by Dante Alighieri
Inferno Wisdom and Knowledge Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.
Let Lucan now be silent, where he sings
of sad Sabellus and Nasidius,
and wait to hear what flies off from my bow.
Let Ovid now be silent, where he tells
of Cadmus, Arethusa; if his verse
has made of one a serpent, one a fountain,
I do not envy him; he never did
transmute two natures, face to face, so that
both forms were ready to exchange their matter. (Inf. XXV, 94-102)
For the second time, Dante asserts himself as a brilliant poet. In telling Lucan and Ovid – both of whom superbly described attacks by serpents and transformations (like Dante is doing here) – to "be silent," Dante obviously considers himself superior to them. His reasoning is based on the fact that neither Roman poet ever wrote of an instance in which "two natures….were ready to exchange their matter." And nobody, up to Dante’s time, had done it as well as he does…or so he asserts.
It grieved me then and now grieves me again
when I direct my mind to what I saw;
and more than usual, I curb my talent,
that it not run where virtue does not guide;
so that, if my kind star or something better
has given me that gift, I not abuse it. (Inf. XXVI, 19-24)
After witnessing the thieves’ punishment, Dante warns his readers not to misuse their intellect as the thieves have. His assertion, "I curb my talent," in describing the thieves’ painful transformations, Dante indirectly points out his superiority to other poets (described in the previous canto). But by "curb[ing his] talent," Dante claims he is adhering to virtue and not trying to surpass his human limits, nor to "run where virtue does not guide." This hails back to Virgil’s description in the third canto of "the good of the intellect."
[Ulysses to his men]: "‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left
unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’" (Inf. XXVI, 112-120)
It is no coincidence that within the same canto that Dante "curb[s his] talent" to "not abuse [his intellect]," Ulysses urges his men to "be followers of worth and knowledge." In doing this, he sins, though his ideals seem noble. However, his assertion spurs his followers to cross the known geographical boundaries of human knowledge as well as to impinge on the godly body of knowledge. Thus, in his worthy attempt to make his men "not live [their] lives as brute," Ulysses transgresses the boundaries of what God deems proper for men to know. A similar fable in the Christian tradition would be God’s exile of Adam and Eve from Eden after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge.