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 success.

 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."[1] 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."[2]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."[3]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."[4]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 [5] 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."[6]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. [7]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 lacked.

 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, Dante writes:
 

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."[8] Therefore, by relating himself to Elisha, Dante is relating himself to Elijah, who "went up in a whirlwind into heaven" in a chariot. [9]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.