgrim experiences in seeing are presented in the opening lines of the canto in an address to the reader:

    Ricordati, lettor, se mai ne l’alpe

    ti colse nebbia per la qual vedessi

    non altrimenti che per pelle talpe,

    come, quando i vapor umidi e...

    (pp. 135-153)

    The preceding chapter has shown two basic points. First, the imagination is not simply a mimetic faculty but is the foundation of knowledge; second, because of the centrality of the imagination Dante stakes a unique claim for himself as a poet. Not the philosopher or the theologian but the poet, who is installed in the world of the imagination—dreams, memories, visions, representations—plays a crucial role in determining the shape of knowledge.

    At face value, such a radical claim for the poetic imagination marks an abrupt shift from dominant epistemological theories such as those of St. Thomas Aquinas and...

    (pp. 154-173)

    In its concluding paragraphs (28ff.) theEpistle to Cangrandehighlights and glosses the poet’s predicament, advanced in the prologue toParadiso, that the pilgrim saw things in heaven which he that descends from it has neither the knowledge nor the power to tell again, “perché appressando sè al suo disire, / nostro intelletto si profonda tanto, / che dietro la memoria non puó ire” (Par. I, 7–9) (for our intellect, drawing near its desire, sinks so deep that memory cannot follow it). The central concern of this poetic statement is to mark the limits of speech and, generally, of...

    (pp. 174-196)

    In hisTrattatelloBoccaccio devotes a substantial portion of the narrative to a description of the political turmoil that led to Dante’s exile from Florence.¹ With an effort at impartiality that somewhat tempers the hyperboles of this essentially hagiographic text, Boccaccio does not shy away from remarking that Dante himself, with his stubborn arrogance, was not entirely free of responsibility in the tragic turn his personal life went on to take. After these statements, which, perhaps because they are slightly unflattering, have the appearance of factual truth, the flow of the narrative is interrupted. In a tone consistent with his...

    (pp. 197-218)

    The previous chapter ended with a brief analysis of the beginning ofParadiso. I suggested there that as Dante is about to venture over the uncharted domain of the blessed, he casts his new and last experience in a language that suggests both his awe at the spectacle he beholds as well as his sense of transgression. The awe, I said there, is conveyed by the language ofadmiratiopunctuating the exordium ofParadiso, while the transgression is suggested by the poet’s prayer that Apollo breathe in him, “sì come quando Marsia traesti / de la vagina de le membra...

  17. Chapter 11 THEOLOGIA LUDENS
    (pp. 219-242)

    In theSumma theologiaeSt. Thomas Aquinas asks whether or not play can ever be a moral virtue (“utrum in ludis possit esse aliqua virtus”). He proceeds to probe the issue by reviewing, first, the position of St. Ambrose, who, on the authority of the biblical verse “woe to you who laugh now, for you shall weep” denies that any virtue can lie in playing games. St. Ambrose’s position is confirmed by Chrysostom’s belief that the devil, not God, sends us to sport. It is further supported by the opinion of Aristotle, who states in theEthics(X, 6) that...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 243-284)
    (pp. 285-316)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 317-328)