To be perfectly frank, Cantos XIII and XIV are kind of boring. They’re probably not boring to a theologian or a metaphysician, but I find them hard to penetrate. Then again, remember that I’m reading the Commedia not from an analytical or formal point of view, but from a personal one: how can this poem tell me how to live? In that sense, there is still helpful wisdom there that fits into Dante’s overall vision as I’ve been trying to understand it. In fact, when you read Paradiso with guidebooks, what seemed to be impenetrable unfolds beautifully and profoundly. Nevertheless, these two cantos are perfect examples of Prof. Ron Herzman’s dictum that you really cannot understand the Commedia without a guide.
In Canto XIII, the pilgrim converses with St. Thomas Aquinas, who answers for him a few philosophical questions about how God interacts with Creation. As near as I can tell — I’m hedging because I am largely unfamiliar with Scholasticism, and welcome correction from your readers — Aquinas explains to Dante how everyday phenomenon are related to the ground of their being, which is to say, God. All Creation is a reflection of the Divine Idea, the Logos, which emanates throughout Creation’s entirety (Dante, like all medievals, used light as a symbol for God). Matter mediates the radiance of the Divine. The point is that at all times, everything that exists is related to God — that is, participates in God’s being — but it is not God, because it would therefore be perfect, which the material world is not. In Canto XIII, as throughout the Commedia, Dante asserts that there is a hierarchy of being throughout the universe, and that our task in life is to find our place within that hierarchy.
All that which dies and that cannot die
reflect the radiance of that Idea
which God the Father through His love begets:
that Living Light, which from its radiant Source
streams forth Its light but never parts from It
nor from the Love which tri-unites with them,
of Its own grace sends down its rays, as if
reflected, through the nine subsistencies,
remaining sempiternally Itself.
Then it descends to the last potencies,
from act to act, becoming so diminished,
it brings forth only brief contingencies;
and by the term I mean things generated,
things which the moving heavens produce from seed
or not from seed. The wax of things like these
is more or less receptive, and the power
that shapes it, more or less effective — stamped
with the idea, it shines accordingly.
This is very heavy going, suffused as it is with the language of Scholasticism. Let me try to unpack it. As ever, I welcome correction from those with theological and philosophical training.
A good place to start is this note by Bob Hollander on those first two tercets:
All that God makes, eternal and bound by time, is made radiant by reflecting the Word (Christ as Logos) made by the Father (Power) in his Love (the Holy Spirit).
What Dante (through Aquinas) is trying to do here is explain the hidden order of reality, and how Infinite Love is the basis of reality. The Divine Light is perfect, but by the time it gets filtered down through matter, it is perceived by us imperfectly; it shines more in some places and less in others, depending on how receptive we have been to it. It’s as if we were all fish dwelling in the bottom of a pond, and our perception of the sun’s light depends on what filters it as it moves toward the bottom, and on our ability to receive it and reflect it back. The word “sempiternally” is important here. It means “existing within time, but infinitely into the future.” It is distinct from eternity, which means existing outside of time. What Aquinas is doing here is laying out the relationship of the material to the immaterial.
Christian Moevs, in his book on the metaphysics of the Commedia, writes of this passage in Canto XIII. He’s talking about the Holy Trinity; the first person is God the Father, the second person is God the Son, the third person is God the Holy Spirit:
Dante repeatedly assimilates what creates (the “starting point” or efficient causes) to the First Person, how (by what law or pattern) it creates (the formal or exemplary cause) to the Second Person, and to what end it creates (the final cause) to the Third Person. Since the three are one, one could say that nothing exists in an absolute sense except love: love may be described either as pure awareness, the power of what is to be (know itself as) all things (this power is the Father); or else it may be described as the world, all the things conscious being given being to by knowing them as itself (the Son). One could also say that ultimately nothing exists except the principle of form (the Word): the self-determination of the principle of form as this-or-that is love (the Holy Spirit); unqualified, form is pure intelligence or being (the Father).
This is still hard for me to grasp. I think Moevs is saying that because the Holy Trinity exists in an undivided form, and what binds the three persons together is love, all of reality is likewise bound together by love.
Since the fall, the natural world has lost its capacity to flawlessly transmit and reflect the Light of God, but we humans, unlike all other created beings, alone have the power to exist free from nature. That is, in our perfected state, we exists completely transparent to God, in perfect love, as these blessed souls in Paradise do. If we, in our earthly lives, live as slaves to earthly passions, to our own bodies and our own egos, we are in a radical sense living a lie. Sin is to prefer the temporal to the eternal, the finite to the infinite, the flesh to the spirit (though it must be clear that the flesh is not evil, but rather must be rightly ordered by the spirit). Nature distorts our relationship to God, and does so in some of us more than in others. But we are all responsible for doing our utmost to seek the Light, to open ourselves to having our blindness healed. Remember, in Purgatorio 16, when Marco tells the pilgrim that all of us are blind, but all of us have within ourselves the power to seek and obtain healing, if we will it. To see ourselves as we truly are, and to know reality for the first time, we have to know God. To begin to know God in a saving, transformative way is our choice; He has made us free to choose, or to fail to choose.
What does all of this have to do with you and me? Aside from what we have already discussed many times in our Purgatorio and Paradiso entries, about what it means to be redeemed, Dante is telling us that the world of appearances is deceiving. Because Nature is imperfect, divine realities mediated through it will also appear to us in compromised form. We must strive to see things clearly for the sake of giving ourselves over to greater unity with God. Aquinas praises Solomon’s great wisdom, saying that Solomon “rose” to greatness because he prayed to God for “wisdom to suffice a worthy king.” Aquinas tells Dante that what made Solomon’s wisdom “unmatched” was that he (Solomon) wanted wisdom so he could fulfill the role God gave him to play in life. Aquinas:
“he did not ask to know so that he might
count angels here, or know whether necesse
with a conditioned premise yields necesse;
nor si est dare primum motum esse,
nor if without right angles, triangles
in semicircles can be made to fit.”
The point here is that Solomon’s great wisdom began with prudence. He asked God for wisdom so that he might do well what God gave him to do, not so that he could spend his time contemplating abstractions. Earlier in this canto, Aquinas tells Dante that God’s direct creation is always perfect, which means that only two humans were ever perfect: Adam, and Christ. Adam fell; Christ did not. Every single other human being ever born and that ever will be born is in some sense flawed. Even the great King of Israel Solomon, the wisest man ever, was imperfect. But his wisdom consisted in knowing that he was imperfect, and only seeking perfection according to his given nature. True wisdom consists in knowing our own limits.
For those seeking practical wisdom in Paradiso, the conclusion, I think, is what makes Canto XIII stand out. Aquinas concludes his talk of Solomon by warning Dante to be slow to make judgments:
“since it often happens that a hasty opinion
inclines one to the erring side, and then
fondness for it fetters the working of the mind.”
In other words, if you make your judgment quickly, based on emotion, you could make a mistake, but be so in love with the judgment you’ve made that you rob yourself of the ability to reason clearly.
“He who casts off from shore to fish for truth
without the necessary skill does not return the same
as he sets out, but worse, and all in vain.”
Passion and desire are no substitutes for rigor and preparedness. If you attempt to understand truth without mastering the method of approaching it, you will not only fail to find truth, but despair that it will ever be found. I think of a young man who ardently embraces religious faith, but burns out early because he has failed to grasp the difficulties involved in searching for truth and authenticity in a life of religion. By going into it too quickly, substituting his ardor for prudence, he may have ruined himself for ever finding faith because he thinks he’s explored it, and discovered that it’s not for him.
More prosaically, I think of myself, sitting here in my armchair with knees that are on the mend. I was so excited about having the energy to exercise once again after a 2.5 year layoff that I went at it imprudently, and injured my knees. Now, thanks to the doctor’s advice, I am going to be doing exercises to strengthen my knees before returning to training. It would be easy to say, “I have bad knees, I can’t exercise,” but that’s not the truth. I think something as simple as this is the principle Aquinas is trying to convey to Dante.
And I think this is what the poet Dante is trying to say about his early life, in which he thought he had it all figured out, but in fact diverged from the straight path and ended up in a dark wood. Aquinas carries on:
“Let the people, then, not be too certain
in their judgments, like those that harvest in their minds
corn still in the field before it ripens.
“For I have seen the briar first look dry and thorny
right through all the winter’s cold,
then later wear the bloom of roses at its tip,
“and once I saw a ship, which had sailed straight
and swift upon the sea through all its voyage,
sinking at the end as it made its way to port.”
Only God truly knows the human heart. The history of His dealings with his people shows that He has consistently used the weak, the poor, and the outcast to humble the mighty, and to make His ways and His will known to the world. Don’t trust the evidence of your eyes, Aquinas says, because the truth is almost always veiled. This is not just a moral principle, but a metaphysical one.
In Canto XIV, Solomon himself speaks, and testifies that in the age to come, after the Resurrection of the Flesh (the Christian teaching that at the end of time, the bodies of the dead will be restored to their spirits), all creation will glow even more brightly as it is reunified with its Creator. This is a gorgeous passage:
“Just as long as the festival of Paradise
shall last, that is how long our love
shall dress us in this radiance.
“It’s brightness answers to our ardor,
the ardor to our vision, and that is given
in greater measure or grace than we deserve.
“When we put on again our flesh,
glorified and holy, then our persons
will be more pleasing for being all complete,
“so that the light, granted to us freely
by the Highest Good, shall increase,
the light that makes us fit to see Him.
“From that light, vision must increase,
and love increase what vision kindles,
and radiance increase, which comes from love.
“But like a coal that shoots out flame
and in its glowing center still outshines it
so that it does not lose its own appearance,
just so this splendor that enfolds us now
will be surpassed in brightness by the flesh
that earth as yet still covers.”
Solomon here affirms the goodness of the body, an important distinction to make in a poem that constantly exhorts its readers to overcome the flesh. The idea is not to despise the flesh, but rather to sanctify it by properly ordering it, and making it subject to God. Notice too that Solomon says the more we are able to take in the Light, the more ardently we love, and the more we radiate back the Light. We are always in the process of becoming — if, that is, we do as God desires.
The practical lesson here is that we are to live with eternity in mind. That is, we are to open ourselves always to the transformative power of God’s love, allowing it to sanctify us in body as well as in spirit. The more we love, says the wisest man who ever lived, the more clearly we see God, which makes us love all the more. If we wish to be saved — that is, re-united with God — we must participate in this dynamic. To see (that is, to understand) is to love, and to love is to see. This is what the head has to do with the heart.
UPDATE: As often happens with Dante, I’ll read something of his, and won’t really understand it until hours later, when I’ve pondered it. This afternoon, I was thinking about Aquinas’s warning to be careful about searching too rashly for the Truth, and about how being unprepared for what you find will not only make your search fruitless, it may make it even harder for you to resume the search. This, combined with Aquinas’s warning to be slow to judge, because things are not always what (or who) they appear to be, made me consider some things I’ve struggled with over the past two or three years in a different way — and also to reconsider the manner in which I have struggled with them.
Here’s what I mean. As longtime readers know, I have a wide streak of enthusiasm within myself, and can be quick to anger on certain issues. I sometimes lead with my heart, and have to walk myself back once my head catches up. Thinking about events of the past two years or so in light of Aquinas’s advice in Dante, I can see where my own passions led me to misinterpret certain situations. It’s not so much that I misread what was going on entirely, but rather that I didn’t see the whole picture, and did not have the patience to abide while the whole picture came into focus. The mistake may have been in wanting clear answers now, because justice, instead of learning how to love, and letting the light of love make certain truths emerge from beneath the veil.
I’m being cagey here on purpose, because I’m only speculating here, and I don’t want to go too far until I’ve thought it through. But here’s an example of what I’m talking about. On Sunday, Julie took Matthew to a three-week camp. Lucas, his younger brother, had stomach pain after Matthew left. When Lucas is anxious about something, he gets a stomach ache. I asked him if he was upset that Matt was going away for three weeks. He muttered that yes, he guesses that’s true. I told him that this surprises me; he and Matt argue so often that I would have thought he would have been happy to have his older brother out of the house for a while.
“Well, I’ve always loved him,” said Lucas, looking down. “What if he gets sick, and we can’t get to him fast enough? What if he gets thrown out of school for some reason, and we aren’t there to get him?”
Suddenly I saw the boys’ relationship in a different light. He and Matt are always on each other when they’re here, but he really does love his older brother more than his pride will let him disclose under normal circumstances. Appearances in this case were deceiving — and I’m the father of these boys, who ought to know them better than anybody.
As I learned in researching The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, my sister said pretty much those exact words about me, when I moved to the East Coast early in my career. I just went back into Little Way to see what Ruthie said when I moved to DC in 1992:
“I don’t understand what he’s doing,” she told our parents. “He’s way up there in the big city, where we can’t help him. What if he gets sick?”
That’s pretty much exactly what Lucas said on Sunday. Now, out of pride, Lucas would die a thousand deaths before he would let his older brother know how much he loves him. But the truth came out.
I’m thinking there’s some truth about the relationship between my late sister and me in that too. If it was true that the generally polite way she treated me in our adult life together concealed the resentment she felt toward me — something I didn’t really discover until after she was dead — perhaps it’s also true that beneath that layer of resentment was something purer and finer that became distorted when shining out through her own pride. Just like Lucas’s feelings for his brother.
What does love have to do with justice? What does love have to do with logic? Think on this, the opening of my book about Ruthie:
Here’s the thing I want you to know about my sister.
A long time ago – I must have been about seven years old, which would have made Ruthie five – I did something rotten to her. What it was, I can’t remember. I teased her all the time – almost always penny-ante, neener-neener kid stuff — and she spent much of her childhood whaling the tar out of me for it. Whatever happened that time, though, must have been awful, because our father told me to go lie down on my bed and wait for him. That could only mean one thing: that he was going to deliver one of his rare but highly effective spankings, with his belt.
I cannot recall what my offense was, but I well remember walking down the hallway and climbing onto the bed, knowing full well that I deserved it. I always did. Nothing to be done but to stretch out, face down, and take what I had coming.
And then it happened. Ruthie ran into the bedroom just ahead of Paw and, sobbing, threw herself across me.
“Whip me!” she cried. “Daddy, whip me!”
Paw gave no spankings that day. He turned and walked away. Ruthie left too. There I sat, on the bed, wondering what had just happened.
Forty years later, I still do.