Dante's Letter to Can Grande (Selections)

And so, having brought to a close what I have written in the shape of a letter, I will at once assume the office of lecturer, and sketch in outline something by way of introduction to the work I offer you.

5. As the Philosopher said in the second Metaphysicorum, 'as a thing is related to existence, so is it related to truth,' the reason of which is that the truth about a thing (which is established in the truth as in its subject) is a perfect likeness of the thing as it is.

Now of things which exist some so exist as to have absolute being in themselves; others so exist as to have a being dependent on something else, by some kind of relation, for example 'being at the same time' or 'being related to something else,' like the correlatives 'father and son,' 'master and servant,' 'double and half,' 'whole and part,' and the like, as such; and because the being of such depends on something else, it follows that the truth of them also depends on something else; for if we have no knowledge of half we can never understand double, and so of the rest.

6. Therefore if we desire to furnish some introduction to a part of any work, it behooves us to furnish some knowledge of the whole of which it is a part. Wherefore I too, desiring to furnish something by way of introduction to the above-named portion of the Comedy, have thought that something concerning the whole work should be premised, that the approach to the part should be the easier and more complete. There are six things then which must be inquired into at the beginning of any work of instruction; to wit, the subject, agent, form, and end, the title of the work, and the branch of philosophy it concerns.

And there are three of these wherein this part which I purposed to design for you differs from the whole; to wit, subject, form, and title whereas in the others it differs not, as is plain on inspection.

And so, an inquiry concerning these three must be instituted specially with reference to the work as a whole; and when this has been done the way will be sufficiently clear to the introduction of the part. After that we shall examine the other three, not only with reference to the whole but also with reference to that special part which I am offering to you.

7. To elucidate, then, what we have to say, be it known that the sense of this work is not simple, but on the contrary it may be called polysemous, that is to say, 'of more senses than one'; for it is one sense which we get through the letter, and another which we get through the thing the letter signifies; and the first is called literal, but the second allegorical or mystic. And this mode of treatment, for its better manifestation, may be considered in this verse:

When lsrael came out of Egypt, and the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judaea became his sanctification, Israel his power.

For if we inspect the letter alone the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is presented to us; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace is presented to us; if the anagogical, the departure of the holy soul from the slavery of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory is presented to us.

And although these mystic senses have each their special denominations, they may all in general be called allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical; for allegory is derived from alleon, in Greek, which means the same as the Latin alienum or diversum.

8. When we understand this we see clearly that the subject round which the alternative senses play must be twofold. And we must therefore consider the subject of this work as literally understood, and then its subject as allegorically intended. The subject of the whole work, then, taken in the literal sense only, is 'the state of souls after death,' without qualification, for the whole progress of the work hinges on it and about it. Whereas if the work be taken allegorically the subject is 'man, as by good or ill desserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing justice.'

9. Now the form is twofold, the form of the treatise and the form of the treatment. The form of the treatise is threefold, according to its threefold division. The first division is that by which the whole work is divided into three cantiche; the second that whereby each cantica is divided into cantos; the third, that whereby each canto is divided into lines. The form or method of treatment is poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, transumptive [i.e., metaphoric]; and likewise proceeding by definition, division, proof, of the refutation, and setting forth of examples.

10. The title of the work is, 'Here beginneth the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth, not by character.' To understand which, be it known that comedy is derived from comus, 'a village,' and oda, which is, 'song.' Whence comedy is, as it were, 'rustic song.' So comedy is a certain kind of poetic narration differing from all others. It differs, then, from tragedy in its content, in that tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly, whereas its end or exit is foul and terrible; and it derives its name from tragus, which is a 'goat' and oda, as though to say 'goat-song,' that is fetid like a goat, as appears from Seneca in his tragedies; whereas comedy, introduces some harsh complication, but brings its matter to a prosperous end, as appears from Terence, in his comedies. And hence certain writers, on introducing themselves, have made it their practice to give the salutation: 'I wish you a tragic beginning and a comic end.' They likewise differ in their mode of speech, tragedy being exalted and sublime, comedy lax and humble, as Horace has it in his Poetica, where he gives comedians leave sometimes to speak like tragedians and conversely:

Interdum tamen et vocem comoedia follit,
Iratusque Chremes tumido delitigat ore;
Et tragicus plerumque dolet sermone pedestri.

[Sometimes Comedy herself raises her voice,
And wrathful Chremes denounces with tempestuous lips.
And the tragedian often lowers his wail to pedestrian tone.]

And hence it is evident that the title of the present work is 'the Comedy.' For if we have respect to its content, at the beginning it is horrible and fetid, for it is hell; and in the end it is prosperous, desirable, and gracious, for it is Paradise. If we have respect to the method of speech the method is lax and humble, for it is the vernacular speech in which very women communicate. There are also other kinds of poetic narration, as the bucolic song, elegy, satire, and the utterance of prayer, as may also be seen from Horace in his Poetica. But concerning them nought need at present be said.

11. There can be no difficulty in assigning the subject of the part I am offering you; for if the subject of the whole, taken literally, is 'the state of souls after death,' not limited but taken without qualification, it is clear that in this part that same state is the subject, but with a limitation, to wit, 'the state of blessed souls after death'; and if the subject of the whole work taken allegorically is 'man as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing justice,' it is manifest that the subject in this part is contracted to `man as by good deserts, he becomes liable to rewarding justice.'

12. And in like manner the form of the part is clear from the form assigned to the whole; for if the form of the treatise as a whole is threefold, in this part it is twofold only, namely, division of the cantiche and of the cantos. The first division cannot be a part of its special form, since it is itself a part under that first division.

13. The title of the work is also clear, for if the title of the whole work is 'Here beginneth the Comedy,' and so forth as set out above, the title of this part will be 'Here beginneth the third cantica of Dante's Comedy, which is entitled Paradise.'

14. Having investigated the three things in which the part differs from the whole, we must examine the other three, in which there is no variation from the whole. The agent, then, of the whole and of the part is the man already named, who is seen throughout to be such.

15. The end of the whole and of the part may be manifold, to wit, the proximate and the ultimate, but dropping all subtle investigation, we may say briefly that the end of the whole and of the part is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.

16. But the branch of philosophy which regulates the work in its whole and in its parts, is morals or ethics, because the whole was undertaken not for speculation but for practical results. For albeit in some parts or passages it is handled in the way of speculation, this is not for the sake of speculation, but for the sake of practical results; because, as the Philosopher says in the second Metaphysicorum 'practical men sometimes speculate on things in their relative and temporal bearings.'

17. This, then, premised, we must approach the exposition of the letter, after the fashion of a kind of prelibation; but we must announce in advance that the exposition of the letter is nought else than the development of the form of the work. This part, then, namely the third cantica, which is called Paradise, falls by its main divisions into two parts, to wit, the prologue and the executive portion. The second begins here; 'riseth unto mortals through diverse straits.'

From The Latin Works of Dante, Temple Classics. London. 1904. Epistola X, pp. 346-52.