Dante and the Limits of the Law

Dante and the Limits of the Law

Justin Steinberg

Print publication date: 2014

ISBN: 9780226071091

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Dante’s literary-theoretical framework is simultaneously and manifestly a legal one. Contemporary juridical rituals of everyday experience such as testimony, litigation, punishment, and confession permeate the Commedia. Yet they do so with a specific purpose. Though it may seem paradoxical, Dante invents this elaborate legal normative system to explore its capacity to comprehend exceptions; he deliberately embeds certain incongruities or anomalies in his construction of divine justice (such as the salvation of the pagan suicide Cato) to probe the limits of the law. Lacking a historicized understanding of this legal landscape, Dante scholars often seek to domesticate what Dante intended to unsettle. Unlike medieval readers, we are accustomed to a post-enlightenment legal perspective that reads exceptions as suspending the constitutional legal order (as Carl Schmitt and later Giorgio Agamben theorized in the “state of exception”). In a medieval conception of ius commune law, however, individual exceptions such as dispensations, privileges, and immunities ensure the legal order’s continued vitality by reconciling universal normative principles with the contingencies of history. Whether considering legal or literary laws, judicial discretion or poetic license, Dante explores through his poetry the imaginative preconditions underlying “regulated exceptions.” Above all, in his response to the institutional crises of Church and Empire, he recognizes that poetic fictions will be necessary to supplement legal ones if this threatened system of exception is to survive.