In Dante’s Christian Ethics: Purgatory and Its Moral Contexts, George Corbett outlines an interpretation of Dante’s narrative poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy, probably written around the years 1308-1321, though the exact dating is uncertain)—specifically of the second cantica, the Purgatorio (Purgatory)—as a “work of ethics” (2). In Corbett’s view, any failure to acknowledge that the first aim of the Commedia pertains to ethics would diminish both its ethical and even its narrative dimensions. Moreover, the book aims to illustrate how ethics is strongly linked to other issues in the text: eros, politics, law, and personhood.
In the first section of the book (“Ethical and Political Manifesto”), Corbett analyzes both the moral structure of Dante’s Purgatorio and its political dimension, identifying these two aspects as structural and closely linked. As argued in chapter 1 (“Dante’s Ethical Agenda: Vital Nourishment”), the structure of Purgatory is different from that of both Hell and Paradise, as the three realms of the afterlife are shaped by distinctive moral criteria. In particular, Corbett argues, Purgatory is structured on the seven capital vices of Christian teachings, underpinning the idea that the second realm is an extension of a moral path started on earth. This interpretation is reinforced as the souls in the Anti-Purgatory, awaiting access to the path of purification, do not experience physical suffering. Therefore, the second cantica is presented as an eschatological act, for both Dante (the character in the poem) and the reader.
Generally, critics have tended to see the Commedia and the Monarchia (Monarchy, a Latin treatise in which Dante elaborates his views on politics) as adhering to different phases of Dante’s thought. By contrast, in chapter 2 (“Dante’s Political Polemic: Church and Empire”) Corbett elucidates the idea that the two works must be viewed as coherent, in terms of their ethical and political aims. Corbett’s arguments depend on recent philological evidence, which dates the Monarchia to 1317-1318, when most of the Commedia was produced. In Corbett’s view, since Dante presents Hell as an ethical and political manifesto, his aim is not limited to a polemic intent. The way in which the realms of the afterlife are structured is due to a precise theological and political view of Dante’s.
In the second section (“Reframing Dante’s Christian Ethics”), Corbett draws attention to the specific ethical framework which underlies the second realm. While Classical sources are used by Dante to structure Hell, in chapter 3 (“Dante’s Theological Purgatory: Earthly Happiness and Eternal Beatitude”), Corbett focuses on the “theological Purgatory” (67). He refers to Purgatory as a region in which the soul moves from natural ethics to supernatural ethics: the souls are pilgrims led towards beatitude, through Christian ethics. Corbett argues that it is particularly useful to read the Purgatorio as a work of Christian ethics, “an allegorical journey set in this life” (74). Corbett stresses that Dante structures the Purgatory according to the principles of Christian ethics, which overcome the limits of philosophical principles. To demonstrate this, Corbett shows that the souls in the Limbo, introduced in the fourth canto of Inferno (Hell), represent the highest achievement for a human who relies on the teachings of philosophy alone. Instead, the souls in the seven terraces of Purgatory epitomize the path to eternal beatitude, and not just to earthly happiness.
Thomas Aquinas has been traditionally recognized as Dante’s primary source for the structure of his Purgatory. By contrast, drawing on the wide availability and dissemination of William Peraldus’ text at the time of Dante, and also on precise textual evidence, in chapter 4 (“Two Traditions of Christian Ethics: Aquinas and Peraldus”), Corbett demonstrates that Peraldus’ De vitiis (Vices) represents Dante’s main source over Aquinas.
The third and final section of the book (“Penance and Dante’s Purgatory”) focuses on three specific vices: pride, sloth, and avarice. In chapter 5 (“The Terrace of Pride, and the Poet as Preacher”), Corbett suggests that the three examples of humility and the twelve examples of pride must be read as a unique passage which epitomizes the moral goal that Dante wants to convey. In the terrace of Pride, “Dante models a spiritual exercise of conversion from pride to humility” (110).
The vice of sloth is addressed in detail in chapter 6 (“The Terrace of Sloth, and the Sin of Scholars”). Corbett identifies the presence of this vice already in Inferno I, as relating to Dante the character himself. Thereafter, this is confirmed by the definition of pride contained in Peraldus’ De acedia (Sloth), which describes precisely the status of Dante the character. Furthermore, argues Corbett, this interpretation enforces the position of Statius, whom Dante encounters in Purgatorio XXI-XXV, as Dante’s poetic cypher, since he embodies the vice of sloth.
Finally, chapter 7 (“The Terrace of Avarice, and the Love of Children”) focuses on avarice, as a vice of particular relevance for Dante, both ethically and biographically. Specifically, Corbett identifies Peraldus’ De avaritia (Avarice)–in particular, the concept of amor filiorum (Love for one’s children)–as a source used by Dante to lay out the episode of Hugh Capet. Even though Hugh Capet, the king of the Franks, has tended to be considered a figure who enables Dante to engage in political reflection above all, Corbett finds this character important in terms of representing the vice of avarice.
Corbett’s work provides a fresh and original reading of Dante’s Commedia —with particular regard to the Purgatorio—focusing on and giving value to an ethical framework, which structurally underlies Dante’s work and, therefore, emerges as crucial for any appreciation of the work, with its moral and ethical implications, as a whole. Corbett’s book, through a combination of a systematic analysis of the existing scholarship and a precise textual discussion of Dante’s Commedia and its sources, is a meaningful and comprehensive critical work that stresses the utter importance of both the ethical and political significance of Dante’s poem. Corbett’s book is accessible to non-specialists, as he gives the reader the means to orient themselves in the ethical dimension of Dante’s work, which allows them to appreciate and understand its fundamental relevance. The monograph represents a valuable source for and contribution to the field of Dante studies, addressing and fulfilling the need to pay closer attention to the ethical dimension of Dante’s Commedia.
Camilla Bambozzi is an AHRC/WRoCAH-funded PhD candidate in Italian (Dante Studies) at the University of Leeds.
Date Of Review:
March 30, 2022
George Corbett is senior lecturer in theology and the arts, School of Divinity, University of St Andrews, Scotland. Prior to this, he was junior research fellow of Trinity College, and affiliated lecturer in Italian, University of Cambridge.
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