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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the leading poet of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. He was also a prominent thinker in the fields of literary theory, moral and social philosophy, and political thought. His most famous work, The Divine Comedy, is a literary landmark and a synthesis of his political, religious, and social views. Dante's embrace of human individuality and happiness and his use of Italian rather than Latin in The Divine Comedy are often considered to signal the end of the Middle Ages and the rise of Renaissance humanism. Dante was born to a noble Florentine family who belonged to the White Guelf party and were allied with the papacy. His involvement with the chaotic politics of the time, however, convinced Dante of the necessity for political unity and the separation of church and state. Nevertheless, after the Black Guelfs took power in Florence, Dante was forced into exile for the balance of his years.
Dante's conceptions of the correct political, religious, and social orders were a powerful critique of existing practices. His work De monarchia (possibly written for Henry VII [H.R.E. 1308-1313])1 argues for a supreme world monarchy with all other temporal orders subordinate to it. The church's sole mission, in this view, is to concentrate on religious matters, especially salvation. In this scheme Dante accepted the claims of neither the emperor nor the papacy (articulated famously by Boniface VIII [r. 1294-1303]) to supremacy over both spheres. Dante argued that both leaders were neglecting their duties, as the current disorder seemed to prove. His work was condemned as heretical.
While Dante incorporated many Scholastic themes and beliefs into his works, his ultimate doctrine was far different and humanistic in nature. He did not believe that this life is merely a necessary burden in preparation for eternal life, but that individuals should try to be happy on earth. Moreover, he believed the individual soul is part of the collective whole but retains its individuality. His focus on the individual was part of his larger scheme and is evident in the numerous distinct personalities his character meets in The Divine Comedy. His design for a world order incorporates his belief in the dual nature of humanity. In this view, man is of two parts: earthly/temporary (the body) and spiritual/eternal (the soul). Man's duty is to attempt to achieve earthly happiness and everlasting life. This view of humankind's nature and duties was an integral part of Dante's political beliefs and reinforced his view that church and state must be separate. Indicative of the emergence of humanism was the larger role that Dante provided for the humane arts in ordering earthly and spiritual matters. In his criticism of the church and empire and his reworking of Christian doctrine, Dante ushered in a new era of intellectual endeavor.
THE DIVINE COMEDY
A towering figure of world literature, Dante Alighieri is best known for his allegorical work La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), which traces his imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven during which he encounters historical and mythological creatures, each symbolic of a particular fault or virtue. Beatrice, Dante’s great love, whom he regarded as a manifestation of the divine, is his guide through paradise. Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the great works of world literature, and it was also proof that in Italian literature the vulgar tongue could rival Latin.
The Divine Comedy remains today one of the pillars upon which the European literary tradition has been built. Originally titled simply Commedia, Dante's masterpiece was written at the end of his life and finished just before his death in 1321. In an era of hand-copied manuscripts, it reached a large and appreciative audience quickly. By the year 1400, no fewer than 12 commentaries devoted to detailed expositions of its meaning had appeared to support the text. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote on the poet's life and in 1373-1374 delivered the first public lectures on Dante's Commedia.
Dante's work flourished in the fifteenth century along with the printing press, and he became known as the divino poeta or divine poet. In 1555, a fine edition of his Commedia was published in Venice with the adjective divine applied to the poem's title for the first time, resulting in the title still in use today, The Divine Comedy.
Of Dante's approach to this classic text, Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia (3rd edition) observes: "The cosmology, angelology and theology of the work are based firmly on the system of St. Thomas Aquinas, but Dante considered the Church of his time a 'harlot' no longer serving God--he meets seven popes in the Inferno, for instance--and was therefore frequently considered a heretic. The characters whom Dante meets on his journey are drawn largely from ancient Roman history and from recent and contemporary Italian history, including Dante's personal friends and enemies; their vivid portraiture and the constant allusions to human affairs make the work, although in structure a description of the Beyond, actually a realistic picture and intensely involved analysis of every aspect of earthly human life. Dante's literal journey is also an allegory of the progress of the individual soul toward God and the progress of political and social mankind toward peace on earth; it is a compassionate, although moral, evaluation of human nature and a mystic vision of the Absolute toward which it strives. Thus the universality of the drama and the lyric vigor of the poetry are far more important than the specific doctrinal content."
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