Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Dante on the Nature and Use of Language

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Dante on the Nature and Use of Language

Article excerpt

DANTE'S REFLECTIONS ON THE NATURE of language do not constitute a fully developed philosophy of language, but anyone conversant with his Convivio and De Vulgari Eloquentia will find there the elements for the construction of one. Although language has various uses, two main ones are to instruct and to delight. The problem in extended writing is how to do both at the same time.

From the time of Plato, writers sensitive to the power of language have tried to solve this problem. Dante attempts both artistic and theoretical solutions. He is at once a sensitive user and appreciator of language and a student of its nature, function, organization, and history. For Dante as poet, language is the medium in which his art is expressed; for Dante as philosopher, language is itself an object of study. Dante was a master of his art, which implies he had a theoretical knowledge of it; he also had a practical understanding of human nature, character, and the emotions.

Dante expresses his views on language in many of his writings, including the Commedia, but his most thorough and sustained writings on the topic, and those on which this paper principally draws, are II Convivio, De Vulgari Eloquentia, and La Vita Nuova. While the main emphasis of this paper is on De Vulgari Eloquentia, the two earlier writings, La Vita Nouva and II Convivio, provide insight into the development of his views on the nature and use of language, and into the paradoxical intellect of Dante, from which at last flowed the Commedia.

Although the dates are uncertain, the composition of La Vita Nuova, comprised of thirty-one poems and commentaries on the poems, is generally thought to have extended from around the time Dante was eighteen until he was around thirty. (1) At some point, late in this time framework, Dante collected the poems and provided a commentary for each, explaining both the external circumstances surrounding the creation of the poem, and an account of his own state of mind that resulted in his writing the poem.

The title, La Vita Nuova, is ambiguous. It can refer simply to the life of a youth growing into maturity. It can also refer to a pilgrimage that Dante is making as he develops through love, friendship, and grace to become a more noble person with a deepened understanding of the theological and moral virtues, and of the importance of language that both aids and provokes this development. This is especially evident in what Hollander refers to as the "third movement" of the Vita Nouva. (2)

The first movement of the Vita Nuova, in which Dante tells of his encounters with Beatrice and later his unhappiness in love, is written in the style of Guido Cavalcanti, (3) who, for a time, was Dante's primo amico. The voice in this movement is personal, that of a young poet, recognizing, perhaps dimly though strongly, the worth of his beloved, and trying to say something of her value and its effects on him, both joy and pain.

In the second movement, as Dante realizes that it is pointless to lament what he cannot have, his style and subject matter are new born and elevated in praise of the qualities of Beatrice. By centering on these qualities, this second movement invokes a universality not present in the first movement. Dante has discovered and now writes in a style he calls "it dolce stil novo." Canzone XIX, which begins with the well-known phrase, "Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore," (4) marks the beginning of this new style. It is a style practiced by Guido Guinizzelli to whom, among others, Dante sent the poem.

Dante relates that Guinizzelli, responding to the poem, asks Dante to say what love is. The sonnet he writes in response to Guinizzelli's request no longer speaks in a purely personal voice, but rather philosophically. It considers objective relations between love and reason, how beauty can awaken love and lead to truth, and how the nobility of one person, man or woman, attracts another person also to become virtuous or noble. …

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