The Problem with Paganism: Dante and Boccaccio

Lecture – The Problem with Paganism: Dante and Boccacio

University of Toronto – Alumni Hall, Room #400

John Marenbon, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Trinity College Cambridge (visiting Professor, PIMS)

Dante rates Pagan virtue highly but views their salvation as dubious. Was this opinion a reflection of a general attitude in the Middle Ages? No, Marenbon states this view was not mandatory.

Was Dante an Averroist? There is good evidence he was one or, at least, attached to this movement. There were two types of Pagans, according to Dante – those who go to heaven and everyone else.


Baptism was considered part of salvation because it reconciled humans with God. Dante felt Pagans did not follow God duly because they didn’t follow these practices. Implicit faith – the 13th c. masters spoke of this as found in Lombard’s text, but this idea of implicit faith did not ‘save’ Pagans as it did Jews because it was believed that Jews had implicit faith in God and thus that was all they needed to be saved. Jews partook in rituals like circumcision that functioned like Baptism in reconciling one with God. Pagans had nothing like this, therefore, Dante was harsh in his judgement of Pagans and their ability to attain salvation.

Aquinas explained that implicit faith is necessary but that geographical location and accident of birth should not mean that the individual is doomed to damnation so long as they do good and are not resistant to God. Dante disagrees with this viewpoint. There are only three Pagans who go to heaven, according to Dante – the Roman Emperor Trajan, Cato and Ripheus.

According to Dante, it is beyond us to know who God will save. Some members of every people, of every time period will be saved and eventually become Christians. There are virtuous Pagans but it is not because of their virtue that they will be saved. Cato is the odd exception in Dante’s list in that he committed suicide, so it makes little sense as to why Dante decided to place Cato in this category.


The Averroist reading of Aristotle was popular during the 13th c. Followers of Averroe were known as “Averroists”. Dante’s links to Averroism were well known. In his work, Convivo, written in between 1304 – 1308, demonstrate this influence. Convivo was written before Inferno; where his Averroism was more prevalent in Convivo, Dante moved away from that view in later texts like Purgatorio. Dante of the Comdia takes the Averroist stance and avoids the topic of implicit faith.

The great poets of Greece and Rome are sacrificed in Dante’s view but not totally consigned to hell. Dante places them in “limbo” where unbaptised babies are placed because they have not sinned. Dante was the first person to place virtuous Pagans in limbo because they could not be saved by implicit faith.

Dante had a great influence on Boccaccio. Boccaccio took an indulgent view towards Atheism and Averroists. Boccaccio discusses Dante’s theological innovation of putting virtuous Pagans in limbo. There were culpable and non-culpable Pagans, and Boccaccio made the distinction. Those who knew of the Gospel, and converted and those who knew, but refused to convert – this latter group should end up in Hell proper. Those who did not know, however, should not be held culpable. Pagans after the Gospel should not be in limbo, but placed in Hell. Dante identified with the Pagan world, whereas Boccaccio did not, but viewed it from a distance as a useful resource for from which Christians could learn.



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