“An Eschatology To Which History Itself Is Subservient” (II)

It’s been a couple of months since I wrote the first post with this title, so let me recap it. Dante engages in complex juxtapositions of mythological and historical figures in one and the same afterlife – the mythical heroes Hector and Aeneas are present, as are the real people Cicero and Seneca and St. Paul. Francesca da Rimini, a real person from Dante’s experience, is there as are the mythical women Dido and Helen of Troy. Guido da Montefeltro, another real person, is there, as are the mythical heroes Odysseus and Diomede. In discussing these juxtapositions, Lino Pertile notes that “The reason for this, rather than a lack of historical perspective on Dante’s part, is his belief in an eschatology to which history itself is subservient.”:”(“Introduction to Inferno,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dante, second edition [Cambridge University Press, 2007], pg. 80.)”:

At the time of the first post I said I wasn’t yet sure what this means, but that I suspected it has something to do with the fact that the Divine Comedy is all about man’s final end and how he is to achieve it. Now, having finished the Comedy, having had the benefit of several excellent expository lectures in class, having written an expository paper of its central themes, and having done some extracurricular research, I think I can make a reasonable guess as to what the phrase “an eschatology to which history itself is subservient” means. I’d like to cover three headings: (1) the Augustinian theme of ascent from false loves to True Love, (2) the mystery of Divine Predestination, and (3) the Comedy‘s view of the classical goddess Fortuna (“Fortune,” or “Chance”).

First, the Augustinian theme of ascent from false loves to True Love. The point of the Comedy is the Augustinian theme of the rise of the soul from numerous false loves to the true Love.:”(See various posts of mine under the “St. Augustine” category.)”: This is, of course, the Blessed Trinity – “the Love which moves the Sun and the stars” (Paradiso XXXIII.145). In the Inferno we see a downward progression from the best things the natural man can offer:”(Namely, the classical or “Cardinal” virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.)”: to the greatest vice of all.:”(Lucifer: high treason against his Benefactor.)”: In Purgatorio, interestingly, we see God’s grace and love reversing all of this, taking natural man and joining him to the nature of Christ and progressively purging him of his false loves during the course of an entirely grace-powered ascent toward Himself. By the time we get to Paradiso, the intensity of God’s grace and love has made everything else dim, and has, as it were, “transhumanized” redeemed men. The best things that man has by creation are the least things he has by recreation. History itself, man’s whole story, has shown itself entirely subservient to God’s redemptive work.

Second, the mystery of Divine Predestination, which appears in Inferno VII.67-96, Purgatorio XVI, and Paradiso XIX-XXI. Among other mysteries which human reason cannot penetrate is the fact that most of the preeminent examples of natural human virtue (Virgil, Socrates, Cicero, etc.) are doomed to exist in Limbo, forever apart from God not, as Virgil laments, because they tried to reach Him but because they didn’t try to reach Him. And yet, several of their number (Cato, Statius, the Emperor Trajan, the Trojan warrior Ripheus) are inexplicably among the redeemed. Why these and not the rest, who seemed equally deserving from man’s point of view? Well, from a Christian point of view it would seem that although these had everything going against them, God’s grace and love reached down into history and subverted its power, raising up the undeserving for His own purposes and glory.

My third and last thought on the eschatology to which history itself is subservient rises from the same passages just cited. This is the theme of Fortune. The Ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped Fortune as a goddess whom they thought capriciously dealt out good and ill to men, irrespective of their just desserts. Cicero, following the Greek Pindar, spoke freely of “the Wheel of Fortune” (In Pisonem, 22). The poet Terence claimed that “Fortune favors the brave” (Fortuna favet fortis), while a popular saying held to the contrary that “Fortune favors the foolish” (Fortuna favet fatuis). One of the most famous passages expressing this belief in Fortune’s divinity and capriciousness comes from Pliny’s Natural History II.22, which says:

Among these discordant opinions mankind have discovered for themselves a kind of intermediate deity, by which our skepticism concerning God is still increased. For all over the world, in all places, and at all times, Fortune is the only god whom everyone invokes; she alone is spoken of, she alone is accused and is supposed to be guilty; she alone is in our thoughts; is praised and blamed and loaded with reproaches; wavering as she is, conceived by the generality of mankind to be blind, wandering, inconstant, uncertain, variable, and often favouring the unworthy. To her are referred all our losses and all our gains, and in casting up the accounts of mortals she alone balances the two pages of our sheet. We are so much in the power of chance, that chance it- self is considered as a God and the existence of God becomes doubtful.

Dante, well aware of these classical beliefs about “Dame Fortune,” will have none of it in his Christianized Aristotelian world. In Inferno VII.67-96, Dante inquires of Virgil:

“Master,” I asked of him, “now tell me too:
this Fortune whom you’ve touched upon just now -
what’s she, who clutches so all the world’s goods?”

And he to me: “O unenlightened creatures,
how deep – the ignorance that hampers you!
I want you to digest my word on this.

Who made the heavens and who gave them guides
was He whose wisdom transcends everything;
that every part may shine unto the other,

He had the light apportioned equally;
similarly, for worldly splendors, he
ordained a general minister and guide

to shift, from time to time, those empty goods
from nation unto nation, clan to clan,
in ways that human reason can’t prevent;

just so, one people rules, one languishes,
obeying the decision she has given,
which, like a serpent in the grass, is hidden.

Your knowledge cannot stand against her force;
for she foresees and judges and maintains
her kingdom as the other gods do theirs.

The changes that she brings are without respite:
it is necessity that makes her swift;
and for this reason, men change state so often.

She is the one so frequently maligned
even by those who should give praise to her -
they blame her wrongfully with words of scorn.

But she is blessed and does not hear these things;
for with the other primal beings, happy,
she turns her sphere and glories in her bliss.:”(Trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Bantam Dell reissue, 2004], pp. 62-63.)”:

Here Dante simply rejects the notion that Fortune is an independent goddess, dealing with men in a truly arbitrary fashion – rather, she is a created minister of God, carrying out His plans, plans which the reason of man cannot fathom. The theme is further developed in Purgatorio XVI.67-81, in Marco Lombardo’s discourse on free will, the relevant part of which is this:

You living ones continue to assign
to heaven every cause, as if it were
the necessary source of every motion.

If this were so, then your free will would be
destroyed, and there would be no equity
in joy for doing good, in grief for evil.

The heavens set your appetites in motion -
not all your appetites, but even if
that were the case, you have received both light

on good and evil, and free will, which though
it struggle in its first wars with the heavens,
then conquers all, if it has been well nurtured.

On greater power and a better nature
you, who are free, depend; that Force engenders
the mind in you, outside the heavens’ sway.:”(Trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Bantam Dell reissue, 2004], pp.148-149.)”:

Here we see Dante denying pagan determinism and advocating instead the theologically-pregnant notion of human free will which, though truly free, is yet somehow mysteriously derived from and accountable to a “Force” outside of itself so that human beings, though resident within space and time, are, like their Creator Himself, not determined by space and time. In the following several lines, Lombardo argues that the soul, initially like a child, is prone to misuse its free will to seek after things it inappropriately loves more than they deserve and which beguile it from its true object of love, God. Free will thus needs law to guide and rein in its love, and this law comes from God.:”(Interestingly, in Mandelbaum’s translation this section begins at Line 67 and ends at Line 96, just like the Inferno passage previously cited. Coincidence? Probably not.)”:

The theme of Fortune / Providence / Predestination culminates in Paradiso XIX-XXI, from which three Cantos this excerpt from XIX seems the most important to me:

therefore, the vision that your world receives
can penetrate into Eternal Justice
no more than eye can penetrate the sea;

for though, near shore, sight reaches the sea floor,
you cannot reach it in the open sea;
yet it is there, but hidden by the deep.

Only the light that shines from the clear heaven
can never be obscured – all else is darkness
or shadow of the flesh or fleshly poison.

Now is the hiding place of living Justice
laid open to you – where it had been hidden
while you addressed it with insistent questions.

For you would say: ‘A man is born along
the shoreline of the Indus river; none
is there to speak or teach or write of Christ.

And he, as far as human reason sees,
in all he seeks and all he does is good:
there is no sin within his life or speech.

And that man dies unbaptized, without faith.
Where is this justice then that would condemn him?
Where is his sin if he does not believe?’

Now who are you to sit upon the bench,
to judge events a thousand miles away,
when your own vision spans so brief a space?

of course, for him who would be subtle with me,
were there no Scriptures to instruct you, then
there would be place for an array of questions.

O earthly animals, o minds obtuse!
The Primal Will, which of Itself is good,
from the Supreme Good – Its Self – never moved.

So much is just as does accord with It;
and so, created good can draw It to
itself – but It, rayed forth, causes such goods.:”(Trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Bantam Dell reissue, 2004], pp. 170-171.)”:

Given that all of this is taking place within the thought world of a synthesis between biblical and classical worlds, it is amazing to behold the artistry with which Dante the Christian has constructed what Pertile called “an eschatology to which history itself is subservient.” Dante’s world, the world of a Christian poet deeply familiar with Holy Scripture and expositing its themes with immensely creative use of the culture at hand, is a world whose final end and all the means which get it there are set forth by the sovereign, inscrutable, yet graciously loving, hand of the Triune God. Dante’s eschatology is one which vividly shows the unmerited grace and love of God totally defeating and redemptively transforming classical historical determinism.


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