From The Essential Burckhardt:The Spiritual Life: Christian
Because Dante is Right
The incomparable greatness of the Divine Comedy shows itself not least in the fact that, in spite of the exceptionally wide range and variety of its influence—it even shaped the language of a nation—its full meaning has seldom been understood.
Already in Dante’s own lifetime those who ventured out upon the ocean of the spirit in the wake of his ship (Paradiso, II, 1ff) were to remain a relatively small company. They more or less disappeared with the Renaissance; the individualistic mode of thought of this period, tossed to and fro between passion and calculating reason, was already far removed from Dante’s inward-looking spirit. Even Michelangelo, though he revered his fellow-Florentine to the highest degree, could no longer understand him. (1. How greatly Michelangelo revered Dante can be seen from certain of his own sonnets. That he was not really capable of understanding him is apparent from the titanism of his sculpture: if Michelangelo had known the law of symbolism according to which higher realities are reflected in lower ones, his creations, in all their corporeality, would not have attempted to take heaven by storm.)
At the time of the Renaissance, however, people did at least still debate as to whether Dante had actually seen Heaven and hell or not. At a later date, concern with the Divine Comedy dropped to the level of a purely scientific interest that busied itself with historical connections, or of an esthetic appreciation that no longer bothered about the spiritual sense of the work at all.
Admittedly, it was known that the verses of the Divine Comedy contained more than just the superficial meaning of the narrative; Dante himself pointed this out in several places in his work and also in his Convivio (II, I), where he talks about the multiple meanings of holy scripture, and quite undisguisedly makes the same remarks apply to his own poem; the symbolical nature of the work, therefore, could not be overlooked. However, excuses were made for the poet, and his artistic mastery was even credited with enabling him to bridge over poetically “this scholastic sophistry” about multiple meanings. Thus, people fundamentally misunderstood the source upon which the poet drew for his work of creation, since the multiplicity of meaning in it is not the result of a preconceived mental construction grafted onto the actual poem; it arises directly and spontaneously out of a supra mental inspiration, which at one and the same time penetrates and shines through every level of the soul—the reason, as well as the imagination and the inward ear.
It is not “in spite of his philosophy” that Dante is a great poet; he is so thanks to his spiritual vision, and because through his art, however caught up in time it may be as regards its details, there shines forth a timeless truth, at once blissful and terrifying—in short, it is because Dante is right.
The most profound passages of the Divine Comedy are not simply those where a theological or philosophical explanation is placed in the mouth of one of the characters, nor those which possess an obviously allegorical nature; it is above all the most highly imaged and the most “concrete” expressions that are most highly charged with meaning.
How a spiritual truth, without the slightest degree of mental involvement, can congeal into an image, can be seen most easily in the metaphors that Dante uses in his description of hell, as, for example, the metaphor of the wood composed of dried-up, barren thorn bushes, in which the souls of those who took their own lives are shut up (Inferno, XIII):
it depicts a situation devoid of all freedom and all pleasure, an existence bordering on the nothingness that corresponds to the inner contradiction implied by suicide, namely a will that denies the very existence that is its own basis and substance. As the ego itself cannot cast itself into nothingness, it falls as a consequence of its destructive act into the seeming nothingness that the desolate thorn bush represents, but even there it still remains “I”, riveted to itself more than ever in its impotent suffering.
Everything that Dante says about the infernal wood serves to emphasize this truth: how the tree from which he unsuspectingly breaks off a branch, cries out at the wound and scolds him mercilessly; how, pursued by dogs, the souls of the dissolute—they, too, despisers of their God-given existence—break through the thorn wood, making it bleed; and how the tree, bereft of its branches, implores the poet to gather the broken pieces together at the foot of the trunk, as if the powerless ego imprisoned within still felt itself united with these dead and severed fragments.
Here, as in other places in the description of hell, everything in the representation possesses an uncanny sharpness, never in the slightest degree arbitrary. Dante’s images of hell are so veridical precisely because they are fashioned from the same “stuff” as that out of which the passional human soul is made.
In the description of the mount of Purgatory, a different and less immediately graspable dimension is introduced: the soul’s reality now opens out on a cosmic scale, embracing the starry heavens, day and night, and all the fragrance of things: at the sight of the earthly paradise on the summit of the mount of Purgatory, Dante conjures up in a few verses the whole miracle of spring; the earthly spring turns directly into the spring of the soul, it becomes the symbol of the original and holy state of the human soul.
In representing the purely spiritual states belonging to the celestial spheres, Dante is often obliged to make use of circumlocutions, as for example when he explains how the human spirit, by penetrating more and more deeply into the Divine Wisdom, becomes gradually transformed into it: Dante looks at Beatrice, who herself keeps her eyes fixed on the “eternal wheels”, and as he becomes more deeply absorbed in his vision of her, he experiences something like what befell Glaucus, who was turned into one of the seagods through consuming a miraculous herb:
Trasumanar significar per verba
Non si porìa; però l’esempio basti
A cui esperienza grazia serba.
To pass beyond the human state is not to be described in words; wherefore let the example satisfy him for whom grace has reserved the experience (Paradiso, I, 70–I)
If in this way the language of the cantos of the Paradiso sometimes becomes more abstract, in their turn the images that Dante uses here are even richer in meaning: they possess an inscrutable magic, which shows that Dante has seen in spirit what he seeks to express in words, and that he is to an equal degree poet and spiritual visionary, as for example when he compares the uninterrupted ascension of blessed souls, moving in response to the power of the Divine attraction, to snowflakes that are floating upwards instead of downwards (Paradiso, XXVII, 67-72).
The simpler an image is, the less restricted is its content; for it is the symbol’s prerogative, thanks to its concrete and yet open character, to be capable of expressing truths that cannot be enclosed in rationalized concepts; which, however, in no way implies that symbols have an irrational and permanently “unconscious” background.
A symbol’s meaning is completely knowable, even though it does transcend reason as such; it comes from the Spirit, and opens itself to the spirit or intellect, which Dante speaks of as the highest and innermost faculty of knowledge, a faculty that is fundamentally independent of any form, either sensory or mental, and is capable of penetrating to the imperishable essence of things:
Nel ciel che più della sua luce prende,
Fu’ io; e vidi cose che ridire
Nè sa nè può quai di lassù discende:
Perchè, appressando sè al suo disire,
Nostro intelletto si profonda tanto
Che retro la memoria non può ire.
In that heaven which most receiveth of His light, have I been; and have seen things which whoso descendeth from up there, hath neither faculty nor power to re-tell; because, as it draweth nigh to its desire, our intellect sinketh so deep, that memory cannot go back upon the track (Paradiso, I, 4-9). (See Dante’s own commentary on these verses in his letter to Can Grande della Scala: “Intellectus humanus in hac vita propter connaturalitatem et affinitatem quam habet ad substantiam separatam, quando elevatur, in tantum elevatur, ut memoriam post reditum deficiat propter transcendisse humanum modum.”)
True symbolism lies in the things themselves, in their essential qualities, which belong more to being than to becoming. This explains how Dante, in his description of the hierarchical degrees of the spiritual world, was able to relate it to the structure of the visible universe, as it appears from the earthly standpoint. This cosmic comparison was just as convincing to the medieval reader as it is unconvincing to the reader of today.
How is it possible, the latter asks, to base a genuine vision of the spiritual worlds on a scientifically incorrect view of things? In answer to this it must be said that every picture of the universe that man makes for himself can only possess a conditional and provisional accuracy; it always remains in one way or another attached to sensory experience and imagination, and hence will never be entirely free from “naïve” prejudice; it is, however, scientific to the extent that it is able to provide logically satisfying answers to the questions that man has always asked. The Ptolemaic representation of the world, which Dante used as the scaffolding for his work, was in this sense completely scientific. But at the same time it was perceptible to the eye and not so remote from sensory experience as the modern, purely mathematical explanation of the universe, and it is precisely in this clarity—a clarity that still corresponds to “naïve” perceptions—that its capacity to be a symbol resides. Because it comprehends the world
order in relationship to man, it demonstrates the inner unity joining man to the universe and the universe to God: . . . Le cose tutte quante Hann’ ordine tra loro: e questo è forma Che l’universo a Dio fa simigliante.
. . . All things whatsoever observe a mutual order; and this is the form that maketh the universe like unto God (Paradiso, I, 103).
Dante interpreted the quantitative difference between the planetary heavens that surround one another concentrically, as a qualitative gradation in accordance with the basic notion that the higher is reflected in the lower: Li cerchi corporai sono ampii ed arti Secondo il più e il men della virtute Che si distende per tutte lor parti . . . Dunque costui che tutto quanto rape L’alto universo seco, corrisponde Al cerchio che più ama e che più sape.
The corporeal circles are wider or narrower according to the greater or lesser amount of virtue that spreads through all their parts . . . Therefore the one [the highest heaven], that sweepeth with it all the rest of the universe, corresponds to the circle that most loveth and most knoweth. (Paradiso, XXVIII, 64–66; 70–72)
The geocentric—and therefore homocentric—arrangement of the planetary spheres is seen as the inverse image of the theocentric hierarchy of the angels, while hell’s pit, with its circles, is its negative reflection, to which the mount of Purgatory, thrown up in the center of the earth through Lucifer’s fall, provides the compensating counter-balance. ( The significance of Dante’s cosmography is fully discussed the earlier in this book, in the section “Cosmologia perennis” in the author’s Mirror of the Intellect and also in his Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul.) More info here: The Ascent of the Soul through the spheres
Even more than by the “antiquated” world-picture that forms the framework of the Divine Comedy, most present-day readers—and not only “freethinkers” among them—find themselves repelled by Dante’s sharp and apparently presumptuously drawn distinction between the damned, those undergoing purgation, and the blessed. To this one can reply that Dante, as a man living in the 13th century, could not have watered down psychologically the traditional teaching about salvation and damnation, nor could he have regarded the historical examples he mentions as anything but typical.
But that is not the decisive factor: Dante is completely imbued with and overwhelmed by his perception of man’s original dignity, measured against which the traces of hell in this world appear as they really are. He perceives the ray of Divine Light in man, and hence is bound also to recognize as such the darkness of soul that is refractory to that light.
For Dante, man’s original dignity consists essentially in the gift of the “Intellect”, by which is meant not merely reason or the thinking faculty, but rather that ray of light that connects the reason, and indeed the whole soul, with the Divine source of all knowledge.
This is why Dante says of the damned that they have lost the gift of the intellect (Inferno, III, 18), which is not to imply that they cannot think, since he allows of their arguing among themselves: what they lack, and what for them has been forever cast out, is the capacity to recognize God and to understand themselves and the world in relation to Him.
This capacity has its seat, as it were, in the heart, in the being’s center, where love and knowledge coincide, for which reason Dante describes true love as a kind of knowledge, and the spirit or intellect as loving: both have fundamentally one goal, which is infinite.
In the true man, all other faculties of the soul are referred to the being’s center: “I am like the center of the circle upon which every part of the circumference depends equally”, Dante makes AmorIntellectus say in his Vita Nuova, “but thou art not so” (Ego tanquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentie partes, tu autem non sic [XII, 4]). To the extent that desire and will tend away from this center, even so is the soul prevented from opening spiritually onto the Eternal: L’affetto l’intelletto lega—“passion fetters the spirit” (Paradiso, XIII, 20).
When Dante says of the damned that they have lost the gift of the Intellect, this means that in their case the will has become completely alienated from the center of their being.
With them, the God-denying of the will has become the ruling impulse: they go to hell because basically hell is what they want: “Those who die in the wrath of God cross over Acheron quickly, since Divine justice spurs them on, so that fear is turned into desire” (Inferno, III, 121-126).
It is different for the souls who have to endure the punishments of Purgatory: their will has not repudiated the Divine in man, but has simply looked for it in the wrong place; in their longing for the Infinite, they have allowed themselves to be deceived: “I clearly see,” says Beatrice to Dante, in one place in the Paradiso, “how in thy spirit already is reflected the Eternal Light, which, no sooner seen, ever enkindles love; and if aught else seduce thy love, it is naught but some vestige of that light, ill understood, that shineth through therein” (V, 7–12).
When at death the object of passion, and its illusion regarding the Divine good, fall away, these souls experience their passion as it really is, namely as a burning up of oneself on an appearance that only causes pain.
By coming up against the limits of the enjoyment they sought, they learn to know, negatively and indirectly, what Divine Reality is, and this knowledge is their contrition. Because of this, their falselydirected impulse is gradually exhausted; it continues to work within them—but now without the consent of their hearts—until the denial of their denial turns into the affirmation of the original, Godward-directed freedom:
Della mondizia il sol voler far prova, Che, tutto libero a mutar convento, L’alma sorprende, ed il voler le giova. Prima vuol ben, ma non lascia il talento Che divina giustizia contra voglia Come fu al peccar, pone al tormento.
The will alone proves the state of cleansing that has been reached; the will, now fully free, invades the soul, which now is capable of what she will. She wills well before, but that urge permits it not, which, just as it once inclined towards sin, is now directed by divine justice towards punishment, against her own will (Purgatorio, XXI, 61–66).
Here we are touching upon one of the main themes of the Divine Comedy, which we must investigate more closely, even if to do so should divert us somewhat from our opening subjects; it is the question of the reciprocal relationship between knowledge and will, on which Dante, throughout his work, throws light from all sides.
Knowledge of the eternal truths is potentially present in the human spirit or intellect, but its unfolding is directly conditioned by the will, negatively when the soul falls into sin, and positively when this fall is overcome. The different punishments in Purgatory that Dante describes can be regarded, not only as posthumous states, but also as stages in ascesis, that lead to the integral and primordial condition, in which knowledge and will—or, more precisely, knowledge of man’s eternal goal and his striving after pleasure—are no longer separated from one another.
At the moment when Dante sets foot in the earthly paradise, at the summit of the mount of Purgatory, Virgil says to him: Non aspettar mio dir più nè mio cenno: Libero, dritto, sano è tuo arbitrio, E fallo fora non fare a suo senno: Perch’io te sopra te corono e mitrio.
No longer expect my counsel nor my sign: for free, upright, and whole is thy judgement, and it were a fault not to act according to its promptings; wherefore I crown and miter thee over thyself (Purgatorio, XXVII, 139–142).
The earthly paradise is as it were the cosmic “place” where the ray of the Divine Spirit, which pierces through all the Heavens, touches the human state, since from here on Dante is raised up to God by Beatrice.
That this place should be the summit of a mountain overtopping the whole earthly region corresponds quite simply to the nature of the earthly paradise itself.
A question arises here: what is the meaning of the fact that Dante himself scales the mount of Purgatory without suffering a single one of the punishments through which others atone for their faults? Only at the last stage does he have to walk quickly through the fire so as to reach the earthly paradise (Purgatorio, XXVII, 1 off).
Stage by stage the angels of the gates erase the marks of sin from his forehead: on reaching the summit, Virgil acknowledges his sanctity, and yet shortly thereafter Beatrice meets him with burning reproaches that move him to agonizing repentance (Purgatorio, XXX, 55ff).
The meaning of all this can only be that the way taken by Dante, thanks to a special grace, is not a path of merit, but a path of knowledge.
When Virgil says that for him there is no other way to Beatrice, to Divine Wisdom, except by passing directly through hell, this shows that knowledge of God is to be attained along the path of self-knowledge: self-knowledge implies taking the measure of the abysses contained in human nature and consciously shedding every self-deception that has its roots in the passional soul: there exists no greater self-denial than this, and hence also no greater atonement. Properly understood, what Beatrice reproaches Dante for is not some actual sin, but simply that he has lingered too long in contemplation of her reflected earthly radiance, instead of following her into the realm of the invisible.
In repenting of this, Dante throws off the last fetter binding him to this world. Much could be said here about the meaning of the two rivers of Paradise, Lethe and Eunoe, the first of which washes away the memory of sin, while the other restores the memory of good deeds; but we must return to our consideration of the will-knowledge theme.
Whereas, in those who sin, the will conditions the degree of their knowledge, in the elect the will flows from the knowledge of the divine order that they possess. This means that their will is the spontaneous expression of their vision of God, and for that reason the rank of their position in Heaven implies no constraint at all, as the soul of Piccarda Donati explains to the poet in the moonheaven, in answer to his question whether the blessed in one sphere might not desire to occupy some higher sphere “in order to behold more and be more deeply loved?”
Frate, la nostra volontà quieta Virtù di carità che fa volerne Sol quel ch’avemo, e d’altro non ci asseta. Se disiassimo esser più superne, Foran discordi li nostri disiri Dal voler di Colui che qui ci cerne; Che vedrai non capere in questi giri S’essere in caritate è qui necesse. E la sua natura ben rimiri: Anzi è formale a questo beato esse Tenersi dentro alla divina voglia, Perch’ una fansi nostre voglie stesse: Sì che come noi siam di soglia in soglia Per questo regno, a tutto il regno piace, Com’ allo Re che in suo voler ne invoglia: In la sua volontade è nostra pace: Ella è quel mare al qual tutto si muove Ciò ch’ella cria o che natura face.
Brother, the quality of love stilleth our will, and maketh us long only for what we have, and giveth us no other thirst. Did we desire to be more highly placed, our longings were discordant from His will who assigns us to this place. But that, as thou wilt see, cannot happen in these circles, since here of necessity love rules. And when thou dost rightly consider its nature, so wilt thou understand how it is of the essence of beatitude to exist in harmony with the divine will, so that our own wills themselves become one. Our being thus, from threshold to threshold throughout the realm, is joy to all the realm as to the king, who draweth our wills to what He willeth: in His will is our peace; it is that sea to which all moves that it createth and that nature maketh (Paradiso, III, 70–87).
Submission to the Divine will is not lack of freedom: on the contrary, the will that revolts against God falls under compulsion on that very account,5 for which reason those who die “in the wrath of God” are quick to reach hell, “since divine justice spurs them on” (Inferno, III, 121–6), and the seeming freedom of passion turns into dependence upon the urge which, “just as it once inclined towards sin, is now directed by divine justice towards punishment against her (the soul’s) own will” (Purgatorio, XXX, 61–6), whereas the will of him who knows God springs from the source of freedom itself.( Note: The justification for the forcible defending and diffusion of a religion rests precisely on the thought that truth alone liberates while error enslaves. If man is free to choose between truth and error, then he deprives himself of freedom the moment he decides in favor of the latter.)
Thus, real freedom of the will depends upon its relationship with the truth, which forms the content of essential knowledge.
Conversely, the highest vision of God, of which Dante speaks in his work, is in accord with the spontaneous fulfillment of the divine will. Here knowledge has become one with divine truth and will has become one with divine love; both qualities reveal themselves as aspects of Divine Being, the one static and the other dynamic.
This is the ultimate message of the Divine Comedy, and also the answer to Dante’s effort to comprehend the human being’s eternal origin in the Divinity:
Ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne; Se non che la mia mente fu percossa Da un fulgore, in che sua voglia venne. All’alta fantasia qui mancò possa; Ma già volgeva il mio disiro e velle, Si come ruota ch’egualmente è mossa, L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle.
But not for this did my own wings suffice; yet was my spirit smitten suddenly with a flash, whereupon its will found fulfillment. Here the power of high fantasy failed; but already my desire and my will were as a wheel that turned regularly, driven by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars (Paradiso, XXXIII, 139–145).
Some scholars take the view that Beatrice never lived, and that everything that Dante says about her refers only to Divine Wisdom (Sophia). This opinion illustrates the confusion between genuine symbolism and allegory, taking the latter term in the sense attributed to it since the Renaissance: taken in that sense, an allegory is more or less a mental invention, an artificial clothing for general ideas, whereas genuine symbolism, as we have said, lies in the very essence of things.
That Dante should have bestowed upon Divine Wisdom the image and name of a beautiful and noble woman is in accordance with a compelling law, not merely because Divine Wisdom, in so far as it is the object of knowledge, includes an aspect which precisely is feminine, in the highest sense, but also because the presence of the divine Sophia manifested itself first and foremost to him in the appearance of the beloved woman.
Herein, a key is provided that enables us to understand, at least in principle, the spiritual alchemy whereby the poet is able to transpose sensory appearances into supra-sensory essences: when love encompasses the entire will and causes it to flow towards the center of the being, it can become knowledge of God.
The operative means between love and knowledge is beauty: when experienced in its inexhaustible essence—which confers release from all constraints—an aspect of Divine Wisdom is already within it, so that even sexual attraction may lead to knowledge of the Divine, to the extent that passion is absorbed and consumed by love, and passion likewise transformed by the experience of beauty.
The fire that Dante has to pass through at the last stage before entering the Earthly Paradise (Purgatorio, XXVII) is the same as the fire in which the lustful are purged of their sin. “This wall alone stands between thee and Beatrice,” says Virgil to Dante, as the latter shrinks from stepping through the flames (ibid, 36). “While I was in them,” Dante says, “I could have wished to throw myself into molten glass to cool myself” (ibid, 49-50).
The immortal Beatrice greets Dante sternly at first (Purgatorio, XXX, 103ff), but then with fervent love, and as she leads him upwards through the heavenly spheres she unveils her beauty to him more and more, which his regard can scarcely bear. It is significant that here Dante no longer stresses the moral beauty of Beatrice—her goodness, innocence, and humility—as he did in his Vita Nuova, but speaks quite simply of her visible beauty; what is most outward has here become the image of what is most inward, sensory observation the expression of spiritual vision.
At the beginning, Dante is not yet capable of looking directly at the Divine Light, but sees it mirrored in Beatrice’s eyes (Paradiso, XVIII, 82–4). Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore: Fecemi la divina potestate La somma sapienza e il primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fur cose create Se non eterne, ed io eterno duro: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.
Justice moved my exalted Maker: Divine Power made me, Wisdom supreme and primal Love. Before me were no things created, except the eternal, and eternal I endure: abandon all hope, ye that enter. (Inferno,III, 1–9)
Faced with these famous words, which stand inscribed upon the gate of hell, many a present-day reader is inclined to say: Maestro, il senso lor m’è duro—“Master, their meaning is hard for me to understand” (ibid, 12), because it is difficult for him to reconcile the idea of eternal damnation with the idea of divine love—il primo amore.
But for Dante, divine love is the origin, pure and simple, of creation: it is the overflowing of the eternal which endows the world, created “out of nothing”, with existence, and thus permits its participation in Divine Being. In so far as the world is different from God, it has, as it were, its roots in nothingness; it necessarily includes a God-denying element, and the boundless extent of divine love is revealed precisely in the fact that it even permits this denying of God and grants it existence.
Thus the existence of the infernal possibilities depends upon divine love, while at the same time these possibilities are judged through divine justice as the negation that indeed they are. “Before me was nothing created, except the eternal, and I endure eternally”: the Semitic languages distinguish between eternity, which pertains to God alone and is an eternal now, and the endless duration which pertains to the posthumous states: the Latin language does not make this distinction, and thus Dante likewise cannot express it in words.
Yet who knew better than Dante that the duration of the beyond is not the same thing as God’s eternity, just as the timeless existence of the angelic worlds is not the same thing as the duration of hell, which is like a congealed time. For if the state of the damned, viewed in itself, has no end, nevertheless in God’s sight it can only be finite. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter”: it could also be said, conversely: whoever still hopes in God will not need to pass through this gate. The condition of the damned is precisely hopelessness, since hope is the hand held out for the reception of grace.
To the modern reader, it seems strange that Virgil, the wise and good, who was able to lead Dante to the summit of the mount of Purgatory, should have to reside like all the other sages and noble heroes of antiquity in limbo, the ante-chamber of hell.
But Dante could not transfer the unbaptized Virgil into any of the Heavens attainable through grace. If, however, we look a little more closely, we become aware of a remarkable rift in Dante’s work, which seems to hint at a dimension that was not developed further: in general, limbo is described as a gloomy place, without light and without sky, but as soon as Dante, together with Virgil, has entered the “noble castle” where the sages of old walk upon “emerald lawns”, he speaks of an “open, luminous, and high place” (Inferno, IV, 115ff), as though he no longer found himself in the underworld covered by the earth. Men there are “of slow and deep gaze, of great dignity in their behavior, and speak seldom, with mild voices” (ibid, 112-114). All this no longer has anything to do with hell, but neither does it lie directly within range of Christian grace. In this connection, the question arises: did Dante adopt an exclusively negative attitude towards non-Christian religions? In a passage in the Paradiso, where he numbers the Trojan prince Ripheus among the elect, he speaks of the unfathomable nature of divine grace and warns us not to be precipitate in our judgement (XX, 67ff). What else could Ripheus be for Dante, other than some distant, innocent example of an extra-ecclesiastical saint? We do not say “extra-Christian”, because for Dante every revelation of God in man is Christ. And this leads to yet another question: did Dante, in creating the Divine Comedy, draw consciously upon certain Islamic mystical works, which show various analogies with it? The type of epic poem describing the path of the knower of God in symbolical form is not rare in the Islamic world. It may be surmised that certain of these works were translated into the Provençal language, and we know that the community of the “Fedeli d’Amore” to which Dante belonged, was in communication with the Order of the Temple, which was established in the East and open to the intellectual world of Islam.
The argument can be carried a long way, and one can find a prototype in Islamic esoteric writings for almost every important element in the Divine Comedy—for the interpretation of the planetary spheres as stages in spiritual knowledge, for the divisions of hell, for the figure and role of Beatrice, and much else besides.
However, in view of certain passages in Dante’s Inferno (XXVIII, 22), it is scarcely credible that he can have known Islam and recognized it as a true religion. A more likely explanation is that he drew on writings that were not themselves Islamic, but were directly influenced by Islamic doctrines, and it is probable that what actually reached Dante through these channels amounted to much less than comparative research would have us suppose. ( Note: . Important in this respect is MS. Latin 3236A in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, first published by M. T. D’Alverny in Archives d’Histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen-Âge, 1940 (42). It was also referred to in the author’s book on alchemy. It is related to the Divine Comedy in many ways, and all the more remarkably in that it expressly names the founders of the three monotheistic religions, Moses, Christ, and Mohammed, as the true teachers of the way to God through knowledge.)
Spiritual truths are what they are, and minds can encounter one another at a certain level of insight without ever having heard of one another on an earthly plane. What matters is not so much what Dante was influenced by, as the fact that he was right: the teachings contained in his Divine Comedy are all valid, those in the foreground in the sense of the general Christian belief, and the more hidden ones—for example, the teaching on the mutual relationship between will and knowledge discussed above—in terms of gnosis in the Christian sense of the word.
It is significant in this connection that Dante was not self-deceived about his own person, and that he could observe himself from an impersonal point of view: he assessed himself correctly when he counted himself amongst the six greatest poets of all ages (Inferno, IV, 100-102), and he rightly allows Virgil to say of him: Alma sdegnosa, benedetta colei che in te s’incinse!—“Soul disdainful (of all that is vulgar), blessed be she that bore thee!” (Inferno, VIII, 4445)
He was equally unmistaken when he condemned the Papal policy of his time, since it led to the secular explosion of the Renaissance and the Lutheran secession. His chief spiritual legacy, however, lies in the symbols and imagery of his poem, which neither profane philosophical research nor any “psychology” will ever exhaust. They bear the seal of an inspiration independent of all temporal and spatial circumstances, and the spiritual nourishment they offer is reserved for those who, as Dante says, “in the temporal world already stretch out their necks for the bread of the angels, by which one lives here, but is never sated” (Paradiso, II, 10).
(from Mirror of the Intellect: Essays on Traditional Science and Sacred Art
The present volume is a complete collection of Burckhardt’s essays, originally published in a variety of German and French journals. They range from modern science in its various forms, through Christianity and Islam, to symbolism and mythology. It is a rich collection. Burckhardt blends an accessible style with a penetrating insight. He interprets the metaphysical, cosmological, and symbolic dimensions of these sacred traditions from the perspective of timeless, spiritual wisdom. Read here
for further Reading:
Dark Way to Paradise: Dante’s Inferno in Light of the Spiritual Path
Dante’s Inferno is often presented today in lurid ‘gothic’ terms as if it were no more than an entertaining demonic freak-show. Alternately, it is taken as merely a cultural and political commentary on Dante’s own place and time, cast in allegorical terms. But the Inferno, and the Divine Comedy as a whole, are much more than that. The human passions, and the Mystery of Iniquity of which they are expressions, are fundamentally the same in any place and time; the Inferno presents not so much a history of sin as a catalogue of the archetypes of sin, the fundamental ways in which all of us are tempted to betray the human form. Based on the works of a number of the Greek Fathers, on the writings of several members of the Traditionalist School, notably Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon, and on the kind of wide personal experience of the violation of the human form that is available to anyone in these times with both the requisite discernment-rooted in love-and the courage to keep his or her eyes open, Jennifer Doane Upton has once again seen Dante’s Inferno as it really is. It is the record of the struggle of the human mind, will, and emotions to discover and name, by the grace of God, the sins resident in the human soul. As both a traditional re-presentation and a contemporary revisioning of the ‘examination of conscience’, individual and collective, Dark Way to Paradise is at once an exegetical masterpiece and a handbook of demonology of concrete use to any true physician of the soul. In its direct application of metaphysical principles to ‘infernal psychology’, it is unique among Dante commentaries. And in a time like ours, when the Western Church appears to be dissolving before our eyes, to save again what Dante himself saved out of the great medieval Christian synthesis has never been so timely.
- The Ordeal of Mercy: Dante’s Purgatorio in Light of the Spiritual Path/The vertical path
The Ordeal of Mercy is a book of wide erudition and simple style; its goal is to present the Purgatorio, according to the science of spiritual psychology, as a practical guide to travelers on the Spiritual Path. The author draws upon many sources: the Greek Fathers, notably Maximos the Confessor; St. John Climacus; Fathers and Doctors of the Latin Church, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas; John Donne, William Blake and other metaphysical poets; the doctrines of Dante’s own initiatory lineage, the Fedeli d’Amore; the modern Eastern Orthodox writers Pavel Florensky and Jean-Claude Larchet; and the writings of the Traditionalist/Perennialist School, including René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Martin Lings, Leo Schaya, and Titus Burckhardt.
Other exegetes of Dante have dealt with the overall architecture of the Divine Comedy, its astronomical and numerical symbolism, its philosophical underpinnings, and its historical context. Jennifer Doane Upton, however–while preserving the narrative flow of the Purgatorio and making many cogent observations about its metaphysics–directs our attention instead to many of its “minute particulars,” unveiling their depth and symbolic resonance. She presents the ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory as a series of timeless steps, each of which must be plumbed to its depths before the next step arrives; in doing so she demonstrates how the center of this journey of purgation is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere.
In the words of the author, “The soul in its journey must divest itself of extraneous tendencies and desires in order to become the ‘simple’ soul of theology–the soul of one essence, of one will, of one mind. If it can do this it will reach Paradise, its true homeland.”
“The Ordeal of Mercy is the finest commentary on Dante’s Puragtorio that I have ever read, an indispensable book for all those who want to understand the paradoxical dance of grace on the path to liberation.”–Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism
“The Ordeal of Mercy presents a detailed and erudite metaphysical commentary on the Cantos of the Purgatorio section of Dante Alighieri’s ‘Fifth Gospel,’ La Divina Commedia, one that is clearly the fruit of extensive research combined with deep contemplation. Dante himself said that his poem had an interior sense beyond the surface meaning; Jennifer Doane Upton’s approach accordingly opens the Cantos of Purgatorio–whether we take it as an account of purgation in the post-mortem realms or as the passage through this present life understood as an ‘ordeal of mercy’–to the eye of initiatic apprehension, the eye of the Heart. Seemingly minor motifs are homed in on to reveal their deep significance, as well as their place in the broader pattern of the Purgatorio, which corresponds to the stage of Purgation on the Christian Way.”–Nigel Jackson,
More Info on website of Charles Upton