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Dante's Philosophical Life: Politics and Human Wisdom in "Purgatorio"

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When political theorists teach the history of political philosophy, they typically skip from the ancient Greeks and Cicero to Augustine in the fifth century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth, and then on to the origins of modernity with Machiavelli and beyond. Paul Stern aims to change this settled narrative and makes a powerful case for treating Dante Alighieri, arguably the greatest poet of medieval Christendom, as a political philosopher of the first rank.

In Dante's Philosophical Life, Stern argues that Purgatorio's depiction of the ascent to Earthly Paradise, that is, the summit of Mount Purgatory, was intended to give instruction on how to live the philosophic life, understood in its classical form as "love of wisdom." As an object of love, however, wisdom must be sought by the human soul, rather than possessed. But before the search can be undertaken, the soul needs to consider from where it begins: its nature and its good. In Stern's interpretation of Purgatorio, Dante's intense concern for political life follows from this need, for it is law that supplies the notions of good that shape the soul's understanding and it is law, especially its limits, that provides the most evident display of the soul's enduring hopes.

According to Stern, Dante places inquiry regarding human nature and its good at the heart of philosophic investigation, thereby rehabilitating the highest form of reasoned judgment or prudence. Philosophy thus understood is neither a body of doctrines easily situated in a Christian framework nor a set of intellectual tools best used for predetermined theological ends, but a way of life. Stern's claim that Dante was arguing for prudence against dogmatisms of every kind addresses a question of contemporary concern: whether reason can guide a life.

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About the Author:

Paul Stern is Professor of Politics at Ursinus College and author of Knowledge and Politics in Plato's Theaetetus.

Review:

"Paul Stern's Dante's Philosophical Life is a flawlessly written and artfully crafted book that offers an impressively nuanced reading of the narrative of Dante's Purgatory. It deserves a place among the handful of indispensable studies of Dante's masterpiece."—Gregory Stone, Louisiana State University



"In this rich new book, Paul Stern makes a compelling case for re-interpreting Dante Alighieri as an important and inventive political philosopher in his own right. Stern argues that through the Purgatorio, Dante attempts to re-imagine culture and politics as spaces for ongoing rational inquiry into human good which he terms 'philosophy as a way of life.'..Stern has written a careful, attentive, and manifestly readable interpretation."—Reading Religion



"Stern's book will be especially welcomed by readers inclined to hearken toDante's call for a renewed political philosophy and to consider seriously thesuspicions of Dante's orthodoxy that date back to his own time. It willmake them indebted to Stern for his insights and suggestive readings."—The Review of Politics



"A highly original, important, and pathbreaking work. Paul Stern reveals Dante to be a daring thinker, running counter to medieval religious orthodoxy. He teaches us how to read Dante anew."—Paul Cantor, University of Virginia

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