Philosophical Friday: Giovanni Boccaccio and the Obscurity of Poetry

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian scholar, raised in Florence. He wrote a wide variety of works: allegorical poems, prose tales, romances, and more. Among Boccaccio’s most well-known books is Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, “a mythological sourceboook that would introduce readers to the study of the ancient poets” [1]. One goal of Genealogy of the Gentile Gods was to provide an argument in favor of poetry as a means for locating truth, setting himself apart from Plato who saw poetry as opposed to truth. Instead, poetry is understood as being from “the bosom of God.”

I am interested, though, in how Boccaccio deals with the problem of poetic obscurity and how Boccaccio’s perspective builds off of and develops older traditions. Initially, Boccaccio frames his argument in terms of a caviller, a person that raises petty quibbles, who objects “that poetry is often obscure, and that poets are to blame for it, since their end is to make an incomprehensible statement appear to be wrought withe exquisite artistry” [2].

In response, Boccaccio offers a few example of texts and writers who are equally obscure but not criticized. First, he makes reference to the philosophers. He offers a question: “do they”, namely philosophers, “always find their close reasoning as simple and clear as they say an oration should be? If they say yes, they lie; for the works of Plato and Aristotle… abound in difficulties…” [3]. In short, philosophical writings are unclear. Second, Boccaccio notes that even the Holy Writ is obscure sometimes. Therefore, any condemnation of poetry on account of obscurity results in the blaspheming of the Holy Ghost. After all, even Augustine comments that certain passages of Isaiah are unclear to him.

On this basis, Boccaccio argues that “no one can believe that poets invidiously veil the truth with fiction,” but they rather veil truth “to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure the object of strong intellectual effort and various interpretation” [4]. In other words, the Holy Writ and non-Holy Writ texts alike veil truth as a means of preventing it from becoming worthless and too common. Such an explanation is remarkably similar to how Augustine explains the obscurity of the Holy Writ: “It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones” [5]. In other words, the obscurity in the Holy Writ is intentional.

While Boccaccio and Augustine both discuss the problem of obscurity and poetry, the reason and way they employ it is distinct. Augustine refers to the obscurity of scripture and its divine cause in order to provide a theological explanation for misunderstood and obscure biblical texts. In other words, his formulation in On Christian Teaching is intended to deal with a theological problem. Although Boccaccio draws from Augustine, inasmuch as he notes the theological problem of viewing obscure texts like the Holy Writ as being impractical, Boccaccio takes Augustine’s framework and applies it to non-biblical material. So, whereas Augustine primarily considers obscurity as reasonable within the Holy Writ, Boccaccio expands this to include non-Holy Writ.

In doing so, Boccaccio creates a divide between that which is Holy Writ and that which is not Holy Writ. By distinguishing between a special, select group of texts and all others, Boccaccio implies a distinction akin to the distinction between secular and religious. In his situation, the Holy Writ is a religious text, whereas all other texts are secular texts.

Boccaccio’s distinction is worth emphasizing because it illumines how the foundations of poetry as an academic object of study are themselves historically defined and understood as that which is not Holy Writ. Such a genealogy is worth examining further.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 201.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206-207.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 208.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism168.




Philosophical Friday: Dante Alighieri and Thomas Aquinas

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is most well-known for his work The Divine Comedy, the first part being more colloquially known as Dante’s Inferno. As a poet living in the 13th and 14th centuries, Dante was concerned with “the problem of how to understand and construe textual meaning” [1]. In many respects, he construed textual meaning is a way similar to Thomas Aquinas.

In Il Convivio, Dante offers commentary on his own poetry in a way that also deals with ethics, metaphysics, philosophy, and politics [2]. Within his commentary, he notes four senses of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Of these senses of interpretation, the literal is the most important because it is only from the literal that the other senses are possible: “since explication is the building up of knowledge, and the explication of the literal sense is the foundation of the others, especially, the allegorical, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses without first arriving at it” [3].

Moreover, Dante interpreting his own poetry, his approach that the “text is polysemous: that is it has many meanings – including the literal – that occur in a single imaginative act” [4]. This is similar to Aquinas, inasmuch as the literal meaning forms the foundation for the allegorical, moral, and anagogical. There is a significant difference, though, between Dante and Aquinas. Aquinas views interpretation as polysemous, albeit rooted in the literal, and justifies his reasoning theologically: “since the author of the Holy Writ is God… it is not unfitting… one word in Holy Writ should have several senses” [4]. Simply put, Aquinas’ perspective is framed by an assumption and perception that his Bible is authored by God. Though similar, Dante differs. Dante is concerned with interpreting literature from his own imagination. So, although Dante and Aquinas employ similar interpretive views, Dante perceives such polysemy as the product of a human mind, whereas Aquinas primarily employs the interpretive framework theologically with relation to God’s intellect.

What, though, is the significance of this difference? While both scholars employ similar interpretive approaches, one uses the theory to explain a theological text (Aquinas), whereas the other uses the theory to explain a human text (Dante). Such a shift in terms of how the theory is utilized signals a shift from a theological model of interpretation to a humanistic model of interpretation, a general feature of the shift into modernity. The previous discussion illuminates how certain fundamental methodologies of Christian theological treatise and perspectives on the Holy Writ were essentially transposed and given a new meaning within authors and thinkers like Dante.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 195.

[2] “Dante Alighieri,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018).

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 197.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 193.

Philosophical Friday: Moses Maimonides and Coherence/Cogency

Moses Maimonides was a Jewish scholar who lived from 1135-1204. During his lifetime, he lived in Spain, Morocco, and Cairo. He was a particularly well known and respected Jewish scholar during his own lifetime. Guide of the Perplexed is among his most well-known works in the 21st century. So, within this blog post, I will briefly summarize his approach to textual interpretation and provide a few reflections on his description of textual interpretation.

First, in Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides points towards two key reasons in order to explain why people fail to understand the meaning of texts: (a) failure to recognize the polysemy of biblical languages and (b) the use of obscure parables in the Hebrew Bible which are intended to “maintain the secrets of divine knowledge” [1]. With this in mind, he also views the propositions in texts in an interesting light. Rather than arguing that a reader should take into consideration how how text is constructed, tracking every piece in order to identify the primary meaning of a parable, Maimonides suggests that “you should not inquire into all the details occurring in the parable” because it may “lead you into ones of two ways: either into turning aside from the parable’s intended subject, or into assuming an obligation to interpret things not susceptible of interpretation and that have not been inserted with a view to interpretation” [2].

With a basic outline of method presented, I now want to draw attention to a few points which strike me as relevant for the type of analysis I am interested in doing. First, he comments that within some parables the extra words serve “to embellish the parable and to render it more coherent or to conceal further the intended meaning” [3]. This captures how Maimonides is attempting to deal with texts which are not coherent or cogent, a subject which, though I don’t have access to the article at the moment, Marc Brettler has discussed. Likewise, in Pentateuchal studies, the Documentary Hypothesis (broadly construed) is used to explain places which are not cogent or coherent. Put simply, Maimonides develops his method out of recognition that the text is not always clear; however, unlike modern approaches, his approach is more theological in nature, perceiving the biblical text as divine in nature and, as such, attributing lack of coherency and cogency to divine intention.

Second, and riffing on my first point, I am left to wonder about which texts constitute those parables that Maimonides categorizes as (a) parables for which each word has meaning and (b) parables for which the whole text indicates the meaning [4]. The example he provides of the first type of parables is Genesis 28:12-13, itself framed as a dream. The second type of parable is Proverbs 7:6-21, itself framed as a complete narrative about a young lad swayed by a woman on the street [5]. With this in mind, at least from a very brief overview of the texts categorized by Maimonides, it seems that the first type of parable is associated with dreams, which themselves are a means that God communicates specific messages to individuals. That description, therefore, is closer to communication directly from God. By contrast, the second type of parable is framed as more generic knowledge, not directly or indirectly associated with God’s speech or revelation. Therefore, at least from a broad overview, his two categories may be divided according to the following: (a) texts wherein Yahweh communicates a message and (b) texts wherein a speaker or agent other than Yahweh communicates a message. Of course, this idea needs to be further developed and tested.


[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 179.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187-188.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[5] Although The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187n2, says Maimonides quotes Proverbs 7:6-21, it is actually Proverbs 7:7-21.

Philosophical Friday: Augustine of Hippo and Signs

In previous experiences, I viewed Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century Christian writer most well-known for texts like On Christian Teaching and City of God, primarily as a theologian. Although he is concerned with theology, he sought to understand more clearly the Christian biblical texts. One of the consequences of this aim was the development of a link between signs and language, namely signification, a issue most famously addressed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In what follows, I will briefly lay out his view of “signs” and “language” and offer a few thoughts on his ideas.

Augustine defines given signs as “those which living things give to each other, in order to show, to the best of their ability, the emotions of their minds, or anything that they have felt or learnt” [1]. That is, signs are primarily meant to signfify something intended to be transmitted to another person. They include language, shouts of pain, facial expressions, etc. Now, because spoken words, words themselves being signs, “cease to exists as soon as they come into contact with the air” [2], Augustine suggests that writing was invented. From his theological approach, though, writing was invented in order to enable divine scripture to be circulated through the world.

With this foundation, Augustine continues by describing the problems in written texts: the meaning of signs in texts “may be veiled either by unknown signs or by ambiguous signs” [3]. In order to deal with this problem, Augustine encourages readers to refer back to the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin original texts. Essentially, he encourages a triangulation of the texts in order to identify the meaning of the text, that is in order to interpret the ambiguous or veiled sign. Another solution to unfamiar signs is simply a problem with knowledge of things. For example, when a biblical text refers to hyssop, Augustine notes that we may not understand the sign in a text because people are “unaware of its power to cleanse the lugns or even (so it is said) to split rocks with its roots” [4]. In other words, in order to understand certain phrases, the reader much have pre-knowledge which will help to inform how certain signs should be interpreted.

At base, then, Augustine argues that knowledge of literature and how literature works, namely the issue of signifiers and the signified. For, “A knowledge of them is necessary for the resolution of ambiguities in scripture because when a meaning based on the literal interpretation of the words in absurd we must investigate whether the passage that we cannot understand is perhaps being expressed by means of one or other of the tropes” [5].

From this brief summary of Augustine’s perspective, I want to emphasize two aspects.

First, Augustine explicitly describes letters, written signs of words, as an extension of speech. Without them, speech ceases to exist when it comes into contact with the air. This is an important point to me because, in my perspective, all texts are, to a certain degree, a simulation of a speech situation. This same principle may be extracted from Augustine’s treatise On Christian Teaching.

Second, and in a similar vein, Augustine recognizes that all people speak in figures of speech: “Almost all these tropes, which are said to be acquired through one of the ‘liberal’ arts, are also found in the utterances of those who have had no formal teaching in grammar and are content with the style of ordinary people” [6]. On account of this, Augustine suggests that all people should understand should understand the metaphorical nature of speech itself. By understanding the metaphorical nature of speech itself, both in literature and ordinary speech, a reader of the Christian biblical texts is more likely to investigate the meaning of the passage.

This comes back to something I observe in the field of Biblical studies and Near Eastern studies: there is a surprising lack of engagement with literary theory. Augustine goes as far as to suggest that those who are ignorant of tropes and the names of certain types of metaphors are uneducated. Though I don’t go that far, I do think he has a fair point: people should know how language works. In my case, this principle is applied to scholars: scholars should know how language works and how literature works. Only in doing so can we begin to more fully examine and understand the texts that we study.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 166.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 167.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 168.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 172.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 177.

[6] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 176.