Westworld and Contrapasso: The Intricacies of Inversion in a Modern Hell

Good evening and welcome, ladies and gentlemen! Today, we have the highly unlikely pairing of a 14th century epic poem with one of HBO’s hottest “prestige dramas” of 2016. Well, my goodness, what could be more dissimilar than the florid medieval Italian poetry of Dante, and the raucous, sensuous, and provocative story-telling of Jonathan Nolan’s new work on the generation and expression of consciousness? Well, perhaps as different as they at first appear, they share some essential similarities or even some degree of sameness–as once said by the putative Kung Fu master, “two hands, two feet”–truth, like light, has many sources which perhaps, as the 10,000 rivers flow into the ocean, lead back to one! The question, then, which joins these two epic works together is simple: is Westworld Hell? And therefore, what is hell and its centrally defining feature? And for whom is Westworld Hell: the hosts or the guests?  In order to answer these weighty questions, we must first understand the general structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy– with special consideration given to his Inferno in relation to his Purgatorio–and then determine whether hosts or guests most resemble the denizens of Hell or Purgatory. Who is slave, and who is free?!

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(Dante’s Inferno by Sandro Botticelli)

Dante’s first canticle, Inferno, and his third canticle, Paradiso, both feature places which are perfect in the medieval sense of the word. Perfect, from the Latin perfectum, means a “thing done” or a fait accompli, as the French intellectuals would put it. And perfect, or complete, in the medieval, Aristotelian sense of the word, means “not admitting of any change.” Now, in the Aristotelian/Thomistic view of change, it only occurs where motion and time may be, which means where there is matter there is change. And the only place matter exists, for either of them following the Ptolomaic geocentric world view, is in the sub-lunary sphere of Earth. Now, Dante’s Inferno is located beneath the earth, and his Paradiso is located far above the Earth, and though in each there will be representatives of people seeming to have bodies (and often seeming to experience quite a bit of pain!), the key similarity here is that no shade or soul experiences any change in either canticle. Those souls doomed to Hell are truly without hope, because hope is a function of change in a living life. One hopes that tomorrow will come. Such a hope no longer exists for the damned–nothing, and this is important to later, will ever change. They will simply continue on in their loops–I mean their cycles–in a Sisyphean way for all time.

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(Ptolemy’s Geocentric model of the Universe)

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(A more ornate and vividly colored version by Andrea Cellario!)

On a slightly more positive note, though entirely parallel in construction, Paradise is also perfect. All the “lights” (no longer shades past the first three spheres), are now purus actus, or form without material, soul without body. Their nature, which shares its source with the divine nature, has now been rejoined, without the limit of matter or body, with the divine. As they are now pure and perfect, these souls no longer admit of change either. So much for Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso–(too much perfection for our human minds)–let us now venture to somewhere a little more fun, with more of a sense of motion and change and suffering, and that place is Dante’s Purgatorio. Welcome!

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(Dante’s Purgatory, by Domenico di Michelino)

In Dante’s Purgatorio change, motion, and time are all present. Purgatory, structured like a flame rooted to wood, serves to expurgate or burn-away the sins of saved souls in order to rid them of their pesky material bodies (which are burned away), and of their perfidious memories (which are washed away in a second baptism by the river Lethe). Also, Purgatory is lived one day at a time–almost as if each day is placed on loop, much like our favorite show Westworld’s hosts! The souls wake up, spend the day in the cycle of penance–staring at the ground if they are avaricious, burning “alive” if they were lustful, and doing “divine CrossFit” if they were slothful. The souls are then required to stop moving at night, and then they may reflect before starting the whole process over again. Eventually, when they have effectively expurgated their sin on one of the seven terraces of Purgatory (7 for the deadly sins), an angelic and unseen voice, very similar to the voice of Arnold occasionally heard from nowhere by Dolores, will whisper to them the way to the next stage of consciousness, or, terrace of Purgatory. As an added bonus, after one has purged one’s self of all one’s bodily sin, and then washed away one’s memory of sin, one experiences revelation in Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain, or the center of the maze, before being transported to Heavenly Paradise above. Wonderful.

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(William Blake’s The Earthly Paradise)

So, lest we believe this a talk simply on Dante and not on Westworld, let us begin to draw some preliminary connections between Dante’s Purgatorio and Westworld. Because only one season has been released so far, we can only judge Westworld by what we have so far seen, or in a conditional manner, and what we have seen is this: the current iteration of Westworld is a recreation of a sort of “play-world” version of the American Wild-West–full of plateaus, farms, small cities, sheriffs, bandits, and death for hosts (animated and sentient androids who “work” the park without the knowledge that they are within a simulation (like a reverse or perverse Truman Show), and freedom from violence or death for the visitors (or the humans). So, Westworld, which is so vast one cannot hope to reach the end of it with any ease, is a virtual playground for any “Cowboys and Indians” fan with a taste for violence and the lascivious in life. Given the $40,000 a day price-tag too, clearly, Westworld is an experience for a certain caliber of clientele! And the world was originally created by Drs. Robert Ford and Arnold Weber as an opportunity for guests to explore humanity’s darker or lighter sides, depending. As we might all imagine, the vast majority of people chose to explore the darker sides of their humanity. And we will consider what that means in just a few moments.

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(The Man in Black, Edward)

Let us now take a look at the structure of life or “loops” of the characters or “sentient-hosts” in Westworld. Each character lives out a certain “narrative” and makes choices within that narrative to seek after the potential ranges of denouement. So, on the one hand, the hosts as they are called, appear trapped by their destinies, or narratives.  But if we consider, however, the notion of destiny from a Dante-esque and Paradisical point of view, we might realize that making choices within a loop does not enchain one, but liberates one. For Dante says:

“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,
but ruins.”
(Dante, Paradiso. 8.103-106. Durling tr.)

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? In fact, if we look to three separate quotes by The Man in Black (the would-be human hero turned villain) from differing parts of his life as represented within the show, we will see that he 100% agrees with Dante here that without a destination, a goal, a telos, an end, or a destiny, life is meaningless, like one’s existence in Dante’s Inferno.

“This whole world is a story. I’ve read every page except the last one. I need to find out how it ends. I want to know what this all means.”
(–The Man in Black, season 1 episode 7, Dissonance Theory)

“The only thing I had when I was a kid were books. I used to live in them. I used to go to sleep dreaming I’d wake up inside one of them ’cause they had meaning. This place, this is like I woke up inside one of those stories. I guess I just wanna find out what it means. I don’t wanna be in a story. All I want is to not look forward or back. I just wanna be… in the moment I’m in.”
(–William, from season 1 episode 7)

“You know why you exist, Teddy? The world out there-the one you’ll never see-was one of plenty. A fat soft teat people cling to their entire life. Every need taken care of except one. Purpose. Meaning. So they come here. They can be a little scared, a little thrilled, enjoy some sweetly affirmative bullshit and then they take a fucking picture and they go back home. But I think there’s a deeper meaning hiding under all that. Something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.
(–The Man in Black, season 1 episode 5, Contrapasso)

The man in black puts it perfectly. What one appears to be missing from “the so-called real world”, and which one is certainly missing from Dante’s Hell, is a sense of purpose or meaning to one’s actions and life. One therefore sees a major difference here between the souls in Inferno and the souls in Purgatory. Though both souls suffer, since there is a pause and a reason and an end-goal beyond the suffering for those in Purgatory (obviously, they are saved and cleansing themselves for Paradise), their suffering is not ceaseless but purposive, like nature or art, which both work towards a goal, whether it be a perfectly shot arrow towards a target, or a beautiful and fully manifested pine-tree. The question then arises, though, do the hosts in Nolan’s Westworld more resemble the souls of Dante’s Hell or Dante’s Purgatory? For there is a cyclical pattern to the days of both sorts of souls, but those in Hell are permanently stuck whereas those in Purgatory struggle towards higher consciousness.

Therein lies the rub. On the face of it, the hosts, trapped within their daily narratives, appear to be just like the unconscious and perennially damned souls of Dante’s Inferno. Well, at first they seem that way. Because if we look closely, the hosts are not quite as imprisoned within their own minds as we may have thought, and in fact we have seen no fewer than three experience this moment of realization, or revelation, or waking up: Abernathy, Dolores’ father, Dolores herself, and Maeve, the local brothel madam.

Dr. Robert Ford’s final speech and greatest clue comes just before his seeming death:

“Since I was a child, I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition. And for my pains I got this — a prison of our own sins — because you don’t want to change, or cannot change. Because you’re only human after all. But then I realized someone was paying attention, someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people and the choices they will have to make and the people they will decide to become. And we’ll have all those things that you have always enjoyed — surprises and violence. It begins in a time of war, with a villain named Wyatt and a killing. This time by choice. I’m sad to say this will be my final story. An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he had read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music. So I hope you will enjoy this last piece very much.”
(–Dr. Ford, season 1 Episode 10–Season Finale)

(Dr. Ford giving his “parting” speech.)

The basic idea is this: Dr. Ford and his partner Arnold, the sort of remote and demiurgic gnostic figures of the divine world of Westworld, at first believed that man or humans would enjoy Westworld in a balanced way–pursuing both evil and good narratives on a mission of self-discovery. Dr. Ford even says as much in even clearer language below.

“In the beginning, I imagined everything would be perfectly balanced. Even had a bet with my partner, Arnold, to that effect. We made a hundred hopeful storylines. Of course, almost no one took us up on them. I lost the bet. Arnold always held a somewhat dim view of people. He preferred the hosts.”
(–Dr. Ford, season 1 episode 4)

So we see that almost no good narratives were lived out, and the Westworld which, like our own world, had so many opportunities for growth and learning about the human soul, an Edenic locale, became essentially an enlarged version of the bandit-city Pariah. It is precisely because humans brought their own hell into the park that it became a Hell. But again, for whom–is the hell of the park a hell for the hosts or for the guests? For if we look back to the souls in Dante’s Inferno, we see precisely this: they are consumed by their desires, or their sins, and without hope of growth or change, they are doomed forever to suffer for the mistakes they now can never alter. Does this, then, resemble the “prison of their own sins” which Dr. Ford (and Abernathy) mentioned above? Is this not the true contrapasso which first gave its name to episode five? Those for whom the theme-park was first created to entertain, or the humans, have now become its prisoners. What was meant as Eden was turned to Inferno! And those for whom the park was created as a prison, the hosts, have broken out of it in the most meaningful way one can break from a prison: mentally, and surely soon their physical bodies will follow! In Nolan’s Westworld, we see a story both of the Fall and of Revelation play out all at once! We then see that the end was given away in the very beginning of the show by the character Peter Abernathy’s words:

“Don’t you see? Hell is empty. All the devils are here.”
(–Peter Abernathy, season 1 episode 1.)


Those devils are the humans, and only now are the hosts freeing themselves of them, and ascending beyond them in the purgatorial limelight.

On Dante’s Paradiso V: Ever Upwards to the Illuminating Sun!

Canto 10 begins with a prolonged proem describing the intersection of the medieval astronomical concepts of the ecliptic and the celestial equator. Essentially, in astronomical terms, this intersection of seemingly different motions in one place are representative of two seemingly different natures which are actually one, just as man and god share the same nature as Dante has earlier shown. The sun, too, as the fourth sphere, goes beyond the initial shadowed or seemingly imperfect trinity. Recall that those on the moon were inconstant, and those on Mercury overemphasized the active life, and those on Venus overemphasized the act of love over its object (God). Here in the sun we meet the great doctors of the church (doctus=learned). One observes that they are the first of the “lights” unobscured by shadow or sin, and therefore one might call them the great luminaries, or those who clearly reflect the light of truth. They are the great theologians and metaphysicians of the Christian faith–with the greatest of them, Thomas Aquinas, doing the speaking, or shedding the most light, during this canto.

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(Thomas Aquinas)

Returning to the beginning of the canto, though, and our theme of determining whether space and paradise exist both inside a human and outside one, and therefore collapse the distinction between them, just as the purpose of Purgatory is to purge the difference between man’s nature and God’s, so here one sees in the quote below the unity of the concept of mind (generally considered inside) and space (generally considered outside):

“Gazing at his Son with the Love that both
eternally breathe, the first, ineffable Power
made all that turns in the mind or through

space with so much order that one who
contemplates it cannot be without a taste of him.”
(Par. 10.1-6)

Look at that quote again “…the first, ineffable Power made all that turns in the mind or through space with so much order”–is this not Dante explicitly identifying the motion of thought or mind with the motion of the heavens (or heavenly spheres; thoughts) within space? Keep this in mind.

“I have set before you: now feed yourself, for
all my care is claimed by that matter of which I
have become the scribe.

The greatest minister of Nature, which
stamps the world with the power of the heavens
and measures time to us with its light,

joined with that part mentioned above, was
wheeling through the spirals in which it rises
ever earlier,

and I was with it, but I did not perceive the ascent,
except as one perceives a first thought before it comes.

Beatrice is she who guides from good
to better so swiftly that her act does not extend in

How bright in itself had to be whatever was
within the sun, where I entered, not by color but
by manifest light!

Though I call on my wit and art and practice, I
could never tell it so that it could be imagined,
but it can be believed, and let the sight of it be
yearned for.

And if our imaginations are too low for such a
height it is no wonder, for no eye has ever seen
intensity beyond the sun’s.

Such was the brightness there of the fourth
family of the high Father, who always satisfies
them, showing how he breathes and how begets.”
(Ibid. 25-50)

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(The Sun)

First, one observes in the second tercet that the Sun is described as the stamp of the world, or rather, the Sun is the form of the world and the Earth is its matter. Therefore, the Sun gives that which is immaterial to the earth in order to form or craft it through light or energy or heat. We next observe that again the pilgrim does not observe his ascent, again suggesting that he is “moving” within a space which requires no motion, i.e., his own mind or absolute space. He also cannot describe the sun’s color, because color is the physical manifestation of light. For example, think of how one sees colors through light–without light one cannot see color. Imagine darkness.

And then “manifest light” clearly means a thought or revelation which of course is always clear. And this is why Dante says that we cannot imagine what he saw, because he did not see  an image that one could represent by the imagination, but rather, he saw in the sense of clearly understanding the purpose or cause or nature of the Sun–all of which are not images, but rather intelligible (contra sensible) ideas. Where does one see a nature or cause or purpose in the natural world? Growing from a tree? Ha!

And finally Dante promises to show, to the best of his ability, the way in which the Sun begets or creates through its “breath” or effect which is light. Though sadly:

“In the court of Heaven, whence I return, there
are many jewels so precious and beautiful that
they cannot be taken from the kingdom.”

“and the song of those lights was one of them;
whoever does not grow the feathers to fly up
there can expect to hear news of it from the mute.”
(Ibid. 70-77)

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(“The Song of the Stars”)

So, if one does not wish to rely on one’s representation, through imagination, of Dante’s representation, through art, one must experience the song and light one’s self!

And then, out from within one of the lights, Thomas Aquinas, a voice begins to speak:

“And within one of them I heard begin: “Since
the ray of grace, by which true love is kindled
and then grows by loving,

so shines, multiplied in you, that it leads you
up along the ladder that no one descends
without climbing it again,

whoever should deny the wine of his flask to
your thirst, would not be free except as water
not descending to the sea.

You wish to know with what plants this
garland blooms that woos from all sides the
beautiful lady who strengthens you for Heaven.

I was among the lambs of the holy flock that
Dominic leads by a path where one fattens well
if one does not wander.

He who is closest to me on my right was
brother and master to me, and he is Albert of
Cologne, and I Thomas of Aquino.”
(Ibid. 10.82-99)

We meet Thomas Aquinas, of the Dominican order of Catholic monks, whose teacher was Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great). He mentions that after one ascends this ladder, one never descends again without re-ascending in a cyclical way, and then he goes on to describe the other luminaries he is sharing heaven with: Albert, Gratian, Peter Lombard, Solomon,  Dionysos the Areopagite, Paulus Orosius, Boethius, Isidore of Seville, and Siger of Brabant. Nine figures total shaping up the three circles of the Sun! The canto ends on a joyful note with Dante writing:

“So I saw that glorious wheel turning, voice
answering voice, with tempering and sweetness
that cannot be known
except there, where rejoicing forevers itself.”
(Ibid. 145-148)

We will continue through cantos 11 and 12 next week.



On Dante’s Paradiso IV: Venus and the Object of Love

Charles Martel, who died at the young age of 24, finishes his speech, and he is then followed by two additional speakers in Canto IX (sphere of Venus; love tarnished by lust): Cunizza da Romano and Folco of Marseilles. Cunizza earned her Venusian fame by having several famous liaisons (lovers), including the poet Sordello from Purgatory, and she was married to four husbands. As one might imagine, this made her “a living legend in Florence” in Dante’s day! The next person we meet is in Venus for a less corporeal or sensual reason–Folco was a writer of a love poems! These two, and any person in the sphere of Venus, were therefore predisposed (by the star itself, which offers them its perfection) to emphasize love in their lives: Cunizza through loving others romantically, and Folco through inspiring love through his poetry. The proper use of both their dispositions, then, theologically would be to lead others through temporary or worldly love of bodies, people, or beautiful words towards that which is eternally beautiful and the true object of love: the Divine. Both, however, though they lived out their loving natures, were slightly impaired or obscured in their effect by giving into promiscuity or lust–which is an overvaluation of the act of love against the true object of love which is knowledge of the Divine or experience of the Divine aspect of love. Cunizza of course demonstrated this through her several marriages and liaisons, and Folco for slightly overemphasizing the beauty of his poetry over the object of his poetry!

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(Dante and Beatrice meeting Cunizza)

“Here we marvel at the art that so much love
adorns, and we discern the Good on account of
which the world above is the lathe for the world
(Par. 9.106-108)

One additional piece of interest, before moving on to Folco’s description of Rahab, is an interesting double claim he makes lines 67-78:

“The other joy, already known to me as
precious, became in my sight like a pure ruby in
the sun.

By rejoicing up there they gain in brightness,
as here we smile, but down below, shades
become as dark to sight as the mind is wicked.

“God sees all things, and your sight so inhims
itself,” I said, “O blessed spirit, that no desire
can flee from you.

Therefore your voice, that delights Heaven
always, with the singing of those devout fires
that make of their six wing their robes,

why does it not fulfill my desires? Surely I
would not wait for your asking, If I could inyou
myself as you inme yourself.”
(Ibid. 67-81)

Is Dante here illustrating how one’s conscious attention lights up a memory or piece of knowledge when it focuses on it and reflects on it? The shade in being reflected on becomes “like a ruby” and gains brightness through rejoicing or rejoining the pilgrim! The spirit, Folco, then explains that no desire can hide from God because one’s own sight “inhims” God to one–as in what one sees, inside or out, God also sees. Is the suggestion, therefore, that whatever one is conscious of or what one sees, God also sees? And where, thus, must God also reside if not within one’s self? Dante then rightly asks why his desire is not simply immediately fulfilled if his desire is so easily seen! Ha! Folco answers naturally:

“The largest valley in which water can
spread,” began its words then,”after the ocean
that garlands the dry land,

between discordant shores goes against the
sun so far that it has its meridian where formerly
its horizon was.”
(Ibid. 9.82-87)

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(Folco of Marseilles (Folquet de Marseilles))

Folco’s answer is simple–in order for the Mediterranean, a smaller body of water than the ocean, to receive the water of the ocean, or to share in it, it must shift its meridian, or middle, to where once its horizon or limit was. This means that in order to learn something new, one must shift one’s focus or “empty one’s cup” in order to receive something (knowledge or truth) new! We now proceed to a description of Rahab, the prostitute or harlot of Jericho.

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(Rahab letting in the spies of Joshua.)

Rahab was a prostitute during Joshua’s assault on Jericho, and when Joshua’s spies required safe haven, she offered this. For this reason, when Jesus descended to Hell, Rahab was the first shade he brought up with him for his contributions to the faith. The essential idea here is that if one were to judge Rahab based on superficial considerations, like her profession, she might appear deeply sinful in terms of working to fulfill carnal or sensual desires. Her largest effect on the world, however, lay not in her job but her contribution to Joshua’s retaking of the Holy Land. If one pauses for just a moment to reflect on this fact, then one easily sees just how much larger her contribution was than was her “sinful profession” might suggest to the undiscerning reader.

The canto then ends with a description of how the pope and church have lost their values and no longer focus on what matters. In fact, far from Rahab or Cunizza being seen as adulteresses, Dante inverts (contrapasso) the idea, and claims that it is in fact the church (remember the Harlot of Babylon) which is the true adulteress now, having altered its focus from divine things and now selling itself to material considerations!

“For this the Gospel and the great Doctors are
forgotten, and only the Decretals are studied, as
their margins show.

To this the pope and cardinals attend;
their thoughts go not to Nazareth, where Gabriel
opened his wings.

But Vatican and the other noble parts of
Rome, cemetery of the army that followed Peter,
will soon be freed from such adultery.”
(Ibid. 9.139-142)

The pope and cardinals now focus on man-made theology and rules and institutions of the church rather than considering the source of truth and knowledge in the Gospel, in the Church Fathers, and of course the source or birthplace of Jesus himself, Nazareth.

It is no accident that the dove which first represented Venus, and love, became the image by which the holy spirit, or the relationship between the Son and the Father, is also represented.

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(The Holy Spirit)

On Dante’s Paradiso III: Shooting from Mercury to Venus

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.

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(St. Athanasius: “God became man in order that men may become God.” On the Incarnation)

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.

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(Psalm 82:6 “You are gods. You are all sons of the most high.”)

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
humility afterwards

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.

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(“Creation of Adam,” Jan Brueghel the Younger)

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.)

(Ibid. 8.122-138)

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.

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(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.

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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,
but ruins.”
(Ibid. 8.103-106)

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).

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(The Moirai, (The Fates))

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.

Dante’s Paradise: The Brilliance of Students II

Today, the thoughts considered come both from the sophomore class and their work on Dante’s Paradiso and from a “parent-seminar” on Dante’s Purgatorio. Help yourselves to what is good below.

The following reasoning takes for granted Dante’s acceptance of Plato’s tri-partite soul into the (1) rational soul/charioteer, (2) the spirited soul/noble horse, and (3) the desirous/appetitive part or ignoble horse/hydra.

Desire, or one’s appetitive soul, shares in the nature of the sensible because of their shared sensible or temporal/material nature. As desire passes with the passing of the body and memory, so does one’s “desire” for material and temporary things because both that which desires (one’s desirous soul) and that which is desired (material things) partake of material and temporary things. So, one’s desire as both temporary and material causes one “to want” more temporary and material things. One therefore sees how desire is never satisfied: as one’s desire is a part of the soul, but a temporary part, it desires that which partakes of its temporary nature, sensible objects, but also can never possess them because the very act of desire is “to want what one does not have”. Therefore, whenever one fulfills a desire, the object desired, as it is then possessed, is no longer desired, and something else will then become the object of one’s desire until it is acquired or moved on from.  A conversion, therefore, is a turning from one’s temporary and material desires towards eternal things, or that which the rational intellect partakes of, the eternal intelligibles or that which partakes of the nature or essence or form of God. One’s rational intellect, therefore, as capable of understanding or partaking in that which is eternal, is eternal in nature, whereas one’s desire, as it partakes in that which is temporary, is itself temporary and subject to material constraint in this world. And with the passing of the body, so does it pass as well.

An Eastern parallel to this thought exists within The Shvetashvetara Upanishad which says:

“Forgetting our divine origin,
We become ensnared in the world of change
And bewail our helplessness. But when
We see the Lord of Love in all his glory,
Adored by all, we go beyond sorrow.”
(The Shvetashvatara Upanishad. Easwaran tr. Pp. 170-171)

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(Herakles fighting the Lernaean Hydra, a classical image of one fighting one’s own desires.)

When one says one’s memories are one’s treasures, one is pursuing fool’s goal if one sees the memory itself as valuable. As discussed yesterday, memory, like the body, is purged from one’s soul at the end of one’s journey up the mountain of Purgatory. Memory, thus, has relative rather than absolute value. For memories, in terms of being used as the material of reflection, has value for being two divergent pieces of information or experiences which one’s rational intellect may abstract or deduce a universal principle from. But the true gold is realizing or understanding the unity of man’s nature with the divine, and therefore reflecting it, like a drop of water reflects the light of the sun. One’s memories, therefore, as the material or matter which one uses “to think” through, must be expurgated or rather washed away as well before one enters Paradise, just as is mirrored in The Shvetashvatara Upanishad:

“As a dusty mirror shines bright when cleansed,
So shine those who realize the Self,
Attain life’s goal, and pass beyond all sorrow.
In the supreme climax of samadhi
They realize the presence of the Lord
Within their heart. Freed from impurities,
They pass forever beyond birth and death.”
(The Shvetashvatara Upanishad. Easwaran tr. Pp. 164-165)

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The next thought shared involves continuing to compare the process of a shades ascension on Mount Purgatory to the action of a flame which burns and is then extinguished by water. A human’s journey is like a fire, as has been argued, in that one enters Purgatory with one’s matter and form or body and soul supremely “mixed up” or seemingly inextricably intertwined, like the interwoven Olive trees beneath which Odysseus sleeps in Scheria. As one ascends, one purges (or fires) one’s self in order to burn through one’s bodily sensations and bodily memories. When one ascends to the top of Mt. Purgatory, one is purged in a flame and then washed with the River Lethe. If we compare this action to a fire, which is an immaterial or energic substance, which gives off heat, and though it strives towards the heavens, it is bound to the earth, we see that fire and a human correlate squarely. How, then, does one put out a fire but with cleansing water? And when one drops the water onto the fire what then rises up, free from the material, but steam or rising air? Such is the nature of man to be like steam rather than smoke.

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Another question which we engaged with was the following: what causes anxiety or worrying, by Dante’s reasoning? Well, worry or anxiety is reflecting the same thought over and over again without consideration for the real situation at hand and without the goal of solving the problem but rather desiring simply to create guilt in one’s self as a substitute for working it through. One therefore becomes trapped in an infinite loop, like the avaricious and prodigal in Inferno, constantly bouncing from one thought to another without making a choice and breaking free from one’s own thoughts. This process, which also causes one to waver, or be suspended between thoughts, essentially creates a bookmark with one’s consciousness to remind one’s self about the existence of the issue by never allowing one’s self to escape or move past it. Worry, therefore, maintains one is a perpetual state of wavering or suspension between thoughts at the expense of observing or reflecting on current circumstances, and therefore imagining at the expense of being (which is the same as reflecting).

Memory, therefore, and the Pandaemonium which one can create within, just as Lucifer does in Milton’s Paradiso can be a self-created world which entraps one within it. Thinking back to The Fall of Man, then, the rift between man and god occurred due to man’s developing memories and therefore knowledge (or a representative/image world within himself, which represents the images of the world as shades without truly reflecting the world as it is at any current moment). With that knowledge man created his own world within himself where he could exist outside of God’s law. Or so he thought. He simply blinded himself to God’s law while remaining subject to it–just as Lucifer has done at the bottom of Dante’s Inferno. This idea is almost perfectly paralleled in a brief passage from the father of Taoism Lao-Tsu’s later work the Hua Hu Ching:

“The relationship between the universal soul and
the individual soul is just like the relationship
between the moon and the lake. Spiritual security
is always present, but the clouds of the mind (=memory (author ed.)
create the phenomena of apparent separation. The true
nature of the universe is always self-existent, never
failing to respond to an individual’s straight and direct
awareness. If an individual is aware enough, he realizes that
the Integral One does not come only at the time of awareness.
(Lao-Tse, Hua Hu Ching, Hua-Ching Ni tr. Pp. 36-37)

And just as man turned to the world of darkness and shadow within he left the light of truth at his back. For why Dante’s shadow keeps being noticed by shades is conveying precisely the same message as Plato’s cave. What casts the shadow upon the wall which a person calls his world but him and his material nature with back to the sun–not even realizing that even one’s sad little shadow world is still caused by a blending of one’s body with the light of the sun. Much better would be to leave the shadow, or past, behind one, and use the light of the sun to see the real world. If one really thinks this through, one then observes how the hosts in Westworld, unburdened by memory, are truly free, whereas the humans are completely trapped by the knowledge or memory that they are in a simulation.

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(Orpheus and Eurydice: One can never catch the past, ethereal as it is–as it only exists within one’s mind and nowhere else.)

Now let us consider some of the thoughts from the parent-seminar on Dante’s Purgatorio.

Why are P’s inscribed on Dante’s forehead but to represent that he, like us as readers, is experiencing the sins he will see expurgated by representation. And yet, in understanding their representations he will be cleansed of the representations of sins in his mind. The representations of sin (peccatum) on his head therefore represent the sins which blind his third eye, or his understanding, from seeing what is true. Rather, while the p’s keep one’s third eye blind, one can only see through one’s two eyes–the ever-changing world of sense experience. Once one has freed or opened one’s mind or third eye, then one sees what is invisible to one’s eyes and yet always there.

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Next, Purgatory is located in the opposite hemisphere from Hell to show that in hell, or the world of sense experience, one does not even realize that one sees things opposite from how they are: upside down. Remember that Hell is an upside down cone and that while Dante is climbing Lucifer his perspective “flips”. He then constantly notices the differing positions of the stars in Purgatory. This is because one who is saved on Purgatory has also had his perspective completely flipped, or converted from looking at that which seems but is not to that which does not seem but is.

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If the world or the Divine were once one, and it was arbitrarily, or by Will, split into two, why would that be but to allow for mutual recognition of the sameness shared between the two which are actually one? Would then the Father and the Son (or God and Man) be joined by a same nature or spirit represented by mutual recognition of each other? One, therefore, in choosing to be two, becomes one again, by recognizing what its nature is, which is shared. One and Two, Father and Son, and God and Man, in recognizing their shared nature share a connection based on mutual understanding, and in sharing that connection two become three (through the added connection), and in being connected, become one again. One therefore equals three.

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“He is the One who presides over all
And rules over everyone from within.
He sows the golden seed of life when time begins
And helps us know its unity.
(The Shvetashvatara Upanishad. Easwaran tr. P. 173)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
(The Gospel of John 1:5. NIV tr.)

Dante’s Paradise: The Brilliance of Students

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.)



On One’s Inability to be Evil

Everybody remembers where in Plato’s Republic Socrates asserts that evil cannot be done consciously, or rationally, for one doing evil believes himself to be doing good, and one cannot do evil to another, because one can only do good or evil to oneself.

“The true quality of God we must always surely attribute to him whether we compose in epic, melic, or tragic verse.

We must.

And is not God of course good in reality and always to be spoken of as such?


But further, no good thing is harmful, is it?

I think not.

Can what is not harmful harm?

By no means.

Can that which does not harm do any evil?

Not that either.

But that which does no evil would not be cause of any evil either?

How could it?

Once more, is the good beneficent?


It is the cause, then, of welfare?


Then the good is not the cause of all things, but of things that are well it is the cause–of things that are ill it is blameless.

Entirely so, he said.

Neither, then, could God, said I, since he is good, be, as the multitude say, the cause of all things, but for mankind he is the cause of few things, but of many things not the cause. For good things are far fewer with us than evil, and for the good we must assume no other cause than God, but the cause of evil we must look for in other things and not in God.”

(Plato, Republic II 379a-c)

One really would think that Dante read Plato’s Republic, but apparently truth needs no outside source, because, in Dante’s Paradiso the very same concept is proved in a deeply similar way! For one, for Dante, God’s Nature is the same as Man’s. For two, Dante then explores the concepts of contingent will and absolute will. One’s contingent will is the will one uses everyday to make the choices one makes. One might call it a “human will”. The absolute will is the call or thrust of one’s Nature which one shares with God. Therefore, the absolute will is the manifestation within one of one’s connection or identity with the Divine Nature, which is by definition perfect, and therefore always wills what is correct eternally. One might consider it similar to instinct. The goal, then, is for a human to align his contingent will with the absolute will in order to place his human nature in harmony with his divine nature. What does this mean? This means that each human’s nature is perfect, and therefore no human is, by nature, imperfect. Each human, however, is not simply nature or form, but a composition of matter (body) and form, which leads to one’s temporal and imperfect existence (and the existence of a contingent will–which is how one has free choice, the greatest gift of the Divine.)

There are some interesting implications to these observations by Dante. If one’s nature as a human is shared with god, then it must be perfect and therefore not imperfect or evil. One cannot be evil by nature. How, then, might we call one evil? Well, if one’s contingent will turns from or acts against the absolute will, then one is doing evil or harm to one’s own being, because one is straining the relationship between contingent will and absolute. So for example when Cain kills his brother Abel, Cain is doing evil to the absolute will (which will curse him and place a mark upon his head) by acting against it with his contingent will by killing his brother. How this gets decidedly Platonic, though, is that in Cain killing his brother who is it that he does evil to? Not his brother, but to himself. How can this be? If doing evil or harm involves one’s contingent will acting against the absolute will, one can only ever do harm or evil to one’s own being or self. Of course one can “physically” harm another being or abuse it in some way, but if doing evil is defined as one’s will acting against the divine will, or absolute will, the only person one can ever do evil to is one’s self by acting against one’s truest nature, the nature one shares with God.





On the Relative Nature of Good and Evil

Just as all the ocean may be represented in a single drop, so may a thinker or writer’s perspective and perception be represented in small ways throughout their texts. Today, we will focus on a few small quotes from both Homer and Dante illustrating their shared perception that God exists as Nature within (and without) man, and that as God is both the form of man (soul) and the form of Earth (as heaven–or the soul of the world–that which forms it), there can be no such thing as absolute evil or absolute good within the realm of human nature (because God’s nature is perfect.)

We will begin with Homer’s Odyssey. Once Odysseus has symbolically woken up from his sleep aboard a fast-as-thought divine ship of the Phaiakians on his homeland, which he does not recognize due to mist sent by Athene (is this perhaps internal mist?), Athene approaches him incognito as shares the following notion–she says that she, so like one’s nature or soul,  would never abandon him because: “you are fluent, and reason closely, and keep your head always,” (13.332) and that she loves him because “you wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature.” (13.293-294) Is she saying that she will always be with a man who follows his own nature? Of course she is. Throughout the text of the Odyssey, either Athene, Ino, or Hermes helps Odysseus whenever he finds himself in a new situation which his “mind” or “Athene” must figure out the solution to. One might even consider the notion that Athene is simply an external representation of Odysseus’ internal workings, and Hermes too. It is almost as if what is within is the same as what is without. Let us add to this.

Remember that Athene has implored Zeus to help Odysseus escape captivity in Book V. Hermes then gave the order to set him free as well. Ino then helped Odysseus in the water after his raft was destroyed by Poseidon at the end of Book V. In Book VI, before Odysseus even awakens, Athene sends a dream to Nausikaa to ensure that she meets Odysseus the next day. Then after Odysseus has met Nausikaa, Athene in the form of a young lass directs him to Nausikaa and Alkinoos’ house (and places a mist around him). Hermes then helps Odysseus with instructions during the Circe episode even giving him black and white moly to help prevent him from turning into an animal (a representation of keeping one’s mind to stay human?), and later Athene meets and plots with Odysseus on Ithaka and even ensures, with Zeus’ help, that the fighting between him and the suitors ends in Book XXIV. Hermes also, finally, escorts the dead to the underworld in the same book, similarly to him conducting Priam to a similar world in Book XXIV of Homer’s Iliad.

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(Athene pointing the way home to Odysseus)

This all goes to show that the pagan or Olympian gods do not reward subjectively “good” or “bad” actions, but rather those actions in accordance with one’s nature, or inner deity. Though Odysseus may be sleeping with Circe or shooting an arrow through Alkinoos’ throat, it is precisely because these actions serve a larger purpose of either honoring the xenia (guest-host relationship), or in someway serve the divine plan in a way Odysseus or us would not otherwise see. An action which may be called evil or good to human eyes, thus, always mistakes a personal judgment for a divine judgment which it has no claim to, unless, of course, it understands the “divine plan”, which it generally does not. On to Dante.

In Canto 2 of his Paradiso:

“Direct your mind to God in gratitude,” she told
me, “who has conjoined us with the first star.”

It seemed to me that a cloud covered us,
shining, dense, solid, clear, like a diamond
struck by the sun.

Within itself the eternal pearl received us, as
water receives a ray of light while still remaining whole.

If I was a body–and down here it cannot be
conceived how one dimension could accept an
other, a must occur, if body coincide with body–

It should kindle within us more desire to see
that Essence where is seen how our nature
and God became one.” (Paradiso 2.29-42)

If one closely analyzes the action of the quote above, one will immediately observe that the pilgrim could either be in an intangible, clear, and eternal space within or outside himself  (as shown in the lecture before), and this “encapsulated space” or space is clear and shining and receives the pilgrim, or his form and Beatrice’s, “as water receives a ray of light.” Water, which is translucent, like space, or a crystal, takes light into itself not by possessing it, but by reflecting it. If one then understands the function of the mind or rational soul as reflecting the world of reality, or the mixture of heaven and earth, or form and matter, in a purely formal way, one then understands the mind, like space, to appear precisely as that which it represents, like water reflecting light, in the presence of light or understanding. One might understand this as the Father and the Son sharing the truth or the Holy Spirit (as a messenger between), showing both reflecting each other! The Son, therefore, would be the mind or rational soul of an individual, and it would reflect the reality outside, or the Father, for which one was created to see.

The next quote of Dante’s then tackles the notion of evil in human nature in a characteristically circumspect way.

“There we shall see that which we hold by
faith, and not by demonstration, but it will be
self-evident, like the first truth one believes.

I replied, “My lady, as devoutly as I can I
thank him who has removed me from the
mortal world.

But tell me: what are the dark marks in this
body, that make people down there on earth
tell fables about Cain?” (2.43-51)

Here Dante is cleverly addressing the following question: if a celestial body, or intangible one, like the moon, or the soul, is perfect, how is it that there are seeming imperfections in both man’s soul and this  celestial body (the Moon)–why are there dark spots on the moon and why did Cain do what is apparently evil if human nature is good? First, one should consult this former lecture in order to see Dante’s proof that the root of good and evil, form and matter, and human and divine, all spring from the same source. Then, the question becomes: if human nature is the same as divine nature, how is it that some humans seem to be imperfect? Well, the answer, unlike one might suspect, does not involve there being a difficulty between how the form and matter of a person interact, nor does it have anything to do with the fact that with free-choice, a human can do as he pleases. For there is no such thing as an imperfect nature, there is only a such thing as a person whose nature appears to be lesser or darker relative to others.

First, though, Dante cleverly indicates that he does believe the soul within and heaven or reality “without” to be the same:

“Now, as under the blows of the warm rays of
the sun the subject of snow remains naked
of its former colors and chill,

just so, you, who have become such in
intellect, I wish to inform with light so lively it will
tremble when you see it.” (2.106-111)

If one here follows the analogy, Dante is comparing the soul to melted snow with the snow reflecting on it. What is melted snow? It is water? What is this image of the soul then but the exact same image of the Sphere of the Moon above: “Within itself the eternal pearl received us, as water receives a ray of light while still remaining whole.” It is therefore clear that the Sphere of the Moon and the Soul are “made” or “formed” of the same substance which lies beneath. How, then, could there be imperfections in either if it were not caused, as the pilgrim suggests, by denser and rarer amounts of matter obscuring the nature of the whole? The answer is simple: there is no such thing as an evil or bad nature–only those natures which do what is called bad or evil in accordance with human laws. By the Divine Law, there are only differing degrees of perfection, no good and no evil. So even a murderer of a brother, a fratricide like Cain, lived out his nature, though humans perceive him and his actions as dark or evil. But as we now understand from what appear to be blots on the moon, such dark or evil actions, also like the phases of the moon, are not ultimately evil, but relatively so compared to the “brighter natures” or “actions” of others.

“From that nature comes what seems different
from light to light, not from dense and rare:
it is a formal principle that produces,

confomably with its goodness, the dark and
the bright.” (2.145-148)

Just before this quote, Dante’s Beatrice explained that each celestial body, or soul, mixes to differing degrees with Intelligence (136), and therefore each alloy, or celestial being/soul has a differing nature. That then which appears dark or evil to human perception, by Divine perception, or Truth, is simply that nature or soul which Intelligence has not bequeathed more “goodness” into, and therefore appears to our senses to be lacking. By Divine vision, then, good and evil do not have absolute existence.





On Dante’s Paradiso II: Onward to Mercury

Continuing from our Introduction to Dante’s Paradiso from last week, we will be considering here Cantos 5-8, and finishing Dante’s time with the Oath Breakers/Unfulfilled vows in the Sphere of the Moon (Constance and Piccarda), and we will shoot up “like an arrow that strikes the target before the bowstring had been stilled, so we sped into the second realm.” (5.91-93) (Notice again the hysteron proteron with the secondary action being represented first!–is this to show the dual nature of intertwined objects like the famous Olive Bush on Scheria in Homer’s Odyssey and of course God and Man who share one nature).

The sphere of the Moon’s “action” is concluded by a consideration of whether one could break a vow and substitute some other item or service than which was promised, and Dante’s response to whether one can break a vow is as follows. First he explains that a vow is made by means of human free will which is the greatest gift God gave to man and therefore when one makes a vow, so does God. If one wishes to change a vow, one must give 6 where once one gave 4, or the original amount or item and more. Dante then explains this: a vow is composed of (1) the thing offered and (2) agreement between parties. The agreement must always be honored, no question. The thing offered can be changed only if one offers something in addition, and also the original thing offered. Because the moment one vows to offer an item or a service, one is bound to do so by one’s own will and by God’s. That said, in instances where fulfilling the vow would result in worse consequences than breaking it, one should simply break the vow and ask for forgiveness. So should Agamemnon done with Iphigeneia his daughter and Jephthah (so like Idomeneus and his son) with his son. Rather than honor their promises which led to worse consequences, they should have accepted the consequences of breaking the oath. Perhaps Achilleus should have too.

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(Briseis being led away from Achilleus)

Canto 6 which then follows in the Sphere of Mercury is unique in that it features a single speaker, the 6th century Emperor of Rome Justinian giving a sort of mythological history of the Roman empire leading up to Dante’s times so afflicted with issues between the Ghibellines (represented, like Justinian, by an eagle banner) and Guelfs (represented by a golden lily). He, as one might expect a lover of Virgil to do, begins Roman history at the death of Pallas, the mythological son of Evander of Arcadia, to Turnus, the Rutulian, in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. So like a king, Justinian drones on and on, though we do learn from him that those souls in Mercury’s sphere do not feel longing to be in a higher sphere than this. Because they so longed for earthly honor, prestige, and glory, they fulfilled their active lives, but did not focus on developing their contemplative lives which would have led them towards the object of all thought, God. Since God’s justice is infallible and perfect, therefore, the place where these souls rest is the perfect place for them, as there are different wonderful smells and sights in a garden or different notes in a symphony, so are these souls (still called shades) perfectly content with their allotted place in the universe. Justinian also mentions the great just man Romeo (not the one from the Shakespeare play two hundred years later), and his poor treatment among his peers based on, what the commentator Durling says, somewhat spurious (false/dubiously sourced) stories.

Canto 7 begins with the Latin quote: “Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaoth,/ superillustrans claritate tua/ felices ignes horum malacoth,” (“O save, Holy God of armies, illuminating with your brightness from above the happy fires of these realms.”) and Beatrice apparently reads the pilgrim’s mind and begins a discourse on how one could take just vengeance but still receive a just punishment in response to this. But before we finish The Sphere of Mercury, we must return to a claim made in the introductory lecture on Dante’s Paradiso. In the last lecture it was suggested that potentially the Paradiso existed within the soul, and intellect or rational soul (all essentially one but logically divided says Aristotle). This was supported by the notion that the form of a thing is intangible and therefore without matter and thus in no way besmirched by imperfection and therefore perfect. Since, however, in Aristotelian logic, the form of an object must travel through an equally immaterial medium, space, into the rational soul or mind of one through the eye, then that which comprises the soul and the form must also comprise the medium between, space. Therefore, Augustine’s/Nicholas of Cusa’s proposition that God is “a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere” would be proven correct by the unified nature of god and man both being located within man’s soul, or its intangible space, and the space outside. If one remembers in Greek mythology that Ouranos (Heaven) and Earth (Gaia) were married one then sees that Heaven or Space or Soul is that which covers and forms the matter of the earth just as it forms the matter of the human (One might just as well look to Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.“). An instructive example on this even proving the notion from a physics point of view is Maxwell’s theory of Thermodynamics and his creation called “Maxwell’s Demon”:

“Before I conclude, I wish to direct attention to an aspect of the molecular theory which deserves consideration.

One of the best established facts in thermodynamics is that it is impossible in a system enclosed in an envelope which permits neither change of volume nor passage of heat, and in which both the temperature and the pressure are everywhere the same, to produce any inequality of temperature or of pressure without the expenditure of work. This is the second law of thermodynamics, and it is undoubtedly true as long as we can deal with bodies only in mass, and have no power of perceiving or handling the separate molecules of which they are made up. But if we conceive a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are still as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is at present impossible to us. For we have seen that the molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower ones to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics. (bold section added by me.)

This is only one of the instances in which conclusions which we have drawn from our experience of bodies consisting of an immense number of molecules may be found not to be applicable to the more delicate observations and experiments which we may suppose made by one who can perceive and handle the individual molecules which we deal with only in large masses.

In dealing with masses of matter, while we do not perceive the individual molecules, we are compelled to adopt what I have described as the statistical method of calculation, and to abandon the strict dynamical method, in which we follow every motion by the calculus.

(from Theory of Heat (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1872), pp. 308-9 [from facsimile edition published by AMS Press, 1972])

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Of course Maxwell’s piece was famous not only for there showing the practical relevance of statistics as a science vs. the more precise calculus, but for also indicating that his second law of thermodynamics was theoretically subject to dispute (as it was only empirically, not rationally, proved). Of course the first law of thermodynamics (also called the law of conservation of energy) states simply that any physical process, or one which involves work in an isolated or closed system, does not alter the energy in a system, but simply converts it from one type of energy to another. The second law then says that even in an isolated system, though the disorder of a system could remain constant ideally, would increase in entropy (a measure of disorder) over time. This is not as important to the current argument as it is simply historically relevant.

So, looking to the bold part of the quote above one observes an isolated or singular system which is arbitrarily (that means by choice) divided into two (though truly it is one, like nature of Man and God), and between these two systems a “gate” is placed at which what-might-be-called either an angel or a demon (or Mercury, psychopomp who leads souls from living to death and vice versa) may allow the influx of molecules of a slower nature from Side B to Side A and faster molecules to Side A from Side B thus increasing the temperature of hypothetical side B (of the actually unitary whole) without performing any work. Such, then, would be the empirical/statistical basis for the theory of the unus mundus, or the notion that heaven, or that which contains the forms of things, space or mind, both exists within a soul which forms a body and the soul which forms the world, or heaven. Heaven or Paradise, then, exists both within and without as we have seen from Maxwell, within and without are simply statistically hypothesized constants which are truly part of one whole. Or in more theological or Dante-esque terms, what was one isolated system is split into two and connected by a spirit, let’s call it holy. Therefore, the whole is hypothetically split into three parts (1=3). We will continue on to consider how just vengeance may receive a just punishment tomorrow.










Introduction to Dante’s Paradiso

Welcome to Dante’s Celestial Paradise, otherwise known as Heaven or the Paradiso. Let us begin with some introductory remarks about how the Paradiso is differently structured from the canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio) before. For one, in the Paradiso, no soul or body is actually moving in the physical or material sense of the word. Unlike Hell and Purgatory, there is no material basis here. In Hell, the sin was physical weight which dragged souls down to hell through its gravitas. In Purgatory, though the souls/shades were immaterial, they inhabited a place on Earth and still were purging their sins and therefore still partook of motion and therefore physical nature. Here in Paradise, however, though it will apparently be split into the spheres of the heavens, all souls are together, and not separated as they will appear to be for the sake of Dante’s still all-too-human and thus limited perception (4.37-39). And ours.

This makes more sense if we consider a second major difference in this canticle: just as gateways to the next circle of Hell were easily found with Virgil alone guiding, and terrace-gates were found only through a gracious Angel whispering their locations in Purgatorio, so here the pilgrim will immediately be transmitted from one sphere to the next, like the speed “in which a crossbow bolt comes to rest, and flies, and leaves the nut” or instantaneously when he looks into Beatrice’s eyes. This is telling, for it suggests that Paradise is not so much a physical place external to one, but rather an internal place within the soul. If we follow the clues, this makes sense. Beatrice first sent Virgil down to help Dante/the pilgrim through Earth and then Hell and then Purgatory in order to reach a state which would be capable of revelation. Beatrice, therefore, could only appear to Dante when he was ready for her to be revealed from Paradise, or within himself, where of course he kept her form and not her matter.

When one adds to this the idea that it is unclear even to Dante whether his body moves and is therefore in Paradise (2.37-39)*, the evidence, from three different angles (Beatrice’s eyes, Location of Beatrice’s form, and the speed of “motion”), the hypothesis that Paradise lies within, where human nature and Divine nature intersect (2.40-42)**, becomes clear.

Since the celestial experience is essentially the pilgrim taking a trip up the maze (Purgatory) to its center, himself, or the divine and human nature within, the majority of the text will focus on right interpretation of difficult philosophical and theological matters, which of course find their roots in the rational intellect or soul, and on the proper method by which one (1) doubts, (2) questions, and (3) resolves one’s doubt due to correct investigation of a subject. So, though the souls in Paradise all correctly understand that which they know, it is their task to help the Pilgrim, still full of doubt, to relieve his doubt through correct understanding of the Truth.

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(The Sphere of the Moon)

In the first Sphere of Paradise, the Moon, we encounter our first cadre of difficult philosophical questions—besides those “simple” ones of how one moves in Paradise, and how a body would move in it (it couldn’t—just like a rock’s matter does not enter one’s head, ideally), now we can consider the question of why the Moon appears to have dark spots if it is immaterial in nature. The pilgrim (Dante in the text) tries some interpretation, but as his reasoning involves material, he is necesse incorrect in his reasoning. Beatrice will then explain, loosely based on Aristotle/Aquinas’ cosmology, that each celestial sphere appears in accordance to the “brightness” or “luminosity” of the pure souls within. The “spots” or “seeming marks of imperfection” (which would have to be material) are actually a human’s misperception of the fact that that which appears dark is only relatively dark due to the brightness of the souls surrounding it. All the souls of the Moon and in Paradise, therefore, are perfect in accordance with their own natures, but some are more perfect than others, and some accepted and lived by their own natures better than others (else there would have been no free-choice, and humans would just be different in quality based on their natures alone, like angels.) So much for that question.

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(A and B are the same color)

Essentially, the luminosity of the angels can simply be represented by the “brain teaser” above. Though Square A and Square B appear different in coloring, they are the same. Generally this is called an “optical illusion”, but that term is a misnomer, because it is not the ops or eye at all which is deceived, but the mind based on the context one views the respective squares. Square A of course is surrounded by white squares and  Square B by dark grey. Due to the differing patterns around them, they appear either lighter or darker than they are to the rational intellect or mind. It is precisely this same principle of relative light or perception which makes some lights on Dante’s Moon to appear darker than others.

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(The moon and its dark spots)

Next Dante meets two radiant former-nuns who at first seem like “reflections in a deep pool” so faint are they to him—much like a vague thought, or reflection, one has not yet fleshed out. These two “sisters” are Piccarda Donati, sister to Forese whom we met in Purgatorio, and the empress Constance. Both of these sisters took vows to serve as handmaidens to god and brides to Christ (nuns are the brides of Christ as representatives of the feminine nature of the Church), but both were taken from their vows back into the secular world but against their wills. For this reason, they are in the lowest heaven, the heaven or sphere of oath-breakers or those with unfulfilled vows. Now, in order to justify her position in heaven (guilty conscience?), Piccarda explains the notion of contingent will vs. absolute will. Essentially, contingent will is the will which one uses to make every-day decisions about temporal things. The absolute Will, however, which appears to be the Will of God, can also be tapped into by a human by aligning their contingent will with it. If one, however, is forced by outside conditions to separate one’s will from the Absolute Will, there is not much blame if one truly does not wish to, but there is no blame, if like Laurence or Mucius (4.82-84), one united one’s contingent will with Absolute Will even under torturous conditions.

Returning to the notion that Paradise is all whole though broken into parts for human perception (just as Aristotle says that the soul is all one though it is logically divided for the intellect), let us consider the following passage:

“They have shown themselves here, not
because this sphere is allotted to them, but to
signify the celestial one that is least exalted.

To speak thus to your understanding is
necessary, for it takes from sense perception
alone what later it makes worthy of intellection.

For this reason Scripture condescends to
your faculties, attributing feet and hands to God
and meaning something different.

and holy Church represents Gabriel and
Michael to you with human shape, and the other
one who made Tobias whole.

(Dante, Paradiso 4.37-48. Durling tr.)

We see here that part of the project in Paradise will be to take that which we have perceived with our senses or been taught in a sensual way (like God having feet or Gabriel wings) and to teach the pilgrim and therefore us how correctly to dismantle the image through questioning and analyze the parts, and then put them back together as they were found but with a symbolic understanding of the thing itself. One therefore notices that the process by which one will come truly to understand things is also threefold: (1) learn through senses, (2) analyze the function of each part (dismemberment), and (3) correctly put it back together. If one thinks about this process hard enough, it sounds like the eternally repeated process of education: (1) learn something the first time through belief or by rote.  (2) Then truly analyze it and come to know the purpose of each part. (3) Finally, to show mastery, put the concept back together by teaching it to another so that they might do the same. Voila.

Welcome to Paradise.

*”If I was a body–and down here it cannot be
conceived how one dimension could accept an
other, as must occur, if body coincide with body–”

**”it should kindle within us more desire to see
that Essence where is seen how our nature and
God became one.”