15.05.21, Steinberg, Dante and the Limits of the Law

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Alison Cornish

The Medieval Review 15.05.21

Steinberg, Justin. Dante and the Limits of the Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. pp. viii, 240. ISBN: 9780226071091 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Alison Cornish
University of Michigan

Justin Steinberg's first book, Accounting for Dante, had the very original idea of tracing the influence of non-literary practices--in particular book-keeping and notarial records--on the vernacular literary practices of Dante's milieu. In this new volume Steinberg has investigated another important aspect of historical and social context--the law--and shown it relevant not only to Dante's thinking about legal matters and the legality, or rather "exceptionality," of his journey, but also to his thinking about the conventions of literature and his adherence to or exception from them. One main advantage of Steinberg's approach in both books is that it is grounded in a cultural forma mentis, rather than in presumed Oedipal or egotistical complexes of the author. As summed up in Accounting for Dante, "when the social field is left out of literary criticism, we are left with accounts of competing egos and interpersonal rivalry" which are "hardly unique to Dante and his time and place" (3). In particular, the present volume helps put to rest a current psychoanalytic interpretation of Dante as aiming to "do away with" his literary mentor, Virgil. In Steinberg's view, Virgil disappears from the narrative in Purgatorio 30 not because Dante has superseded him, or cancelled him out, but rather because he has perfectly internalized everything good that Virgil stands for--both legally and poetically. This is the role of the law in Dante's thinking. It is not a question of breaking away from or abandoning institutional authorities such as Church and State, but rather of gaining freedom within the limits of the transcendent order of the law, whose observance is precisely what makes freedom possible.

The Divine Comedy is about justice, specifically divine justice since the afterlife is a place where justice is finally done, however lacking in the world. Yet although divine law and human law are not identical and indeed in many cases do not even overlap, the depiction of divinely ordained reward and punishment in the Comedy is in conversation with known legal principles and practices. As Steinberg puts it, "the particular justice reserved for souls in the afterlife is not intended to be interpreted absolutely, but instead dialectically, even critically, and in relation to recognized forms of earthly justice" (8). It is therefore not so strange to assert that Dante's framework is "manifestly a legal one" (1), one available and relevant to his readers, who are thereby called upon to judge with the author. Even God is seen to act within the limits of the law: divine omnipotence is sidelined as a cop-out explanation. Although God can do anything, He normally does predictable things, as in the laws of nature, so that scientific investigation of the universe is not fruitless. In the thirteenth century, this was the difference between God's absolute and ordered power, giving rise to philosophical debates about whether an omnipotent deity could act against the laws of His own creation (97-98). Dante is often either lauded or deplored for his outspoken and controversial judgments of fellow human beings and the superhuman authority he seems to arrogate to himself in handing down those judgments. Among other things, this book shows exactly in what ways the proud poet set his sights within limits, limits which all men and women need to internalize especially in a period of interregnum, in a world without leadership.

Steinberg writes extraordinarily well, economically and elegantly getting to the point. The book is neatly organized around four legal terms: Infamia, Arbitrium, Privilegium, and Pactum. Infamia, or a bad reputation, is a legal category that Steinberg characterizes as "beneath" the law, because the infamous are not treated the same as those in good repute. Loss of status can put someone, like Dante, who was a convict and an exile, outside of or beneath the protections of the law. The topic is rightly explored among the sodomites in Inferno 15 and 16 where ostensibly honorable citizens are defamed by an exposure of their "illicit subculture" (37). The much-admired Brunetto Latini is said to be "sacrificed...for the sake of argument" (37), an argument about the sterility of the Florentines' quest for honor and fame. In its literary application, infamia is related both to the authority and reliability of authors and to the effect of verisimilitude, which is comparable to "what everyone knows" about infamous people (14).

Arbitrium, sometimes equated with free will, indicates in a legal context a judge's discretion. In this chapter, Steinberg takes to task the venerable thesis of Kantorowicz who interpreted Virgil's pronouncement of Dante's arbitrio as "free, upright, and whole" at the end of Purgatorio 27 as "a new Renaissance sovereignty of the artist" and "a plenitude of power typically associated with the offices of emperor and pope" (55). While looking for the origins of the modern constitutionalist state, Kantorowicz sees arbitrium as the medieval legal origin of earthly rulers' absolute power. Instead, Steinberg shows how arbitrium is an emergency, delegated power that always remained circumscribed by the law, which no one was above. Dante's new-found freedom to explore the garden of Eden is not an emancipation from legal and philosophical authority; rather it occurs in "a regulated space beyond, but not in opposition to, the law" and "still ruled by transcendent standards and collective norms" (57). Eden is a simulacrum of good government, which makes people free. Steinberg connects this discussion with Dante's treatise on vernacular poetics (De vulgari eloquentia), the point of which is that all poets, both modern and ancient, are constrained by laws. Latin is the product of popular sovereignty, of consent; grammar puts the brakes on whim (arbitrium) (66); poetic innovation is made possible by a complete internalization of norms, laws, institutions, authorities--not a self-liberation from them (85). This applies to Dante's readers as well as to himself: "Dante's emergency poetics instills in the individual a disposition to obey longstanding collective norms" (58).

Insofar as the journey recounted in the poem would seem to flout or contradict the laws of nature, justice, and society, it does so as an exception, or "privilege" or "writ of passage", which is a situation contemplated by the law. Indeed the exception proves the rule, or confirms the law of which it is an exception. For example, the scandalous salvation of Cato (pagan, suicide, and enemy of Caesar) should be understood not as normative, as fitting somehow into the laws, but rather as a grand exception to those laws. Cato's own worry that the laws of hell have been broken if two souls can escape from it is a marker of this; it too is put to rest by the explanation that these two travellers are an exception and have been granted a privilege that derives from a legal framework where someone in power has authority to do that: "The rule of law can tolerate the exception" (3). Dante's journey is an exception, or privilege, but so is his poem. It is a poem written in a period of interregnum (in the absence of an actual effectual emperor) parallel to the waiting period between the First and Second Coming. The transcendent order of the law is to be respected and internalized all the more in the absence of the sovereign's "body."

Because of the breakdown of faith in the law due to misbehavior of those in power, from the pope to the French kings (4), the infernal world where no one respects authority or honors his word would be depressingly familiar to a contemporary reader. Hell is a place full of "naked pacts," that is agreements between parties that are unenforceable because they are not backed up by accepted norms and authorities. Emblematic of this situation is Guido da Montefeltro, enraged at the pope's breaking of his promise to him of absolution in return for Guido's own "fraudulent counsel" to the pontiff to break promises to his enemies. The Inferno delineates the "limits of accord between people who can no longer swear to the truth" (135) and no longer believe, as Virgil does, in a higher context for their transactions (137). Steinberg relates this to the nakedness of Justice in his canzone "Tre donne intorno al cor" and to Dante's appropriation of the comedic genre, marked by an oath made on "the notes of his own comedy," just as he ungirds himself in order to hand Virgil his belt with which to fish for the beast Geryon, "filthy image of fraud." Comedy itself is a kind of naked pact with the reader with nothing external to back it up.

This last chapter on pacts would have seemed the opportune place to investigate Dante's elaborate discussion of vows in Paradiso 5, which are explicitly described as pacts between God and man (nel fermar tra Dio e l' uomo il patto). It is an omission that might well be made up on the model of what Steinberg has done in this truly excellent book.

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