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George Corbett. Dante and Epicurus: A Dualistic Vision of Secular and Spiritual Fulfillment.

George Corbett. Dante and Epicurus: A Dualistic Vision of Secular and Spiritual Fulfillment. London: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, 2013.

George Corbett's book, Dante and Epicurus: A Dualistic Vision of Secular and Spiritual Fulfilment, sounds a call to reappraise Dante's Commedia in dualistic terms. It considers the polygonal, seemingly contradictory figure of Epicurus "as he is cast across the different works in Dante's oeuvre--as his case in point. Aimed at unlocking the paradox of Dante's presumably incongruous Epicuruses, the heretic on the one hand and the virtuous exemplar on the other, Corbett manages to take what has been a bit of a sticking point in Dante studies, and turn it into a key to unlock larger hermeneutical issues.

At the onset of the book, Corbett systematically provides a detailed panorama of how Epicureanism is received and represented throughout medieval thought, effectively preparing the reader for his contextualization of Epicurus in Dante. For Corbett, Dante's Epicurus is at once a positive figure for the noble secular unbeliever, ordering his earthly life according to reason, virtue and an understanding of the natural world while at the same time also a negative figure insomuch as he represents the doctrine of mortalism, which is entirely at odds with Dante's Christian faith. Furthermore, it is precisely this hybrid nature of a simultaneously positive and negative Epicurus that lays the groundwork for Corbett's arguments in favor of Dante's ever-present dualism, not only in the prose works, but also in the Commedia.

Corbett then demonstrates how Dante's dualistic Epicurus reveals new evidence critical for comprehending what is central and distinctive about Dante's thinking. Corbett discovers and elaborates on the meaning inherent in the tension between the multiple and simultaneous Epicuruses: Epicurus, the ground on which a conceptual space for secular man in the Commedia is rendered a possibility; Epicurus, a bridge for which political support for the Imperial cause is rendered stronger; and Epicurus, the unrivaled illustration of condemned heresy against God. Corbett argues that "Dante's radical dualism theoretically necessitates, therefore, his conceptual category of the Epicureans [...] The neo-Epicurean category is thus a consequence, and constituent, of Dante's radical dualism" (50).

Corbett's multi-layered argumentation, paraphrased simply, is first that Dante's dualistic tendencies were not merely a stage during the writing of the Monarchia and Convivio, but rather that the Commedia, like the prose works, contains inherent dualism. Secondly, that a dualistic Commedia needed a dualistic Epicurus, in order, not only to render intact Dante's political imperial ideals in the narrative but also to usher in a suitable space for the concomitant existence of his philosophical and spiritual beliefs. Those, namely, are characterized by Dante's concurrent attentions to the natural ethics and secular felicities of the virtuous pagans on the one hand and the supernatural faith and eternal salvation of the Christian saved on the other. Thirdly, re-reading Dante's representations of the graveyard of the Epicureans, the limbo of the virtuous pagans and the region of Ante-Purgatory through the lens of Dante's dualism in the Commedia, not only strengthens the argument for a dualistic Commedia, but also provides answers to longstanding uncertainties for each of the regions examined. In Corbett's words, "these three borderline regions of the Commedia are fault-lines which put pressure on Dante's thought and poetic vision and serve to accentuate the distinctive dualism which underpins it" (177).

Methodologically, Corbett aligns himself with Ascoli and with new philological evidence regarding the dating of Dante's prose works. Corbett also follows Ascoli's call to read the Commedia 'beyond the palinode,' lending to an innovative re-reading of the region of Ante-Purgatory as a reworking of the dualistic theoretical concerns presented in the Convivio.

Analytically, Corbett's annotated re-readings of the aforementioned scenes offer copious new perspectives and help to reorganize thoughts around long-standing debates. Notable among his analyses, is that of his analysis of Inferno Canto X. In particular, Corbett very meticulously explains Dante's mechanism of time-long-sightedness among the damned, as well as defines and delineates what he calls a "knowledge gap" that is suspended between Dante character and Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti. Corbett continues to add depth to his analysis by addressing the significance of the vertical axis between the tenth cantos of each canticle, which for Corbett reflect the eschatologically divergent beliefs between the Epicurean and of the believer. Most notable is how Corbett interprets the whole scene as an example of Dante crystallizing, "in linguistic ambiguity an epistemological horizon between Christian faith and Epicurean disbelief" (176). It is precisely upon this epistemological horizon that Corbett's analyses plumb the depth of the dualism for which he argues so compellingly.

Throughout the book, Corbett develops a picture of the poet's management of the distinction and necessary coexistence of the lex naturalis and the lex divina. Corbett offers the reader a concise background on Aristotelian philosophy as well as Aquinas's integration of it as regards the strategies for understanding man's goal in this life and the next. He also highlights the problematic ethical concerns with Dante's dualistic vision and their political ramifications.

Corbett would like to see his work kindle a fuller development of the dualistic argument on its own and invites readers to read and reinterpret the Commedia in the light of Dante's dualistic vision of secular and spiritual fulfillment. Stunningly readable with potent, clear argumentation, Corbett's nonetheless highly academic presentation of Dante's dualism in the context of the poet's literary integration of the figure and philosophy of Epicurus reads like a page-turner. Furthermore, Corbett's innovative methodological approach is cradled by no less than masterful organization throughout the book. He states with ample frequency his aims and the outline of his approaches and constructs full-bodied illustrations and conclusions sufficient in and of themselves. The topic and breadth of the book, perhaps, lend themselves better to students and scholars versed well enough with the traditions of the philosophers, biblical exegetes and scholarly commentators that orbit so closely Dante's works. Readers with a grasp of Latin will take double pleasure in reading volumes of quotes from their original sources as well as in their English translations. Corbett's book, overall, is a must-have for the bookshelves of the committed dantista.


University of California Los Angeles
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Author:Stevens, Ellie Emslie
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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