Series Index

John Ciardi’s Translation of the Commedia

Unexpected Company

There’s a certain mindset among progressive-minded folks that one or two significant points of difference, especially on moral questions, means that a text or a writer has nothing to offer that’s worth thinking on.  So a hint of what we late-moderns would regard as racism here or a definite strand of thought that we late-moderns would call sexism there, and the whole book goes into a warehouse, never to be consulted seriously again, save as an exemplar of how enlightened we late-modern folk are compared to the reprobates and the reactionaries of days gone by.

As you might guess by my tone here (or because you’ve known me for more than ten minutes), I don’t have much patience for that sort of mindset.  Yes, I know that many of the great intellectuals of eighteenth-century America owned slaves, and yes, I know that Martin Heidegger was a Nazi.  And yes, I can glean some good things from the writings of Tom Jefferson and Martin Heidegger without myself owning slaves or becoming a National Socialist.  Perhaps my tendency to distinguish the good things in historical figures from the bad makes me morally inferior to those who would categorically bar any but the morally pure from our constellations of intellectual influences, but as I’ve said more than once, I’ve never been nearly moral enough to be a liberal.

What does all this have to do with Dante?  I’m glad you asked.

As Dante leaves the sphere of the sun, Thomas Aquinas gives him a stern warning not to put too much confidence in the capacity of mortal reason to comprehend heavenly things (canto 13).  No categorical explanation, Thomas warns, will encompass all of the workings of the divine precisely.  And although the resurrection will give all eyes the capacity to look on the true form of God (canto 14), in the time between the times we must regard our theology as both true and inadequate to truth (there’s the insistence on contradiction again).  In other words, Dante acknowledges that his own work is both true and inadequate.

And when Dante rises to the sphere of Mars, the souls he encounters there, although Dante might not have anticipated as much, present a test of that contradiction.  Dante’s own ancestor, Cacciguada, a crusading knight, is among the most honored in Heaven.

And here’s where a capacity to take the good and to discard the bad will allow one to love Dante, and an insistence that only the pure can teach us will likely lead one to discard Dante.  There’s no denying that, in cantos 15 and following, that Dante regards the Crusades not only as justifiable but as sanctified.  The souls in the circle of the holy warriors do not receive the forgiveness of a “They know not what they do” prayer but uncomplicated praise for waging war in Palestine.

So here, in a way that the man Dante probably wouldn’t have been able to anticipate, his great poem poses a great intellectual challenge to the twenty-first-century reader.  Someone in my position must say that the Crusades, not only in their violence against Muslims (though that would have been enough) and not only in their violence against Jews (though that would have been enough) but also in their violence against Eastern Christians, were a truly dark moment in the course of Christians’ lives in the world.  And someone who reads this poem honestly must grant that Dante completely ignores the shame of the Crusades, glorifying them as worthy of Heaven.  So here, O Reader of the twenty-first century, is perhaps the contradiction that troubles us latter-day Dante readers more than the free-will question or the nature of evil: how do we stand in relationship to a tradition that at once offers us alternatives to the vacuous ideologies of free-market consumerism and at the same time glorifies what we must, if we’re morally honest, behold as morally repulsive?

As you might have already guessed, my answer, at least for now, is to hold both sides of that contradiction true, to remain in the tradition of Plato and Boethius and Dante, to keep reading.  I don’t blame folks who cannot or will not tolerate such contradictions, but I also think that such folks are missing out on some really good thinking, not to mention some really interesting neighbors.

A Silent Song and a Shout of Vengeance

When Dante rises to the sphere of Jupiter, ruler of the Roman pantheon, the souls there were just rulers, whose rule on earth participates in divine justice and thus whose work is truly God’s work.  Here in the sphere of Jupiter Dante plants another pair of baffling souls, those of the pagan emperor Trajan and of the obscure Trojan soldier from the ancient stories of the Trojan War, Riphaeus.

For the pagan emperor there is a legendary story, namely that Pope Gregory prayed so ardently for the virtuous pagan ruler that God raised him from the dead long enough to be baptized, granting him entrance into Heaven.  No doubt some of the other shades in Limbo would have found this arbitrary, but election, as Beatrice says in this section of the poem, is a mystery that not even the angels have sorted.

Riphaeus is somewhat more of a stretch, as far as literary sources go: Dante intimates that, by means of a divine dispensation unheard of in the Bible or elsewhere, Riphaeus found out about Jesus, who would not be born for several centuries after the Trojan War, and was able to worship the true Son of God even though he was not yet incarnate, much less resurrected.  At this point in the poem, one rolls with it.

Those bits I’ve thought about so many times before that I meet them with resignation rather than resistance when I read them now.  What gave me pause this time was Dante’s visit to the sphere of Saturn, where the contemplatives present themselves.  Whereas the other circles have been places of celestial music, Dante arrives in the Saturnine display to hear… nothing.

Immediately he tells his concern to Beatrice, whose smile has also turned into a neutral facial expression.  And here’s where the poem’s virtue ethics shine through once more, demonstrating one fine way to bring Aristotle into Augustine’s orbit.  All souls in Paradise sing, Beatrice tells Dante, and all souls smile the smile of eternal and infinite blessedness.  But because Dante does not yet have the capacity to enjoy these things, because the intensity of the light and of the harmony would destroy him as Zeus’s glory destroys Semele in the old myth, Heaven’s mercy presents this sphere as silence rather than overpowering Dante with goodness beyond what he has the capacity to desire.

And there’s the synthesis of virtue ethics and a radical theology of grace: the capacity to enjoy God’s goodness at a Saturnine intensity really is a capacity that some souls have and others lack, but two promises stand for those who do not yet have the capacity: what a soul desires, a soul receives in Heaven; and the desire itself stands as a gift which the saved receive in perfect gratitude.

All of that I had noticed before, though I’m only beginning to grasp the philosophical complexity and sophistication of it.  What struck me this time is that Dante does not remain unhearing for his whole time among Saturn’s souls.  In canto 21, as he speaks with the contemplatives about the corruption that sullies the fourteenth-century Church, the souls become so angry at mortals’ abuse of divine gifts that Dante hears them shout together, animated by the wrath of Heaven against such abuses.

Once again the moment happens so fast that I didn’t notice it the first several times I read the poem, but the point is there: we mortals have the chops to get divine wrath.  It was there the whole time that the Inferno was going on, and even here among the mystics Dante gets it. What’s far more difficult to grasp is divine love.  Dante himself can’t hear it, and even those who in this life were most in communion with God only get such illumination periodically as Dante beholds them.  But even here, in the highest display of Heavenly excellence, Dante hears the promise: in the realm of God’s eternity, what the soul desires the soul already has, and even as the goodness is always a gift, it’s always the soul’s own.

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