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  • Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge
  • Anthony Roda
Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge, by Giuseppe Mazzotta; 328 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, $37.50.

Future students of Dante, The Divine Comedy, literature, criticism, the history of ideas, theology, philosophy, and many other disciplines will be in permanent debt to Giuseppe Mazzotta for his keen study of Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge. While tracing the principal streams of Western thought which irrigate Dante’s fertile genius, Mazzotta reconstructs the intellectual topography of Dante’s Europe and show how “l’altissimo poeta” reorders and refines it and arrives at a radical reformulation of the foundation of knowledge in contrast to the standard philosophical and theological currents of the times. This new vision of the foundation of knowledge is the central concern of The Divine Comedy which for Mazzotta provides a world view no less monumental than the synthesis of the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions of Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps, more so, for he argues Dante’s great epic provides not only an alternative epistemology but one which captures much more adequately the human historical experience.

Vico’s insights, a thorough familiarity of Dante’s sources and his alert appreciation of the unique treatment these sources receive in the context of “la commedia divina” supply Mazzotta with a theoretical framework for his own brilliant critical, historical, and etymological analyses. He marshals these researches around his overriding concern to show that inherent within the Comedy is the view of “poetry as nothing less than the foundation of all possible knowledge” (p. 3). Dante’s radical claim is designed to provide an account which accords with the educational and intellectual development of the individual within history. Consequently for Mazzotta, Dante’s poetic (metaphorical) mode attempts to reconcile what must have been an intellectual and moral landscape of hopeless contradictory systems and projects. Dante’s poem [End Page 194] provides a vivid survey of the breakdown of human bonds, human projects, and human justice and suggests a corrective that escaped the methods of reason, as well as those of the mystic’s. Since both of these are at bottom antihistorical, they attempted to deny conflict and uncertainty (Dewey’s ultimate traits of experience).

The above comments should suggest both the general appeal as well as, and I must emphasize, the high level of scholarship Mazzotta exhibits in his project which is arranged into three parts. The first part (Chapter 1–5) is devoted to “poetry and the arts of language,” and a quick glance at these chapters reveals that it is concerned with that part of the liberal arts called the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic). In addition to their educational role, the author examines the role and intricate connections these disciplines have to the central social structures of the times. Consequently, these are not mere sterile academic exercises but serious attempts that show the intimate connections between methods of knowing (discourses) and social structures, especially authority in all of its modes (moral, intellectual, political, etc.). Further, by virtue of this, he shows the need for a reexamination of knowledge which does justice to the lived experiences of the individual and to which the second part (Chapters 6–8) is devoted. Briefly, this means coming to terms with language, memory, imagination, dreams and visions, and that great nightmare, human history. It also invokes the aesthetic (poetic/metaphorical) foundations of all knowledge in contrast to the Cartesian dismissal. The claim, however, enlightening for the Comedy, is controversial as a general tenet and demands will be forthcoming for an evaluation, even though there is much good work in philosophy which lends support to it, e.g., Stephen Pepper’s World Hypotheses, R. G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art, and Lewis E. Hahn’s A Contextualistic Theory of Perception, etc.

In the last part (Chapters 9–11) Mazzotta argues that Dante’s final organizing vision figures the world sub specie ludi. These chapters examine the problems and experiences of order, transgression and exile which for Mazzotta demand a Theologia Ludens whose roots are imbedded deep in Aristotle’s Ethics and expressed by the virtue of eutrapelia, “a...

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