Models of The Medievals and Dante

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy[1]

Hamlet chides Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Considering Hamlet’s claim in the modern world leads us to wonder just what we may have lost (or gained) with our own view of the world. In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis, noted Christian apologist and Oxford Professor of English Literature, and later Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, describes how the Medieval era had its own unique model of thought.

Dante Alighieri (Dante; 1265-1321, Italian), author of the Divine Comedy, a trilogy of journeys through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Paradise (Paradiso), built his morality play largely on the Medieval model that Lewis describes, using the concepts and imagery so well-known to the Medievals of his time.

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Building on the foundation of the ancients, such as those classical Greek and Latin philosophers known to Horatio, the Medievals crafted their own unique ‘Model of the Universe'(as Lewis termed it). For instance, while the classical model included some hints of an intelligence in nature, the Medievals presented nature as “purposive … (and) in her, God set the inexhaustible fountain of beauty.”[2]  Largely informed by works of faith, such as the Bible, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, the model provided the sense of order and of beauty, invoking feelings of harmony and wonder, and a meaningful place in the cosmos for man. While the medieval model had roots from late antiquity, it was pervasive through the beginning of the seventeenth century, influencing later writers such as John Milton and John Donne.

The modern mind, or ‘model,’ is informed largely by developments in science and politics, leaving us with an entirely different perspective on reality and man’s place in it. While new scientific evidence will always turn up to challenge and update an era’s model, Lewis claims the model typically “reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.”[3] So, while the harmonic medieval synthesis reflected that era’s more organic view of the relation between Creator, creation and creature,the modern view instead reflects our notions of democracy, freedom and independence. Thus, while gravity and planetary motions to the Medievals were more humanely described as a matter “kyndly enclyning,”for the modern mind they became impersonal, scientific laws observed by independent, celestial travelers.[4] The models of cosmic laws and astronomy thus demonstrate the modern perspective quite clearly.

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But how can the medieval model correct the deficiencies of our own?

An answer to this is perhaps easiest to see with the modern model in the biological sciences.  Thinking especially of Darwin’s inversion of human origins from imago dei (man created in the image of God, ‘from above’) to ascent from the apes, Lewis states “the change – arguably more important – from a devolutionary to an evolutionary scheme”amounts to a fundamental shift of perspective. Lewis continues: “from a cosmology in which it was axiomatic that ‘all perfect things precede all imperfect things’ to one in which it is axiomatic that ‘the starting point is always lower than that which is developed.’ “[5]  Argument from below – God, virtue and morality as a projection from our human experience – rather than having their origins in some transcendental reality, or argument from above: this is the fundamental modern mental shift.  Taking the cue from Darwin, even Aristotelian categories become inverted, as the rational soul now results from the sensitive (animal) soul or even the vegetative soul,[6] rather than being created imago dei, in the image of the God.

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The modern paradigm, explicit in the sciences, taints every other activity of our thinking. While Lewis proceeded to cite literary figures such as John Keats or Johann Goethe, this inversion is even more clearly seen in more recent figures such as psychologist Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx the intellectual founder of Communism, and atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who inspired many of the leaders behind Nazism.  Together with Darwin, these four figures are popularly considered architects of the modern model, as discussed by Louis Markos in Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World . Markos notes how Freud follows Darwin in preferring natural over supernatural explanations, stating that  our idea of God simply arises as a matter of wish-fulfillment. Our conscience similarly becomes the product of social relations and physical factors, rather than of our moral decisions.  Human love is no longer inspired by perfect or divine love, but is instead simply a matter of physical lust.

The loss of transcendence due to this inversion has had significant effects for society at large.  While Lewis cites our modern preference for democracy over a medieval sense of  hierarchy, the loss of transcendence with figures such as Marx and Nietzsche has in fact countered the ideals of democracy.  While Freud’s idea of God as wish fulfillment followed that of  nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, it was Karl Marx who cited Feuerbach as an inspiration for his own theory of religion as ‘an opiate of the masses.’ With Marx, ‘bourgeois’ morality becomes a function of social class and economics rather than a universal claim on man; Marx thus laid the groundwork for the totalitarian atheism known as communism. With Nietzsche, man determines or ‘transcends’ Christian morality, creating his own meaning and moral categories;  Nietzsche’s theories later were largely appropriated by the Nazis.

So then an answer to the question, “how can the medieval model remedy what ails us moderns?” suggests itself: don’t settle for purely natural explanations and solutions! The casualties in the psyche, or our very souls, surface as we increasingly cite factors aside from our own moral decisions as causes for our behavior. We gain a freedom from moral responsibility, but the consequences are severe.  The world we inhabit loses the sense of good and evil, and becomes instead a variety of shades of gray. But it is not just moral acuity we have lost: the goodness of good and the badness of evil become casualties. Lewis cites the benefits of the moral compass of the Medievals: “the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance… as a manifestation of the wisdom and goodness that created it. There was no question of waking it into beauty or life.”[7] By contrast, the ambiguity of morals and meaning in our modern times leaves modern man “confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know, or a reality that has no significance; or even a reality such that the very question whether it has a meaning is itself a meaningless question.”[8]

 

The medieval model offers hope and meaning where the modern model cannot.  But modern model is not likely, notes Lewis, to die a catastrophic death, brought on by some new sets of facts. Instead, the model is as much a function of the mindset of society asking the questions that yield any new facts: “but nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask of her.”[9]   But it is by appropriating the approach of the medieval model that we can rediscover meaning where the modern model offers little, and claim truth where the modern offers none.

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“At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in its right place.’ “

[DI, 10] On this base is grounded what Lewis described as the Medieval’s ‘Model of the Universe,’ in Discarded Image. This desire to bring order everywhere and to everything lay behind what Lewis claimed were the three quintessential components of this medieval mindset: Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Dante’s Divine Comedy,and this mindset itself, as codified, in effect, into what Lewis phrased The Model of the Universe or simply, The Model. “The bookish nature of the culture, and their intense love of system” [DI, 11] undergirded this model of orderliness, culminating in what Arthur Lovejoy later termed The Great Chain of Being.

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Dante’s model is carefully laid out by Anthony Esolen in his introduction to Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s driving desire and “quick love for  that which is well done, gracious, brave, and beautiful, and that quick disdain for for the foul, craven, ill-ordered, and low” lie behind the Inferno‘s “passion for justice,” claims Esolen [Inf., xii].  But what is so alluring about Divine Comedy, claims Esolen, is the cosmic unity, as described by Lewis.  Wrongs are righted precisely (and with poetic justice) according to the harm they inflicted in the first place (and typically, originally upon others). But three components of this Model can be seen to clearly support and imbue Dante’s world.

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1. That things have an end or purpose is the first.  Based in secular sources (such as Aristotle), the prime example is man’s end being found in his own happiness, and that attained by the use of reason, which is distinct to our particular species. However based in classical literature of the ancients, this teleology was easily adaptable to the Christian medieval mind.  In Dante, man’s happiness moves from the free exercise of reason to the fulfillment of the imago dei mold in which man was created, “that fulfillment [which] could be attained only if what is God-like in us were fulfilled.” [Inf., xv]  Specifically in Inferno, Esolen mentions the recognition of patterns of orderliness and beauty as testaments to created beauty.  In this vein, Dante pays homage to the Trinity in various ways: the use of a rhyme scheme in which sections of lines are presented in triplets, the entire Comedy is a triplet; and as 10 is 3 times 3 plus a unity (1), there are 10 levels of Hell, and an even 100 (10 x 10) Cantos, the sum of  Purgatorio and Heaven which are 33 (also the age of Christ), and Inferno’s 34 (Hades being not worthy of the number 33).

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 2.Things have meaning follows from the ‘end’ of things being grounded in a Providential God.  Here the four levels of meaning suggested by Dante in writing to his patron are most relevant.  “The meaning of this work is not simple” Dante explained, with there being four distinct levels of meaning upon which Dante drew.  These are the following: the literal meaning of an event in the story, the allegorical meaning of redemption by Christ, the moral meaning of the conversion of the soul from sin to a state of grace, and the anagogical meaning of our soul’s ultimate journey from the realm of sin to that of glory.

Esolen mentions items such as the absence of fire in Dante’s Hell (given that fire is associated with divine, consuming passion). But the deeper allegory of the movement of the entire epic is put more plainly by Dorothy Sayers as “the way to God.” Dr. Ordway’s notes elaborate, noting how the popular conception of Christianity as a system of ‘arbitrary punishments and rewards ‘ falls short of the unity of Dante’s vision, in which “Hell and Heaven, far from being arbitrary, ate actually the natural end result of our own choices.” [Intro notes, p. 5] Our (moral and otherwise) choices either turn us towards God, or away from Him.

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3.Finally, that Things are connected mark the final interlocking piece of Dante’s model of cosmic unity.  As each thing in this world has a purpose and a significance, so they reflect an overall schema of the Designer, unfolding in time.  Esolen cites “the vast range of Dante’s language and style” [xx], indicating how connected such truth and meaning was from the lofty to the low.  “The glory of God shines in all these things” Esolen continues, citing also Augustine who noted how profound scriptures were written in language available to even children. In Dante, this shows up in his use of both the heavenly and earthly, God and our simple bodies.  Bodily punishment, as with Mohammed’s  ‘metaphysical and physical punishment’ [xxii], or the physical loveliness of Beatrice as a help in drawing Virgil along the path of redemption, are both used by Dante in Inferno, illustrating his sense of cosmic unity. No ‘dissociated sensibility’ of the artists, or Marxist style ‘alienation’ of the worker from power over his own work or from society at large here – everything seems to be what it appears here.

References

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Markos, Louis. Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World . Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing, 2003.

[1]       William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, 166-167.

[2]   C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 34.

[3]   Ibid., 222.

[4]   Ibid., 93.

[5]    Ibid., 220.

[6]    Ibid., 153.

[7]    Ibid., 204.

[8]    Ibid., 204.

[9]    Ibid., 223.

 

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