There is nothing particularly Faustian, of course, about valorizing the search for truth: Aristotle notes it as a commonplace that, “All men naturally desire knowledge,” a statement Dante himself repeats at the beginning of his Convivio. And the trope of the greybeard pursuing wisdom even to his dying breath is at least as old as Plato’s Phaedo. Nor should we be shocked at the allure of Dante’s Ulysses. Like Milton’s Satan, few characters from Purgatorio or Paradiso are as memorable or as compelling as Francesca, Brunetto Latini, or Ulysses. We readers are taken in by their explanations and exculpations; perhaps Dante himself was too, at some level.
Despite the superficial appeal of an heroic reading of Ulysses, Dante complicates matters considerably in the Commedia itself, by presenting the Greek as tragic type of curiositas. As Dante depicts it, Ulysses’s passion for knowledge looks to be doubly deranged, so encompassing that it both blinds him to the ways he injures others, and leaves him indifferent as to its objects. To the first, Ulysses admits to Dante that his last voyage came at his family’s expense: neither “my fondness for my son, nor pity for my old father, nor the love I owed Penelope, which would have gladdened her,” could restrain his longing to know. Moreover, Ulysses is as happy to know “human vices” as our “worth.” Like Adam, he longs for knowledge of evil as well as good (cf. Gen 3:5).
Indeed, Ulysses is haunted by Adam: when he ignores the Pillars’ “ne plus ultra,” and takes his crew five months’ sailing into the empty northern hemisphere, he comes within sight of land which no mortal flesh had beheld since the creation: Mount Purgatory, at whose summit lies the earthly paradise whence Adam and Eve were driven. If this was not clear enough, Dante links the two figures verbally: in Paradiso, Adam tells Dante that his “great exile” came about, not from “enjoying the tree (legno),” but from “transgressing the sign (il segno).” Strikingly, Ulysses sought to cross “the high, open sea / with a single ship (legno),” and met his doom after passing the place “where Hercules set up (segnò) his warnings.” Having eaten, like Adam and Eve, from the tree of knowledge, they were preparing to storm Eden and eat from the tree of life as well, then truly to be gods (cf. Gen 3:22-24).
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