Aquinas and Dante: Perfecting Human Reason

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Julia Caldwell
Professor Albrecht
Development of Western Civilization
2, February, 2013
Aquinas and Dante: Perfecting Human Reason

Aquinas and Dante: Perfecting Human Reason
Despite the fact that Dante’s reader doesn’t encounter St. Thomas Aquinas within the Comedia until Paradise, the beliefs and teachings of Aquinas are woven throughout the entirety of the famous poem. St. Thomas Aquinas’s cosmology and theology are used as the foundation for Dante’s Comedia, and for this reason it is no surprise that the experiences of the Pilgrim symbolically reflect many of Aquinas’s teachings. The Pilgrim’s experiences on his journey through the afterlife reflect what Aquinas called the, “two-fold truth concerning the divine being, one to which the inquiry of reason can reach, the other which surpasses the whole ability of human reason” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Handout I, 4). Dante also illustrates Aquinas’s conclusion that man’s reason tends toward the source of ultimate true while mans will tends toward the ultimate good. The reader is able to see how Dante’s will and reason search for, and ultimately attain, fulfillment in the vision of the Divine Essence. Both Aquinas and Dante emphasize the necessary union between human reason and divine faith as a means of attaining this fulfillment. As the instiller of these inclinations, only God Himself can satisfy them. Aquinas demonstrates this idea through his explanation of the natural and the divine law as they pertain to the Eternal law. Dante demonstrates this idea through the Pilgrim’s interactions with his guides and the culmination of his ascension in Paradise. Just as with body and soul, matter and form, there is a harmonious relationship between reason and faith; yet the agents within these partnerships are not equal. Both Dante and Aquinas acknowledge that human reason can assist the individual in understanding God and coinciding one’s will with His will, but they both conclude that this secular-based reasoning is subjugated by and therefore must be perfected by theology.

In Dante’s Virgil the reader finds human reason personified. Being the shade of a renowned and wise philosopher, Virgil is a perfect candidate to guide the Pilgrim through hell and purgatory. In his own lifetime Virgil lived as a pious man and therefore attained the imperfect Earthly happiness that can be acquired through natural powers. However, as Aquinas states, “every knowledge that is according to the mode of created substance, falls short of the vision of the Divine Essence,” therefore Virgil is unable to reach fulfillment since he cannot ascend to Paradise (Summa Theologiae, Handout II, 12). Instead, like many of his pagan contemporaries, Virgil is doomed to spend eternity in the underworld’s Limbo. He will forever yearn to know the ultimate happiness and the ultimate truth that are only found in God. As Virgil puts it himself, “In this alone we suffer: cut off from hope, we live in desire” (Inferno, 20). Dante provides Virgil as a means of illustrating the incompleteness of human reason, whereby observing Aquinas’s warning. When describing the home of philosophers within Limbo Dante writes, “we reached a place spread out and luminous” (Inferno 22). It is fitting that this realm be characterized by light because as Aquinas states, “[natural reason] is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light” (Summa Theologiae, Handout II, 13). The knowledge possessed by the philosophers comes from God Himself, or the Eternal Law. Having never embraced the faith of God through the implementation of the theological virtues, however, Virgil is an imperfect soul. Much like Virgil, human reason is guided by the light of the Eternal Law, but is unperfected without the divine law. It is this very imperfection of Virgil’s nature that makes him the perfect guide for the initial stages of Dante’s journey. In Virgil Dante finds a guide capable of explaining and illuminating the conceptual and rational...
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