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.