Dante's Philosophical Life

Politics and Human Wisdom in "Purgatorio"

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Paul Stern
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this rich new book, Paul Stern makes a compelling case for re-interpreting Dante Alighieri as an important and inventive political philosopher in his own right. Stern argues that through the Purgatorio, Dante attempts to re-imagine culture and politics as spaces for ongoing rational inquiry into human good which he terms “philosophy as a way of life.” Drawing from the Epistle to Cangrande (despite its disputed authorship)Stern argues for understanding Dante’s poem as a work of moral philosophy by resisting interpretations of the poemas a “container” for any religious, philosophical, or political orthodoxies that derive their conclusions about human good from pre-established doctrines that inhibit the humane pursuit of wisdom and the need for the political virtue of prudence. In Stern’s presentation of Dante’s culture, orthodoxies such as these prevailed, rendering the culture of his day intellectually “passive,” diminishing the value of human action and politics (12). Stern sees the twin goals of the Commedia as the renewal of a culture that honors and supports philosophy as a way of life and the formation of a politics that funds the trans-political purpose of the pursuit of happiness through rational inquiry into human good. 

Stern makes a bold methodological choice by focusing exclusively on Purgatorio for his analysis of Dante’s project across the entire Commedia. He claims that Purgatorioi is the most pedagogical of the three cantica of the Commedia, the most representative of Dante’s own thought, and, most importantly free to “redirect attention from that which is eternal and certain toward the concerns of those living here and now, chief among which is happiness” (7). This is rather shaky ground for such a bold methodological decision, but once granted, Stern’s argument unfolds in an interesting and compelling way.

Stern’s book achieves something quite special by using Dante to construct a robust philosophical anthropology that funds both a gnoseological moral philosophy and a political theory that argues for the necessity of politics without enshrining the political as humanity’s absolute good. Especially interesting is Stern’s interpretation of Dante’s dream of the Siren (Purgatorio 19) as a lure to the kinds of doctrines that offer static accounts of comprehensive knowledge, the consequence of which is that “the truth, including the truth about our good, would not have to be sought, much less sought with zeal” (154). In my estimation, this is the book’s strongest and most important contribution, especially given the way Stern articulates the interdependence of the relationship between desire, knowledge, wisdom, and politics in Dante’s philosophy. This investigation grounds Stern’s subsequent analysis of the sins of excess (cantos 19-27) as Dante’s way of advancing “the desirability of desire” against vices that are “desire-quieting desires, chief rivals of the desire to know” (160). This is Stern’s way of “re-naturalizing” the human being away from being governed by static, intellectual—or, more often, religious—principles and toward the human being as a growing, changing, learning, transforming, perpetually unfinished creature (72). In short, Stern helps us reclaim a Dantean philosophy of desire in all its rational and political dimensions. 

Stern has written a careful, attentive, and manifestly readable interpretation of Dante’s Purgatorio. His narrow focus allows for a deep textual investigation that enables him to identify a thematic unity that connects the poem’s variety of styles and scenes. Stern’s book is elegantly composed, well-reasoned, and compellingly argued. One of the most impressive aspects of the book is how Stern is able to sustain and control an immensely complex, textually-based argument without the prose becoming ponderous or pedantic and the argument dense or convoluted. The book is an impressive example of what interdisciplinary scholarship should look like. 

While the credibility of some of Stern’s individual interpretations varies, the book’s major accomplishment lies in how Stern highlights the dialectical strategies of Purgatorio in ways that fit his overall thesis while also fitting the governing thematic of Purgatorio: the pedagogical progression of life toward happiness. Stern helpfully reveals how unfinished the dramatis personae are in Purgatorio: their narrations and explanations may be wrong, incomplete, even insincere. Stern’s interpretation highlights as well Dante’s dramatization of the need for interpretative prudenceand discernment, both for the pilgrim and for the reader. Stern’s book impressively manages to exposit and perform this central dynamic of Dante’s philosophical life.

Despite the book’s many achievements, I want to register some hesitation regarding an operative assumption that lingers in the background of the argument. Stern often advances his thesis regarding Dante’s philosophy as a way of life at the expense of an accurate representation of medieval theology and metaphysics. Stern  resists what he describes as the prevailing orthodoxy of anglophone dantisti—tidily represented by Charles Singleton’s claim that “Dante sees as poet and realizes as poet what is already conceptually elaborated and established in Christian doctrine” (1). Singleton’s rendering of the Commedia as “versified Christian doctrine” is anathema to Stern, who sees these kinds of claims as undermining the “desirability of desire” that perpetually nourishes the philosophic life. But Stern i ties this anxiety about Singleton to a reoccurring claim that doctrine, metaphysics, rationalism, and Christianity are opposed to philosophy as a way of life. In this, Stern seems to rely too much on a reification of doctrine that leads him to a series of unnecessary oppositions, saying that philosophy “resists subordination to, and even harmonization with, theology” (11, emphasis added).

It is regrettable that both Singleton and Stern adopt a similar reification of doctrine that misrepresents the tradition that gives us Augustinian restlessness, Anselmian faith seeking understanding, and Thomistic sacra doctrina and discipleship that Dante both inherits and dramatizes in the CommediaIt is an unfortunate decision to pit philosophy and doctrine in tension with each other, and it ultimately distracts from Stern’s otherwise compelling argument.  I worry that the oppositions (or dialectical tensions) that Stern adopts ultimately diminish Danteas a poet and a thinker. Dante’s genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to synthesize—and perhaps even reconcile—things like politics and poetry, philosophy and theology, paganism and Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy. I worry that the intellectual, poetic, and religious world of Stern’s Dante is far less capacious, scandalous, and fascinating than the poet and the pilgrim we encounter in the pages of the Commedia.

Stern’s reading of Purgatorio yields a fascinating and generative argument, serious and elegantly argued. Stern has done a great service for anglophone dantisti by presenting Dante in such a vivid and dynamic way. He should be applauded for this. Occasional missteps (as I take them to be) do not diminish the significant contribution of Stern’s work, and I strongly recommend Dante’s Philosophical Life to all serious students of Dante’s Commedia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Rothaus Moser is Lecturer in the Theology Department of Loyola University, Maryland.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Stern is Professor of Politics at Ursinus College and author of Knowledge and Politics in Plato's Theaetetus.


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