When one lets drip a drop of water into a placid lake, what happens? A ripple of concentric circles occurs.
What then is the drop of water, exactly? Is it the water which drops into and merges with the larger body of water, or is it the ripples it creates? In the same vein, does one judge a tree based on its height or the shade that it casts? And would one judge a human by the body he or she possesses or by the effects which he or she has?
Consider then the relationship between Virgil and Dante. Often, students have tremendous trouble with the fact that Virgil, like a man holding a candle behind him, who lights the way for others, without himself receiving any benefit, leads Statius and Dante to their conversions, but he is himself “un-saved”. And though his effects be so grand, he is himself relegated to Hell. Therefore, one must wonder this: s Virgil the shade that he leaves in Hell or the effect he has had on his students, like Statius and then Dante? If Dante and Statius are saved through Virgil’s wisdom, does Virgil live on through them? Though Dante did not have access to the works of Homer, the answer may reside at the very end of Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey at the very end of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld (Nekyia).
“And then I noticed mighty Hercules,
or at least his image, for he himself
was with immortal gods, enjoying their feasts.
Hebe with the lovely ankles is his wife,
daughter of great Zeus and Hera, goddess
of the golden sandals. Around him there
the dead were making noises, like birds
fluttering to and fro quite terrified.
And like dark night, he was glaring round him,
his unsheathed bow in hand, with an arrow
on the string, as if prepared to shoot.
The strap across his chest was frightening,
a golden belt inlaid with images—
amazing things—bears, wild boars, and lions
with glittering eyes, battles, fights, and murders,
men being killed. I hope whoever made it,
the one whose skill conceived that belt’s design,
never made or ever makes another.
His eyes saw me and knew just who I was.
With a mournful tone he spoke to me—
his words had wings:
son of Laertes and a child of Zeus,
are you now bearing an unhappy fate
below the sunlight, as I, too, did once?
I was a son of Zeus, son of Cronos,
and yet I had to bear countless troubles,
forced to carry out labours for a man
vastly inferior to me, someone
who kept assigning me the harshest tasks.
Once he sent me here to bring away
Hades’ hound. There was no other challenge
he could dream up more difficult for me
than that one. But I carried the dog off
and brought him back from Hades with my guides,
Hermes and gleaming-eyed Athena.’
Here we learn that might Herakles (Hercules is the Romanized name), has left a shade in the underworld as well as become a god. What, exactly, does this mean? This means, like with Orion and Minos, that Herakles continues to do in death what he did in life, hunting down animals and accomplishing feats–in contrast to Achilleus who while living believed “all men were held in a single honor, both the heroes and the cowards,” (Iliad Book IX), but now in the underworld he would rather work as the thrall to a poor man rather than rule over all the “perished dead.” Achilleus, as opposed to Orion, Minos, and Herakles is never happy with where he is, whether living or dead. And thus he is immortally discontent. Herakles, Orion, and Minos, however all continue to serve while dead in the same way that they lived. And in fact in Dante’s Commedia, Minos will receive the high honor of judging and placing the dead. But what does it mean that Herakles “he himself was with immortal gods?” And how does that relate to whether Virgil is more his shade in hell or the effect he has had on his students? It means this: the shade left behind represents the action of the person while he or she lived: so if such a person was happy, he remains happy: Orion. If he were discontent, he remains so: Achilleus. If he were resentful, he remains so: Aias the Greater. So what does it mean that Herakles became a god as well and is “with the Olympians”? It means precisely the same thing as Statius joining with Paradise at the end of Dante’s Purgatorio. If Virgil left an effect in this world, or an epic poem called The Aeneid, and also his Eclogues and Georgics, and from those, Statius received the divine wisdom or truth which turned him (converted) towards “the light” or from material and temporary pursuits to eternal ones, then is not what was eternal within Virgil, then transmitted (in sort of a transmigratory way) to Statius? And if Statius then ascends to heaven as an effect of Virgil’s work, does not Virgil, truly, ascend to heaven alongside him, leaving only his shade, or worldly actions, behind him?
Let us add to this: If Dante has been guided along through the Inferno and Purgatorio by Virgil, is not any impression which he leaves regarding such experiences, but proxy, also an impression left of Virgil? Now of course, Virgil is not present for the unveiling of the full Divine Mystery which is unveiled over the last two cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio, so yes, it is true that he never fully understood his own wisdom, but if one lives on through his or her effects, would not the work which Virgil has left and Dante be their shades, and their continuing impressions on current humans their “being with the Olympians”. They, then, would share their “living knowledge” with those who are living eternally, through that which they have left. Therefore, though they were but drops of a water, dropped into the ocean of this world, their ripples continue on through all those who learn from them, and they are eternal in this way.
*This article might just as well be entitled, “On the Eternal Life”
*Does the conclusion of this article explain why we as a culture hold “selfies” in such disdain, and Narcissus? Because the effect one has is what one is, not one’s image. Thus is focusing on the image vulgar, or common.