Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Dante in the Sphere of the Sun
Dominic and Francis, with Thomas Aquinas hovering (illustration to Paradiso xi)
I cannot avoid recognizing that this essay falls clearly within the category of tooting my own horn, though I can postpone its worst excesses for a couple of paragraphs. This year I am teaching Dante’s Paradiso at the Evergreen Forum, a local adult education program (or “geezer college”) with which I have been associated for several years. In a community like the one in which I live there are many brilliant elders who form a large and receptive audience for courses even on difficult subjects. That is certainly the category I might use to classify the final cantica of the Divine Comedy. In the previous two years I taught the Inferno and the Purgatorio. They are not exactly milk for babes, but they are driven by strong narratives full of action, character, and significant setting. The Paradiso is more a poem of ideas—hard theological and “scientific” ideas. Dante knew that it would be difficult, and he wrote it for the happy few. He gives us a mind-boggling initial canto and then, at the beginning of the second, tells his readers that if they can’t take the intellectual heat they had best get out of the poetic kitchen. This is not a poem for ordinary readers, he says, but one for those “other few who craned your necks in time for angels’ bread, which gives us life on earth, yet never leaves us satisfied.” It is hard enough to teach any difficult text. To be called upon to be the chef at an angel food restaurant is beyond my pay-grade.
We are moving rapidly through the poem and have arrived at one of my favorite parts, the cantos of the sun (10 to 13). Dante’s “geographical” conception of Heaven is built around an ascent outward from the Garden of Eden through the spheres of the Ptolemaic system to the paradisal rose above the ninth or crystalline sphere. The poet exploits the peculiar astronomy of all the spheres for thematic purposes, but the solar cantos are particularly rich from this point of view. Canto 10 features a kind of dancing circle of twelve stars, each of which is the vita or living soul of a great teacher of the Church, especially academic theologians from near Dante’s own time, but including one Old Testament figure, Solomon. (I regard the image as a prefiguration of the emblem of the European Union.) A principal speaker in this and the following canto is Thomas Aquinas, from whom Dante, rightly described by one famous Church historian as a “pseudo-Thomist”, took many of the structural conceits of his poem.
The overarching theme of the “sun cantos” is the recent reinvigoration of the Church led by the founders of the two principal mendicant orders, Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. In the eleventh canto Thomas, a member of the Dominican Order, praises Francis of Assisi and his first brethren. Then in the twelfth canto Saint Bonaventure, most famous of Franciscan theologians, praises Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominicans or Blackfriars. This ecumenical love-fest reveals the extraordinary importance Dante attributes to the spirituality of the friars of those two orders, who between them achieved the major evangelical revival of the thirteenth century.
The “sun cantos” are particularly interesting to me because I spent so much of my career studying friars, particularly Franciscan friars, and their remarkable contributions to the spiritual and cultural life of the late Middle Ages. In a book published long ago (An Introduction to the Franciscan Literature of the Middle Ages, 1977) I sought to explain how the friars’ mission, in synergy with the coming of age of the European vernacular tongues, fostered new modes of religious literature of permanent importance to European cultural history. I pursued cognate ideas in other books and especially in numerous essays. The enterprise was not without its ironies. I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and I hardly started out with pious motives. Rather, my initial interest was in the decidedly negative, not to say scurrilous manner in which admired writers like Rutebeuf, Jean de Meun, Langland and Chaucer satirized the friars of their day. When I started out I didn’t know the difference between a friar and a monk—the emblem of an ignorance that I must say is widely shared even among professional medievalists. But the attractive figure of Francis of Assisi was irresistible. As Goldsmith says with regard to the good pastor of the “Deserted Village” those “fools who came to scoff remained to pray”.
Hence I took a no doubt unseemly pleasure—and here we get to the real horn-tooting part—when I learned last fall that I was to be awarded a medal for my contributions to Franciscan Studies. It is simply called, indeed, the Francis Medal. It is sponsored by the Franciscan Holy Name Province, which includes St. Bonaventure’s University and its Franciscan Institute. My awareness that I cannot possibly deserve it does nothing to qualify my pleasure at receiving it. In fact getting what I actually deserve would probably turn out badly for me. As this is not the kind of award generally treated in the sports pages of major newspapers, I thought I would just tell you about it myself.