You Were Not Made to Live Like Brute Beasts

I’m sharing two excellent introductory descriptions about Dante that really stayed me as I was reading last night.  Each quote demonstrates, in very different ways, why Dante is timeless and why we still read him, hundreds of years later, with enthusiasm and awe. The first is from Dante: A Very Short Introduction written by Peter Hainsworth and David Robey and published by Oxford University Press:

Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
ma per sequir virtute e canoscenza
[You were not made to live like brute beasts,
but to pursure virtue and knowledge.]
(Inf. 26.119-20)

The lines are some of the most famous in the Divine Comedy.  Energetic, compressed, assured, and, in the original, immediately memorable, they urge us to embrace the capacities that our human nature offers and live them to the full, not just for private satisfaction, but to acquire both moral virtue and knowledge of the world.  It is a vision of what human life should be, which Dante took from classical philosophy and which he repeatedly affirms.  It will be at the heart of the Italian Renaissance and is still a vital element of Western culture today.  In If this be a man Primo Levi recounts that it was these lines that he recalled at one of his worst  moments in Auschwitz, and no wonder, for it was precisely what these lines are saying that Nazism was set on destroying.

The second quote comes from Reading Dante by Guiseppe Mazzotta and is published by Yale Press:

So, what kind of poem is this?  What is its genre? Is it an epic? Is it an autobiography?  Is it a romance? I think it’s all of the above.  Perhaps the best term for it is encyclopedia, a word that means a “circle of knowledge,” representing a classical idea that derives from Vitruvius, who wrote of the genre.  This idea of circularity is crucial, in a sense that to know something you have to have a point of departure, from which you will pass through all the various disciplines of the liberal arts, only to arrive right back where you started.  The beginning and the ending in a liberal education must coincide, but you will find out things along the way that allow you to see with a different viewpoint or perspective.

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9 responses to “You Were Not Made to Live Like Brute Beasts

  1. Thank you for sharing thiese, and also your other Dante posts – they’ve been fascinating and very illuminating!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Some pf my favourite lines from the Commedia!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Melissa,
    Have you read Prue Shaw’s book Reading Dante? I came upon it while searching for the Mazzotta and decided to head for the Shaw instead. It is an extraordinary introduction for newcomers and those familiar with the work alike. Shaw recommends the recent Durling and Hollander translations, which I subsequently looked into.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. alilauren1970

    I have enjoyed all your Dante posts, too, Melissa. There are not many people in my life I talk about my love of Dante with so it is nice that someone–even if you are in the online world–who is not a professor enjoys Dante, too, and gets what reading him is all about. I mentioned before on your blog that I own a lot of secondary work on Dante. Dante studies (including multiple translations of the Commedia and secondary works on Dante), theology (early Church Fathers), and nineteenth century literature comprise the majority of my library. I own the books you mention in this post, but I have not read deep in them. I, too, second Yusef’s recommendation of Prue Shaw’s book. (I think I recommended it in another comment.) I read the entire book and loved it. Many of the essays in the Cambridge Companion to Dante are quite good, and I also think you can’t go wrong with Peter Hawkins’s books on Dante (Dante’s Testaments is particularly good.) I recently purchased Understanding Dante by John Scott, and the next book I intend to buy on Dante is Dante and the Origins of Latin Literary Culture.

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  5. I just taught If this is a Man last week, so I’m reminded that Levi uses the canto quite ambivalently, even ironically. Yes, he is emboldened by the momentary opportunity to teach a fellow inmate these stirring words that are indeed a a paean to the human. But that moment is undone or at least compromised by the return to the sordidness of the soup queue with which the chapter ends. Plus, the passage from Dante is itself pretty ambivalent–Ulysses admits to the zeal with which he whips his men into a frenzy. The point for both Dante and Levi, I would say, is that enlightenment always carries opposite, the irrational, alongside it. And indeed, we can be irrational about the rational. Brute beasts and knowledge pursuers aren’t as separate as we might like to believe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What is so compelling about the souls in the Inferno is that they are not entirely amoral or ugly characters. Some of them, like Ulysses in this piece, are even heroic. So their sentence to an eternal hell is tragic and worthy of sympathy. Thus also making the point that there is a fine line between beasts and knowledge pursuers and between ending up in heaven or hell.

      Liked by 1 person

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