Dante’s Divine Intellect

May 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Canto XI of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil carefully explains the layout of hell to his student, Dante. Toward the end of his speech, Virgil says that “Sodom and Cahors” are “speak[ing] in passionate contempt of God,” (XI, 50-51), and divine will thus relegates them to the seventh circle. The sin of the Sodomites is clear for Dante, who poses no question on the matter, sodomy perhaps being an obvious affront to God which the bible directly addresses. However, the sin of “Cahors,” namely usury, is not clear to Dante. He asks Virgil to “unravel” the “knot” in his mind, since there is no obvious reason why a usurer – a money lender essentially – deserves any punishment at all for a crime which does not necessarily involve dishonesty, and certainly is not violent in nature.Independent of the question itself, the very fact that Dante is comfortable enough to ask Virgil anything reveals a certain intimacy between the two characters. The student-teacher relationship need not be interactive. An interaction implies an equality. Dante could very well have written a Virgil who talks but does not listen, much like the Virgil who wrote the Aeneid; there is no dialogue when one reads an epic poem. Dante’s Virgil allows Dante into his intellectual circle, both by listening to Dante, as he does here, and by introducing Dante to other master poets, as he does in Canto IV. Virgil even says that the “pupil imitates his master,” which, as we shall see, has an entirely separate meaning, but does refer back to the relationship between this pupil and his master as well.What is especially remarkable though in the way that Virgil addresses Dante’s question is that he is at first condescending. By beginning with, “Philosophy, for one who understands…” Virgil effectively mocks Dante, since Dante is certainly familiar with classical literature (as is evidenced by the Divine Comedy itself). Thus, Dante is on Virgil’s level in one sense, and far below him in another, which is true in the grand scheme of the work: Dante is only beginning to understand the workings of the divine order by Canto XI, while Virgil borders on omniscience throughout. Furthermore, Dante has not yet eclipsed Virgil as a poet, since at this point the Inferno is hardly begun, while the Aeneid presents Virgil’s view of Hades from top to bottom..In Dante’s hell specifically, the reason that usury is a deadly sin is very confusing, which is why Dante calls it a “knot.” Unlike other sins, usury is not on its face a dreadful immorality. Virgil approaches the issue at first philosophically, making the profoundly esoteric claim that “nature follows… the Divine Intellect and the Divine Art.” The idea “nature” is therefore composed of these two abstract elements. The “Intellect,” coming first, must be at the root of the “Art,” since intellect must precede production, as in the Platonic doctrine of the “essence” of a thing preceding the existence of a thing. The “Intellect” is the potential; the art is the result. In concrete terms, the “Intellect” must therefore be the primordial “stuff” from which everything is made, and the “Art” therefore must be the process of making it into something tangible or usable. From this, then, we can deduce that “Intellect” is literally the stuff that God provides to enable us to live – the land, the fruit, the animals – and “Art,” the process of sustaining ourselves by using that stuff, the labor.This interpretation fits perfectly with the rest of the passage. Virgil elaborates on the idea of nature as being the process of going from intellect to art by citing Aristotle’s Physics, wherein Aristotle apparently proves that “when it can, your art would follow nature.” Our “art,” as it were, is not very different from the Divine Art, since God is the source of all that we do (as Saint Augustine says over and over again). Our “art” is our method of self-sustenance as determined by God, since God has given us the tools we need to employ our method (“intellect”). Therefore, we are learning from God “just as a pupil imitates his master.” We are, then, “God’s pupil,” which is an apt analogy since self-sustenance is really a type of creation: Planting and harvesting crops is the human version of making the universe. Virgil goes on to say that our “art” or production “is almost God’s grandchild.” This analogy sums up everything Virgil has previously said and foreshadows his later comments, as it works in several different ways. First, if the Divine Intellect leads to the Divine Art, and if our art is a derivative of the Divine Art, then our art is indeed the “grandchild” of nature, since it is the offspring of the Intellect and the Art, which are in a way the offspring of nature herself. Second, we are all in some sense God’s grandchild, as we are all sons or daughters of Adam. Finally, the idea that our “art” is “almost God’s grandchild” reveals the egregiousness of any sin, as we all can imagine a child who is disrespectful to his grandfather more easily than a man who is disrespectful to the abstract “God.” Thus we are further prepared for all the terrible punishments that we will encounter in the coming cantos.Furthermore, the idea of our art being “God’s grandchild” is clearly an allusion to the biblical concept that we are made in “God’s image,” as it says in Genesis. It is therefore perfectly fitting that Virgil makes the allusion, asking Dante to “recall” how Genesis “begins.” What Virgil asks us to focus on though is not how we were made, but what Adam had to do to “make [his] way” and thus what “men” in general are supposed to do “to gain their living.” The Genesis story teaches that Adam must “in toil eat of [the tree] all the days of [his] life…” and must “eat of the plants of the field.” (Genesis, 2.17). To be moral then is to procure wealth (sustenance) through work, turning the “Divine Intellect” through “art” or human labor into life-giving food. Finally, the “knot” has been “unraveled” for Dante. The usurer “prefers another pathway,” meaning that a money lender does not seek to sustain himself by using “stuff” for “life.” A usurer by definition uses money to make money. Thus he is cut off both from “Intellect” and “Art,” or, as Virgil puts it, “he scorns both nature in herself and art,” as “his hope is elsewhere.” A banker, for example, charges a fee in exchange for loaning money. Nowhere is he working to produce anything, in contrast to Adam who is a “producer” in the most basic sense. Instead, he is using others as a means of life: in Dante’s pre-capitalist economic system, he is a parasite. He is a fraud of the highest magnitude because at first he appears to be doing nothing wrong. As we see in the usurers’ punishment in Canto XVII, their “outer semblance” is very normal. Only upon looking closer does one make out that they are “adorned with twining knots and circlets,” the word “knots” of course referring back to Dante’s original confusion, his own personal “knot” of the mind.After Virgil has made everything clear, he tells Dante to “follow.” The word “follow” (in Italian “seguimi”) is the same word that Virgil had used to refer to art “following” (“segue”) nature. This repetition underscores the divine presence throughout the Comedy, showing us that Dante is “following” a path that was set for him by the higher power. The reason that it is “time to move” is that Dante now understands why the usurer is a sinner. This means that what is propelling the story forward is Dante’s progressive education. At points of confusion, we stop to try to understand. Once the issue is clear, we move on. This gives us a key into understanding the whole work, in that it shows that Dante is on this divine path in order to learn from it. From that we can deduce that we too are on the same path in order to distinguish the moral from the immoral. Dante serves as our Virgil.Another subtlety within the text that demands a wide-angled literary lens to see is the mixing of secular doctrine with Christian doctrine. Dante has moved seamlessly from Aristotle to Genesis, so that his argument holds on every conceivable level. He even seems to make a indirect reference to the fact that the ideas of the respective schools of thought are both in perfect harmony with the claim – which can be interpreted in a multitude of ways – that “[our] art would follow nature.” Our art could very well be a combination of philosophy and science: Aristotle coins the term “metaphysical” in his work Physics. And our art, our logic, does not contradict in the least with the inescapable nature that God creates in Genesis. In fact, it “follows” directly from Genesis.One final possible interpretation of “your art” (as Virgil says to Dante) is the Comedy itself. The Comedy is a poetical depiction of the divine order as Dante sees it. This is in a way a contradiction, because no human could ever wholly grasp the divine order. Dante seems to recognize that when he has Virgil say that his “art is almost God’s grandchild,” the word “almost” being key. The connection to the divine mind is irrefutable, as art follows nature, but Dante subtly admits his own humanity. Just as Dante is in one sense the teacher (the writer) and in another the student (Virgil’s “pupil”), so too is he in one sense divine, and in another sense human. Perhaps this is how Dante wants us to see him throughout the Comedy. The only way that we could trust him is if he is omniscient like God throughout the whole of the work, while the only way that we could learn from his journey is if he is as ignorant as the reader at the same time.The only certain conclusion that one can draw from this incredibly rich passage is that there are a thousand possible conclusions that one could draw, a thousand possible interpretations of a phrase like “Divine Intellect.” Not one plausible interpretation however seems to contradict with any other plausible interpretation. This means that Dante has deliberately layered his text just as he has layered hell. We must then, like Dante, work our way carefully through the divine path, asking deeper and deeper questions of our teacher along the way, striving to “unravel” all of our “knots” as we descend further and further down through the spiraling realm of ideas called the Inferno until we have probed deep enough to finally ascend upwards toward the Divine Intellect as nature had always intended.

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