William Franke, The Apotheosis of Self-Reflection: Dante and the Inauguration of the Modern Era | Newberry

William Franke, The Apotheosis of Self-Reflection: Dante and the Inauguration of the Modern Era

William Franke, Vanderbilt University

William Franke, Vanderbilt University

Saturday, February 27, 2016

1:30 to 3 pm

Ruggles Hall

William Franke, Vanderbilt University
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
Dante Lecture

Philosophers typically attribute the foundation of modern thought to René Descartes, who in his Discours de la méthode (1637) extensively deploys metaphors of “founding” for his theory of how the edifice of knowledge is regrounded on the clear and distinct certainty of the cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” Cultural historians sometimes locate a remoter starting point for modernity in Luther and in the Protestant Reformation. There, too, modernity is about establishing the individual self and its own free power of reflection, in the mirror of conscience, as the basis of a life lived in relation to the absolutes of divine grace and Scriptural revelation.


Although less a commonplace in intellectual history, Dante already reveals an antecedent discovery of what emerged as modern self-reflexivity. The Convivio (especially Book III) theorizes philosophy as essentially a form of self-reflection, while the first person protagonist of the Divine Comedy enacts this self-reflexivity in every dimension of his human and historical existence. The narrative and especially the lyrical art of poetry itself turns language into an essentially self-reflective medium. Of course, even earlier contenders vie for this distinction, such as the so-called twelfth-century Renaissance emanating from the School of Chartres. We can trace the theme of self-reflection back further still to the “Axial Age,” as an ancient (first millennium BCE) founding of “modern” humanity, in an even broader sense of critical, self-reflexive thought.


Dante serves as a focal point in the middle of this trajectory for contemplating the stakes of self-reflection as a revolutionary, epoch-making turn of consciousness. The apotheosis of self-consciousness in Dante links with a new secular outlook and attitude, our inescapable heritage today, yet also with a theological vision that lies more in our past—though perhaps also in our future. This historical perspective provides the backdrop for examining some of the remarkable operations of self-reflexive thought and language in Dante’s writing.


Viewed in this optics, Dante’s texts raise the intricate issues concerning self-reflexivity with which we struggle still today. Self-reflexivity emerges in Dante as a liberating resource for remaking our world in the human image, but also as a disaster entailing a humanistic, Narcissistic reduction, cutting us off from genuine relation with and openness to alterity, and leading to nihilism and death.


A reception will follow the lecture.


Learn more about the speaker: William Franke, Vanderbilt University.


Download a printable PDF flyer to post and distribute.


The Center for Renaissance Studies Dante Lectures have been held each year since 2001, bringing Dante scholars from throughout the United States and Europe to the Newberry to present cutting-edge research. From 1983 to 1997, multiple lectures were held each year under the series title Lectura Dantis Newberrania.


Cosponsored with the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago.


Faculty and graduate students of Center for Renaissance Studies consortium institutions may be eligible to apply for travel funds to attend CRS programs or to do research at the Newberry. Each member university sets its own policies and deadlines; contact your Representative Council member in advance for details.

Cost and Registration Information 

This program is free and open to the public, but space is limited and registration in advance is required. 


Registration closed at 10 am Friday, February 26.