Dante’s Comedy is about the development of a Socratic independence of mind and its preservation. Socrates famously remarked that the unexamined life is not worth living. Dante agreed, describing such a life as bestial and the fate of most men.
Dante speculated upon the reasons. Some people cannot learn because they are either disabled, or lack the opportunity for geographical or social reasons. Others fail to cultivate an independent mind because they are distracted, either by the pleasures of the flesh, or civic duties and ambition, which absorb the time of those who are otherwise capable.
These reasons aside, Dante held firmly to the view that they are few who can attain to the enjoyment of knowledge.
‘Oh, blessed are those few who sit at that table where the Bread of Angels is eaten, and wretched those who can feed only as the Sheep.’ (The Banquet, Chapter 1.)
There is, says Dante though the mouth of Marco Lombardo in Canto XVI of Purgatory, a part of the ‘mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge’.
This free component of the mind defines an individual as human. If it ceases to be active through worldly distractions, the individual assumes a beast-like quality.
The world came into being in an act of spontaneity. There was no pre-determined reason for its creation, which was an act of total freedom. The spontaneity of this act was likened by Dante to a child at play, who turns eagerly to what delights it.
Such unrestrained freedom became the foundation for positing our own human freedom. It is because we were born out of this spontaneous action that we can go on believing that there is such a freedom for us.
What follows this allegorisation of creativity and play occurs at the very centre of Purgatory and, thus, at the very centre of the Comedy as a whole.
In Canto XVII, Dante presents the mind’s penchant for acts of creation that are unprompted by sense sensations and external influences, be they natural,social, cultural or political.
Dante develops his thesis at the fulcrum point, making it the crux of the matter for the work as a whole.
The imagination is a power that removes us from the outside world. It needs nothing of the world of perception.
It is a power, he wrote, ‘which so steals us at times from outward things that we pay no heed though a thousand trumpets sound about us.’
Dante poses the question - what moves the imagination when the senses offer nothing? ‘A light which takes its shape in heaven moves you’, he answers .
The power to move the imagination is held innately within us. Being more than a tabula rasa, man need not be a slave to sense sensation. Imagination is not a mere name for the process of translating sensory experiences into images for the benefit of rational judgment. This is the triadic Aristotelian order, which relegates the imagination to the middle ground between the senses, perception and reason.
Dante’s point is that the imagination is a faculty that is completely free from the solicitations of the outside world. It is the power within us to imagine worlds that don't even exist.
The Aristotelian order serves the case for fixity. Being subject to sense sensation, passive and bestial, serves the established power.
Free imagination and hope, however, endanger the establishment, because they possess the power to envisage a better future. Dante believed mind has the power to shape worlds. No wonder he thought the crushing of mind by egotistical sensuality a damnable sin. No wonder too that regimes are obsessive about providing banal distractions for the minds of men.
© John Dunn.