“Convivio” by Dante Alighieri

The Four Senses of a Text

Writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses.

The first is called the literal, and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter, as in the fables of the poets.

The next is called the allegorical, and this is the one that is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction. Thus Ovid says that with his lyre Orpheus tamed wild beasts and made trees and rocks move toward him, which is to say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow tender and humble and moves to his will those who do not devote their lives to knowledge and art; and those who have no rational life whatsoever are almost like stones.

The third sense is called moral, and this is the sense that teachers should intently seek to discover throughout the scriptures, for their own profit and that of their pupils;

The fourth sense is called anagogical, that is to say, beyond the senses; and this occurs when a scripture is expounded in a spiritual sense which, although it is true also in the literal sense, signifies by means of the things signified a part of the supernal things of eternal glory, as may be seen in the song of the Prophet which says that when the people of Israel went out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. For although it is manifestly true according to the letter, that which is spiritually intended is no less true, namely, that when the soul departs from sin it is made whole and free in its power.

In this kind of explication, the literal should always come first, as being the sense in whose meaning the others are enclosed, and without which it would be impossible and illogical to attend to the other senses, and especially the allegorical.

It would be impossible because in everything that has an inside and an outside it is impossible to arrive at the inside without first arriving at the outside; since in what is written down the literal meaning is always the outside, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal. Moreover, in every natural or artificial thing it is impossible to proceed unless the foundation is laid first, as in a house or in studying; since explication is the building up of knowledge, and the explication of the literal sense is the foundation of the others.

Even supposing it were possible, it would be illogical, that is to say out of order, and would therefore be carried out with great labor and much confusion. Consequently as Aristotle says in the first book of the Physics, nature wills that we proceed in due order in our learning, that is, by proceeding from that which we know better to that which we know not so well; I say that nature wills it since this way of learning is by nature innate in us.

The Ten Sciences of the Universe

Just as written texts have four levels of meaning, the universe, a masterpiece of God, can also be interpreted on many levels, each level corresponding to a branch of science.

Dante draws a comparison between the order of the heavens and that of the sciences. To the first seven heavens correspond the seven sciences of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, namely Grammar, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astrology. To the eighth sphere, namely the Starry Heaven, corresponds natural science, which is called Physics, and the first science, which is called Metaphysics; to the ninth sphere corresponds Moral Science; and to the still heaven corresponds Divine Science, which is called Theology.

The heaven of Jupiter may be compared to Geometry because it moves between two heavens that are antithetical to its fine temperance, namely that of Mars and that of Saturn; consequently Ptolemy says that Jupiter is a star of temperate constitution between the cold of Saturn and the heat of Mars; Geometry moves between two things antithetical to it, namely the point and the circle; for, as Euclid says, the point is its beginning, and the circle is its most perfect figure, which must therefore be conceived as its end. Therefore Geometry moves between the point and the circle as between its beginning and end, and these two are antithetical to its certainty; for the point cannot be measured because of its indivisibility, and it is impossible to square the circle perfectly because of its arc, and so it cannot be measured exactly.

Real Life as Allegory

The great poet Lucan, in the second book of his Pharsalia, says that Marcia returned to Cato and begged and implored him to take her back in her old age. Here Marcia signifies the noble soul. And we may translate the figure of the allegory as follows. Marcia was a virgin, and in that state she signifies adolescence; she later married Cato, and in that state she signifies maturity; then she bore children, and they signify the virtues which are said above to be fitting for those who are young; she then left Cato and married Hortensius, signifying the departure from maturity and the onset of old age; she also bore this man’s children, who signify the virtues which are said above to be fitting in old age. Hortensius died, by which is signified the end of old age; and having become a widow–which widowhood signifies senility–Marcia returned at the beginning of her widowhood to Cato, signifying that the noble soul returns to God at the beginning of senility.

“I,” says Marcia, “carried out and accomplished all of your commands”–this is to say that the soul remained committed to civic duties. “I was fertile in two ages. Now that my womb is worn-out and I have lost the capacity to bear children, I return to you, being unable to serve another spouse”; that is to say that the noble soul, perceiving that it no longer has a womb for bearing fruit (when the soul’s members feel that they have grown weak), turns to God, who has no need of bodily members. And Marcia says: “Give me the rights of our ancient marital chamber; give me only the name of marriage.” This is to say that the noble soul says to God: “My Lord, now give me your peace; grant me at least that in the little of life that remains to me I may be called yours.” And Marcia says: “Two reasons move me to say this: one is that after my death it may be said that I died as the wife of Cato; the other, that you did not spurn me, but through your good will you took my hand in marriage.” The noble soul is moved by these two reasons, and it desires to depart from this life as the spouse of God, and desires to show that its activity has been pleasing to God.

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2 thoughts on ““Convivio” by Dante Alighieri

  1. A beautiful explanation of writing but somewhat depressing as I wonder how many modern authors write with this understanding, and if they did, how many readers would even have the tools to get past the first stage?

    I’m so surprised with Dante’s writings. His The Divine Comedy is, of course, lauded as a classic but I think his other works deserve some praise as well. I loved his Vita Nuova and this one sounds like a gem too. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I’ve never seen “beautiful” and “depressing” in the same sentence before :), but I understand what you mean.

      Someone compared Dante’s Divine Comedy with Pilgrim’s Progress in our GR group discussion, which prompted me to revisit him.

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