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.

Rules for Reading the Bible

bible*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my introductory course to the Hebrew Bible, the homework instructions for the day suggest that we think about the bible on a theoretical level. In particular, the professor asks two questions:

“Are there different conventions for reading texts? Should we have different “rules” for reading the Bible?”

Because the Bible is so deeply embedded into the cultural fabric of the modern era and, in some places, everyday life, this question is difficult to answer. When we read the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, we are not tied to certain spiritual issues and traditions that determine how we read the text. Or are we?

Perhaps a fundamentalist Christian will interpret the character of Sauron or Aragorn substantially different than a fundamentalist Atheist. More likely than not, their interpretive differences will arise due to there fundamental differences. There fundamental difference are how they view the world. Similarly, a conservative Jew and secular Jew may understand Sauron and Aragorn in substantially different ways. Again, difference in interpretation arises from difference in fundamental worldviews.

So, when we choose to read the Bible, there is no “right” way of reading it if we read for our own pleasure. However, if one seeks to engage in critical study of the Bible, she or he must learn how to read it in such a way to puts aside fundamental views. No matter how much they attempt to do this, though, they will still have a bias approach to how they read the bible. Perhaps, then, “rules” is too strong a term to use in creating sufficient and effective methods for critically reading the bible. Maybe it is better to use the term “guides” for reading the bible. Rules are too strict and rigid, at least by connotation. A guide, however, demonstrates ways to engage with the text on different level.

By similar means, John Barton reaches similar conclusions when he writes concerning biblical criticism. “… The exegete’s task is not to extract the meaning from the text, but to conduct the reader on a guided tour of it, considering the many strands of meaning such a text may contain” (2007: 114). Although I disagree with Barton’s understanding of biblical criticism, at least thus far in my reading, I do agree with him that exegetical work should be understood as offering the reader a guided tour. And because the Bible can be approached from so many perspectives, perhaps the best “rule” for reading the bible, in its most simplified form, is to recognize that the role of any interpreter is to guide the reader into the text through the lens of whatever particular tradition is in which they choose to engage it.

Rounding the discussion back to engaging in critical study of the bible, then, what is necessary is not “rules”. Rather, what is necessary are guides to doing so.