For part I please click here.
Many today would consider Dante Alighieri a 'Dead White European Male' of dubious relevancy. However he is in fact alive and well, as are so many contemporary examples of the souls which inhabit his Inferno. Considering the deluge of angst and despair which flows from the pages of our contemporary literary world, it is almost as if we were reading the letters of a soul inside the Inferno.
Perhaps Dante and his Commedia are more relevant than many contemporary thinkers are willing to admit?
The relevant question in our contemporary times continues to be what ideas will define the course of history in the next 100 years, in the next 1000 years? Will the world sink into another Dark Age such as the one Dante depicted in his Inferno, or will people increasingly develop their faculties such that they do not become another ‘contemporary’ example of those tragic souls inhabiting the Inferno?
This question will ultimately define the relevancy of Dante's ideas.
However before we begin, we can already hear protests: yes Dante was a great poet and his ideas were profound, but the problem is that it was all done from a Judeo-Christian perspective, which by its nature excludes many different groups, backgrounds and schools of thought. Such a commentator should be challenged to go beyond the outward appearance of things. Despite ideas being couched in religious garbs and using religious motifs (in line with Dante’s contemporary times of course) Dante's ideas are anything but fixed dogmatic beliefs that have to be taken on blind faith – they are universal ideas concerning the nature of the human species. One must only be willing to go beyond the garbs with which Dante has chosen to veil these ideas.
It should be noted that many popular thinkers will remark that they find the Inferno to be the most interesting part of the Comedy. This is especially the case in popular culture. The current writer encountered this kind of thinking in the past not only on the streets of Italy, but also from academics like one of his own former English teachers, who had in fact noted themselves that they had never taken the time to read passed the Inferno – they never got to Paradise. The problem with this is that the Inferno loses its all significance if one does not experience with Dante the transformations he undergoes throughout his journey. It just becomes another interesting literary foray. And this is the crucial point: the idea of Dante’s Commedia exists in neither of the three books - it is in what happens in between.
Those discontinuities, located outside any of the three worlds of the Commedia define the quality of change required from one's own sense of creative identity, which allow one to make the kind of revolutionary leaps in thinking that are associated with what many today would refer to as the quality of "genius."
Who was Dante?
Dante was born in 1265, a time just preceding the European Dark ages where the continent saw as much as half or a third of its population vanish. He lived in a time where 95% of the population had no real education, no literacy, all the while being ruled by a feudal aristocracy. If your father had been a farmer, you would be a farmer and that was the end of it, to say nothing of the status of women - it was a completely static and feudal society where change was not permitted. The human mind was banished as an agency for deriving laws and reason, and as a result, the conception that human beings could develop and change their fate, did not exist. If this was not bad enough, an Italian language as such also did not exist: the territory known today as Italy was littered with local dialects numbering in the 1000s if not 10,000s, scattered across petty fiefdoms and kingdoms - each in perpetual strife with one another.
Therefore life was for most a very ugly prospect. Moreover, because Italian as such did not exist, a literate language did not exist, which meant that there was no vehicle by which to develop and impart fundamentally new ideas – the precondition for any sovereign nation state, which would have the power to overthrow empires.
And herein lays the genius of Dante Alighieri. He answered a question, which many of us might ask today: “how can we overcome a dark age and create a new renaissance in human thought?” He did this the same way Homer did with his Iliad and Odyssey, the same way Virgil attempted to do with his Aeneid and the same way Shakespeare succeeded in doing with his dramas : through poetry .
He begins the Inferno:
“Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita,
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
Che la diritta via era smarrita.”
When in the midst of life I found myself
In the middle of a darkened forest, I realized
That I had lost the path that does not stray.”
One need only tour the bowels of the Inferno to get acquainted with some of the souls he places there, many of whom were his contemporaries, holding highly distinguished positions in church and state. They were the contemporary politicians and academic “experts” of our day.
What we see in the Inferno is that human beings appear more like beasts. They are dominated by the blindness of the flesh, by rage and by disregard for any sense of lawfulness or meaning in the universe, which might impede their arbitrary will and desires.
One finds in the Inferno the famous story of Paolo and Francesca, who while both married to other people become enamored. When they're discovered by Francesca's husband, they are both murdered. On hearing this Dante faints with horror.
We have the examples of Pope Nicholas and the soon to arrive Pope Boniface, who will both be there for Simony, which involves the granting of indulgences to people who have sinned in exchange for payment, thus using their positions to enrich themselves. They are both stuffed in tiny little money pouches for eternity, in the eighth circle of Hell.
However we even find some of his closest and dearest friends. Dante runs into Guido Cavalcanti, a famous Florentine poet and member of the “Dolce Stil Novo”(Sweet New Style) school of poetry, of which Dante was another young leader. He runs into his former master Brunetto Latini, damned under fiery rains, who was a famous ambassador, and the one who brought back the book “Il Tesoro” (the treasure). The “Tesoro” is known as one of the first Encyclopedias, which was a compilation of all the science and most advanced knowledge known in the world at that time, which he had gathered from his trips in the different libraries across Europe and Asia, most notably from those in the court of Alfonso the Wise whose Arabic texts were known to be the most advanced documents available anywhere. After all, Dante’s Commedia was an assimilation of all the most advanced knowledge available at that time. Despite that, both these individuals were in Hell for their sexual deviance.
These are all examples of people who in some form or another, even good people, allowed themselves to become victims of the arbitrary laws of the world and that of their immediate senses. The result is that they were blind to those higher laws, known only through our reason.
None of this requires some dogmatic belief or blind faith. One could argue that it is not due to the contemporary critic's inability to read beyond a literal interpretation of the text, but rather because they are wanting in the emotional quality necessary to make the kind of leaps Dante requires from his audience.
Thus in the Commedia reason is not alone, it must be wed with love. How many of us are able to judge something as good or bad but are yet unable to reach that higher goal because of some fear of what might become us and all the familiar faces and places we'd become accustomed to - our "habits."
When Dante arrives at the bottom of Hell, having seen the three treacherous faces of Judas, Brutus and Cassius as Satan’s own figure, the Inferno ends with:
Lo duca e io per quell cammino ascoso
Intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo;
e sanza cura aver d’alcun riposo,
salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i vidi de le cose belle
che porta’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
My guide and I came by that hidden road,
To once again catch sight of the bright world;
And without care for any rest we trod
On upwards, he first and I following,
Such that I saw something so beautiful,
Which the heavens bore through a small opening.
It was there I once again regained the stars.
In elaborating a conception of the human individual, which is a sovereign individual, whose mind has the capacity of discovering the ordering of the universe, “the stars”, therefore not being a victim of the blind forces of the flesh and fate, Dante is reaffirming that man is not a beast.
Despite the myriad images that speak to the contrary on Earth and in Hell, a lady from above, Beatrice, is calling for him, and has demonstrated her Love by intervening to rescue him from his fate in this darkened forest. Moved by the idea that someone would go to such lengths to save his sorry soul, to the point of sending another poet (Virgil) into the depths of Hell to rescue him, in spite of himself, he is committed to seeing his journey through and not letting her down.
Having seen all those mortals who were blinded by their own earthly compulsions, seeing perhaps a bit of himself in many of those he met, he now needs to cleanse himself of his own sins and shortcomings. This means becoming conscious of his greater sense of identity. What were formerly instincts, he can begin to understand through reason; and now all the universe outside him becomes accessible. With this new thought in mind, Dante finds himself journeying into Purgatory. Thus a life that was once guided by blind instinct now begins becoming conscious of its reason.
In Purgatory, Dante finds himself in an uphill climb, fighting up Mount Purgatory, where yet, just like any bad habit which we choose to address, while the climb at first is trying, the higher one climbs, the longer one persists, the easier it becomes. Anyone who has experienced extensive periods of creative activity is familiar with how the process develops and becomes gradually easier as one gets more accustomed to intense periods of concentration. It is like the pangs of birth, which Socrates describes as giving life to a new idea.
After a long climb, Dante then reaches the wall of fire. Virgil his poet guide tells him not to be afraid, that it will not burn him, but he is still afraid. All of his bodily senses are fighting him, all of his survival instincts are turning him back, yet the poet is reassuring: he will not be burned. However what is required is a leap of faith.
At this point, between that present moment and future state, one can rely on nothing other than hope and faith in our own creative powers, what in the Christian terms of the Italian Golden Renaissance would mean acting in the image of the creator, in imago viva dei and capax dei.
By the end of Purgatory, having crossed the wall of fire and walked through the garden of earthly delights, where everything is green, sweet, and pure, the paradise sold to most believers in blind faith, he must now move on to something higher, something beyond the conception of an earthly paradise. In a theological and philosophical sense as well, Dante must leave Virgil as he reaches the final chapter in his Commedia. This signals a fundamentally new phase in world history, a new "discontinuity," departing from the pagan world of antiquity to the modern Christian era, where the conception of imago viva dei is explicitly stated as a fundamental scientific principle.
The product of this new principle, which we will elaborate below, is the Italian Golden Renaissance. It is the image of a Da Vinci, a universal genius hell bent on unearthing those principles which govern the universe and its organization; and capturing that in all its forms, from engineering to architecture, to painting and hydraulics. It is the image of Bruneleschi building the Dome at Santa Maria Del Fiore in the Republic of Florence, which would signal a new era in human history where the intellect conquered the forces of evil, to as the Greeks stated a thousand years before:
Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
In Bruneleschi’s case, it required an architectural form that would allow the Dome to sustain its own weight through construction, on an order greater than anything that had ever been attempted before, and all that without relying on any scaffolding, any props to hold it up. Otherwise they would have had to cut down all the forests around the city. This meant you either had to have magic powers and be able see the invisible structure of things, or that you understood through reason, those invisible laws of physical-space time, such that you could build the dome directly into the shape of space itself! Any enemy who saw this Dome knew that they were dealing with a force who was not to be reckoned with. It was the equivalent of the Apollo mission in the 15th century.
Dante has gone through the trials of Hell and the uphill climb of becoming a self-conscious creative individual. It is a journey which all creative individuals must go through, fighting off everything that tries to come in their way, lifting themselves out from all those common and familiar things which the comfort of our senses and reassuring images of the familiar had conditioned us to fear, we become brave enough to ask a new kind of question: “what universe are we in?”
The religious concept behind all this was the idea of the “Trinity” as embodied in the Nicene Creed, which had been agreed upon by both Eastern and Western Churches at the council of Florence in 1445. It stated that Christ was both God and Man, to the effect that the individual, who should walk in the image of Christ (the flesh), was also in the image of God i.e. imago viva dei (a living god). Contrary to the fundamentalist variety of religion, which states that God is mighty and the individual is puny, and contrary to the idea that this God's infninite almightiness in the Aristotlian sense, is therefore unknowable to the finite individual and must thus be obeyed out fear, here man has to love and use his reason, because that is what makes each man and woman in the likeness of a God, and gives them the ability to act in the image of a god, of capax dei - to be creative.
Devoid of its religious garb, it means how a people views its God or Gods or absence of Gods, reveals what kind of universe they believe they are living in. Is their God or are the laws that govern their universe, based on Love, are they based on a creative principle like that reflected in the individual human mind which can discover the lawful ordering of the universe; or are they irrational, unknowable and maybe just altogether indifferent? God or no God, it will reveal how that person feels about their life and the universe. No person who thinks the universe is irrational will seek to be a rational creative actor. They may try, but inevitably become weighed down by the nagging sense of despair reminding them that there is no point to it anyways.
Therefore in Paradise, right from the beginning, Dante wants to understand how the universe is organized. His new guide Beatrice, is the woman who sent Virgil to help him, to save him from the Hell of despair he had found himself in.
All you who in your wish to hear my words
have followed thus far in your little boat
behind my ship that singing sails these waters,
go back now while you still can see your shores;
do not attempt the deep: it well could be
that losing me, you would be lost yourselves.
I set my course for waters never travelled;
Minerva fills my sails, Apollo steers,
and all nine Muses point the Bears to me.
Those few of you who from your youth have raised
your eager mouths in search of angels' bread
on which man feeds here, always hungering,
you may, indeed, allow your boat to sail
the high seas in the furrow of my wake
ahead of parted waters that flow back.
Those heroes who once crossed the deep to Colchis,
and saw their Jason put behind a plow,
were not amazed as much as you will be.
- Canto II of Paradiso
As soon as Dante and Beatrice reach the first celestial sphere, the Moon, Dante begins to now fully inquire about the nature of the universe in all its forms. He asks Beatrice:
But tell me what the dark spots are which, seen
from earth along the surface of this body(the moon),
lead men to make up stories about Cain?
Beatrice smiles and challenges him to put forward a hypothesis himself. Dante replies saying he thinks it is because of the difference in density. However she points out the fallacy in his reasoning:
She said, then: "I am certain you shall see
that your beliefs are deeply steeped in error.
Now listen to my counter-arguments:
She lays out several discrepancies in his reasoning and then challenges him to make an experiment using three mirrors placed at different distances in front of him, such that when a light is shined on them, while a greater and lesser size of the light ray might be reflected back by the mirror which is further away, it will not be any less brilliant. Thus density alone does not explain this phenomena nor why eclipses then would not have brighter and dimmer parts to them as well.
The principle being demonstrated is that of the sovereign individual's ability to work through a problem and make a new fundamental discovery about the universe and its organization. It is this power of creative discovery, that man and woman can come to know the universe, and thus the principle which organizes it.
Thus for anyone who has trouble with the theological or religious implication of this, it is the spark of creativity, that thirst for knowledge and endless drive for discovery, which is seen in each healthy individual from the earliest ages.
Each individual sovereign mind must already be in some form, a mirror, if only dimly lit, which can then shine light on new ideas as they present themselves, whether it be provoked by something in the outer world that appears paradoxical like the reflections of the moon, or from an internal paradox like where ideas come from in the first place.
Thus arrived at the end of Paradiso having erred over and over again and made many new discoveries with the help of Beatrice, Dante says:
"Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were already moved - like
a wheel who moves of its own accord,
just as the Love that moves the sun and all the stars."
The only thing necessary for any of this is our creative reason, what some call a divine spark.
That everyone is endowed with such a divine spark should be undeniable; it is the principle, which defines humans as fundamentally human. What Dante goes through as his journey through hell, purgatory and paradise expresses precisely this universal process, which every individual must go through in order to realize their true humanity.
Dante calls it a Comedy.
It should be noted that Virgil was Dante's chosen guide through the Inferno and Purgatory. Anyone who reads passages from the Aeneid, notably Aeneas' descent into the underworld, will notice there is an uncanny resemblance. Could Dante have written the Commedia with first having known the Aeneid?