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Dante's 'Paradiso' and C. S. Lewis

A human being can be close to God in terms of a spiritual 'nearness', and also close to God in terms of amount of power.

Lewis has something to say about this important distinction in his book The Four Loves, where he breaks it down into two kinds of ‘nearness’ to God: a human being is more similar to God than say, a stone or even an animal, and was made in God’s image; but a human may also be closer to God in the sense of actually approaching union with Him. The two things, Lewis points out, are not necessarily the same:

Since God is blessed, omnipotent, sovereign and creative, there is obviously a sense in which happiness, strength, freedom and fertility (whether of mind or body), wherever they appear in human life, constitute likenesses, and in that way proximities, to God. But no one supposes that the possession of these gifts has any necessary connection with our sanctification. No kind of riches is a passport to the Kingdom of Heaven.

We can be similar to God, and thus draw ‘closer’ to Him in one sense - but we can also draw closer to Him 'physically'.

And so it was with the Mediaeval cosmos itself, explored earlier in this blog: things existed apart from God, but were drawn to Him, both in terms of likeness and in terms of a physical motion. This model placed Earth at the centre of the ‘clock’ while God was located on its outer rim - ever-present throughout His creation, of course, but based in a remote heaven beyond the confines of the world. Earth was the centre of all activity for mortals, who could only look longingly up at the stars to what lay beyond.

That is, until death. Upon dying, a soul would rise, according to this model, up through the atmosphere of the Earth and the various spheres above it, and, all being well, approach Heaven.

But the really important point came when that soul looked back at the world it had left from the perspective of making the journey towards God, as Lewis describes:

All this time we are describing the universe spread out in space; dignity, power and speed progressively diminish­ing as we descend from its circumference to its centre, the Earth. But I have already hinted that the intelligible universe reverses it all; there the Earth is the rim, the outside edge where being fades away on the border of nonentity. A few astonishing lines from the Paradiso (xxvm, 25 sq.) stamp this on the mind forever. There Dante sees God as a point of light. Seven concentric rings of light revolve about that point, and that which is smallest and nearest to it has the swiftest movement. This is the Intelligence of the Primum Mobile, superior to all the rest in love and knowledge. The universe is thus, when our minds are sufficiently freed from the senses, turned inside out. Dante, with incomparably greater power is, however, saying no more than Alanus says when he locates us and our Earth 'outside the city wall'.

Note Lewis’s turn of phrase here, because it is key - this vision of the world as Dante had painted it, impinged upon Lewis remarkably: ‘A few astonishing lines from the Paradiso (xxviii, 25 sq.) stamp this on the mind forever’.

This is the part in the poem when God becomes the centre and the Earth becomes a dot, lost somewhere on the rim of reality. Paradiso 28 is about the Primum Mobile, the heaven beyond all being that we are aware of. As outlined above, the Primum Mobile is the last sphere before the Empyrean, to which we pass in Paradiso 30. Here, the Earth is no longer a point at the centre circled by ever larger heavens; Dante imagines the universe inverted, with God as a luminous point at its hub:

un punto vidi che raggiava lume

acuto sì, che ’l viso ch’elli affoca

chiuder conviensi per lo forte acume . . . (Par. 28.16-18)

I saw a point that sent forth so acute

a light, that anyone who faced the force

with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes . . .

God is circled by heavens that grow ever slower as they move further away:

Così l’ottavo e ’l nono; e chiascheduno

più tardo si movea, secondo ch’era

in numero distante più da l’uno;

e quello avea la fiamma più sincera

cui men distava la favilla pura,

credo, però che più di lei s’invera. (Par. 28.34-39)

The eighth and ninth were wider still; and each,

even as greater distance lay between

it and the first ring, moved with lesser speed;

and, I believe, the ring with clearest flame

was that which lay least far from the pure spark

because it shares most deeply that point’s truth.

In the mortal universe from which Dante has journeyed, the Earth is at the centre of the nine material heavens. In this new universe, God is at the centre of the nine angelic intelligences, who spin faster and faster as they get closer to Him.

This is a kind of paradox: God is both at the centre of the universe but simultaneously on its circumference, depending on your point of view. If a human being could hold both perspectives together mentally, he or she might have some grasp of the concept ‘that is enclosed by that which It encloses’. Dante doesn’t leave it there as an abstraction, though: he has his guide Beatrice explain:

La donna mia, che mi vedea in cura

forte sospeso, disse: «Da quel punto

depende il cielo e tutta la natura». (Par. 28.40-42)

My lady, who saw my perplexity—

I was in such suspense—said: “On that Point

depend the heavens and the whole of nature.”

Dante expresses a need to understand how the two universes ‘go together’:

Onde, se ’l mio disir dee aver fine

in questo miro e angelico templo

che solo amore e luce ha per confine,

udir convienmi ancor come l’essemplo

e l’essemplare non vanno d’un modo,

ché io per me indarno a ciò contemplo. (Par. 28.52-57)

Thus, if my longing is to gain its end

in this amazing and angelic temple

that has, as boundaries, only love and light,

then I still have to hear just how the model

and copy do not share in one same plan—

for by myself I think on this in vain.

Two models of the universe: one material, the other spiritual, beyond sense perception. Dante then poses the question: how can the two models coexist? The significant point here is that Dante has brought the two together using the tool of fiction. Whether or not there is a logical explanation or a rational way of computing this apparently impossible co-existence, Dante has already made it real by placing it in his poem. This will be a profound point later on, when we see what Lewis does with it.

The paradox of Earth-centred and God-centred universes is at the heart of the Christian explanation of everything there is: the Point that is enclosed by that which It encloses (Par. 30.12). As this is a poem, Dante can put this contradiction forward powerfully without requiring logical support - the poet is appealing to the emotional, aesthetic and spiritual nature in his listeners, rather than their rationality.

Beatrice’s explanation brings the two viewpoints into an harmonious relationship, but she is unable in words to merge the physical and the metaphysical into one. Her explanation is referred to as a ‘responder chiaro’ (clear response), which leaves Dante feeling like a sky that has been cleansed of mist by a north-west wind and left ‘splendid and serene’.

The point is that Dante is poetically communicating something which is almost impossible to describe in any other way.

Beatrice explains that the larger the material heaven the more grace it must contain, so that the largest material heaven (the Primum Mobile) as the most blessed of the material spheres must equate to the most blessed spiritual heaven: to the one that loves most, knows most, is closest to God, and hence the smallest.

We need to stop looking at the appearance of things (‘la parvenza / de le sustanze’) but at their inherent worth (‘a la virtù’), and then the most worthy of the spiritual heavens (the smallest and the fastest, the reality closest to God) will obviously match the most worthy of the material heavens (the largest and the fastest, the Primum Mobile):

Li cerchi corporai sono ampi e arti

secondo il più e ’l men de la virtute

che si distende per tutte lor parti.

Maggior bontà vuol far maggior salute;

maggior salute maggior corpo cape,

s’elli ha le parti igualmente compiute.

Dunque costui che tutto quanto rape

l’altro universo seco, corrisponde

al cerchio che più ama e che più sape:

per che, se tu a la virtù circonde

la tua misura, non a la parvenza

de le sustanze che t’appaion tonde,

tu vederai mirabil consequenza

di maggio a più e di minore a meno,

in ciascun cielo, a süa intelligenza. (Par. 28.64-78)

The size of spheres of matter—large or small—

depends upon the power—more and less—

that spreads throughout their parts. More excellence

yields greater blessedness; more blessedness

must comprehend a greater body when

that body’s parts are equally complete.

And thus this sphere, which sweeps along with it

the rest of all the universe, must match

the circle that loves most and knows the most,

so that, if you but draw your measure round

the power within—and not the semblance of—

the angels that appear to you as circles,

you will discern a wonderful accord

between each sphere and its Intelligence:

greater accords with more, smaller with less.

That concept - that the world, apparently built upon the motionless and central Earth, could abruptly ‘flip’ and instead of having the Earth as its hub, suddenly be constructed around God - had such a powerful effect upon Lewis imaginatively that it pervades both his work and his life.

As we will see, this idea of the sudden transition from one viewpoint to the other is profoundly visible in his work, when you know what you are looking for.


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