I’ve taken longer than I would have liked to finish my Dante posts this year, but I suppose that’s life. I’m certain I’ll read the Comedy next summer, and when I do, I’m sure I’ll have things to write about then, and perhaps I’ll be a bit closer to speedy about it.
This year what struck me most about the third and most difficult Canticle of the Comedy is just how much of it Dante dedicates to declaring impossible the task of writing poetry about Heaven. As Dante rises into the heavenly realms, and later as Dante comes to the sphere of fixed stars, and later still as Dante becomes aware of the Empyrean as the full reality of the Heavenly court, and finally as Dante contemplates God’s self, Dante’s own soul changes, allowing him greater and clearer and more profound apprehension of realities beyond the scope of mortal language, but the problem with transcending mortal language is that he’s still got a poem to write, and that just makes the whole enterprise difficult.
When Dante does manage to write some poetry, as usual, the moves that he makes provoke me to thought more than most written texts manage to. Dante’s basic definition of Paradise, that which makes Heaven Heaven for those in Heaven, is a hierarchical scheme. At first glance even Dante, imperialist though he is, entertains the question whether those souls who receive a lesser share of divine bliss would be within their right to entertain a bit of resentment. Beatrice assures him, though, that the hierarchy is not a coercive hierarchy in which the powerful keep down the powerless through violence and fear of violence. Instead, the souls receive from the bounty of divine love precisely as much of that divine love as they desire, so that the magnitude of desire for God and the share of God’s outpouring are perfectly matched in every case. So those souls who are theologically and philosophically inclined bask in a great share of divine love, those who ruled with justice with more still, and mystic contemplatives even more. The schema is not unlike Plato’s ideal city in the Republic: although it seems monstrous at first glance, there is a logic internal to the scheme that is somehow compelling in its own terms.
Part of the Paradiso that always bugged me a bit (you’ll see why in a moment) is the elevation of generals and warriors over theologians in Dante’s scheme. Although the Dominicans (including Thomas) and Franciscans enjoy eternal contemplation of the Good, the warriors like Orlando and Gottfried and Dante’s own ancestor Cacciguada are even more honored in Heaven. This year, for the first time, I started to realize that what’s important for Dante is not so much the willingness to kill as the active life–in fact, the progression from the Sun to Mars to Jupiter to Saturn forms a chiasmus of sorts that encompasses active and contemplative Christian pursuits, and all of those take some share of the Kingdom in Dante’s mind. I also granted for the first time that the Anabaptists’ elevation of martyrs to the exemplars of faithfulness is at least somewhat akin to Dante’s of the warriors. That’s not to say that they’re identical (I do still think myself a Hauerwasian), but I can appreciate the system a little better now.
Just as Dante’s spherical earth is always the first place I go when people try to tell me that Christopher Columbus regarded the world as round in the face of unanimous flat-earthism, I’ve come to realize that Dante, in a way, has a vision of the cosmos that is not at all geocentric, or at least one in which geocentrism is at most a human construction. As Dante ascends Jacob’s ladder to the Empyrean, the invisible Heaven only known to mystics here on earth, he looks back at the system of stars and planets and Earth and realizes that, from the perspective of the highest heaven, Earth is a tiny ball, something seemingly insignificant in the grand system. I realize that he was no Keplerian astronomer, but I do think that this move in the poem at least acknowledges that the mathematical models that governed his own grasp on astronomy was an utterly contingent, human-all-too-human construction, the sort of humility that I have to respect, even when his politics do not admit of that humility.
What impressed me most on this trip through Heaven was Dante’s particular sense of history. I still think that in significant ways Dante signals the beginning of the Renaissance, not least because of his profound respect for and sophisticated theory of history regarding Imperial Rome. For Dante, Rome is neither the eternal city (Augustine does not allow that) nor exclusively the Great Babylon of Revelation but something more like the nations that Isaiah and Amos prophesy against in their respective books, and that relativism regarding Rome strikes me as a change from Biblical and even classical treatments of the great city. The most that can be said for Rome, Dante’s Justinian asserts, is that it was instrumental for God to avenge original sin (Jesus did die on a Roman cross, after all), but there’s no sense that the crucifixion exclusively defines Rome any more than do the glories of the Republic or the promise of the Empire. Instead, all three realities are present in Dante’s Paradiso, and his hope for a restoration of Empire has little to do with any sort of divine favor posited for the city so much as a pragmatic concern, namely that without an empire, outlaws terrorize the frontiers of cities with nobody there to check them.
I know that this year’s Dante posts have been somewhat scattershot, but I’m thankful that I had another chance to read this wonderful poem. For the first time this year, I’ll be teaching the Purgatory in Western Literature I this spring, so I’m not done with Dante for the school year just yet. Just wait–I might just write about the journey again.