Great refusal

The Great refusal (il gran rifiuto) is the error attributed by Dante[clarification needed] to one of the souls he found trapped aimlessly at the Vestibule of Hell.[1]

Though occasionally taken as referring to Esau, the phrase is normally related to Pope Celestine V, and to his laying down of the papacy on the grounds of age.[2]

Dante’s era[edit]

Behind Dante’s adverse judgement of Celestine stood the Thomist concept of recusatio tensionis, the unworthy refusal of a task within one’s natural powers.[3] Petrarch however disagreed with Dante’s appraisal, seeing virtue in Celestine’s adoption instead of the contemplative life,[4] an early modern instance of the tension between action and contemplation – the vita activa and the vita contemplativa.[5]

Later elaborations[edit]

  • Northrop Frye considered that “the ‘gran refuito’, the voluntary surrender of one’s appointed function, is a frequent source of tragedy in Shakespeare”,[6] as for example with Lear’s Division of the Kingdoms.
  • Alfred North Whitehead used the phrase ‘great refusal’ for the determination not to succumb to the facticity of things as they are – to favour instead the imagination of the ideal.[7]
  • Herbert Marcuse took up Whitehead’s concept to call for a refusal of the consumer society in the name of the liberating powers of art.[8]
  • Jacques Le Goff considered that “the ‘hippie’ movement is indicative of the permanent character – re-emerging at precise historical conjunctures – of the adepts of the ‘gran rifiuto’”.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dante, Hell (Penguin 1975) p. 86-7
  2. ^ Great refusal
  3. ^ A Oldcorn, Lectura Dante' (1998) p. 42
  4. ^ A Oldcorn, Lectura Dante (1998) p. 44
  5. ^ J H Hexter, On Historians (London 1979) p. 260
  6. ^ N Frye, Fools of Time (London 1967) p. 109
  7. ^ F Webster, Theories of the Information Society (2002) p. 201
  8. ^ D Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (1984) p. 276-8
  9. ^ J Le Goff, Time, Work, & Culture in the Middle Ages (London 1980) p. 232