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By William Neilson

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Instead, he is a lay poet with a dangerous penchant for philosophizing in the Dominican style—his hope of salvation provoked by a rigorous rationalism that once got even the great Dominicans at the University of Paris in trouble with the guardians of orthodoxy. Despite his humble protestation that his sole aim is to see “St. Peter’s gate” [la porta di san Pietro] (Inf. 134), he is well aware of the high stakes in the scholastic game of winning salvation through knowledge first, then love, of God.

And where the redeeming power of orthodoxy resides, so too must the charitable will to welcome even the most controversial souls back into the communion of saints. Dante’s proximity to Savonarola in the painting cannot be accidental. Both were once notorious “problem cases” on the margins of papal tolerance. Both suffered Florentine rejection. 22 The Disputa is yet another fantasy of orthodoxy, of course, but it is such a grand one that it makes the transcendent ideal of doctrinal concord seem altogether immanent, almost down to earth, certainly more bound up with civilized human discourse than Dominic’s violent irrigation of the orto catolico.

36 INTRODUCTION Why, then, should anyone trust him—a bewildered philosopher who fulminates with dark prophecies in the aftermath of the Condemnations? Why must he go to extravagant rhetorical lengths to prove the orthodoxy of his beliefs? Why does he take pains to establish his credibility as an eyewitness of eternal conditions for which faith alone, in the past, had provided sufficient confirmation? Why does his supposedly orthodox “way of salvation” constantly bring him into contact with the Unorthodox?

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