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1.i. Pagan Dawn of a Christian Vision1

© George Corbett, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0066.01

George Corbett

Each of the three opening cantos of the Comedy begins with an attempted journey that ends in failure. In Inferno i, Dante gazes up at the sun’s rays which light up the mountain he then attempts to climb; impeded by the three beasts, he returns to the wood from whence he came, where the sun is silent. In Purgatorio i, the predawn rise of the planet Venus (‘lo bel pianeto’) inspires Dante who, leaving the cruel sea behind him, aims to climb the mountain of Purgatory; interrogated by Cato, Dante is sent back to the seashore where he is washed and girded with a rush by Virgil. In Paradiso i, Dante attempts to fix his eyes on the sun; he has to give up, however, after a short while. On an allegorical reading of the poem, the sun primarily represents God and movement upwards represents movement towards God.2 These three attempts and failures are, therefore, three attempts and failures to journey towards God.

What is striking, then, is that on each of these three occasions when Dante initially fails in his journey to God, he is helped not – as we might expect in a Christian poem depicting the three realms of the Christian afterlife – by an angel, a saint or a passage of Scripture but, rather, by a pagan or by distinctively classical philosophy. The pagan poet-philosopher Virgil comes to Dante’s rescue in the dark wood in Inferno i and undertakes to be his guide through Hell. Even more surprisingly, in the opening of Purgatorio, Dante is instructed by Virgil to kneel before Cato of Utica – a pagan Roman who committed suicide and yet acts as the guardian of Mount Purgatory’s shores. And in Paradiso i when Dante, unable to continue gazing at the sun, fixes his eyes on Beatrice, she responds with a discourse on the order of the world which, like the many references to God in the canto, would have been as acceptable to the pagan philosopher Aristotle as to a medieval Christian theologian. Why Dante’s emphasis on pagans at the beginning of a Christian poem about the three regions of the Christian afterlife: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise? Why Dante’s recourse to natural ethics and natural philosophy when the poem is ostensibly about a Christian’s journey to God?

Let us consider in more detail the appeal to the pagan at the beginning of each canticle in turn:

Mentre ch’i’ rovinava in basso loco,
dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.

Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
Miserere di me’, gridai a lui,
‘qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!’ (Inf., i. 61-66)

[While I was falling down into a low place, before my eyes one had offered himself to me who through long silence seemed hoarse. When I saw him in the great wilderness, ‘Miserere – on me’, I cried to him, ‘whatever you may be, whether shade or true man!’]

In the penultimate canto of the Comedy, Dante refers to King David, the author of the Psalms, as ‘[il] cantor che per doglia / del fallo disse “Miserere mei”’ [the singer who, grieving at his sin, said ‘Miserere mei’] (Par., xxxii. 11-12). Like King David, Dante is a sinner turned singer. And the first words of Dante-character in the poem – in a strange conflation of vulgate Latin (‘Miserere’) and vernacular Italian (‘di me’) – echo the opening of King David’s penitential psalm. And yet, peculiarly, Dante-character’s addressee is not God but, rather, he ‘who through long silence seemed hoarse’ (l. 63). This circumlocution is puzzling because it does not seem possible that a person, although silent, may appear hoarse. A traditional interpretation is that the, as yet unidentified, interlocutor initially represents the voice of reason.3 Reason – the divine, God-given, part in man – is silent in a soul immersed in the wood and valley of sin. Even when the voice of reason returns, it is inevitably weak and may only gather strength and clarity as the soul struggles against the pull of sin. Dante-character does appeal, in this way, to his reason at this stage in the narrative.

Why a pagan? Well, first of all, the choice of a pagan guide enables Dante to represent, if only at an allegorical level, human reason. Dante was convinced that man could pursue the natural good, and be directed away from evil, through the correct use of his reason. When, in Inferno xi, Dante-character asks Virgil about the ordering of evil in Hell, Virgil refers primarily – not to Scripture – but to natural philosophy and directly cites Aristotle’s Ethics, his Physics and, arguably, his Metaphysics within just twenty lines.4 By choosing a pagan as his guide through Hell, Dante makes a polemical point about reason: that reason is sufficient (without Christian revelation) to provide a theoretical basis – natural law – for the ordering of good and evil in the temporal sphere. Virgil does not simply, however, represent reason or human wisdom. If Dante had only wanted to allegorise philosophy, he could have chosen – even more appropriately – Aristotle, whom he considered the maximum authority in philosophy: ‘’l maestro di color che sanno’ (Inf., iv. 131). We must not simply ask, therefore, ‘Why a pagan guide?’ but ‘why specifically the pagan Virgil?’.

Dante establishes from Virgil’s very first words in the poem that he is, first and foremost, a human soul who literally exists in the afterlife, although temporarily deprived of his body (until the Final Judgement):

Rispuosemi: ‘Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.

Nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi,
e vissi a Roma sotto ’l buono Augusto
nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.

Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
figliuol d’Anchise che venne di Troia,
poi che ’l superbo Ilïón fu combusto’. (Inf., i. 67-75)

[He replied: ‘Not a man, I was formerly a man, and my parents were Lombards, Mantuans both by birth. I was born sub Iulio, though it was late, and I lived in Rome under the good Augustus in the time of the false and lying gods. I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy, when proud Ilion was destroyed by fire’.]

Temporally, Dante massages the historical facts in order to make Virgil’s life span the birth-pangs of Imperial Rome from Caesar (‘sub Iulio’) to his nephew Augustus (‘’l buono Augusto’). Geographically, Virgil locates his life in Rome (‘vissi a Roma’). Vocationally, Virgil identifies himself as the poet of Roman Empire (‘cantai di quel giusto / figliuol d’Anchise’). Why specifically the pagan Virgil? Because Virgil lived in Rome at the time of Augustus, and because Dante treats Virgil’s Aeneid as if it were the divinely revealed text of Imperial power. When, in the Convivio, Dante argues that the Roman Empire was established by Divine Providence rather than by brute force, he defends this heterodox view with the authority of Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘A costoro – cioè alli Romani – né termine di cose né di tempo pongo; a loro hoe dato imperio sanza fine’ [To them – that is to the Romans – I set neither boundary in space or time: to them I have given power without end] (Conv., IV. iv. 11).5 Notably, Dante does not write that Virgil speaks in the person of Jupiter but simply in the person of God (‘in persona di Dio parlando’ (Conv., IV. iv. 11)). Dante thus gives quasi-scriptural authority to Virgil’s text and, bolstered by it, he affirms that God gave divine jurisdiction to the Roman Empire.

How, then, does this emphasis on Virgil, as poet of Imperial Rome, connect with the sense of Virgil, as embodiment of human wisdom? Dante believed that the pagan Aristotle had set out – for all time – the necessary theory for human flourishing (ethics) and for Justice (natural law).6 However he also realised that such theory is impotent without political power. As he argues in the Convivio, imperial power without philosophy is dangerous while philosophy without political power is weak (Conv., IV. vi. 17). Dante considered, then, that the Roman Empire was ordained by God to implement natural law and to establish universal peace and justice.7 Dante’s choice of Virgil as guide, therefore, arguably forms part of a wider polemic in his own time – against apologists for Papal temporal power – that a restoration of the Holy Roman Empire was necessary for the effective governance of the political sphere.

Dante’s belief in the dignity of human nature, and his political dualism, may also serve to explain his strange choice of Cato of Utica as the custodian of Purgatory’s shores in Purgatorio i. Dante-character, facing south, initially sees four stars which represent allegorically the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude (Purg., i. 22-27). Turning to face north, he then sees these lights brilliantly reflected in the, as yet unidentified, pagan Cato (Purg., i. 28-39). Why a pagan? Well, again first of all, a pagan – without access to the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) or the graces conferred by baptism and the Christian sacraments – may allegorically represent (in a way a Christian could not) the perfection of natural virtue. But why specifically the Roman pagan Cato and why here in Purgatory? Why is Cato not in Dante’s special region of Limbo reserved for the virtuous pagans? Why is he not, even more appropriately, in the circle of violence allocated to the suicides? St Augustine specifically condemned Cato’s suicide and, more generally, he condemned the vanity of pagan virtue.8 In stark contrast to this theological precedent, Dante re-interprets Cato’s suicide as sacrifice and leaves no doubt about Cato’s future glory at the resurrection of the body. Virgil addresses Cato:

‘Or ti piaccia gradir la sua venuta:
libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara,
come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.

Tu ’l sai, ché non ti fu per lei amara
in Utica la morte, ove lasciasti
la vesta ch’al gran dì sarà sì chiara’. (Purg., i. 70-75)9

[‘Now may it please you to favour his coming: he seeks freedom, which is so precious, as one knows who rejects life for her sake. You know it; for to you, because of her, death was not bitter in Utica, when you left the raiment that will be so bright on the great day’.]

Why does Dante adopt this apparently heretical position (‘quae videtur sapere haeresim’)?10 Why this choice, and exaltation, of the pagan Roman Cato?

Most straightforwardly, Dante’s representation of Cato of Utica follows Roman classical sources with scant regard for, or reference to, subsequent Christian critique. For Cicero and Seneca, Cato is the quintessential model and pattern of virtue.11 Eulogised by Lucan, Cato serves as the custodian of the Elysian fields in Virgil’s Aeneid.12 Despite scepticism in the Church fathers, this view persists in the medieval reception of Cato. It is epitomised by the pedagogical text mis-attributed during the medieval period to Cato of Utica amongst others, the Disticha Catonis. Dante’s own eulogy of Cato serves, however, an urgent ethical and political purpose. Cato comes to signify the secular perfection of human nobility which Dante, in his dualistic ethical theory, distinguishes from man’s eternal Christian beatitude.

Dante’s most extensive treatment of nobility is the fourth book of the Convivio. Refuting a contemporary definition of nobility as residing in ancient wealth and pleasing manners, Dante defines nobility philosophically as the perfect fulfilment of a being’s nature. Following Aristotle, Dante argues that each living thing, from a flower to a horse, has a certain natural perfection. This, he affirms, is its nobility. Human nobility – virtus vera nobilitas – is the perfection of man’s rational nature: virtue (practical activity in accordance with reason) and knowledge (the contemplative use of reason) (Conv., I. i. 1; IV. xvi. 5).13 Dante emphasises that the pagan Roman Cato of Utica exemplifies this human nobility:14

‘Nel nome di cui [Cato] è bello terminare ciò che delli segni de la nobilitade ragionare si convenia, però che in lui essa nobilitade tutti li dimostra per tutte etadi.’ (Conv., IV. xxviii. 19).

[The mention of his name is a happy note on which to end the required discussion of the signs of nobility, since in him nobility displays all these throughout every stage of life.]

Just as Seneca advises the reader of his epistles to elect Cato as his ethical model so, in Purgatorio i, Dante-character genuflects in deferential silence before Cato, who is described as worthy of more reverence than ever a son owed his father (ll. 31-33).15

Why specifically the pagan Cato? Because Cato embodies, for Dante, human nobility. Why this emphasis at the beginning of Ante-Purgatory? Because, I would argue, Cato’s presence at the shore of Mount Purgatory differentiates the perfection of this secular ethical goal from the very different goal – the recovery of Eden and the state of grace – represented by the ascent of Mount Purgatory.16 The four stars reflected in Cato in Purgatorio i (the perfection of the four cardinal virtues) are contradistinguished, indeed, by the three stars (allegorically representing the three theological virtues) which rise in their place, and are seen by Dante-character in the last canto of Ante-Purgatory (Purg., viii. 85-93). The startling presence of Cato thus throws into relief two distinct ethical goals: the first, a secular nobility achievable in this life through reason and the natural virtues (a goal attainable by pagans); the second, an eternal beatitude achievable only through grace and the revealed truth of Christ (and, thereby, seemingly unattainable by pagans).17

In the very first line of the Paradiso – ‘La gloria di colui che tutto move’ – Dante re-affirms the power of man’s reason and, in this case, the power of reason to know God. God is not directly named in the first canto of Paradiso; rather, He is referred to by a series of philosophical definitions:

Par., i. 1: ‘colui che tutto move’ [he who moves all things]

Par., i. 62: ‘quei che puote’ [he who is able]

Par., i. 106-07: ‘l’etterno valore, il qual è fine / al quale è fatta la toccata norma’ [the eternal Worth, the end to which is created the order [of the universe] just touched upon]

Par., i. 111: ‘[il] principio loro’ [their [the different natures’] principle]

Why this emphasis on classical definitions of God at the beginning of Paradiso? Dante’s commentary on the opening of Paradiso i, in his epistle to Can Grande, draws explicitly on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and De causis.18 It gives a lengthy exposition of three philosophical arguments for God summed up by these definitions. Dante’s first argument leads to the definition of God as the first cause of existence; his second to God as the first cause of all particular essences; and his third – a version of the argument from movement or change – to God as the unmoved first mover.19

In Beatrice’s speech in Paradiso i (ll. 103-41), Dante translates these scholastic and technical arguments into the language of love. Change – the movement from potency to act – is understood as a form of love: everything which is subject to change, from inanimate rocks to animate plants and animals (including humans as rational animals), is in potency to some goal which, because of that being’s particular essence, it desires. The principle – ultimate cause of a being’s essence – and the goal – which that being, because of its essence, desires – are ordained by God. For this reason God is also defined, in Paradiso i, as ‘amor ch ‘l ciel governi’ [love who governs the heavens] (l. 74), and – in the last line of the whole poem – as ‘l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle’ [the love that moves the sun and the other stars] (Par., xxxiii. 145).20 God is the ultimate cause of every being’s essence; and, in potency, each being is, because of its particular essence, directed towards – it desires or loves – its perfection, the actualisation of this potency.

Beatrice’s long discourse on the order of the universe (Par., i. 103-26), thus, finally responds to Dante-character’s key doubt in the canto: how can he, a bodily human being, rise up to Paradise? Beatrice explains that although the essence of a particular thing is directed infallibly to its goal (like an arrow to its target), the matter in which each form is instantiated may, as imperfectly disposed, imperfectly receive the form (as the form of a sphere is imperfectly carved by a sculptor). In the case of man, who has free will, he may be directed away from the fulfilment of his true nature because of false secondary goods (ll. 127-32). At the beginning of Inferno i, Dante-character fails to climb the mountain because he is impeded by the three beasts; in Purgatorio i, Dante-character searches for freedom from impediment (‘libertà va cercando’ (l. 71)) which Cato – at the natural level – embodies. But, with his human nature set free, Beatrice explains, in Paradiso i, that it is now as natural for him to rise up to God as for a river to descend from a mountain’s top to its base. And it would be as unnatural for him not to rise up as for a living fire to be motionless:

‘Non dei più ammirar, se bene stimo,
lo tuo salir, se non come d’un rivo
se d’alto monte scende giuso ad imo.

Maraviglia sarebbe in te se, privo
d’impedimento, giù ti fossi assiso,
com’ a terra quïete in foco vivo.’ (Par., i. 136-41).

[‘You should not wonder at your ascent, if I judge well, otherwise than at a stream when from a high mountain it descends to the base. It would be a marvel in you if, free from impediment, you had remained below, as if, on earth, living fire should be motionless.’]

Dante emphasises thereby that the essential form of man naturally directs him, when unimpeded by sin and ignorance, to God as to his principle (origin) and end (goal). Dante-character’s first words of the canticle, like their counterparts in Inferno i, conflate Italian and Latin: ‘Già contento, requïevi’ [already contented, I rested] (Par., i. 97). Prefaced by the latinism ‘a quïetarmi’ (l. 86), this language cannot but evoke the opening of Augustine’s Confessions: ‘inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te’ [my soul is restless until it rests in you]. Only on the enjoyment of the good of the intellect, God, does the human will, reaching its goal, ultimately find peace.

Why Dante’s emphasis on the pagan and on classical philosophy at the beginning of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso? A vertical reading of the three opening cantos has suggested a number of possible reasons. Through the pagan, Dante instantiates the natural potential of man. This supports his dualistic thesis that man has a secular goal of earthly nobility autonomous from his spiritual goal of eternal beatitude. Through the special prominence Dante gives to the Roman pagans Virgil and Cato (in Inferno i and Purgatorio i), Dante underlines his imperial argument. Just as the Roman Imperium of Augustus prepared for the advent of Christianity, so, Dante argues, a restoration of the Holy Roman Empire in his own time would enable the Christian Church to exercise more effectively its spiritual power. Liberated from its avaricious assumption of ever-greater temporal power, the Church could fulfil its true mission of leading men to their eternal salvation. Moreover, Dante sees pagan civilisation as a whole as preparing for Christianity. The philosophical definitions of God, and the discourse on the natural order of the universe, in Paradiso i may also be understood, in this way, as preparation for revelation: preambula fidei. Indeed, although Dante-character discovers a pagan, Virgil, in the dark wood of Inferno i, Virgil is being directed – unbeknown to Dante-character at this stage of the narrative – by Beatrice. In like manner, Dante, in the first canto of each canticle, draws upon the heights of pagan moral virtue, philosophy and poetry not simply as an end-in-itself (as for some later humanist scholars) but as the starting point – the dawn – of his Christian vision.


1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website, https://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1366614

2 The symbolic function of the sun to signify God was, of course, a commonplace of the medieval imagination. In the Convivio (III. xii. 6-7), Dante highlights the distinction between the corporeal sun and the spiritual sun (God) to illustrate the literal and spiritual ways of reading his philosophical poems.

3 See, for example, Michele Barbi, gloss to Inf., i. 63 ‘fioco’, in La Divina Commedia, ed. by Michele Barbi (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1946).

4 Inf., xi. 80: ‘la tua Etica’; xi. 101: ‘la tua Fisica’; xi. 97: ‘Filosofia’. Giovanni Busnelli argues that the reference to philosophy must refer specifically to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and not to Aristotelian philosophy in general (see Giovanni Busnelli, L’Etica Nicomachea e l’ordinamento morale dell’Inferno di Dante (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1907), p. 128).

5 Virgil, Aen., I. 278-79: ‘His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono: / imperium sine fine dedi’.

6 As Dante exclaims in the opening of his work of political theory, Monarchia, what would be the point of attempting to describe the nature of human happiness when this has already been done, and superlatively so, by Aristotle: ‘qui ab Aristotile felicitatem ostensam reostendere conaretur’ (Mon., I. i. 4).

7 In the opening of Convivio IV, for example, Dante defends both the political authority of the Holy Roman Emperor (Conv., IV. iv-v) and the ethical authority of the philosopher (Conv., IV. vi).

8 For Augustine’s specific condemnation of Cato’s suicide see, for example, De civitate Dei I. 22-24 (23). For a fuller discussion of the theological problem of Cato’s suicide, see John A. Scott, ‘Cato, A Pagan Suicide in Purgatory’, in Dante’s Political Purgatory (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), pp. 69-84. For a more general survey, see Alexander Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, 2 vols, II, The Curse on Self-Murder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). For Augustine’s critique of pagan virtue, see, for example, Contra Iulianum, IV. 3. 21. For a fuller discussion, see Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. by L.E.M. Lynch (London: Victor Gollancz, 1961). Gilson comments that, for Augustine, human nature ‘is only the historical remains of a divine order corrupted by sin’ (p. 239). Pagan virtues are contaminated and not ‘true virtues’ since they are not correctly ordered towards God.

9 See also Mon., II. v. 15: ‘illud inenarrabile sacrifitium severissimi libertatis tutoris Marci Catonis’; and Lucan, Phars., II, 302-03: ‘tuumque / Nomen, Libertas, et inanem prosequar umbram’.

10 See Benvenuto, gloss to Purg., i. 28-33, Dartmouth Dante Project (http://dante.dartmouth.edu/): ‘Et quia hic videtur error satis enormis, rogo te, lector, ut vires animi parum colligas ad considerandum quid poeta noster intendat sub ista mirabili nova fictione, quae videtur sapere haeresim; nimis enim videtur absurdum quod ponat Catonem custodem purgatorii, quem debuisset ponere in inferno, tum quia fuit paganus infidelis, tum quia interfecit se ipsum; unde debebat melius reponi inter violentos contra se ipsos’.

11 See, for example, Cicero, De fin., IV. xvi. 44-45: ‘“Optime,” inquam: “quid enim mihi potest esse optatius quam cum Catone, omnium virtutum auctore, de virtutibus disputare?”’ See also Seneca, Epist., I. xi. 8-10: ‘Aliquis vir bonus nobis eligendus est ac semper ante oculos habendus, ut sic tanquam illo spectante vivamus et omnia tamquam illo vidente faciamus. [...] Elige itaque Catonem’.

12 Lucan, Phars., II. 389-90: ‘Iustitiae cultor, rigidi servator honesti, / In comune bonus’; IX. 554-57: ‘Nam cui crediderim superos arcana daturos / Dicturosque magis quam sancto vera Catoni? / Certe vita tibi semper directa supernas / Ad leges, sequerisque deum’. See also Virgil, Aen., VIII. 666-70: ‘hinc procul addit / Tartareas etiam sedes, alta ostia Ditis, / et scelerum poenas, et te, Catilina, minaci / pendentem scopulo Furiarumque ora trementem, / secretosque pios, his dantem iura Catonem’.

13 See Kenelm Foster, The Two Dantes, and Other Studies (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1977), p. 242: ‘the whole business of man’s achieving “perfection” in this world, as a being endowed with reason and nevertheless mortal (whose optimum state would be at once physical, moral and intellectual, in short a full flowering of natural “virtue”) is presented as something to be carried out by means entirely intrinsic to human nature itself’.

14 Speaking in the person of the elder Cato (Conv., IV. xxi. 9), Dante concludes that, were the corporeal conditions ideally disposed to receive the incorruptible seed of human nobility, another ‘incarnate God’ would be born (Conv., IV. xxi. 10). Cato of Utica, he implies, most closely incarnates this ideal and is thereby most worthy to represent God: ‘E quale uomo terreno più degno fu di signficare Dio che Catone? Certo nullo’ (Conv., IV. xxviii, 15). The implication of Dante’s allegorical interpretation of Cato and Marzia to represent God and the noble soul is that an individual soul which marries itself (in imitation) to the figure of Cato brings to perfect fruition the divine seed of human nobility implanted by God.

15 See Benvenuto, gloss to Purg., i. 28-33: ‘Dantes ingressurus viam virtutis moralis sequitur consilium Senecae, et eligit Catonem rigidum’. Benvenuto endearingly adds: ‘sicut ego elegi ipsum Dantem’.

16 This dualistic interpretation disputes two major, and still influential, strands in Dante scholarship. The first argues that in the Comedy there is no trace of the dualistic doctrine of two final ends developed in the Convivio and crystallised in the Monarchia (Mon., III. xvi. 7-9). This interpretative position became prominent in the second half of the twentieth century, and was powerfully advocated by, amongst others, Bruno Nardi, Étienne Gilson and Kenelm Foster. The second trend reads the Comedy as informed by the dualism of the prose works, but identifies the secular goal as equivalent to the Earthly Paradise in the Purgatorio. An influential development of this position is John. A. Scott, Dante’s Political Purgatory. Like proponents of the second view, I strongly concur that the Comedy is underpinned by Dante’s dualistic theory. Nonetheless, I argue that the Limbo of the virtuous pagans rather than the summit of Mount Purgatory represents the ‘beatitudo huius vitae’ delineated in the Monarchia. I sustain that Dante uses the historical figure of the virtuous pagan to represent figuratively secular human flourishing (man’s earthly nobility) in a poem which nevertheless depicts literally the afterlife. For a full presentation of, and series of arguments for, my own dualistic reading of the Comedy, see George Corbett, Dante and Epicurus: A Dualistic Vision of Secular and Spiritual Fulfilment (Oxford: Legenda and MHRA, 2013).

17 For John Marenbon, Dante’s treatment of Virgil in the Comedy epitomises what he calls the ‘problem of Paganism’. See John Marenbon, Pagans and Philosophers: The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015). Marenbon situates Dante’s particular approach to this problem (pp. 188-213) within an analysis covering the period from c. 200 to c. 1700 (labelled, by Marenbon, the ‘Long Middle Ages’).

18 The authenticity of the epistle (or sections of the epistle) to Can Grande is, of course, disputed. Cecchini argues that the evidence balances in favour of authenticity (see Epistola a Cangrande, ed. by Enzo Cecchini (Florence: Giunti, 1995), pp. viii-xxv) as does Robert Hollander in his important study, Dante’s Epistle to Cangrande (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 1-101. My own view tends towards the authenticity of the whole epistle.

19 For the argument from existence, see Epistola a Cangrande, xx. 54-57; for the argument from essence, see Ibid., xxi. 58-59; for the argument from movement, see Ibid., xxvi. 71-72.

20 Dante’s apostrophe renders Boethius’ ‘O qui perpetua mundum ratione gubernas’, the poem which opens the central book of the Consolatio Philosophiae. A brief, but useful, gloss on the poem is found in Durling and Martinez, III, Paradiso, pp. 686-94.