Dante's Philosophical Life: Politics and Human Wisdom in Purgatorio

Dante's Philosophical Life: Politics and Human Wisdom in Purgatorio

Dante's Philosophical Life: Politics and Human Wisdom in Purgatorio

Dante's Philosophical Life: Politics and Human Wisdom in Purgatorio


When political theorists teach the history of political philosophy, they typically skip from the ancient Greeks and Cicero to Augustine in the fifth century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth, and then on to the origins of modernity with Machiavelli and beyond. Paul Stern aims to change this settled narrative and makes a powerful case for treating Dante Alighieri, arguably the greatest poet of medieval Christendom, as a political philosopher of the first rank.

In Dante's Philosophical Life, Stern argues that Purgatorio's depiction of the ascent to Earthly Paradise, that is, the summit of Mount Purgatory, was intended to give instruction on how to live the philosophic life, understood in its classical form as "love of wisdom." As an object of love, however, wisdom must be sought by the human soul, rather than possessed. But before the search can be undertaken, the soul needs to consider from where it begins: its nature and its good. In Stern's interpretation of Purgatorio, Dante's intense concern for political life follows from this need, for it is law that supplies the notions of good that shape the soul's understanding and it is law, especially its limits, that provides the most evident display of the soul's enduring hopes.

According to Stern, Dante places inquiry regarding human nature and its good at the heart of philosophic investigation, thereby rehabilitating the highest form of reasoned judgment or prudence. Philosophy thus understood is neither a body of doctrines easily situated in a Christian framework nor a set of intellectual tools best used for predetermined theological ends, but a way of life. Stern's claim that Dante was arguing for prudence against dogmatisms of every kind addresses a question of contemporary concern: whether reason can guide a life.


I came to Dante’s Commedia already well into my career. Preparing to teach it in a first-year course, I, like many readers, was captivated by the poem’s sheer imaginative power. As a student of classical political philosophy, I was also impressed—and puzzled—by how frequently Dante uses this power for a political end. In particular, I wondered why politics should have such prominence in a poem about the Christian afterlife, especially a conception of it that chimes so clearly and insistently with a classical understanding. This wonder motivates my study. Its primary aim is not to explicate Dante’s political views, a task ably accomplished by others. Rather, it seeks to account for the philosophic importance of politics in the poem, to explain why in an intellectual milieu shaped by Christianity and Neoplatonism, a religion and a philosophic school united in their diminishment of politics, the political realm should occupy such a significant place in the Commedia’s vision. My thesis is that the poem’s political surface provides the key to its depths. More specifically, I argue that the prominence and meaning Dante accords politics are crucial to the vindication of rational inquiry into the human good, which, I also argue, is his poem’s intent.

American Dante scholarship of the past fifty years maintains a different view. With a few notable exceptions, this scholarship understands the poem’s intent as religious. Charles Singleton supplies this reading’s principle: “Dante sees as poet and realizes as poet what is already conceptually elaborated and established in Christian doctrine.” For Singleton, the poem’s purpose as versified Christian doctrine is plain.

Yet, precisely the Christian character that makes Singleton’s characterization . . .

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