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Above the Law

Above the Law


(p.89) 3 Above the Law
Dante and the Limits of the Law
Justin Steinberg
University of Chicago Press

This chapter illustrates how the poet uses his own extraordinary dispensation— the grant to pass through the afterworld alive— to question what it means to be “above” the law. Each time the infernal guardians challenge Dante’s writ, they raise the issue of the ruler’s relation to his laws. Can the unprecedented exception of the journey be reconciled with a stable and lawful conception of providence? Does the authority of the grant reside in God’s capacity or his justice— in the constituted order, or in the sovereign’s absolute decree? Throughout the journey, Dante’s special privilege to travel unharmed through the otherworld continuously comes up against the more general privileges enjoyed by the clergy and the aristocracy. Ultimately, this chapter argues that, as a response to abuses on the part of these groups, Dante reconceives his poetic vocation as a reward for the martyrdom of exile.

Keywords:   dispensation, providence, privilege, martyrdom, exile, journey, clergy, aristocracy

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