(Finally using a tablet to write this blog. Random comment. It’s exciting. Anyway…)
There is a lot going on in Dante’s Paradise. My good friend who is now a professor told me years ago that the Eastern Christian theology was poetry and the Western was more like legal language. The actual gist is the East has poets and the West lawyers. Dante seems to be an exception maybe? He is part of the Western culture. He uses poetry to express truth and theology well.
Dr. Moser recently pointed out to me and others that theology is all over the poetry in Dante’s Divine Comedy. And poetry is the best way to express theology. I especially see it in Paradise.
So what is Dante talking about in Canto 4? A lot.
Some things are truth, doubt, virtue, all being in the presence of God as oppose to being in tiered spheres. The unity of body and soul. The correction of Platonic philosophy. Dante is a good Aristotelian as Esolen says.
First: Virtue is a habit we acquire, the same with vice. If we seek the good and form habits, following the virtues, we are aiming toward and practicing the good. Our will, will act accordingly. If we seek vice, our will, will also act accordingly. Cognitive science seems to agree with this. All of this was far longer before our understanding of the brain as we know it now. “The will obeys by resigning.” (Esolens notes on Paradise, 408)
Second: Beatrice corrects Dante’s view that some things were created by an intermediary as well as by God. (an idea from Plato–that souls return to the celestial stars). But Beatrice affirms that this is a denial of the goodness of the body and only elevates the soul. But the “body is good and holy and is to be resurrected, and that a human being is essentially is a union of body and soul.” Augustine reminds us of what Plato said that the body is a trap for the soul. So the idea of the spheres is a separation for Plato. But Beatrice reveals to Dante that all of the souls are in the presence of God … She affirms the truth of the body soul union eternally (Esolen’s notes, 409).
Third: Truth. “Like a beast in it den, we rest in it/ when we have reached it, as we can indeed–if not, our longings would be all in vain.”
“… as a beast is at home in its den, so man is at home in … the truth. In Aristotelian epistomology that just as in other living things there is no desire without an object of that desire, so in man the desire for truth implies the existence of truth. Doubt is a necessary moment in the quest for truth” (Esolen notes, 410).
As Joseph Ratzinger points out doubt goes both ways. What if all I believe is false? What if my unbelief is false? Usually truth is found when one seeks. There is no formula for when a person will understand truth or know truth. Don’t we humans test our beliefs all the time with practice of virtue or vice? Usually finding out the hard way that the aim for good was right and true and good all along. If obedience is coming to terms with the truth, that all that God says is good or what the Bible says is good (revealed word of God) then we should know better. But there is the continual tension of vice and virtue. Testing truth. Seeking the good or seeking sin.
Personally, I believe everyone knows the truth, but darkens their understanding or denies to justify their actions–to follow passions, desires that we distort as being true and good. Maybe I’m wrong.
Dante’s poetry reveals truth and good theology. It is remarkable and good.