I have recently written three essays about Odysseus as interpreted philosophically by the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, a reflection of my interest in the idea of Stoic role models, as well as my personal passion for the cunning Greek hero. While those three entries were based on a highly recommended book by Silvia Montiglio (which covers also Platonism), this last entry in the quadrilogy moves forward about a millennium, to see how the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri treats Ulysses (as he was known by the Romans) in Inferno 26, one of the most beautiful passages in the Divine Comedy. This will also give us a chance to look at the surprisingly similar way in which Seneca treats Ulysses, from a Stoic perspective.
My main source for this post is a scholarly article by Gabriel Pihas, published in 2003 in Dante Studies, the Annual Report of the Dante Society, and entitled “Dante’s Ulysses: Stoic and Scholastic models of the literary reader’s curiosity and Inferno 26.” (You can read Pihas’ paper online for free here.)
Ulysses is an important figure in Dante’s Comedy. To begin with, he is the only ancient mythological character that has a major role, all the other main figures being historical individuals, and usually Dante’s own contemporaries. More importantly, Ulysses plays the part of Dante’s consciousness in the poet’s version of a debate that began with Aristotle’s Poetics, continued with Seneca’s discussion of literary studies in his letter on curiosity to Lucilius (CXXXVIII, On Liberal and Vocational Studies), and characterized an important phase of Scholasticism near the end of the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas was seen as a dangerous, possibly heretical, exponent of the nouvelle vague.
The fundamental opposition in Canto 26 of Inferno is between curiosity for curiosity’s sake, and curiosity for things that are morally relevant, what Aquinas referred to respectively as “curiositas” and “studiositas.” As Pihas puts it: “In Inferno 26, curiosity is fundamentally understood, following Seneca, as a problem of the seduction of language and rhetoric, both in philosophic disputation and in poetry. Calling curiosity into question [via his dialogue with Ulysses] is Dante’s form of literary-philosophical self-consciousness.”
At the beginning of 26, Dante almost falls into the pit where Ulysses is being punished, because of his irrepressible interest in the fate of the Greek hero. This is usually interpreted as a metaphor to remind the reader of Ulysses’ own downfall, brought about by his own curiosity about the world. In the version of the story that Dante relates, Ulysses left Ithaca again, after his return home and the punishment of the suitors. He headed toward Hercules’ Pillars (the Strait of Gibraltar), intent on navigating the open ocean to see what lies beyond. And he and his crew perish during the ambitious attempt.
Pihas points out that Seneca’s letter mentioned above is the inspiration for Dante’s encounter with Ulysses, and possibly even for the famous opening lines of the Comedy itself, which find Dante lost in the middle of a forest, a metaphor for what we would today call his midlife crisis, and which is the trigger for his journey of spiritual rediscovery:
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.”
Back to Seneca, here is what he writes to Lucilius about Ulysses:
“Do you seek out where Ulysses’ wondering took him more than try to end our own perpetual wanderings? We don’t have the leisure to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that he ran into a storm, or somewhere outside the sea of the world we know … when everyday our souls are running into our own storms, and driven into all the evils that Ulysses ever knew. We are not spared those beauties or enemies that attract the eyes. We too have to contend in various places with savage monsters rejoicing in human blood, insidious voices that flatter our ears, shipwrecks and all manners of misfortune. What you should be teaching me is how I may attain such a love for my country, my father, and my wife, and keep on course for those ideals even after a shipwreck.”
Dante, in Inferno 26, is burning from the desire of asking Ulysses precisely the question that Seneca tells Lucilius should not distract us, because it is mere self-serving curiosity: how did Ulysses die?
Before we accuse Seneca — and therefore Dante — of anti-intellectualism, Pihas remind us that Seneca — and obviously Dante — were not anti-literature. Seneca wrote tragedies, among other things. But they both thought that literature (and philosophy) have to have a moral component, otherwise they deteriorate into simple escapism.
The way Dante brilliantly presents this concern to his readers is by allowing Dante-the-character to be tempted by curiositas while at the same time as Dante-the-author reminds us that our focus should be on studiositas:
Then it pained me, and now it pains me once again,
As I direct my mind to what I saw,
And I rein in genius more than I usually do,
That it not run where virtue not guide it;
So that, if good star or better thing
Has given me the good, I not envy myself of it.
Seneca made the same point in depth in his letter:
“How many superfluous and useless things are to be found in the philosophers. Even they have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the properties of prepositions and conjunctions … with the result that they are more diligent in speaking than in living. Listen and let me show you the evils too much subtlety can create, and what an enemy it is to truth. Protagoras says that in all things it is possible to argue both sides of any question with equal force, even the question whether or not one can really argue either side of a question! Nausiphanes says that of the things that seem to us to exist, none exists anymore than it does not exist. Parmenides says that, of all the phenomena, none exists except the whole. Zeno of Elea has dismissed all such confusions by introducing another confusion: He declares that nothing exists … All these theories you should throw on that heap of superfluous liberal studies.”
It is hard to read the above and not imagine the Sophist Protagoras has a precursor of modern postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, or to think that what Seneca is railing against is what Dan Dennett refers to as “chmess,” i.e., difficult, but ultimately pointless philosophizing.
And as Pihas tells us: “Ulysses resembles the philosophers’ in Seneca’s letter insofar as he wishes to go beyond moral reality into a ‘world behind the Sun, without people.” Dante, by contrast, is more concerned with the damage that curiositas can do in the hands of fraudulent politicians, of the kind that sent him into exile from his native Florence (Seneca would have approved of such concern, given his own exile to Corsica at the hand of Claudius). In this sense, then, Inferno 26 is very relevant to contemporary culture: it is a warning that we are led into escapism (bad movies, constant social networking on the internet, not to mention “reality” television), because that serves the interests of the powerful by distracting us from their moral corruption.
At this point Pihas’ paper takes a bit of a different turn, examining Thomas Aquinas’ contribution to the debate on curiositas vs studiositas. I will not go into the details, because it doesn’t really pertain directly to either Ulysses or Stoicism, but it is interesting in terms of a broader understanding of the cultural and intellectual contexts.
Indeed, it had been Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, published a few decades before Dante began writing the Comedy, that presented curiositas as the “evil twin” of studiositas.
Aquinas provides a useful taxonomy of curiositas, which he divides into four categories: (i) zeal for the useless, e.g., love poetry; (ii) interest in the illicit, e.g., fortune telling or superstition; (iii) desire for knowledge of creatures without reference to their end in God; and (iv) interest in what is beyond our capacity to know. By contrast, says Pihas, “studiositas is thoughtfulness about the appetite for knowledge. Note too that Aquinas was actually attempting to save philosophy, and particularly the new studies of the recently rediscovered Aristotle, from the censorship of the Church, which had been suspicious of new ideas since Augustine’s condemnation of philosophy as a distraction from theology.
While I certainly don’t subscribe to Aquinas’ specific classification, nor do I feel bound to agree with Seneca just because I am a Stoic, the basic idea does seem sound to me. There are things that are worth pursuing and others that are useless or even dangerously distracting. And since we all have limited time and resources available, it is wise to keep that distinction in mind.
Here is another insightful commentary by Pihas: “What binds play and the desire for knowledge, and what makes both dangerous, is the idleness from which they may originate. Both curiositas and excessive play are daughters of acedia … [which] may be translated as ‘sloth’ or sometimes as ‘despair,’ but it borders on the modern meanings of boredom and melancholy. It is potentially nihilistic … it is an appetite for nothing.”
There is much to chew on here, but again I do not want the reader to be left with an impression of general anti-intellectualism, which would be a bizarre thing to attribute to intellectual giants like Seneca, Dante, and Aquinas. Ultimately, each of us will need to use practical wisdom to determine where the line lies, in our life and experience, between curiositas and studiositas. And it is up to us individually to navigate it in pursuit of a eudaimonic life.
It seems fit, however, to conclude with the lines from Inferno 26 that so inspired me when I was a teenager and read them for the first time. It’s Ulysses’ speech to his comrades, to convince them to follow him to the limits of the known world:
“O my brothers, who have reached the west, through a thousand dangers, do not deny the brief vigil, your senses have left to them, experience of the unpopulated world beyond the Sun. Consider your origin: you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Virtue and knowledge indeed.