Pandaemonium

A BOOK IN PROGRESS [PART 8]: DANTE, POET OF THE SECULAR

Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 9, a chapter that  explores medieval Christian thought, and in particular the work  of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of Christian theologians. Western Christendom had recently rediscovered Aristotle, largely through translations from the Muslim world. Aquinas found in Aristotle both a reason for, and a means to, transform the traditional relationship between reason and faith in Christian theology.

For Augustine and early Christian theologians, reason had been subservient to faith. The yen for knowledge had led to Original Sin and Original Sin had corroded human intellect and will. Aquinas, echoing the arguments of the Muslim Rationalists, reversed the relationship between reason and faith. Reason was not a corrupting expression of human hubris, too great a reliance on which denied humans access to the divine, but a divine gift to enable humanity to understand God, and bring them to Him. Aquinas was, of course, a devout and obedient Christian and for all his defence of reason, divine revelation remains the foundation of his moral framework. Yet Aquinas does something novel with the Christian moral framework. He grasps the tension at the heart of Christian belief between human agency and the consequences of the Fall and, unlike Augustine, tries to rethink that tension to minimise human degradation and maximise the possibilities of reason.

This extract is from the final section of Chapter 9, which explores the importance of Dante, and in particular of The Divine Comedy, in giving poetic life to Aquinas’ moral vision and in sketching out the outlines of the moral landscape that was to come.


Through me the way into the city of woe:
Through me the way into eternal pain:
Through me the way among the lost.
Justice moved my maker on high
Divine power made me,
Wisdom supreme, and primeval Love.
Before me nothing was but things eternal
And eternal I endure.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

So is inscribed the archway above the gates of Hell, in Dante’s Inferno. And through those gates walk Dante and his guide Virgil:

Now sighs, loud wailing, lamentation
Resounded through the starless air,
So that I too began to weep.
Unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents,
Words of suffering, cries of rage, voices
Loud and faint, the sound of slapping hands –
All these made a tumult, always whirling
In that black and timeless air,
As sand is swirled in a whirlwind.
And I, my head encircled by error, said:
‘Master, what is this I hear, and what people
Are these so overcome by pain?’

The Inferno is the first part, or canticle, of the Divine Comedy, Dante’s great triptych of journeys through the next world that takes the poet down to the depths of Hell, where he comes face to face with Lucifer, and then up through the mountains of Purgatory, before finally realizing ultimate happiness through union with God in Paradise.

The Divine Comedy was to Western Christendom as the Iliad was to Ancient Greece. Its imaginative recreation of both the physical and the moral universe, and of the interlacing of the two, infused medieval culture and allowed Europeans to understand both their place in the physical architecture of cosmos and their duties in the moral architecture of Christian society.

Born in Florence in 1265, Dante was more than simply a poet, albeit the greatest of his age. He had a thorough grounding in latest philosophical and scientific theories, was familiar with Arab translations of Aristotle and Ptolemy and possessed a deep appreciation of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. He was also deeply involved in the turbulent politics of his native city. In 1300 Dante became one of the six Priors of Florence, who helped govern the city, a highly coveted post, and the most prestigious within the Florentine Republic. Dante was a member of the Guelph party, supporters of the papacy, who had dominated Florentine politics since 1266 when their rivals the Ghibelines, the imperial party, had been expelled from the city.  But the Guelphs had split into two factions, the Whites, who looked to limit Papal interference in the city’s affairs, and the Blacks, who sought closer political identity with Papal power. Standing firm on behalf of the city’s ancient liberties, Dante was a White, and came into conflict with Pope Boniface.  In 1301, a coup d’etat, engineered with the Pope’s assistance, put the Blacks in power. All the leaders of the Whites who had not been killed were banished from Florence, among them Dante. He never again set foot in his beloved city of birth.

Dante’s poetry was cut through with both his philosophical learning and his political leanings, and no work more so than his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. The structure of the Comedy seamlessly blends the physical and the ethical, as two aspects of the divine order.  At the centre of Dante’s universe, both physical and moral, lies the immobile Earth. Around the Earth revolve nine concentric celestial spheres, five carrying the planets then known, two others the sun and the moon. The eighth sphere is that of the fixed stars, the ninth an invisible crystalline heaven, the Primum Mobile. The tenth, all-embracing sphere, the Empyrean, is the seat of God and, unlike the other nine, is at perfect rest. The architecture of Dante’s cosmos was drawn sphere for sphere from the work of Ptolemy, the Hellenistic Egyptian astronomer whose treatise Almagest on the structure of the universe was the most influential scientific work before modern times, dominating the Hellenistic, Islamic, Byzantine and medieval Chrsitian understanding of the cosmos. It had recently been rediscovered in Western Europe through a Muslim translation and both Dante and Aquinas moulded it into the Christian story.

If Dante finds in Ptolemy the structure of his cosmos, the geography of the Earth and of Hell he borrows from Greek mythology, Christian doctrine and medieval prejudice. In the Comedy, only half the earth, the northern hemisphere, is inhabited. The limits of the civilised world are the Ganges to the east and the Pillars of Hercules to the west. At the centre of civilization, not just metaphorically but physically, too, lies Jerusalem.  Beneath the ground, like a funnel narrowing down towards the centre of the Earth, lies Hell; in its deepest part, sits Satan, enchained.

When Satan fell from Heaven he bored deep into the Earth, pushing aside an enormous portion of the interior and driving it upward, creating the great mountain of Purgatory, the abode of souls headed for Paradise but still in need of purification. On the summit of the mountain, the point where the Earth comes closest to the lowest celestial sphere, lies the Earthly Paradise, where Adam and Eve lived before the Fall. Above lies true Paradise in the celestial spheres.

The physical structure of Dante’s universe reflects the moral structure of human activity. The geography of Hell mirrors that of the Heavens. It consists of nine concentric circles, each representing a gradual increase in wickedness. In each circle sinners are punished in a fashion fitting their crimes. Fortune-tellers, for instance, have their heads turned backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because in life they tried, through forbidden means, to look ahead to the future. It is, in Dante’s eyes, a form of contrapasso or poetic justice.

The first circle is Limbo, home to the unbaptized and to virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. This is home for Virgil himself, as it is for Aristotle, Socrates, Homer, Horace and Cicero. Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (or Averroes and Avicenna as Dante knew them) are here, too. It is a measure of the awe with which Christians viewed them that Muslim philosophers – though not Muhammad himself –  should be consigned to Limbo rather than to Hell.

In the second circle are those overcome by lust, in the third gluttons, in the fourth those with too great a love for material goods – the avaricious, the miserly and the greedy – and in the fifth those who were conquered by wrath. In these circles, the upper reaches of Hell, are sinners whose appetites have overwhelmed their reason. They have sinned through weakness of character rather than desiring to do evil. In the lower depths of Hell lies true wickedness.

The true horror of Hell is enclosed by the walls of the city of Dis and guarded by fallen angels and the Furies. Within these walls are those whose lives were marked by active sin: heretics, murderers, suicides, blasphemers, usurpers, sodomites, hypocrites, thieves and traitors. They have sinned not through an inability to control their passions but through an active desire to do malice. Among them are Muhammad and Ali in the eighth circle, condemned for sowing discord and creating schisms, and Judas Iscariot in the last circle of Hell, to be tortured for eternity with the greatest sinners of all – traitors. Judas, the soul that suffers ‘the worst punishment’, is in fact stuck between Satan’s teeth, ‘With his head inside and kicking his legs’, being chewed upon for eternity.  For medieval Christians, unlike in today’s world, Jews were far more wicked than Muslims.

Satan is at the very centre of Hell, a giant, terrifying beast with three faces, a parody of the divine Trinity, weeping tears from his six eyes – ‘down three chins / Dripped tears and dribble, mixed with blood’. He stands waist deep in ice, forever beating his six giant wings as if trying to escape. And ‘In each mouth he was chewing with his teeth / A sinner’. Suffering the torment with Judas, were Brutus and Cassius, punished for their assassination of Julius Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire that Dante viewed as an essential part of God’s plan for human happiness.

Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil then ascend through the gloom to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world. The Mountain is an island, the only land in the Southern Hemisphere. Souls arrive here escorted by an angel, singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto (‘when Israel left Egypt’, the opening line of Psalm 113).

Just as there are nine circles down to the depths of Hell, so there are seven terraces cut into the mountain of Purgatory, together with an ante-Purgatory at the foot and the Garden of Eden at the summit. In each terrace are found sinners who have committed one of the seven deadly sins – pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust. It might seem odd that those in Purgatory were characterized by sin as much as those confined to Hell. For Dante, however, sinfulness was not as black and white an issue as it might have seemed to previous generations of Christians. In Hell sin was defined in terms of the sinner’s actions, in Purgatory in terms of his or her motives. ‘Hell is concerned with the fruits, but Purgatory with the roots, of sin’, as Dorothy Sayers has put it.

Taking his cue from Aquinas, Dante argues that all sin arises from love perverted – love that is directed towards others’ harm, or love that is disordered, or love that is excessive, or love that is deficient. There are, Dante suggests, two kinds of love, natural and rational:

Natural love is always without error,
But the other kind may err, in the wrong object,
Or else through too much or too little vigour.

And when love is ‘twisted to evil, or seeks the good, / With more or with less concern than it ought to have’ then ‘The creature is working against the creator.’

At the summit of Mount Purgatory lies the Garden of Eden. As Dante has journeyed up the mountain, so he has attempted to recapture the state of innocence that existed within humanity before Adam and Eve’s Fall, and it is here in the Garden the he discovers that state of grace. Here also Dante meets Beatrice, the great love of his life, and his muse, to whom he had dedicated his autobiographic La Vita Nuova, his first great work of poetry, and who had died in 1290 almost 20 years before Dante began work on the Comedy. ‘Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me’, Dante had written in La Vita Nuova of their first meeting. And here in the Garden of Eden she indeed becomes ‘a deity stronger than’ Dante, the soul who guides the poet through Heaven, into which Virgil, as a pagan, cannot step.

Beatrice guides Dante through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven, to the Empyrean, the abode of God. Each sphere is home to a particular order of angels, and the closer the sphere to God, the purer the angel. While the circles of Hell and the terraces of Purgatory had been structured by sin, the spheres of Paradise are defined by virtue – the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. In the first three spheres, those of the Moon, Mercury and Venus, spheres that fall within the shadow of the Earth, are souls that have not sinned but have shown deficient forms of three of the cardinal virtues – courage, justice and temperance. Just as sinfulness is not black and white in Dante’s world, neither is virtuousness.

In the next four spheres are souls who are closer to God having won entry to the heavens by living according the one of the four cardinal virtues. In the eighth sphere we find souls who exemplify faith, hope and charity. From the ninth, and final, sphere of the physical universe, the Primum Mobile, a sphere moved directly by God, and home to angels, Dante ascends to a region beyond physical existence, the Empyrean. Beatrice is transformed to a figure more beautiful than ever before so that ‘only her maker could enjoy it perfectly’. Dante himself becomes enveloped in light that

          …left me wrapt in such a veil of glory
That nothing was visible to me.

The light helped ‘make the candle ready for the flame’, rendering Dante fit to see God, who now appears in the form of three inextricably but ineffably linked circles

Of three colours and equal dimensions

And the first seemed to be reflected by the second,
As a rainbow by a rainbow, and the third
Seemed flame breathed equally by both.

And with this poetic vision of the Trinity, neither the rational nor the poetic understanding of which was ‘a flight for my wings’, Dante ends his journey and the Comedy.

The Divine Comedy is perhaps the most important work of Christian imagination (arguably more so than Milton’s Paradise Lost), a brilliantly poetic allegorical telling of Christian doctrine, a way of rendering in the effable language of this world the ineffable and inexplicable myths of the Christian story from Satan to Eden to the angels to the Trinity. It is, however, far, far more than that. Dante was not merely a poet of the religious imagination, nor even simply the greatest Christian poet. He was also, as the German critic Erich Auerbach put it in the title of a famous study, a ‘poet of the secular world’. And  The Divine Comedy, despite its focus on the eternal and immutable features of the other world, is at heart a very human exploration of this world.

The Divine Comedy, Auerbach observed, was very different from previous explorations of heaven and hell. In these earlier visions, the dead were either immersed ‘in the semi-existence of the realm of shades, in which the individual personality is destroyed or enfeebled’ or else the good and the saved were separated from the wicked and damned ‘with a crude moralism which resolutely sets at naught all earthly relations of rank. In Dante’s other world, on the other hand, the souls retain their this-worldly forms and thoughts and desires and sins and virtues. ‘Their situation in the hereafter’, as Auerbach puts it,  ‘is merely a continuation, intensification, and definitive fixation of their situation on earth, and that what is most particular and personal in their character and fate is fully preserved.’ The human takes centre stage in The Divine Comedy, in way that had not happened previously in Christian thought.  In this, Dante looks forward to the poets and artists of the Renaissance and beyond, to Michelangelo’s David and Adam, to Botticelli’s Venus, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Falstaff.

At the heart of the Comedy is a tension between the concept of fate and the moral agency of the individual, a tension that had existed from the time of Homer onwards, but which in Dante has become like a violin string made taut almost to breaking point.  The Comedy is a beautifully crafted study of the inextricable bond between the physical and the moral worlds, between the structure of the cosmos as uncovered by Ptolemy and the moral landscape as mapped by both Christian and Ancient thinkers. It was through that relationship that a medieval Christian, immersed in both Augustine and Aristotle, steeped in both Ptolemy and Paul, understood the meaning of fate.

The Comedy, however, is also an exploration of the nature of the human individual and of his or her moral agency. Human action, Dante insists, is not predetermined but is freely chosen. In Purgatory, Dante enters into a discussion about sin, virtue and free will with a figure called Marco who observes that

You who are living attribute all causes
To the stars above, as if everything there is
Had of necessity to move with them
If it were so, that would mean the destruction of
Of your free will, and it would not be just,
For good to be rewarded, and sinners punished.

Without free will, in other words, there could be no moral judgment. And ‘if the present world is going off course’, as Dante believes, then, Marco insists, ‘The reason is in you and should be sought there.’ In fact, for Dante, the real issue was not the moral failure of ordinary people but the moral corruption of ruling institutions. As Marco puts it

You can easily see that bad government
Is the cause that has made the world wicked,
And not your nature, corrupted though it may be.

And most corrupt institution of all was the Church:

Rome, which was the maker of the good world,
Used to have two suns, by which could be seen
Both the road of the world and the road to God.

One has put out the other; and the sword is combined
With the pastoral crook; the two held together,
It must of necessity be that things go badly…

…the Church of Rome
By confounding two powers within itself,
Falls in the muck and dirties itself and its load.

The Church had debased itself and sullied the moral landscape by confusing its secular and religious roles, by fusing the vengeful sword and the pastoral crook. Dante’s was an astonishing attack on the Papacy, though explicable given the political turmoil in Florence and his exile from the city.  It was also a very different understanding of good and evil from the Augustinian view that had shaped Christian attitudes for a millennium. Augustine saw humans as indelibly depraved whose only salvation lay in God’s grace and obedience to God’s representatives on Earth, the Church of Rome. For Dante, the Church was irretrievably corrupt and salvation could only come only through individuals taking action to root out that corruption and cut down the power of the Church.  Dante unquestioningly accepted, of course, the doctrine of Original Sin. Yet he was able to arrange the pieces of the Christian story and of Greek philosophy in such a way that Adam’s sin became almost irrelevant to his understanding of moral corruption. Sin and virtue are no longer simple and monochrome, and corruption is not just, or even primarily, of the human soul as a result of Adam’s sin but also of human institutions because of the failure to wield in separate hands the sword and the crook (‘…bad government / Is the cause that has made the world wicked, /And not your nature, corrupted though it may be’).

Dante was a poet, not a moral philosopher, nor yet a theologian. Yet in his poetic imagination he found a language through which to glimpse – and through which others could glimpse – the new moral landscape that Aquinas had begun to sketch through his rethinking of the relationship between faith and reason, and that would soon transform ideas in Western Europe about both human nature and ethical conduct. Dante, perhaps even more than Aquinas, did not just occupy the high point of medieval scholarship but was bursting out to worlds anew.