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The Aporetic Ground of Revelation’s Authority in the Divine Comedy and Dante’s Demarcation and Defense of Philosophical Authority

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 26, 2010
pp. 1-14 | 10.1353/ems.2010.0003

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Nothing could be clearer for the interpreter of Dante’s writings than his concern for defending the independence of secular political authority against ecclesiastical encroachments. In Purgatorio 16, very near to the literal center of the entire Commedia, Dante’s pilgrim begs a Lombard, Marco, to point out the cause of the world having become “‘tutto diserto d’ogne virtute … e di malizia gravido e coverto’” (“‘totally deserted of any virtues … gravid with and covered with malice,’” 58–60).2 To this Marco responds that the fault lies not in the heavens, not in that “‘greater power and better nature’” (“‘maggior forza e … miglior natura,’” 79) to which humans are subject, for:

“Se così fosse, in voi fora distrutto
libero arbitrio, e non fora giustizia
per ben letizia, e per male aver lutto.”

(Purgatorio 16.70–73)

[“If it were so, in you would be destroyed free will, and it would
not be justice to have joy for good and mourning for evil.”]

Rather, Marco explains,

“Ben puoi veder che la mala condotta
è la cagion che ’l mondo ha fatto reo,
e non natura che ’n voi sia corrotta.
Soleva Roma, che ’l buon mondo feo,
due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada
facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo.
L’un l’altro ha spento, ed è giunta la spade
col pasturale, e l’un con l’altro insieme
per viva forza mal convien che vada
però che, giunti, l’un l’altro non teme.”


[“You can well see that bad leadership is the cause that has made the world rotten, and not nature that in you is corrupt. Rome, which made the good world, used to have two suns that made visible the one road and the other, of the world and of God. The one has extinguished the other, and the sword is joined to the shepherd’s staff, and entirely forcing the one together with the other goes badly, for, joined, the one does not fear the other.”]

Although Marco’s insistence on the importance of the independence of the sword from the staff could not be clearer, in articulating this view, Marco’s speech draws upon an understanding of human nature that is made more explicit in the Monarchia. Here, in the last chapter of his most important and sustained discussion of political philosophy, Dante reveals the fundamental philosophy underpinning his thought in all of its other manifestations—religious, political, poetic, etc.—when he states that the human being, “solus inter omnia entia in duo ultima ordinetur, quorum alterum sit finis eius prout corruptibilis est, alterum vero prout incorruptibilis” (3.16.6) [alone among all beings is ordered [by] two ultimate goals, one of them being his goal as a corruptible being, the other his goal as an incorruptible being;, my emendation].3 Indeed, this principle grounds what Dante calls an “ostensive proof ” of the independence of temporal and spiritual authorities:

Duos igitur fines providentia illa inenarrabilis homini proposuit intendendos: beatitudinem scilicet huius vite, que, in operatione proprie virtutis consistit et per terrestrem paradisum figuratur; et beatitudinem vite ecterne, que consistit in fruitione divini aspectus ad quam propria virtus ascendere non potest, nisi lumine divino adiuta, que per paradisum celestem intelligi datur…. Nam ad primam per phylosophica documenta venimus, dummodo illa sequamur secundum virtutes morales et intellectuales operando; ad secundam vero per documenta spiritualia que humanam rationem transcendunt, dummodo illa sequamur secundum virtutes theologicas operando, fidem spem scilicet et karitatem. . . . Propter quod opus fuit homini duplici directivo secundum duplicem finem: scilicet summo Pontifice, qui secundum revelata humanum genus perduceret ad vitam ecternam, et Imperatore, qui secundum phylosophica documenta genus humanum ad temporalem felicitatem dirigeret.


[Ineffable providence has thus set before us two goals to aim at: i.e., happiness [beatitudo] in this life, which consists in the exercise of our own powers and is figured in the earthly paradise; and happiness [beatitudo] in the eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of the vision of God (to which our own powers cannot raise us except with the help of God’s light). . . . We attain the first through the teachings of philosophy, provided that we follow them...