Hubris and Prudence
by G. C.
The Collegiate School, 1997
Dante wants two things: immortality in art and in heaven. But he realizes
that he might not have the necessary ability to write his Commedia and
still go to heaven. Despite his criticism of those figures who attempt
the impossible, Dante may be one of them. He may be blasphemous, fraudulent,
harmful, or simply wrong. He is contemptuous of those who dare exceed their
limits because these characters prove ultimately destructive. Arachne hurts
herself, Daedalus hurts his son, and Phaethon destroys much of the world.
But Dante carefully distances himself from these figures. He hopes, and
most likely believes, that his writing of the Commedia is divinely sanctioned.
He stays within his limits. Therefore the steps and liberties that he takes
are not a result of ignorance and hubris, which were the causes of Ovid's
characters' failures, but of prudence, which may be the cause of Dante's
Dante relates to Arachne's character because she was a talented
artist. While she angered the goddess, Minerva, he risks the anger of God.
For Arachne "neither for place of birth nor birth itself had the girl fame,
but only for her skill."
The same is true for Dante. His fame derives from his skill as a writer,
not from a privileged birth. Arachne demonstrates her artistic ability
when, in a competition with Minerva, she weaves a piece, which depicts
the gods unfavorably. But in her piece, "not Pallas, nor Envy himself,
could find a flaw."As a
punishment, Minerva turns Arachne into a spider. Arachne does three things
to try to upstage the gods: she claims to be Minerva's equal by competing
with her; she creates a piece which showed unscrupulous stories of the
gods; and her finished product is like Minerva's: perfect. Like Arachne,
Dante is trying to create a perfect piece of art: his Commedia. Is its
very perfection an insult to God? Is its attempt at perfection an insult?
In the Purgatorio Dante sees perfect art. The terrace of the prideful is
made "of white marble and adorned with carvings / so accurate - not only
Polycletus / but even Nature, there, would feel defeated."By
saying that nature would feel defeated, it is as though God's nature were
in competition with man's art. Dante risks insulting God by representing
nature too perfectly and thereby "defeating" it. Like Arachne, Dante may
be foolishly competing with and therefore insulting God. If this is so,
in his afterlife, Dante would suffer because of his talent and pride.
Dante writes with a skill, style, and power that go beyond almost
every previous writer. In canto XXV he even calls for Ovid and Lucan to
fall silent before his superior poem, the Commedia. Dante realizes that
as a poet of extraordinary ability, he must use his power responsibly.
To illustrate this point, in canto XVII he refers to many figures who fly:
Phaethon, who rides in Helios' chariot; Daedalus, who builds wings to fly
with his son; a falcon; and Geryon. Dante's poem "flies" beyond and above
the writing which has come before. Phaethon and Daedalus try to fly, and
as a result harm themselves and others. Dante may be like Phaethon, ignorant
and incompetent and therefore destructive, harming himself and others.
Or he may be like Daedalus, an artificer of great ability, but with followers
who are unable to handle the power that he gives them. In this way Dante's
readers are like Icarus, Dante like Daedalus, and flight like the Commedia.
Icarus killed himself because the great artificer, Daedalus, gave him wings.
The readers may harm themselves because the great poet, Dante, gave them
his poem. Dante is aware of the harm that people can cause when they manipulate
words. Jason seduced women with his "polished words and love signs."Fraudulent
counselors led their people to death. And while the words of Guido da Montefeltro
led to the deaths of hundreds of Christians, because of the cunning words
of Boniface  Guido suffers
in hell. What would prevent a counterfeiter and artist, like Capocchio,
from perverting Dante's work? Dante must be especially careful not to abuse
his powers or people might hurt themselves and others by corrupting the
meaning of the Commedia.
Phaethon and Daedalus ignorantly try to transcend the role of
humanity. Their flights are symbolic of futile human attempts to go beyond
their limits. Ovid does not condemn Daedalus or Phaethon. To the contrary,
he seems to glory in the destructive flight of Phaethon by saying Phaethon's
epitaph says, "HERE PHAETHON LIES: IN PHOEBUS' CAR HE FARED, / AND THOUGH
HE GREATLY FAILED, MORE GREATLY DARED."Dante
is not as sympathetic. He undercuts Phaethon and Daedalus by writing of
the falcon, Geryon, and Lucifer. Phaethon and Daedalus fly, but so does
a falcon, who can not remain in flight and eventually falls from exhaustion.
Geryon, "that filthy effigy / of fraud" (Inf XVII, 7-8), is also able to
fly. And even the Lucifer
has "two wings spread out, / t as broad as suited so immense a bird" (XXXIV,
46-7). But he is unable to fly. He is stuck eternally in ice. While Phaethon,
Daedalus, the falcon, and Geryon eventually descend, and Lucifer can not
even rise, the flights for which Dante hopes are perpetual: the flight
of immortal, artistic excellence and the flight to heaven of a pious Christian.
But to succeed, Dante must have the caution that Phaethon and Daedalus
By recognizing and describing the faults of Ovid's characters,
Dante distances himself from them. Dante believes that these characters
lack the power that he has: the power to achieve greatness in life and
in the afterlife. While the characters of Ovid try to go beyond their limits,
O Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched,
whose intellects are sick and cannot see,
who place your confidence in backward steps,
do you not know that we are worms and born
to form the angelic butterfly that soars,
without defenses, to confront His judgement?
Why does your mind presume to flight when you
are still like the imperfect grub, the worm
before it has attained its final form? (Purg 10, 121-9)
Dante here describes the "wretched" people, who, in striving to be more
than humanly possible, do not realize that it is not man's place to "presume
to flight." Aside from not being Christian, the others' intellects are
"sick" or "cannot see" because they try to fly without the consent of God.
Dante, on the other hand, claims that he descends into hell only because
Beatrice, Lucia, and Mary said that he should. Vergil asks Dante near the
beginning of the Commedia, "Where are your daring and your openness / as
long as there are three such blessed women / concerned for you within the
court of Heaven. . .?" (Inf II, 123-5). Dante's mind "presumes to flight"
because, Dante claims, those in heaven wish it to do so. Because he has
found the favor of those heavenly women, Dante feels "as one who has been
freed" (Inf II, 132). Dante has been freed to write in his Italian dialect
instead of Latin, freed to write such powerful art, and even freed to write
of the inferno. Like a priest preaching to his congregation, Dante uses
his freedom in the Inferno to advise and to criticize his readers.
He further demonstrates his similarity with religious figures
when he compares himself at one moment to "he who was avenged by bears,"
the Christian prophet, Elisha (Inf XXVI, 34). Dante believes himself to
be like Elisha, and Dante surely knows that "the spirit of Eli'jah doth
rest on Eli'sha." Therefore,
by relating himself to Elisha, Dante is relating himself to Elijah, who
"went up in a whirlwind into heaven" in a chariot. This
is in contrast with Phaethon, who could not control his chariot and therefore
destroyed himself and much of the world. Dante claims that he is writing
because of a mandate from heaven. Thus, he can claim that his soul is filled
"with sound humility, abating / my overswollen pride" (Pur XI, 19-20),
while simultaneously daring to take such liberties, while daring to "fly,"
like no previous author.
Arachne, Daedalus, and Phaeton tried to go beyond their limits,
and therefore suffered. Dante must do what they did not. He must be brave
and use the gifts given him and yet rein in his powers. In order for Dante
to succeed, by demonstrating his artistic power before men and his humility
before God, he must stay within his limits as a human, artist, and Christian.
If he does this, then he might be able to be forever remembered as a great
poet and to fly like Elijah: to heaven. The reader must follow Dante's
example of prudence. The reader must not exceed his own limits. Because,
if the reader goes beyond the limits of the poem, corrupting and' perverting
its meaning and message, then he, too, will suffer the consequences of
ignorance and hubris: failure.