Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (5): Dante

The evolution of Heaven and Hell illustrates that one dimension of evolution that is uniquely human--symbolic evolution.

As I have indicated in a previous post, I agree with Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb that the genetic system of inheritance is only one of four dimensions of evolutionary inheritance. All organisms have two systems of inheritance--the genetic system and the epigenetic system. Many animals have a third system--the behavioral system--by which learned traditions of behavior are passed from one generation to another. Human beings are unique in that they have not only these three forms of evolutionary inheritance, but also symbolic inheritance.

Symbolism is distinctively human because it shows the qualitative leap that defines our humanity as based on our capacity for symbolic thought and communication. Other animals can communicate through signs. But only human beings can communicate through symbols. The evolution of human language was crucial for the evolution of symbolism. Symbolic systems allow us to think about abstractions far beyond our concrete, immediate experiences. Symbolic systems allow human beings to construct a shared imagined reality. Art, religion, science, and philosophy are all manifestations of human symbolic evolution.

Dante's Divine Comedy is the supreme literary moment in the symbolic evolution of Heaven and Hell--and of Purgatory, by the way! He inherited 2,000 years of oral, visual, and written symbolism of the afterlife. He appropriated and transformed that inheritance by passing it through his individual experience and judgment and then passed it on to future generations. He thus introduced variations into the imagery of the afterlife that would compete in the evolutionary battle of symbols that constitute the spiritual history of humanity. His success depended upon his astute artistic judgment as to what kind of symbolism could survive and reproduce itself in the mental space of human intellectual and emotional responses, as constrained by the capacities and propensities of the human brain and nervous system as modulated by the behavioral and symbolic history of human culture over the past 700 years.

An evolutionary explanation of The Divine Comedy must move through at least three levels of evolutionary history--the natural history of the human species, the cultural history of Dante's world, and the individual history of Dante's life. His writing would be unintelligible and uninteresting if it were not responsive to our universal human nature--our natural desires and inclinations. And because of that appeal to human nature, a book like The Divine Comedy will resonate with human readers for as long as human beings have natural desires that are satisfied by the symbolism of an afterlife. But within the broad constraints of human nature, Dante's work was also constrained by the cultural history of Christendom and of Dante's Italy. And yet, natural history and cultural history constrained but did not determine exactly what would emerge from the individual history of Dante's unique mind.

From the beginning of Dante's Inferno, we see what he calls the principle of contrapasso--"counter-penalty" or "retaliation" (28.142). The punishment fits the crime as appropriate retribution. Dante learned this principle from Thomas Aquinas who defined contrapassum as "equal passion repaid for a previous action; and the expression applied most properly to injurious passions and actions, whereby a man harms the person of his neighbor; for instance, if a man strike, that he be struck back" (ST, II-II, q. 61, a. 4). He also learned this from Aristotle who identified antipeponthos--"reciprocity"--as a fundamental principle of justice (NE, 1132b21-23). He also learned this from the Bible's teaching "an eye for an eye" and "whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6

Of course, Dante didn't need to learn this principle from reading Aquinas or Aristotle or the Bible, because he could have learned it from his own natural experience. Indeed, all human beings--even those who have never read Dante, Aquinas, Aristotle, or the Bible--understand the principle of reciprocity, because there is a natural human desire to respond in kind--returning benefit for benefit and injury for injury. That's why I have identified the desire for justice as reciprocity as one of the twenty natural desires that belong to our evolved human nature.

The symbolic world of an afterlife might seem so far beyond our natural human experience that a skillful artist like Dante would have a completely free hand in designing that world in any way he pleases. That's not true, because the evolutionary success of an artist in constructing a symbolic world depends on his satisfying the natural desires of his human audience. We naturally want people to be rewarded appropriately for their virtues and punished appropriately for their vices. The ideas of Heaven and Hell have evolved in response to those natural human expectations, and so we will judge the plausibility of those ideas by how well they fit our expectations for fair reciprocity of rewards and punishments.

Much of the power of Dante's art in describing the afterlife comes from his skill in depicting appropriate punishments and rewards. For example, he presents the second circle of Hell as reserved for those being punished for the sin of lust. Although lust is one of the seven deadly sins, Dante ranks it as one of the least of the mortal sins. The more serious sins--violence, fraud, and treachery--are punished in the deeper circles of Hell.

In the second circle, the punishment of the sin of lust conveys the passionate power that drives the lustful by having the lovers blown about incessantly by a hurricane:

"I reached a place where every light is muted,
which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest,
when it is battered by opposing winds.
"The hellish hurricane, which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence:
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them.
"When they come up against the ruined slope,
then there are cries and wailing and lament,
and there they curse the force of the divine.
"I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust.
"And as, in the cold season, starlings' wings
bear them along in broad and crowded ranks,
so does that blast bear on the guilty spirits:
now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them.
"There is no hope that ever comforts them--
no hope for rest and none for lesser pain" (V.28-45).

Here the punishment fits the crime, because the lustful reenact the restless obsessiveness of their lust eternally. The natural punishment for a vice is to be driven forever by one's vicious activity.

Nevertheless, Dante feels compassion for these lovers, particularly, Francesca and Paolo. Francesca had been unhappily married to Giancotto, and she had fallen in love with his handsome brother, Paolo. When Giancotto discovered their adulterous love, he murdered both of them. Francesco tells Dante how she fell into sin. She and Paolo were reading a romantic story about how Lancelot fell into an illicit love for Guinevere. When they read how Lancelot and Guinevere kissed for the first time, Francesca relates, "this one, who never shall be parted from me, while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth," and "that day we read no more." As Francesca finishes telling her story, Paolo weeps, and then Dante faints with pity.

We the readers are made by Dante to feel the sweet power of romantic lust, and so we also feel Dante's pity for these lovers, which persuades us to agree with Dante's judgment that their sin is lighter than the sins punished deeper in Hell. But we also know that adultery is so disruptive to social life that it deserves some punishment.

Some scholars have argued that romantic love is not a universal natural desire but a cultural invention of the medieval courtly love tradition. If so, then those readers who have not been shaped by that cultural tradition might not share Dante's sympathy for these doomed lovers. But if romantic love is a natural desire of our evolved human nature--as I believe it is--then Dante's depiction of the temptations of this passion should evoke some agreement from most readers universally.

Even readers who don't believe in the reality of an afterlife with Heaven and Hell can be moved by, and learn from, Dante's Divine Comedy because its poetic symbolism illuminates natural human experience.

But within the limits set by our universal human nature, there is room for cultural variation. And so conceptions of the afterlife will express both the natural universality and the cultural variability of our experience. Although our 20 natural desires are universal, different cultural traditions will rank and organize those natural desires in different ways, and this will be manifested in views of the afterlife.

For example, the cultural history of medieval Christendom had shaped a view of the afterlife in which the supreme good of religious understanding was to be recognized by being placed at the peak of heavenly rewards. All other goods were to be ranked as inferior to this dominant good. The goods of the body were inferior to the goods of the mind. The goods of the political life were inferior to the goods of the contemplative life. And of the goods of the mind, philosophic or scientific understanding was inferior to the religious understanding that would come from the eternal contemplation of the Christian God.

Moreover, the traditional Christian doctrines of original sin and predestination dictated that all human beings were condemned to eternal punishment, and that those few who attained eternal salvation did so only by the unmerited grace of God through the atonement of Christ. Therefore, all those outside the tradition of Christian revelation were to be condemned forever.

Dante's Divine Comedy is constrained by this Christian cultural history, which provides him the symbolic material for his poetic art. But even so, if he is crafty enough, he can exercise his individual judgment in altering and even criticizing that cultural tradition. And, certainly, the individual readers of his poetry, including many who might be skeptical of Christian culture, can engage in a critical assessment of the Christian afterlife and Dante's representation of that afterlife, which contributes to the continuing symbolic evolution of Heaven and Hell.

For instance, one might question the assumption of eternal punishments in Hell. Why do they have to be eternal? Even if Francesca and Paolo deserve punishment for their adulterous lust, do they deserve it for eternity? Doesn't it seem unfair and unreasonable that God would never give them a chance to repent of their momentary yielding to the seductive sweetness of romantic love? If so, then why not agree with Origen that the punishment of Hell is to have a purging effect, so that eventually all those in Hell can feel the pangs of conscience and then ask for, and receive, forgiveness? After all, doesn't the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory concede Origen's arguments for sinners being able to undergo purgation and thus open themselves to the love and forgiveness of God?

Dante's answer seems to be drawn from Aristotle's account of how habituation shapes character. If we choose often to engage in vicious behavior, then eventually we become habituated to it, it becomes our enduring character, and then it's hard, maybe impossible, to turn away from our vicious path. In much of the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to endorse the traditional Christian view that sin is so obsessive that at death the sinful will is unchangeable.

But how is this consistent with the idea of depravity as original sin? If we are so depraved that we have no choice but to sin, how is it just to punish us eternally? Aristotle thinks we have some choice in the matter, and therefore we can be held responsible for our choices. But if we are responsible for our conduct, why can't we choose to change, to reform, to turn back?

Is the idea of total depravity even intelligible? If we were totally depraved, how would we be able to recognize depravity as depravity? If we were totally depraved, how could be make the judgments of better and worse ways of acting that are reflected in the gradations of vicious and virtuous conduct in the Divine Comedy?

Such questions illustrate the freedom we have to criticize the cultural history of the afterlife.

Within the limits set by his Christian culture, Dante had some freedom to exercise his individual judgment about how to depict the afterlife. He was able to use the Divine Comedy to criticize the Catholic Church in ways that prepared the way for the Protestant Reformation. He also implicitly endorsed a pre-Christian or pagan conception of politics and philosophy that some readers have seen as suggesting a secret teaching at odds with Christian culture (see Inferno, 9.61-63; Purgatorio, 8.19-21; Paradiso, 2.1-9, 13.121-23, 23.64-69).

Dante identifies himself with the "honorable men" and "great-hearted souls" in Limbo--pagan poets, politicians, scientists, and philosophers. At the center of the list of people in Limbo are Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. He even includes three Muslims--Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes. These people "did not sin," but since they "lived before Christianity" or "did not worship God in fitting ways," they cannot enter Heaven, but neither are they in the depths of Hell (Inferno, V).

As Dante finally ascends to the tenth heaven, the Empyrean, which is the highest realm of spiritual reality, the seat of imperial sovereignty is reserved for Henry VII, the Emperor, whom Dante had hoped would restore the Roman Empire. And it is prophesied that Henry's opponent--Pope Clement V--will be eternally condemned for simony (Paradiso, XXX).

As John Casey correctly notes, Dante depicts at the end of the Paradiso the supreme happiness of the eternal contemplation of God, which is the beatific vision. Dante sees the eternal light of God. "Within its depths, I saw ingathered, bound by love into one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe" (XXXIII.85-87). Here then is the traditional idea of Christian culture that what human beings really want, what they most deeply desire, is to see God and thus to contemplate the whole order of things forever, which shows that a purely contemplative life is the only true good for human beings.

But what Casey does not notice is that even as Dante appears to endorse this, his placement of the Emperor Henry on a seat in the highest heaven suggests that political life is part of the supreme good, perhaps also suggesting that the contemplative life (whether religious or philosophic) cannot be separated from the political life, because human beings are political animals as well as rational animals.

Some posts on related themes can be found here, here, and here.

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