Harold J Wilson


Dante’s Favored Heretics


Because he captured the faith and life of his own time in such an epic dimension, scholars and critics have often acclaimed Dante Alighieri as the greatest of Christian poets. It is possible, however, that if his art had not possessed such authority, his faith might not have been considered so acceptable either. Like lively believers in other religions, Dante had his own ‘gnostic tendencies’ which bordered on the heretical and for which he might even have been called to account had he drawn to himself more of the wrong kind of ‘official’ attention.

That he did not do so is partly due to Dante’s understanding of the state of play in the theological game of his own time, and also to his ability to protect himself textually from the sort of official condemnation which had brought down other public figures who came before him. But it is interesting that Dante recognizes his own ‘heretical’ leanings, and in fact tells about them to those who can read a little between the lines. I do not mean to imply that Dante was in his or our understanding outside of the Christian faith; but it does seem to me that in his belief in a direct inspiration from God through philosophy and in the mystical intuition of spiritual truth – a poet’s privilege - he went well beyond what was officially acceptable in the Church of his day, and that he was entirely aware of this.

Dante was also fairly clear about his own mixed intellectual ancestry; and while clinging carefully to St. Thomas on the one hand, he still revered certain old teachers and kindred spirits who were recognized as dangerous and even condemned by the authorities for their teachings. There are three of these ’heretics’ whom Dante particularly prized and felt some kinship with: Ibn Rushd of Cordoba known as Averroes to the Christians (d.1198); Siger de Brabant (d. 1284) who was a Christian follower of Averroes ; and Abbot Joachim of Flores (d.1202) whose prophecies appealed to the poet in foreseeing the accessibility of the vision of God to all humanity.

What I would like to argue is how this selection of three figures casts some light upon Dante’s own mental development and indeed his maturation as a philosophical thinker as well as a poet. But first, there is some groundwork to sketch out and a few  questions to be raised.

As a man of his time, Dante Alighieri did not flinch at the thought of condemning the proponents of heresy to the punishment of both temporal and everlasting fire. He is happy to include in his Inferno some who broke the unity of Christ’s body on earth and fomented strife amongst their brethren.  The Arab prophet Muhammad is condemned for this along with his son-in-law Ali, while Dante praises Folco of Marseilles as a knight of the faith. This is the same Bishop Fulk who preached the Albigensian Crusade and involved St. Dominic, the father of the Inquisition, in that dubious undertaking. However, he appears to have been a troubador in his earlier days which must have appealed to Dante. Or it may be that he threw out this praise as a sop to the shadow of the Inquisition which hung still over another of his heroes.

In the Florence of Dante’s youth, there was an influential studium of the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella and another of the Franciscans at Santa Maria la Scuola, as well as an Augustinian foundation, all of which offered lectures on a variety of theological subjects. It is inescapable that Dante must have attended such lectures, particularly after Beatrice’s death in 1290 when he devoted his energies to what he called ‘Lady Philosophy’ for some years. The Dominicans at this time had a general order to advance the cause of Thomist philosophy and Thomas’s Christian rendering of Aristotle was well on its way to becoming a new orthodoxy. It was also a philosophical approach which was very much to Dante’s own purposes.

Certainly in the Commedia Dante praises Francis, admires Thomas, and we can see that Augustine was an equally powerful background figure in his thought, particularly because of his Platonic notion of the direct intuition of spiritual truth.
(Cf. Chiarenza, The Imageless Vision In Dante, ed. Bloom.)

During this period of serious study, if not before, the poet must have become fully aware of the latitude possible to Christian philosophy, and also of the ongoing intellectual combat between the Dominicans and the Franciscans, both of whom sought in their own way to explore and define the Church’s understanding of the faith.
The Franciscans were trying to hold the line against the new Aristotelian ‘rationalism’ which seemed far too secular to them as it balanced nature against grace. To the rising generation of scholastics, however, the old Augustinian theology seemed mired in a kind of philosophical cul de sac. It is against this background of fraternal competition and the shifting boundaries of the permissible that he could entirely appreciate the mistrust of the medieval church authorities for philosophers who were over-reliant on their own sense of the truth. He was rapidly becoming one of those himself.

In this connection, it is worth looking at the confidence which Dante bestows upon the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, who was greatly admired in his own day and after as a commentator on Aristotle, but who was also banned and exiled by the Caliph of Cordoba towards the end of his life. Due to the interest of the Bishop of Toledo and later of Emperor Frederick II, the commentaries of Averroes were translated into Latin from Arabic shortly after his death and subsequently became one of the main early sources of Aristotelian texts for scholars in Naples and at the universities of Paris and Bologna during the Thirteenth Century. Reputedly, his work ran to ten thousand sheets!

Dante no doubt encountered these commentaries either at Bologna, in the Dominican library at Florence, perhaps during his travels in France, or later on in Verona. In the third book of the Convivio, (by 1307) he had already, in any event, embraced the positions of Thomas Aquinas which would support a strong view of human free will and personal immortality. In this connection, it is noteworthy that Dante says in the De Monarchia (1310) that Averroes “concordat” (agrees) with him about the human soul in his commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima. This is a trifle curious because Dante knew very well that what the ecclesiastical authorities accused the Latin Averroists of denying was the personal immortality of the soul, and of asserting the unicity of the Active Intellect, meaning that we are all part of the same generic human soul, not individual souls, as well as denying the objective nature of Creation, since Averroes held that our chief reality was in the mind of God so that we didn’t need any specific date for the creation of the world.

These three major propositions had been condemned by the Bishop of Paris in 1270; later in 1277 at Paris as well, and finally by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513. Even in 1310 it does not seem logical that Dante would have wanted his own view of the human soul to be identified with that of Averroes, so what was it that the two of them supposedly agreed upon?

A longtime controversy among scholars from Dante’s day to our own focuses on the question as to whether Dante’s disillusionment with the papacy and enthusiasm for the coronation of Henry VII as a strong emperor may not have influenced him for a period of time in which he held that God’s grace is extended equally to us through Philosophy and human reason as well as through Theology and the Sacraments, and through temporal rulers as much as through the magisterial papacy. Even the redoubtable Etienne Gilson believed that Dante departed from St. Thomas on this point, at least until the death of the German Emperor Henry VII in 1313 put an end to his hopes for a strong secular authority to oppose the corrupt papacy. This is technically heretical, but if there are no final answers to the question of Dante’s belief on this score, yet clearly the temptation was there and it does fit in with his disposition of spiritual ancestors and kindred ‘heretics’ in the Commedia as well as with his basic thesis about God’s use of Rome as a universal temporal power..

 Averroes’ independence of mind is attested to by his interesting attitude, especially for a Muslim, toward the capabilities of the opposite sex: “Women differ from men not in quality but in degree…Sometimes they surpass them….the example of certain African states shows their aptitude for war (the famed Senegalese spear-women ?), and there would be nothing extraordinary in their attaining to the government of the state. Among sheepdogs, does not the female guard the flock just as well as the male?”(quoted in The Medieval Mind by C.G. Coulton)

Although Averroes was a quaid or Muslim judge as well as the personal physician of the Caliph of Cordoba, there is indirect evidence for supposing that he may have been descended from a Muwallid or converted Christian family. These were looked down upon by Muslims of Arabian descent which may explain why Averroes goes out of his way to express respect for those whose title to nobility comes more from their virtue or from God than from their sex or family’s social position  – another strong point of agreement with Dante.

Inevitably, many Christian authorities mistrusted Aristotle for the same reason that more conservative Muslims did – because he delimited a natural sphere which seemed to operate independently of grace, or even through a sort of ‘natural’ grace, as indeed some medieval Christian schoolmen like Siger de Brabant seemed to feel the mind of the philosopher might do also. This had been one of the issues which Averroes was forced to confront with the Muslim divines of his own day who were seeking – successfully as it happened – to bottle up the Islamic philosophers or ‘faylasafs’ who were too influenced by Aristotle. And it would continue to be an accusation made against his followers on the Christian side that they were too liberal and arrogant and that their ideas were seductive to young seminarians and university students leading them toward a mental perspective which we might nowadays be tempted  to describe as ‘secular’ or humanistic, or even, theologically, as ‘Creationist.’.

After his appointment by the Dominican Order as Lecturer in Theology at the University of Paris in 1256, the same year in which Bonaventura was appointed by the Franciscans, and his return to Paris in 1269, Thomaso d’Aquino showed himself anxious to be separated in his approach to Aristotle from this ‘Averroist’ heresy, particularly since there were a few propositions of his own which were widely believed to have been among those which Bishop Tempier of Paris condemned in 1270, although Thomas was not specifically named. Not wanting to be tarred with the same brush, Thomas also in 1270 indignantly attacked the Averroists of Paris and the sort of ‘humanist’ teachings that he suspected of their leader, Siger, the young canon of Liege who had become a rising star at the university in the 1260’s. Siger had proclaimed a Christian philosophy based on Aristotle which was distinct, so far as it went, from the realm of Theology.

Although Siger was very careful, at least from 1270, to declare his own orthodoxy in religious belief and to avoid any imputation of false teaching, Thomas is quoted as saying that what he was guilty of was what he taught “in nooks and crannies,” which is to say in his personal association with students rather than in the university lecture hall. At this same time, the Dominican Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby, opposed any Aristotelian approach to the faith as did his Franciscan successor in England, Roger Peckham, who had been in Paris during these years in question. Faced with such powerful opponents, Thomas saw the need, therefore, to protect his reputation during the time when a new generation of teachers was growing up who would, like Dante, understand what he was up to. The old Augustinian tradition was about to give way now as the earlier medieval supernaturalism was replaced by a more ‘empirical’ sense of created being.

Thomas seems to have been very concerned in the succeeding years over the lure of a new secular paganism and with his own attempts to make Aristotle both safe and accessible for young seminarians. But Thomaso d’ Aquino died in 1277, the year that Dante Alighieri was twelve years old, and perhaps three years after his first view of his beloved Bice Portinari. In that same year, a hasty theological witchhunt was convened in Paris and Bishop Tempier condemned 219 propositions, supposedly authored by poor Siger of Brabant, and got him fired from his university job. Following this debacle Siger betook himself to Italy and appealed to the pope, dying in the papal prison at Orvieto in 1284 before his case could be heard. The pope, John XXI (‘John of Spain’) didn’t want to burn Siger at the stake, but being Portuguese, he knew all about Averroism and wanted its voice silenced.

How Dante learned about this controversy which had blossomed a round the time of his birth and continued thereafter I do not know. Probably the story was still current among the Dominicans and he had read Aquinas’ attack on Siger at the studium
in Florence during the time when he attended lectures there, so it is perhaps only natural that Siger would have become in the poet’s mind a kind of martyr to the love of Lady Philosophy. Certainly, he died exiled and accused like his master Averroes in the century preceding. Dante himself was careful to avoid any public association with the theological errors of this so-called Averroism and it is certain that the denial of the immortality of the individual soul, and of an active intellect in individual men were concepts quite opposed to his own personal beliefs as well as to his literary needs in the Commedia.

The accepted notions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, and the eternity of the divine judgment were dramatically apt for Dante’s poetic uses, as well as fitted to his mature philosophy. This is why he righteously places Epicurus, the denier of the soul, in the circle of Heretics in the Inferno, and makes clear his own difference from the Cavalcanti family when it comes to belief in the afterlife. It may seem a little ungrateful of Dante to cast the Cavalcanti family on the unfavourable side of his view of religious belief, and even in the Inferno itself, considering their hospitality to him as a young untried poet and someone from a considerably less socially well-ranked family, but then, we are not always entirely generous to those who have been most liberal to us. There is a story (I forget the source) about young people of Corso Donati’s family who met Guido Cavalcanti one Sunday morning while out riding. Although his family were enemies to theirs, he spoke to them with the utmost courtesy and inquired after them in a most pleasant manner. But after riding off, they agreed together that he had shown himself totally arrogant and condescending. Some days you can’t win.

However, even if Guido was somewhat ‘Averroiste’, and who knows, he may have been the source of that knowledge for Dante, still, the younger poet had to define himself against the older one, to equal and perhaps surpass him also. And Guido had no doubt been a guide to his early womanising as well – that which brought Dante into disrepute with Beatrice Portinari so that she cut him dead in the street.  But it is to Bice’s side that he is drawn ultimately, as a source of grace as well as inspiration. There may be some of that long farewell and denial of his friend over the question of the woman in Dante’s literary rejection of Guido  So that if Dante thinks of Guido consciously as an Averroist, what a wonder that he leapt over his friend to embrace the master. But then Dante was a thinker and he must have read very intensely and then thought on what he read. A powerful visual consciousness is operating here.              

Dante was also part Neoplatonist and he had a great affinity for what has been called the ‘Theology of Light’ or ‘emanationism.’ This kind of mystical and poetic intuition of the Divine Presence was an old tradition in the Gnostics as later in the Sufis and is still with us today. Apart from the more mechanistic outlook of  Aristotelian philosophy which posited orders of created nature with their own natural functions, causes, and ends, thrown out in a vast web that centred about the sustaining power of the Unmoved Mover, there was this parallel Platonic notion of the creative logos of God penetrating throughout the chain of being. In a way, this idea helps to balance Aristotle’s more impersonal and passive concept of the deity, but Neoplatonism was also favoured by intellectuals and artists who had mystical leanings and liked to think of themselves as having somehow more access to the light of higher reason; a favorite notion of Averroes as you might suspect.

But, in this Platonism which had been grafted onto Aristotle, there is a sense of the divine grace actively seeking out and inhering in the mind of man. One way of thinking about it is to see God empowering our abstract intellects and our drive toward higher knowledge which after all was what Aristotle said was the defining feature of humankind. One problem with this approach, however, is that it can end up  making the ordinary run of men seem defective and brutish and even resistant to God; some of us appear semi-angelic and the rest are retards or dotards. This is more than original sin, I think, more like a serious deterioration of the Image of God. But then how could God have permitted such a situation to come about? Dante never solved that problem any more than Averroes did, but it appears that they may well have agreed together at least this far.

In consequence and suitably conscious of the need to protect himself theologically, Dante is careful to condemn Muhammad and Ali to the Inferno, (along with Epicurus) thus showing his anti-Muslim bent, while also casting a little suspicion on Guido Cavalcanti for his scepticism in these matters. Having then covered his back by these acts of poetic piety, he goes on to reserve a first class accommodation for Averroes along with his fellow Muslim Ibn Sina ( Avicenna) in the Limbo of the Philosophers which must have been as much of a heaven as those Muslim philosophers ever dreamt of. This was a much more imaginative and humorous option, almost a little joke, than it would have been to promote them into Purgatory or Paradise which would have given too much of the game away in my opinion.

If he had done that, Dante would never have lived down the suspicion of Averroism. He even talks about how sad it is that these souls can never attain to the nearer presence of God. However, after this introduction, it well appears that they are very happy to be included in a stimulating perpetual Senior Common Room. And indeed, Dante himself is delighted to be welcomed by Homer and his ancient companions into this same circle.

Some many cantos later in the Paradiso, when it comes to Averroes’ Christian disciple, Siger de Brabant, Dante goes right ahead and does elevate him into the Heaven of the Theologians along with Augustine and Jerome and Bonaventura. And the words that praise him for his courage in teaching “ Syllogizzi invidiosi veri”, or ‘unwelcome truths’ are placed by Dante in the mouth of his old opponent, St. Thomas of Aquinas. (Par.xxvii) If you sense some dry Italian humour working in this miracle of poetic justice, you can scarcely be mistaken. This is a philosopher’s little joke.

A third ‘heretic’ for whom Dante had a great deal of respect and affection was the Cistercian abbot from Calabria, Joachinno di Fiore. A little older than Francis and in some ways like him (1137 –1202), this man led a life of blameless austerity while preaching the millenarian vision of a coming time when the eternal gospel would be written  by God on the hearts and minds of men just as the prophet Jeremiah had prayed, “Lord, write thy laws in my heart.” Since this prophecy looked forward to a dispensation that would eliminate the busy bureaucracy of the church along with its sacraments, property, incomes and other outward and visible perquisites, the ecclesiastical authorities did not much welcome it.

Although Joacchino enjoyed the approval  of three successive popes who humoured him because he always submitted his writings to them, some works were eventually condemned in 1245, well after his death  when they appeared to support the rebellious ascetic wing of the Franciscans, the Poveretti or Poor Ones who resisted the more comfortable rule of St. Francis’ successors, including the future saint known as Bonaventura.  Some of them were burnt at the stake rather than betray Francis and his poverty. Joacchino as well once wrote, “A true monk should call nothing his own except his lute.” The scriptures had been opened to him while singing the psalms and he could often be found in a rapt contemplative state.

Dante approved of Joacchino’s less elitist notion of God’s grace, shown freely to the poor ones of the earth as well as to the artistic and intellectual elites. He calls the abbot a prophet and elevates him also to the Fifth Circle of Paradise where, just as with Siger and Thomas, the words that approve and welcome his prophecy are spoken by his severest critic – the Franciscan Saint Bonaventura. This is the fall of the second shoe of Dantean irony !

It has been said of Dante by different scholars that he was a man for whom the vision of truth preceded the logic of it. In this sense, and particularly as a poet, he must have felt a close kinship to those for whom the truth was revealed before it was reasoned out. Certainly Averroes felt this and stated also that the intellectual love and understanding of God was a grace not granted to the many for whom religious argument or ‘dialectics’ was the most to which they could aspire, or to the many more for whom only the religious laws of Sharia were prescribed. What Dante must have learned from both Averroes and Siger and St. Thomas was how to think out his intuitions in the language of logical argument as well as through his own images and poetic narrative .So eventually he must have known where he stood on the important questions of his time – and knew that he knew – though even the intellectual Thomas is supposed to have said, “Compared with what has been revealed to me, what I have written is only as so much straw.”

In the Inferno XI, Virgil refers to Dante’s love for the Nichomachean Ethics by calling them “la tua ettica.”Gilson in his Dante the Philosopher suggests that for the poet as well as for Averroes, Aristotle represented “the ideal of human temporal felicity secured entirely through the practice of the natural virtues,” and that for Dante this was “in a sense the bible of the lawgiver.” (Dante as Philosopher, p.218)And Kenelm Foster O.P. in his essay on The Mind of Dante, feels that both Dante and Averroes shared the sense that “at the touch of any truth whatever, the whole mind stirred, all its energies awoke.” You can see how the writer might well identify with such ancestors and brothers in the long battle to establish a place within the faith for God’s free inspiration of scholars and poets.

Dante believed in a realm of Philosophy which was not subject only to ecclesiastical oversight, and in which the human mind would be free to follow those paths of reasoning which were revealed to it. Perhaps this is his ultimate agreement with Averroes about the soul. After all, if as Augustine said, “God is that light by which we see light,” then surely the truth will bear witness to itself. Thus far, along with St. Thomas’ Aristotle, we are on safe enough ground, but the sense of the divine knowledge being communicated directly to the minds of an educated elite opens the door to a sort of Gnosticism or at least an attitude which tends to look down on simple faith, the confession of sins, the sacraments and the religious hierarchy.

Dante understood this temptation to spiritual pride and that is one reason why he even honoured his enemy, Pope Boniface VIII, as the deputy of Christ on earth, despite his very real and personal hatred for the man. He saw a need, historically speaking, for spiritual authority, just as he saw another need (the ‘two swords’), for temporal authority to balance it. But there was also a need for those with the open eyes of the soul to receive the light with which God seeks us out. Hence the recognition of Abbot
Joacchino as a prophetic spirit.                                                                                         

 Dante rejoiced in the thought of a realm of separate temporal power which could discipline the warring Italian cities and fight off the influence of a corrupt papacy just as he longed for a philosophy which was not merely the handmaid and tool of the Church. Unfortunately, before his death this godly empire of which he was a citizen and “sect of one” proved just a broken ideal which had failed him. He was left, without the German Emperor, only with a poet’s vision, which was, however, wide enough to include a couple of Muslim forerunners, a Cistercian visionary, and a high-flying Belgian academic, most of whom, like him, had had to pay their dues of exile and unjust condemnation in order to keep the faith, as they knew it, both with God and with Lady Philosophy.

One his way back from the Paradiso to the world which we are compelled to live in most of the time despite our visions, Dante left his Muslim friends happily in converse with Plato and Aristotle, and both Siger and Joacchino in Paradise, reconciled with their old antagonists, the hallowed Dominican and Franciscan  doctors of Theology. In the ultimate poetic sect of Dante Alighieri, which is both Gnostic and Catholic, his heretics and his saints are reconciled together within a light which is great enough to comprehend their many differences.