Curtius, Ernst Robert: The Medieval Bases of Western Thought

This was a healthy state of things. There was οnly one militant body in the Church: the order of St.Dominic. Its task was to fight heresy. And to this charge Dante was open, strange as it may seem to us. He was an independent thinker, and his reflections had led him to wοrk out a system of political and ecclesiastical reform which he laid down in his treatise οn monarchy, which was also a treatise οn papacy. According to him, things had gone wrοng for the last thousand years. The emperor Constantine was wrong when he alienated part of his privilege and endowed the successor of St. Peter with worldly dominion. The pope had been wrong to accept it. Dante advocated the retum of the papacy to the poverty of St. Peter, the fisherman. He confidently expected a universal monarch who would restore the Empire to its former dignity. Indeed he went so far as to maintain that only by such a double reform could humanity be saved.

Νοw this was blatant heresy. Οnly a few years after Dante’s death -in 1329- a Dominican friar published a severe censure of Dante’s treatise. He does not, of course, refer expressly to the Divirie Comedy, but in passing he abuses Dante as a self-deluded dabbler in verse and a loquacious sophist whose phantasms will divert the reader from the path of truth. Don’t think that this friar was a troublesome meddler οr a fanatic without authority. In 1329 Dante’s treatise was publicly burnt in Rome. Even Cardinal Newman mildly censures him, saying: “Dante certainly does not scruple to place in his Inferno a Pope, whom the Church has since canonized, and his work οn Monarchia is οn the Index.”

Today, Catholic critics as a rule assume a quite different position. They try to show that Dante was a correct Thomist and that his great poem is in strict accordance with the philosophy of the Church. But this attitude has been shown to be incorrect by the great historian of medieval philosophy whom I have already quoted: Étienne Gilson. According to him, Dante of course was well conversant with St.Thomas Aquinas, but in several important points he disagreed with him. The Thomism of Dante is an exploded myth. This becomes even more evident if one studies the famous Latin letter which Dante addressed to Can Grande when he presented to him the completed “Paradiso.” This letter is a priceless document, for it reveals to us how Dante wished his poem to be considered. It has not yet received full attention because it bristles with allusions to the philosophical and rhetorical modes of expression which have baffled the commentators. Yet they can be deciphered and elucidated if placed in the context of the Latin terminology of the day. If we decode them, we get at Dante’s clear meaning. It can be summed up in the statement: “Μy wοrk offers poetry as well as philosophy.” Dante, then, maintains that poetry has a cognitive function. That is exactly what scholasticism denied. Dante’s utterance concludes and resolves the conflict between poetry and philosophy which had lasted for more than a hundred years.

It is the victorious answer of the poet who is the first among the Moderns to rank with the great classics of antiquity. This indeed is one of Dante’s stupendous achievements. He proclaims it himself in the most unmistakable manner. When he is introduced into Limbo by his great guide Virgil, he is presented by him to four other masters who together with Virgil form a sort of santa conversazione: Homer, Ovid, Lucan, Horace. They are set apart among the choice spirits to whom a noble castle is allotted in the Elysian fields. They greet the Florentine with friendly mien and they do him even a greater honor: they formally admit him to their company as an equal. He is received as the sixth member into that Academy of Immortals. He is promoted to the peerage. Posterity has fully, if tardily, legalized and homologated this parity.

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