Academic journal article Medium Aevum

God So Loves the Soul: Intellections of Immortality in Dante

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

God So Loves the Soul: Intellections of Immortality in Dante

Article excerpt

'Et vitam venturi saeculi': 'And the life everlasting'. It seems appropriate to begin with the closing words of the Nicene Creed, which all Christians profess to believe. And for Dante, of course, the life everlasting is a sine qua non for his poem: as he tells us in the Can Grande Letter, the subject of the Commedia is in one sense simply the 'status animarum post mortem' ('the condition of souls after death').1 That Dante believed in the human soul's immortality is undeniable and entirely to be expected, then. Back in 1938 Nardi had remarked: 'Puo sembrare superflue chiedersi, se 1'autore di un poema che si svolge da principio alla fine nei tre regni dell' oltretomba, credesse nell' immortalità dell' anima.'2 But of course, given that starting point, there is more to be investigated, and Nardi, Gilson, and some decades later Foster and Boyde, studied Dante's psychology (that, is his views on the human soul, not least the fundamental question of its immortality) from the point of view of doctrinal history.3 Here, as in other areas of Dante's thought, they emphasized (Nardi more strongly than the others) his divergences from Aquinas. This involved a close consideration of arguments (or what seem to be arguments) used in support of immortality, particularly in Convivio n.viii and Paradise vu. Anyone studying Dante's thinking about the soul must take fully into account what has been established by these scholars. Having said that, it seems to me that these matters merit revisiting with a view to focusing on the precise relation between the soul and its creator, for there, rather than in the context of thirteenthcentury Aristotelian controversies, is to be found what is most distinctive in Dante's understanding of our ultimate destiny. There is some dephilosophizing and re-theologizing to be done here.

Before looking in detail at Dante's evidence ('proofs' will turn out not to be the best word) a further dimension needs to be brought in. This is the fact that Dante did not merely believe in the afterlife; he also felt passionately about it. Tn the Convivio he denounces those who deny it with a vehemence surpassed (in this work) only by the contempt reserved for those with a wrong view of nobility,4 one of several distinct errors, all of them quite unacceptable, on that matter. In Foster's words: 'the suggestion that the soul might not, after all, survive the body was emotionally, as well as rationally and religiously, intolerable to him; it struck him at the heart. The idea that there might not after all be an eternity for his soul was perhaps of all ideas the one he was least able to discuss calmly. When he turns to it in the Convivio how quickly the sparks fly!'5 Dante in fact says: 'Dico che intra tutte le bestialitadi quella è stoltissima, vilissima e dannosissima, chi crede dopo questa vita non essere altra vita' (Convivio, 11.viii.8). This, then, is a most heinous error: not only exceedingly foolish, contemptible, and ruinous, but downright bestial, subhuman - in the sense of being unworthy of human minds.6 That there may be a personal slant to this outspoken language is surely suggested by the fact that Dante has just declared that his 'digressione' on the immortality of the soul in this chapter will be a fitting close to what he has had to say about Beatrice, 'quella viva Beatrice beata, de la quale più parlare in questo libro non intendo per proponimento' (para. 7). Beatrice, now living as one of the blessed, is here intimately associated with the afterlife, as she always is in Dante's writings from the second half of the Vita nuova on. And the Vita nuova, of course, ends tantalizingly with a glimpse of Beatrice's soul in heaven, with Dante's thoughts being drawn up, beyond the outermost celestial sphere, by Love, or more precisely by an 'intelligenza nova' implanted by Love: something new and strange, indeed (VN, XLI). The afterlife, then, quite apart from his belief in it as a Christian, has an especially personal significance for Dante hence Foster's 'that there might not after all be an eternity for his soul'. …

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