As promised, I wanted to upload the presentation notes that I read during the first Episode of Vocatio. Most of these notes are meant for voice formatting so a lot of my references are not included. If anyone wishes to know where certain things are cited from feel free to leave a comment and I’ll answer individual questions.
Notes for Dante and the Path of Initiation Presentation (Voice Format)
These are mostly excerpts from a series of essays I’ve been writing and compiling on the Comedy
PART I: Fourfold Reading of the Comedy
The venerable poet T. S. Eliot once said, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” He wasn’t alone in praise for “il Sommo Poeta” nor are his accomplishments merely the object of adoration amongst artists. This is just some of what Pope Benedict XV, for example, wrote of Dante in his encyclical IN PRAECLARA SUMMORUM :
Among the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast who have left undying fruits in literature and art especially, besides other fields of learning, and to whom civilization and religion are ever in debt, highest stands the name of Dante Alighieri
Dante ranged himself as disciple of that Prince of the school so distinguished for angelic temper of intellect, Saint Thomas Aquinas. From him he gained nearly all his philosophical and theological knowledge, and while he did not neglect any branch of human learning, at the same time he drank deeply at the founts of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers. Thus he learned almost all that could be known in his time, and nourished specially by Christian knowledge, it was on that field of religion he drew when he set himself to treat in verse of things so vast and deep.
So why is it that we do not hear much of Dante at all especially in the English speaking world? The problem one encounters is in treating the Comedy as just another piece of literature. Indeed, Guido di Giorgio said this of trying to read the Comedy:
The purely exterior literary merits that common men, the profanum vulgus [unholy rabble], admire in Dante have no importance and would nullify the value of the Comedy in the very eyes of Dante and of those who can and know how to understand the purpose for which the poem was composed.
It would be necessary to feel ashamed to still speak of, and only of, “art”, “poetry”, “brilliant construction”, in the modern sense of the word when one alludes to Dante’s work which is only and eminently sacred in spirit and structure,
This description can be most easily intuited when one watches tourists who visit the ancient churches in their denim shorts and smart phones. They feel themselves to have been edified by the immensity and grandness of the architecture, craftsmanship, and time it took to build the construction but they, ultimately, are unchanged by the experience. For them, there is no sacred element living in the rock, only the genius of men. Even academics who merely admire these churches for these same reasons albeit at a higher and more technically superiour level, are guilty of the same. There is no transformation of consciousness but merely an expansion of their horizontal sensibilities. Similarly, with the Comedy, it is not understood, for the most part, as a sacred exercise but as merely, at best, the highest expression of Western poetry.
The process of reading Dante can be a daunting enterprise and is certainly something which I profess little real mastery over. However, in good faith, I’d like to present a small sample of what little findings I have. I have chosen to attempt to follow Rene Guenon’s advice when he pointed to the 9th Canto of the Inferno where Dante says—and you’ll excuse me if I butcher the Old Italian: “O voi che’avete gl’intelleti sani, Mirate la dottrina che s’asconde Sotto il velame delli versi strani!” or to put it in John Ciardi’s translation: “Men of sound intellect and probity, weigh with good understanding what lies hidden behind the veil of my strange allegory!” Guenon goes on to say:
With these words, Dante points in a most explicit way to the hidden (or doctrinal, properly speaking) significance of his work, a work whose external and apparent meaning is only a veil; a significance that must be sought for those who would fathom it. Elsewhere the poet goes still further, stating that all writings, not only sacred ones, can be understood—and must be explicated—principally according to four levels of meaning. It is evidence, moreover that these diverse meanings cannot in any way contradict or oppose each other, but must on the contrary complete each other, harmonizing the parts within the whole as constituent elements of a unique synthesis. The difficulty begins only when it comes to determining these different meanings, especially the highest or the most profound, and it is here that different points of view naturally arise among commentators. They all agree on a literal sense in poetic narrative, and generally agree in recognizing a philosophical (or, rather, philosophical-theological) meaning, as well as a political and social one; however, counting the literal sense, this makes only three, and Dante advises us to look for a fourth meaning. For us, it can only be a strictly initiatic sense, metaphysical in its essence, though not of a purely metaphysical order, are nonetheless esoteric in character. It is precisely owing to its esoteric character that this profounder level of meaning has escaped most commentators. Yet if one ignores it (or perhaps fails to recognize it) the other levels of meaning can only be partially understood; for this esoteric or intrinsic sense stands to the others as their principle—within which their multiplicity is coordinated and unified. (Esoterism of Dante)
In short, what we are dealing with when looking at the Divine Comedy is not simply a literary masterpiece, but a very window to the depths of the worlds beyond in all of the meanings of that phrase. This level of consciousness towards what literature and even reading can be is rarely practiced nor do I present today to show anyone “the way” but recognizing our own insufficiency and inadequacy in the task, should we accept it, is the first step in raising our awareness in total; for it is this awakening into the dangers of our automatic and overgrown world that Dante begins his poem.
PART II: The Beginnings of the Spiritual Journey
Let us examine some ways in which initiation becomes a theme in Dante. I have chosen to focus on the theme of initiation as the journey of the soul to salvation and the increasing and spiraling degrees of consciousness that this journey brings. Obviously, this tiny, amateur presentation could not hope to exhaust even a small fraction of how this plays out in the Comedy, so it will be fruitful to simply focus on Dante’s journey ab initio. Dante begins his journey waking up in a Dark Wood where he had lost, through inebriation or sleep, the straight path. Interestingly, he says that it is midway through the journey of “our” lives; a key so vital to understanding the whole of his poem.
In this statement, Dante advances the claim that the universe deals in the mode of macrocosm and microcosm: that reality is a series of concentric circles. Dante, therefore, begins his poem with one of the most ancient and primary of insights which makes an appearance in the second item of the Emerald Tablet which states: “quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius,” or, as Isaac Newton translated it: “that which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below.” His drama, therefore, is all of man’s. The drama of one man is a miniature of the drama of all of reality and an ability to understand our journey is also an expansion of consciousness to be able to understand all life just as Dante’s concentric rings of his landscape will demonstrate the same shape but in different sizes. This connection of macrocosm and microcosm is immediately apparent in the fact that while Dante uses “nostra,” he immediately follows it up with “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.”; he follows it with “mi”. He shows that his poetic consciousness flows from the communal and superindividual to the individual; from the universe to his person; from the universal to the particular. Thus, he incarnates the universal into himself like the LOGOS in His universality incarnates into the particular of the Christ. Appropriately, after the first two lines establish the “above” and the “below,” the third line establishes the “left” and the “right” for “the straight way” that had been lost is a horizontal dimension. It denotes the spiritual movement attested to in salvation history by the era of the Holy Spirit. After the concentration of the universal into the particular, this particular spreads out once again to the universal on the horizontal plane. In other words, from LOGOS to the Incarnation and then through the subsequent Evangelization inspired by the Holy Spirit of the Universe; the universal Church. Thus, in the very first three lines of his poem, Dante begins as all prayers do: from the top, to the bottom, and then from left to right: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”
Thus, the first three lines of the poem already initiate us: already baptize us into a new level of literary consciousness. Some of you here may already know in greater depth the possible meanings of the Dark Wood so you will forgive me if I simply gloss over most of it for the sake of the brevity of this presentation. We must suffer through saying that the dark wood is symbolic of the stifling overgrowth of undisciplined life. The memory of this wood gives Dante great pain to remember as he writes in lines 7-9. Just as Guenon said, the various layers find harmony and do not contradict each other. This principle is also present in how the theme of initiation and macrocosm/microcosm is not confined to the content of the poetry but can be found in the architecture of the poem itself so one must ask themselves why Dante decides at this point to “break the fourth wall” to tell us of the pains to write of the journey.
He is now speaking as Dante-Author. He mentions how despite how unpleasant it is to walk the path of writing the poem, he will do so “to give account of the good which I found there.” In other words, Dante the Author creates this tale—this reality and it is a bitter one due to the foolishness of his main character who is made in his image and yet he does not abandon the narrative. The bitterness of entering into the narrative does not deter him, for the sake of the good that will come. He could have chosen to forego the painful moments or to wipe away the sting of sin that weighs him down, but he chose, instead, to include everything from start to finish, one might even say, out of compassion for all humanity who may benefit from reading his poem.
This glimpse at the author is not coincidental or superfluous. Instead, Dante the Author demonstrates that even he is not outside the principles of macrocosm/microcosm. For Dante is pointing that every author is also a microcosm of the Divine Author for he has placed himself into the very heart of the drama that he created! And how much more appropriate that Dante proceeds, out of love, to complete the regeneration of the broken and bitter beginning! Thus, even Dante’s “meta-narrative” does not fall outside the laws of order and reality. His very existence as a writer rhymes with the existence of the Supreme Author who, in the fullness of the poetry of time, re-enters his creation in order to bring his image and likeness to salvation.
Escaping the woods, Dante finds himself upon a glorious little hill that points towards the sun, but only after having passed through a “valley” which could be just as easily be a “vale of tears.” However, the significance of such a small detail as the insertion of a valley should not be overlooked. Dante contains in microcosm even in these first lines the macrocosm of his entire work. After all, where else is the image of a negative space—a valley—is then proceeded by a positive, upward space and then the eye following that upward orientation towards the circular divine source above? Indeed, the whole poem in its three spatial dimensions of negative, positive, and superpositive are encapsulated in kernel by the first Canto showing again that each tiny step circulates and expands. In other words, the same pattern is repeated but the degree “increases” creating the infinite grandeur of a spiral—a spatial movement which Dante the pilgrim follows as he spirals downwards towards the center of Hell and spirals upwards towards the top of Purgatory. Thus, in the beginning, he shows the smallest of these cycles of valley, hill, and star before proceeding to the larger cycle of the pit of Hell, the mountain of Purgatory, and the Astral plane and beyond of Paradise. This law of the spiral is sabbatical. It is the repetition of a pattern but with degrees increasing in size reaching out towards infinity and the significance of this principle will be clear as it continues to be revisited throughout the poem. This is also the natural point at which one can see the spiral of Dante’s rhyming pattern of terza rima. This pattern which is ABA, BCB, CDC, DED etc is the linguistic practice of “spiraling” outward as it encapsulates within repeating movements the form of the next cycle. Dante’s poem, therefore, is essentially the song of the freedom of the soul as the spiral indicates a direction which is unbounded by a closed formation; it represents gradual and continual growth outward.
In his terza rima it is like each rhyme gives birth to the next rhyme. In ABA BCB CDC DED etc, one can see the succeeding generations as if the next rhyme is in gestation within the protective womb of the preceding rhyme. Thus, Dante’s poem is a living organism and points always to personhood and the development and growth of the self which is part of the reason why the Commedia can be seen as a series of spiritual exercises meant to gradually awaken the human being. This spiraling or infinite fecundity is also part of his initial prayer: for what else could be more fecund and generative than the creative power of the Trinity?
But what of Dante’s choice to use his native Italian? Does this, too, like his choice of rhyme, have a purpose? How can one understand the usage of such a local language for something as universal as the salvation of man’s soul? The birthing imagery is perhaps instructive here along with the already established movement of Dante entering his own work. Indeed, why would Dante choose to write in any other language than the local one for is this not the mode that God chose himself? God descended from the Eternal and Universal and decided to be born as a particular: a particular man in a particular time in a particular nation—the nation of Israel. He spoke a particular language and from that particularity he reached out to the infinite once again. God concentrated from eternity to particular in order to spread his love gradually—person to person—spiraling outward from himself. So, too, does Dante concentrate the Eternal truths of religion and the Christian faith into the particularity of his own journey and his own language; he is merely following God’s example. He is following the example of the cross which descends from the unitive universality of the Father to the particularity in love of the Son and spreads out from that point from man to man by the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles. His poetry both in its language and rhyme follow the path of salvation history just as much as the content of his lines.
After all, what is the geometry of the hill? Is it not also the marriage of the point of verticality and horizontality? Is it not just another image of the cross? For look at the hill and one finds that the top descends to the bottom and then the bottom spreads outward like the universality of Catholicity on the horizontal or mundane level. Then, it is the task of the Church to raise all of these horizontal elements upward to converge back to the starting point. Following these dimensions of line and circle and then back to the point where the line originated forms a cone—the very sign of the hill! The very sign of the mountain!
Unfortunately for Dante at the foot of this hill, however, his rapid and frantic climb leads him to face a Leopard, Lion, and She-wolf which bar his path and force him to run back down the hill. I will beg the indulgence of the Audience if we skip any reading of what these rich symbols of the hill and animals represent as we focus more on another initiative step for the Pilgrim as he descends into a place where “the sun is silent” and encounters Virgil whom he can see is “hoarse from being silent for so long.” The pilgrim soul is now able to see the dead and hear in silence.
First, it is necessary to look upon the figure of Virgil as essential in beginning to understand these strange lines. Again, to commit the crime of vulgar reduction, we shall for now accept the uncouth summary that Virgil is representative of human intellect. He guides Dante expertly through Hell, then participates in the climb of Purgatory, before leaving him to be guided by Beatrice, the very embodiment Revelation and spirituality in Dante’s cosmos. This pattern has been observed as a universal law of spiritual growth by a wise man when he wrote:
the individual soul begins initially with the experience of the separation and opposition of the spiritual and intellectual elements within it, then advances to—or resigns itself to—parallelism, i.e. a kind of “peaceful coexistence” of those two elements with in it. Subsequently, it arrives at cooperation between spirituality and intellectuality which, proving to be frutiful, eventually becomes the complete fusion of these two elements in a third element […] The beginning of this final stage is announced by the fact that logic becomes transformed from formal logic (i.e. general and abstract logic)–passing through the intermediary stage of “organic logic”–into moral logic (i.e. material and essential logic) […] Moral logic, in contrast to formal logic and organic logic, operates with values instead of notions of grammar, mathematics, or biological functions. (Meditations on the Tarot)
Interestingly, just as he will be growing in his journey beyond the opposition of intellect and spirit towards cooperation and then union, so was Dante’s state before starting this process the inverse. On the climb up the hill and meeting the beasts, he was demonstrating the opposition of ignorance and death for it is ignorance which is the inverse of the intellect and death as the opposite of spirituality. Death struggles against ignorance in striking fear into Dante which stops him from rising higher whereas ignorance of the dangers of the beasts may have kept him moving forward. Death and ignorance cooperated in parallel in the desert as it set his entire spiritual life empty and barren such as in moralism. Lastly, death and ignorance were in complete synthesis in “sleep” which is the opposite of the philosopher’s stone. It is the point at which all intellect and all spirituality are suspended. Thus, following Dante’s journey from negative to positive, the introduction of Virgil is also a carefully coordinated step from the inversion of spiritual growth to the beginning of something authentic.
With this in mind, we can return to viewing the encounter with Virgil. It is here that one could say that Dante truly has his first “supernatural” experience. For while big cats and she-wolves truly exist as natural phenomenon (though I was told that the “leopard” Dante had in mind is now extinct), Virgil is long dead by Dante’s time. Thus, Dante is signaling that we have truly entered into the Eternal world; into the world of idea-beings. This is the world of ideals translated into poetic form. This is why Dante takes such great pains to signal to the reader to pay attention to the “silent” senses for it is no longer in the bodily senses that we shall be making this journey, but in the spiritual senses. Just as how Dante signals that the “sun” can “speak,” so, too, can Virgil’s “hoarseness” be “seen.” We can be assured that this is indeed the world of values—the morally logical world for, as was pointed out before, it is values that “moral logic” is concerned with. It is the method of discernment that is beyond the quantitative—it now becomes qualitative sensing. Thus, it is the qualities of Virgil that Dante is first able to see. It cannot be understated how this basic understanding of sense-phenomena in the Eternal World is essential for understanding all of Dante’s journey for every creature from here on will always display in bodily form their interior value. Dante’s great genius, then, is to “translate” the language of the invisible into the visible. It is to “incarnate” the idea-beings of the superworld so that we may touch, hear, smell, see, and even taste them! Indeed, even the word translated as the “weak voice” is “fioco” which in itself is used both to mean something insubstantial in sound as well as in vision such as in the case of a ghost approaching. Thus, the word itself is a complete melding of Dante’s theme—it is the synthesis and union of the two. While different critics are content to remain in the formal debate of whether it is a visual or auditory expression, Dante’s purpose is to demonstrate the viability—nay the necessity—of paradox. He synthesizes the two in hypostasis like the paradox of the invisible God made visible in the flesh. It is Dante who is proclaiming so comprehensively: VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST.
Dante’s artistic genius is in the way he can make such horizontally constricted elements—such as words—invoke the fullness of verticality. Just as Bernini centuries later mastered the art of transforming marble into the supple delicacy of skin, Dante transmutes an entire cosmos out of basic words. Just as Dante’s hill reminds the reader of the union of the opposite dimensions in the cross, so, too, does Dante’s “translational” and “transmutive” art extol the symbols of uniting the horizontal with the vertical. For it is even in the cross that formal logic might see the death and weakness of God, but moral logic sees the victory of love. So, too, is Dante’s gaze upon Virgil steeped in the request by the Author to view the entirety of the work with the eyes of value and to thus practice the union of intellectuality and spirituality.