Gospel & Universe

Aquinas & Dante

This page argues that the claims of religion are neither supported nor swept away by reason, yet the Medieval religious universe evoked so poetically in Dante's epic holds within it the seeds of its own demise. 

Summa Theologica - The Divine Comedy

Summa Theologica

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.

Detail from "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes" by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–97) -- Wikipedia

Detail from "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes" by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–97) -- Wikipedia

This aphorism gets at key differences between belief, disbelief, and doubt. For believers, the first part of the aphorism -- To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary -- has been true since the end of the late Classical Age, and continues to be true to this day. It suggests that faith doesn't need to be explained in any way -- not by the logic of Augustine or Aquinas, and not even by a biblical chronology that starts in 4004 BC. In this lies the enduring quality of the statement: if it doesn't matter whether or not faith can be explained, faith can't be explained away.

The second half -- To one without faith, no explanation is possible -- is trickier to get at. For atheists without faith, a scientific explanation has become possible. Yet for agnostics without faith, the rational or material explanation lacks a certain ils ne savent quoi. It's the most convincing explanation we've got, but agnostics still wonder, Could there be more? 

The aphorism appears to paraphrase a short passage from Summa Theologica (1274), written by Thomas Aquinas.* Regardless of its origin, the aphorism crystallizes a perception of reality shared by many of the great thinkers of the Medieval period. It seems to come from a world in which a scientific explanation for reality wasn't possible. As a result, people often discarded empirical explanation, as if it were categorically inferior to revelation. In such a world Aquinas felt it was reasonable to write a Summa Theologica (1274), that is, a work that sums up the design and meaning of God's universe. 


The Divine Comedy

This is also the world in which Dante presented a poetic panoply of the universe, complete with the meanings of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. In Domenico di Michelino's 1465 fresco (below), Dante is opening the text of his long poem, The Divine Comedy (1320). The text he's reading explores the subterranean, terrestrial, and etherial realms we see in the fresco. 


This is the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise through which Dante is guided -- first by the Roman poet Virgil and then by the Florentine woman who Dante loved platonically all his life, Beatrice Portinari. En route, Dante explains the meaning of everything, from the depths of the earth where Satan is jammed in his icy lake, to the farthest reaches of the sky, where a Blessed Rose of angelic spirits circles the ineffable presence of God.  

(Wood engravings by Gustave Doré, published in 1866 and 67.)

Dante supplies us with perhaps the finest and most powerful vision of the Medieval afterlife. The poem starts with the famous lines, In the middle of our life's road / I found myself in a dark wood, / the straight path being lost to me. (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, / ché la diritta via era smarrita). He then takes a dangerous journey into Hell and up the Mountain of Purgatory. From the top of the divine mountain he ascends to Heaven, with a warning to any who would follow him:

O you in a small boat who desire to hear and follow closely my singing ship, turn back to look again upon the shore; don't put out to sea, because if you lose me you'll be lost. The water that I sail on has never been sailed before; 

O voi che siete in piccioletta barca, desiderosi d'ascoltar, seguiti dietro al mio legno che cantando varca, tornate a riveder li vostri liti: non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse, perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti. L'acqua ch'io prendo già mai non si corse;  (Paradiso, 2.1-7)

Dante's use of nautical imagery is striking in that it describes his flight to Heaven as if he were sailing in a boat. To me, this detail not only indicates the debt Dante openly paid to the Classical writers Homer and Virgil, but also the debt that the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition doesn't acknowledge to the Ancient world.

Dante's use of nautical imagery to describe a flight into air seems odd on the surface. Yet it makes poetic sense in that it echoes the ocean journeys described in Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. In Homer's epic, Odysseus is directed by the sorceress Circe to sail to a western river, where he communes with the sunken dead (Achilles, Tiresias, his mother, etc.) and then sails back to his wife Penelope on the island of Ithaca. In Virgil's epic, Aeneas sails from the ruins of Troy to Carthage, where he falls in love with Dido. Then, fated to found Rome, he sails to Sicily -- leaving Dido on her funeral pyre, marriage bed and all. Aeneas is then guided by the famous prophetess of Cumae to an Underworld, which is a more developed version of the one in the Odyssey. Finally, Aeneas reaches Rome, 'the eternal city.' Dante borrows from both the Odyssey and the Aeneid, especially from their journeys to the afterlife and from their interviews with the souls of the departed: much of The Divine Comedy is made up of interviews with the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

Charon Crossing the Styx  (main portion), by Joachim Patinir, c 1515-24, Prado Museum, Madrid (Wikimedia Commons)

Charon Crossing the Styx (main portion), by Joachim Patinir, c 1515-24, Prado Museum, Madrid (Wikimedia Commons)

The idea of a journey to the afterlife -- especially when combined with the Graeco-Roman figure of the boatman Charon (above) -- reverberates in a distant, uncanny way with the earliest work of world literature, Gilgamesh. Originating in the Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations of the third and second millennia BC, Gilgamesh recounts the exploits of a king who probably existed in the early 3rd millennium BC. In this story, Gilgamesh sails to Dilmun, guided by the boatman Urshanabi. When they get to Dilmun, Gilgamesh interviews Utnapishtim, the only human who has been granted immortality.

The reason Utnapishtim gets to live eternally -- unlike Gilgamesh or anyone else -- is perhaps the most surprising bit of literary archaeology to confront the Judeo-Christian world: Utnapishtim built an ark and saved all life on earth. This occurred after the earth was flooded because a god was angry.

If Utnapishtim is the pagan original for Noah (and the details of the two stories strongly suggest this, as I discuss in The Currents of Sumer) and if Dante's journey to the afterlife is prefigured numerous times and in numerous ways in pagan literature, it becomes more difficult to believe the Italian poet when he says that his journey is original:

The watery path I take has never been taken; / Minerva breathes [into the sails], Apollo guides me, and the nine Muses show me [the constellation of] the Bear.  

L'acqua ch'io prendo già mai non si corse; / Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo, / e nove Muse mi dimostran l'Orse. (Paradiso, 2.7-9)

One could argue that Dante's journey is original in the sense that the pagans of the Ancient and Classical world never imagined sailing to a Heaven full of Grace. The pagan afterlife was -- like the early Hebrew one -- downward, dark, and pessimistic. One could also argue that Dante simply does to literature what Augustine did to Christianity: he blends Classical and Christian, always asserting that the latter is superior to the former. Like Milton after him, he uses and refers to Classical pagan models, but he turns them into Christian ones.

Yet there's at least one enormous problem with this: key aspects of his Christian story -- key aspects not just going back 2000, but 4000 years -- come from civilizations whose overall view of the universe had nothing to do with monotheism or Jesus, or with the certainties of Dante and the Medieval popes of Italy and France. The Medieval view of such things as the afterlife and the Flood assert a monotheistic certainty that's undermined by the very components of its construction.

I will return to this narrative archaeology in The Confused Astronomers of Babylon, especially in the sub-section The Currents of Sumer. Here I want to continue fleshing out the Medieval view of the universe -- by first suggesting a way that Dante's vision might be seen in terms of agnosticism (in the following section, Primum Mobile), and then by contrasting Aquinas and Dante to Boccaccio and Chaucer (in Don't Forget the Miller). For while Aquinas presented us with the sum of all things, and while Dante’s vision was steeped in the topographies of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Heaven, not all Medieval writers were so pre-occupied with the over-arching, otherworldly Scheme of Things. Writers like Boccaccio and Chaucer were more interested in specific human truths than in the Whole Truth and nothing but the Truth



* According to Don McMaster, this quote "appears to be a loose paraphrase of S.T. II-II, Q. 1, Art. 5, reply obj. 1: Unbelievers are in ignorance of things that are of faith, for neither do they see or know them in themselves, nor do they know them to be credible. The faithful, on the other hand, know them, not as by demonstration, but by the light of faith which makes them see that they ought to believe them, as stated above (A. 4, ad 2, 3)." (from http://www.fisheaters.com/forums/index.php?topic=3154091.0)


Next: Primum Mobile

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