Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 27 – all-singing, all-dancing: the wise

Dante and Beatrice emerge from the earth’s shadow into a new clarity and brightness in the heaven of the Sun. This is the light by which the wise know God.

The poet invites us to join him in celebrating the order we see in the created world, which gives a direct taste of its Creator:   

The sun speaks to us of the rightness of the natural order: the procession of the seasons, the paths of the planets, the measurement of time. Any deviation from its course would cause havoc. Think about it, says Dante – and enjoy:

Dante sees many flashing lights, which form a wheel and start to sing as they dance round him. One of the lights introduces himself as St Thomas Aquinas.

Born in Lazio in 1225, Aquinas quickly came to be regarded as the greatest Christian theologian of his time – and perhaps of all time. A Dominican, he studied and taught at various religious foundations and universities in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, between two periods spent teaching at the University of Paris. He died in 1274, when Dante was 11. His best known work is the Summa Contra Gentiles, a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology on which Dante drew greatly for his Comedy’s theological and philosophical content. Aquinas held that God is the source of both the light of natural reason and the light of faith. Reason alone can prove the existence of God, but faith allows the revelation of truths beyond reason. The doctrines of Aquinas became the official teaching of the Catholic Church in 1917 and remain highly influential today.

Aquinas identifies the other thinkers and seers among the circling lights. It’s a roll-call of the great names in mediaeval philosophy and theology that would have provided a reading list for the young poet. Among them is Boethius, a 6th century philosopher who wrote the Consolations of Philosophy. Dante owes him a special debt, as his thinking, which unifies the classical tradition with Christian beliefs, brought the poet new direction and hope in the years after Beatrice’s death (see Note 22). Another is Siger of Brabant, who espoused the heretical thinking of Averroes and was thus in a vigorous public dispute with Aquinas during the latter’s second stint as a professor at Paris University. Now the two form part of the great dance, their past differences forgotten.

The song and dance resume, with an order and precision that anticipate Sir Isaac Newton’s image of the divine clockmaker:

I’ll leave the last word to the incomparable Sinclair, who aptly quotes Shakespeare: “The ultimate utterance of the truth of God must be a song. ‘Such harmony is in immortal souls.’”

Genius line:
Se non colà dove gioir s’insempra. Another Dantesque neologism: his invented verb, insemprarsi, translates literally as “to in-eternity oneself”. Compare imparadisare, to plunge [the mind] into paradise.