Alighieri, Dante

Assigned: Alighieri, Dante. From Il Convivio (196-98); “The Letter to Can Grande” (198-99). Also read the editors’ introduction (194-96).

From Il Convivio (1306-09)

From Book 2, Chapter 1

1. On 196-97 (“Now that by way of…”), Dante Alighieri lists the four levels of biblical* interpretation—the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. How does he define and illustrate each of these four levels? (*See editors’ note on page 196 bottom: Dante says he is in part following the way of the poets, not the biblical interpreters.) According to Dante, why is the literal level the ground or foundation for the other levels, the “outside” that encloses the “inside” (197)?

2. On 197-98 (“Moreover, even supposing it were possible…”), how does Dante further explain the vital role of the literal level of interpretation? In what sense does his explanation of this point entail an Aristotelian theory of how human beings learn? Why, according to Dante, do we need to begin with the literal level, and only after we understand it well move on to the other levels?

From “The Letter to Can Grande” (1321)

3. On 198-99 (“Therefore, if one should wish…”), Dante Alighieri refers to his epic The Divine Comedy as polysemous. What four levels of interpretation does he specify? How does he illustrate the proper way to read a biblical passage, and (in brief) Il Paradiso from The Divine Comedy by means of them? How does Dante effectively divide the four levels into two groups, and then explain the meaning of each in relation to the biblical passage he has interpreted?

4. On 199 (“The title of the work is…”), how does Dante explain why The Divine Comedy is in fact a comedy and not a tragedy even though it takes us all the way down to hell? What do the terms “tragedy” and “comedy” signify to him? What qualities, then, make The Divine Comedy a comedy?

5. General question: In “The Letter to Can Grande,” Dante Alighieri explains why The Divine Comedy, in spite of its at times grim plot and settings, qualifies as a true comedy. Much has been written in modern times (see, for example, George Steiner’s book The Death of Tragedy, or Miguel de Unamuno’s 1912 essay “The Tragic Sense of Life”) about whether or not tragedy is possible in a Christian (or for that matter in a postmodern) framework. At base, Classical tragedy posits an uncomfortable relationship between humanity and the divine order: strong, if flawed, individual human beings find to their sorrow that the universe is by no means built for their security or self-worth. Greek tragedy generally asserts human dignity in the face of extreme adversity, but it does not tell humans that they are the center of things. If you had to define a Christian version of tragedy, what qualities or elements would constitute it as belonging to that genre?

6. General question: If you have read all or part of The Divine Comedy, briefly illustrate how Dante Alighieri’s method of interpretation in “The Letter to Can Grande” can be applied to his own work. In other words, find a passage in The Divine Comedy that you believe signifies on more than one level and explore it in that regard.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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