John Dunn

John Dunn home page
Book sales
Thought Pieces


Only ‘the few’ are human

Tuesday, 11 Oct 2016

Plato on Dr John Dunn Beatrice’s exposition of the Cosmos, which is clearly founded upon the organicist cosmography of Plato’s Timaeus

A contemporary understanding, an empiricist one, would have us believe that Dante’s Paradise is an of account of a mystical experience; that Dante goes beyond his own self, beyond any rational understanding of the world, in the surrendering of his own subjectivity to some insight into the whole. This is not the case. Dante will preserve his rationality and his sense of distinction as a microcosm of the great macrocosm.

Dante deployed the language of the mystics, the language of ineffability, but this was a poetic construction, an imaginative projection into what is a journey into the absolute unknown, into a space that no other imagination had travelled before.

He used the language of mysticism as a way of giving voice to that which had been left inarticulate and silent. As a poet, he fought against the threatening boundaries of silence. As a consequence, he moved beyond the boundaries.

The whole of the Purgatory section on poetry was about moving beyond the worldly limitations of his predecessors. The pilgrim is crowned and mitred. No external power can impose limits to his power of imagination, not even the tyranny of appearances, the poison of representation.

Was this not the crux of the Comedy as a whole in the central passages to the poem? The imagination is a power that removes us from the outside world. It needs nothing of the world of perception. It is a power, Dante wrote, ‘which so steals us at times from outward things that we pay no heed though a thousand trumpets sound about us.’

The beauty and love in the poetry of his poetic progenitors was only skin deep. Their sin, for which they would face purgation, was a satisfaction with the courtly love conventions of their day, which only mirrored the appearances of things,even when great skill in poetic artifice was employed.

In Canto I of Paradise Dante confronted the problem of how to explain that which lies beyond ordinary experience.

I have been in the heaven which takes most of his light,
And I have seen things which cannot be told,
Possibly, by anyone who comes down from up there:
After all, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians,do we not learn that Paul went to the third heaven, had the vision of God, the beatific vision, but returned and could not speak about it, because what he saw had to be kept wrapped in silence?

Dante will do what Paul himself could not do. Paul kept quiet in the belief that silence was the proper response to the sublime. Dante, in contrast, will go on speaking for as long as he can struggle to the evoke the empyrean.

It is this struggle with words that causes Beatrice to treat the pilgrim as a child.
So she, after giving a sigh of pity,
Turned her eyes towards me with the look
A mother casts upon a feverish child,
Her treatment of the pilgrim as a child recalls Dante’s treatment of creation in Canto XVI of Purgatory,which, being freed from necessity, was described as a playful act, one that was allegorised as the innocence of a child who turns without necessity ‘to what delights it’.

In the play between silence and giving voice, Dante presents the oscillation of a mind that is opening up, this time to Beatrice’s exposition of the Cosmos, which is clearly founded upon the organicist cosmography of Plato’s Timaeus.
Beatrice began: Everything that is created
Is part of a mutual order...
This too is the premise of Dante's cosmos, in which all natures have their bent, their given instincts. Just as a flame always rises when lit, a stone always falls when dropped. This is the natural order.

The question should already be rising in the reader’s mind, are we like that? Think of that child, who turns spontaneously without necessity ‘to what delights it.’

The answer to the question is, most certainly, no. Beatrice clearly implies as much when she talks of the creature that ‘has the power’, man.
It is true that frequently the form
Does not correspond to the intention of the art
Because the material is deaf and does not answer;

So sometimes the creature which has the power to do so
Departs from this course, and although aimed,
Turns aside and goes in another direction....
In other words, within the description of the order of the cosmos, Beatrice implies that human beings are the odd figures, with the power to deviate from the the cosmic pattern of order.

Dante invokes the ‘felix culpa’, happy fall, once more. Man not only has the power to breach the cosmic order, but in so doing can re-order the cosmos, turn it ‘in another direction’. Dante is restating the freedom of the crowned and mitred one.

In Canto II, there is a restriction of the audience to whom Dante makes his address. ‘You other few’, he says, in a reductive apostrophe. More than this, he addresses‘You other few, who have stretched up your necks’.

Dante draws upon a biblical metaphor, which is used repeatedly in the Old Testament, for the people who are stiff-necked in their rejection of the word of the Creator. An echo comes in the New Testament when Stephen accuses ‘you stiff-necked people’ as the betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One. (Acts 7:51-2)

Dante may also be alluding to Book VII of Plato’s Republic,in which each prisoner in the cave is compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light. Clearly, Dante had read the Timaeus, but he may also have had access to translations from the Arabic of passages from Plato’s other works.

Tobe stiff-necked then, in Dante’s usage, is emblematic of inflexibility,self-righteousness, lack of humility, a refusal to change.

If, as we recall from Canto I,to be human is to be capable of turning ‘in another direction’, then the metaphor conveys that which distinguishes human beings from animals and other earthly matter, whose behaviours are pre-determined and predictable.

It also conveys the dignity of being human in the capacity to look up at the sky, see the stars and therefore wonder. All other animals are always looking down.

The implication is that the ones excluded from Dante’s apostrophe are bestial. Only ‘the few’ are human.

© John Dunn.

Previous Item Next Item
Website design and CMS by WebGuild Media Ltd
This website ©2009-2017 John Dunn