Thursday, July 05, 2007

Dante’s Divine Comedy and Independence Day

Anthony Esolen

“The vision of Dante reveals, on the one hand, the continuity between Christian faith in God and the search developed by reason and by the world of religions; on the other, a novelty appears that surpasses all human research: the novelty of a love that moved God to take on a human face, even to take on flesh and blood, the entire human being.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

Dante and Virgil are climbing the steep base of Purgatory Mountain, not sure of the way, when they notice what in that realm is a rarity: a “spirit all alone,” says Virgil, “alone and looking at us quietly” (Purg. 6.58-59). He seems impassive, this spirit, aloof, yet possessed of great nobility. Dante’s description captures the man in a few magnificent strokes:

O soul of Lombardy,
how proud and full of dignity you stood,
deliberate in each movement of the eye
And honorably so. No word he said
but watched us as we neared him, as a lion
at rest will watch and never turn his head.


But man is not meant to live alone. Man, says Aristotle, the philosopher whom Dante revered as “the master of all those who know” (Inferno 4.131), can only attain his perfection, the pursuit of moral and intellectual virtue, in the context of a city. Naturally, Aristotle was thinking of Greek republics such as Athens and Sparta, but his wisdom was not lost on Thomas Aquinas, who saw much to be praised in the natural goods that man pursues in the city, while acknowledging that the Christian must look in hope for a good that no city here on earth can provide.

That is why Dante sets his readers up for a surprise. For this soul who seems solitary is most devoted to his homeland and his people. When Virgil asks him the way, he does not pass the time with personal introductions or idle questions about the journey, but speaks immediately from his heart, making

no response
But to inquire about our native land
and who we were in life; and the sweet guide
began with “Mantua,” when that desert shade
Rose up from where he’d stood so firm in place –
“We share one country, you of Mantua!
I am Sordello!” – and the two embraced.

With that outburst of love and patriotism Dante calls the dramatic scene to a halt, suspending the action for a seventy-five-line invective against the Italy of his day, and against his own Florence in particular, whence he was unjustly exiled on pain of death in 1302, and where he would never return. His exclamation after the embrace above is a stern rebuke to all of us who despise patriotism as quaint or illusory:

Ah Italy, you slave, you inn of grief,
you ship without a pilot in the storm,
no lady of the shire, you house for whores,
That noble spirit felt a love so warm
just from the sweet sound of his country’s name,
he ran to greet his townsman even there,
While now in you those still alive all pitch
battle, and gnaw each other, and so near
as those divided by a wall and ditch! (76-84)

Patriotism and worship

Americans still celebrate their Independence Day, with fireworks and barbecues and ballgames; but seldom, I think, with proud faces lifted high, with filial devotion, and even a tear of gratitude. We are perhaps too rich for that, and wealth will ever blur the memory of benefits past. Dante was himself a fierce patriot, one who loved Florence so well that he burned to see her made just. But why should his sacred poem be preoccupied with Florence? What does patriotism have to do with the Christian life?

A great deal more than we wish to admit. No altar, no community: without the common bond of worship, men do not form a city or a nation, and this is as true of America as it was of ancient Athens. No man will lend his heart to a low tax rate or to a system of national roads. But speak to him of liberty, and his eyes grow bright; tell him that that honor was granted to him by his Maker, and he will lay down his life, if need be, to ensure that the honor be respected, for himself and his children, for all generations. So it is that the state can attain its perfection only by recognizing a divinity beyond it; if its dome is not the vault of stars above, it must collapse.

But it is also true that our villages and towns and countries are provided by God as foreshadowings of the world to come. When Aquinas talks about the heavens above us, he uses the Latin caelum or caeli; so too when he discusses heaven as an object of metaphysical reflection. But when he talks about the life of the blessed saints in heaven, it is never caelum but patriathe homeland, the land of one’s fathers. If we are poor lovers of our homeland here, how shall we be prepared for dwelling, as Dante puts it, “where Christ is Roman, in that Rome above” (Purg. 32.102)? There we will find a kingdom, a city, peopled with saints who honored their fathers and mothers here on earth, and who honored the earthly nation that too is father and mother, that directs our hearts to the land of glory. For Aristotle was right: man is the sort of creature who shall attain his perfection only in a city. But the name of that city is not Athens, nor Florence. It is the new Jerusalem.

Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, and a contributing editor of Touchstone Magazine. He has recently translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House).
From Magnificat, July 2007.


David Nybakke said...

Being the poor and most lowliest of bloggers I post this as a balance(?) to the article posted via Pajamas Media, "Africans to Bono: For God's Sake, Please stop!" Really, I post it for what I see in all such ideological editorializing that place economics and state (media and press and everything else governmental or other) above a centering of worship and giving glory to God as our gift to others.

The West, as related by Gil Bailie in his most recent post seems (or becoming) empty of its True Source and if that is true than our "giving" charity is not coming from a source of love and therefore does need to be examined more closely. Although Bono has done great wonders around the world, we still need to be guided not by a spirit of 'wealth', as in economic prosperity, but by a liberty only gifted to us by God through Christ, and it is this and by this gift that we can truly be charitable in ways that are a gift to others - as in the example of the poor widow below.

Mark 12:38-44
In His teaching He was saying: "Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and {like} respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows' houses, and for appearance's sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation." And He sat down opposite the treasury, and {began} observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, "Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on."

Is there a metanoia (a repentance and conversion) in your walk today? We must become 'poor' - turning all economic realities as we live out in the world on their ears - before our charity, as in the case like Africa, is a true blessing.

Athos said...

Coincidences abound, Aramis. Christopher Dawson says in an article at the Catholic Educator's Resource Center:

We find the great Fathers, St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, above all St. John Chrysostom insisting on the duty of almsgiving in language which is as disconcerting to modern ears as it no doubt was to the rich men who first heard it. 'What you give to the poor man,' says St. Ambrose, 'is not yours, but his. For what was given for the common use, you alone usurp. The earth is all men's and not the property of the rich. . . . Therefore you are paying a debt, and not bestowing a gift.'3 And St. Basil even more forcibly declares: 'He who strips a man of his garments will be called a thief. Is not he who fails to clothe the naked when he could do so worthy of the same title? It is the bread of the hungry that you hold, the clothing of the naked that you lock up in your cupboard.'

David Nybakke said...

Dear Athos,

Continuing with Christopher Dawson: "And yet the whole splendid building rested on non-moral foundations—often on mere violence and cruelty. The divine Caesar might be a Caligula or a Nero, wealth was an excuse for debauchery and the prosperity of the wealthy classes was based on the institution of slavery—not the natural household slavery of primitive civilisation, but an organised plantation-slavery which left no room for any human relation between slave and master."

It seems to me this sums up the current objections to handouts in Africa that the "Africans to Bono" article talks about and it also speaks to the Esolen post where he states: "So it is that the state can attain its perfection only by recognizing a divinity beyond it; if its dome is not the vault of stars above, it must collapse."

Continuing with Dawson:
"The Christian accepted the Roman state as a God-given order appropriate to the condition of a world in slavery to spiritual darkness, and concentrated all his hopes on the return of Christ and the final victory of the supernatural order. Meanwhile he lived as a stranger in the midst of an alien world.

"Christianity substituted membership of the Church for membership of the city as a man's fundamental and most important relationship to his fellows. In the new religious society rich and poor, bond and free, Roman citizen and foreigner, all met on an absolutely equal footing."

We know that we Christians take 1 step forward and fall back 3, but repenting and turning back toward Christ we get up and give glory to the One Who continues to call us home. In that humble acknowledgement of our creaturely-ness we are liberated from our slavery to the powers and principalities of this world and can give to another without fear of loss. Receiving under this kind of giving provides a liberty and dignity to the receiver and as well as the giver and we have true charity as a gift from God.

Athos said...

Where Dawson speaks of Christendom getting a foothold (in "An Inner Revolution"), he says:

...the social changes in the Christian Empire were by no means all for the worse. In place of a society of capitalists and financiers, where wealth was ultimately derived from usury and from the exploitation of slave labour, there grew up a hierarchic society of officials and nobles, in which each class and occupation became a fixed caste, each with its own privileges and its own obligations. Instead of the slaves of the ergastula and the chain-gang, the land was cultivated by servile or semi-servile peasants, who had acquired the right to a family life, and even to a certain amount of economic independence.

Dawson shows the distinction between the pagan empire (Rome) and that posited on Christian ideals preached, modeled, and commanded by Jesus Christ.

Lew Daly's essay that I highlight in "Catholic Social Teaching, Economics, and (The Common Good)" shows that the Tertium Genus that Dawson showed historically WORKED was still hoped for in the early 20th century. Some still hope for it today...