The fourfold interpretation of the Comedy [Dorothy L. Sayers]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Dorothy L. Sayers

Tratto da: Introductory papers on Dante. The poet alive in his writings

Editore: Methuen-Harper, London-New York

Anno: 1954

Pagine: 101-126

In the summer of 1950 the Columbia University Press enlivened us by announcing the names of the Ten Most Boring Classics, chosen (according to newspaper reports) by "hundreds of editors, writers, booksellers, librarians, literary critics and ordinary readers". Top marks for dullness were allotted to the greatest allegory in English prose - The Pilgrim's Progress. This was followed, in order of demerit, by Moby Dick, which (if not explicitly allegorical in form) has certainly a significacio beyond its literal meaning; and by Paradise Lost, the greatest religious poem in English verse. Thence, by way of Boswell's _Johnson, Pamela, Silas Marner, and Ivanhoe, we come to Don Quixote, the greatest novel of Spain, whose signification also is not entirely on the surface: and Faust, the greatest poem in the German language, and certainly allegorical, especially in its second part. One may perhaps tentatively conclude that religious allegory is not the most popular branch of literature in the United States-or at any rate among such of their citizens as enjoy filling in questionnaires. The Divine Comedy was not included in the Lower Ten"; but this may have been merely because none of the hundreds of voters had ever tried to read it.
Having myself a peculiar fondness for allegory, I can only hope that if a similar enquiry were put out in this country, it might produce less mortifying results. I admit, however, that I am not very sanguine about editors, booksellers, librarians and literary critics. Some writers would, I know, be on my side; but I should pin my faith to the common reader. All the same, I am very much aware, and have indeed frequently said, that in our present day the art of reading, as of writing, allegory has been to a very great extent lost. The ordinary reader, unaccustomed to this kind of picture-writing, is not always quite sure what the picture represents, or what he is supposed to look for. And the commentators are not always as helpful as they might be, because, lost in a maze of controversial detail, they often forget to make clear the broad outlines of the scheme of interpretation. Perhaps they feel that these are too obvious to need pointing out; but it is always curiously easy to overlook the obvious. The present paper is concerned with what I conceive to be the most prolific source of confusion where the Commedia is concerned; and, after what I have said, I hope I may be forgiven if I am sometimes very obvious indeed.
An allegory, as we all know at any rate in theory, is a story (whether veracious or fictitious) whose literal meaning is a symbol to convey the greater signification for whose sake the story exists. That is the first and most obvious thing to bear in mind; and the prime source of error and misunderstanding in reading allegory is to confuse the literal with the allegorical meaning - the sign with the thing signified. And the second, though less obvious, is like unto it. In most great and richly significant allegory, the literal story may find its allegorical interpretation at more levels than one; and error and misunderstanding result when the levels are confused. In a well-constructed allegory (and the Commedia is supremely well constructed), story and significance are lines which run parallel, never fusing or crossing one another; and the pattern is one of such universal truth that the signification remains valid and consistent at all levels of interpretation.
Now, Dante himself, in the Epistle to Can Grande, has told us that his poem has a literal meaning which is to be interpreted at three levels - the allegorical, the moral and the anagogical. This division is not a personal whimsy of his own invention. It was the recognised method of interpreting Biblical narrative, particularly the narrative of the Old Testament, and goes back to the early Christian Fathers. Dante's three levels are identical with those enumerated and explained by St. Thomas Aquinas (S.T.I, Q.I., A.1o), who says: "That first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division… So far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are signs of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense." If you will compare this extract from the Summa with the passage in the Epistle which sets out the four meanings of the text "In exitu Israel'', you will see how closely Dante is following St. Thomas, and how he works the principle out in practice.
Now, it is certainly arguable that the original authors of the Old Testament did not in the least expect or intend their books to be interpreted in this complicated way. But there can be no argument about what Dante intended to be done with his book. He wrote it with that fourfold system of interpretation consciously and deliberately in view, and he said so in the plainest possible manner.
Let us, then, look a little more closely at what St. Thomas has to say. First, as to the literal or historical meaning. He uses the word "historical", and Dante follows him in this. I rather wish he had not, because by doing so he has deprived me of an adjective which would have come in more usefully in another place. However, there is the word, and it may be taken in either of two senses. It may mean, in the modem sense, "matter of history", something which really happened; or it may mean, in the wider sense of the Latin word historia, something which is narrated-a story, whether fact, myth, or fiction. For St. Thomas, either sense would do equally well; Dante, I think, probably intends it in the wider sense, seeing that, although in the Epistle he gives an instance from actual history (the return of Israel from Egypt), in a parallel passage from the Convivio he says that the literal story may be a poetical figment, a bella menzogna. In any case, in their literal meaning, whereby they "signify things", the words tell a story. There will be episodes, in which characters speak and act in character, and their words and actions make up the story.
Now we come to the 'spiritual sense', whereby the things signified by words have themselves a signification". The "things signified" are, as we have just seen, the story. It is most important to remember this. If we want to know what the spiritual sense of the whole work is, we must look, first, foremost and all the time, at the movement of the story as a whole -not, primarily, to obiter dicta thrown out by the characters, who may be speaking in character. If we do this, we shall be saved from much misunderstanding. We shall not, for example, imagine, like Professor Whitfield in his book Dante and Virgil, that Dante started off by accepting Virgil, who represents Humanism at its best, as a sufficient guide in himself to the perfection of the active life on earth, and that he then, discovering half-way through that this conclusion would be unorthodox and that earthly perfection was unattainable, jettisoned Virgil for Beatrice, Humanism for Grace, and the Active Life for the Contemplative. Whatever praises Dante the pilgrim, speaking in character, may address to Virgil, Dante the poet knew and intended from the beginning that Virgil and his Humanism were inadequate to salvation. The action of the story tells us so. From the very beginning, Humanism is presented to us as damned. In its own strength, it can never rise higher than Limbo; in 1ts own wisdom it can only show us Hell. Grace sends it on its errand of salvation; even as far as Purgatory it can come only in company with a soul in grace, and there it does not of itself know the way and is subject to the authority of all the Ministers of Grace. The spiritual signification resides in the action and development of the story as a whole; and it follows from this that no interpretation of any detached passage can possibly be valid if it conflicts with the general tenor of the story.
Having got this point clear, we can proceed to examine the three levels of interpretation. The first, both Aquinas and Dante call "allegorical'; though Dante goes on to add that all three senses "may in general be called allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical". It is a little tiresome of Dante to have given two meanings for the same word--especially as the second, more general, meaning is the one in which we to-day always use the term "allegorical'. In the rest of this paper I shall use "allegorical° always in its general meaning, and we will find something else to specify the first level of interpretation. For St. Thomas, we are at this level when we see an event in the Old Testament symbolising an event in the New. But we cannot, obviously, apply this test as it stands to the Divine Comedy, for the plain reason that it is the Divine Comedy and not the Old Testament. But when we look at the Old Testament in the light of Christian Revelation, what we see is a series of events, which symbolise or foreshadow another series of events actually taking place in worldhistory: namely, the story of God's Incarnation. If, then, the literal story of the Comedy is taken to be a parallel to the Old Testament, what signification are we to find for it which will be a suitable parallel to the signification which the Old Testament finds in the New? Presumably it will be a parallel in world-history. At this level, the story of Dante's fictitious pilgrimage signifies something actually happening, or that ought to happen, in the real history of mankind. For this reason, I should like to call this first level of interpretation the "historical" level. Unhappily, that word has been used by Aquinas and Dante as a synonym for the literal meaning. I find myself, therefore, obliged to call it the "political" level - understanding the word in its widest sense, as applying to the whole life of man in all its social relationships and historical development. At the first level, the Comedy, being interpreted, shows us the way of the polis: we may call it the Way of the City", or perhaps "of the Empire''.
The second level - the moral sense - involves no difficulties of nomenclature and needs little explanation. It is the meaning which we most naturally attach to religious allegory-the experience of the "common Christian" in his passage from a state of sin to a state of grace. We may call it quite simply, "the Way of the Soul".
The third level - the anagogical or mystical - is one well-known to all students of religious experience, though it does not lie within the compass of every soul. It concerns that immediate apprehension of the divine which is enjoyed by those who have the gift, and it is known as the Way of Contemplation. Although, as we shall see, Dante's map of this way differs in at least one essential feature from the map made familiar to us in the writings of the later mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the Way itself is one which almost every developed religion recognises; and although the souls who follow it are, comparatively speaking, few, the mystical gift is not so rare and remote from daily life as is usually supposed. It is, for example, probably a good deal less rare than the gift of genius.
It is at these three levels, then - the Way of the City, the Way of the Soul, and the Way of Contemplation-that the literal story of the Commedia is to be interpreted throughout the poem. I want to emphasise that: throughout the poem. These three different levels are not stages on the same way; they run parallel at every point from startingplace to goal. One can, so to say, cross this Atlantic at three levelsby submarine, by steamer, or by aeroplane, and all three routes go the whole way: one does not need to transfer, part-way across, from one conveyance to the other. In theory, I suppose, every Dantist would admit this; but there is, in practice, a quite marked tendency for comment to slip, instinctively and unconsciously, from one level to another. It would hardly be too much to say that there is a constant temptation to interpret the Inferno at the political level, the greater part of the Purgatorio at the moral level, and the Paradiso at the mystical level. This is not always by any means explictly avowed. But we do find writers concentrating on the Inferno as a picture, or a satire upon, this world, with special attention to trecento politics. We do find comment on the Purgatorio centring about the three steps at Peter's gate, and the moral aspects of self-examination, contrition and satisfaction-until we arrive at the Earthly Paradise, where the political aspect again becomes dominant. We do find a kind of silent assumption that the Paradiso has chiefly to do with what is called the· "more spiritual side" of religion-an assumption coupled with astonishment that Dante should have thought fit to intrude into the heavenly regions denunciations of sin and outbursts of political spleen which are (it is felt) out of place in this rarefied celestial atmosphere.
English people are, perhaps, peculiarly liable to fall into this error of confusing the three levels with one another, and even with the literal meaning-and that for a very simple and natural reason. Our conception of religious allegory is unconsciously dominated by the powerful influence of Bunyan, whose theme, clearly announced upon his title-page, is "The Pilgrim's Progress from this World o that which is to Come". All our childhood and school-day memories lead us to expect that in any allegory the pilgrim soul will begin in this world, and pass through death to finish up in the next. But Dante's theme, in spite of the superficial likeness introduced by its involving a journey, is quite different. He says: "The subject of the whole work (totius operis) taken in the literal sense only is 'the state of souls after death', without qualification (simpliciter sumptus). Whereas if the work be taken allegorically the subject is 'man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his judgment, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing justice'." There is nothing here about passing from one world to the other. The whole work, in its literal acceptation, is about "the state of souls after death"; the whole work, taken allegorically, is about man's rendering himselfliable to the awards of justice by the exercise of his free will-its exercise, that is to say, in this world: for in the next world one no longer "renders one's self liable" to anything. In the moment of death the will's choice is fixed, and as the tree falls, there it must lie. And it will not do to say that Dante began with this idea and ended up with another: for the words I have quoted were written as an introduction to the Paradiso-at a time when he knew very well what the theme of his book had turned out to be.
Dante's visionary journey, then, unlike that of Bunyan's Christian, is, in the literal story, a journey in the other world from beginning to end; in the allegorical significance, it is a journey in this world from beginning to end, at whichever level we like to consider it. And since, in the words of St. Thomas, the spiritual sense "is based on and presupposes" the literal, let us begin by considering the literal story.
The story of the journey is prefaced by an introductory passage describing Dante's adventures in the Dark Wood. This is the only part of the narrative which is placed in this world at all four levels. From a merely formal point of view, and for numerical symmetry, this introduction is usually regarded as comprising the first canto only of the Inferno; but from our point of view it actually covers the first two cantos and the beginning of the third. Our first contact with the verities behind the veil is made, of course, at the meeting with Virgil; but it is not until Virgil "with a joyous countenance" lays his hand on Dante's and leads him in "among the hidden things", that we cross the boundary between this life and that other.
The literal story is conceived as a blend of truth and fiction. The threefold 'state of souls after death"- damnation, purgation, beatification-is a reality, as Africa is a reality. The details of Dante's journey are fiction-as Alan Quatermain's adventures in quest of King Solomon's Mines are fiction. In both cases there are convincing geographical and other details, worked out with a great air of scientific solemnity, which blur the frontiers between fact and fiction and help us to the desirable "suspension of disbelief". Whatever we, personally, may think about the state of souls after death, we must, in reading the poem, accept Dante's belief in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven as postmortal states; we need not believe, nor need we suppose him to believe, that Hell is physically situated at the centre of the earth, Purgatory on an island in the Southern Hemisphere, or Heaven above the fixed stars. On several occasions, Dante warns us against attributing to him any such naif conceptions. The journey, as such, is a bella menzogna: it is just a story.
In the story, we pass through the Gate of Hell on the evening of Good Friday, and descend through the twenty-four circles of the Pit of Hell. Leaving behind us in the Vestibule the Souls who refused to make any definite choice between good and evil, we cross Acheron and come to Limbo, the dwelling of those who, by human and rational standards, lived innocently, and even nobly, but who never knew the great supra-rational Christian graces of faith, hope and carias. With many adventures by the way, all of which have their own exciting place in the fictional narrative, as well as their allegorical signification, we proceed, first through the circles of the incontinent-those who never pulled themselves together to make an effective stand against sin-and next, through the circles of sin deliberately willed and chosen: heresy, violence, fraud simple and fraud complicated by treachery. At the centre of the earth we are brought face to face with Satan himself. Climbing along his body, and passing upwards through a long subterranean shaft, we emerge at the Antipodes, on the morning of Easter Day. We are now on the island from which arises the great mountain of Purgatory.
We are still in the post-mortal world, but we have passed out from an eternal state to a temporal process. In Hell-although for the sake of the poetical picture, we are obliged to exhibit it in terms of endless duration-neither time nor process has any real meaning. There is only the static monotony of the soul's fixed choice of its own darling sin. No soul ever proceeds from one circle of deepening evil to another; only Dante, the living man who still has time at his disposal, can journey through them and survey them all.
But in Purgatory, time and process are all-important. The souls are hastening to complete their purgation, and their cry is always, "Lose no time! Pray that my time be shortened! Hinder me not!'' so eager are they to speed their progress from circle to circle up the height. Into this realm, Virgil could not go without Dante; he is still his companion but no longer in the strict sense his guide. Yet Dante needs him, since in the story, Virgil is his "contact" in the spirit-world, and lends him eyes to see those "secret things" which are hidden from mortal view. For although both Hell and Purgatory are places with a terrestrial geography, they cannot be apprehended as spiritual places except by those who have gained the entree. They are places where two planes of existence meet. We shall grasp this better if we think of the fairy rings of folk-lore: in the ordinary way, just places-green marks in a common field; but go there on a particular night of moonlight, speak the ritual words, make the ritual gesture, step into the ring, touch the hand held out to you--make contact, and you are transported at once into the Absolute Elsewhere: into a world which occupies the same space as the visible world without displacing or penetrating it at any point.
The journey takes us up the Mountain, past the souls of the excommunicate and the late-repentant who are anxiously waiting to begin their purification, up the three steps through St. Peter's Gate, up by the seven cornices where the stain of the seven Capital Sins is cleansed away, till we come to the bird-haunted forest at the summit. And here Dante meets Beatrice.
Up to this point, the journey has, in general outline, been very like those imaginary surveys of the Other World which were so popular in Christian and Gnostic literature from the second century onwards. But into this basic story, Dante has skilfully woven the threads of another kind of other-world journey---well known to folk-lore-the one in which the wife or mistress is carried away by enchantment, and the lover has to seek her through the under-world and the realms of faerie. The story is common to every folkliterature, and lies, more or less disguised, at the base of all those tales of Arthurian and chivalric adventure which Dante knew so well, and which we speak of as "the matter of Brittany". Beatrice, the real girl whom Dante loved and lost in Florence, is here the Lady; the enchanter is Death; the journey is through Death's kingdom. As in many of the tales, it is the Lady who from afar guides her lover to her; Virgil is the messenger despatched by Beatrice to bring him to her in that other kingdom, and having fulfilled his mission, he vanishes. The Lady upbraids her lover for his lack of faith and his contributory negligence (this, too, is often a feature of the folk-tales); he confesses his fault; and they are reconciled and reunited under the trees of the enchanted wood.
But what is the enchanted wood? Here we must take pains to be exact; for it is here that many interpreters have gone astray, wandering from one level to the other, confounding the literal with the allegorical, and losing themselves in a labyrinth of conjecture. Literally, the Wood is the Earthly Paradise - the Garden of Innocence from which Adam and Eve were driven, through their own fault, at the Fall. It is the original starting-point of mankind. That is the crux of the matter; it is a starting-point. It is the point from which Man ought to have started his journey to God-from which every individual man would start now, but for the legacy of original sin, which has exiled him and obliges him to start as best he can from the wilderness, and sometimes from the Dark Wood which is sin's deadly substitute for that other. It is also the point to which every man must return, in order to make his fresh start. It is reached by way of the Mountain of Ascent. Some - those who have kept in the right way - are able to take "the short way up the Hil del bel monte il corto andar"; others who, like Dante, have gone so far out of the way that they cannot pass the Beasts, can only come to it by the long way that leads through Hell and up the Purgatorial path on the other side of the world, which is also the road taken by the blessed Dead. They come to the Earthly Paradise, but they do not stay there. Once there, once purged and restored to the lost innocence of their original nature, they start again, where Adam started, on the road that Adam should have taken. All the journey, all the toil, all the passing through the little and the greater death, is done that man may come back to his true beginning, to the original startingplace from which he may “leap to the stars”.
From the Earthly Paradise, under the guidance now of Beatrice, Dante makes that leap, and passes through the seven planetary spheres. Here the spirits of the Blessed are displayed to him. The first three spheres lie within the cone of earth's shadow. In that of the Moon, he sees those who, although their wills were truly vowed to Heaven, yet broke the letter of their vows. In that of Mercury he sees those whose work for God was a little tainted by earthly ambition; yet they maintained the state of the world" and gave it laws to live by. In that of Venus, he sees the lovers and poets; in them, too, though their love has been purged of self, the love of the creature was a little for its own sake and not wholly for the love of God; and though they have their bliss, their souls' stature remains slightly diminished on that account. Next, in the sphere of the Sun, he sees those whose work lay in the realm of the intellect-the great theological and secular doctors, and the pattern of kinghood. The fifth sphere, Mars, is that of the patriotsthe soldiers and the householders, who served God and man in the works of war and peace; the sixth, Jupiter, is the abode of those who supremely loved justice - the builders of true Empire, who whenever they say "I" think "We". Then comes a change. We pass to the sphere of Saturn, from which Jacob's golden ladder reaches up into the ultimate heavens, with "the angels of God ascending and descending on it". In this, the seventh and last of the planetary spheres, dwell the souls of the contemplatives, whose prayer is their whole life. Let us make a special note of that-we shall see why in a moment: the Contemplatives do not appear until the seventh and last of the planetary spheres. Above that, the sphere of the Fixed Stars is inhabited by the great saints-the Apostles who knew Christ in the flesh-and Adam who walked and talked face to face with God in the Garden. Beyond this again is the Primum Mobile, where Dante sees, circling in their ninefold hierarchy, the Angels who live from everlasting to everlasting in the unveiled presence of God. Yet, as Beatrice explains the appearances in the nine physical heavens are only a symbolic presentation to help Dante's understanding. All these blessed beings, from the least and lowest in the sphere of the Moon to the most in-Godded of the Seraphim, to the greatest of the Saints, to Mary herself, inhabit one and the same Heaven, the Empyrean of God, that is neither in time nor in space nor turns on poles, and 'has no where but in the mind of God". Dante is shown Time, flowing like a river of light; and when his eyes have drunk of it he sees it as a circle, the Rose of Eternityfor Eternity is the mode of Heaven, as it was of Hell. Here he sees all times and all places present at once in the state in which all desire is perfectly fulfilled; and here he is privileged to gaze for an eternal moment upon the Beatific Vision and the unveiled mystery of the Incarnate Godhead. He has reached journey's end.
This is the literal story of the Commedia - the story of the journey through the realms of the dead. I have, of course, reduced it to the bare bones. I have left out all the adventures and nearly all the characters, and I have also left out all the descriptions, discourses and conversations. What we are interested in at the moment is the general movement of the action and the fact that this journey is a tour of the world after death. I should like to make this further point: that all the characters, considered as characters, together with the conversations and the various political, moral and scientific discourses in which they from time to time indulge, belong primarily to the literal story. They are, that is, characters in a dramatic action; and what they say is said in character, and need not be taken to represent the final conclusions of the poet, except in so far as it agrees with the general tone and development of the action itself. Thus, in Inf. XXIII, Virgil speaks of “reputation” (fama) as that without which man's life is "but as foam in water or straws upon the wind'; but in Purg. XI, Oderisi speaks of it as being itself but "a breath of wind, which comes and goes, and as it changes quarter changes name”. This implies no contradiction in Dante's own mind: Virgil is made to speak as a pagan humanist; Oderisi as a penitent Christian. Oderisi is the Christian judgment upon those humanist values, which, as we have seen, are from the very start of the poem proclaimed to be inadequate. So too, in Purg. xv the vision of the dying St. Stephen praying for his murderers opens up the allembracing largeness of Christian charity beyond the noble yet limited scope of Virgil's discourse on reciprocal love. Just as Dante is about to say thou dost satisfy me – tu m'appaghe", the vision comes. No writer could more clearly express his judgment in the very structure of his poem.
It is now time to look at the three levels of allegorical interpretation. The first that Dante mentions is what I have called the political sense or the Way of the City. This is the sense that has aroused the greatest interest in recent years; it is also, as I think, the one into which the worst confusion has been introduced. It is therefore a difficult one to begin with; on the other hand, if we succeed in making it clear to ourselves we shall have little or no trouble in working out the others.
Now, if we hold fast to the principle that, just as the literal meaning of the Commedia deals exclusively with the life of man after death, so the allegorical meanings deal exclusively with the life of man in this world, we shall be led at once to a very simple conclusion. We shall conclude that, where the political meaning is concerned, the Inferno will show us the picture of a corrupt society - Città Dolente, the City of Destruction; the Purgatorio will show society engaged in purging off that corruption and returning to the ideal constitution which was God's intention for it when He created man as a social animal'; the Paradiso will show the ideal constitution in working order-the Civitas Dei. And that, I believe, is precisely what they do show us. It really is just as simple as that. But I am aware that in saying this I am setting up my opinion against that of many modern scholars who are far more learned and authoritative and better equipped than I am. These other writers all show a strong disinclination to carry the perfected social life on into the Paradiso. They are inclined to take it as far as the Earthly Paradise and abandon it there; and some of them suggest that Dante, despairing of, or changing his mind about the feasibility of, a perfected social life on earth, ended by preaching that man should withdraw from the world and find perfection either in a purely contemplative religious life, or only in Heaven after death. (The former of these alternatives involves a confusion of the political and moral levels; the second involves a still more drastic confusion of the literal with the allegorical sense.)
Now I believe that a number of long-standing and almost consecrated errors have combined to produce this unhappy confusion. The first is an error of critical method-a determination to bring the political theory of the Commedia at all costs into line with that of the Convivio and the De Monarchia. I agree that it is sound to "interpret Dante by Dante"; but between the earlier works and the later there is, if not contradiction, at least a considerable development of thought. It is not fair to a man to interpret his mature work by his less mature; where the two agree, one may use them for mutual elucidation: where they disagree, one must take the mature work as definitive. Another error is one at which I have already hinted-that of looking on the Earthly Paradise as a point of arrival rather than a point of new departure. There are also some very curious errors of fact, which I confess I find it hard to understand-one being the statement, frequently repeated by people who should know better, that Dante thinks Virgil a sufficient guide in himself to bring men to the perfection of the Active Life. Even if we suppose the Earthly Paradise to represent the perfection of the Active Life (which I am sure it does not) it is abundantly clear from the literal story that Virgil is not of himself sufficient to bring his pupil here.
It is also an error of fact to suggest that in the Convivio and the De Monarchia the perfection of the Active Life is considered as a thing wholly distinct from and equal to, the Contemplative Life. On the contrary, even in the Convivio, the Active Life is held to exist to a certain measure for the sake of the Contemplative and to be inferior to it. By the date of the De Monarchia, Dante's conception of the Contemplative Life has acquired a definitely more religious content; accordingly, although the authority of the Emperor derives directly from God, he is said to be in so far subordinate to the Pope, "as mortal felicity is in a certain sense ordained with reference to immortal felicity". Bound up with all this, there is a fundamental error about the Church's attitude to the Active Life-a persistent assumption that Catholic Christianity, like any Oriental gnosticism, despises the flesh and enjoins a complete detachment from all secular activities. Such a view is altogether heretical. No religion that centres about a Divine Incarnation can take up such an attitude as that. What the Church enjoins is quite different: namely, that all the good things of this world are to be loved because God loves them, as God loves them, for the love of God, and for no other reason. That is the right ordering of love, about which so much is said in the Purgatorio. A full Active Life, rightly ordered, is therefore in no way incompatible with holiness or even with a rich Contemplative Life. Indeed, many of the greatest Contemplatives have been masterly men and women of business-one need only instance St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Theresa of Avila, or St. Gregory the Great.
But all these errors I have mentioned, acting upon one another and proliferating misunderstandings, have produced such a tissue of confusion that I shall do better to leave them, and to say briefly how I understand the allegory of the City. You will then be able to judge whether my interpretation makes sense or not.
That the Inferno is a picture of human society in a state of sin and corruption, everybody will readily agree. And since we are to-day fairly well convinced that society is in a bad way and not necessarily evolving in the direction of perfectibility, we find it easy enough to recognise the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of a living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self-opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including one's own; the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercialising of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people's minds by mass-hysteria and "spell-binding" of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-toorecognisable stages that lead to the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations.
Nor need we spend much time over the process of reintegration which, for society as well as for man, means a recognition of error, repentance, and the purging off of evil states of mind. We might note just two points. First, that for Dante the restoration of society must come from within and not from without: the change of heart must precede the establishment of right institutions. Secondly, Virgil's account of the capital sins is worth some consideration. The evil loves that have to be purged are (a) the pride that seeks domination and cannot bear to see any other person, class, or nation enjoying equal or superior privileges; () the envy that is terrified of any sort of competition, lest another's gain should be one's own loss; (c) the anger that exacts vindictive reparations and cannot forgive past injuries. Then there is sloth, which may take the forms either of indifference, delay, or despair. Then come the disordered loves for things right in themselves but wrong when they are made an end in themselves: (a) avarice, which is the love of money, whether in the sense of grudging thrift or conspicuous waste, and the lust for that power which money gives; (b) the greed of a high standard of living; and (c) the lussuria which is the exaltation of emotional and personal relationships above all other loyalties, human or divine.
Now, it is only when society has discovered its right aim, pressed towards it at all costs, and extinguished these evil or disordered passions, that its will is made right and free, and it can be "crowned and mitred over itself". This famous passage is usually explained by saying that when the will is made free, the need of external rule disappears: "government will wither away" in a correctly Marxian manner. But if Dante means this, at the political level, what becomes of all his insistence upon the God-appointed Emperor and the universallmperium? The answer often given is that by this time Dante had despaired of the establishment of a perfect government in this world, and was preaching a retreat from the world and postponing the universal Empire to the Last Judgment. This, however, involves a total confusion of all levels of interpretation, and makes one wonder why, right to the end of the poem, he should go on denouncing wicked popes and neglectful emperors, and worrying about a problem of whose solution he has already despaired. But one could take the passage in another way, and say: It is only when society has learned to will its true end that the joint rule of Church and Empire can be established. And since it is true that a visible Church and a secular Empire are in one aspect human institutions, although of divine (in Dante's view equally divine) origin, it is fitting that the visible symbol of crown and mitre should be bestowed by the hand of Virgil. I will add that I think it very likely that Dante had by now come to the conclusion that a special intervention, human or divine, would be needed to bring about the regeneration of society. The Veltro and the DXV may symbolise either a human saviour, or an outpouring of the Holy Ghost and the coming of the Joachimite Third Kingdom; but the event, whatever it is, must be an event within the time-scheme: the Millenium, if you like, but not the Second Coming at the end of time.
It is well to remember here the current contemporary ideas about the "goal of history". Mediaeval thinkers believed themselves to be living in the "Sixth Age" of humanity, in which, under a great champion of the Faith, the great work of consolidating Christendom should be accomplished and society indissolubly incorporated with the Church. Nobody could foretell its duration; but everybody knew that after it would come the "great tribulations" and the reign of Antichrist. These, however, should be but the prelude to the opening of the Seventh Age, the Sabbath of Creation. 'Then", says St. Bonaventure, "shall descend from Heaven this city-not yet the city that shall be on high, but the city here below-the militant city as conformable to the triumphant city as may be in this life. It will be reconstructed and restored as it was in the beginning, and then also shall reign peace. How long that peace will endure is known to God." If the crowning and mitring refer to the establishment of the perfect Church and Empire, then the relevance of the pageant of Church and Empire in the Earthly Paradise becomes very much clearer. In the Earthly Paradise, then, always supposing that human society can contrive to reach that point, the return is made to the constitution ordained for it from the beginning. The agony of rage and frustration that throbs through the Commedia always makes itself felt most poignantly at the politico-social level-and for a very good reason. At this very moment, as at all moments in the world's history, it is more than possible-it is probable and even certain-that there are many individual men and women who by the moral and the mystical ways are working out their redemption and entering into beatitude. But a perfect society has never been seen on earth. Faint approximations, in the fabulous Age of Gold, and in the small circles of the early Christian community or the primitive Franciscan order, are all the examples to which Dante can point, in a society which, so far as he can see, shows no symptoms whatever of repentance or amendment. Nor, perhaps, can we, scanning the headlines in to-day's news, find the signs of the times very encouraging to hopes of religious concord and political peace and order. The vision of the high triumph passes, and Beatrice is left desolate and lamenting beneath the Tree of Knowledge.
But say that the new starting-point is actually reached, the social sins repented and the common will made free, the memory of the unhappy past washed away in Lethe and restored in Eunoe only as factual history, a record full of quiet interest and occasions of thanksgiving: what would the regenerate world be like? The plan of it is in the Paradiso. Never yet known on earth, its eternal type is in Heaven:

quanto è il convento delle bianche stole!
Vedi nostra città, quanto ella gira!

The gyres of the City revolve about God. The Angels move them as they move the spheres, each order drawn by love to those above, and drawing those below. In this ordered and happy society there is hierarchy, but no envy. There is only perfect fulfilment of the function for which each soul was made. Some men are greater than others, but the happiness of all is equally great, since for each it is perfect and complete; and this equality in difference is "the joy of the whole realm'". And although in every sphere there is seen a different kind of activity, yet in their eternal aspect all these activities are one; for all are worship and delight.
The first six heavens are devoted to the Active Life. It is surely a mistake to look for the perfection of the Active Life in the Earthly Paradise. That, as we have said, is a starting-point not a staying-point. Those who have supposed it to represent the Active Life are, naturally enough, surprised to find that it has in it only one "permanent resident'', and that her only occupation is that of picking flowers. From this, they have proceeded to various strange conclusions. But I am convinced that this is all a mistake. Matelda very likely does represent the Active Life, as in Dante's dream of Leah and Rachel; but there is no need to suppose that she, or anybody else, is a permanent resident in the Earthly Paradise. She is the friend and handmaid of Beatrice, whose office it is to bring souls to her greater sister. So Jacob had to wed Leah before he could wed Rachel; so the Active Life exists in a manner for the sake of the Contemplative. But although the Contemplative life is the better part, the Active, too, is blessed. It is also, in a sense, more necessary; for Martha can live without Mary, but Mary must be nourished by Martha. So it is in the life of the City, as it is in the life of the individual soul. Therefore, in the perfected City, there are more circles of the Active Life than of the Contemplative, and they live by exchange of honour and charity.
It is particularly interesting that the first heavenly sphere should be allotted to those who, though called to the Contemplative Life, have failed to achieve it, and have had to be content to fulfil themselves in the Active. I must confess that until I had entertained the idea of this distribution of the heavens between the two lives, I had never grasped why Dante should have given so much space and attention to monks and nuns who had broken their vows. But from my present point of view it appears to me perfectly reasonable. These souls do not quite attain the stature they might have attained; yet they live holily after another mode. It is only required of them that, having failed of the greater service, they should devote themselves with extra energy to the humbler service-they must give, says Beatrice, one-and-a-half times as much. One may well be reminded here of the passage in The Cocktail Party in which Mr. T. S. Eliot contrasts the way of the great saint with that of the ordinary man or woman. The second way has not the supreme pains nor the supreme ecstasies of the other, yet:

It is a good life. Though you will not know how good
Till you come to the end. But you will want nothing else,
And the other life will be only like a book
You have read once, and lost. In a world of lunacy,
Violence, stupidity, greed... it is a good life.

That is the life of the souls in the Moon, who glimpsed the greater life but could not stay the course. What they have is enough for them; it suffices for bliss, and they are blessed.
That the dwellers in Mercury, Venus and Mars all take part in the active life of the City scarcely needs demonstration. A word may be needed about the Sun, which displays the City's intellectual activities. It is often called the "Heaven of the Doctors" - but it contains not only theologians and members of the great teaching orders but also historians, grammarians, logicians and other persons celebrated for secular learning, as well as Solomon, whose wisdom was all in the practical art of kingship. This choice of names, odd if theology or piety sets the standard, is understandable enough if we grant that the sphere of the Sun is intended to give us a representative view of the active intellect in operation. A minor passing perplexity may be caused by the translators' habit of rendering the line about Richard of St. Victor as "who was in contemplation more than man". But Dante does not say contemplar but considerar; the word contemplare does not occur in this specialised sense anywhere in the Paradiso below the sphere of Satum, Richard of St. Victor never claimed the mystical gift for himself; and I think he takes his place in the circle of St. Thomas for his active work as a writer on mystical theology.
In the sphere of Jupiter, the whole hierarchy of the Active Life is included under the Eagle, the sign of the perfect Empire. Where those who say "I" mean "We", there is Justice, there, here and now, is the Empire, whether or not the universal monarchy is visibly established. But if and when it is established, the mark of it will be Justice, and its justice will be of that kind. And there, in the very eye of the Eagle, Trajan, the great heathen Emperor, who in loving Justice loved the Christ whom he did not know, sits waiting for the great Christian Emperor who shall bring Justice and Peace to the world we live in.
So that, if anyone asks, "Where, in the Commedia, has Dante found room for that perfection of the Active Life, and the Perfect Universal State of which his earlier writings are so full?" the answer is: Here; not in the Earthly Paradise, but in the Heavenly, where all perfection is. Here, with its law-makers and lovers and poets, its scholars and warriors; here, with its civic decencies and family affections; here, with its order and empire and justice. This is the picture of this world as it might be; as, if the Kingdom come, please God it will be; as, in so far as the Kingdom is already here and at work, it already is. Here, not hereafter; though it shall be hereafter; and in the Heaven which knows neither before nor after, here it eternally exists.
Beyond the Active Life, beyond Eagle and Empire, in the seventh and last of the planetary spheres, we come at length to the Contemplatives whose life, here and now, is lived on the borders of two worlds. That life is, in a sense, beyond Empire, for it has that in itself which needs neither law nor government; yet it is bound in love to the active life of the Empire, which is under its feet and sustains it. Beyond the Contemplatives again are those great Saints who, even in this life, are at every moment consciously in the presence of God. And all these manifold lives are brooded over and visited by the Angels; and all of them, each after its own manner, treads out the joyous measure of its perfection and enjoys the vision of God. That is the Way of the City. The second Way is the Way of the Soul. It is the way of the City, lived by the individual as well as it can be lived in a world where the City is divided and Church and Empire impotent or at odds. Nobody knew better than Dante the difficulties which the corruption of the City puts in the way of the good life, and the bitterness of his anguish comes ringing down to us through six centuries of strife and greed. Nevertheless, in the ultimate resort, the Way and the choice are in the human heart. Heaven and Hell are not without, but within.
We must not, for instance, think of taking the Inferno at the political level and the Purgatorio at the moral level, in one and the same interpretation. At the moral level, the vision of Hell is the deep of corruption which each of us, from time to time, may glimpse as a horrifying possibility inside himself. Such moments of self-knowledge have the quality of eternity. It is not everyone who experiences them acutely; but such knowledge is an invariable part of the experience known as "conversion", and it is because of this that we find the greatest saints accusing themselves - with what seems to us like exaggeration - of being the chief of sinners, The story of the Commedia is the story of a conversion, and the stages of the process are those which the accounts of many such experiences in real life have made familiar to us. Peculiar, perhaps, to Dante, is the part played by Virgil. The sinner, who has fallen so far that he can no longer hear the call of religion, is reached, through the grace of God, at the rational level. He realises, one may say, that he is on the point of betraying even the ordinary human decencies; and that salutary shock opens his eyes to his condition and starts him on the road to repentance. This recognition of the co-operation of Nature with Grace is characteristically Catholic. Protestant theology, which postulates the total depravity of human nature, can find no room for it; and that is why The Pilgrim's Progress, for instance, which is a Protestant allegory, has no figure in it which corresponds to Virgil.
We need not follow in detail all the steps of the soul's journey. Heaven, like Hell, is within it - it has to choose which possibility it will embrace, and, having chosen Heaven, it must die to sin with Christ and make free its will so that it may become one with the will of Christ within it. This done, it can be crowned and mitred over itself - not necessarily in the sense that it can dispense in this world with Church and State, but in the sense that it can freely accept the demands which Church and State rightfully make upon it. "Love", said Christ, "is the fulfilling of the Law" - and He added that no jot or tittle of the Law should pass away. "Love", said Augustine, "and do as you like." If love is rightly ordered, that is, it will keep the Law because it wants to keep it, and find its freedom in that service. Thus there is-or should be - no opposition between the Crown and Mitre within and the Crown and Mitre visibly exalted without: that is why the corruption of visible Church and political State puts such stumblingblocks in the way of the soul.
The blessed life is lived in this world in its appropriate sphere of the Active or Contemplative Life. As the City in its division includes all types of sin, so the City in its unity includes all types of the good life; but the individual soul finds its own place, whether secluded in its own egotism or exchanging blessedness in community. Either way, it experiences God after its own manner-whether as wrath and judgment or as mercy and joy-since, as St. Catherine of Genoa says, the fire of Hell is simply the light of God as it is experienced by those who reject it.
Of the Way of Contemplation, as shown in the Commedia, there is so much to say that a book would be needed to do it justice. Briefly, there are two mystical ways known to those who practise the presence of God. The one, which we associate with the majority of great mystics, is known as the Negative Way, or the Way of the Rejection of Images, and it has been very fully mapped out by such writers as St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and others whose names are familiar. The characteristic of that Way is that it proceeds through a great darkness and solitude of the spirit; and uses a form of contemplation in which every image of the Divine is rejected.
Dante's Way is different: it is the Affirmative Way, in which all the images are accepted as valid, in so far, that is, as any finite image of the infinite can be valid. This Way, though it is perhaps more typically Western and might appear to be more typically Catholic and Incarnational than the other, has, I believe, never been fully mapped by any mystical theologian-unless we count Dante. Dom Cuthbert Butler, in his book Western Mysticism, says that "the Eastern tradition in contemplative life, contemplation, mysticism, has differed from the old authentic Western tradition, and has during these past few centuries obscured it, even in the West''. And he distinguishes the Western from the Eastern tradition by the fact that it does not, as the Eastern tradition sometimes tends to do, segregate the mystical element in religion from the other three: the institutional and sacramental; the intellectual and dogmatic; and the active service of others. It lays, that is, more emphasis upon the Active Life as a necessary basis for and factor in the Contemplative. This in itself would account for the attention given to the Active Life in the Paradiso, and the insistence throughout the Purgatorio on the need for "good works" as well as "good prayers".
But I fancy that there is another direction in which we may need to look for the map of the Way of Affirmation of Images. It is essentially the way of the artist and the poet - of all those to whom the rejection of images would be the rejection of their very means to intellectual and emotional experience; and it would seem to follow from this that the great Masters of the Affirmative Way will tend to be secular, and that they will be more concerned to record their experience than to analyse it in the manner of the regular theologian. It seems possible, indeed, that Dante is so far the only real Doctor of the Affirmative Way; though others have mapped the Way in places. I can think of four English names: Thomas Traherne the Anglican priest, who is particularly interesting because he comes in some respects curiously close to Dante, without showing any signs of having read him, and is therefore an independent witness; Charles Williams, an Anglican layman, who was consciously Dante's disciple and interpreter; William Wordsworth, also an Anglican layman, who would seem to have started by Dante's Way, but never quite to have arrived by it; William Blake, an unorthodox and perhaps heretical Christian, but after his manner also a follower of the Way.
Here, then, is a very short outline of the Affirmative Way as we find it in these five poets. It begins by an experience (usually in childhood) in which the Divine Glory is perceived and apprehended as immanent in some created person or thing: that, to use Williams's vocabulary, is the First Image. The creature is beheld, sub specie aeternitatis, bathed in and suffused with the light of its true and eternal nature it is seen as God sees it. Dante sees Beatrice, and it is as though all Heaven were walking down the street; Traheme sees the com as "orient and immortal wheat" and men and women as "immortal cherubims"; Wordsworth sees "meadows, grove, and stream... apparelled in celestial light"; Blake cries out " 'What!' it will be questioned, 'when the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea?' no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty'." Then comes the period which Traheme calls his "apostacy", and of which Blake sang in his Songs of Experience. The first Image is lost; Beatrice dies and Dante is ensnared by the "things of this life with their false pleasure'", and finds himself in the Dark Wood and on the brink of Hell; for Wordsworth the glory "fades into the light of common day".
This is followed by the appearance of the Second Image. A kind of faith is recovered, but slowly, by means of the intellect, and at a lower level. This Second Image is symbolised for Dante in the Vita Nuova by the Donna Gentile", in the Convivio by the 'Lady Philosophy", but in the Commedia by Virgil. For Traherne too, the recovery comes by means of the reading of philosophy at the University. Wordsworth seems to have found it in Anglican orthodoxy; I do not know whether there is anything to correspond with it in Blake. Charles Williams, in The Figure of Beatrice, has dealt very suggestively with the phenomenon of the Second Image, though without autobiographical reference.
The third stage on the Way is the triumphant return of the First Image, but at a much higher and more universal level than before. The glory which was once known only in the beloved creature is diffused upon all creation, and taken up into its Eternal Source. This is the reunion, after the toilsome climb up the Mountain, with a Beatrice who is more than herself; and the ascent by her means to the Vision in which all the shining Images are seen "transhumanised" and summed up in the final Image-the Image of the Incarnate Christ in the very centre of the Unimaginable Godhead.
From the first step to the last of this Way the Images remain with us: there is nothing to correspond with the "naughting" of images characteristic of the Negative Way, unless it is the temporary blinding of Dante's eyes in the Eighth Heaven, which by some writers is held rather to correspond to the "Dark Night of the Soul", of which St. John of the Cross speaks. Nearer to that "naughting' is perhaps the moment in the Primum Mobile when "the triumph which ever plays about the point which overcame me, little by little extinguished itself from my sight, seeming embraced by that which it embraces'. Yet, in that moment when all other images are withdrawn, the First Image remains to nourish and support the soul, "wherefore'', as Dante ingenuously observes, "the fact that there was nothing to see and love-constrained me to turn myself and my eyes to Beatrice'. Neither is there in the Comedy anything that corresponds to the "flight of the alone to the Alone", nor any of these private intimacies between God and the soul which occur so frequently in other mystical writings: at every stage of Dante's journey the whole City and Church are with him. And in the last ecstasy, when the Beatific Vision is accorded to him, his longing is winged by Our Lady, through the intercession of St. Bernard and all Paradise: "See, Beatrice, and how many Saints with her, lay palm to palm to aid my prayer." The Way of Affirmation has nothing esoteric about it; it is not a secret path-it might almost be called a public thoroughfare. And the final Vision is not the Abyss of the Divine Darkness, but the Express Image of the Glory.
There are, of course, certain general affinities between the Negative and the Affirmative Ways, and it is possible to recognise in the Commedia certain of the stages by which all souls who have the mystical gift accomplish their journey. We may say, for example, that in the Purgatorio the Mountain corresponds to the Purgative Way, and that in the Paradiso the Heavens of the Active Life correspond to the Illuminative and those of the Contemplative Life to the Unitive Way. And nearly all mystics appear to have experienced at some time the Vision of Hell. But I believe it would be unwise to try and fit the anagogical interpretation of the Commedia too exactly into the frame of the Mystical Way of the Negative tradition. The difference made by the approach through the Image is too important to be ignored.
One point, however, I ought to make, to avoid misunderstanding. The contemplation of and by means of the "Image" as it is understood by Dante, is not the same thing as that contemplation of and by images which occurs at the outset of the Contemplative Way in all mystical practice, forming its earliest and simplest exercise, and is afterwards exchanged for the higher form of contemplation without images. Let me put the difference in the crudest and simplest way. In the ordinary method of meditation on, let us say, the kingship of God, we might form in our imagination a picture of God seated on a throne like a king; and we might think about the attributes of kingship, such as power and authority and splendour and so forth; and we might perhaps further meditate how all earthly kingship is derived from God. But if we were following in Dante's steps, we should do almost the direct opposite. We should look, perhaps in imagination, or more likely with our bodily eyes, upon an actual king - it might be our own late King George VI - in some ordinary, perhaps trivial situation, at a football match or a garden-party; and we should suddenly see, burning and shining through the mortal body and the modem clothing and all the solemn absurdities of Court ceremonial, the glory and authority of all kings, and of the King of Kings, made known in His fleshly Image, focused in that point and diffused upon the whole City. The scriptural type of the former kind of image is the Vision of Isaiah: "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple." But the scriptural type of the second kind is Our Lord's Transfiguration: "He was transfigured before them: and His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light." The bodily presence is not withdrawn - it remains planted where it was in earthly time and space; but it is known for an instant as it is known in Heaven, in its awful and immortal dignity.
But the full implications of Dante's Way of Contemplation, and his affinities with other mystics who have gone by the same Way have yet to be worked out.
We have now covered the same ground four times; and all four ways are, of course, in the end one Way, and the same soul may go to God by two or three or all of them at once. But in interpreting the poem, we shall do better not to swap horses in crossing the stream, or we may find ourselves carried out of the road altogether, and lost in an ocean of conflicting theory.

Date: 2021-12-25