Natura Non Saltum Facit: Virgil's Telepathy in the Commedia Reconsidered

By Rendall, Thomas | Italica, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Natura Non Saltum Facit: Virgil's Telepathy in the Commedia Reconsidered


Rendall, Thomas, Italica


Can Dante's Virgil read the pilgrim's mind? Although the fictional Virgil is indispensable to the story of the Commedia as Dante's companion and guide throughout the poem's first two canticles, recent criticism has increasingly found the character subject to human failings. As a part of this critique, one of Virgil's abilities that has come under special scrutiny is his supposed gift of telepathy. On several occasions in the poem, Dante-pilgrim says Virgil can read his mind, and Virgil claims to be able to do so. Most readers, including such eminent scholars as Charles Singleton, have taken Virgil's possession of this ability for granted. (1) As early as 1977, however, Mark Musa claimed that Virgil's reading of Dante's mind is merely the result of the kind of acute inference for which Sherlock Holmes is famous. (2) According to Musa, Virgil may possess exceptional discernment and sagacity, "but always within the limits of human intelligence." Readers of the Commedia are therefore exhorted to "restrict the gift of god-like divination" to Beatrice, the pilgrim's second guide ("Virgil Reads the Pilgrim's Mind" 152). Other contemporary scholars concur, notably Robert Hollander, who is at the forefront of those who stress the weaknesses of the fictional Virgil. (3)

In short, the question of Virgil's telepathy has been structured as alternatives of (1) "Virgil is superhuman and can read Dante's mind" or (2) "he is the shade of an ordinary human being, and therefore cannot." Such a rigid dichotomy seems ill-suited to our age of deconstruction and fuzzy logic, and, I suggest, would also have seemed unnecessary to Dante. In this article, I will examine the question of Virgil's telepathy from a new angle, attempting to throw light on his ability to read Dante's mind by viewing it in the context of the liminal nature of the communication of other important characters of Dante's poem.

The Christian Middle Ages conceived the human as straddling the border between the material and the spiritual. As Dante describes the situation in the Convivio, the human being "da una parte sia da materia libera, da un'altra e impedita, si com'e l'uomo ch'e tutto nell'acqua fuor del capo, del quale non si puo dire che tutto sia nell'acqua ne tutto fuor da quella" (3.7.5). It is also well known that within each general category on the scala naturae were thought to be smaller gradations--for example, within the category of animals, the hierarchy of mammals (the lion as "king of the beasts"), within the category of humans, the hierarchy of the officials of the Church, and within the category of angels, the nine celestial orders. (4)

But what is not so often recognized is that the gradations within the rungs of the ladder of creation were thought to extend to the transitions between the rungs. Dante's conception of the scala naturae included the conviction--originating in Aristotle--that the hierarchy of being was essentially seamless. Natura non saltum facit: "there are no gaps in nature." (5) Dante makes a distinction in the Convivio between "gradi generali" which separate the plant, animal, human, and angelic realms, and "gradi singulari" (3.7.6) which represent infinitesimal gradations not only within but also between the realms. It is in the transitions between realms that anomalous, truly liminal beings are encountered, such as a sponge, whose nature seems halfway between plant and animal. (6) Within the human realm, says Dante, a very evil person can be close to an animal, since "tra l'anima umana e l'anima piu perfetta delli bruti animali ancor mezzo alcuno non sia," and, in the same way, a very good person can be close to an angel: "e cosi e da porre e da credere fermamente che sia alcuno tanto nobile e di si alta condizione che quasi non sia altro che angelo" (Convivio 3.7.6). (7)

With regard to the human ability of communication, Dante meets a range of creatures on his journey, (8) and a brief review of his presentation of this topic will provide context for a detailed analysis of Virgil's powers. …

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