Dante as Philosopher
At the beginning of the second book of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Comedia, in Purgatorio: Canto 1, Dante who has traveled through Hell, and with Virgil still as his guide, arrives at the shores of Purgatory. There he is greeted by Cato the Younger, who is the gatekeeper of Purgatory. As is well known, Cato was one of the greatest Stoics. Many scholars have commented that Dante placing Cato, who was a Pagan who had committed suicide, in such an elevated position is quite remarkable.
Dante describes Cato thus:
I saw beside me an old man alone,
Worthy of so much reverence in his look,
That more owes not to father any son.
A long beard and with white hair intermingled
He wore, in semblance like unto the tresses,
Of which a double list fell on his breast.
The rays of the four consecrated stars
Did so adorn his countenance with light,
That him I saw as were the sun before him.
The “four consecrated stars” that Dante describes lighting Cato’s face are considered to be the Stoic four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control or moderation, and justice.
The following article, about Dante Alighieri (1265–1321 CE), presents Dante as an interesting philosophical thinker in addition to his fame as a poet. The last quarter of the article discusses particularly the influence of Stoicism on his life and writing.
The article, by William Turner, was published in a 1921 issue of a journal called Catholic World. I extracted the article from the complete PDF of that issue, which is available from Google Books, and is out of copyright.
DANTE AS A PHILOSOPHER
BY RT. REV. WILLIAM TURNER, D.D., Bishop of Buffalo.
(Reprinted from the Catholic University Bulletin, April 1910)
BY a strange irony of fate, Dante’s great poem has come to be viewed by posterity in a way that confuses with singular infelicity the true perspective of the interests to which the poet wished to appeal. For some, the Divina Commedia is primarily political. For others, its artistic excellence is its paramount perfection. For the spiritually minded it is the fullest, richest, and most inspiring religious document that the Ages of Faith have bequeathed to us. For almost all modern readers the intense human interest in the poem is its chief attraction. To very few, comparatively, does it appeal as a philosophical work, the product of a mind truly philosophical. Yet, it was the philosophical interpretation of the poem that Dante himself esteemed to be of the greatest importance. In his Dedicatory Epistle to Can Grande della Scala, prefixed to the Paradiso, he tells us that the hidden sense of the poem is moral philosophy, the scope of which he defines in the words of the Second Book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
Dante, has, indeed, been fully avenged for the wrongs he suffered at the hands of his Florentine fellow countrymen. The exile has come to his own at last. In “the sacred poem to which heaven and earth have set their hand,” he has achieved the renown for which his heart yearned. He who, like the Man of Sorrows Himself, had not where to lay his head, has built up in his own way a mansion wherein the great minds of posterity have found a home. He who experienced how bitter is the bread of the stranger, now offers food to the multitude of obscure and illustrious alike who seek the bread of the word. He who knew how hard it is to go up and down the stairways of foreign houses, has drawn all generations of men to tread with him the steps that lead down to suffering and direful woe, to ascend with him the path of purgatorial penance, and at last by the golden stairways of Paradise to attain to endless joy and the blessed immortality. But, while he has thus drawn to him the modern world, he still protests as pathetically as of old:
O ye who have undistempered intellects
Observe the doctrine that conceals itself
Beneath the veil of the mysterious verses.
One reason for the failure to recognize Dante as a philosopher is the fact that he was so obviously a theologian. His sacred poem has been described as “Aquinas in Verse;” it is, indeed, a summary of Catholic theology. Even his contemporaries recognized his claim in this regard. The epitaph composed by Giovanni del Virgilio calls him “Dante the theologian,” and a tradition dating from Boccaccio’s time represents him as having obtained his degree in theology at the University of Paris, but without having been formally inaugurated because he was unable to defray the expenses incidental to that ceremony. But, even if he did obtain his degree in theology, if he did sit at the feet of Siger who
“Reading lectures in the Street of Straw
Did syllogize invidious verities,”
that did not prevent him from being a philosopher as well as a theologian. Like his master, St. Thomas of Aquin, he could lay claim to the double distinction. Indeed, the epitaph just quoted confers on Dante this twofold honor:
Dante theologian, skilled in all the lore
Philosophy may cherish in her illustrious bosom.
In his day the two sciences were distinguished, without being separated from each other. Reason was divine; revelation was reasonable; there could, therefore, be no contradiction between theology, which treated of revealed truth, and philosophy, which relied on human reason alone. The theologian was a philosopher, and the philosopher was almost invariably a theologian.
Again, it is urged that Dante expressed his contempt for philosophy. In the Inferno* he makes a demon boast of being a logician. Dante, however, was not always just to his enemies; and if his allusion is to be taken as reflecting on the logicians of his time, it simply shows that he did not approve their methods in logic. He himself was not above the use of rigid logical formulas, as is evident from the Vita Nuova, the Convivio and De Monarchia.
The passage which is, to all appearance, the most serious arraignment of philosophy is the well known speech of Virgil in Purgatorio III., 34, 45. The heathen poet having led Dante to the Mount of Purgatory and seeing how his companion is bewildered at the novel spectacle, turns and says to him:
Insane is he who hopeth that our reason
Can traverse the illimitable way
Which the One Substance in Three Persons follows!
Mortals, remain contented at the ‘quia’;
For if ye had been able to see all,
No need were there for Mary to give birth;
And ye have seen desiring without fruit
Those whose desire would have been quieted,
Which evermore is given them for a grief.
I speak of Aristotle and of Plato,
And others many” — and here he bowed his head
And more he said not, and remained disturbed.
The passage rightly understood, far from being an arraignment of philosophy, is a vivid and thoroughly human presentation of the legitimate claims of reason. Like the early Christian Apologists, and following the example of the greatest of the Schoolmen, Dante pictures the pagan world as longing for the light of Eternal Truth which Christ first shed on man. Virgil himself had shared this longing. Like Plato and Aristotle he had naturally aspired to know the whole truth; with them he had shared the desire “which evermore was given them for a grief.” He had had a faint feeling that the dawn of supernatural revelation was approaching, when Faith should shed its effulgence over the realm of supernatural truth, and the mystery of the Triune God should become an acquisition of human knowledge. Because he was denied that vision he bowed his head in grief “and more he said not, and remained disturbed.” The pagan world had penetrated the deepest truths of the natural order; it had discovered the facts, but could not penetrate the mysterious reasons of existence. Had it been able to do so, Christ had not needed to come. For these, therefore, who live in the light of Christian Revelation there are two worlds of truth. The one was known to Plato and to Aristotle: it is the world of philosophy. The other is known only to Christian believers: it is the world of faith, the realm of theological speculation. The second completes and rounds out the first. In the world of faith, is satisfied that desire “which evermore was given as a grief.” He is “insane” who would confound the two orders of truth, and hope by unaided reason to reach the heights of supernatural faith. Thus does Dante set limits to philosophic inquiry. Within those limits he recognizes that reason may satisfy its natural longing, understand its own world, and discover therein a natural knowledge of God.
“Philosophy,” he said, “to him who heeds it
Noteth, not only in one place alone,
After what manner Nature takes her course
From Intellect Divine and from its art.”
How, then, does Dante avail himself of this privilege? What is his manner of philosophizing? Broadly speaking, there are but two methods in philosophy, two ways of achieving the philosopher’s task. The one is the Aristotelian, the other the Platonic. The Aristotelian method begins and ends with knowledge. Its starting point is intellectual reflection, its goal is scientific explanation. The Aristotelian philosopher seeks the noumenon in the phenomenon, the universal in the particular. He traces effects to their highest causes. He sees the beautiful, and he analyzes it. He discovers the good, the noble, the sublime, and he submits them to logical discussion. He is ever and always asking why? and the answer, if it satisfies his mind, satisfies his soul. The Platonic method begins with wonder and ends in contemplative love. Its startingpoint is the appreciation of the beautiful; its goal is intuition of the highest beauty. The Platonist seeks the ideal beautiful in the particular and imperfect manifestations of it. He does not go back from effect to cause, but upward from the material, the changeable, the sense-bound, the imperfect to the immaterial, the immutable, the spiritual, the perfect. He discovers the beautiful, but, instead of analyzing it, he loses himself in admiration. He encounters the good, the noble, the sublime hidden in the shadow representations of them in the world of experience, and he is thereby carried in thought to that other world which is above us, the home of the really good, the truly sublime, the ideally perfect. For him experience is always more than experience: it is a visitation from another and a better world. For him the reason why a thing is, is a secondary consideration, subordinate to the uplifting and spiritually regenerative value of all knowledge.
Now, both these tendencies, the Aristotelian and the Platonic, may be present in one and the same mind. They are not so far apart as one may at first sight imagine. Each in its own way seeks the permanent in the world of change. The searchlight of knowledge is thrown on the whole field of human experience in order to reveal the permanent intellectual element. That is Aristotelianism. The whole world of experience is made to pass through the glowing furnace of personal feeling in order that it may be purified of the dross, and only the pure gold of spiritual sentiment remain. That is Platonism. The machinery, so to speak, is different, but the task is essentially the same. The manner is different, the style is different — cold, clear, exact, scientific determination in the one case; warm, rich, free poetic expression in the other — yet the aim is fundamentally identical, and the result is also identical. For the true is the beautiful, and the permanently beautiful is the eternally true. In God, Whom both the Aristotelian and the Platonist ultimately attain, each in his own way, both find the goal of all philosophical activity. Infinite Thought and Infinite Love, Absolute Truth and Eternal Beauty.
Both these tendencies were strong in Dante. That he was an Aristotelian almost goes without saying. His whole intellectual world was Aristotelian. His mind was endowed with abundant talent for scientific accuracy and correctness of detail. The mold in which education fashioned him was scientific in the Aristotelian sense. The stuff out of which his thoughts were woven with such wonderful skill, the raw material, so to speak, of his poem, was Aristotelian. For him Aristotle was, in his own grand phrase, “the master of those who know.” So naturally do his thoughts seek expression in the formularies of Aristotelian philosophy that when, in the upper circles of heaven he is asked by St. John the Evangelist to give an account of the most distinctive Christian virtue, Charity, he answers without the least suspicion of incongruity, in the very words of the First Book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Human reason, which is his guide through the lower regions, is, indeed, typified by Virgil. Patriotic considerations compelled him to do his, and a strong personal devotion to the legendary, rather than the historical, conception of the Latin poet’s relation to Christianity. If it were not for these considerations he might have taken the Stagyrite instead of the Mantuan for his guide. At any rate, the explanations which he puts in the mouth of his leader are often almost verbally taken from the works of the Greek philosopher. Dante knew his Aristotle. Though he depended on imperfect translations, he seized the spirit of the philosopher better than many a modern scholar who studies the original text. “The glorious philosopher to whom Nature, above all others, disclosed her secrets”8 was for him the final court of appeal in all questions of purely natural knowledge.
But while this is undoubtedly true, and admitted by all, it is not less true that Dante was a genuine Platonist. His first hand acquaintance with Plato’s teaching was, no doubt, meagre enough. Nevertheless, he must have known something of the doctrines of the Timaeus, which was accessible in a translation. He was familiar with the Consolations of Philosophy by the Christian Platonist, Boethius. He was fond of quoting St. Augustine’s City of God and the Confessions. From Cicero he gleaned a knowledge, not always accurate, of the doctrines of Plato. But more serviceable far than all these sources was his own spiritual experience, from which, like many before and since his time, he drew his Platonic inspiration. Although he had no immediate knowledge of Plato’s works, he had in his own soul an intimate source, a rich fountain of Platonic thought. In fact, his whole life is a vivid, though pathetic, commentary on Platonism. From the moment when, at an early age, he began to be a lover of the beautiful, until the day when he put the last touch to the sacred poem wherein she whom he had first loved was honored as no woman before her had been honored,10 his spirit had undergone the Platonic purgatorial process of personal suffering. His mind had passed through the discipline of pagan philosophy and classic culture. His soul had been chastened by penance and Christian piety. He had been rescued from the “wildering wildwood,” the “selva salvaggia,” by faith and repentance. It is, unfortunately, more than a figure of speech to say that, in his case,
The passionate heart of the poet
Was whirled into folly and vice.
Through it all he had preserved his ideal. Troubadour and Platonist that he was, he worshipped at the shrines of false divinities, but kept ever in his heart the ideal of spiritual beauty, to which at last he was able to give his undivided allegiance. Had he continued to dwell in the region of primary experience, he might, like Petrarch, have become a sweet singer in whose song one personal note would recur in varied cadence. But, he did not choose to do so. Being a Platonist, he could not. He made his first vision of the beautiful to serve a higher purpose. He cultivated the spiritually beautiful as the aim of all his thoughts. He sought the higher beauty in all the vagaries of his own fancy, and the record of his search is the Vita Nuova and the Convivio. Then he planned a still wider search. He sought it beyond his own real experience. In his imaginary journey through all the world of spirits, he reviewed all history and all science, seeking everywhere the same Beauty, and finding it at last in God, to the footsteps of Whose throne he was led by Beatrice, the type of Divine Revelation. In this way, by searching for the noumenal, or permanent, beauty amid the phenomena, or “imitations” of it in the world of human experience, Dante became a Platonist, a profoundly personal Platonist. His journey, which began in the “selva oscura,” and ended in the vision of Eternal Truth and Beauty, was no irrelevant excursion into the region of fancy. It was a deliberate attempt to interpret all human life, not only in terms of enlightenment, but also in terms of disciplined emotion. It was a quest of the beautiful, as well as of the true. By personal feeling, therefore, and by his own spiritual development more than by the study of books, Dante became a philosopher-poet, after the manner of the poet-philosopher. As an Aristotelian, he aimed at scientific determination of the actual in terms of essences and causes. As a Platonist, he ranged up and down the universe of human thought and feeling, seeking an interpretation of the actual in terms of the ideal.
In becoming a philosopher of this Platonic type, Dante did not cease to be a poet. On the contrary, his philosophy elevated his poetry to a higher degree of artistic excellence. Poetry, when it is merely a play of fancy, without any reference to the serious purposes of life, and without relevance to spiritual values is, indeed, poetry, but it is poetry in the most elementary stage of development. Poetry, which to the primary pleasantness that comes from its response to the demands of the ear, adds the deeper beauty which consists in response to the demands of the soul, is poetry in its highest and best form. I do not mean, of course, that poetry, in order to be perfect, must be didactic. What I mean is that poetry is lacking in the supreme quality if it is not philosophical. And I use the word “philosophical” as Aristotle uses it in his famous saying that poetry is “more philosophical than history.” History neglects no detail of human experience. It reproduces human life with all its circumstances. Poetry passes over many circumstances as being trivial or unmeaning, and submits the residue to the discipline of harmonious expression. Though, in one sense, poetry sees less than history, in another sense it sees more; for it sees more deeply. It sees the soul behind the silhouette; it hears the music of the voice behind the silent record of historic sayings. It interprets not only in terms of truth, as the higher kind of history does, but also in terms of artistic feeling and articulate emotion. In a word, it philosophizes. For, the warp and woof of the silken web which the poet weaves is human experience, in which, like the philosopher, he seeks the permanent amid the fluctuating events. So that in ultimate analysis the business of the poet and that of the philosopher are in part identical.
In this sense the Commedia has a transcendent philosophical quality which other poems possess, either not at all or only in a lesser degree. No one would deny that there is in the Homeric songs a system as well as a story. Homer has his definite ideas of the gods and heroes, of heaven and earth, and the shadowy underworld, of man and those things about which man is chiefly concerned. Those ideas, simple, naive, childlike, are eternally beautiful and eternally human. Therein lies their charm. But they are admittedly unsatisfying to the developed mind. The Homeric world is such a world as children’s fancy might construct; childish, perhaps, rather than childlike. There is in the Homeric conception of existence no reflectiveness, no serious sense of sin, no realization of the need of purification and penance. The religion is a fair weather religion, full of sunshine and gladness, the religion of a people who have not yet felt the deeper spiritual needs which a wide knowledge of even this world arouses. This defect the Greek himself discovered later, when he came to realize through the insight of the tragic poets and the philosophers that there is within us something above nature, something which the beautiful, natural creations of the Olympic world do not satisfy; and from the moment that that discovery was made, the religion of Homer could no longer respond to the spiritual needs of the Greek people. Again, the Homeric conception of religion, while it was artistically rounded out, was fragmentary, from the philosophical point of view. The cultus of each deity was practical, local and, therefore, particular. Whatever underlying principle there was, such as personification of nature, remained vague, doubtful, incoherent. When, now, we turn to Dante, we find an infinitely wider range. In his own words, he “leads all wanderers safe through every way,”11 through sin, suffering, penance and purification, to the final joys of the Blessed. If we accompany him we are not always in the sunshine, but pass from deepest shadow through penumbra into light eternal. And through all our journey we are guided by a definite system, the rational content of which is satisfying to the reflecting mind.
In Faust we have the direct opposite of what we find in the Iliad. In the Homeric poems all is objective: in the great modern drama there is preponderance of subjectivity. Indeed, the modern world feels too keenly the subjective aspect of sin and suffering. Its philosophy is too poignantly personal. Thus, the Weltschmerz, the tragedy of the world and of human iniquity is the all too sombre theme of Goethe’s masterpiece. It is true, poetry thus gains in richness, fullness and reflectiveness. But even from the artistic point of view the gloom is too dense. Neither the poet nor his audience can penetrate the curtain of subjective feeling that hangs like a mist upon the scene. To the great questions which man is ever asking concerning his own destiny and the meaning of life, there is no answer except Heine’s sneer,
Ein Narr wartet auf Antwort (A fool waits for an answer)
Life is an enigma, which the poet does not solve; because he cannot. Here, too, the onesidedness of the poet’s philosophy hampers the action of the poem, and is a defect even from the point of view of art.
If we turn now to Shakespeare, we find a still more interesting problem. Shakespeare, like Dante, swings around the whole circle of human experience in search of material. Like Goethe, he is reflective, but unlike him, he is objective as well as subjective. With him, action dominates feeling, as it ought to. He sees, he feels, he reflects, he analyzes, but when he comes to reflective reconstruction his work remains fragmentary and incomplete. This is not because he is a dramatist, but because his mind is powerless to dominate the whole world of human experience: he does not conquer his world; it conquers him. Like a sailor who would start to sea without compass or chart, he is soon lost in the limitless expanse of human experience.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Shakespeare can rise to the sublimest heights of religious feeling. He is always respectful, and can be even tenderly reverential in his illusions to Christ and Christianity:
Many a time hath banished Norfolk fought
For Jesu Christ in glorious Christian field,
Streaming the ensign of the Christian cross
Against black pagans, Turks and Saracens;
And, toiled with works of war, retired himself
To Italy; and there, at Venice, gave
His body to that pleasant country’s earth,
And his pure soul unto his captain, Christ,
Under Whose colors he had fought so long.
He is a philosopher, too, as is evident from the study of his Sonnets. In the plays, also, his extraordinary power is nowhere more remarkable than in the ease and sureness with which he disentangles the actuating principle from the mass of fluctuating and confusing details of human characters and human institutions. He possesses in a high degree the philosophical gift of finding the essence in its accidental setting. Indeed, some critics go so far as to assign him a place among the Scholastics. “He is a distincting Thomist,” writes Father Bowden, “on the following points: his doctrine of the genesis of knowledge and its strictly objective character; the power of reflection as distinctive of rational creatures; the formation of habits, intellectual and moral; the whole operation of the imaginative faculty.” Nevertheless, he is weakest where Dante is strongest. He is lacking in totality of vision: he fails to grasp all reality, dominate it, and articulate into his conception of it those fragments of philosophy which are unexcelled for depth of insight and breadth of sympathy. Only those who are weary of the world problems, who are content with a restatement of them without a solution, who are ready to cry out in protest against sustained constructive effort in philosophy are satisfied with Shakespeare and hail him as their prophet. His message is gospel to the agnostic mind.
All this, one may object, would go to show the defects of Homer, Goethe and Shakespeare as philosophers, but does not affect their poetry, by which they are first and last to be judged. The contention, however, is that, in the higher reaches, poetry becomes identical with philosophy, and the deficiencies of the philosophical synthesis necessarily detract from the completeness of the artistic harmony. This becomes evident if we compare for a moment the symbolism of the great poets. Symbolism, in fact, is the contrivance by which the poet introduces reflection, while discarding the rigid technicalities of philosophical systems. Homer’s symbolism is the simplest. His reflection is restricted to moral musings on the characters of men, and the result is embodied in epithets expressive of moral qualities: Agamemnon, of kingly presence; Hector, the restless, the domineering; Penelope, the faithful; Achilles, the impetuous, and so forth. Here the thought-element is very meagre, while the picturesqueness is at its maximum. In Goethe, especially in the second part of Faust, the symbolism is subtle, subjective, overladen with thought-content, but lacking in the picturesque quality. Shakespeare’s symbols are direct images. They are taken from the whole range of human experience. But, they are restricted to experience. They are eminently empirical. They have no transcendent thought-element in them; they sum up experience at various times, in various places, and that is all. In Dante’s poem symbolism plays an essential part. There the symbolical interpretation is the primary interpretation. And it is a unique system of symbols. The symbols in it are real persons and real objects. Virgil is human reason, Beatrice is Divine Revelation, St. Lucy is enlightening grace; the panther, the lion, and the she-wolf who bar the way, are Lust, Pride and Envy. These are as definite, vivid and picturesque as the Homeric epithets: they are infinitely more rich in thoughtcontent. They are as rich in content as Goethe’s symbols and incomparably more definite. Like Shakespeare’s characters, they are the results of experience and introspection, but in Dante’s hands they cease to be empirical. They are molded into a world system in which the relations, for instance, between Reason, Revelation and Grace, or between Lust, Pride and Envy, are worked out with the minutest philosophical precision. These symbols are drawn from his own experience and from the study of books. The whole world, past, present, and to come, all nature, all history, all the speculations of the theologians, all the reasonings of the philosophers, all the dreams of the poets, the men whom he knew, the places which he saw, the incidents of his own sad wanderings, his griefs, his joys, his hopes, his fears, his hatreds — all these furnish material for his symbolism. But, the material was first ordered and arranged into a definite, rational system. It was passed through the transmuting fire of a great love. What results is beautiful, therefore, it is poetry; it is true, therefore, it is philosophy; it is good, therefore, it is moral. In this way, Dante attained the effect which he himself intended, namely, to compose a great poem to which symbolism offered the key; the inspiration of the poem was to be Beatrice, and its purpose to teach moral philosophy. “The subject of the poem,” he says,18 “is man in so far as by merit and demerit he is liable to just reward and punishment.” It would, therefore, be unfair to Dante’s memory to separate the philosophical from the poetical or the poetical from the philosophical in his work.
“All genius,” says Coleridge, “is metaphysical,” because it brings us into contact with the ideal. The actual is the realm of talent. Genius of whatever kind, scientific, literary, artistic, philosophical, cannot rest in the actual, it seeks the ideal actualized in what is incidental and accidental. Discovery, in every line of human achievement, is the revelation of the ideal in the actual world, where it is fragmentated, disguised and degraded. It is the ideal that gives meaning and significance to the actual. Science seeks to unveil the law that lies beneath the everchanging events in the physical world; history seeks to show forth the principles that underly the passing show of human activity, human thought, and human passion; the science of government endeavors to establish harmony in the conflict of human interest, human effort and human aspiration. Poetry and philosophy have a higher aim. They take all nature and all human experience for their kingdom; they range over all knowledge and all human activity in search of the Beautiful and the True. When they, happily, agree, and each in its own way discovers God, then the poet and the philosopher are blended in one; then God is the Beauty, of which the world is a symbol, and the Truth, of which the world is an expression, and, like Faith and Reason, poetry and philosophy “make one music as before, but vaster.” Philosophy, in point of fact, “lisped in numbers.” All the earliest philosophers were poets, too. Plato had been a poet in his youth, and he became a philosopher without ceasing to be a poet. The prose of his Dialogues lacks only technical conformity to the rules of versification to make it numbered diction of the highest order. No wonder, then, that Dante succeeded in combining so happily the poetic gift with the philosophical. Look at that face of his in Giotto’s immortal fresco. There you see, as Carlisle says, “the softness, the tenderness, the gentle affection, as of a child.” You see in it also the pride of genius, the stubbornness of invincible resolution, and intelligent obstinacy, a masculine strength and sternness. There is at once the gentleness of the Platonic lover of spiritual beauty and the forcefulness of the Aristotelian scientific genius. As a Platonist, he felt, he suffered, he expiated his own folly, and through grace attained salvation. As an Aristotelian, he set out systematically, first to conquer the technical difficulties of his art, then to acquire his material by the study of science and theology, and, lastly, to coordinate, systematize and dominate the whole field of knowledge, like another Alexander, looking for more worlds to conquer until his task was accomplished, and he had in reality brought beneath the sceptre of his genius the whole world of nature and of human nature. But, if he submitted his own soul to the discipline of suffering, and subjected his mind to the restraint of classic culture, if he attained through infinite toil to a final domination of human experience for the purpose of his poem, the inspiration that sustained him through it all was his love for Beatrice and his resolve to honor her as no woman had been honored before. Therefore, while the body, so to speak, of his work was Aristotelian, the soul of it was Platonic. He conformed to the fashion of the troubadours, but rose immeasurably above them in seriousness of purpose. A troubadour, then, in externals, he was an Aristotelian in intellect, and Platonist in heart and soul.
It remains to consider briefly another title by which Dante can claim to be a philosopher. In common, current, phrase, a philosopher is one who has mastered his own moods, who is so securely intrenched in his own convictions that he is proof against all the assaults of “outrageous fortune,” one who has learned to bear the untoward events of life with calmness, imperturbability and even cheerful resignation. To meet misfortune “philosophically” is to meet it with patience and noble self-repression. To be a philosopher is, in homely phrase, “to burn one’s own smoke,” and not blacken the landscape of one’s own and other minds with the products of those fires that “try men’s souls.” This is the Stoic notion of philosophy, and the Stoic keyword is “self-mastery.” Now, Dante, both in theory and in practice, showed his appreciation of Stoicism. Among the most singular of all the verdicts he pronounced on the heroes of antiquity is that which he passed on Cato the Younger, the saint, so to speak, of Roman Stoicism. Dante did not place him in the inferno of the suicides, nor in the limbo where the other great pagan heroes are gathered; he could not place him in the Church Suffering nor in the Church Triumphant, because Cato had not seen the light of Grace. Consequently, he assigned to him the task of guarding the gates of Purgatory:
“I saw beside me an old man alone,
Worthy of so much reverence in his look,
That more owes not to father any son….
Reverent he made in me my knees and brow.”
This post Cato is to hold until the day of Judgment, when, on account of his natural virtues, he is to be admitted to the company of the Blessed. Another indication of Dante’s Stoic inspiration is his frequent, and singularly beautiful, references to light. Light was the Stoic symbol of truth and of God, and readers of the Divina Commedia know the use that Dante makes both of the reality and of its symbolism in the gloom of the Inferno, in the pale atmosphere of the amount of suffering, and in the ascent to the dazzling effulgence which surrounds the Godhead in Heaven. Without detracting from the sublimity and tenderness of Milton’s address to Light, one may echo Dinsmore’s verdict that “no poet has been more keenly sensitive to light” than Dante.15 For Dante, then, as for the Stoics, light is the emblem of truth and peace, and every man’s endeavor ought to be to let the blessed light illumine undisturbed his own soul. “Love,” he says in the Convivio, “is the informing principle of philosophy, and it manifests itself in the exercise of wisdom, which brings with it marvelous delights, namely contentment under all circumstances and indifference to things that enthrall other men.” He was, then, a theoretical Stoic, his Stoicism being, of course, tinged with Christian moderation.
In practice, too, he was a Stoic. He sought to realize the Stoic ideal in his own life. It is this ideal that reconciles the apparently contradictory descriptions of him left us by Villiani and Boccaccio. Villiani says: “Like other philosophers, he was stern, nor did he readily converse with unlearned men.” This was the Stoic gravitas, the disdain for the vulgar crowd. Boccaccio, on the contrary, tells us: “He was remarkable for courtesy and good breeding. … He bore all his adverse fortunes with true fortitude, nor did he ever yield to impatience or bitterness, except in his political trials.” This was the Stoic self-mastery, a virtue which he acquired in the school of suffering. At home, as well as in exile, he led a life apart from the world in which he dwelt, and it was only by his high resolve, by his love and faith that he was conducted along hard, painful and solitary ways to “the lofty triumph of the realm of truth.” We may picture him as he appears in the story of his visit to the monastery of Santa Croce del Corvo in the Lunigiana. “He moved not, but stood silently contemplating the columns and arches of the cloister. And again I asked him what he wished, and whom he sought. Then, slowly turning his head and looking at the brethren and at me, he answered, ‘Peace.’” This peace he attained, Stoic-fashion, by self-mastery. But, at the cost of a struggle. There were discordant elements in his character. He was by nature proud, bitter, almost acrid, in his hatreds, unconciliating, unforgiving. Listen to his expression of disdain for the cowardly and indolent:
“Speak not of them, but look and pass them by.”
From the traitor, Alberigo’s, frozen lips in the depths of the cold crystal of Cocytus, he hears unmoved this plaintive prayer: “For pity, break the ice upon my face, that I may weep a little while, before my fount of tears freeze up again.” Dante will not do the traitor even this facile favor, but answers with terrible severity:
“To be rude to him were courtesy.”
Now, look on another picture and see the fine sensibility of the man. When, in Purgatorio XIII., he meets the host of the Envious, who for punishment are blinded, he remarks:
“To me it seemed a want of courtesy Unseen myself, in others’ face to peer.”
These and other opposing tendencies of his character were finally harmonized by the help of Christian Stoicism. Once he had reached self-mastery all the divergent passions of his soul were reconciled in the one grand Stoic trait, Magnanimity:
“Come after me and let the people talk;
Stand like a steadfast tower that never wags
Its summit for the blowing of the winds.”
“To stand four cornered to the blows of fortune.”
The soul, confident in its own courage and strength, contemptuous of everything mean and petty, despised the fainthearted and the cowardly. Of the spirits who, in the heavenly war, took part neither with God nor with Satan, he says in scathing phrase:
“These have, then, no hope of death.”
This lofty, proud Stoic soul — ‘buttressed it is on conscience and impregnable will” — speaks to us through the solemn, stern deathmask. There, too, as in Giotto’s fresco, there are not wanting traits of tenderness, refinement and a peculiar feminine softness of outline; but overall is the Stoic trait, Self-mastery. If the fresco in the Bargello is the portrait of the youthful Platonic lover, the deathmask is the true image of the mature Stoic philosopher.
Such, then, was Dante the philosopher. He has an acknowledged right to stand, as Raphael represents him, among the disputants in theology, a noble, austere figure, somehow alone, in spite of the distinguished company, somehow apart from them all — his head neither encircled with the halo of sainthood nor crowned with the tiara or the miter of ecclesiastical dignity, but enwreathed with a simple garland of laurel — a poet among theologians. He has an equal right to a place in the companion picture, the school of philosophers. There, indeed, he should be at home, with Plato, whose idealization of love he imitated, with Aristotle whom he honored as “the master of those who know,” with the Stoics whose severe dignity and noble self-mastery he admired. There, in that exalted company he might have occupied an honored place, a poet among the philosophers.