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April 24, 2014

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The Treasonous Clerk: What Dante Means to Us
James Matthew Wilson - 06/17/09
statue of Dante Alighieri

In our day, we tend to shrug off discussion of metaphysics and even to pretend that it is unreal or “beside the point.” The distinction between the practical and the speculative has come to appear as the divide between truth and make believe. When we go to a chain bookstore, we may find an entire row under the heading “Metaphysics,” but this intends something other than the philosophy of Being. It means the new-age trash that sates the unaccounted-for superstitions and desires of the recently de-Christianized. This curious nomenclature of inventory came to pass not because the long-established meaning of the word was deemed inferior to this novel one, but because some ingenious store manager heard the word and thought, “Yep, that conveys a sense of importance and ‘spirituality’ without actually disclosing any content or imposing moral prescription.” Such an anonymous manager resembles the classmate of mine years ago who, when asked to explain a poem of W.B. Yeats, wrote, “He’s, uh, being philosophical.” Indeed. These and myriad other persons who compose the contemporary West have become expert in short-circuiting all thought by assigning all things of no immediate concupiscent use a reverent and vacuous title. To speak of Being seems to require a kind of belief that our materialist culture cannot muster.

This contemporary incredulity—which would seem to inoculate us against metaphysical claims—in fact usually results in persons’ occupying alternately and erratically what in fact are two extreme metaphysical positions. Most elements of our culture tend to some species of materialism, that is, the belief that nothing is real that cannot predictably be made physically manifest to the senses. This is, of course, a metaphysical claim: it says that what is real, what has Being, is that which contains matter understood in a very specific way. Much of the time, this is a very easy position to occupy. Only when confronted with our own thoughts does materialism directly and compellingly come under challenge in most persons’ experience. For, to be a strict materialist, one has to say that thoughts per se do not exist. They are just the effects of certain chemical processes in the brain. That is a possible explanation of course, but it is one that requires a great deal of faith, in the modern sense of “unverifiable trust.” Through certain technologies we can all perceive and measure that the brain performs certain chemical actions when the mind thinks. But to identify those physical processes as thought itself can only be done on trust. One will always have the experience of ideas as ideas, of thought as thought; to persevere as a materialist, then, one must deny the reality of that experience, presume it misleading, and rationalize, “What appears to me as thought is in fact a series of separate physico-chemical actions that only produce a sensation that other, similar physical processes cause me to call ‘thought.’ In fact, those actions are reducible to themselves, and thought is reducible to them.” The mind equals the brain; thought, the “firing of synapses,” even though we can have no experience of this identity and cannot even explain what it would mean to experience this identity, since the experience would be a mere appearance produced by processes of the brain that possess no true unity or consciousness but only produce it as a delusion, an unreal after-effect.

The alternative position common in our age seldom exists by itself, but rather erupts amid the everyday materialism of most persons: an extreme form of idealism. Repelled by the idea of reality as reducible to material things and processes, the idealist insists that the only true reality lies in thought. Some will locate reality in objective thought, suggesting that all persons share in one intellectual life among themselves; some will say it is subjective, and thus become subjective relativists who believe that reality consists exclusively of their own perceptions and experience of thought. Again, no one maintains these positions for very long. Many persons, who are subjective idealists about their own sexual activities, become strident and conventional moralists upon the theft of their pocketbook.

These idealistic effluvia tend to emerge as knee-jerk responses to either the ugliness or the rational inadequacy of materialism. Confronted with the impossibility of living as if we were just a sack of cells randomly conjoined, the everyday materialist momentarily turns idealist, and tries to re-imagine the self as a living soul whose reality produces the material world as an epiphenomenon. This plays itself out in familiar scenarios. The person who acts like such an occasional or circumstantial idealist clings to some eccentric superstition—astrology, the occult, or the existence of ghosts—in order to humanize the material world; “to humanize” means to grant some small, safe place for the existence of ideas, emotions—an order of meaning that is supra-material. So long as the material world does not obviously implicate such a person’s sense of selfhood, coherence, and worth, such a person lets the implications of materialism govern how he sees the world. But for the occasional fit of existential angst, he has in the reserves the number of a psychic hotline or the latest syncretistic, big-print treatise on Buddhism and psychotherapy, by “Somebody, Ph.D.”

It is extremely difficult to maintain pure materialism or pure idealism for any length of time, because both account for reality in ways we do not experience it. The materialist says thought is unreal. “All right,” one concedes, “but I can never know what that means without also knowing that I don’t really know anything, because thought would be a deception. And while I can understand that some thoughts may be delusions, I make that judgment in comparing one thought with another, not thought per se with matter.” The idealist says all reality resides in the idea or the mind. “Fine,” says Dr. Johnson, and then he kicks a real stone with his real foot and feels real pain.

We cannot escape metaphysics, then. But we can lose the vocabulary necessary if we are to make rationally compelling claims about reality; and once we lose this power of the reason, the world in which we live so confidently when unconscious of it becomes haunted by a nagging sense of absence and doubt the moment we make a conscious effort to think about it. Such is the peculiar curse of the modern age, and explains a curious phenomenon in modern intellectual life—to wit, the celebration of the naive and primitive. Accounts of earlier ages, when things— when the world itself—seemed charged with a degree of meaning in which all persons could believe with the same natural intuition that directs us to eat or sleep, have pullulated for more than three centuries now as a kind of forlorn fantasy. The modern person, we are told, because he is so self-conscious, so knowledgeable and therefore so skeptical, makes the impossible wish, from time to time, that he were a bronze-age tribesmen or a medieval villager, so that he could instinctively believe that the sense of and the need for meaning in this world do find confirmation in everyday reality.

Our everyday materialism and idealism are themselves after-effects of this sense of loss. And this sense of loss tends to haunt non-student readers of Plato, Aristotle, the Scriptures, and even St. Augustine’s The Confessions. That is, a contemporary college student encountering these texts in a class will tend to be inoculated against taking its content seriously; trained to think meritocracy the sole reality, all that student chases down in such texts is a passable grasp of its internally coherent ideas, in which belief would seem a foreign and irrelevant super-addition. But how often the insecure modern Christian, whose daily life is informed more by materialist assumptions than anything else, turns to Scripture or Augustine and only by a sheer act of will can find there something more than curious, strange, and arcane systems. They can see, for instance, that Augustine believed in form and matter, in the creative love of God as the cause of all existent things, and in the teleology that all persons desire happiness and will find it finally only in the simple, eternal unity of God. But, for the casual reader, even saying these ideas aloud can make them sound a bit unreal. One wonders how such ideas even came to be proposed, save as the evolution of some irrational or nebulous intuitions. “Can we really believe in that?” one asks.

I take so much time in describing modernity’s erratic materialist-idealist complex, because one useful answer to the question asked just above has come, historically, in the form of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante, from the moment of his work’s appearance, has enjoyed great admiration. Boccaccio writes in his life of Dante that, one day, Dante was walking down the street with a severe look on his face, as if it were hardened by heat and soiled with ash. A mother passing by with her child stopped, and bent down; she pointed to Dante and said to her child, “You see that man? He has been to Hell and returned to talk about it.” Dante smiled, content that his poem had already won so much fame as to become not simply a great story but a kind of history.

But in the nineteenth century and after, Dante begins to feature much more largely in western culture. Matthew Arnold thought Picarda’s line in Paradise 3, “la sua volontade e nostra pace,” a touchstone of “culture.” Dante comes, in our time, to symbolize what George Santayana called the “philosophical poet.” That is, the poet who renders in sensuous and imaginatively compelling images a complete and thorough vision of reality. One may read Augustine or Thomas Aquinas and think one understands them, that one sees the internal logic of their claims, but still be unable to bring oneself to believe that what they say is a true description of reality, rather than a nice ideal superimposed on it. Between understanding and belief may loom an impassible chasm. However, amid the unsatisfactory dualistic tensions of materialism and idealism that alternately constrict our visions in modern times, a certain privilege has consistently been maintained for the imagination. For, the imagination seems to be the place where the naive and the primitive person truly surpassed the modern, Schiller and other Romantic philosophers once told us. A story, a poem, any work of the imagination, contains thought and ideas. But it puts flesh on them, it gives them a sensuous reality that is of course not identical with the reality of our everyday life but stands in some uncertain but undeniable relation to it. “I know this didn’t really happen,” I murmur over Homer, “but I know that if it were to happen, it would happen just as the poet said.”

Thus, the vividly imagined world of Dante has for generations been a way in which readers in our fragmented or distended world of materialists and idealists have been able to entertain the possibility of all reality cohering, of the world as created, as intelligible, as loved, lovable, and ordered to love and meaning, beauty, truth, and goodness. Dante’s poem is very thorough. It is neither so thorough as Augustine’s writings nor as the Summas of Thomas Aquinas that Dante seems to have known well and to have incorporated partially into the structure of his Comedy. But the thoroughness of Dante is an imagined one. Because the poem is a fiction, we can encounter all that it says initially in a spirit of play; I can believe such-and-such for the moment without having to commit my will to it in real, everyday life. It seems almost a masterful version of those books on the “Metaphysics” shelf at the contemporary chain bookstore.

But the capaciousness of Dante tends to have an effect that transcends such joy in pretending. Because it is so comprehensive, it tends to lead us from the world of imagination as fiction to the world of imagination as vision. Rather than remaining a world apart, Dante’s world, because so vivid, may gradually come to have implications for our world. And when that happens, we may turn again from poetry to metaphysics and theology, from Dante to Augustine and Aristotle, and be able to encounter their ideas as reality for the first time. This slow “conversion” has happened before. Only a few months ago I met two graduate students, who were married and who had converted to Catholicism before their marriage. “Why did you convert?” I asked. “Because of Dante,” the husband said. “There was too much that we accepted as reality that we could not accept unless we also accepted Catholicism.”

But why does it happen? The concepts and words of Augustine are not those of our culture. We can understand them, but to assent to them we would need to be capable first of envisioning them within the framework of a whole way of life, a culture. It is one thing to say, I accept this or that point of a philosopher; but really to believe or accept as true—and bindingly so—what he says, one must become capable of thinking within the framework, the culture and tradition, that generated that point and holds it together. To enter into a culture is to enter into not only a series of abstract propositions, but to enter into the context, the lives’ worth of experience, that gives birth to them. The only way one experiences anything is as a story, and the way to enter into the experience of another is to enter into the story of another. Once we can do that, we can hear every proposition or truth that another may make and have some foundation to stand on in order to judge if he be right or wrong. Dante’s narrative poem, therefore, provides a gateway, a point of access where the reasoned truths of moderate realist metaphysics and Christian theology take on full form, flesh, and blood, and can be seen in full rather than as atemporal abstractions. I would hold up Augustine’s Confessions as another possible instance of this, but there is something particular to Dante’s poem, with its subordination of all things to a coherent poetic and universal form, that gives one the sense of having seen a world first—and only then—only subsequently—reading into that world to discover the propositions that give it form. This has everything to do with beauty, or rather, with beauty’s identity as a transcendental property of Being alongside the Good and the True. When we encounter Being in Beauty, we sense a kind of ordered liberty that can only be described in terms of form, proportion, of “what is fitting.” The Beautiful speaks to the same reality as the modes of goodness and truth, but without appearing to lead inexorably to imperatives of the will or convictions of the reason. What it lacks in appearance may make it appear trivial, but may also make it that much the more attractive to the uninitiated.

The great modern poet T.S. Eliot published in the nineteen-twenties a long essay on Dante. His theme was that one need not actually believe in the Scholastic system and Christian cosmos that informs Dante’s poem in order to appreciate it. Rather, one needed only to understand those things and accept them in the confines of the poem. Curiously, Eliot had only recently converted to Anglo-Catholicism when he composed this argument. We know from others of his writings that Dante’s poetry was a continuous presence in Eliot’s imagination, and we have reason to go beyond this empirical observation and to suspect that the poetic “system” of Dante contributed to Eliot’s conversion to a religion that accepted much of that system as true. What I have tried to account for is the state of mind that might have been Eliot’s as Eliot-the-poet cherished and defended Dante’s literary achievement independent of its religious implications, while Eliot-the-convert seems to have been led gradually from the gates of Dante’s fictive hell to the real portals of the Church. The point at which these two characters cross in the same person is that where one accepts, however reluctantly, that the imagination, with its habit of freedom, play, and of entertaining propositions rather than submitting to them, may be the only road, at present, to sincere belief in the metaphysical realism our intellects, however modern, deeply desire.

A few years after writing his essay on Dante, Eliot would observe that there “are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the Catholic and the materialistic.” As I have suggested, the modern idealist and his superstitions are really just epiphenomena of materialism. The alternative, as Eliot describes it, is between an anxiousness that can be evaded and numbed but never settled or the assent to an understanding of a meaningful order as real, and whose reality requires a realist metaphysics in turn grounded on the Divine. Eliot saw that if the choice was obvious, and the allure of one over the other equally so, it was the rational foundation for justifying that choice that seemed so evidently wanting in the modern age. But to reason well, one must be capable of entering into a particular tradition of reasoning; to do that, one must first be able to envision what it would mean to live within that tradition—and it is to this that Dante offers a gateway if nothing else.

The Treasonous Clerk is the regular column of James Matthew Wilson.

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