Lesson 20: 
Dante's Cosmology











The human race should not put all of its eggs in one basket--or on one planet--Stephen Hawking.



















Left: Suloni Robertson, Manfred. In Purgatorio 3, Manfred is a sheepish believer in superstitions about excommunication and burial rites, ideas that inhibit his spirit from climbing to heaven as it should. Dante proposes that in promoting itself improperly the church poses obstacles to the realization of human destiny.

Beyond baby talk

In Purgatorio 11 the pilgrim Dante meets Oderisi of Gubbio (c. 1240-1299), a once-celebrated manuscript illuminator who is discouraged because his style has been superseded. As he laments the transitory nature of popular fashions in art, Oderisi asks the pilgrim: 

A thousand years from now, how much more acclaim will you have if your flesh falls off when it is old, than if you had died before you finished saying ‘pappo’ and ‘dindi’?

He means that in a thousand years Dante's poems will have turned into gibberish, so in terms of his lasting fame Dante may as well write baby talk. 

Oderisi is one of the multitude in Purgatory whose work has taken him as far as he can go. He is in Purgatory, not Inferno, because he aspires to join the immortals, but he does not suppose that he is worthy to go higher, so he is circling the mountain, reflecting with regret for his past vanity, and not making any progress upward.

The poet Dante, however, is not Oderisi. Though his language necessarily has become antiquated and occasionally obscure, his reputation keeps going up. Today, at age 700, he still looks, as much as anyone can look, like a true prophet. That is, he addresses the universal questions with results that remain both visionary and stimulating. Not Virgil, nor any writer prior to Dante, tells so essentially the epic of our species from supersession of animal nature through the greater development that remains necessary for future migration  from earth to more lasting forms of life in and beyond the heavens. This account of the human situation and challenge is prescientific but its interest is more than historical. Maybe a thousand years after Dante, there still will be avid readers of the Commedia, and some will believe that the poet speaks to their survival as purified spirits independent of mother earth.

Dante's Cosmology

Dante's Eurasia stretches around half of the globe, and it with Africa is the habitat of all living people. This land mass and all human life are shaped especially by one prehistoric event, a cosmic catastrophe. In the time before people, a portion of the heavens fell burning toward the earth, and the brightest of the falling objects, known as Lucifer, scored a direct hit, dead center in Eurasia at the place now called Jerusalem.

Inferno is the impact crater, a pit that seems as if it had been designed as a series of ever-narrower, ever-deeper rings down to the center of earth's core. Since the creation of humankind and continuing into the present, human spirits of earth-bound desire have fallen into this hole, where they remain until the end of the world lodged in order of worldliness, like deposits sorted by weight. Though not Lucifer's victims, these fallen people are physically his followers. Some of them can wiggle a little, but like him they aren't ever going anywhere.

Opposite from the impact site, in the midst of a great sea in the southern hemisphere, Lucifer's crash pushed up an island, topped with a huge mountain ringed with seven terraces. This inverse inferno, Mount Purgatory, reaches through the clouds toward the moon, and it is traversable, enabling human spirits to climb out of their terrestrial death trap and acquire significance in the cosmos. 

Dante's humankind is endangered but not consigned to a place of inevitable extinction. Those who will adapt to extra-terrestrial life must transform themselves, however, and this work is the subject of Purgatorio.

























Left: Dore's Oderisi misleadingly suggests that by carrying his weight through Purgatory he is making progress toward heaven. This is true only from the point of view of  Oderisi, not pilgrim Dante or the guide Virgil.

Dante's Morality

Dante may not have believed in situational ethics, but his cosmology provides the context for his morality. The salient feature about earth, for Dante, is that it supports life only temporarily. His question is: what are doing about it? What have we been doing about it? Vice, in Dante's scheme, is behavior that keeps human beings from flying up to heaven as their cosmological situation requires. The opposites of vices are disciplines that can neutralize the bad behaviors; as such, they may be preconditions for earthlings to surmount the attractions of earth, but they are not ends in themselves. Oderisi has been proud; disillusion with pride allows him a place above Inferno, but his humility is not raising him toward Paradise.

The seven terraces on Purgatory do not comprise a spiral. Each one is a flat ring around the mountain, and to rise above it  requires the use of stairs.  Preoccupied with their individual terraces, the Purgatorians all seem to know where the stairs are located in order to ascend to the next level, but none of them deem themselves worthy of heaven. They do not accept the invitations of angels positioned beside each stairway entrance. Remorse weighs them down.


Science Fiction

Before there was science, there was science fiction. It had begun at least by the time of Gilgamesh (see my Gilgamesh page), and it was well expressed Homer, whose Hephaestus is an inventor of robots and automobiles. The gods' eye-view of mortal affairs runs through much of western heroic tradition to Dante who, at the end of Purgatorio envisions Eden as the meeting ground between extra-terrestials and human visionaries, including himself and his literary predecessors.

Dangers of prophecy


The unfortunate mutability of language in our fallen world is a favorite theme of Dante, who aspires to the stable communication of the original language of Adam.

Since, therefore, all our language (except that created by God along with the first man) has been assembled, in haphazard fashion, in the aftermath of the great confusion that brought nothing else than oblivion to whatever language had existed before, and since human beings are highly unstable and variable animals, our language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but, like everything else that belongs to us (such as manners and customs), it must vary according to distances of space and time. Vernacular Eloquence I ix 6



Powers of Literature
Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
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