Dante: Poet of the Secular World

(Veja em Português)

Erich Auerbach

CONTENTS

Introduction by Michael Dirda

I. Historical Introduction; The Idea of Man in Literature
II. Dante’s Early Poetry
III. The Subject of the “Comedy”
IV. The Structure of the “Comedy”
V. The Presentation
VI. The Survival and Transformation of Dante’s Vision of Reality
Notes
Index

Introduction by Michael Dirda

In the introduction, of this book, published by the New York Review of Books in 2001,  Michael Dirda, presents Erich Auerbach to us informing about Mimesis, which was already analyzed here.

One interesting issue he informs us is that this specific book on Dante was Auerbach’s first real book, written in 1929, some 13 years before Mimesis, and had its first translation to English in 1961.

Mr Dirda states flat out that this is simply the best, if not the easiest, short introduction to Dante and his artistry, what justifies it being here.

Dante is the first realist author and perhaps the greatest. He was the first to configure

“…man, not as a remote legendary hero, not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical type, but man as we know him in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness; and in that he has been followed by all subsequent portrayers of man, regardless of whether they treated a historical or a mythical or a religious subject, for after Dante myth and legend also became history.

(quoting Auerbach)

Dante is not a religious poet only. He is far more than that: he is a “poet of the secular world”

What is secular? It is  not subject to or bound by religious rule; not belonging to or living in a monastic or other order.

In Dante’s vision, people laugh and conspire, love and hate, sin and triumph over sin, even though technically disembodied spirits, they show up with their essential character and as Auerbach notices: “though the concrete data of their lives and the atmosphere of their personalities are drawn from their former existences on earth, they manifest them here with a completeness, a concentration an actuality, which they seldom achieved during their term on earth and assuredly never revealed to anyone else”.

As Mr. Dirda much properly asserts, Dante invites us to regard this great poem not just as a divine comedy but also as a comédie humaine.

Another interesting observation Mr. Dirda does is that St. Thomas Aquinas insisted upon individuality and diversity as a theological tenet. Since the world was made in God’s image, no one species of created things is adequate to reflect the likeness of God. You need them all. In terms of psychology, every soul possesses its own particular, gradually acquired habitus,

“…an enduring disposition which enriches and modifies the substance; it is the residuum in man’s soul of his soul’s history; for every action, every exertion of the will toward its goal leaves behind a trace, and the modification of the soul through its actions is the habitus. In the Thomist psychology diversities of habitus account for the diversity of human characters; it is the habitus which determines how each empirical man will realize his essence. It illumines the relations between the soul and its acts.”

But the habitus only reveals itself over time. As a result, no matter what one’s precise earthly station, each human being must necessarily be a dramatic hero.
The example as how this happens is  Dante’s encounter with Farinata and Cavalcante, which I transcribed briefly from Mimesis. (scroll down when you get there till it shows up). In chapter IV, Structure, Auerbach discerns three underlying systems:

Mr. Dirda reveals to us that Auerbach in the introduction to his last book, {(Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (1965)} offers something of a personal credo which I think I pursue and should be every body’s quest:

“To grasp the special nature of an epoch or a work, to perceive the nature of the relations between works of art and the time in which they were created, is an endless problem which each of us, exerting the utmost concentration, must endeavour to solve for himself and from his own point of view.”

Let’s take a look at the book.

I. Historical Introduction; The Idea of Man in Literature

ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων

A mans character is his fate.
Character is destiny
Dem Menschen ist seine Eigenart sein Dämon.
To man, his peculiarity is his demon.

Auerbach:

“Ever since its beginnings in Greece, European literature has possessed the insight that a man is an indivisible unity of body (appearance and physical strength) and spirit (reason and will), and that his individual fate follows from that unity, which like a magnet attracts the acts and sufferings appropriate to it. It was this insight that enabled Homer to perceive the structure of fate. He created a character-Achilles or Odysseus, Helen or Penelope -by inventing, by heaping up acts and sufferings that were all of a piece. In the poet’s inventive mind an act revealing a man’s nature, or, one might say, his nature as manifested in a first act, unfolded naturally and inevitably into the sum and sequence of that man’s kindred acts, into a life that would take a certain direction and be caught up in the skein of events which add up to a man’s character as well as his fate.
The awareness that a man’s particular fate is a part of his unity, the insight embodied in the maxim of Heraclitus cited above, enables Homer to imitate real life. Here we are not referring exactly to the realism that some ancient critics praised in Homer and others found lacking in him for those critics were concerned with the probability or credibility of the events he narrates. What we have in mind is his way of narrating. Regardless of their plausibility, he makes them so clear and palpable that the question of their likelihood arises only on subsequent reflection. In the ancient view, a narrative of a fabulous or miraculous event is necessarily realistic. The view I am taking here is that the portrayal can be convincing regardless of whether such a thing has ever been seen or of whether or not it is credible.”

The unity of essence and destiny comes through in the Myth of Er and the fate of the dead seems a source from where Dante draw a lot of inspiration, which, for instance, can be seen in Canto 10.

myth_of_er_345

More about the myth of Er

Another interesting observation from Auerbach is about the replacement of the encounter with fate by truth, in the judgment recounted by Socrates in Gorgias, where willingness, devotion, resolution, with its inherent need of proof through courage and nobility, is very difficult to appraise, because its perception comes from appearance

Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue where is detailed a study of virtue founded upon an inquiry into the nature of rhetoric, art, power, temperance, justice, and good versus evil. As such, the dialogue both maintains independent significance and relates closely to Plato’s overarching philosophical project of defining noble and proper human existence.

Gorgias Przygotowanie_narzędzi_rolniczych

Late 17th-century illustration of a passage from the Georgics by Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter

It boils down to, as Auerbach aptly expresses, and I quote:

“A rationalistic negation of fate was the prevailing attitude of  antiquity from Aristotle to the triumph of Christianity and the mystery religions; that was just as true of the Stoics who, in their necessary order of the world, equated reason with nature, as of  the Epicureans with their metaphysical concept of freedom; and both those philosophies culminated in an ethical ideal which insulated the individual against his fate. The wise man is he whose equanimity nothing can disturb; he overcomes the outside world by refusing to participate in it, by subduing his emotions.”

“Virgil mastered this notion in his poems, replacing  or overcoming fate with creative imagination. What utterly distinguishes Virgil’s conception from all the eschatological traditions he employs.’ is not merely his art, with which he raises the obscure, scattered, subterranean and secret wisdom of the Hellenistic Mediterranean countries to the broad light of day; it is rather the fact that for him all that dark wisdom took on a concrete form in the hoped for and already dawning world order of the Imperium. These are the roots of his poetic and prophetic power. ”

Virgil_

Dante recognized the importance of Virgil probably because, Auerbachs says:

“Thus for European literature Virgil was in many respects an important innovator, and his influence extended far beyond literature. He was the mythologist of Europe’s most characteristic political form, the creative synthetist of Roman and Hellenistic eschatologies, and the first poet of sentimental love. He was the first of his cultural sphere to transcend the fatelessness of late Greek philosophy and to see the a priori unity of the character in his fate. True, there is an uncertainty in his theological attitude, for what he glorified was an earthly institution, and the union of religious currents that he exploited poetically aimed at more than that; in his picture of the other world-an after-life at the service of Rome’s greatness-the traditional doctrines of purification and transmigration are not developed quite consistently; his realm of the dead is merely an artistic instrument, and as in all the ancient conceptions, the souls of the departed have only a partial, diminished life, a shadowy existence.”

On the other hand, the material Dante was dealing with had the following characteristics, as Auerbach notices:

“The historical core of Christianity-that is to say, the Crucifixion and the related events-offers a more radical paradox, a wider range of contradiction, than anything known to the ancient world, either in its history or in its mythical tradition. The
fantastic march of the man from Galilee and his action in the temple, the sudden crisis and catastrophe, the pitiful derision, the scourging and crucifixion of the King of the Jews, who only a short time before had wished to proclaim the Kingdom of God on earth, the despairing flight of the disciples, and then the apotheosis, based on the visions of a few men, perhaps of only one, a fisherman from the lake of Gennesaret-this entire episode, which was to provoke the greatest of all transformations in the inner and outward history of our civilized world, is astonishing in every respect. Even today, anyone who tries to form a clear picture of what happened is deeply puzzled; he cannot but feel that myth and dogma gained only a relative ascendancy in the books of the New Testament and that the paradoxical, ddisharmonious, perplexing character of those events erupts at every turn.”

Chrystianity

He discusses in detail a summarized  story of Christ and observes:

“In entering into the consciousness of the European peoples, the story of Christ fundamentally changed their conceptions of man’s fate and how to describe it.”

But

“The change occurred very slowly, far more slowly than the spread of Christian dogma. It faced other obstacles that were harder to overcome: resistances which, insignificant in themselves, were impervious to the political and tactical factors that favored the acceptance of Christianity, because they were rooted in the most conservative element of a people’s being, namely the innermost sensory ground of their view of the world. To that view of the world the apparatus of Christian dogma could be adapted more easily and quickly than could the spirit of the events from which it had grown. But before we enter into the history of this change and the phenomena it produced in the course of time, let us try to describe the nature of the change. The story of Christ is more than the parousia of the logos, more than the manifestation of the idea. In it the idea is subjected to the problematic character and desperate injustice of earthly happening. Considered in itself that is, without the post humous and never fully actualized triumph in the world, as the mere story of Christ on earth, it is so hopelessly terrible that the certainty of an actual, concretely tangible correction in the hereafter remains the only issue, the only salvation from irrevocable despair. Consequently, Christian eschatological conceptions took on an unprecedented concreteness and intensity; this world has meaning only in reference to the next; in itself it is a meaningless torment. But the otherworldly character of justice did not, as it would have where the classical spirit prevailed, detract from the value of earthly destiny or from man’s obligation so submit to it.”

and

“The depth and scope of the naturalism in the story of Christ are unparallelled; neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity had the opportunity or the power to narrate human events in that way.”

The-Passion-of-the-Christ-Movie-Last-Supper-600x353

Principium individuationis*

principium individuationis, the cause (or basis) of ndividuality in individuals; what makes something individual as opposed to universal, e.g., what makes the cat Minina individual and thus ifferent from the universal, cat. Questions regarding the principle of individuation were first raised explicitly in the early Middle Ages.
Classical authors largely ignored individuation; their ontological focus was on the problem of universals. The key texts that originated the discussion of the principle of individuation are found in Boethius. Between Boethius and 1150, individuation was always discussed in the context of more pressing issues, particularly the  problem of universals. After 1150, individuation slowly emerged as a focus of attention, so that by the end of the thirteenth century it had become an independent subject of discussion, especially in Aquinas and Duns Scotus.
Most early modern philosophers conceived the problem of individuation epistemically rather than metaphysically; they focused on the discernibility of individuals rather than the cause of individuation (Descartes). With few exceptions (Karl Popper), the twentieth century has followed this epistemic approach (P. F. Strawson). See also INDIVIDUATION, METAPHYSICS.
J.J.E.G Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy

Auerbach make comentaries on this principle which requires previous knowledge which is supposed to exist among his readers. I am not in this category, but I have a notion which I will expose here trying to grasp Auerbach’s arguments.
The basic idea is that this principle is : (Lat.) Principle of individuation (q.v.); the intrinsic, real factor in an existing singular thing which causes the individuality of the thing. To understand that you have to take in consideration the greek perception of reality then:

Plato

Plato developed a two layer view of reality, the world of Becoming and the world of Being. The world of Becoming is the physical world we perceive through our senses. This world is always in movement, always changing. The world of Being is the world of forms, or ideas. It is absolute, independent, and transcendent. It never changes and yet causes the essential nature of things we perceive in the world of Becoming. Though Plato was sometimes vague about the exact relationship between the two worlds, he has suggested two ways in which they may interact. Objects in the material world may be only imperfect copies or imitations of the ideal, and objects may participate in the formness they are representing.

From that comes the so called superiority of being to becoming, alluded by Auerbach, adding that idea and matter and the identification of matter and change with metaphysical non being, which had a demolishing effect in all possibility of representing earthly destiny in art.

Matter ceases to be merely resistance, becoming metaphysical counter pole of idea, which, obviously, alone has full being. The spirit joins the physical world.

The great change is that mimetic art loses contact with empirical reality and becomes a copy of inner forms inside man.

Absorption of that by Christian Churches West and East

Auerbach goes on

“Beside that destruction of the phenomenal world, the hostility of the Church Fathers to art was almost insignificant; for such hostility was directed only against particular themes and attitudes, and not fundamentally against the world of appearance. From such a negation of appearance the Church Militant was saved by the earthly event with which it had begun and which, with its own unquestioned reality, lent meaning and order to all appearances. Not without dogmatic obfuscation but with a consistent tenacity, the Western Church, in opposition to spiritualist influence, held fast to the life of Christ on earth as a concrete event, as the central fact of history, and conceived of history as a true record of the relations of human individuals with one another and with God. In the East, spiritualist views soon gained the upper hand and transformed the life of Christ into a triumphal rite. In the West it seemed for a moment as though a mimetic attitude toward the Gospel story, based on direct ex perirence of its gripping reality, were about to emerge; at least the groundwork for such a development is present in the dramatic thinking of Augustine. For Augustine managed to save a good deal from the spiritualism of the Neo-Platonists and Manichaeans: by his analytical investigation of consciousness, he preserved the unity of the personality; with his metaphysical speculation, he saved the idea of a personal God; and in his teleological history of the world he saved the reality of earthly happening. The very way in which he formulated the problem of free will and predestination bears witness to the fundamentally European determination not to abolish reality by speculation, not to take flight into transcendence, but to come to grips with the real world and master it. In Augustine the history of salvation is taken concretely, and that is why, as Harnack once wrote.l! he is able to endow Latin and the future tongues of Europe with ‘a Christian soul and the language of the heart.'”

He ellaborates on the superiority of the late Pagan Culture over the newly formed Christian culture.  He reminded me Gore Vidal’s Julian. Anyway, Chrystianity won and, as he says, and I quote again:

“European Christendom emerged from the struggles of the second half of the first millennium as a new orbis terrarum; and here the history of Christ operated unremittingly, day after day, as a force for unity. It became the creative myth of the nations, rekindling men’s perception of the world and drawing all other traditions into its sphere. And in the end that history, in which reality and meaning are so peculiarly one, in which the miraculous is so manifest and close at hand, overcame the spectral vestiges of the Platonic doctrine of two worlds. In the mimetic revival that now took place in the liturgy, imitation is o longer separate from the truth; the sensory appearance is divine and the event is the truth.”

orbis terrarum

“Orbis Terrarum” was sort of a stock phrase meaning “the whole earth.” Even though Greek astronomers had proved long before that the Earth was (roughly) a sphere, the Romans continued in everyday speech to refer to the Earth as if it were a flat disc. (Kind of like we know that the Earth is the thing that’s moving, but we still say the sun “rises” and “sets.”)

Auerbach elaborates extensively about that effect in sculpture and painting, with examples and a perspective where he sees:

“But the spiritualization of the world went far beyond the Church and the strictly religious sphere; it encompassed institutions and events which, by their nature and origin, would no seem to have lent themselves to such illumination. It incorporated the wild, crude power of the  heroic legends, turned the feudal system into a symbolic hierarchy, and transformed God into the supreme feudal overlord.”

Being educated with French bias, as he states in the introduction, he attributes a major role to Provence in this whole scheme of poetry which came from there,which is what Dante would present to the world.

II – Dante’s Early Poetry

Once upon a time there was only Latin. And then Latin evolved in several languages called taday Romance languages.

Latin_Europe

300px-Romance-procents

Occitan literature (referred to in older texts as Provençal literature) is a body of texts written in Occitan, mostly in the south of France. It was the first literature in a Romance language and inspired the rise of vernacular literature throughout medieval Europe. Occitan literature’s Golden Age was in the 12th century, when a rich and complex body of lyrical poetry was produced by troubadours writing in Old Occitan, which still survives to this day. Although Catalan is considered by some a variety of Occitan, this article will not deal with Catalan literature, which started diverging from its Southern French counterpart in the late 13th century.

Auerbach, himself a Romance Languages specialist, tells us that the Provençal poetry differentiated itself from any other and was extremely elegant, although very difficult to be understood from anyone outside the group of troubadours who invented it.

The hallmark of this poetry was its sweet savor (dousa sabor) which certain words and phrases possessed for them. It was completely subjective loaded with mysticism, difficult to interpret with our present knowledge. It was aristocratic and esoteric, i.e., for the initiated. It was a vanguard movement ot its day.

Auerbach elaborates on this Poetry and the situation of Poetry in Italy, with its first literary movement  done by a single person, Guido Ghinizelli of Bologna. He observes that before that Feudal Society and customs never flourished in Italy, leaving no trace of a national culture which could have come down to us. He points out Francis of Assisi as responsible for the renewal of imagination and sensibility in Europe which would reflect not only in religious experience but also in the political striving of the Italian towns, giving concreteness and individuality to the writtings of the chroniclers and storytellers as well as to works of art. The great political and religious currents combated one another and disintegrated in the course of the 13th century.

Dante drew his first inspiration not from a formal culture or from some great, universal movement, he drew his inspiration from this small circle adopting consciously the Provençal tradition which brought to Italy the refinement it didn’t have.

Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore è una poesia di Guido Guinizelli ed il primo testo letterario della nuova tendenza poetica che nasce in Italia nella seconda metà del XIII secolo: il dolce stil novo. Quest’opera è considerata il manifesto programmatico ed esemplare dello stilnovismo

Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore is a poem by Guido Guinizelli and the first literary text of the new poetic tendency born in Italy in the second half of the thirteenth century: the sweet new style. This work is considered the programmatic and exemplary manifesto of stilnovismo

DickseeRomeoandJuliet

Auerbach elaborates on the appearing of the dolce stil novo, and in a fashion which would be the hallmark of his Mimesis, does a detailed analysis of the best known poem of the Vita nuova explaining how Dante acquires his style which would make him the poet he was.

For those interested in such details, I suggest to look directly in the book because it is beyond my scope to delve in to that.

Dante knew what he was doing because he dealt theoretically with these matters, as it can be seen in the sixth chapter of the second book of his Devulgari eloquentia (Of Writing in the Vernacular), which is also a specialized subject  I will not dwell in

III – The Subject of the Comedy

According to Auerbach, Dante was carried out beyond the sphere of feeling and mystical experienced involved in the dolce stil novo. This reflects in the Convivio, which according do A.Dempf quoted by Auerbach was the world view Dante came up to after entering his giovinezza, or young manhood.

Auerbach contends that the stil novo had no political concerns, although some scholars think to the contrary, without solid evidence.

Dante was the first to undertake the job of fusing the whole world with the experience of his youth and order it with the experience of his youth and order it according to the measures of these experiences.

Which were these experiences eventually were referred to Beatrice in the poem in a crucial passage in the 30th and 31rst Cantos of Purgatorio when he accuses himself before Beatrice of grave error from which he has been saved only by the miracle of grace. The nature of the error does not come through, although it must have been  involving the very core of his being  since it forms the starting point of the poem. We have only a general notion what is that he was falling away from Beatrice, perhaps by a misdirected love or some illusionary sort of attraction.

30 & 31 canto purgatorio

It seems to me it was all carnal transgressions, he had an attack of concupiscence and by no means he would confess to Beatrice other sort of transgressions of his whole being, i.e., his ideals and faith.

Again we have two different readings of the same passage, Auerbach’s and Teodolinda’s, it is interesting to compare them and decide which way we want to read Dante.

I fully agree with Auerbach, the best we can do is to accept it as a fact, it was an error, period. I quote him to support my reasoning:

“To deny it abandon its literal reality in favor of an allegorical or soteriological meaning strikes me as without justification. It seems very likely that for a time Dante doubted the Christian verities and inclined toward a radical Averroism of a free-thinking sensualism; to discuss the passages in his work that might fit in with such conjectures would take us too far from our subject; they do not provide clarity.”

Auerbach gives an account, based in the second book of the Convivio, where Dante tells us how he meet with philosophy, seeking consolation after the death of his beloved, reading Boethius and Cicero’s Laelius, admitting that he had a hard time to understanding it.

Auerbach concludes that although Dante was not an original philosopher, he managed to provide a systematic synthesis of different bodies of traditional thought, the same way Thomas Aquinas sought to combine Aristotelianism with the Christian Platonism of Augustine. Dante reconciled the Thomist system with the mystical ideology of the cor gentile. The fact that Dante didn’t achieve that in writing the Convivio, was also a motivation factor to write the Comedy.

Auerbach contends that most definitely Dante was original and didn’t take any previous models of any source which preceded him.  Auerbach says, and I quote:

“The convention of the journey to the other world offered Dante’s passion for concrete expression and metaphysical order the possibilities which he himself had been unable to realize in his previous work and which those of his precursors who had composed eschatological visions had not even attempted to exploit.”

He compares extensively Virgil’s poetry with that of Dante pointing out differences, specially noticing that Virgil lacked a unified doctrine and was unable to achieve a complete fusion between the philosophical and the mythical traditions, specifically because Virgil did not disclose the ultimate destinies in his underworld, being that the overwhelming majority of his souls were destined to embark on a new earthly existence, entering new bodies.

That creates an entirely different background, when it is allowed to one and the same soul live several lives on earth in different bodies. Transmigration destroys both the Christian drama of a unique term of earthly life in which the decision must be made, and the ineluctable unity of the personality, the common form and fate of soul and body, attested  in the doctrine of resurrection.

What radically distinguishes the comedy from all other visions of the other world is that in it the unity of man’s earthly personality is preserved and fixed; the scene of action thus becomes the source of its poetic value, of its infinite truth, of the quality of direct empirical evidence which makes us feel that everything that happens in the work is real and credible and relevant to ourselves.

“We conclude with the most important point: the subject matter of the Comedy enabled and required Dante to justify his own unhappy life and to reconcile it with the universal order. The man gone astray of the opening lines is Dante; he himself is the traveller through the three realms, to whom the highest grace has sent a savior and guide. Beatrice descends into the underworld to summon Virgil, the guide, from his eternal abode. Two persons leave their place in the predetermined and fulfilled scheme in order to carry out the work of grace; and these two executants of the divine plan of salvation are at the same time the guiding forces in Dante’s life: Virgil, poet of the pax romana and prophet of last things, bearer of a truth which to him was still veiled, gave Dante the fine style of an all-encompassing poetry of wisdom, while Beatrice, formerly a visible manifestation of the secret truth, now come forth as a revelation of the perfect order, was his own daemon, to follow and be saved or to turn away from and be damned. These are the deepest powers within him, the powers of his own true love, who have been summoned up to save him from error-and therein lies the justice of the grace that annuls the stern sentence. They imbue him with courage to follow them, to tear himself away from the destructive powers, and they lead him toward intuitive knowledge of the divine order. Not only his past, but his future life as well, is interpreted and justified; for the time of the vision is the year 1300 when he was still living in Florence and the catastrophe was still to come; thus the error with which the poem starts precedes this date, and what follows-exile, vain hopes, poverty, proud withdrawal-has no connection with his error; they are his deserved and appropriate earthly fate, they belong to him like the dignity of a high office.”

IV – The Structure of The Comedy

dantes-divine-comedy-presentation-1st-part-7-728

The structure of the great poem is made up of three merging interwoven systems which are conceived of as corresponding in the divine order. There is a physical, an ethical, and a historico political system; each of them, in turn, involves a synthesis of different traditions.

Physical

The physical system consists in the Ptolemaic order of the universe, as adapted to Christian dogma by Christian Aristotelianism; as a whole and in most of its details, that order was already formulated in the writings of the high scholastic philosophers and in the didactic works inspired by them, so that Dante was able to derive its basic traits from his sources –  Aristotle, Alfraganus, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Brunetto Latini. The globe of the earth is at the center of the cosmos; round it revolve nine concentric celestial spheres, while a tenth, all embracing sphere, the Empyrean, the seat of God, is conceived to be at perfect rest. Only half the earth, the northern hemisphere, is inhabited; the eastern and western limits of the ólkοvμένn or inhabited world, are the Ganges and the Pillars of Hercules; its center is Jerusalem. In the interior of the earth, or rather of the northern hemisphere, like a funnel narrowing down toward the center of the earth, lies Hell; in its deepest part, at the very center of the earth, is the eternal abode of Lucifer, who in his fall immediately after the Creation, bored deep into the earth, pushing aside an enormous portion of its interior and driving it upward; that portion of the earth is the great mountain which alone rises above the ocean which covers the whole southern headed for Paradise but still in need of purification. On the hemisphere. It is the mountain of Purgatory, abode of souls summit of the mountain, the point where the earth comes closest to the lowest celestial sphere, lies the Earthly Paradise, where the first man and woman lived before the fall from grace. The celestial spheres, which are the true Paradise, are ordered according to the heavenly bodies situated in them; first the spheres of the seven planets of ancient astronomy in the order: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn; then the sphere of the fixed stars; the ninth is the invisible crystalline heaven, and the last is the Empyrean. The motion of the celestial spheres is concentric and circular; a burning desire to be united with God imparts a circular motion of the highest velocity to the ninth sphere, that closest to the motionless Empyrean where He dwells; the ninth sphere in turn, through. the hierarchy of Intelligences, or Angels, communicates its motion to the lower spheres within it.

Aristotles’s view of the Universe

He believed in a Prime Mover

view 01
55 chrystalines spheres, celestial objects attached to the sphere, which rotated at different velocities, Earth was at the center.
view 2
All motion in the heavens is uniform circular motion. Celestial objects are made from perfect material and cannot change their properties (e.g., their brightness)

Ptolemaic Universe

Ideas about uniform circular motion and epicycles were catalogued by Ptolemy 150 AD, which was endorsed by the medieval Church as Geocentric Model of the universe.
Thomas Aquinas (1222-1274) rediscoveres Aristotle and blended his ideas with medieval theology.
view 5
Main Characteristics:
Comfort – Individual could locate God. souls destination would be above or below
Stability – Earth was at center. Mankind is important in God’s plan
Reassurance – Divine power would triumph over corruption and decay of earthly things and lift the soul to and after life in heaven
view 6

Dante’s view of the Universe

Auerbach quotes Edward Moore, from his “The Astronomy of Dante” from Studies in Dante: (Take a look) page 18 –  (Auerbach omitted or synthesized what is written in red, which I transcribed from the original, together with his quotation, left in black):

One reason for the difference is that Auerbach translated it to German and then it was reversed based on Auerbach’s translation, not in the original text, as here. I found the ommited information useful. Although it is hard not to observe that Auerbach ommited astrology, or referred to “alleviating” it,  and kind of  “pasteurized” or filtered Dante’s ideas. This problem, which is a mix of literary criticism mixed with the creation of a perspective in our mind about Dante’s writings deserves a separate discussion which I will give it a try in Dante: Learned Scholar or wise genius?

“Within the heaven of the divine peace [i.e. the empyrean or tenth heaven] a body whirls there revolves a body [the Primum mobile, or ninth heaven], in whose virtue or influence depends lies the being of all that it contains is contained within it  [the entire cosmos i.e. as in the passage last explained from the Convito, if the Primum Mobile ceased to operate, all things would return to chaos and nonentity. See Conv. II, XV,152, ‘ Life would become extinct in plants and animals; nights and days, and months and years would be no more, and all the universe would fall back in to confusion]

The next heaven, which has so many things to show [the heaven of the fixed stars with its many luminaries], distributes this being among various essences, different from yet contained in it.

The heaven which follows, which has so man objects of sight (i.e. the eight heaven with all the fixed stars) distributes that Being through diverse essences or existences, which are distinct form it an contained by itm(i.e. the numerous stars which this eight heaven displays)

The other spheres [the planetary heavens] by various differentiations bestow to their own ends the distinctions which they have within themselves, together with the seeds. These organs of the world move, as you now see, from step to step, receiving from above and acting on what is below …. The movement and virtue of the holy spheres must be inspired by the blessed movers [the intelligences, or angels], like the hammer’s art by the smith; and heaven, which so many lights make fair [the heaven of the fixed stars], takes the stamp from the profound mind that turns it and makes of that stamp a seal. And as the soul within your dust is diffused through differing members shaped to different functions, so the Intelligence (i.e. God) unfolds in goodness multiplied through the stars, itself revolving upon its unity. Different virtues make different alloys with the precious bodies that they quicken (the starry heaven), to which they are bound like life in you. Because of the happy nature form which it derives, the virtue shines, mingled, through the body like joy through a living eye from this comes what seems different between one light and another, not form density or rarity this is the formal principle…

The other revolving spheres through various differences dispose towards their several ends and their several productions the distinctive objects which they have within themselves (i.e. the several planetary spheres or heavens each according to its proper and distinct purpose, bring about the diverse operations and productions suitable to each)

These organs of the Universe (i.e. sun, moon, and planets, or , as Dante would say, the seven planets) proceed as thou now seest from step to step, for they receive from above and operate below, i.e. they themselves receive influence from the higher spheres, the eighth and ninth heavens, from which the precessional and diurnal motions common to them all are derived, and they exercise influence on that which is below them, i.e., on the events and life of this earth; the ‘sublunary’ sphere, as we still call it, because it was thought to lie below the lowest of the heavenly spheres, viz. that of the moon. The rest o the passage, though highly poetical in form and interesting in its teaching scarcely falls within the scope of astronomy.

The same teaching is expressed in the plain prose of the Conv II XV, 132-8:”The said heaven (i.e. the inth or the Primum Mobile) regulates by its motions the daily revoluktion of all the others, through which they below receive the virtue (or vivifing influence) of all their parts . Because if the revolution of this heaven did not so order ddthis, little of the influence of those heavens woudl come here below, or even the sight of them: in other words, their influence on human affairs woudl be almost entirely lost. The savisng phrases ‘little’ and ‘almost entirely’, refer tothe very slight ‘precessional’ motion which woudl still remain even if the diuturnal were aboished. How the ‘sight’ of them would be lost has been already explained  (p.17)

This explicit reference to the influence of the stars in human affairs, as well as the expression ‘organi del mondo’ in Paradiso ii. 121, suggests that we should here define precisely the nature of Dante’s belief in ‘astrology’ in the modern sense of the word, though in his day the term was used convetiblly with ‘astronomy’. There is a striking passage in Paradiso viii 97 seqq. in which Dante declares the difference in human characters to be de to God’s special providence. The career of each individual is foreseen and fore-ordained of God (though it is often perversely departed from,II 139, seqq.) and his character and capacities are ordered suitably to it. See II. 100-3

E non pur le nature provvedute
Son nella mente ch´`e da sé perfetta,
Ma esse insieme com la lor salute

But the immediate efficient cause of these differences of charactaer is found in the influence of the stars. See II 97-9

‘Lo ben che tutto il regno che tu scandi
Volge e contenta, fa esser virtute 
Sua provvidenza in questi corpi grandi;’

and again in IL 127,128, ‘La circular natura’ (i.e. the revolution of the heavens) is described as ‘suggello alla cera mortal.’

Thus Dante firmly held that God’s ‘never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth,’ yet He wills to use the stars as His instruments, just as the angels who effect the motions of those stars are His agents. Hence, in the passage above quoted, the stars are called ‘organi del mondo.’ In Mon. II ii 15, we read, ‘ Est enim natura in mente primi motoris, que Deus est, deinde in coelo tanquan in organo’;  and ibid 25 he speaks of ‘instrumentum eius (sc. Dei) quod coelum est.’ Similar language will be found in the Questio xx.59: ‘quum organum suae virtutis sive influentiae sit ipas luna.’ So again, ibid. xxi. 16. See further Ep. V. viii, i34, shere God is said sometimes to carry out His purposes ‘per homines, tanquem per caelos novos.’ When in the important passage, Purg. vvi. 67-83, Dante insists that the stellar influence is never so overpowering as to destroy human responsibility, this is equivalent to the assertion of the freedom of the will side by side with the belief in God’s foreknowledge, and in a special providence. The reality of the influence  of the stars on human affairs (in this perfectly harmless form) Dante regarded as entirey indisputable (see Conv. II xiv 27); so much so that any one who doubted it was ‘extra limitem philosophiae’ (Quaestio xxi, 18).

The following are some of the other passages in Dante beyond those already referred to which bear upon this subject: Purg. xx 13, xxx, 109-11; Par. xxiii,i, xxvi. 129; Conv. II. xxiii. 50.

I will next cite a few passages in which dante refers to the extremely slow motion of the eighth, and the extremely sweift motion of the ninth heaven.

The slowness of the eighth heaven is alluded to in Purg. xi. 103 seqq., where the vanity of human fatrie is exhibited by the reflection that before 1000 years are passed it will utterly have perished, and yet that period bears  less proportion to eternity than the twinkling of an eye to the revolution of the slowest sphere in the heaven, i.e. to the 36000 years occupied in the revolution of the eighth heaven. In connexsion with this there is a passage in Conv. II xv. 114, which calls for a word of explanation. Dante is here arguing for the appropriate connexion of each of the sciences of the Trivium and Quadrivium with one of the seven planetary spheres or eavens, and he says that the slow motion of the eighth heaven, being in fact endless, is a symbol those incorruptible things which form the subject of metaphysics. That it is ‘endless’ he proves thus. Since the creation only a little more than one-sixth part of this revolution has been accomplished, and we are already in the last age of the worl, awaiting the consummation of all things. Consequently this revolution will never be commpleted while the wolrd lasts. It is at first sight rather puzzling to find Dante declaring that a little more than one-sisth of the revolution is already accomplished, for on his own datum of 1 in a century this would imply that in or about 1300 AD the world had existed for more than 6000 years. This however, corresponds with the horology which would be found by Dante in two authorities with which he was familiar .

dante-yellow1

dante-yellow
From this passage we learn the following points:
1. The Being and the entire motion of the universe stem from the primum mobile or prime mover (hence from God’s love as well as from the love of God). All Creation is an unfolding and reflection of divine Being-non e se non splendor di quella idea che partorisce amando il nostro sirt? (it is nothing but the reglow of that Idea which our Sire, in loving, begets); its motion and all its activity have their eternal source in Him. The lines translated above are drawn from a passage about the nature of the Moon and that is why they speak only of the celestial spheres, Actually the same is true of all Creation, both of that part which is created directly by God (intelligences, celestial spheres, prima materia, and the human soul) and of that part which is produced indirectly through His organs (elements, plants, animals. Everywhere it is la divina bonta che ‘I mondo imprenta‘ (the divine goodness which stamps the world), and the motion it produces is Love: Ne creator ne creatura mai … fu sanza amore, o natural o d’animo (Neither creator nor creature … was ever without love, either natural or rational}.”
2. The universe is a multiplication of the first motion; the Intelligences, or Angels, communicate it to the lower degrees of Creation and impart to all created things the energy and motion peculiar to them, but in spite of all that the unity of divine Being is never relinquished: the Trinity, as Dante quotes St. Thomas as saying:
per sua bontate il suo raggiare aduna
quasi specchiato, in nove sussistenze,
etternalmente rimanendosi una
Quindi discende a l’ultime potenze
giu d’atto in atto, tanto divenendo,
che piu non fa che brevi contingenze;
e queste contingenze esser intendo
le cosc generate …. 

(of its goodness focuses its own raying, as though

refleeted, in nine existences, eternally abiding one.
Thence it descends to the remotest potencies,
down, from act to act, becoming such as makes
now mere brief contingencies; by which

                                     contingencies I understand the generated things…).

Thus the source of the multiplicity of Creation is the unfolding and reflection of divine goodness through the nove sussistenze, or nine existences, that is, the Angels, who are the movers of the heavenly spheres and of their luminaries. Here the relation between astrological conceptions and the divine order of the world is made perfectly clear. In the first canto of the Paradiso Dante expresses his surprise that he, as a material body, should have been able to rise up to heaven, and Beatrice replies: “Le cose tutte quante hanno ordine tra loro…: All things whatsoever observe a mutual order; and this is the form that makes the universe like God. In it the exalted creatures [those endowed with intelligence] trace the impress of the Eternal Worth, which is the goal for which the norm now spoken of was made. In the order of which I speak all things incline, by various lots, nearer or less near to their source; for which reason they move to different ports across the great sea of being, each one with instinct given it to bear it on. This bears the fire toward the moon; this is the mover in the hearts of things that die; this draws the earth … together and unites it. This bow shoots not only the creatures that lack intelligence but those that have both intellect and love. The Providence that ordains all this, with its light makes ever still the heaven in which that one whirls which has the greatest speed; and there now, as to the site ordained, the power of that bowstring bears us….”This instinct is the work of the celestial spheres, ovra de le rote magne, che drizzan ciascun seme ad alcun fine (operation of the mighty spheres that direct each seed to some end); the hole of earthly Creation is subject to them with the exception of man; for although man as a body, and hence also the sensitive a owers of the soul, are subject to inclination by the influence of the stars, he possesses in the rational part of his soul the power to guide and limit that influence; that power is his free will.
“The heavenly bodies,” says St. Thomas. “cannot be the direct cause of the free-will’s operations. Nevertheless, they can be a disposive cause of an inclination to those operations, in so far as they make an impression on the human body, and consequently on the sensitive powers which are acts of bodily organs having an inclination for human acts.” And similarly in another passage: “The heavenly bodies are not the cause of our willing and choosing. For the will is in the intellectual part of the soul … the heavenly bodies cannot make a direct impression on our intellect. . . .” The pars intellectiva of the soul is man’s vis ultima, or ultimate essence, what makes him a man, and he must employ it for good or evil. Without it he could no more do evil than a plant or an animal: for naturale (amore) e sempre sanza errore. The natural is always without error.

Ethical

These remarks on the special position of man bring us to the second of the systems underlying the Comedy, the ethical system. Man alone possesses freedom of choice, a power compounded of intellect and will, which, though closely connected with the natural disposition and hence always individual, reaches out beyond it; it is that power which enables him during his lifetime on earth, to love in the right or wrong way and so decide his own fate. In the ethical system he builds up on the basis of that conception, Dante follows the Nicomachean Ethics as elaborated in St. Thomas. Brunetto Latini had set forth the ethical doctrines of Aristotle and St. Thomas in his Tresor, particularly in the sixth and seventh books. His exposition shows many points of contact with Dante, and the words m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna (you taught me how man makes himself eternal) make it clear that Dante regarded Brunetto as the foremost authority on those ideas.

Man’s ethical nature is grounded in his natural inclination or disposition. As such that is always good, for it is love, more specifically the love of some good. The highest good and the source of the good is God.

Auerbach goes on with his interpretation:

Quindi discende a l’ultime potenze
giu d’atto in atto, tanto divenendo,
che piu non fa che brevi contingenze;
e queste contingenze esser intendo
le cosc generate …. 
(of its goodness focuses its own raying, as though

reflected, in nine existences, eternally abiding one.
Thence it descends to the remotest potencies,
down, from act to act, becoming such as makes
now mere brief contingencies; by which

                                      contingencies I understand the generated things…).

Thus the source of the multiplicity of Creation is the unfolding and reflection of divine goodness through the nove sussistenze, or nine existences, that is, the Angels, who are the movers of the heavenly spheres and of their luminaries. Here the relation between astrological conceptions and the divine order of the world is made perfectly clear. In the first canto of the Paradiso Dante expresses his surprise that he, as a material body, should have been able to rise up to heaven, and Beatrice replies: “Le cose tutte quante hanno ordine tra loro…: All things whatsoever observe a mutual order; and this is the form that makes the universe like God. In it the exalted creatures [those endowed with intelligence] trace the impress of the Eternal Worth, which is the goal for which the norm now spoken of was made. In the order of which I speak all things incline, by various lots, nearer or less near to their source; for which reason they move to different ports across the great sea of being, each one with instinct given it to bear it on. This bears the fire toward the moon; this is the mover in the hearts of things that die; this draws the earth … together and unites it. This bow shoots not only the creatures that lack intelligence but those that have both intellect and love. The Providence that ordains all this, with its light makes ever still the heaven in which that one whirls which has the greatest speed; and there now, as to the site ordained, the power of that bowstring bears us….”This instinct is the work of the celestial spheres, ovra de le rote magne, che drizzan ciascun seme ad alcun fine (operation of the mighty spheres that direct each seed to some end); the hole of earthly Creation is subject to them with the exception of man; for although man as a body, and hence also the sensitive a owers of the soul, are subject to inclination by the influence ~£ the stars, he possesses in the rational part of his soul the power to guide and limit that influence; that power is his free will.
“The heavenly bodies,” says St. Thomas. “cannot be the direct cause of the free-will’s operations. Nevertheless, they can be a disposive cause of an inclination to those operations, in so far as they make an impression on the human body, and consequently on the sensitive powers which are acts of bodily organs having an inclination for human acts.” And similarly in another passage: “The heavenly bodies are not the cause of our willing and choosing. For the will is in the intellectual part of the soul … the heavenly bodies cannot make a direct impression on our intellect. . . .” The pars intellectiva of the soul is man’s vis ultima,15 or ultimate essence, what makes him a man, and he must employ it for good or evil. Without it he could no more do evil than a plant or an animal: for naturale (amore) e sempre sanza errore. The natural is always without error.”
These remarks on the special position of man bring us to the second of the systems underlying the Comedy, the ethical system. Man alone possesses freedom of choice, a power compounded of intellect and will, which, though closely connected with the natural disposition and hence always individual, reaches out beyond it; it is that power which enables him during his lifetime on earth, to love in the right or wrong way and so decide his own fate. In the ethical system he builds up on the basis of that conception, Dante follows the Nicomachean Ethics as elaborated in St. Thomas. Brunetto Latini had set forth the ethical doctrines of Aristotle and St. Thomas in his Tresor, particularly in the sixth and seventh books. His exposition shows many points of contact with Dante, and the words m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna (you taught me how man makes himself eternal) make it clear that Dante regarded Brunetto as the foremost authority on those ideas.

Man’s ethical nature is grounded in his natural inclination or disposition. As such that is always good, for it is love, more specifically the love of some good. The highest good and the source of the good is God.

Historico Political

Hisorical

In the heaven of fixed stars, the heaven of the prima milizia, where redeemed mankind is united in the Triumph of Christ, a fourth figure joins the three examining Apostles; it is Adam, the first man, who closes the circle by relating, at the scene of its completion, the primordial beginnings of the drama. The events that he relates or explains form the starting point of the third, historico-political system of the Comedy. For through Adam’s fall mankind lost the original purity and goodness in which it was created and was damned like Lucifer, the fallen Angel. Eve’s original sin was not the mere tasting of the forbidden fruit, but a transgressing of limits, a striving to exceed her allotted destiny: earth and heaven obeyed, only a woman who had just been created could not endure to remain within her predestined sphere. Of all created things on earth man was the most perfect: he possessed immortality, freedom, and likeness to God, but the sin of apostasy robbed him of those gifts and flung him down all the lower because he had stood so high. And man disposed of no means of reparation, for no amount of humility could fully compensate for the terrible crime of his fall away from God, the highest good; only God himself in His infinite compassion could forgive him and restore him to his former place. But God is just as well as good; justice is the eternal order of the world, and accordingly it was His pleasure to satisfy the dictates of justice even in the practise of His infinite mercy through the incarnation of His son, born of a human mother. He engendered a pure man, who in his humility could justly and fully expunge the original sin; the union of divine and human nature in Christ is the mystery which satisfied the requirements of God’s justice, for here a man by the humility of his life and Passion atoned for the original sin, but in view of the man Christ’s other, divine nature, his act of atonement was an undeserved gift of God’s unlimited goodness, in excess of all justice. With that idea which is known essentially to every Christian, Dante combines another which in this context may strike a modern observer as strange: it is the idea of the special mission of Rome and the Roman Empire in history. From the very beginning Divine Providence elected Rome as the capital of the world.
It gave the Roman people the heroism and the spirit of self-sacrifice necessary to conquer this world and possess it in peace; and when the work of conquest and pacification, the sacred mission announced to Aeneas, was accomplished after centuries of bitter battles and sacrifices and the inhabited world lay in the hands of Augustus, the time was fulfilled and the Saviour appeared. For it was decreed that the redeemed world should abide in perfect peace, in supreme earthly perfection down to the last day; that is why Christ rendered unto Caesar the things which were Caesar’s and submitted to his judgment; that is why Peter and Paul went to Rome, why Rome became the center of Christianity and the seat of the papacy. Since the very beginning of the Roman legend the two plans of Providence have been intertwined; Aeneas was granted his journey to the underworld with a view to the spiritual and secular triumph of Rome. Rome was the mirror of the divine world order, so much so that Paradise is once referred to as quella Roma onde Christo `e Romano (that Rome where Christ is a Roman). In the earthly Rome, as Christ made clear by his words and deeds, it was decreed that two strictly separate powers should rule in perfect balance, the spiritual power of the Pope, who must possess nothing, for his kingdom is not of this world, and the secular power of the Emperor, who is just, because God appointed him and all things earthly are in his power.
Thus the whole Roman tradition flows into the history of salvation, and the two prophecies seem complementary and almost equal in rank: Virgil’s Tu regere imperio populos (Thou shalt rule as an empire over the nations) and the Ave Maria. Before the appearance of Christ, the Roman Eagle, whose deeds Justinian relates in the heaven of Mercury, was the herald, and afterward the executor, of God’s plan of salvation; Tiberius the third emperor, considered as the legitimate judge over Christ the man, was the executant avenger of original sin, who satisfied God’s wrath; Titus, the conqueror of Jerusalem, was the legitimate executant of vengeance against the Jews; and in the bottommost Hell, in the jaws of Lucifer, Judas has as his companions Brutus and Cassius, Caesar’s murderers.
But for a second time the world fell away from the divine will, and once again the sin consisted in a trapassar del segno, a transgressing against the earthly world order appointed by God; this sin is symbolically represented by the fate of the mystical chariot in the Earthly Paradise. Christ the griffon has fastened the chariot to the tree from which Adam once plucked the forbidden fruit and which now signifies the earthly world order or the Roman empire. Beneath its branches mankind can rest in peace (Dante’s sleep), and in the shadow of the tree the revealed authority of the Christian doctrine finds its natural place. The chariot of the Church resists the assaults of the Eagle (the persecutions of Christians under the first Roman emperors) and of the fox (the early Christian heretical sects); but when the Eagle covers the chariot with its wings – an allegory for the Donation of Constantine – disaster sets in. Satan rises up from the depths, breaks a piece -the spirit of humility – out of the floor of the chariot, the rest of which is filled to the brim with the Eagle’s feathers (earthly goods), and the seven deadly sins appear as death’s heads on the shaft and in the corners. On the seat of the chariot sits a harlot, the Roman curia, fornicating with a giant; the giant symbolises unrestrained illegitimate power, probably in particular the French king, and in order to gain complete power over the harlot detaches the chariot from the tree and makes off with it.

As we see, this order is perfectly consonant with the two others, for the whole poem, whether considered from a physical, an ethical, or a historico-political point of view, builds up the destiny of man and his soul and sets it before us in a concrete image; God and creation, spirit and nature lie enclosed and ordered in perfect necessity (which however is nothing other than perfect freedom allotted to each thing according to its essence). Nothing is left open but the narrow cleft of earthly human history, the span of man’s life on earth, in which the great and dramatic decision must fall; or to look at it the other way round, from the standpoint of human life, this life, in all the diversity of its manifestations, is measured by its highest goal, where individuality achieves actual fulfilment and all society finds its predestined and final resting place in the universal order. Thus, even though the Comedy describes the state of souls after death, its subject, in the last analysis, remains earthly life with its entire range and content; everything that happens below the earth or in the heavens above relates to the human drama in this world. But since the human world receives the measures by which it is to be molded and judged from the other world, it is neither a realm of dark necessity nor a peaceful land of God; no, the cleft is really open, the span of life is short, uncertain, and decisive for all eternity; it is the magnificent and terrible gift of potential freedom which creates the urgent, restless, human, and Christian-European atmosphere of the irretrievable, fleeting moment that must be taken advantage of God’s grace is infinite, but so also is His justice and one does not negate the other. The hearer or reader enters into the narrative; in the great realm of fulfilled destiny he sees only himself alone unfulfilled, still acting upon the real, decisive stage, illumined from above but still in the dark; he is in danger, the decision is near, and in the images of Dante’s pilgrimage that draw before him he sees himself damned, making atonement, or saved, but always himself, not extinguished, but eternal in his very own essence.
Thus in truth the Comedy is a picture of earthly life. The human world in all its breadth and depth is gathered into the structure of the hereafter and there it stands; complete, unfalsified, yet encompassed in an eternal order; the confusion of earthly affairs is not concealed or attenuated or immaterialized, but preserved in full evidence and grounded in a plan which embraces it and raises it above all contingency. Doctrine and fantasy, history and myth are woven into an almost inextricable skein; often an almost unconscionable amount of time and effort is required to fathom the content of a single line; but once one has succeeded in surveying the whole, the hundred cantos, with their radiant terza rima, their perpetual binding and loosing, reveal the dreamlike lightness and remoteness of a perfection that seems to hover over us like a dance of unearthly figures. Yet the law of that dream is a human reason operating according to a plan and conscious of its destiny, which it is able to govern and order because its courageous good will has been favored by divine grace.

V – The Presentation

Dante journeys through the Other World and there, in the stations which mark their ultimate destiny, he encounters the souls of men he has known or with whose lives he is familiar. Even one who knows nothing of the Comedy can, by reflecting on the situation, easily imagine the emotion aroused by those meetings and the natural occasion they offer for the most authentic, most powerful, and most human expression. The encounters do not take place in this life, where men are always met with in a state of contingency that manifests only a part of their essence, and where the very intensity of life in the most vital moments makes self-awareness difficult and renders a true encounter almost impossible. Nor do they take place in a hereafter where what is most personal in the personality is effaced by the shadows of death and nothing remains but a feeble, veiled, or indifferent recollection of life. No, the souls of Dante’s other world are not dead men, they are the truly living; though the concrete data of their lives and the atmosphere of their personalities are drawn from their former existences on earth, they manifest them here with a completeness, a concentration, an actuality, which they seldom achieved during their term on earth and assuredly never revealed to anyone else. And so it is that Dante finds them; surprise, astonishment, joy, or horror grips both parties to the meeting, for the dweller in the Other World as he is shown there is also deeply moved by an encounter with one of the living; the mere fact of seeing and recognising one another reaches into the deepest foundations of human feeling and creates images of unparallelled poetic force and richness.
Thus the meetings between souls in the Comedy offer a number of scenes which, though they derive the elements of their expression from the memory of earthly encounters, far surpass any possible earthly encounter by the degree of emotion that accompanies them and the wealth of situations they disclose. They are most moving where Dante was bound to the other by earthly ties, either of actual life together or of inner, spiritual influence. The passion which, either from diffidence or from lack of occasion to speak, tends in temporal existence to hide, bursts forth here, all in one piece, as though moved by the awareness that this is its one and only opportunity to express itself.
In Dante’s extreme need in the face of impending ruin, the helper sent by divine grace appears before him: and it is Virgil! But even before he has recognized him, Dante’s distress impels him to throw the whole of himself into his cry of supplication; and when the master of his art and precursor of his thinking makes himself known, Dante’s love and admiration spring forth naturally and uncontrollably, and in his situation the constitutive words, which provide the essential picture both of the other and of himself, seem quite self-evident, words full of pathos, yet genuinely rooted in the specific occasion. And when in the triumphal procession in the Earthly Paradise Beatrice appears; when Dante, in need of help, turns to Virgil to say: “Less than a dram of blood is left in me that trembleth not” and no longer finds the dolcissimo padre at his side; and when the name of Dante rings out like a call at the Last Judgement, the well-prepared emotion, grounded in his past and present fate, legitimated no less by reason than by the heart, the emotion which is true readiness to know and acknowledge himself, grips us scarcely less than it does him, so that the reader too might well say in Dante’s words:Men che dramma di sangue m’è rimaso che non tremi: conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma’.

Auerbach goes on describing  a long list of encounters. Basically everyone is like he or she was in reality, but in a state of essence of whatever they were or achieved or misbehaved.

Auerbach wraps up in a way  which deserves quotation:

These elements – reality and superhuman will, order and compelling authority – are the substance of the Comedy’s style, which is so unique that anyone who knows the work well has the impression of hearing Dante’s voice in every word and every tone: a powerful voice, sternly admonishing, yet full of tenderness, a voice which for all its severity is always human. In uttering what is true and right, it takes the tone of a teacher; in recording real events it becomes a chronicler. But doctrine and chronicle are caught up in the poetic movement, sustained and exalted until, with all their clarity, they stand before us unapproachable and inexplicably perfect. The Comedy, as we have repeatedly said in the course of this investigation, treats of earthly reality in its true and definitive form; but palpable and concrete as this reality is, it takes on an ethereal dreamlike quality in the Other World. As we have seen, the later Provencal poets, the poets of the stil nuovo, and Dante himself in the poetry of his youth, had followed an old esoteric tradition in setting apart the noble devotees of Amore from the rest of mankind and in regarding them alone as a worthy audience. That tradition like many others is transformed but not abandoned in the Comedy. Here I am not referring to the occasional apostrophes to one another of the chosen few; they are not crucial in this connection, for there is no doubt that the Comedy as a whole is addressed to all men or at least to all Christians. What I have in mind is that he leads all men into a realm apart, where the air is not that of our everyday earth. Not that the reality of life has vanished; it has grown doubly plain and tangible. But the light is different and the eyes must grow accustomed to it; they must acquire a new and sharper vision which passes over no detail as unimportant, commonplace, or fragmentary; whatever appears in that place is definitive and immutable, demanding the fullest and most careful attention. Dante transports his listeners into a strange world so permeated by the memory of reality that it seems real while life itself becomes a fragmentary dream; and that unity of reality and remoteness is the source of his psychological power.

VI – The Survival and Transformation of Dante’s Vision of Reality

(Remember: This was written in 1929)

Here we shall not speak in the usual sense of Dante’s influence on posterity. Neither the few insignificant poets who have imitated the Comedy, nor the highly problematic influence of Dante’s ideas and teachings, nor the far more important “history of his fame” – in short, no part of what is known in Italy as la fortuna di Dante – can have any bearing on the present study. Here we are concerned with something he created and which remained living and effective, quite regardless of whether those in whom we find it followed his doctrines or not, of whether they loved or hated him, or, for that matter, of whether they were even familiar with his work. For the land he discovered has not been lost; many have entered upon it, some have explored it, though the fact that he was first to discover it has been largely forgotten or ignored. The something of which I am speaking, the discovery that remained alive, is Dante’s testimony to the reality that is poetry, to the modern European form of artistic mimesis which stresses the actuality of events. Stefan George speaks of tone, movement, and Gestalt – it is they, he says, that make Dante the father of all modern literature. And perhaps not only of literature. Dante discovered the European representation (Gestalt) of man, and this same representation made its appearance in art and historiography. Dante was the first to configure what classical antiquity had configured very differently and the Middle Ages not at all: man, not as a remote legendary hero, not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical type, but man as we know him in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness; and in that he has been followed by all subsequent portrayers of man, regardless of whether they treated a historical or a mythical or a religious subject, for after Dante myth and legend also became history. Even in portraying saints, writers have striven for truth to life, for historical concreteness, as though saints too were a part of the historical process. As we have seen, Christian legend came to be treated as an immanent historical reality; the arts have striven to represent a more perfect unity of spirit and body, spun into the fabric of man’s destiny, and despite changes of taste and differences in artistic technique, this striving has endured, through many perils and darkenings, down to our day. In the present work, we have tried to show that this immense conquest did not spring full-blown from Dante’s intuition, but that his creative powers were kindled by his subject, which compelled him, once he had undertaken to set forth the divine judgment, to unearth the complete truth about individual historical men, and consequently to reveal the whole character and personality. As we have repeatedly stressed, his poetic genius was inseparably bound up with his doctrine. But his doctrine did not endure. The Comedy represented the physical, ethical, and political unity of the Scholastic Christian cosmos at a time when it was beginning to lose its ideological integrity: Dante took the attitude of a conservative defender, his battle was an attempt to regain something that had already been lost; in this battle he was defeated, and his hopes and prophecies were never fulfilled. True, ideas of a Roman World Empire survived down to the Late Renaissance, and indignation over the corruption of the Church led to the great movements of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. But those ideas and movements have only certain superficial characteristics in common with Dante’s view of the world; they originated and grew independently of it. Some were fantastic dreams, some were great popular uprisings, some acts of practical politics, and still others had something of all three: but none possessed the depth and universal unity of Dante’s Thomist world view, and their consequence was not the worldwide humana civilitas (see note 1) for which Dante hoped, but an increasing fragmentation of cultural forces; it is only after the imperial ideology and the Christian-medieval conception of the world, shaken by intestine struggles, were swept away by the rationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that a new practical view of the unity of human society began to take form. Thus Dante’s work remained almost without influence on the history of European thought; immediately after his death, and even during his lifetime, the structure of literary, cultured society underwent a complete change in which he had no part, the change from Scholastic to Humanistic thinking, and that transformation undermined the influence of so rigorously committed a work as the Comedy. The radical shift in values that has taken place is made clear by the example of Petrarch, who was only forty years younger than Dante. Petrarch was not actually of a different party, he was not opposed to Dante’s strivings; but what moved Dante, the whole attitude and form of his life, had grown alien to him. He is distinguished from Dante above all by his new attitude toward his own person; it was no longer in looking upward – as Orcagna portrayed Dante in his fresco of the Last Judgment in Santa Maria Novella – that Petrarch expected to find self-fulfillment, but in the conscious cultivation of his own nature. Although far inferior to Dante in personality and natural endowment, he was unwilling to acknowledge any superior order or authority; not even the authority of the universal world order to which Dante submitted so passionately. The autonomous personality, of which Petrarch was to be the first fully typical modern European embodiment, has lived in a thousand forms and varieties; the conception takes in all the tendencies of the modern age, the business spirit, the religious subjectivism, the humanism, and the striving for physical and technological domination of the world. It is incomparably richer, deeper, and more dangerous than the ancient cult of the person. From Christianity, whence it rose and which it ultimately defeated, this conception inherited unrest and immoderation. These qualities led it to discard the structure and limits of Dante’s world, to which, however, it owed the power of its actuality.

Four_portraits_of_Dante_Alighieri_Wellcome_M0017298
Accordingly, even if it is agreed that Dante’s creation is closely bound up with his subject matter, that his poetry is inseparable from his doctrine, he seems to be a special case that has never been repeated and hence tells us nothing about the nature of the poetic process. For the art of imitating reality continued to develop quite independently of the presuppositions which seem to have been at the base of Dante’s work. No poet or artist after Dante required an ultimate, eschatological destiny in order to perceive the unity of the human person: sheer intuitive power seems to have enabled subsequent writers to combine inner and outward observation into a whole. But that argument does not take in the whole truth. Its proponents neglect or underestimate the part played in the creative drive by the residues of older intellectual forces and fail to discern such residues beneath superficial changes in consciousness. It is generally acknowledged that the Renaissance represents a unit in the history of European culture and that the decisive element of its unity was the self-discovery of the human personality; and it is also generally recognised that, despite Dante’s medieval view of the world, the discovery began with him. Thus there would seem to be reason to believe that something in the structure of the medieval world view was carried over into the new development and made it possible. In the history of modern European culture, there is, indeed, a constant which has come down unchanged through all the metamorphoses of religious and philosophical forms, and which is first discernible in Dante; namely, the idea (whatever its basis may be) that individual destiny is not meaningless, but is necessarily tragic and significant, and that the whole world context is revealed in it. That conception was already present in ancient mimesis, but carried less force, because the eschatological myths of the ancients lent far less support than Christian doctrine and the story of Christ to the conviction that the individual is indestructible, that the life of the individual on earth is a brief moment of irrevocable decision. In the early Middle Ages the historical sense had been dulled – the image of man was reduced to a moral or spiritualist abstraction, a remote legendary dream, or a comic caricature; in short man was removed from his natural, historical habitat. With Dante the historical individual was reborn in his manifest unity of body and spirit; he was both oldand new, rising from long oblivion with greater power andscope than ever before. And although the Christian eschatology that had given birth to this new vision of man was to lose its unity and vitality, the European mind was so permeated with the idea of human destiny that even in very un-Christian artists it preserved the Christian force and tension which were Dante’s gift to posterity. Modern mimesis found man in his individual destiny; it raised him out of the two-dimensional unreality of a remote dreamland or philosophical abstraction, and moved him into the historical area in which he really lives. But that historical world had to be rediscovered; and in a spiritualist culture, where earthly happening was either disregarded or looked upon as a mere metaphorical existence leading up to man’s real and final destiny, man’s historical world could be discovered only by way of his final destiny, considered as the goal and meaning of earthly happening. But once the discovery was made in that way, earthly happening could no longer be looked upon with indifference. The perception of history and immanent reality arrived at in the Comedy through an eschatological vision, flowed back into real history, filling it with the blood of authentic truth, for an awareness had been born that a man’s concrete earthly life is encompaseed in his ultimate fate and that the event in its authentic, concrete, complete uniqueness is’ important for the part it plays in God’s judgment. From that center man’s earthly, historical reality derived new life and value, and even the Comedy where, not without difficulty, the turbulent new forces were confined within an eschatological frame, gives us an intimation of how quickly and violently they would break loose. With Petrarch and Boccaccio the historical world acquired a fully immanent autonomy, and this sense of the self-sufficiency of earthly life spread like a fructifying stream to the rest of Europe-seemingly quite estranged from its eschatological origin and yet secretly linked with it through man’s irrevocable bond with his concrete historical fate. By that I do not mean that literature and art began to concern themselves exclusively with subjects drawn from real life and history, and no such statement would be in keeping with the facts. Mythical and religious subjects continued to be treated,and indeed more penetratingly than before. For they too were drawn into the historical vision we have described; the traditional fable lost its emblematic rigidity, and from the rich material, which had been largely obscured beneath dogmatic and spiritualist symbols, the author was now enabled, by his insight into the unity of character and fate, to select the perceptions that seemed to offer the fullest evidence and the most essential truth. And another form of literature, which is perhaps the most significant of all in modern Europe because it has permeated all others, namely the lyrical self-portraiture initiated by Petrarch, was rendered possible only by the discovery of the historical world. For it was only in that area that the diverse levels of feeling and instinct, the entire unity and variety of the personality, could unfold, that the empirical person, the individual with his inner life, could become an object of mimesis.
This current created rich new possibilities and grave dangers for mimesis. To discuss them is not the purpose of the present book, in which I have tried to grasp Dante’s work as a unity, rooted in the unity of his subject matter. It has seemed to me
that this approach offered the only hope of representing Dante’s historical reality in such a way that “the words may not be diverse from the fact.”

Note 1: In both the Convivio and the MonarchiaDante is concerned to examine, from the Aristotelian point of view throughtout, the civilitas humana which is the union of different individual societies, particularly the communitates perfectae. The humana civilitas is ordained for the purpose of furthering the life of happiness, which nobody can achieve without the help of others. (Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought)

Civilitas podia significar cidade, cidadão, os direitos de um cidadão, organização civil e posteriormente vida cívica e vida na cidade. Como o termo era tradicionalmente usado em contraste com o não cívico, como vida no campo e com camponeses, o termo veio também a significar o oposto de inumano, animalidade e barbarismo. Civilitas/civilis gradualmente tornou-se um conceito útil na construção de uma identidade, sendo usado para distinguir nós e eles, à maneira de outros pares antiéticos mais antigos, tais como grego/bárbaro, romano/bárbaro, cristão/pagão.  O conceito também foi traduzido para o vernáculo. Em Dante e notório o uso da expressão civilitas humana para significar o conjunto da humanidade. Dante foi o primeiro a traduzir civilitas para o vernáculo italiano como civiltade. No século XIV a palavra italiano civiltade foi substituída por civilta. (Historia dos conceitos )

 

 

 

 

 

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