Autori: John Saly
Tratto da: Dante's Paradiso: The Flowering of Self
Editore: Pace University Press, New York
In presenting an interpretation of Dante’s Paradiso I have chosen to focus on the third allegorical level, which the theologians interpreting Scripture call spiritual or mystical. Dante calls it the anagogical sense or meaning. The reason I have attempted to explicate this level of the allegory is that I believe no other level of Dante’s polysemous structure of meanings is as accessible to the modern reader as the anagogy. It is least affected by the changes of relative values, beliefs, and conditions that have taken us so far from Dante’s time, the late Middle Ages. The mystical or spiritual life, however, has not changed that much. When considering it, we are dealing with the great constants of human nature and the human soul. The enduring states of the spirit, whether they are awareness or confusion, understanding or knowing, purgation or illumination, joy, union, or the dark nights of the soul are the same today as they were in Dante’s time. So are the laws of spiritual progress, which, working by causes and effects, produce ascent and descent, pain and pleasure, hope and despair, insight and blindness, fulfillment and deprivation. My endeavor here is to define more closely what allegory, and specifically anagogy as a type of allegory, is. I am not proposing a definitive and circumscribed interpretation as the only right one. The fourth level or anagogy is by its nature the most general, but paradoxically also the most personal, because its generalities have to be concretely understood by each reader. Only when this personal meaning is applied to the reader’'s own consciousness can the lesson Dante intended to convey become a bridge across the historical abyss that separates us from him.
I will try to answer two questions about Dante’s specific use of the anagogy in the Comedy. First, how it was shaped by Dante’s experience; second, how it was shaped by the influence on him of other people's ideas. Then I will present an interpretation of the anagogy in the Paradiso.
The explication of the anagogy canto by canto is paralleled with an analysis of the imagery. I would be disregarding the emotional impact of the poem were I to rely completely on an abstract argument. It is the images that supply the poetic equivalent of the intellectual schema. In the process of spiritual understanding—the level on which the anagogy has to be comprehended—to experience the heat of feeling is indispensable. Without it the clear light of the analytical understanding remains lifeless. Only when the reader’s awareness includes both and fuses them into one experience, can the true progression in the unfolding of the soul’s potential be understood spiritually for what it is: a transformation of a fragmented consciousness into wholeness, of blocked, stagnant energy into the life-flow, and of weakness into the soul’s native power.
In my conclusion I will attempt to summarize the argument for a coherent pattern of development on the anagogical level, both concep- tually and in terms of the imagery. After this I will try to connect some of my findings with poets and philosophers who might or might not have had direct influence on Dante. My notes and references often point out affinities between Dante and moderns to give the reader a sense of the persistence of some anagogical themes across the centu- ries. To start with the definition: the word anagogical comes from the Greek and means that which leads upward. In the simplest way this is what Dante means by the anagogical sense. To see what is meant by “leading upward” we have to understand how the anagogical meaning relates to the other meanings of the poem. In his letter to his friend and patron, Can Grande, ruler of Verona, Dante explained that his poem, just like the Bible, has three additional meanings beyond the plain literal sense. It is true that the literal story bo about “the state of souls after death,” for, as he goes on to say, RT progress of the work hinges on it and about it.” But the story is merely a cloak, as Dante says in his Convivio, a bella menzogna, a beautiful lie which hides the truth; it is the outward garment of the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical meanings, which together constitute the body of the poem’s truth as opposed to the “beautiful lie.”
The three allegorical meanings in the Comedy reveal to us first the state of human society and the way to the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth, secondly the progress of the individual soul in this life from sin to purification and to the life of grace and, finally, a series of inner states through which a human being passes from complete isolation to unity with all that is. These three meanings Dante calls in turn allegory proper, which reveals the inner truth of history, meaning the universal significance of certain events, followed by the moral allegory, and the anagogy. In his insistence that the truth of his poem has to be found by the interpretation of his verses on three different levels, Dante follows the general medieval tendency to allegorize, that is, to regard any “outer” event, person, or circumstance as symbolically representing an “inner” or higher truth. Given the medieval focus on the human soul, its relationship to God and to the entire invisible supersensible reality of the spiritual universe, it was inevitable that the entire visible world of nature and human history was interpreted as a storehouse of symbols revealing the invisible world of the soul and the spirit.
The origin of this approach to poetic exegesis is pre-medieval, going back as far as interpretations of Homer by pious commentators in the sixth century B.C. With the coming of Christianity, the allegorizing method became widely used in Scriptural interpretation and also in didactic poetry with a moral purpose, such as Prudentius’ Psychomachia in the fourth century, depicting the invisible battle between Christian virtues and pagan vices in the human soul.
In the early Christian centuries Scriptural interpretation was developed with great subtlety by theologians, expecially Origen, who combined neoplatonic mysticism with deep Christian faith. He distinguishes a threefold sense of Scripture, a grammatico-historical, a moral, and a pneumatic—Greek for spiritual—which had the highest and most fundamental meaning. Later theologians, like Cassian, further elaborated these distinctions which became commonplace, down to mnemonic devices like this:
“Littera gesta docet, quid credes allegoria
Moralis quod agas, quo tendas anagogia.”
(The literal sense teaches historic deeds, allegory what you should believe; the moral how you must act, and anagogy what you should strive for.)
Explaining his own use of allegory in the letter to Can Grande, Dante calls his work “polysemous, that is to say of more senses than one.” In his first exposition of the allegorical method in the Convivio, Dante distinguishes two kinds of allegories. One is the allegory of the poets who presented inner truths hidden by the cloak of poetic fables on the literal level, and he calls it the truth that is underneath a beautiful lie. He then refers to the theologians who use allegory differently from the poets as they interpet Scripture to demonstrate articles of faith. In addition to allegory proper, they postulate two other levels, namely the moral and the anagogical, the latter concerned with truths that are above the reach of the senses. The theologians, he says, deal differently with the allegory of the Scriptural text than the poets with the allegory of their fables. But, he says modestly, my intention is to follow the method of the poets, because I take the meaning of the allegory proper according to the usage of the poets.
Many years later, in his letter to Can Grande, Dante no longer distinguishes between the allegory of the poets and the theologians, and makes it clear that his poem has to be read on all four levels, including the levels so far reserved to the theologians, just like the poem of the Holy Spirit, the Bible. Now he does not speak as a mere poet, but as the author of a “poema sacro,” a poet and prophet, whose creation is as full of divine truth as the Bible itself. This attitude foreshadows both Luther’s claim that any believer can interpret the Bible if he be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and also that of Romantics like Blake and Shelley who consider the sum of all inspired poetry the Bible of the Imagination, a storehouse of eternal truths for those who have “cultivated their understandings.”
Throughout the Comedy Dante expects the reader to understand all four levels if he or she wants to fully experience his “polysemous” creation. He was unhappy that people were paying attention only to the literal level and often totally ignored the inner truth of the communicatton which had been his primary purpose. If they could not penetrate the veil of the allegory, how could they gain the liberation that Dante called “the end of the whole and of the part of the work, Which is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.”
This goal is reached only when all levels are comprehended, including the anagogical. The multilayered structure of the allegory is not Just a brilliant rhetorico-poetical device, but, more fundamentally, a deep understanding of the physical, social, ethical, and spiritual reality we live in. Dante stresses explicitly in the Convivio that in understanding this reality of levels within levels we must start.with the literal sense because we know the physical best and, he says, Aristotle in the first book of his Physics advises us to follow the order of nature and progress from what we know better to that which we know less well. We have to comprehend fully what is stated on the literal level, before we can proceed to the three allegorical levels, because they are all indicated by the literal. Nonetheless, when it comes to importance and value, the physical comes last, because it is most remote from the immutable truth of the First Cause. Social and historical reality is the product of higher causes than imagined stories, moral behavior is guided by eternal laws, and spiritual perception belongs to the supersensible level where the operative causes are of the highest order, symbolized throughout the poem by the stars, stelle, the word on which each Cantica ends.
The progression of the reader from the literal to the allegorical levels becomes at every step the exploration of this fourfold structure. The four levels of meaning have to be understood as four concentric circles through which the conscious reader of the Comedy proceeds in a shuttling movement from the periphery to the central, spiritual, comprehension and then back again to the physical-literal, the most changeable and contingent reality. From the immutable center the basic spiritual laws spread out through the more contingent and corruptible spheres, like a series of emanations, and the reader gradually is drawn into the marvellous interdependency of Dante’s universe created by Justice and Love. The anagogy is at the very center, because, as Dante says in the Convivio, that sense reveals to us the highest realities of eternal glory, meaning that the soul, as it leaves sin behind, becomes holy and free and assumes its full power.
As an illustration of how the fourfold structure works let us take, for example, the three animals which confront Dante at the beginning of the poem as he is trying to leave the obscure forest where he had gone astray. A beautiful hillside lies before him invitingly in the morning light, but a leopard first, and then a lion and a wolf drive him back “to where the sun is silent.” Now in the literal story these animals are simply what they seem to be, wild beasts, preventing Dante from leaving the wood where he finds himself lost halfway through this mortal life. But in the social-political allegory that teaches the inner truth of history they are emblems of the Florentine city-state, the Kingdom of France, and the worldly power of the Papacy, all of which prevent the unification of Italy and the establishment of a juster socialpolitical order. For Dante this level is the allegory proper.
In the moral allegory they represent the habitual vices of lust, anger, and greed, which stand in the way of the individual Christian’s moral improvement and salvation.
Finally, in the anagogical interpretation we see in them permanent states of mind and soul, such as self-will, pride, and fear, which prevent any human being from reaching the lasting happiness that comes from living with the full power generated by leaving all crippling habits, pretenses, false beliefs, sins—or to use a psychological term, neuroses—fully behind.
The goal of the journey, too, can be distinctly stated for each level. On the literal it is union with God by beholding Him directly. On the social-historical it is the perfect community of the just; morally it is the attainment of the supreme good. The goal of the anagogy is the state of Being beyond duality, arrived at by the contemplation of the Source of all being, the One, Who is both Principle and Person, without contradiction.
The anagogical meaning is the most abstract, the most general of all and yet, in its application, it is the most concrete and individual. The anagogical meaning is only “objective” in the sense that it describes truths known to many, and laws that have an existence independent of one's keeping, breaking, or ignoring them. But these truths are known to each of us in individual ways, for abstract knowledge of them is not real knowledge; only by experiencing these truths, by uniting with them, can we have any worthwhile awareness of what they are. Therefore the anagogical interpretation of one reader will always differ from that of another, it will always be “subjective,” in the sense of reflecting a personal experience.
Dante, too, experienced these truths personally. It is by way of the transmutation of his own experience that these anagogical verities shine in the poem. They speak and move and exert their sway under the Personae of his City, Florence, his Country, Italy, his Teacher, Virgil, his Beloved, Beatrice, and his eternally evolving, forever onward struggling self, Dante.
To see clearly the relationship of the anagogical meaning to the three other levels of the fourfold allegory, one must also look at the relationship between the reader and the poet on each distinct allegorical level. On the literal level of the beautiful lie, Dante is, of course Dante, fulfills the three kingdoms of the dead, but on the other levels he a figural roles. On the social-political level he is the Italian in search of the just state of Empire of which he longs to be a citizen. In the moral allegory he is the Christian in search of salvation through purification from sin. In all three roles he teaches the reader how “man as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his choice becomes liable to rewarding and punishing justice.” In the anagogy, however, which is the unitive meaning par excellence, Dante and the reader become one by virtue of their common spiritual nature. Both are pilgrims of eternity, both are fellow-travellers on a journey from the depths to the heights, both are eternal spiritual beings, one in their common essence. Both are involved in an endless growth process, in striving, progressing from mental state to mental state as self-actualizers driven by the “concreata e perpetua sete”—the constant thirst that was created with them—to reach complete fulfillment in union with being. Therefore, on the anagogical level which is the focus of the present interpretation, there is no more Dante or reader, there is only us, this common essence.
Because the anagogical meaning is the most general, it is least tied to any historical period or theological doctrine. The political allegory of Dante’s poem advocates a certain kind of world government which he calls the empire; the moral allegory is worked out in the religious terms of virtue, sin, and salvation. The modern reader finds both meanings somewhat remote when attempting to experience them feelingly. This is not the case with the anagogical meaning. In fact, the rise of the various schools of individual psychology in the twentieth century has given us a new key to the anagogical meaning. This key is the concept of inner development. There is a school of psychologists which speaks of psychological health as a state of “growth toward selfactualization.” I have in mind especially the so-called “growth” or humanistic psychology, represented by people like Maslow, Murphy, Rogers, Allport, Fromm, which aims primarily at the development of the human being’s latent potentialities. AIl immature behavior is, in their view, only a series of steps toward the full realization of all the inherent potentialities of the human being. It is interesting to note that one of thtem—Abraham Maslow—speaks of psychogogy. “If psychotherapy makes sick people not-sick and removes symptoms, then psychogogy takes up where therapy leaves off and tries to make notsick people healthy,” he says.
The similarity between the words “anagogy” and “psychogogy” is not accidental. Both use the Greek word, agein, to lead: anagogy in the sense of leading upward, to the vision of God, and psychogogy in the sense of leading to full psychological health, to self-actualization, wherein all the creative powers of the psyche are unfolded. Both lead through series of inner states which may be quite similar, if not identical.
People striving for self-actualization must, according to growthpsychologists, go through three broad and overlapping stages of development. First of all they have to understand themselves as they are at present. They need to see all the distortions, misconceptions, neurotic patterns in their psyche, which prevent them from growing toward psychological health. They can achieve the state of self-knowledge first in the sense of knowing their own sickness. Next, they must learn to use this self-kKnowledge to gradually correct those neurotic, distorted patterns of behavior which their inner confusions and misconceptions have given rise to. They must, in brief, accept the consequences of their self-knowledge in actual behavior.
This state we might call coming up to one’s own standards of psychic health. Once a person has straightened out the distorted concepts in his or her psyche as well as the neurotic patterns of behavior through self-understanding and conscious living, he or she becomes free to enter the third and last stage, which is the state of self-actualization, self-unfoldment. The first two stages might be accomplished in psychotherapy; the final stage is where “psychogogy” takes over.
Dante’s journey through the three kingdoms of the spirit parallels this threefold division. He, too, writes about the human self, and the poem can be legitimately interpreted as an exploration of the inner world, not only Dante’s but also of the human psyche in general.
The entire Paradiso is therefore an itinerary of positive self-unfold- ment. With each stage on the journey toward the inmost divine center, greater and greater powers are liberated. Seen in this context, all the figures Dante meets in the Paradiso are but reflections of his own yet unrecognized potentialities, and in coming to know them he increases the knowledge of his own higher self. The subject of the last cantica is the empowering of the soul that has left sin, or neurosis, behind.
Dante’s way to unity of the self is essentially the same as the modern person’s attempt to reach full psychological health. The state of self- knowledge, the knowledge of the soul’s sickness, is common to both. So is the state of frecing oneself from distortions in thought and in action until one is able to realize one's original aspiration to the good life. F inally, going beyond those aspirations, Dante anagogically points to the attainment of perfect selfhood. Here modern psychology is much less sure, but it does extend a directionary signal toward a goal vaguely called greater creativity, self-actualization, becoming authentic, a real person. Yet the direction in both instances is upward to a greater image of the human entity.
The Paradiso is the last stage of the journey that leads to supreme self-actualization, where the slumbering powers of the self, which we might justly call its intrinsic divine aspect, are fully unfolded. Dante himself points out that “the beatitude of the eternal life (which is the central theme of the Paradiso) consists of the fruition of the divine aspect which man is unable to effect by his own powers unless aided by divine light.” I have tried to bring out this aspect of the anagogy on the pages that follow. The last cantica of the Comedy is also the most significant for us because it maps the stages of an inward growth of which most of us know very little. The Inferno is quite well known— though far from conquered); if the annals of crime and politics proved insufficient, the notebooks of any psychoanalyst would provide excellent illustrations. The Purgatorio, too, is known somewhat; many people do learn to adjust themselves to the laws of life, they work on themselves to find self-identity and change some of their negative patterns. Through this they attain a measure of inward freedom. But what about the tremendous potentialities hidden in the human spirit? Great self-actualizers, such as Goethe, have shown us part of the way, but only the future can fully answer the question. Dante, in his own fashion, has answered it already. Here psychology leaves us and Dante leads the way.
From him we can learn of the hidden ecstasies of inward bliss that come from questioning the narrow limits we impose on ourselves, and of the as yet undiscovered joys of human relationships which stand in the light of truth and being. Our true self wants to grow with the expanding states of the spirit through which fearless love is eager to guide us. With Dante we can enter the world of the Paradiso, a world of undreamed-of fulfillment.
One more question remains to be answered. What influences shaped Dante’s formulation of the anagogical meaning?
If the anagogical meaning is the deepest, most personal, yet at the same time the most generally true for all people, it must be that intimations of it come to us in our most exultant or terrifying experiences when the walls of the self are shaken, the everyday stage-set collapses, and we stare into a new revelation.
To Dante this revelation came at the age of nine: “She appeared to me clothed in most noble hue, a subdued and modest crimson, tinctured and adorned after the fashion that was becoming to her most tender age. At that point I verily declare that the heart began to tremble so mightily that it was horribly apparent in the least of my pulses, and trembling, it said these words: Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi.
“At that moment the animal spirit which dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of sense carry their perceptions, began to marvel much, and speaking especially to the spirits of sight said these words: Apparuit jam beatitudo vestra.
“At that moment the natural spirit which dwells in that part where our nourishment is distributed began to weep, and weeping said these words: Heu miser! Quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps. From thenceforward I say that Love held lordship over my soul, which was so early bounden unto him and he began to hold over me so much assurance and so much mastery through the power which my imagination gave to him, that it behoved me to do all his pleasure perfectly. He commanded to me many times that I should seek to behold this most youthful angel: wherefore in my childhood often did I go seeking her, and I beheld her of so noble and laudable bearing that assuredly of her might be said those words of the poet Homer: ‘She seemed not the daughter of a mortal man but of God.’ And although her image that continually abode with me was an exultation of Love to subdue me, it was yet of so perfect a quality that it never allowed me to be overruled by Love without the faithful counsel of reason, whensoever such counsel was useful to be heard.”
His overwhelming visionary experience on meeting Beatrice and being overcome by the spirit of Love repeated through the years of adolescence, set Dante’s feet on the path toward being. He had come to feel early the indelible impact of the state of being in love so completely, that whenever Beatrice made him feel blessed by granting him her salutation, he came to a more articulate awareness of loves transforming power.
Even though the experience of being saved by her salutation totally overwhelmed him, yet the domination of Love over him was not a tyranny, as Love would never overrule him without the faithful counsel of reason. The state in which Dante became fully receptive to the gift of Beatrice’s salutations was the balance of Love’s power with reason’s counsel. Lover though he was, he never lost sight of the other great need of his soul: understanding. It was not quite enough for him to be in love; he also needed to understand, like the angels of the Heaven of Love whom he addressed in the First Canzone of the Convivio:
You, who with your understanding move the third heaven [i.e., the Heaven of Venus]
Listen to the reasoning that goes on in my heart,
I cannot tell it to anyone else, so new it seems to me.
Between his youthful yearning for understanding and its fulfillment, bitter experience had to be gathered from political strife, exile, and endless labor on the sacred poem that had “made him lean” for many years.
But when, on the threshold of the ultimate vision he emerges into the Empyrean Heaven with Beatrice who has become his teacher and guide through paradise, both his need for understanding and his yearning for love is finally gratified. The light that first breaks on the pages of the Vita Nuova now engulfs Dante. Beatrice instructs him:
“Noi semo usciti fuore
del maggior corpo al ciel, ch’ è pura luce;
luce intellettual piena d’amore
amore di vero ben pien di letizia
letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.”
[Paradiso XXX. 38-42]
(We have emerged from the greatest heavenly body [i.e., the Primum Mobile] into the heaven of pure light, intellectual light full of love, love of true good overfilled with joy, the joy that transcends every other sweetness.)
In her triumphant affirmation light answers to light, love responds to love, and joy ringing out echoes joy. Here the clarity of understanding and the fervor of love have become one light that is nothing but fullness of understanding and fullness of love, a complete unfolding of the original spark of intuitive knowledge and burning love that sprang up in that childhood meeting on the now so distant earth. This living light reveals what is ultimately real and destroys all falsehoods. It is the anagogical meaning itself that this light reveals, because it renders the Creator and His workings visible to the creature.
Here, having briefly indicated the one decisive experience of Dante’s early life, we need to consider another, less concentrated and dramatic, but equally decisive influence. This is the combined Franciscan-Joachimist movement for radical reform of the Roman Church in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In relating some of the origin and history of this influence on Dante, I have to ask the informed reader’s patience because the explanation has to be of some length to allow me to fully make my point.
In Dante’s time, hardly any prominent person in the Church could remain outside the prolonged and often violent controversy in which the so-called Spiritual Franciscans agitated for a thorough reform of the Church many of them saw as hopelessly corrupt, and the boldest did not hesitate to call the Babylonian Whore. Wasn’t Saint Francis, their founder, sent by Christ to restore and renovate the ruined Church and rebuild it on more spiritual foundations? He married the Lady Poverty and practiced true Christian love, but there was great resistance within the Church to his convictions, especially among the hierarchy. In spite of the resistance, the Spirituals of the Franciscan order continued to believe that their order was divinely elected to lead the Church back to its original purity. Their reformist zeal was fed by the genuine writings of Joachim of Fiore, abbot of the small Cistercian monastery of Fiore in Calabria who, about fifty years before, had preached and prophesized the coming of the third status under the Holy Spirit, to supersede the previous dispensations of the Father and of the Son—represented by the Old and New Testaments respectively. Under this new status an outpouring of the Holy Spirit was supposed to take place to purge the corrupt Church and establish the authority of the Spirituals and visionaries in its rejuvenated body. The ambitions of these utopian idealists were generally honorable. They were harking back to the time of St. Francis when miracles rained from heaven, and the order produced one saint after another. What they did not see, however, was that the irruption of the spirit into the world of time which took place during Francis’s lifetime was an extraordinary event impossible to replicate when the charisma of the founder and of his immediate followers had weakened and, after the initial shock, the rest of the Church tended to go back to business as usual.
They had their hour, however, when Peter of Morrone, a saintly hermit, was elected pope in 1294 as Celestine V. With such a spiritual man on St. Peter’s throne, the Spiritual faction was sure of taking over the leadership of the Church. How great was their disappointment when Cardinal Gaetani, a shrewd power politician, persuaded Celes- tine V to take an unheard of Step and resign the papal office, allowing Gaetani to become pope himself as Boniface VIII.
Dante sided completely with the Spirituals, and his indignation at Celestine?s betrayal of the Spirituals’ cause can be clearly heard when, in the third canto of the Inferno, he picks him out from the crowd of the trimmers and brands him as “the one who out of cowardice has made the great refusal.” Celestine’s place in the allegory becomes a very dishonorable one: he is the type of a well-intentioned weakling who has been given authority to carry out reforms, but in the hour of need refuses to undertake the defense of truth. His vacillation allows unscrupulous power brokers to take over and open the floodgates of corruption and the reign of injustice that oppresses God's faithful and rewards His enemies. Such an attitude is justly placed right by the Gate of Hell, since the road to hell is proverbially paved with good but ineffectual intentions.
Boniface, who took the papal crown from Celestine, was Dante’s béte noire. The poet believed he was tricked and betrayed by the pope when Boniface detained Dante who was on diplomatic mission in Rome just at the time his political foes, the Blacks, staged a coup in Florence and expelled Dante’s party, the Whites. He believed that his exile from his native city was in part the consequence of Boniface’s machinations. It is enough to read St. Peter's scathing denunciation of Boniface in the twenty-seventh canto of the Paradiso to know full well what Dante’s feelings were concerning this pope. He calls Boniface in Inferno XXVII “lo principe de’ novi Farisei,” literally translating this epithet from the ‘‘princeps nuovum Phariseorum” in the pseudoJoachimite prophecies Super Hieremiam and Super Isaiam. Boniface was regarded by the Spirituals as their greatest enemy and, by some of the extremists, as the Antichrist himself.
Dante, on his part, became a student of Joachim's ideas probably through his contacts with the Spiritual Franciscans. He received the Joachimist tracts circulated among them, and listened to the lectures of their leaders, John Peter Olivi and his pupil Ubertino da Casale in the Santa Croce Monastery, a stronghold of the Spirituals in Florence. The coming of the third ‘‘status,’’ which many conceived of as a cataclysmic revolution in history inevitably separating the good from the wicked, rewarding the former and punishing the latter, seemed imminent to them. Those who remained steadfast in the face of persecution would endure to the end, while a vast outpouring of the Holy Spirit, renewing the Church and all the earth, ushering in an age of peace and harmony, would begin. The various prophecies of Dante throughout the Comedy, like the DXV [Purg. XXXIII. 37-45] or the Veltro [Inf. I. 100-111] have a lot in common with Joachimist expectations. He, too, had his utopian leanings and looked upon the venal clergy with great disapproval. He also cherished St. Francis, whose life he apotheosized as the perfect expression of the way of love to God [Par. XI. 39-123], recognizing in him the same central core of love that had awakened within him in his encounter with Beatrice.
Dante’s deep interest in the prophecies of Joachim and in the writings of the Franciscan Spirituals which expound and amplify the Calabrian abbot’s ideas on universal history often goes without full recognition by his commentators. Yet when one comes to reflect on the anagogical meaning of the Comedy, it is impossible not to pay attention to this influence, which is basically twofold. The first strain of the Spiritual-Joachimist influence which we can call the prophetic, announces retribution to the greedy she-wolf for her depradations— obviously identified on the social-political level with Boniface’s papacy—and anagogically with the world's endless craving for money and power that makes any just order impossible [Inf. I. 91-111]. Another warning related to the corrupt church and her allies occurs in Purgatorio, XXXIII, 40-45 in the so-called DXV prophecy, uttered by Beatrice. Finally, at the end of St. Peter’s denunciation of Boniface and his successor popes in the strongest terms in Paradiso XXVII, Beatrice forecasts speedy help to end the desperate situation, which was to culminate soon in the Avignonian captivity of the Papacy. Dante here puts on the mantle of the prophet, following the Spirituals who believe themselves divinely chosen to restore the Church to her original purity.
In Dante’s Heaven of the Sun Joachim himself takes his honored place among the learned doctors of the Church, and is called “endowed with the prophetic spirit.” The images of his prophetic books, especially from the Liber Figurarum, reappear in the Paradiso as the eagle in the Heaven of Jupiter and in the most intense final vision of the triune God represented by three interlocking circles of three different colors. In the Heaven of the Sun the two circles of saints, theologians and other spirits of deep knowledge are also related to Joachim’s prophetic ideas. They are figures of the two dispensations, meaning the Old and New Testaments, also interpreted as the two world-ages of the Father and the Son. After the voice of Solomon, discoursing on the resurrection of the body, falls silent, a third circle, larger than the other two, rises on the brightening horizon. Dante greets it ecstatically with:
O vero isfavillar del santo spiro,
come si fece subito e candente
agli occhi miei che vinti non soffriro!
[Par. XIV. 76-78]
(O truthful sparkling of the holy breath! How sudden it became bright incandescence before my. eyes which could stand it no more!)
There can be little doubt that Dante here speaks of the impending revelation of the Third Age, that of the Holy Spirit, which will produce new spiritual men compared to whose radiance the lights of the two previous ages will pale. A part of the prophetic-apocalyptic strain of the Joachimist influence can be seen in the similarity between Joachim’s use of number symbolism in the Liber Figurarum and elsewhere and Dante’s use of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 7, 9 in marking the various divisions in the structure of his Comedy. Joachim’s favorite numbers were two, three, and seven. Two stood for authority, three for the spirit, seven for periods of world history. Dante’s system of divisions in the Comedy applies to all three cantiche: it is based on three, subdivided into seven, raised by two unlike additions to nine and by a final number on a totally different plane, to ten. I tend to think that this pattern was also, if not borrowed from Joachim, at least worked out under the influence of his ideas. It is now beginning to be widely recognized that the prophetic-apocalyptic influence of Joachim and the Spiritual Franciscans is more than incidental in the Comedy. It is definitely a structural element shaping the very substance of the work and indispensable to its full understanding.
However, there is a second strain of the same influence, which tends to be even more overlooked, though it runs deeper than the first, and sometimes even contradicts it. Between Dante and Joachim there seems to be a personal affinity; both reflect, to a striking degree, a mixture of artistic and intellectual qualities in their works. This perhaps explains how Dante seemed to have seized on Joachim's central concept of the intellectus spiritualis as the indispensable requisite to the understanding of the anagogy and its interplay with the other levels of the allegory in the Comedy. Joachim, in a conversation with the Cistercian abbot Adam of Persigny, said that he did not really prophesy, conjecture, or use revelation about the future. Instead, he said, “God Who in times past endowed the prophets with the spirit of prophecy has given to me the spiritus intelligentiae, so that I can understand clarissime all the mysteries of the Scriptures.”
Joachim believed that this gift was not unique to him, but a foretaste of the coming Spiritual Intelligence to be poured out to all people before the end of history. He believed that just as he had meditated on the Old and New Testaments and from this exercise received the gift of Spiritual Intelligence, others, too, could do the same if the Holy Spirit endowed them with the spiritual understanding, which did not manifest in prophetic visions and utterances, but in discovering repeating patterns in history. This, he thought, was the key to the destiny of all people. In the history of mankind from the work of God the Father and of God the Son inevitably must proceed the work of God the Holy Spirit, enlightening all, not only a select few.
Nothing could have been more welcome to Dante as he was floundering in his long drawn-out spiritual crisis after the death of Beatrice and the collapse of his political ambitions, leaving him hopeless, homeless, and broke, than Joachim's acknowledgment of the spiritual understanding as a gift of prime importance to the comprehension of human destiny and history. He may have lost everything he ever valued, but he knew what spiritual understanding was. Before the age of thirty he had written the greatest spiritual autobiography since Augustine’s Confessions, which also, like his own, was the record of a conversion. He had met his Lord, the spirit of Love, was conquered by him, but through all the ecstasies and pains of this experience he came to understand the spiritual meaning of his life. That understanding pointed beyond itself. It was not enough to be Love’s servant and to remain faithful to the memory of Beatrice, living the life of the spirit on earth with many sighs, until he could rejoin her in blessedness.
While Love was the first leading light of Dante’s life, desire for knowledge through rational inquiry was the other. Love never contradicted the faithful counsel of reason in his heart while Beatrice was alive, but after her death he devoted himself to what Francis Fergusson calls his “cult of reason” and to the Lady Philosophy, hoping that the love of learning would fill the place the death of Beatrice had left in his heart. But the great philosophic project of the Convivio was abandoned and with it the lady who in the Convivio became, from “the lady in the window,” Philosophy herself. Dante’s goal was to use his vast knowledge of metaphysics, science, rhetoric and practical affairs, the art of government and politics to impart his knowledge to others and help them order their lives. His motivation is given in the Convivio: “I am moved by the desire to teach a doctrine, which in very truth no other can give.”
But his new career as an itinerant scholar and teacher was only partially successful. At some point in the early years of his exile his complete devotion to the calm and disciplined life of reason received a Staggering blow from the onslaught of a new and virulent love. He suffered terribly from the loss of his freedom and self-esteem. Nevertheless, this, too, was a movement of the spirit, albeit not in the same direction which had led him to Beatrice. Love, to Dante, is always Spiritual in its energy, but without reason it becomes the love that leads not to life but to death, not to creation but destruction, as expressed by Francesca’s words in Inferno, V. 105: “Amor condusse noi ad una morte.” After a long agony one day, as he records in the Vita Nuova, a powerful fantasy arose in him. He seemed to see Beatrice wearing the same crimson dress she did when he met her first. He began to think of her again, repenting grievously of that desire for others which his heart allowed itself to entertain. Thus the spiritual life began to be rekindled in him and he became inspired to write the last poem of the Vita Nuova:
Oltre la spera, che più larga gira
Passa il sospiro ch’ esca del mio core:
Intelligenza nuova, che l’Amore
Piangendo mette in lui, pur su lo tira.
Quand’egli è giunto là dov’el desira
Vede una donna, che riceve onore,
E luce si, che per lo suo splendore
Lo peregrino spirito la mira.
[Vita Nuova XLII, 47-54]
(Beyond the sphere that has the widest circuit
Rises the sigh that issues from my heart:
Love sends with it a new-born understanding
Which draws it high above.
When he arrives where he desired to be
He sees a lady who is praised on high,
And shines so that the pilgrim spirit
Gazes at her splendor, marvelling.)
Shortly after writing this sonnet, Dante received a ‘‘wondrous vision.” “It made me decide”— he says in the Vita Nuova— “to speak no more of this blessed lady, until I could treat of her more worthily. And to attain to this, I will study all I possibly. can, and this she truly knows. So that it be the pleasure of him by whom all things live, that my life persevere for some few years, I hope to write of her what has never been written of any woman.”
From this time on, the study he undertook with the purpose to write the ‘‘sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have put a hand,” became the very center of Dante’s life. It was not an obsession but a noble mission, and all his immense ambition was channeled into it. Everything he had learned became a part of it: his dreams of humankind living at peace under a just emperor, his hope of a renewed and purified Church, his ardent desire to teach his fellow-humans the way to God by first teaching them how to learn to be happy on this earth, which is their birthright.
In the sonnet “Oltre la spera” Dante speaks of a new understanding given by Love that draws his spirit upward to the Empyrean heaven. It is in response to this sigh’s message that he is rewarded with the wondrous vision which evidently contained the germ of the Comedy and provided the driving force for the colossal labor of its composition.
That intelligenza nuova was not only new but also miraculous just as Beatrice was, accompanied by the number of miracles: nine. It was a spiritual, not an earthly creation. It was akin to the intellectus spiritualis, Joachim°s gift, and may have led Dante ina flash of intuition to grasp the entire upward striving movement of the poem. The sonnet clearly indicates that the new understanding is drawn upward beyond the physical universe to the ultimate causes in the Source of all being. Love knew full well that only by taking the anagogical route of spiritual understanding can that sigh, or desire, reach Beatrice. Therefore, Love provided it with the capability which love has, to understand the essence of the beloved. Here Dante resolved, at one stroke, the basic duality of his life—love versus knowledge. Both are harmoniously united in the nuova intelligenza. Love for Beatrice is the spiritual component, and understanding is the rational part. Dante, as a man in the world, continued to struggle with adversity, humiliation, hostilities, sudden eruptions of passion, but as an artist he was at peace. He had found the balance of his creative forces, which generated maximum energy for his sacred poem.
With this insight he also found the answer to the question of what to do with his life and mission. He wrote in the Convivio about his desire to teach such a doctrine “which in very truth no other can give.” Perhaps already then he was beginning to find out from his studies of Joachim’s books what the intellectus spiritualis was, which in the new spiritual age can become the common property of all human beings, if and when they become ready to undertake the threefold journey the Comedy maps out for them.
In the Convivio Dante referred to “the allegory of the poets” as his only level of allegory, but by the time he wrote the Epistle to Can Grande he came to look at his poem as a text analogous to Scripture, that had to be understood according to the allegory of the theologians in whose text even the literal level had a truth of its own—the truth of historical fact. This fourfold poem would become the vehicle of his teaching, which “in very truth no other could give.” The spiritual understanding, which may also be called an intuitive direct perception of the spirit, was Beatrice’s and Love’s special gift to him, but he only became conscious of it through Joachim’s influence. He will give it only to those of his readers who can comprehend it and who are ready to take in spiritual truth. They will find on his pages the key to the Earthly Paradise in a laborious and arduous way of purification, which can take place in this world. Then they can attain the higher states where new and hitherto unknown virtues and powers are liberated in the soul. Thus true earthly happiness and heavenly blessedness—to which the angelic butterfly in every human being yearns to rise—can be attained through the spiritual understanding of the way that is Dante’s Comedy, provided they make steady progress from one spiritual state to the next. Unflinchingly facing all the possibilities of evil in the soul through acceptance and understanding, they can purge themselves and finally attain the fruition of the divine aspect implanted in them from the beginning.
Dante had become disillusioned with his former expectations of some savior, whether an angelic pope or a world emperor, by the time he wrote the Epistle to Can Grande, between 1319 and the time of his death. He had probably given up on expecting the great authorities of his time to guide humanity either to the earthly paradise in this world or to heavenly bliss in the other. Neither did he hope that violent revolutionaries like Fra Dolcino would usher in the spiritual millennium. Yet he was driven by his sense of mission to do something, even after his own failure of political leadership and of ambitious ecclesiastical reform. AIl that was left to him was his art, and his hardwon faculty of spiritual understanding with which he wanted to equip his conscious readers, providing them with the best itinerary to the greatest happiness imaginable, both in this life and in the beyond.
Instead of assuming the mantle of the prophet, he assumes in the letter to Can Grande the office of a lecturer and teacher who has an eminently practical goal in sight. “The end of the whole [Comedy] and the part [the Paradiso which he dedicates to Can Grande] is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.” He takes care to emphasize once more that his poem is not a speculation or a fantasy to horrify or delight his readers. He is interested in practical results. Instead of speculating, he believes in the wondrous realities he had seen in the widest heaven and ‘‘he demonstrates that it is possible to see them when he says that he will tell of those things which he had power to retain; and if he had such power, then others shall have it, too.”
What Dante proposes, then, is that he wants to be a universal teacher, leading people from misery to felicity in this life (and not in the life to come) by means of training them in exercising their—still latent—capacity of spiritually understanding the stages of the Way as depicted in his Comedy. His readers then will perceive the operation of spiritual laws that regulate by clear cause and effect how every human being, in the exercise of the freedom of his or her choice “becomes liable to rewarding or punishing justice.” Having developed their gift of spiritual discernment, those who listen to him carefully and perceive the spiritual meaning will no longer need to entrust themselves to erring leaders, be they temporal or spiritual. Through a purification process guided by the sacred poem they will become their own guides to paradise in this life. He, like his Virgil, will “crown and mitre them” with the true teacher's satisfaction, to follow their perfected will. He will teach them—as Joachim had taught him—spiritual understanding to see their way to salvation.
For this purpose all three allegorical levels of the Comedy have to be understood, because they together constitute the total truth of the poem. Their relationship to each other is very like the relationship of the three states of Joachim, which Dante presents in his final vision. Two circles, God the Father and God the Son, equally breathe forth the Holy Spirit. Of Dante’s three allegorical levels the first, what I have called the social-political meaning, best corresponds to the “status” of the Father who rules with the power of the law. The second level, which is the moral-ethical meaning, is connected with the Son who brought humanity grace by the example of His life and teaching, and the third level, the anagogy, is the Spirit's who brings the plenitude of understanding to all. The interplay of the three levels is necessary for the full development of the “intellectus spiritualis,” in the manner in which Joachim pictured the third “status” as proceeding equally from the Father and the Son. Although the anagogical meaning sums up in itself the two levels below it, yet it raises them simultaneously to a higher plane. Marjorie Reeves expresses this felicitously when she describes Joachim's diagram of the third development hovering over the two previous dispensations, “a new quality of life rather than a third set of institutions, a quasimystical state rather than a new age.” This “quasimystical state” is related to Dante’s sense of the anagogy, an upward movement of emergent spirituality which carries with it the meanings of human history and politics as well as the significance of the individual’s moral choices, but also puts these into the larger context of the truth of being.
The line-by-line explication of the anagogical meaning and the parallel discussion of the imagery is the central concern of this study. My hope is that it may help to generate an in-depth awareness of the journey from the periphery into the center of the human psyche, which is so much needed today. Whether the terms in which it is described come from the vocabulary of poetry or depth psychology is not as relevant as the direction the journey takes. For me the experience conveyed by Dante’s words was charged with emotion and has had a lasting impact. The line-by-line translation of Dante”s literal level into the anagogical sense can take the reader from a surface awareness to a deepening realization of what the inner life, with its unfolding potentialities, has to offer. An ever-deepening inner life of integrity and complete self-honesty is perhaps the only way that can save us from the worst misuses of our outer-oriented technological power. Dante’s vision is one of the best expressions of such a journey. But without a teacher like Dante, not many of us would find such a path.
Although in this study I have attempted to present an examination of the anagogical meaning in the Paradiso only, the reader needs to be aware that the anagogy applies likewise to the Inferno and the Purgatorio. The anagogy in the Inferno should perhaps be called katagogy, or a “leading downward” until the last masks and futile pretenses are ripped away and one gazes, in a state that is suspended between life and death, at the demonic self in its utter isolation. But this horrible vision is the precondition of our turning around, our changing direction, our beginning to heal the ancient wound as we start the ascent toward the stars.
The light of the plenitudo intellectus, the luce intellettuale piena d'amore, becomes therefore the ultimate guide of humanity’s political, social, and moral progress. Dante intended his Comedy to carry on its pages the reflection of this light of love and truth, ‘‘the true light, that lighteth every one that cometh into this world.”