Dante’s pilgrim was struck by ‘our effigy’ in the light. He saw not God, but man in the image of God, incarnation, man as capax Dei, that is, capable of participating in God.
...my mind was struck by a flash
In which what it desired came to it.
At this point high imagination failed;
Why failed? What we know of the divine is light, a light that is exactly like the dark in the sense that the light reveals to us the divine, but at the same time hides the origin of the light. This precept has its roots in the writings of Eriugena. That one cannot see through the light is the understanding of Dante who wrote, ‘The glory of Him who moves all things’ (Paradise 1). The glory is an image only, the light of Him who moves all things. By the end of Paradise, Dante’s pilgrim has seen the origin of that light, that which has remained forever invisible, exactly the way the dark has. And yet, there, within it, was the ‘effigy’ of man.
But of course, no-one saw the light, or any ‘effigy’. It was a poetic device, a metaphor for the expression of the inexpressible, a product of the poet’s imagination. Far from there being a failure of the imagination, the crux of the whole Comedy was and remains the phenomenon of imagination. Remember the part of the ‘mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge’? (Canto XVI) The power, ‘which so steals us at times from outward things that we pay no heed though a thousand trumpets sound about us’ ? (Canto XVII)
Dante’spoint was that the imagination is a faculty that is completely independent of sense perception, the power within us to imagine worlds that don't even exist.
The flash of light seen at the end of the Comedy came from within Dante. It was an act of the imagination set out upon the page to capture a participative moment of man in the divinity; no less than the capax Dei illustrated poetically. And yet Dante had a vision of the Cause that lies beyond the perceptions of most people, an Eleusinian vision, a revelation of the highest mysteries, epoptika!
It was the Festival of the Greater Mysteries at Eleusis that Plato took as his model for the notion of a ‘private’ philosophic theoria.
In his famous speech in the Symposium, Socrates (relating the discourse of Diotima) compares the philosopher’s vision of the Forms, ‘divine beauty’, to the mystic revelation at Eleusis. According to Socrates, the philosopher who achieves the vision of ‘divine beauty’ becomes ‘beloved of god and - to the extent possible for any man - immortal’.
In practising theoria, then, the philosopher ‘journeys’ to the Forms and, having gained wisdom, returns to embody this (in words and in deeds) in the human world. The parallels with Dante’s metaphorical purpose in writing the Comedy are clear to see.
The Festival of the Greater Mysteries at Eleusis was attended by theoroi from all over Greece. It was a public and international event lasting many days, but the initiation ceremony focused on the private individual, offering salvation in the afterlife.
At the beginning of the ritual, the initiates stood in darkness in a building called the Telesterion. When the hierophant opened the door of the Anaktoron - a stone chamber at the centre of the Telesterion - there was a flash of light - epoptika, the final and highest revelation. But this ultimate beauty did not share our mode of being and that if existence was attributed to it at all, it could only be done so analogically.
It is easy to see why Plato was attracted to this model of mystic initiation as a metaphor for philosophical enlightenment. Just as initiation at Eleusis transformed the individual so that he would achieve salvation in the afterworld, Plato claimed the initiation of the philosophic theoros purified and transformed the soul and guaranteed it a blessed destiny. Plato’s philosopher, then, had much in common with the initiate at the Mysteries: in both cases, the theros ‘saw’ a divine revelation that transformed him at soul.
Both the mysteries and philosophy moved in the region of the human soul where man feels the desire to seek out the divine, indeed where man feels that he has something of the divine inside himself.
Plato and Dante both employed Eleusinian metaphors of transfigurative light to engage the reader in an act of the imagination, a defining characteristic of man that needs nothing of the world of sense-perception. This transfiguration was the realisation of capax Dei. Both Plato and Dante implied that the supreme good that one must grasp and possess resides in oneself. The corollary of this is that original sin is the force that shatters the possession in which man would find in himself the absolutely universal.
For Augustine, the interiority of the search for God became a ‘Christian’ way, common, possible, applicable toall and necessary for all. (De vera relig 9). Likewise, according to St Paul: ‘We have the mind of Christ’. (1 Cor 2, 16). This process is realised through the grace of Christ and his teaching of the truth in one’s interior self. He is the Word who speaks within, he is the Truth; for all truth is but a participation in divine knowledge – the Truth that is reached by interior light.
© John Dunn.