The following piece is a philosophical consideration and extension of questions and thoughts my students shared with me throughout the day today. Each question or thought is the product of over a year and a half of thought on the part of each student, and was seen as so superb that I decided I had to personally engage with each one in greater detail below.

A student figured out that (a) in the Inferno one spends one’s time suffering, like living in the sensible world alone. In the Purgatorio, one splits one’s time evenly between suffering and reflecting, and in Paradise, one is simply a reflection, or rather, reflecting. This is perfect if one thinks about it. What is living in the purely sensory world, or Hell, but the endless drudgery of Sisyphos where nothing is ever truly done? One problem always follows another ad infinitem. Then, consider Purgatory, souls spend equal time in their day suffering (but we call it striving because they have a goal in mind), and reflecting on their past actions. Once they reach the end of Purgatory, they no longer need the memories of their past actions, because they have “gotten the message” or “thought through” all of them and understood their meanings. The body (or whatever remains as an effect of bodily sin) is also burned away before one ascends. In Paradise, Once one is then relieved of both bodily sensation and potentially hindering (formerly true but no longer) memories, one is free to conduct pure reflection. One may then completely reflect the Divine Will (absolute will) to whatever extent one’s nature is capable without the hindrances of pleasure and pain (both take one’s time and energy) and of potentially painful and limiting memories. One’s will may then align with the divine, because bodily desire, or the part of the soul mixed most with the body, no longer exists.

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(The River Lethe–when memories fade, they cease obscuring the reflection of the eternally constant (moving) waters below.)

A second student compared the process of expurgating bodily sin in Purgatory in order to become pure or purely immaterial in order to enter Paradise as the same as offering a “burnt sacrifice” to the gods in Achaian times (Ancient Greek times). The Ancient Greek custom of burning a sacrifice was based on the mythological tale that Prometheus once tricked Zeus (so like Loki and Thor) into choosing the “bad” part of the meat for the gods and the good parts for humans by disguising their looks. Since then, the mortals would sacrifice the poor parts of the meats to the gods by discarding them, but truly they would offer the smell of the food to the gods and themselves take the material into themselves, indicating at least an early awareness of the distinction between tangible and intangible, or matter and form. In the same way, this student clearly observed that the Mountain of Purgatory involves a rising action, like a flame, where one becomes lighter and lighter as one’s bodily sensations begin to disappear as one becomes more and more formal and less and less material, just as the bottom of a fire is completely rooted to wood, and its top is ever striving towards the heavens. Are we not so like fire ourselves as we purge ourselves in order to become pure ether?

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(Souls burning away sin in Purgatory)

Later, the same student asked whether Aristotle said that analogy is the highest form of wisdom (I told him for Aquinas, yes, metaphor for Aristotle), so he asked whether the function of the imagination is to present images to the mind in order for it to find the connection between them. Yes, that is the purpose of both imagination and memory. Let us take the example of the use of memory for the purpose of reflection in Dante’s Purgatorio. During the Purgatorio, one must maintain his memory in order to understand the significance of his actions. Some people, like Statius, take 1,200 years to do this, which makes sense considering how much one would have to sift through. That said, the purpose then of memories is to learn from them what can be learned. Memories do not exist for themselves then as they are temporal and limited in nature but to be used in forming connections between “things” in order to see a timeless and universal principle. Once one has used one’s memories to do this, it is time for them to be discarded (as will be explained below.)

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(Aristotle says that “imagination is a faint perception”.)

Another student suggested that the reason that one’s contingent will does not always “reflect” the absolute will is because of one’s human desire. This makes sense, because the lowest part of the soul for Plato, which Dante knew, was the desirous (the rational soul uses the spirited soul to restrain it; 3 parts in total). So, the reason the angels perfectly align their wills with the absolute will is because they lack material and therefore desire. A human, therefore, is drawn from the absolute will by his desire, and specifically his desire for material things.

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(Angels surrounding the Divine)

When laying out the difficulty of whether a form can move through “space” and then be “received” by one’s rational intellect as a form, a student suggested that the mind is “pure reflection.” The problem is this: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Dante split all “things” into form and matter. In order for a “thing” to move it must be material in some way, as motion and time constrict physical motion. A form, however, is immaterial in nature, so it cannot move. How, then, does the form of a rock enter one’s head? The answer is that it does not. As one’s mind “is made of” form, and form exists both inside a human (as soul) and outside as (heaven/the forms of all material objects), then one’s mind simply reflects the form outside. That which is outside, therefore, is the same as that which is within, which has been proven in another place.

The students also figured out today that the concept of truth is itself composed of form (true) and matter (facts (from Latin factum: a thing done or made). The reason they perceived facts to be the matter of truth was the nature of empirical science. As that which is used as scientific justification will just as likely be absurd tomorrow based on the ever-changing nature of science (imagine speaking about the nature of the universe in a way current in the 1300s), it can hardly be called “objective” in the sense of “eternally enduring”. Therefore, the truth of facts is temporary as the status of facts, especially those proven, or rather suggested, by science due to the ever-changing status of their facts. So, though facts are generated to carry truth, they do so for only a short time, much as the body of a man does for his soul.

When talking about memory today, we considered both the instance of Lot’s wife in Genesis 9 turning to salt when looking back after being commanded not to, Orpheus looking back at Eurydice before she was out of the underworld from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book X, and is told to Dante of those souls who wish to pass through Purgatory. This is instructive, because obviously these shades represent memory. Lot turns to salt because she is lost to the past after the destruction of her home. Orpheus, too, is ruined by his memory of Eurydice and how tragic her death was. Rather than leaving her in the underworld, he himself went there, and then in trying to “re-animate” her, of course he failed, as any mortal will fail who tries to relive or recreate the past (Jay Gatsby?). And with the souls on Purgatory, their goal and desire (which will become one and the same by the end of their journey) is to purge themselves of “the stain” of corporeality, their bodies, and all other temporal and thus temporary parts of their lives: their memories too. Think about it: if a memory of being is a clue to one’s own individuality based on its time, location, and limited perspective (yours), then a memory is a fragment of time, and as time is constantly flowing, and a soul on Purgatory’s goal is to attain to immortality, all which partakes of the temporal must pass away: one’s body and memories. Only then may one flow perfectly with the eternal essence. This point is only further hammered home by the fact that all souls must both be purged in fire (to burn away the flesh), and then baptized in the river Lethe (to wash away the memories of a past life) before ascending to Paradise, or clearing one’s way to the source (God) within.

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(Orpheus looking back to the past, to memory, the world of shades, turning away from light towards the shade of Eurydice.)




One thought on “Dante’s Paradise: The Brilliance of Students

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