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.]
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.