Monday, December 24, 2007

The literal level of the Comedy is the least important — i.e. the fictional journey through the putative realms of the afterlife

What’s really important here is that getting back to the Garden of Eden isn’t the goal of the Christian life. If we all achieved the perfect moral virtue that Adam and Eve lost, it wouldn’t mean a thing unless we had Love. The Mystery of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, the “being blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Him” is represented only in the third section of the poem. And all of that is entirely out of Virgil’s purview, because it is the realm of joy that is rooted in the divine suffering and passion; it is the ecstatic Romance of Christianity; it is everything that even Adam and Eve in the Garden did not know and did not possess — intimate union with God through Christ.
So it makes sense to me that the Inferno and the Purgatorio ultimately are concerned with human nature as instituted and maintained by common grace within the Order of Nature. The virtuous pagans put Christians to shame with their rational insight into the nature of the good life and the perversions of the good, the crimes against the state and the family and so on. And with the commitment of the best of them to the rational vision of moral virtue, as seen in the best of Stoicism or in Aristotelian ethics. Natural Reason and the Good as Reason knows it are naturally the guides to the descent of the human person into sin and the strivings of the human conscience toward natural virtue. Why should these be denied to the non-Christian?
Aquinas’s definition of God’s love is that He desires to fill each of His creatures with what is good, to the limit of its own capacity, and by this definition Virgil isgreatly loved by God. Virgil appropriately — from a Thomistic framework — presides over the journey of the human mind into deeper knowledge and understanding of the nature of sin and the corresponding nature of the virtues. He represents the goodness of the natural world in its own right as created and maintained by God despite the fall, and the goodness of human nature, too. He represents and speaks for “the good of reason” — and he does not desire a good beyond the very high good of reason. It is sufficient for him.
So I think Dante finesses the problem of how a human being could achieve genuine moral virtue without the supernatural aids of the Church, because it is not depicted that anyone has ever returned to the garden except by entering through the Church for that ascent. But the virtuous pagans had certainly longed for the return of the Golden Age and had clearly understood the nature of moral perfection. Cato and Virgil in the Purgatorio remind us of the virtuous pagans and shame us with their commitment and with their genuine moral achievements, but they have not ascended the mountain and returned to the Garden, but only lit the way. That journey in actuality is left to the Christian. But finally, the pursuit of moral virtue is not the essentially spiritual and Christian life. Morality belongs to the natural world and human nature as it was fashioned in the beginning. Morality therefore must be negotiated by the Christian, but it’s not an end in itself. Virgil and Cato belong to that mountain for more than the pilgrims toiling up its slopes, because for Virgil and Cato it is the ultimate end, the extent and limit of their vision.
The literal level of the Comedy is the least important — i.e. the fictional journey through the putative realms of the afterlife. But as a depiction of the human journey in this life, it is staggeringly impressive, I think. In one sense, as a journey of the understanding, the first two sections deal with the Order of Nature and the third alone with the Order of Grace (Revealed truth). In another sense, as a journey of the Will, the Inferno deals with the Order of Nature and the Purgatorio and Paradiso deal with the believer’s supernaturally empowered journey toward God. I think Dante meant that we are all enacting the actions of all three Canticles at once, in our daily lives — always again descending into hell, new convictions of sin, the struggles of sanctification, the joys of communion and union with Christ.

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