Category Archives: Dante’s Divine Comedy

Dante, Purgatorio, XXX

Dante looks back for Virgil, but Virgil is gone. “But he, he had taken his light from us. He had gone. Virgil had gone. Virgil, the gentle Father to whom I gave my soul for its salvation!”

 

“It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason…because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason…therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.” (STh., I q.1 a.1 resp.)

 

Just a couple Cantos earlier, when Matilda corrects the mistakes of the poets, such as Virgil and Statius, Dante looks back to see their response. “…they had received her final words with smiles that lingered yet upon their faces; then they turned back to that lady of glad graces.”

 

Amazingly, they simply want the truth, and find not disappointment but joy in the correction. They truly understood the purpose of reason; to seek truth. And when enlightened to it, they are not offended that they may have erred, but are joyous to attain what they sought.

 

Dante, however, reacts not in humble trust to the movement beyond reason, but in fear and sadness. Of course, long habit makes this understandable, but still it must be remedied. Reason was never a bad thing, and faith does not contradict it. But we must love truth, and not our mere attempt to know it alone. When truth transcends reason, we must be open to receive it, not fearing leaving behind what we thought we knew, but finding joy in what truly is.

 

St. Thomas, who “wrote well of Me (Christ) concerning the Eucharist” and wrote well in so many other things as well, say all he had written as if straw once he had a vision beyond. He found not sadness or frustration in this clearer vision of Truth,…but joy and awe.

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Dante Purgatorio Canto XXV

Dante, in Canto XXV, is schooled in the formation of the soul as an individual form having vegetative, sensitive, and rational powers. After refuting the error of Averroes (or one of his errors, at least), the “true” explanation of the soul’s formation is given. This particular and special creation by God of the soul certainly explains the individuality of the human soul, setting it at variance with the “one intellect” theory of Averroes and others that interpreted Aristotle’s psychology in such a way.

 

St. Thomas gives a clear refutation of the theory in the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 75:

 

“For just as it belongs to the human soul by its specific nature to be united to a particular species of body, so this particular soul differs only numerically from that one as the result of having a relationship to a numerically different body. In this way are human souls individuated in relation to bodies, and not as though their individuation were caused by bodies; and so the possible intellect, which is a power of the soul, is individuated likewise….”

 

“…Hence, it does not follow that the intelligible species are numerically one in this or that knower; otherwise, this and that person’s act of understanding would be numerically one, since operation follows upon the form which is the principle of the species…”

 

Of course, the above quotes demand to be read in context, including the arguments that these excerpts refute (which St. Thomas, of course, always fairly lays out up front).

 

Nevertheless, this theory of exactly when the individual soul is infused into the human body is still speculative, and has repercussions. Two such are as follows.

 

For one, St. Thomas is often said to have denied the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This is false on two accounts. In the first place, this was not a dogma yet pronounced, and as such, could not be explicitly denied (or at least “rejected”). Also, St. Thomas himself gives his theory as a speculative, not definitive, teaching. He gives it as reasoned opinion, saying it best fits his understanding.

 

How this is related has to do with another speculative theory, that in which the body receives the soul (and thus first becomes a human person) at around 40 days after conception. In this way, Mary could have inherited original sin in her body, and at the infusion of her soul, immediately been freed from all stain of original sin.

 

A second application of this theory of the late infusion of the soul into the body is by pro-abortion advocates who claim Catholic status. We have seen such “theologians” as Nancy Pelosi try to show that St. Thomas would have been pro-first trimester abortion by this, a fanciful idea, for sure. 

 

But it all returns to the Canto at hand. The real purpose of abortion and the mentality that leads to it is our lust. We seek pleasure without consequences. We seek to separate what God has made one. All human sin is, once again, a distortion of the good things the good God has made for us.

Purgatorio, Canto XVII

“While it desires the Eternal Good and measures its wish for secondary goods in reason, this love cannot give rise to sinful pleasures. But when it turns to evil, or shows more or less zeal than it ought for what is good, then the creature turns on its Creator. Thus you may understand that love alone is the true seed of every merit in you, and of all its acts for which you must atone.”

What packed lines. I will hardly do justice to a few of the points made here, such as the implied relation between reason, truth, and the intellect and the will and the good.

Love is the cause of both merit and of that for which we must make satisfaction? Yes, because we are moved of our will toward the good. This much in our will is in fact determined, that good is that which it seeks.

“The will is a rational appetite. Now every appetite is only of something good. The reason of this is that the appetite is nothing else than an inclination of a person desirous of a thing towards that thing. Now every inclination is to something like and suitable to the thing inclined. Since, therefore, everything, inasmuch as it is being and substance, is a good, it must needs be that every inclination is to something good. And hence it is that the Philosopher says (Ethic. i. 1) that the good is that which all desire.” (STh., I-II q.8 a.1 resp.)

We are not determined to one particular good over another particular good, however much we may be determined to good in itself. In this is our free choice that includes a “freedom” to sin. Of course, true freedom is bound up in truth, but God’s calling for us to freely love Him entails our ability to reject this love. We may ignore the directive of the Apostle John when he says “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” (1 Jn 5:21), but when we “show more or less zeal than we ought” for certain goods or the good itself, this is exactly what we do. We take God’s good creation and make an idol of individual particular parts of it, and then we place them between ourselves and God, losing sight of Him for a good He made.

Virgil later wraps this up, poetically saying “All men, though in a vague way, apprehend a good their souls may rest in, and desire it; each, therefore, strives to reach his chosen end.”

Purgatorio Canto XVI

It was a debate in the days of the Old Covenant, it was a debate for the early Church, for St. Augustine and his contemporaries, for those during the time of the Reformation, and with for us still today. It is a debate within Islam, and a debate within Christianity, and even a debate between the secular theories of spiritualism and materialism. In what way (if any) is man free, and in what way (if any) is he determined?

“Mankind sees in the heavens alone the source of all things, good and evil; as if by Law they shaped all mortal actions in their course. If that were truly so, then all Free Will would be destroyed, and there would be no justice in giving bliss for virtue, evil for pain.” (Canto XVI)

Just as God cannot make “square circles” He cannot be a God who “justly rewards or punishes” those who had no free will in the matter. To say that He justly punishes those who had no ability to do otherwise than they do is not to glorify God by proclaiming “His ways are above our ways” but to annihilate all coherent thought of Him, claiming He is a God of logical contradictions.

“You are free subjects of a more immense nature and power which grants you intellect to free you from the heavens’ influence. If, therefore, men today turn from God’s laws, the fault is in yourselves to seek and find.” (Canto XVI)

God moves man’s will, as the Universal Mover, to the universal object of the will, which is good. And without this universal motion, man cannot will anything. But man determines himself by his reason to will this or that, which is true or apparent good. (STh., I-II q.9 a.6 ad.3)

I wrote in my blog a while back that:

‘If one were to ask the question “why does a rock fall when released from the hand,” it would, no doubt, be a true yet odd answer to say that “God wills it.”  Yet, we must not argue that indeed, the falling of the rock does not escape God’s providence.  It certainly did not catch Him by surprise…However, when asking the question, we are usually seeking the more proximate answer.  To say that “the rock falls because of gravity,” that still hardly understood force that draws massive objects toward one another, is to in no way infringe upon God’s power and providence.’

The point of all this is summed up by St. Thomas in STh., I q.23 a.8 resp., when he speaks of predestination during the section of the Summa on the One God, and in the following article, when speaking of the primary mover of man’s free will:

“As Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv.) it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things. Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determinate to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except in those things to which it is moved naturally.” (STh., I-II q.10 a.4 resp.)

And this final thought takes us to the poetry of the following Canto, where Virgil speaks of man seeking good, loving always, but often loving lessor goods with great zeal, while loving God, if at all, with much too little…always oriented to good, but freely oriented.

Purgatorio Cantos 4 and 5

“Enclosure baffles so many people. Even those who love and admire the contemplative life think the importance of enclosure is exaggerated. That is why it must be understood in the beginning.” –Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C. in A Right to be Merry.

 

Not all of us are called to the contemplative life of a cloistered monk or nun. However, we are all called to be contemplatives, and to keep our eye fixed on our end. We are not all called to that which is called “the state of perfection” by way of the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, yet we are all of us called to “be perfect” as our Father in Heaven is perfect. This is the universal call to holiness that belongs to all mankind.

 

To do so, we must not let the distractions around us keep us from our objective. “Do we go right or left, or do we still climb” Dante asks Virgil. “Take not one step to either side, but follow yet, and make way up the mountain…” the guide replies. In the following Canto (V) Virgil must turn back to Dante and again speak to him, saying “Why do you lag? What has so turned your mind that you look back?…Follow my steps, though all such whisper of you: be as a tower of stone, its lofty crown unswayed by anything the winds may do. For when a man lets his attention range toward every wisp, he loses true direction, sapping his minds force with continual change.”

 

Most of us live in the world, although we know that our “Kingdom is not of this world.” We must be, as the saying goes, IN the world, but not OF the world. But as Brother Lawrence makes so plain in his “The Practice of the Presence of God,” we must be as near to God at work in the kitchen as we are when at adoration during a holy hour.

 

We can take to heart what Mother Mary Francis says a little earlier in the book referred to above. “It is monastic life which signifies a monastery, and the fact has no vice versa. The most ‘correct’ monastic building in the world would not be a monastery if monastic life did not pulse within it.” Here, she is referring to the old farm house that the nuns converted into a new monastery in New Mexico in the late 1940’s. But we also may take it to heart. Though we be not part of a monastery, in each of our hearts and minds it must never be said that “monastic life did not pulse within it.” We must not be those who delay, and think, like the foolish virgins who did not fill their lamp with oil, that we will eventually get around to preparing ourselves for the Kingdom which is not of this world.

Purgatorio Canto II

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When we begin the journey of purification, we realize that it is a cooperation of our will with God’s, but it is all in God’s power and love. Our cooperation with God does not mean it is by our efforts that our sanctification is attained. It is by the “gift of God, not by works” that we are sanctified. “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

It takes humility to grow in virtue. Humility tells us that we are not (yet) what we are meant to be. A proud person can hardly grow, for (in his own mind and heart) he has already arrived at perfection. The humble see that they are not ultimate. Only with this humble disposition can their eyes be opened to what is in fact superior to themselves. In honoring this greater good, they will seek to conform themselves to it.

 

But when he saw what wings they were, he cried “Down on your knees! It is God’s angel comes! Fold your hands! From now on you shall see many such ministers in the high kingdoms.”

 

Virgil, human reason, can indeed take us a great distance along this journey, and we are never asked to “check our minds at the door” of our faith. But when our eyes are opened by grace to the supernatural reality of the only true path to holiness, our first reaction is one of awe. In fact, we will forever be in awe of the Holy One:

 

‘The throng he left seemed not to understand what place it was, but stood and stared about like men who see the first of a new land.’

 

In the Gospels, Jesus tells the parable of the sower of the seed. ““Hear then the parable of the sower.  When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path.  As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.  As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

Similarly, the souls standing around admiring the music in purgatory are told to let that seed take root and perfect them: “Negligence! Loitering! O laggard crew, run to the mountain and strip off the scurf that lets not God be manifest in you.” This is the entire journey of purification, or sanctification, and of salvation. God created us, and saw that His creation “was very good.” Stained with sin as we are, we must rise up, cooperate with God’s grace, and be on our way.

Inferno Canto 34

In Canto I, Dante’s pride is exposed and he realizes that human wisdom is not a “quick route” to heaven and happiness. Pride, in fact, is the root of all evil. It is the devil that told our first parents that “you will be like gods, for you will see as He does.”

 

In Canto XXXIV, the Tempter of all this pride is seen, displaying the sadness and result of such pride. Beating his own wings in an attempt to fly alone, he merely locks himself more and more in his own world of sorrows, separated from God. The phrase “let go and let God” is, of course, meaningless to him. Power is the tool he thinks to use, and yet power is not the ultimate answer to all things. He beats his wings the harder, only to further freeze the lake; in a similar way, one only becomes more and more trapped in a Chinese finger trap when effort is made simply to pull.

 

Most are familiar with Sauroman the wizard from the Lord of the Rings movies. In the book The Hobbit, also by JRR Tolkien, he has not yet turned to ally with evil, but we do see his insistence upon power as the way to “get the job done.” Gandalf, another wizard, speaks of this, telling of Sauroman the Great’s desire to save the world from evil through power, while he (Gandalf) thinks the answer actually lies in small acts of great love.

 

Now God certainly is all powerful, and power is neither good nor bad, but is useful to one or the other. Certainly I must disagree with the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” for none s more powerful than the incorruptible God. But this power is equaled by perfect Love. God is Love. The fire’s of His love burn with a heat opposite the frozen lake in which that the old angel of light, (also certainly powerful, although in a contingent way incomparable with God) lies frozen.

 

Dante has come full circle and seen the father of lies; the one who would tempt man to think he is sufficient unto himself, as Dante’s attempt at a short sprint to glory in Canto I is a prime example.

 

 

Canto XXX

 

“I was still standing, fixed upon these two when the Master said to me: “Now keep on looking a little longer and I quarrel with you.” Dante listens for too long to a couple of the damned argue and belittle one another, and Virgil is quickly agitated with the whole scene.

 

C.S. Lewis has written a brilliant book (he has written dozens) in his The Screwtape Letters. In it, he really goes into the workings of evil from its own point of view. It is an eye opening book for those who may have a false understanding of what is good in the world and how it can be misued. It certainly clears up the still oft taken [Manichean like] position that spirit is good and matter is bad. Are not the demons spirit, and is not the Christ also Flesh?

 

Tolkien, also a member of The Inklings, a group that CS Lewis and a few others belonged to for the discussion of literature, did not like the fact that CS Lewis wrote such a book. He thought that it is dangerous to delve too far into the ways of evil, even when the intention was the good one of exposing evil that its traps may be avoided.

 

Tolkien felt so strongly about this that an entire character in his great stories of Middle Earth directly reflects this. Sauroman, the White Wizard, is in the beginning good. He often relies on power as the means of solving the problem of evil. Of course, we need law enforcement and soldiers to battle evil even today. But primarily it is not power that wins all. I digress.

 

Sauroman eventually delves far into the ways and workings of evil, the greater to understand it. As a military officer, I certainly respect the need to know thy enemy. You must understand his tactics and procedures and capabilities to better defeat him. But when you let your mind spend too much time on these ways, the heart may follow. Sauroman, as we know, eventually goes to the evil side, allying with it and thinking it too powerful to overcome. He thinks, and not relying on God’s good providence, that evil is too powerful and will win, and thus it is best to side with it now rather than wait until good is defeated.

 

Know your enemy, yes, but do not become overly interested and involved. “…should it occur again, as we walk on, that we find ourselves where others of this crew fall to such petty wrangling and upbraiding,…The wish to hear such baseness is degrading.”

Dante’s Purgatorio as Spiritual Exercise (Thesis)

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a wonderful work of poetry and a reflection upon the philosophy and theology of the Church in the High Middle Ages. But, like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, often missed is its value as a spiritual exercise. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and St. Francis de Sale’s Introduction to the Devout Life, the Purgatorio especially functions as a spiritual exercise that, approached with prayer, is a great aid toward removing vices and instilling virtues so that one may more easily cooperate with the grace of God.

Exerpts from the following recognized works of spiritual meditation will be paralleled with passages from Dante’s Purgatorio in support of the thesis statement above.

Thomas Aquinas, S., & Fathers of the English Dominican Province. (2009). Summa theologica (Complete English ed.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Teresa of Ávila, S., & Dalton, J. (1852). The Interior Castle. London: T. Jones.

John of the Cross, S., Zimmermann, B., & Lewis, D. (1906). The Ascent of Mount Carmel. London: Thomas Baker.

Ignatius of Loyola, S. (1914). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (E. Mullan, Trans.). New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons.

Francis de Sales, S. (1885). An Introduction to the Devout Life. Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son.

Dante Inferno, Canto XVII: Art, Usury..and Liberal Policies

St. Thomas comments upon usury and how it is a sin against nature thus:

To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality, which is contrary to justice.
In order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption: thus we consume wine when we use it for drink, and we consume wheat when we use it for food. Wherefore in suchlike things the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing, is granted the thing itself; and for this reason, to lend things of this kind is to transfer the ownership. Accordingly if a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist, wherefore he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. In like manner he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat, and asks for double payment, viz. one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury. (STh., II-II q.78 a.1 resp.)

But for Dante, it is a sin against art, and this is something explained by Virgil to Dante in Canto XI. I, however, (and in researching it have noticed I am not alone in this) find the explanation difficult. At the risk of extending too far what Dante may have meant and, at worst, missing the point altogether, I offer here a contemporary consideration of usury as a sin against art.

To produce something is to use those things God has given us and apply our own reason and work to it, thus making something that is useful to us or to another. Most often our livelihoods are based off of this. We make something, sell it, and use the money to buy something else we need.

Now, there are a great many politicians who base their livelihood off of producing nothing, but off of taking and redistributing other people’s earnings, often by way of taxes (but in other ways as well) to give to another. They also, in their salaries, take some off the top. They therefore produce nothing; they add no art, no product. They do nothing but charge (this is their salary) to redistribute money. They thus charge for the use of money not their own, produce nothing, and yet claim to have given something and done a service.

In this way they sell something that does not exist. They sell a product to those who they deem needful, and in doing so reduce what would be helpful to those people. They tax a business to help these people, all while these people are laid off from that business since, due to being robbed (excessive taxes are hardly different than usury as a type of robbery), these businesses lay off the very employees who think they benefit from the “product” given them by the government.

St. Thomas calls something usury because it is to charge for something that does not exist separately. You cannot charge for the wine AND the “use of” the wine. It is acting as if you have two products to sell when you really only have one. It is deceit. Is this any different than to bring forth policies that pretend to create more goods but really do nothing of the kind (All the while billing the people for doing so by means of a salary and, very often, exempting oneself from the policies of practical usury you put in place)?

Dante – Inferno, Canto XI

The last three Canto’s we have been looking at the punishment of the Heretics, which, for Dante, generally means those who in some way rejected God. The materialists seem to be the most prominent of these, as we see groups such as the Epicurians among those called heretics.

 

The Epicurians (like the Stoics) seemed to have a materialistic worldview. But while the Stoics sought to temper their own passions (or be rid of them completely) the Epicurians wish to indulge in them. Perhaps that is why they are spoken of in more detail. The Stoics misunderstood the fact that the passions were of value to man, while the Epicurians thought they comprised the instrument by which man sought happiness.

 

In Canto XI, Dante seems to make his second mistake of putting a pope in Hell. This is not to say that there are not popes in hell, but that Dante seems to have a low batting average on this topic thus far. His first hellbound pope is a canonized saint, and his second (Anastasius) is the result of a historical error on which Anastasius was a denier of the true Incarnation of Christ.

 

After directly mentioning Aristotle and some of his works, Virgil goes on to speak of how “Violence may be offered the deity in the heart that blasphemes and refuses Him and scorns the gifts of Nature, her beauty and bounty.” This 14th century line reminds me of one similar from the 20th century, courtesy of Ettiene Gilson: “When and where piety is permitted to inundate the philosophical field, the usual outcome is that, to better extol the glory of God, pious-minded theologians proceed joyfully to annihilate God’s own creation.” In other words, one can ponder God and yet pay Him insult when we belittle His creation. We need to avoid being Stiocs (denying the goodness or at least moral neutrality of the passions), or Manicheans (denying the goodness of the material world), or even Platonists, who must deny the full reality given to the world of our sense and experience.

 

For those that are Catholic, our entire theology is Christocentric and therefore Incarnational. In fact, we can certainly say that, in Christ, God and Nature meet, and in fact God and Nature are Father (1st Person of the Trinity) and Mother (the Virgin Mary) of Christ.

 

Lastly (in reality there is, of course, so much more to reflect on here) Virgil states that “Philosophy makes plain by many reasons…to those who heed her teachings, how all of nature…springs from the Ultimate Intellect and Its art. Not only is this truth again plainly taught in places such as Blessed John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, but by the great St. Paul, saying “For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable” (Rom 1:20)