Ronald Herzman, SUNY Geneseo

title.none: Scott, Dante's Political Purgatory

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.007 96.11.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ronald Herzman, SUNY Geneseo,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Scott, John A. Dante's Political Purgatory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 295. $-42.95. ISBN: ISBN cloth- 0-8122-3346.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.07

Scott, John A. Dante's Political Purgatory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 295. $-42.95. ISBN: ISBN cloth- 0-8122-3346.

Reviewed by:

Ronald Herzman, SUNY Geneseo

Dante's Political Purgatory is an ambitious and interesting attempt to place political concerns at the center of a discussion of the Purgatorio. To accomplish this, Professor Scott divides the book in two (unequal) parts. The first, shorter, part is an attempt to "set in historical context Dante's experience of politics, including two decades spent in purgatorial exile" (p. 65). The second (much longer) section, while not quite a canto by canto analysis, guides the reader through the Purgatory from beginning to end, concentrating on those cantos or canto clusters that give the greatest yield in terms of the political issues that are Scott's focus.

A clear advantage to this structure is that the first section--three chapters that deal respectively with Dante's political career before his exile, the early years of exile, and the final years of exile--brings the reader up to speed who might be coming to the book without a detailed knowledge of Dante's engagement in politics. By the time that reader gets to the second section, she is able to follow Scott's arguments even if she comes as a relative novice to this set of concerns. Scott is probably beating up a straw man when describing one of his arguments as a "forceful rebuttal of the idea that the political element is alien or hostile to Dante's poetic genius" (p. 151). Who today would conceivably say that the political element is alien or hostile to Dante? But some of his defensiveness might be excused on the grounds that the political has not gotten its due in recent Dante scholarship on the Purgatorio.

Scott has assembled a good deal of material, bringing together a vast number of primary and secondary sources on the political aspects of the poem, including a comprehensive review of Dante's other works, and a review of some fundamental aspects of medieval political theory. There is much to be learned from this assemblage, and the book is in many ways a useful guide to the Purgatory. I certainly came away from the book convinced by his argument that there is more to politics in the Purgatorio than I would have previously granted, and more within those sections where I would have previously granted a good deal.

One way in which the book is useful is that it helps to provide the larger context which is necessary for access to a set of concerns where knowledge is often gleaned piecemeal. Scott relates, for example, Dante's indictments of some specific political figures in the Commedia to the "whole drift of pro-French and anti-imperial policy throughout the thirteenth century, a policy which reached both its zenith and its nadir in the reigns of Boniface VIII (1294-1303) and Clement V (1305-1314)" (p. 201). His frequent discussions of the "whole drift," providing as they do a backdrop against which the specificity of the Purgatorio's political concerns unfolds, provides a useful corrective for those of us who look to the commentaries line-by-line to provide background for a particular crux or a particular reference as we deal with the political aspects of the Commedia.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the book's many arguments is that which follows the rejection of the commonplace that the Griffin is an allegorical representation of Christ. Following the conclusions of Peter Armour, that the Griffin represents "the Rome in which the potential for violence and hostility to Christianity has been entirely superseded" (p. 194, quoting Armour), Scott addresses the political implications of this equation. Whether one accepts his position or not (and it seems to me that the evidence is marshalled carefully), it leads to a discussion of the extent to which the apocalyptic polemics of the final cantos have a contemporary political dimension (once again centered on the French-papal alliance) which has been given less attention than it deserves in the widespread recent discussion of these especially dense cantos.

I have some quarrels with the book, some of a relatively fundamental nature. In the broadest sense, I question his take on the relationship between poetry and history and poetry and politics. He reads the poem with such concern for the political as to almost lose sight of the fact that it is a poem from time to time. I think this is an especial danger in those places where he stresses the continuity between the political ideas of the Purgatorio and the political ideas of Dante's other writings. Even if we grant that there is no major change in Dante's political thought between the Monarchia and the Commedia, the way that thought is expressed in an epic of conversion and in a political treatise are by no means interchangeable. I think differences as well as similarities need to be stressed, even if one does accept Scott's thesis that the last chapter of the Monarchia gives a definitive blueprint for Dante's take on the relation of the two supreme powers on earth, the Empire and the Papacy, as portrayed in the Commedia.

As Scott phrases it, "God instituted two ends for humanity, with two supreme authorities to guide them to those ends. The first is the happiness attainable in this life...; the second, the happiness attainable only in eternity.... The first is symbolized by Eden or the Earthly Paradise, to which the emperor must lead men and women--aided in his task by the teaching of philosophy. The second is found in Heaven and must be reached under the guidance of the Pope, with the help of revelation. This all-embracing formula must constantly be kept in mind by readers of the Comedy" (p. 132). "[K]ept in mind," I'm willing to grant. But it seems to me that Scott goes beyond this, and uses this formula to ignore what the geometry of the poem demands, namely that in Dante's journey earthly beatitude does not exist for its own sake, as a kind of separate-but-equal kind of beatitude, but rather is a step on the way to an encounter with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. Scott makes this same case in another part of the book. "All too often," he tells us, "Dante's poem has been regarded exclusively as a spiritual ascent to God, thus ignoring the totality of the poem's message, which is bent on leading humanity to both its goals, the one set firmly in this world...and the other providing salvation and eternal beatitude" (p. 53). It seems to me that Scott runs the equal and opposite risk of concentrating on the politics of papacy and empire to the extent that he ignores the way the poem has been inevitably shaped by the fact that it is, in fact, a poem of spiritual ascent. I think that "spiritual ascent" needs to be taken into account within the discussion of all the issues that Scott raises (and I agree with him that they are important issues). I'm not so sure that he leaves enough room to talk about spiritual ascent, however, or to put it another way, that he sufficiently demonstrates that the political issues can't be considered apart from the spiritual ascent.

Scott, who teaches in Australia, draws heavily from Italian, British, and American Dante scholarship. Perhaps as a member of the American crew I am being overly sensitive, but it seems to me that he takes the occasional unwarranted pot shot at the American side. The following might serve as an example. There is a current view, he claims, in which all truths spoken by characters are reserved for Paradise. "This latter view has gained ground recently especially in American Dante scholarship. Critics tend at times to turn the author of the Commedia into a medieval fundamentalist, such that everything placed in the mouth of a sinner in Hell (and even of the souls found in Purgatory) must be [sic] definition be erroneous" (p. 146). A good deal of American scholarship, surely, is concerned with demonstrating that what characters say is determined as much by where they are as by who they are. So in hell, not surprisingly, souls who have by definition lost the good of the intellect speak like souls who have lost the good of the intellect. To tease out the rich and ironic implications of this fact doesn't seem to me to imply fundamentalism. It does imply that one has to be mighty careful in imputing to souls in the afterlife an ability to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Pushed too far, it seems to me, Professor Scott's implied denial of this principle of dramatic decorum would lead to the conclusion that the poem exists for the sake of the doctrine that can be extracted from it. Pushed too far it implies that souls in the afterlife are direct spokesmen for Dante's views. I'm not suggesting that Scott himself goes that far. (Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that Scott does not ignore rhetorical analysis, but rather uses it effectively to contribute to his larger concerns). But it seems to me that this is the direction that leads to fundamentalism.

The book covers its territory carefully and (despite some of my comments) cautiously. Scott's conclusions always emerge through attention to the details of the poem and attention to the many ways in which these details have previously been analyzed. It is a book that repays a careful reading, by forcing one to justify or reevaluate previously held opinions and commonplaces.