Richard Kay

title.none: Boyde, Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante's Comedy (Richard Kay )

identifier.other: baj9928.0111.004 01.11.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Kay , University of Kansas, SKIPKAY@FALCON.CC.UKANS.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Boyde, Patrick. Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante's Comedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 321. 64.95. ISBN: 0-512-66067-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.11.04

Boyde, Patrick. Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante's Comedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 321. 64.95. ISBN: 0-512-66067-x.

Reviewed by:

Richard Kay
University of Kansas

Dante's Commedia is an allegory about the consequences of human vices and virtues. The author of the Epistle to Can Grande--most probably Dante himself--says so explicitly (Epist. 13.24-25). Consequently, in order to understand the poem, the reader must be able to recognize a vice or virtue when he finds it exemplified by the characters he and the pilgrim encounter. The task would be an easy one if Dante had simply adopted conventional lists of vices and virtues and treated them systematically, not to say mechanically. Thus the Seven Deadly Sins could have supplied a framework for the vices, as they do in the 2a 2ae of Aquinas's Summa theologiae. To be sure, the first circles of the Inferno seem to be devoted to six of these vices, with the surprising omission of Pride, which has no single place of punishment; but from the sixth circle on down, Dante makes his own list, drawing sins not only from the Bible (sodomy, hypocrisy) and theology (heresy, suicide, sodomy, usury, simony, schism), but also from Aristotle (astutia) and from medieval feudal/courtly society (treason) and Italian civic society (barratry). Some of the sins, such as theft and divination, are condemned both by Roman law and biblical authority. Consequently, as the reader progresses through Hell, even though armed with Virgil's convenient list of named sins (Inf. 11), he is less and less certain just what vice is being exemplified: he sees the behavior but has trouble reading the allegory. Thus, for example, although it is clear (because Virgil says so) that Brunetto Latini and his fellows in Inferno 15-16 have committed the sin of Sodom, still scholars today disagree about what Dante considered that sin to be. In sum, one cannot read Dante's allegory of human vice without knowing how such behavior was regarded by the poet's Christian and Classical sources. The task becomes easier once we leave Hell, for the Seven Deadly Sins reappear in Purgatory as the chief organizing principle, while in Paradise the framework is provided by the astrological virtues imparted by the seven planets. Even so, it is still true that the poem cannot be decoded apart from its cultural context.

How, then, to close the culture gap between Dante and his readers, especially modern ones? Perhaps it can be done, as Benvenuto da Imola asserted, by exercising great ingenuity; the scholarly way, of course, is by wide and deep reading of the authoritative authors whom Dante respected. But either course demands too much of the ordinary reader who wants to understand without a lifetime of study. Of course he can let the more talented and industrious explain things to him, but to be led through the poem by others deprives him of the active, immediate experience of discovering the answers for himself, for it is one thing to hit on the answer to a riddle oneself, and quite another to be told it by someone else. There is, however, a middle way: if the solution involves principles unknown to the reader, these can be supplied to him as hints that may heighten, rather than lessen, his intellectual involvement.

Such is the great enterprise that Patrick Boyde began twenty years ago in his trilogy entitled Dante Philomythes and Philosopher. The title announces his intention aptly, if somewhat idiosyncratically. Boyde proposed to provide the modern reader with the intellectual background necessary to understand Dante's poetry, and what is more, to show by examples how the learned poet took what he considered to be true facts and incorporated them into his poetic fictions. Dante is thus shown to be at once a lover of wisdom (philos + sophia) and a lover of myth (philos + mythos).

The first volume of the trilogy, subtitled Man in the Cosmos (1981), described the basic concepts of nature and supernature, ascending from the doctrine of the four elements through the nine heavens to the angels, and then explained how these, and finally mankind, were created by God. Boyde's original plan was to write two companion volumes on "Man in Society" and "Man and God" (1981, p. 281), but without explanation he scaled down his project to include only an account of Aristotelian psychology (Perception and Passion in Dante's 'Comedy', 1993) and now an introduction to the ethical principles underlying Dante's poetry. [1]

What has remained fixed is the author's intention to serve the needs of his students, which he has come to perceive ever more clearly as the work progressed. The first volume answered questions that the novice reader of the Comedy is not likely to ask, because he is more concerned with the moral dimension of the poem, inasmuch as the practical, applied part of philosophy--ethics, politics, and esthetics--attract the beginner more than its theoretical and methodological investigations. Perhaps sensing his audience's desire to get to the heart of the matter, Boyde reduced his originally comprehensive plan to the essentials, at least for Dantists. Since the Comedy is an allegory of the choices made by souls, psychology--the study of souls--was the irreducible minimum of theory required before turning to ethics, this necessary introduction was the subject of Boyde's second volume. Now he has arrived at last where his intended reader wishes he had begun, with the principles of morality. With the trilogy complete, I would recommend that beginners read it in reverse order.

The present volume presupposes only that Boyde's ideal reader has read the Commedia, perhaps not too attentively; the author would also like to suppose that the reader knows Italian and a little Latin, for his expositions are regularly based on texts presented in their original language, and although he is careful to provide at least paraphrases of Italian passages and always an English translation of anything in Latin, still on occasion he exhorts the reader to tackle the original (e.g. pp. 106 and 112). In short, a cursory acquaintance with the Comedy is all that Boyde really requires of his reader.

He begins, then, at ground zero, with a biographical survey of Dante's authors, including Aristotle and Aquinas, Boethius, Cicero, Virgil, Statius, Roman law and the Bible (chapter 1). Next, in chapter 2 he explains the methods used by medieval scholastics to master and interpret these authorities--compilations, such as the Sentences of Peter Lombard and Gratian's Decretum (oddly cited as the Decretale); the Aristotelian syllogism and dialectic; the quaestio, with an analysis of one article by Aquinas; and finally the scholastic commentary. The chapter is rounded off by exemplifying these these methods as used by Dante in the Convivio and the Monarchia.

The survey of scholasticism is completed in chapter 3 with an examination of two habits of thought: making distinctions and drawing up numbered lists. The former proclivity is aptly illustrated by a diagram of the tree of the vices, and another one of the virtues, both reproduced from a fourteenth-century (English!) psalter, indifferently in the text (pp. 54-55) and beautifully on the dustjacket. After explaining the role of numerology in listmaking, Boyde concludes with examples of Dante's use of such divisions and lists in the Comedy.

Having sketched the scholastic background to Dante's thought, Boyde proceeds to develop his main thesis, which is that the poet attempted to synthesize, not always successfully, three systems of "competing values"--Aristotelian, Christian, and courtly--which are treated in three successive chapters. Chapter 4 expounds Aristotle's Ethics with admirable clarity and no surprises: human happiness consists in the realization of man's capabilities as a rational and political animal through the contemplation of truth and through the habitual practice of virtue. Chapter 5 accomplishes the more difficult task of summarizing "Christian values through Dante's eyes" in 26 pages (100-125). In the Bible, virtue is obedience to God, and Jesus put a positive spin on this by insisting that God is love. The Beatitudes show that Christian happiness is attained in the next world through suffering in this life--a view conflicting, if not incompatible, with Aristote's concept of happiness as the virtuous completion of a full life in this world. This reading of the Gospels is followed by brief summaries of postbiblical Christian doctrines that influenced Dante: original sin, redemption, the infusion of virtues, and finally the three theological virtues.

After all these artful propedeutics, Boyde finally hits his stride in chapter 6, "A Courtly Value in Dante's Eyes", which traces the development of the concept of gentilezza in Dante's thought. As the co-author, with Kenelm Foster, of Dante's Lyric Poetry (1967), Boyde is here in his element. In a virtuoso exposition, he shows how Dante took the courtly, lay ideal of human nobility, or gentilezza, and combined it with values derived from clerical culture, most notably from Aristotle. The centerpiece is Dante's canzone "Le dolci rime" and his commentary on it in book 4 of the Convivio. The result was an unconventional mixture of Aristotelian virtues with courtly ones such as beauty, courtesy, sweetness, and love. (142) Dante unifies both sets conceptually, however, by taking all of these virtues to be manifestations of the potential for nobility that God implants in the human heart.

After this one might expect Boyde to treat each of the vices and virtues exemplified in the Comedy, but instead he wisely gives us a wider perspective in three successive chapters (7-9) by considering only three that are thematic in the poem: the "arch-vices" of covetousness (cupidigia, or greed) and of pride, and "the supreme virtue" of justice. These chapters, more than any others in the book, should be required reading for every student of the poem, for with wonderful mastery of his material Boyde brings together disparate passages to form a connected account of each of these key themes. The treatment defies summary, so these rich, dense chapters must be (re)commended, in the jargon of medieval lawyers, in toto.

The book concludes with an unexpected coda in the form of a lectura Dantis, "The Worth and Vices of Ulysses: A Case Study" (chapter 10). Here Boyde seeks to show by example how all the principles he has expounded can be brought to bear in the interpretation of a particular episode of the poem. The objective, expository mode that has characterized the book so far is exchanged now for a subjective, interpretive reading that will take its place along with other, innumerable readings of Inferno 26. Boyde takes seriously Ulysses' claim that his motive for sailing out into the Atlantic was "to gain experience of the world / and of human vices and human worth" (Inf. 26.98-99)--so seriously that it provided the title for this book. [2] I think he consequently overstresses Ulysses' positive qualities, which (he argues) attracted Dante's sympathy.

In other hands, this might have been a dull book, but Boyde is a superb teacher. His command of rhetoric, which was his province in Dante's Lyric Poetry, enables him to be not only lucid and concise but also entertaining, and even whimsically didactic in etymological asides and wide-ranging allusions (always duly documented). As a result, the book is a deceptively easy read that for many will reveal its closely argued messages only after patient review and analysis. Boyde's propensity for extensive annotation has now been so curtailed by the publisher that it makes little difference to have the notes identifying his sources exiled as endnotes. Boyde makes only a token effort to suggest reading in secondary sources, and his selection privileges British over American authors: witness the absence of Anthony Cassell's Dante's Fearful Art of Justice and sparse reference to the prolific work of Robert Hollander. Boyde's intended audience, however, will hardly be inconvenienced, for his emphasis is ever, and rightly, on the texts of Dante and his authors. The third and final course of this nourishing and attractive banquet has now been served up, and (in his concluding words), "Manum de tabula."


[1] Cf. my reviews of the trilogy's previous volumes in L'Alighieri, an. 23, no. 2 (1982), 57-9, and Annali d'italianistica, 13 (1995), 477-8.

[2] My view is that the wily Ulysses is still concealing his true motive, which was to sail to the Fortunate Isles and enter the pagan equivalent of Paradise by a trick: see "Two Pairs of Tricks: Ulysses and Guido in Dante's Inferno XXVI-XXVII," Quaderni d'italianistica, 1 (1980), 107-124, which Boyde does not cite.