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Dante’s pilgrimage to the mind of man

Thursday, 20 Oct 2016

Dante on Dr John Dunn. Dante, as frescoed very posthumously by Raphael (1483 - 1520) as a background participant in "The Parnassus" in the Stanza della Segnatura of the Vatican

‘You have brought me from servitude to liberty’, the pilgrim tells Beatrice.

From what bondage, to what liberty? From servitude to sense perception, to the crown and mitre of the imagination.

A sense of what the pilgrim had escaped was given in Beatrice’s Canto XXIX attack on the lies and deceptions of worldly life, where the pursuit of truth is lost.

For upon earth they dream without sleeping,
Thinking they are telling the truth or knowing they do not;
There is more blame and shame in the latter.

Down there you do not follow a single path
When you philosophise; so carried away are you
By showing off and the ideas it gives you.

The clerics are the worst culprits.
Christ did not say to his first companions:
“Go and preach rubbish to the world”;
But gave them truths that they could build upon....

Now they go out with idiotic jokes
To preach, and if people roar with laughter
The hood inflates with pride, and all are satisfied.

‘Enough of this nonsense’, is the strong implication of Beatrice’s words. ‘Turn your eyes back again now to the direct path’, she tells the pilgrim. That was the way Canto XXIX ended, with Beatrice totally distrusting of appearances.

Dante returns to the question of appearances in Cantos XXX and XXXI. We are always in a world of images and the image is the locus of the sacredness, but the image has a fleeting quality. The journey of Dante has been to go between metaphor and meaning, images and essences. Now he's preparing for the final leap. His journey was never a journey to Beatrice, but rather a pilgrimage to God.

‘As one who comes’, he says in Canto XXXI, ‘perhaps from Croatia in order to see our Veronica’.

Vera icona, the true icon, for she had wiped the face of Christ and her veil received His image. The pilgrims flocked from Croatia to see the sacred relic. Dante is like one of those pilgrims who venerates the image but wants to move beyond it, to see what lies behind. He gets behind the ultimate image in Canto XXXIII, but what then? Language isn’t enough.

He sees the highest light, which in itself is the Truth, but language did not have the power to convey what he had seen. He struggles to hold the vision in his mind, as ‘the snow loses its shape in the sun’ or ‘the oracles of the Sibyl, on the light leaves, were lost in the wind’. He prays for the power to tell future generations of the glory he has seen.Leave me ‘even a single spark of your glory’ he pleads.
Dante’s poem was meant for the future. He envisioning a future. This was not a poem written for him, or his contemporaries. It was the positing of a utopian future, the transmission of ‘a spark of your glory’ in the text, so transformative fire can come from that spark. That spark will outshine the ‘showing off and the ideas’ that pass for truth on earth, so despised by Beatrice. The future will understand and see beyond appearances. That is Dante’s hope.

He sees our own image in the divine, ‘our effigy’, he calls it. Not my likeness, the common likeness. He sees the incarnation, the human image within God. We were created in His image, so there is something human also within the divine. Recall Paradise Canto IV on metaphor. Care must be taken not to anthropomorphise the participative nature of the human mind in creation and evolution. Man in the image and likeness of God is metaphorical, but it is expressive of a participative divinity. Man became capax Dei, that is, capable of participating in God, and thus capable of infinitely increasing self perfection and approach to God. God's capacity to become man, and man's capacity to participate directly in God, is the basis of the dignity of every man. What capax Dei allows man is his liberation, his freedom, his crown, his mitre.

Dante’s transformative fire would leave man active and participative in creation and evolution. Man would not find himself a passive animal in a once and for all created world, however that miracle occurred, but will be rather an active participant in the shaping of the world and its future.

Could there be a more cruel, elaborate and stultifying fiction than the opposite worldview, which leaves man detached from a once and for all Prime Mover, to be thrust at birth into a prefabricated external world, where most of our responsibilities are unacknowledged and are progressively diminished and our freedom is in reality a figment of our imagination. Well, such is life under the prevailing empiricism, just as it was in Dante’s time under the causa efficiens of Aquinas. To hold a conviction that we could only come to know the world by observing it as spectators is to prescind from a direct, active and moral involvement. It is the very opposite of freedom.

The future must emanate from the mind of man, or be blind and directionless, subject to abuse, manipulation, corruption and the market; evil in short.

The Creator is not so unrecognisable as to be remote and apart and separate, leaving us here on earth to get on with it, the best we can. The spark with which Dante returns, again remember, metaphorically, is the spark of recognition of the divine in man.

This was the spark of recognition that branded Giodarno Bruno a heretic, but in reality against Aristotelianism, not God.

We can relate to the divine, by recognising something in it of ourselves. And love is the communicative element, through which the Creator acts.
...my mind was struck by a flash
In which what it desired came to it.

At this point high imagination failed;
But already my desire and my will
Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,

By the love which moves the sun and the other stars.
Dante saw the primal motion as love and the universe as a one of love. That which prevents the world from falling into chaos is exactly this power.

In his pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, to the mind of God, Dante had arrived at man. Not the passive and bestial victims of the siren’s song, but man governed by an ability to create, with an intention of creating a future worthy of his relationship to the divine.

© John Dunn.







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