The three kingdoms of the Divine Comedy are populated by people of different social classes. However, because it is also a pedagogical work, Dante prioritises exchanges with well-known characters, both mythical and real, in order to use them as universal examples. Ulysses is one of the most prominent of these well-known figures. So what do we know about him? The legendary king of Ithaca appears in several classical works, but it is from the Odyssey, the epic poem which tells of his troubled return trip home after the Trojan War, that the collective consciousness learns of those peculiar traits which made him an icon. In this second poem we can barely recognize the warrior of the Iliad, in which he only really plays a marginal role. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, he is presented without the privileges befitting his royal rank, and he is forced to rely solely on his intelligence and cunning in order to survive. The most suitable Homeric adjective is polytropos (πολùτρoπoς), which we can translate as “someone having multiple faces”, or “many-sided”: in other words, someone who is able to face different situations and to adapt in order to survive and succeed. His craftiness and courage, his faith in himself and the innate curiosity driving him to plumb the depths of human understanding, make him a symbol of secular humanity, a kind of Vitruvian Man of literature, someone who is the measure of the creation that surrounds him.
In typical fashion, Dante chooses the person who embodies the highest form of these virtues, and then proceeds to show that without faith they amount to nothing. Which is why I believe that the Florentine author depicts his Ulysses as a catastrophic failure: according to Dante if man is guided by faith he can become a giant: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8), but when he is alone he is like a reed bent by the wind, to use Pascal’s famous image. In fact, man’s inanity also leads the psalmist to write: “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8 again).
Because in the Bible it is the right hand of God that saves man from death on numerous occasions, Dante is able to link Ulysses’ spectacular fall to his blind faith in himself as a man. This new interpretation was only made possible by a drastic abandonment of the central Homeric tradition, which doesn’t tell us his death, but which predicts it in Book 11 of the Odyssey (as per the famous soothsayer Tiresia) as a death coming in old age, at home and from the sea. This compelled Dante to revive a second and less famous mythological vein, which is mainly attested in Seneca and Pliny the Elder, according to which our hero didn’t return to Ithaca at all but instead passed through the Pillars of Hercules.
In the Inferno, Ulysses tells Virgil and Dante his story from the moment of his departure from Circe, the sorceress who had hosted him for over a year and given him a son, Telegonus. He then continues to tell of how his fondness for his son Telemachus, his deep respect for his elderly father and his love of his wife Penelope (the strongest of human sentiments) could not surpass his burning desire (literally described almost as a fire) to be fully acquainted with man’s vices and virtues, the two poles that embrace the whole complexity of humankind. The search for knowledge is emphasised by recalling all the lands Ulysses passed through, but also by highlighting the old age of the man who has seen it all and who is now facing the ultimate and most coveted challenge, the Pillars of Hercules, the westernmost limit of the world, the crowning glory of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge. At this point Dante makes his brilliant move: while the Christian hero has an obvious (albeit not simple) choice to make between good and evil, Ulysses, like the other tragic heroes from classical antiquity, has to choose between two evils. The choice is either to obey God by not passing beyond the geographical limits of the world, thereby renouncing knowledge, or to disobey Divine prohibition but to live like a man: both choices lead to punishment. Ulysses’ choice will be the most significant of his entire life, and he wants to remain true to himself and indeed he does. And so, thanks to a refined syncretism, the Pillars of Hercules, near Gibraltar (see map above), become the metaphor for the limits given to man by God. In medieval theological thought, God supplied man with all that was necessary to live, but man had to accept the existence of a mystery he couldn’t understand and which he should not investigate. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas advised man to restrain his desire to know, even about the good!
Ulysses therefore makes his understandable but calamitous decision: to go beyond human limits. This has often been read as a moment of supreme human dignity, but also reflects a situation well known in the great 5 b.C. Athenian tragedy: hubris (ὕβϱις), where by his arrogance man fails to recognize the distance between his own nature and that of God. As with Greek tragedy, nemesis (νέμεσις), the equalising punishment of the gods, immediately springs into action and casts man down to a position so low to make him wish he had never been born.
We find similar situations in the Bible, for instance in the book of Genesis, 2, 16-17: “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat‘”. Of course, this prohibition is the equivalent of that regarding the Pillars of Hercules: a restriction on man’s freedom. But here the prohibition does not have an end in itself because “the moment you eat from it” – the Bible continues – “you are surely doomed to die”. The prohibition aims, then, to maintain a universal equilibrium, we could say a natural one, between divinity and creature, between the highest knowledge of God and those who can’t properly handle that knowledge.
Nevertheless, man is often seduced by the desire to embrace absolute knowledge. In fact in Genesis 3, 4-5, “the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.‘” By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve surrender to hubris and in doing so they lose earthly paradise forever, instead becoming acquainted with strain, pain and death, which may precisely be the knowledge from which God wanted Man to be spared. Ulysses can be read as the exact Dantesque parallel to this biblical episode: he accepts an impossible challenge. Man will always be inadequate in his relationship with God, and Ulysses is presented in the same terms. In fact, when facing his supreme challenge, he is described as an old man, accompanied only by a handful of weak friends and sailing an old ship, a remnant from a formerly glorious fleet, which Dante calls a “log”. In spite of this he refuses to exclude himself from the dream of absolute knowledge, and utters the famous ‘orazion picciola‘. This short speech is one of the best-known passages of Italian literature, a majestic tribute to the classical idea of oratory as the art of persuasion. The ‘orazion picciola‘ states non only Ulysses’ life essence, but also that of the whole of Greek culture:
And then I said: ‘O brothers, ye who now
have through a hundred thousand perils reached
the West, to this so short a waking-time
still left your senses, do not deny yourselves
experience of that world behind the sun
which knows not man! Consider the seed
whence ye have sprung; for ye were not created
to lead the life of stupid animals,
but manliness and knowledge to pursue.’
The Italian hendecasyllable’s musicality gives this passage great emotion and the result is never in doubt: Ulysses persuades his old friends to follow him. As a mark of respect for Ulysses, Dante prolongs his tragedy and as a last tribute to him, for a little time he gives him what he is looking for. For five months, in fact, our hero sails across a hemisphere that no living human had ever seen before, and he sees, just before the end, the incredible view of the mountain of Purgatory, whose enormity is in itself a symbol of divine disproportion relative to man, while the astonishment of the sailors is both amazement at the view and of the inevitable death to come. The eyes of faith, for Dante certainly, should be the only way for man to know God. Indeed, man, by his very nature is unable to see him face to face: in Exodus 3,6 we read “‘I am the God of your father – he continued – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God‘. But then comes the moment of retribution: a sudden wind rises from the island, forming a whirlpool, swallowing the ship and its passengers together with their load of unfettered knowledge, thus restoring the equilibrium between man and God.
This is what we can say about Ulysses as a character. But if we analyse this episode within the context of the work as a whole, we can see it also as a clear sign of the high esteem Dante held himself in as a poet. As early as the first Canto, he establishes himself as an enthusiastic follower of Virgil not only as regards the tragic style (the highest form of poetry) but also regarding the prophetic mission carried out through literature. This idea will be reaffirmed later in Paradise 25, when he describes the Divine Comedy as a work “that hath made both Heaven and Earth copartners in its toil”. Again in Inferno 4, when he visits Limbo, a place populated by the unbaptized, he is accepted by the five most celebrated classical poets (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Lucan) as one of their limited group, and this feels like a sort of official poetic investiture. Later on, in Purgatory 11, he runs through the most refined poets of contemporary (and only recently born) Italian literature and asserts that Guinizzelli’s greatness as a poet has already been surpassed by Cavalcanti’s, and that that of another poet (clearly Dante) is going to leave them both trailing in its wake. With respect to this aspect then, the episode of Ulysses is enlightening. Just as Virgil, in recounting the conquest of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, is Homer’s direct successor, so Dante feels he is able to carry on from that Latin masterpiece, not only taking up one of its prominent characters, but also incorporating a novel death for Ulysses, and moreover giving it a deeper sense: that enlightened by faith.
Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it