Dante’s Love for Beatrice in Vita Nuova

[Denne artikel er en af mine universitetsopgaver, som blev skrevet på engelsk. Lang størstedelen af mine artikler (og opgaver) vil fortsat være på dansk.]


To modern day readers Dante’s love for Beatrice might be difficult to understand. This is due to the fact that Dante does not long for Beatrice in an earthly lust and desire-based love. Instead Dante’s relationship with Beatrice can be regarded as a divine love – a kind of love that transcends to God by worshipping the beloved – at least at some times. In this paper I will seek out to understand in what way Dante’s divine love for Beatrice shows itself in Vita Nuova. It is interesting to investigate this subject in Vita Nuova because this is the first work in which Dante falls in love with Beatrice and also experiences her death. Looking at this topic will therefore also work as a way to understand why Dante later will go through hell and purgatory to find Beatrice in paradise in The Divine Comedy.

   The paper will start off describing the central elements in the Aristotelian natural philosophy and then move on to describe how this way of regarding the universe got mixed up with Christianity in the thirteenth century. This will serve to not only get a better understanding of the philosophical ideas at the time but also try to seek towards a definition of how Dante regards the idea of divine love. With the understanding of the natural philosophy and the clarification of the term divine love I will explore how these ideas show themselves in Vita Nuova. Firstly I will look at the different stages of Dante’s love and see how his love evolves or changes from when he first met her at the age of nine till after her death. Along this path it will also be shown how Dante deals with different kinds of emotion as for example melancholy, and this will be related to thoughts on the subject from contemporary thinkers. Furthermore I will be looking at in what way it can be said that Dante sins in Vita Nuova. This is important to investigate because when Dante sees Beatrice in Purgatory she does not welcome him with smiles and happiness but instead accuses him of being unworthy and thus speaks to him:

In the desires for me which were leading thee in love of the good beyond which there is nothing to be longed for, what cross-ditches or chains didst thou meet with for which thou must give up the hope of going forward and what attractions and advantages showed in the aspect of other things for which thou must be at their service?”[1]

This question will be the focus of this last topic of this paper. Lastly a conclusion will be sought where it will be concluded how divine love has prepared Dante for his journey towards god and Beatrice in The Divine Comedy.

Aristotelian natural philosophy

One might wonder why Aristotle’s philosophies drew so much attention in the period around Dante, but this attention owned a great deal to the medieval translation movement where Greek texts were being translated into Arabic and Latin. The translation movement will not be explained in-depth, but will just serve as a brief introduction to as why Aristotle was so widely known in the time around Dante – which is also why Dante himself was familiar with Aristotle. Charles Burnett writes in “Arabic into Latin: the reception of Arabic philosophy into Western Europe”:

The burgeoning interest in natural philosophy in the early twelfth century presages the establishment of a completely new field of learning in the Latin Middle Ages, which was to supplement the traditional education in the seven liberal arts […]. It led to the recovery of Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy (libri naturales), from both Greek and Arabic sources.[2]

It was not only a matter of translating Aristotle. In the Arabic culture the translation movement was a very serious matter where the work progress was highly structured. Burnett also acknowledges the work of the Arabic tradition and writes: “The main advantage of the Arabic Aristotle over the Greek was that it was part of a lively tradition of commentary and teaching up to the time of the translators themselves.”[3] This lively tradition was fed by very productive translators and commentators as al-Kindï, al-Färäbï, Averroes and Avicenna, where – as will also be a focus later – some also sought to mix Aristotelian philosophy with religion. Even though religion also was an important focus when Aristotle was being translated, Burnett argues that the “fact that [the texts] were Arabic, and issued from Muslim lands, did not cause a problem. They were simply the best texts available, and Averroes provided the most dependable and comprehensive commentaries on Aristotle’s works.”[4]

   The medieval natural philosophers “adopted almost all of Aristotle’s basic ideas about the cosmos and its operations”[5] and therefore we shall have a brief look at how Aristotle regarded the cosmos. To Aristotle the cosmos was a large finite sphere completely filled with different kinds of matter, which meant that there could be no void spaces, and therefore Aristotle also argued that there could not exist anything beyond our cosmos. The world was limited to a series of concentric spheres, where the fixed stars resembled the furthest border away from the spherical earth, which was the geometric centre of the world. Aristotle furthermore divided the world into two different parts; the terrestrial and the celestial, which was divided by the concave surface of the lunar sphere. The two regions were thoroughly different: “The terrestrial region below the concave surface of the moon, was a place of continual change. It consisted of four elements: earth, water, air and fire.”[6] Continual change is a keyword because if the four elements were to stop its motion they would form four concentric circles in the ascending order of earth, water, air and fire in which there would be no movements or connections. This will not happen due to the fact that the four elements are in constant motion, where they compound with each other to constitute physical bodies of our terrestrial world. A compound body would always be composed of at least two elements and this also comes with and important fact: “The compound bodies were always in a process of change as the elements of which they were composed disassociated and entered into different combinations to form new compound bodies.”[7] This idea of continual change and constant motion in the terrestrial region is a key factor and we will later see how Dante was also inspired by these thoughts.

   The celestial region, above the concave surface of the moon, is different from the terrestrial in the way that it is filled with material ether that leaves no void spaces. This ether worked as a fifth element, which – in opposition to the first four – moved with an eternal natural uniform circular motion. This design meant that the only change that would happen in the celestial region was the change of place. This was a much-needed explanation since it was very hard not to notice how the visible planets and stars moved in a circular motion – and therefore they were composed of ether.

   There is a lot more to be said about Aristotle’s cosmos but for now I will just briefly touch upon how change was regarded and can occur, which is important when we will move towards a definition of divine love. Aristotle speaks about four kinds of motion and change: substance, quality, quantity and place. Istvan Bodnar writes in “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy”:

Within the four domains where genuine change can occur, change always requires the existence of a potentiality which can be actualised. But change is neither identical to this potentiality, nor to the lack of a property, nor, without further qualifications, to the actuality which is acquired when the potentiality is actualised. It is a special kind of actuality, the actuality of the potential in so far as it is potential.[8]

Bringing potentiality into the concept of change and motion is very important to keep in mind when we shall look at Beatrice as a way to love God. It must also be noted that this concept of potentiality also means that the results of motion and change are not predestined, which leaves room for man’s free will, which was also something Dante was very concerned with.

   As cited earlier most of Aristotle’s ideas were adopted, but some of the concepts of his natural philosophy got challenged. “Aristotle believed that air propelled a body forward after it lost contact with its initial mover. He assumed that the air gradually lost its power to move a body. When the air’s capacity to move a body was exhausted, the body came to rest.”[9] This idea was rejected by many natural philosophers among them Avicenna. Also Aristotle’s idea that the earth was completely immobile was challenged by many natural philosophers, but as Edward Grant notes, “not by Dante.”[10] Another idea that was severely challenged was “his belief in an eternal, uncreated world that would never end.”[11] Aristotle did not believe in a creator god – as Muslims and Christians – instead he believed in a god that only was aware of himself. This was obviously in conflict with the medieval Christian and Muslim religion. Even though there were contradictions between religion and Aristotelian natural philosophy they both served as inspiration for each other as we shall have a closer look at in the next paragraph.

Religion and natural philosophy

During the middle of the 13th century the relationship between Christianity and Aristotelian natural philosophy became very tense and it escalated in the 1270’s where the bishop of Paris condemned 232 articles during that decade to condemn or restrict a whole range of concepts and ideas from the Aristotelian philosophy. The main focus of condeming the articles was to protect the worldview from becoming secular. We have already touched upon some of the ideas that became condemned like Aristotle’s belief of the eternity of the world. And the Aristotelian natural philosophers at the time “were thought to have severely restricted God’s power by a seeming overreliance on a naturalistic determinism rooted in Aristotle’s physical and metaphysical principles.”[12] I won’t go more into the condemnation of the articles since the point to be stated is that by this time of the condemnations the Aristotelian natural philosophy and Christianity was in a heavy fight, but intellectually this was not a bad thing since discussions on the subject flourished. Grant also states: “Since it touched upon major issues in philosophy and theology, the condemnation was bound to have significant influence and impact.”[13] Especially discussions on God’s powers were the main field in discussing Aristotle’s idea in comparison to the Christian beliefs: “One important indirect consequence of the Condemnation of 1277 was an unusual emphasis on God’s absolute power to do anything whatever as long as it did not involve a contradiction.”[14]

   The relationship between natural philosophy and theology came to an unequal ending when Thomas Aquinas first stated in Summa of Theology that theology as a science was the most important one outweighing mathematics, logic, astronomy and natural philosophy and furthermore as “a subordinate discipline to theology, theologians could use natural philosophy to elucidate theology.”[15] This was not allowed the other way around though and therefore “natural philosophers who were not also theologians could not use theology to explicate natural philosophy.”[16] Furthermore Arts masters from the University of Paris had to take an oath to swear that they would not bring theology into natural philosophy:

And so it was that natural philosophy and theology became separate, but unequal, disciplines: theology could – and did – use natural philosophy extensively; but natural philosophy rarely used theology. By making theology an independent science, Thomas Aquinas also – inadvertently – made natural philosophy an independent science. Natural philosophers who were not also professional theologians kept natural philosophy distinct from theology and religion, as indeed did Dante himself.[17]

Edward Grant proceeds to investigate how natural philosophy and religion got mixed together in the 13th and 14th century by examining commentaries from Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Aquinas and others in his chapter “God and Natural Philosophy” in Nature of Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages. Grant’s focus in this chapter is to be concerned with the terms for God as First Cause, Prime Mover, Immobile Mover and see how natural philosophy and theology was used side by side to explain these concepts. Grant concludes from this chapter, that “medieval natural philosophers who explicated the texts of Aristotle’s natural books kept their inevitable involvements with God and the faith to a minimum.” And furthermore that “commentaries on Aristotle’s natural philosophy […] refrained remarkably from intruding theology into their natural philosophy.”[18] What Grant concludes is that natural philosophy fundamentally was concerned with the natural phenomena, which were rational and secular in manner and faith concepts where left for theologians to deal with.

Dante’s conception of life and love

Before entering the analysis of Vita Nuova we shall have a brief look at how Dante regarded the concepts of life and love according to Heather Webb and Joseph Anthony Mazzeo. Webb investigates in her article “Dante’s Definition of Life” what Dante regarded as the nature of human life. She states that Dante has a distinction “between biological identity and personal presence, understood as the relation between those aspects of human creation that are mediated and those that are unmediated”[19]. What Webb is concerned with here is to explain how Dante thinks a human is created and thus starts out with explaining how a body is formed from the fetus. The soul of the body has to complete three phases before becoming human: First it only contains a vegetative (plant-like) soul, then a sensitive (animal) soul and then finally it receives the human soul. The last phase is reached by a conjunction between the divine and human: “It is speech that makes the human, according to Dante”[20]. And furthermore “Dante gives us to understand that the nature of the event in question is not a transition or even a transformation of what is already present but rather is as explosive in its being as a point. The point shares in the nature of God in that it is unextended but contains within itself an infinite capacity for extension.”[21] The point to be made here is not that the human soul overrules and removes the two other parts of the soul (the vegetative and the sensitive). “For Dante, as for Aquinas, the intellectual or rational soul is breathed into the body by God himself”[22]. This leaves the body with a product of “three souls made one and three parents made into one human individual. This is a perfected unification, modelled on the Trinity: the fetus only becomes a person when all three entities merge into one.”[23] This might seem contradictory to Grant’s observation as cited earlier that Dante kept natural philosophy and religion divided, but the point is that the unity of the body’s souls contain the opportunity to both have a religious and a natural side. To exemplify this idea Dante uses a metaphor about how wine is created: “the divinely inspired soul is likened to the heat of the sun and the vegetative and animal souls are likened to the sap that flows within the vine. The souls are thus of different natures but can work together to complete a certain process.”[24]

   When we move on to look at how Dante conceived love, the major inspiration also stems from Aristotelian natural philosophy in conjunction with Christianity. Mazzeo thus starts his article “Dante’s Conception of Love” with stating that “[l]ove in the Aristotelian tradition of the schools was conceived as the natural inclination, the natural appetite of anything whatsoever for its object.”[25] This has to do with the idea that objects seek out to find their natural place in the cosmos – the ideas of fire and air moving upwards and earth and water moving downwards. Mazzeo then proceeds and states – on behalf of the discourses in the Convivio – that Dante defines love “as nothing other than the spiritual union of the soul and the beloved object, a union the soul seeks by nature.”[26] First of all the soul seeks out another object because God is manifest in humans because God is a source of existence for humans. This also means that the humans want to be united with God qua the fact about natural places. And so this desire to be with God – knowingly or unknowingly – results in the human soul “seeks to unite itself spiritually more strongly and quickly with an object the more perfect that object appears to it to be.”[27] This has some implications due to the fact that it is up to each person to individually find what should be fitting as the object of love. The risk is here that – as we know – the soul is a unity of three souls which all are capable of loving and seeking their natural place. Mazzeo thus states that “the animal soul in man, i.e., the sensitive soul or the unity of the faculties of sensation, which makes man feel desire following upon sensible apprehension. This is the love most in need of control because its activity is excessive, especially in regard to the pleasures of touch and taste.”[28] This puts a lot of stress on man’s free will hence there will occur a lot of desires in different aspects of life, but it is up to each individual to choose which desire to follow. Mazzeo also acknowledged this fact: “Natural impulses of desire arise from necessity, but the will is free and it is in man’s power to control it.”[29]

   With this knowledge the final task before entering Vita Nuova is to seek a short definition of divine love. We know that the plurality of the soul makes it desire different objects in the world, but in order to seek out the divine love, one must seek out the love for God in other creatures, which must be used to transcend to God through them. This must be done by being in contact with God through the remembrance of the supreme beauty in the beloved object. To love divinely therefore means that one must put away, or control, ones earthly and sensational desires and instead elevate ones beloved to ascend to a contact with God. This should be done because the soul wants to ascend to God since God is the creator and therefore the soul has its natural place there, and secondly because it is sinful to the Christian religion to practice the natural love: “In Inferno, we are given examples of individuals who have not understood that which is of divine origin in their being and have seen themselves simply as products of nature. […] As Christian Moevs notes, sin is self-identification with the body.”[30] To express it with more Aristotelian words the relationship is about actualizing the potentiality of love in the lover, which we will now move on to look at in Vita Nuova.

Dante’s love for Beatrice

In “Dante’s Beatrice and the New life of Poetry” R. W. B. Lewis tries to explain Dante’s relationship with Beatrice in Vita Nuova by referring to what happened in Dante’s – the authors – actual life. On the other hand P. J. Klemp in “The Women in the Middle” argues that the different stages of love in Vita Nuova should be explained in a metatextual way because “Dante’s acts of revisionist literary history prevent us from discussing any of the writings in isolation.”[31] This paper will in manner refrain from both these two ways of dealing with love in Vita Nuova and instead use the concepts from Aristotelian natural philosophy mixed with religion to examine how Dante’s love for Beatrice evolves.

   Vita Nuova starts with Dante seeing Beatrice for the first time when they are both at the age of nine. Dante falls in love with Beatrice at first sight and Dante describes how he is very physically affected: “the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were strangely affected”[32]. Also the animal spirit, in this case the one governed in the brain, according to the categories by Albertus Magnus – who was an religious Aristotle commentator – and the natural spirit, which is resting in the liver, where heavily affected: “from that time on Love governed my soul”.[33] At this state it must be argued that it is the earthly and lower desires that is controlling Dante, even though he refers to Beatrice being the daughter of God he is focused on her appearance, which also makes him fast forward nine years with the statement that “to dwell too long on the passions and actions of my early years may appear frivolous”[34]. The next meeting that we hear about is nine years later when Beatrice greets him for the first time, which results in Dante being “so overcome with ecstasy that I departed from everyone as if intoxicated.”[35] This encounter, where Dante is still not able to control his body and immediately leaves, generates the first of Dante’s three visions. In the vision love appears as a person who is holding Dante’s heart in his hands, which he feeds to Beatrice. Dante not knowing how to interpret this vision seeks help from “all Love’s faithful subjects”[36], where he asks them for their opinion on his vision. Even though he makes friends with one of the responders, Dante states that the “true interpretation of the dream I described was not perceived by anyone then, but now it is very clear to even the least sophisticated.”[37] This statement does not only create a form of suspense, since the reader will be eager to figure out the true meaning of the vision, but the statement is also an explicit way of showing that the character Dante has not understood the concept of love yet. Dante’s uncertainty in dealing with love furthermore shows when Dante feels the need to have a screen lady, so he can hide his true feelings for Beatrice from the public. The screen lady gave Dante “protection for several years and months”[38] and eventually he also grew fond of her. Lewis suggests that this screen lady is a factional reference to Dante’s own life because “during this same time – in thereabouts – he fulfilled his marriage contract with Gemma Donati, in the traditional religious ceremony in the Church of San Martino del Vescovo.”[39] Even though this might serve as a simple answer to why Dante bothers brining in screen ladies in the novel, Klemp offers a more profound understanding of the importance of the other ladies in Vita Nuova. He states: “Without the screen-ladies, as I will argue, there can be no vision of Beatrice.”[40] And furthermore comes with a brief statement concerning all the women in the book: “Since the women offer different kinds of love – simulated, earthly, philosophical, and divine – one layer of love leads to the next only when they are placed in their proper order.”[41] This argument can be said to be in conjunction with Dante’s Aristotelian conception of love. This is due to the fact that it can be argued that the screen lady is a way for Dante to experience the lower form of earthly love. Klemp writes that Dante’s early love for Beatrice is premature and impossible. The screen lady thus serves as a teacher that lets Dante experience the concepts of love. In a way the screen lady lets Dante delay his manifestation of his love for Beatrice that is not mature yet. Another benefit of the screen lady is that Dante’s melancholy is soothed while being engaged with her – at least he makes no mention of it in the chapters that is concerned with the screen lady. In chapter IV Dante tells us that he “became so weak and so frail” and later “on my face many of [Love’s] signs were clearly marked that they were impossible to conceal.”[42] We do not hear about melancholia again before chapter XII. In the mean time Dante has been busy attending his screen lady, she has left town, and Dante has found a new screen lady. Arriving at chapter XII rumours have flourished in the city that Dante has found a new lady and thus when Dante meets Beatrice she rejects greeting him. At this point Dante is “grief-stricken” and withdraws from all company, and this is when Dante has his second vision. Before touching upon the vision a note must be made on the current subject on melancholia. According to Gerard of Berry – a Parisian physician from the late twelfth century who commentated on Constantine the African’s Viaticum – states that melancholia is when ones entire attention “is fixed on the beauty of some form or figure.”[43] Without touching upon his ideas of the brain and the humours Gerard regards love sickness as something that makes the patient careless on other topics, but if there is talk about the beloved the patient will be moved. On the body the disease will show as sunken eyes, dry eyes and “weeping occurs on account of the desired object. […] [H]e weeps when he hears love songs and especially if mention is made of rejection and separation of beloved objects.”[44] It is not hard to find these patterns in the two chapters: the bodily effects in chapter IV and the weeping in chapter XII. Gerard states the lovesick patient should occupy himself with various things to distract him from the beloved for instance something that is “useful is consorting with and embracing girls, sleeping with them repeatedly, and switching various ones.”[45] We do not hear about how closely engaged Dante is with his screen ladies and it is probably not the interesting part either, since the point that should be made about the melancholia, is that it is clear that Beatrice is not Dante’s centre of attention as long as he “uses” the screen ladies to hide his true love. This is shown by the fact that we hear about no melancholy until Dante randomly drops into her again. This is yet another indicator that Dante is not mature enough for divine love yet due to the fact that it is the earthly impulses that control him and not the other way around.

   The vision Dante has in chapter XII is a conversation between Dante and the figure Love. The figure tells him that love is to be regarded as a circle that must be penetrated to reach the middle of it. This is obscure to Dante and he does not understand it, but Love will not give him any more clues to understand it. Klemp suggests a way of understanding this scenario:

Amore, the personified essence of love, is located in the center, and the women’s different loves form concentric circles around him. Dante’s journey will consist of moving from the outermost circle to the center. […] Dante the lover must proceed from the lower (outside) to the higher (inside) kinds of love, from a “simulato amore” to a real love – and ultimately to the real love, as Amore later yields to God.[46]

Love furthermore guides Dante to make a poem where he implicitly mentions that Beatrice is the source of his real love and that he has belonged to her since he was a little boy. From this point on Dante produces a lot of poems in praise of his lady. He tackles the subject of love from different angles and it is very evident in his poem where he defines love that he is inspired by the Aristotelian natural philosophy. Dante tells us that the sonnet is divided in three parts and in “the first I speak of Love as a potential force; in the second I speak of it as a power brought into action.”[47] At this stage of Vita Nuova the focus is being shifted towards having Beatrice as the centre of attention. When asked by some ladies where he finds his happiness he answers: “In those words that praise my lady.”[48] Even though Dante has some difficulties at this stage – “the desire to write and the fear of beginning”[49] – he is moving closer to the truth in love. In the canzone in chapter XIX where he is talking about Beatrice he writes: “whoever speaks with her shall speak with Him.”[50] The manifestation of the connection between Beatrice and God has thus been made, but one could still argue that the conception of love at this point is still not completely pure and divine due to the fact that Beatrice’s beauty still evokes earthly desires: “First I speak of her eyes, which are the initiators of love; next I speak of her mouth, which is the supreme desire of my love.”[51] Dante is arguably on the right course towards reaching divine love at this stage because he is striving to actualize the potential of love that Beatrice holds within her with love becoming actualized in Dante’s poems.

   Dante’s third vision comes a few days after Beatrice’s father has died and death is also the topic of the vision. In short the dream in chapter XXIII is about the fact that one must die. The dream is at first hand scary and unpleasant with ladies telling him he is dead and a friend telling him that Beatrice is dead as well. Here the vision takes a turn. At looking upon the dead body of Beatrice – in the dream – she tells him that she is at peace and then Dante realizes that death is not only a bad thing. As a matter of fact – in the dream still – he asks for Death to come and take him so he could follow his beloved to the afterlife. Of course Dante is not grasping the whole truth since he is still weeping and complaining and regarding Beatrice as the highest possible existence making a posture that indicates that even God should be thankful of Beatrice’s company: “Blessed is he who sees you, lovely soul!”[52] When Beatrice’s death occurs five chapters later Dante seems oddly calm. In chapter XXVIII we learn that Beatrice has died, but Dante tells us nothing about the death and explains that it is not a subject that he has the will or ability to tell about: “the language at my command at this time would not suffice to deal with the material in the way it should be dealt with”[53]. In a way this is also Dante’s way of telling us – in a self-critical way – that he is not learned enough in the field of love and divinity. What Dante does tell us about her death is how her “departure” can be related to the number nine, which I will deal with in a moment. The fact to be mentioned here is that Dante takes her departure very calmly due to the fact that his vision of Beatrice’s death earlier has prepared him for her death, because he envisioned that Beatrice was at peace in heaven. This is also what concerns Dante when Beatrice dies; he tells us how her departure is connected to “the miraculous Trinity itself.”[54] And therefore he has no doubt that “Beatrice has ascended to high heaven”[55] Dante is naturally upset after Beatrice’s departure, but at the time of her death Dante is still using Beatrice in a productive way hence he is creating poetry based on his grief of her departure. It is fair to say that Dante is still at the right course regarding divine love at this stage. He is perhaps not fully initiated due to the fact that he keeps weeping because the body of Beatrice is not on earth anymore instead of only focusing on the potential it has that his beloved’s soul is in heaven.

   The declining of Dante’s divine love begins a year after Beatrice’s death. From this point on it seems as if Dante needs inspiration to keep recollecting Beatrice. For instance in chapter XXXV he says, “I happened to be in a place which recalled past times”[56] or “I was sitting in a place where, thinking of her, I was drawing an angel on some panels.”[57] The thing to notice here is that Beatrice is slipping away from Dante’s centre of attention; he basically needs to be in an environment that reminds him of her. This slippage gets intensified when he meets a new lady, whom he declares his love in chapter XXXVIII. He thus explains that the sonnet in chapter XXXVIII is to “tell this lady how my desire turns completely toward her”[58]. Klemp – among others – argues that this new lady is Filosofia: “[Dante] resolves to love Filosofia in Chapter XXXVIII, a necessary action […] if he is ever to reach the immortal Beatrice.”[59] As cited in the introduction of this paper we know that Beatrice accuses Dante in Purgatory for taking a new path that lead him away from divine love and this is where this new lady Filosofia enters the frame and thus makes me question Klemps positive understanding of Filosofia, where he says “we see Filosofia as a representative of the moral, instructive sense of allegory, which will lead Dante to the highest sense and highest love.”[60] As I have already hinted at Dante is moving away from the divine love at the stage where he is meeting Filosofia. To follow my argument that this new lady should not be understood as a merely positive figure, we shall have a look at Pamela William’s idea of Dante’s sin:

Beatrice speaks of a breach in their love because of another woman and of the penitence now necessary for reconciliation between them. The problem about the nature of Dante’s sin has centred on this ‘other woman’, whether ‘she’ is a real woman, making Dante’s infidelity a carnal sin, or Lady Philosophy, in which case Dante is now recognising the limitations of philosophy and showing himself to be guilty of the spiritual sin of intellectual pride. […] In the Vita nuova, in which Dante spoke of the religious significance of Beatrice in his life, there is an ‘other woman’ who offered to console Dante a little more than a year after the death of Beatrice. […] It is in relation to this giving himself to another, if that ‘other’ is philosophy, that I would suggest acedia as Dante’s personal sin.[61]

So instead of Filosofia as a figure who leads Dante to “the highest love” I would rather argue that she is one of the reasons that Dante has to make such a detour to be able to behold Beatrice again. Instead of contemplating in Beatrice and therefore God; Dante sins when he is ‘cheating’ with Filosofia. We can see how she does not lead him to the highest love in the last sonnet in Vita Nuova where he says that he has a new understanding of love and that he cannot grasp what is going on with the souls in heaven and particularly Beatrice’s:

But when it tries to tell me what it saw,/ I cannot understand the subtle words/ it speaks to the sad heart that makes it speak/ I know it talks of that most gracious one,/ because it often mentions Beatrice; this much is very clear to me, dear ladies.[62]

In the last chapter Dante also admits that he is not yet capable of writing about Beatrice in a worthy way, but he will be “striving as hard as [he] can”[63] to be able to behold her one day, and thereby Dante has prepared us for the hard journey he undergoes in The Divine Comedy.


There can be no uncertainty about the fact that Dante loves Beatrice. What is more incomprehensible for modern day readers is Dante’s conception of love. His love is based on the ideas of Aristotelian natural philosophy mixed with religion, which makes love focus on an idea of being able to transcend to God through worshipping of the beloved. Some of the important concepts from the Aristotelian natural philosophy were change, potentiality, free will and determinism. In Dante’s conception of love we see these ideas and we also know for a fact that he was inspired by Aristotle. In Vita Nuova we see the determinism when Dante falls in love with Beatrice at first sight at the very start and has her as his beloved object through the rest of his time. Beatrice holds the potential for love and divine love in her and it is up to Dante to actualize it, but due to change and free will this can be easier said than done. With the unification of the three souls in man there is a potential for many different desires and we also see Dante experience some of these desires when he engages with the two screen ladies and later with Filosofia. With the definition of divine love as something where one has to control ones desires to be able to have the supreme beauty in the beloved in focus. What I wanted to argue with this paper is that Dante’s relationship with Beatrice is a roller coaster where their relationship on the terrestrial region is in constant change as in opposition to The Divine Comedy where the relationship is more stable with Beatrice as teacher and Dante as student. The time where Dante is closest to divine love is at the time of Beatrice’s death where he is able to have her at his centre of attention, but this also has to change. A year after Beatrice’s death Dante turns towards rationalism instead of divinity. This turn is manifested in the new lady he is engaged with, Filosofia. Williams suggests that when Dante loves Filosofia he commits the sin of acedia. This could very well be the reason why Dante receives such a harsh welcome when he finally meets her again in The Divine Comedy, but because Dante is sinful – contrary to Beatrice who ascends to the highest heavens when she dies – he gets to travel through hell, purgatory and paradise to get a grasp of the divine truth in The Divine Comedy.


Alighieri, Dante: Vita Nuova, trans. Mark Musa (Oxford World’s Classics, 1992).

Alighieri, Dante: The Divine Comedy II: Purgatorio, trans. J.D. Sinclair, rev. edn (Oxford, 1961).

Bodnar, Istvan, “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed)).

Burnett, Charles: ”Arabic into Latin: the reception of Arabic philosophy into Western Europe” (in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Gerard of Berry: Glosses on the Viaticum trans. and ed. Mary F. Wack, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).

Grant, Edward: ”God, Science, and Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages” (in The Nature of Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages, Catholic University of America Press, 2010).

Grant, Edward: ”Natural philosophy” (in Dante in Context, Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Grant, Edward: ”The Condemnation of 1277, God’s Absolute Power, and Physical Thought in the Late Middle Ages” (in The Nature of Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages, Catholic University of America Press, 2010).

Klemp, P.J.: ”The Women in the Middle: Layers of Love in Dante’s Vita Nuova” (in Italica, American Association of Teacher of Italian, Vol. 61, No. 3, 1984).

Lewis, R.W.B.: ”Dante’s Beatrice and the New Life of Poetry” (in New England Review, Middlebury College Publications, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2001).

Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony: ”Dante’s Conception of Love” (in Journal of the History of Ideas, University of Pennsylvania Press, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1957).

Webb, Heather: ”Dante’s Definition of Life” (in Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, Dante Society of America, Vol. 129, 2011).

Williams, Pamela: ”Acedia as Dante’s sin in the Commedia” (in Through Human Love to God, Troubador Publishing Ltd, 2007).

[1] Alighieri, Dante: The Divine Comedy II: Purgatorio, p. 403.

[2] Burnett, Charles: ”Arabic into Latin: the reception of Arabic philosophy into Western Europe”, p. 372.

[3] Ibid.: P. 375.

[4] Ibid.: P. 375.

[5] Grant, Edward: ”Natural philosophy”, p. 180.

[6] Ibid.: P. 181.

[7] Ibid.: P. 181.

[8] Bodnar, Istvan, “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy”.

[9] Grant, Edward: ”Natural philosophy”, p. 182.

[10] Ibid.: P. 184.

[11] Ibid.: P. 180.

[12] Grant, Edward: ”The Condemnation of 1277, God’s Absolute Power, and Physical Thought in the Late Middle Ages”, p. 51.

[13] Ibid.: P. 52.

[14] Grant, Edward: ”Natural philosophy”, p. 175.

[15] Ibid.: P. 178.

[16] Ibid.: P. 178.

[17] Ibid.: P. 178.

[18] Grant, Edward: ”God, Science, and Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages”, p. 115.

[19] Webb, Heather: ”Dante’s Definition of Life”, p. 54.

[20] Ibid.: P. 55.

[21] Ibid.: P. 55.

[22] Ibid.: P. 56.

[23] Ibid.: P. 56.

[24] Ibid.: P. 58.

[25] Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony: ”Dante’s Conception of Love”, p. 147.

[26] Ibid.: P. 149.

[27] Ibid.: P. 149.

[28] Ibid.: P. 150.

[29] Ibid.: P. 157.

[30] Webb, Heather: ”Dante’s Definition of Life”, p. 58-59.

[31] Klemp, P.J.: ”The Women in the Middle: Layers of Love in Dante’s Vita Nuova”, p. 185.

[32] Alighieri, Dante: Vita Nuova, p. 4.

[33] Ibid.: P. 4.

[34] Ibid.: P. 5.

[35] Ibid.: P. 6.

[36] Ibid.: P. 7.

[37] Ibid.: P. 7.

[38] Ibid.: P. 9.

[39] Lewis, R.W.B.: ”Dante’s Beatrice and the New Life of Poetry”, p. 72.

[40] Klemp, P.J.: ”The Women in the Middle: Layers of Love in Dante’s Vita Nuova”, p. 186.

[41] Ibid.: P. 187.

[42] Alighieri, Dante: Vita Nuova, p. 8.

[43] Gerard of Berry: Glosses on the Viaticum, p. 199.

[44] Ibid.: P. 201.

[45] Ibid.: P. 203.

[46] Klemp, P.J.: ”The Women in the Middle: Layers of Love in Dante’s Vita Nuova”, p. 188.

[47] Alighieri, Dante: Vita Nuova, p. 39.

[48] Ibid.: P. 33.

[49] Ibid.: P. 34.

[50] Ibid.: P. 36.

[51] Ibid.: P. 38.

[52] Ibid.: P. 50.

[53] Ibid.: P. 60.

[54] Ibid.: P. 61.

[55] Ibid.: P. 64.

[56] Ibid.: P. 71.

[57] Ibid.: P. 69.

[58] Ibid.: P. 77.

[59] Klemp, P.J.: ”The Women in the Middle: Layers of Love in Dante’s Vita Nuova”, p. 192.

[60] Ibid.: P. 192.

[61] Williams, Pamela: ”Acedia as Dante’s sin in the Commedia”, p. 21-22.

[62] Alighieri, Dante: Vita Nuova, p. 83.

[63] Ibid.: P. 84.

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