In the lecture before, we diverted from our subject of how a just vengeance could still itself receive a just punishment, and from there we must proceed. In Canto 7, within the sphere of Mercury, god of messages between the human and celestial realm, and thus where those who sought worldly fame and the active life at the expense of the contemplative life, we encounter a question which has to do with a mercantile understanding of the relationship of just actions. An eye for an eye or currency for an object or two objects of equal value being exchanged is the image we receive–a necessity for balance or libra is what is conveyed by the actions in this sphere (remember earlier that oaths were considered and the agreement necessary between participants–the theme that governs this sphere is therefore balance between two parties (party one, party 2, and the balance between (1=3). Those here upset the natural balance and therefore suffered slightly for it, and just in the same way, those who take just vengeance would do well to understand that in taking vengeance they allow another the very same claim! This notion, however, is expressed in a curious way–because it turns out that the underlying question is, “why did God become man?” And “why is it that in killing God, man was forgiven rather than eternally damned?” Well, let us consider this.
Dante first describes Jesus as God descended to earth as a man. He then claims that God as a man must be the most just creature on earth, and therefore that to kill him would be the most unjust/unfair act possible. How, then, does his death remove sin from man rather than forever blacken his soul? That is what reasoning would suggest: Jesus is the most just man on earth. Justice involves giving to each his due. Therefore, Jesus deserves the greatest thing which can be given. And he was killed. Now, either killing someone is the greatest gift you can give (it isn’t) or we need a good answer to this. Well, Justinian has an answer.
The issue is fairly simple. Since god is the greatest being in creation and therefore does not need or desire any charity or gift from man. In fact, to give him other than killing him, or doing what appears ultimately unjust, would have limited the grace of his gift in return to man. Because as he is the greatest being, and giving the greatest charity would befit the greatest being, as it is the greatest virtue, God therefore gives the greatest charity there is. And in order for God to give such charity, man must commit the ultimate sin or choose against god (Jesus)/his own nature in order that god may forgive him for turning his back on God. And this makes sense–because if God repaid an injury for an injury, God would have been injured by man, but as God and Man share an eternal nature, it cannot, by definition, be affected or changed. God, therefore, could not suffer an injury from man, but as the ultimate force in the universe, he could forgive man for what appeared to be the ultimate crime, because since there was no injury, there was no crime. Man in acting against God simply acts against himself.
Because if man sins, and this means that he is acting against his own nature, or God, while thinking that he is not subject to that nature. Essentially, when man sins, he recreates the Fall of Adam or Lucifer over again by thinking himself, alone in the universe, not subject to God’s nature. Foolish. Man, therefore, cannot atone for this act on his own because he wished to be as god in his act (just like the first act of disobedience), and therefore no man, but rather the “person” wronged, God, may forgive man. And because God’s nature is charity, in one aspect, of course God may then give the ultimate charity which is forgiveness to man for attempting to be more than God.
“man could not, within his limits, ever atone,
since he could not descend with obedient
as far as in his disobedience he earlier intended
to rise up; and this is the reason why man was
excluded from being able to atone by himself.
Therefore it was left to God to restore man to
the fullness of life, I say with one or else with
both his ways.
But because a work is the more pleasing to
the workman the more it expresses the goodness
of heart from which it issues,
the divine Goodness that stamps the world
was happy to proceed by all its ways to raise
you up again.
Nor between the last night and the first day
has there been or will there be so high and so
magnificent a going forth, by either way:
for God was more liberal in giving himself in
order to make mankind sufficient to raise itself
up, than if he had simply forgiven,
and all other ways fell short of justice, if the Son
of God had not humbled himself to become flesh.”
(Par. 7.97-118. Durling tr.)
Dante then goes on to consider why it is then that other substances like fire, earth, water, and air and those made of them corrupt and do not remain eternal like angels and celestial substances. Beatrice says because they are created and that which has come to be must pass away. That which begins must end. The only reason a human is somehow exempt from this is because the Divine breathes his own essence into the human, so when the being (form/soul and matter/body) ceases to be, the eternal part of the human, its nature or form, which came from God, will simply continue to be, but in a much different way as it will have no body. Dante then says that this explains well how one will be resurrected in a similar fashion to how Adam and Eve were created–by having spirit breathed into matter, or by God himself, however he does it.
It is curious then that there is a discussion later on in the next Canto on Venus about how Nature, or the embodied Spirit of God, does not actually distinguish between the individuality of people, but rather sees them simply as living if it sees them at all. If one were then resurrected over and over, in sort of a Hindu idea, one’s identity could be changed over and over again, especially due to the fact that one would drink from lethe before assuming a body again (even before ascending to Heaven).
“Therefore your different
effects must have different roots:
hence one is born Solon, another Xerxes,
another Melchisedech, and another the one
who, flying through the air, lost his son.
Circling Nature, a seal of your mortal wax,
does its art well, but it does not distinguish one
from another dwelling.
Hence it happens that Esau’s seed departs
from Jacob, and Quirinus comes from so base a
father that he is attributed to Mars:
a generated nature would always take a path
like that of its generators, if divine Providence
did not intervene:
Now what was behind you is before you, but
so that you may know that I delight in you, I wish
a corollary to cloak you.)
The quote ends with an even more interesting point echoing Dante’s discussion from Purgatorio 16 of the view that the heavens might control one’s actions fully (he said that they could not as man has free will and nothing impinges that). The end of this quote, similarly, asserts that nature would never change man, and no generation would differ from the one before it if “divine Providence” or “choice” did not intervene and nothing ever changed. One, however, can be absolutely certain that he or she is unique, though, as divine Providence has assured that one differs from one’s progenitors, so by Dante’s reasoning, is God more one’s father than one’s worldly father because he breathes his life into one? In any case, it allows one not to focus on the past, for the truth of one’s nature does not come from one’s worldly parents but the very same God above who breathed life into one. One’s ancestory and heredity therefore means little for one’s understanding of himself or herself.
Dante then ends the canto by discussing that some natures seem ill-suited to this world: because the world does not “put its mind to the foundation that Nature lays” and is therefore “discordant” or disharmonious, there are religious men wearing swords as soldiers and men of words, rhetoricians being king. But now back to the beginning of the Canto.
(The Roman Goddess Discordia)
Canto 8 begins with an ascent to the third sphere of Venus (Aphrodite, goddess of love), and a brief description of her Homeric epithet as Cyprian and her Homeric mother Dione and her Virgilian son, Cupid. One takes the suggestion that Dante is suggesting they are all part of a chain and that, of course, three equals one.
We ought now then to consider some connections between the first three spheres themselves. Let us begin at the start with the moon: If we then think of the moon with its oath breakers present, its cycle of the month ever changing, and its dark spots, we understand it to represent inconstancy or wavering, sort of like being lukewarm. What though is inconstancy but an imbalance between one’s actions and one’s divine nature?
It is precisely the same in Mercury which, with its mercantile or mercurial nature, represents how one thing transforms into another or transmits from one place to another, or simply changes hands. The “problem” that this can create, opposed to the moon’s inconstancy, is an overvaluation of one side of life and therefore an imbalance between one’s active pursuits and one’s reflective activities.
And then here again in Venus, sphere of love, which of course is a relationship which is always shared.and yet can create perpetual yearning or desire which all humans always feel, of course. And in each of the first three spheres, one observes then that there is a sense of balance between one’s actions and one’s nature which is being observed. God, then, is being represented as the harmonious balance, or relationship, between two seeming entities which are actually one in nature (like Jesus, or any person by Dante’s reasoning (seeming to have human and divine nature but only truly having the one).
Connecting thoughts about the first three spheres shared, we will examine Charles Martel or the first shade on Venus who speaks to the pilgrim. After disparaging the practical affairs of the world, he “gets down to business” by discussing that God has not only foreseen and created people in his mind, but he has foreseen their well-being (or how they ought act) and their goals, or rather, their destinies. For, and this is very interesting, without a goal or destiny in mind:
“so that whatever this bow shoots forth, falls,
being ordered to a goal foreseen, like an arrow
direct-ed at its target.
If that were not the case, the effects of the
heavens you are traversing would not be art,
Without destiny, life would not be art but a ruin, or an object left without its function. How could there be purpose in life if there were not a goal which one were meant to fulfill? Imagine that, a canvas where one randomly scribbles. Would that not be far less glorious than one on which one executed perfectly (or close to) one’s wondrous plan? Such is the difference between a ruin, which is a once purposeful thing or object, which now is “ruined” in that it is matter without sustaining form. Art, however, is material with living form still attended to it. And therefore the form of one’s life is one’s goal or destiny or the purpose towards which one strives, and the matter is one’s choices or actions that one takes towards or against attaining this goal. Insofar as one chooses against one’s nature and one’s destiny, one’s matter limits the perfection of one’s form. One pits one’s own brush against the master artist (God).
In the next lecture on Wednesday we will discuss holy Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, and move on from lascivious, or desirous Venus, (Dante claims she was so named due to her proximity to the Sun! (8.10-12) to the luminous and radiating sun which houses Thomas Aquinas and the other illuminated minds which so enlightened the minds of men as to the mind of God.