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The Metaphysics of Dante's Comedy (American Academy of Religion Reflection and Theory in the St) [Paperback]

Christian Moevs

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Book Description

15 Oct 2008 American Academy of Religion Reflection and Theory in the St
Dante's metaphysics—his understanding of reality—is very different from our own. To present Dante's ideas about the cosmos, or God, or salvation, or history, or poetry within the context of post-Enlightenment presuppositions, as is usually done, is thus to capture only imperfectly the essence of those ideas. The recovery of Dante's metaphysics is essential, argues Christian Moevs, if we are to resolve what has been called "the central problem in the interpretation of the Comedy ." That problem is what to make of the Comedy 's claim to the "status of revelation, vision, or experiential record—as something more than imaginative literature." In this book Moevs offers the first sustained treatment of the metaphysical picture that grounds and motivates the Comedy , and of the relation between those metaphysics and Dante's poetics. He carries this out through a detailed examination of three notoriously complex cantos of the Paradiso , read against the background of the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian tradition from which they arise. Moevs finds the key to the Comedy 's metaphysics and poetics in the concept of creation, which implies three fundamental insights into the nature of reality: 1) The world (finite being) is radically contingent, dependent at every instant on what gives it being. 2) The relation between the world and the ground of its being is non-dualistic. (God is not a thing, and there is nothing the world is "made of") 3) Human beings are radically free, unbound by the limits of nature, and thus can find all of time and space within themselves. These insights are the foundation of the pilgrim Dante's journey from the center of the world to the Empyrean which contains it. For Dante, in sum, what we perceive as reality, the spatio-temporal world, is a creation or projection of conscious being, which can only be known as oneself. Moevs argues that self-knowledge is in fact the keystone of the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophical tradition, and the essence of the Christian revelation in which that tradition culminates. Armed with this new understanding, Moevs is able to shed light on a series of perennial issues in the interpretation of the Comedy . In particular, it becomes clear that poetry coincides with theology and philosophy in the poem: Dante poeta cannot be distinguished from Dante theologus .

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Christian Moevs's excellent book is the first sustained treatment of Dante's metaphysical thought, and of its application to his poetry. (Andrew Frisardi)

About the Author

Christian Moevs is Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Fellow of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Understandings 8 Feb 2007
By Joseph Murphy - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Moevs poses a critical warning: you cannot "understand the Comedy simply because (you) are familiar with Christian or Scholastic Doctrine". What is needed, Moevs convincingly demonstrates, is to rid ourselves of "post-Renaissance, empiricist" assumptions; e.g. mind-body dualism, creation/causation as a series of temporal events, idealism versus realism/Neo-Platonism versus Aristotle.

The path that Moevs provides is a rigorous but clearly written intellectual and comparative history of the ideas that informed late-medieval understandings and make them radically different than those of "modern" philosophy. Do not assume that you have walked this path. Neither Ozanam's beautifully written "Dante and Catholic Philosophy", written to assert Dante's orthodoxy, nor Gilson's "Dante and Philosophy", written to "define Dante's attitudes ... not to...look for their sources", provide the historical and analytic depth of Moevs' text. Moevs' text is indeed "the first sustained treatment of the metaphysical picture that grounds and motivates the Comedy".

Moevs has reproduced his own journey to a fuller understanding of Dante's Comedy and the philosophies that inform it and make it meaningful to us. His readers owe Christian Moevs a gracious and sincere Thank You!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dante Anew 11 Dec 2009
By S. Hutton - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book, for me, was like a cold shower, ridding my mind of much academic dross and re-installing The Comedy to a beloved place in my inner library. It's a great pity more of us "outside the walls" don't know of it.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Guide to Paradiso 13 Mar 2010
By J. C. Woods - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Thomas Aquinas said of allegory that it is useful both to present spiritual truths to those accustomed to thinking only in the terms of sensual reality and, simultaneously, to hide them from the unworthy (St. I.1.9 res 3). In the first two canticles of the Comedy (Inferno and Purgatorio) Dante has a strong physical-sensual image: the Earth. Spiritual realities are described in terms of movement in physical space. In Inferno the pilgrim descends into a pit, in Purgatorio, he climbs a mountain. In Paradiso, the central image is light, which is, no doubt, sensual but not really physical. It is, in fact, psychical. In Paradiso, Dante's mystical-metaphysical concerns come to the fore.
He begins Paradiso 2 with a warning: those struggling to follow him (who have not partaken of the "bread of angels") should put the book down NOW (he will not be responsible for lost luggage). Moreover, those who think themselves capable of following had better keep up (there are no maps to where he is going and no place ask directions). Then, to reenforce his warning, the canto continues with Dante and Beatrice landing on the moon and getting into an abstruse disputation about the "moonspots" including a Fourteenth Century map of the cosmos and experiments you can do at home. I admit to my shame and chagrin that I have, more than once, been forced to submit and put the book down.
Which is why I recommend this book. The point of allegory, after all, is its subtext and this book shines in conveying you past the surface conversation to what Dante and Beatrice are really talking about (if you believe they are "really" discussing "moonspots," Moevs can't help you).
Also, if you like, you can check out my author's pageDante's Journey: A Field Guide to the Infernal Regionsand keep a look out for my new book on Purgatorio which will be out shortly.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dante as Hindu Shankarite--Gnosticism? 16 Aug 2012
By W. Gillham - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Moevs has written an overly repetitive, but very thorough and challenging exposition of the IDEAS that inform and follow from the central experience inspired by a sensitive reading of Dante. Throughout, he speaks of the "nexus" [connection, binding together] between God [creative Ground of Being] and World; between human consciousness and human body. He admits that this nexus remains a mystery [even in this over-confident age of neuro-psychology]. His THEORY of Dante's metaphysics [=thoughts, philosophy] is that body, matter is unreal illusion, nothing [Maya in Shankarite philosophy. Is his Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba a Shankarite?]. God is pure disembodied consciousness; man is disembodied [one with?] God. Words, thought, cannot disclose reality. [Then why write this book?] In addition, he claims [p. 10] that Dante's poem is "self-consciously fictive," and also "literally true"! Perhaps he only means to say that it is literally true that there is [poetic, NONLITERAL] truth in myth, metaphor, models, legends, etc.

Moevs says [p. 10] our scientistic age is mired in what he bafflingly calls "materialistic psycho-physical dualism." Does it make sense to call a belief in psycho-physical [mind-body, consciousness-brain] units "materialistic?? Only if you are an idealist monist like Moevs who thinks the material aspect of our dipolar being is mere nothing--illusion. Moevs seems never to have heard of any metaphysical alternatives to medieval Thomism, and Shankara's Advaita Vedanta [absolute non-dualism = monism = flirting with the heresy of Gnosticism: soma=sema; creation is evil, nothing, unreal, as opposed to Genesis where God pronounced his creation "very good."] Whitehead and Hartshorne have provided a panentheist metaphysic where all reality, including Being or God is seen as having both a mental and a physical pole; not unlike the other great Hindu philosopher Ramanuja's QUALIFIED non-dualism. The world is God's "Body."

My point is not that Dante was a panentheist, or a Ramanuja Visistadvaita Hindu, but that that model is closer to Christian mysticism and medieval metaphysics [and to Dante] than the Shankarite view that God's creation is illusion, the cause of all sin! [Of course sin would be "unreal."]

Moevs rightly stresses that Dante's COMEDY is primarily evocative poetry rather than philosophical theorizing. But the line between poetic myth and metaphor and metaphysical analogy is not so easy to draw.

Moevs concludes that the real "cash value" of the COMEDY is that it inspires us to absolute selfless love. Salvation is to see that our egos are unreal; that our only reality is in God--to be God! One can understand how a Roman Catholic eucharistic minister [though not a priest with vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience] like Moevs, who has also become a devotee of the controversial Hindu guru Sai Baba, would see Dante through this lens. But if not tempered with the common sense of what F. H. Bradley called "My Station, and its Duties," it could be taken too literally, and blossom into a redistributive and counterproductive politics of envy. Are we to love our neighbor INSTEAD OF ourselves--or AS ourselves?
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