Heavenly Host

This article is part of a series on Italian Renaissance Literature. See also:

  1. Bocaccio: Youthful Idyllic Escape
  2. Petrarch: The Troubled Wanderer
  3. Dante: Heavenly Host

Dante’s 1320 Divine Comedy is perhaps most known for its Inferno — the first among three parts — in which Dante’s self-styled Pilgrim is led, by Virgil, through Hell’s concentric rings. Each ring contains souls given a particular penance suited to a particular sin. These crime-punishment pairs range from the comical to the poignant. In the fourth circle of Hell, two screaming groups — the Prodigal (“why hoard?”) and the Miserly (“why waste?”) — roll massive weights towards each other, until the balls smash into one another and the groups turn around and start once again. [1] In the barren forest of suicides — those who commit suicide are deprived even of their body in Hell — the Pilgrim, puzzled, breaks a twig off a nearby tree. To his horror, blood begins to ooze from the broken branch. A voice emerges: “Why are you tearing me?” [1]

Here, though, I’ll study not Dante’s Inferno or Purgatory but rather his Paradise. In Paradise, Dante is led by Beatrice — the heavenly instantiation of his earthly love, whom he was to meet only twice in his life, for the first time at the age of nine — through Heaven’s concentric spheres. Dante follows Beatrice through a world of unimaginable religious splendor — towards a place where “where joy becomes one with eternity.” (Paradise X.148) [1]

A depiction of angels by Italian Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forlì. [6]

Depictions of angels by the Italian Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forlì. [6]

Deeply woven alongside this depiction of heavenly beauty, however, is Dante’s depiction of Beatrice’s female beauty, which, in fact, “becomes more radiant with every step / of the eternal palace that we climb” (Paradise XXI.7-9) [1]. The religious and romantic are inseparable. This adroit act by Dante gives Paradise much of its power. It also informs deep philosophical questions about the nature of religious love.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” — Matthew 22:37-38.

C. D. C. Reeve, a philosopher, isn’t quite comfortable with the idea of religious love. God’s omniscience seems to make Him somewhat intrusive, for one, requiring Him “to spy on our secret thoughts and watch us even in our most private moments. And it is hard, isn’t it,” Reeve writes, “to love someone so insistently intrusive, so disrespectful of our privacy?” God also seems cruel, delivering “infinite punishments in Hell for finite crimes,” crimes which, further yet, might not seem like such (e.g., homosexuality). And if love confers benefit upon the loved, how are we supposed to love God, who cannot improve? “Finally, there is the problem of evil,” Reeve adds, referring to the troubling presence of apparently evil acts. “No need to rehash this at any length.” [2]

Reeve — a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose freshman philosophy course changed my life — writes extensively about these two commandments in his book Love’s Confusions. The toughest problem is one of volition. “We can’t love or stop loving because we are told to or because we want or will to,” he observes. “Where, then, we might wonder, will we find the love we need to obey the second commandment?” [2]

The traditional solution, Reeve explains, is to refine our definition of love. The above remarks stem from a mistaken understanding of the love at hand as romantic love, or Eros. Matthew’s decree, though, concerns Agape, a rather different sort of overarching loving kindness. Agape is more compatible with the larger scope presented by of God and mankind. We can and must feel Agape towards all of our neighbors, not because of their particular characteristics, but simply because they are spiritual beings. “So when we see each other accurately,” Reeve summarizes, “we are bound—provided we do love God—to love each other too.” [2] Moreover, Eros, because it’s person-specific, cannot be imposed as a duty, while Agape, because of its generality, can.

Yet even these solutions leave Reeve somewhat unsatisfied. What if even Agape fails to arrive when summoned? It’s worthwhile to recall Ivan, from The Brothers Karamazov: “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance… For any one to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.” [3] Reeve points out something else, which is the apparent watered-down dilution of it all. “[T]he increase in fundamentality seems offset by a decrease in specificity,” he writes. At one point, Reeve nears giving up: “it is tempting to abandon the idea altogether as religious confusion.” [2]

It seems to me that some of the ideas implicit in Dante’s Paradise — in particular, those unifying love for Beatrice with love for God — can help us approach the issues identified by Reeve. In Paradise, Beatrice’s significance is demonstrated early on by Dante’s designation of her as his guide through heaven. As the pair travels through the successively holier heavenly spheres — each trip involves the pair ethereally soaring skyward, as Beatrice “turn[s] her gaze up toward the heavens” (Paradise I.142) [1] — Beatrice becomes also successively more beautiful, so explicitly so that by their entry to the seventh sphere

She was not smiling, but, “Were I to smile,”
__she said to me, “what Semele became
__you would become, burned to a heap of ashes.”
(Paradise XXI.4-6)

The identification of the religious and romantic is achieved through many methods, both explicit and implicit. Dante uses similar language to describe both, and more than once insinuates comparison:

No mortal heart was ever more disposed
__to do devotion and to yield itself
__to God so fully and so readily
than mine was at her words. So totally
__did I direct all of my love to Him,
__that Beatrice, eclipsed, had left my mind.
(Paradise X.55-60)

Dante also writes:

This music raised my soul to heights of love:
__until that moment nothing had existed
__that ever bound my soul in such sweet chains–
but this, perhaps, may seem too rash a statement,
__forgetting, as it were, those lovely eyes,
__the source of bliss in which my gaze find rest…
(Paradise XIV.127-132)


for the Eternal Joy was shining straight
__into my Beatrice’s face, and back
__came its reflection filling me with joy…
(Paradise XVIII.16-18)

Dante’s equation of religious and romantic love can tell us a few things. I think our search for religious love will be more successful if we begin to anticipate rather a form of it which more closely resembles romantic love. The division between the two loves must be closed once again.

For one, religious love should have subjective characteristics similar to those of romantic love. Religious love should involve feelings of glowing, uncontainable happiness, feelings of purpose and light. It should come from feelings of real inspiration, from unexpected wonder and joy inspired by the world. It’s less likely to come from abstract and universal intellectual ruminations. It’s hard to extract vivid characteristics like these from the pallid face of Agape.

Religious love can be inspired by various sources “in the world”.

Music can be effective for this task, and we should point out Dante’s depiction of the fascinating music of the spheres, ever-present among heaven’s layers (and also ever expanding as one goes higher): “so I was witness to that glorious wheel / moving and playing voice on voice in concord / with sweetness, harmony unknown, save there // where joy becomes one with eternity.” (Paradise X.145-148) [1].

Natural beauty can also inspire. Ivan Turgenev seemed to understand this — though Dostoevsky once cuttingly labeled him an “atheist” [4] — in view of Turgenev’s depictions of nature in A Sportsman’s Sketches:

A marvellously sweet occupation it is to lie on one’s back in a wood and gaze upwards! You may fancy you are looking into a bottomless sea; that it stretches wide below you; that the trees are not rising out of the earth, but, like the roots of gigantic weeds, are dropping—falling straight down into those glassy, limpid depths; the leaves on the trees are at one moment transparent as emeralds, the next, they condense into golden, almost black green. … and suddenly, all this ocean, this shining ether, these branches and leaves steeped in sunlight—all is rippling, quivering in fleeting brilliance, and a fresh trembling whisper awakens like the tiny, incessant plash of suddenly stirred eddies. One does not move—one looks, and no word can tell what peace, what joy, what sweetness reigns in the heart. … and draws one with it up into that peaceful, shining immensity, and that one cannot be brought back from that height, that depth… [5]

Romantic love, of course, can be another inspiration.

It should be made clear that religious love, as I’ve here understood it, is separate from and above all of these other forms of “earthly” inspiration. It’s merely related to them, in the sense that it shares with them certain subjective characteristics (see above), as well as in the sense that it must be the result of sudden inspiration arising from the earthly world one lives in. Dante’s service to us is to make these facts clear through the device of his heavenly guide, Beatrice.

We won’t always experience this sort of inspired emotional religious love. In fact, it (like other forms of inspiration) typically appears only rarely. This is precisely the point; or, rather, it’s an unavoidable part of the problem. By trying to make religious love universal — by introducing Agape — we water it down. Dante — after all — had to (quite literally) go through Hell to earn religious love. Beatrice tells a procession of heavenly elders:

To such depths did he sink that, finally,
__there was no other way to save his soul
__except to have him see the Damned in Hell.
(Purgatory XXX.136-138)

The difficulties Reeve identifies, then, really aren’t resolved by a switch to all-consuming Agape. Reeve feared as much. The problem of volition in religious love is not to be circumvented, but accepted with regret. Inspiration is tough to find.

Works like Dante’s, though, can help remind us where to look, and remind us that passionate religious love can yet be found. What does it look like?

It looks a lot like how Dante feels for his Beatrice.

  1. The Divine Comedy in the Musa translation. This translation, for me, was by far the most vivid. A few other translations, which seem to me much more obtuse, are available online.
  2. Reeve’s Love’s Confusions.
  3. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
  4. From Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky.
  5. Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, Vol. 1.
  6. Artstor’s Melozzo repository.

One comment on “Heavenly Host

  1. Ben says:

    Uniting religious and romantic love “from the other end”, Plato describes the idea of beauty in terms which evoke religious feeling. Here, Reeve quotes from Plato’s description of the Platonic form of beauty:

    “You and many another are ready to gaze on those you love and dwell with them forever, if somehow it were possible, not to eat or drink but only to watch and be with them. What then do we suppose it would be like . . . if it were possible for someone to see the beautiful itself, pure, unalloyed, unmixed, not full of human flesh and colors, and the many other kinds of nonsense that attach to mortality, but if he could behold the divine beauty itself that is single in nature? Do you think it a worthless life . . . for a man to look there and contemplate that with that by which one must contemplate it, and to be with it? Or are you not convinced . . . that there alone it will befall him, in seeing the beautiful with that by which it is visible, to beget, not an image of virtue, because he doesn’t touch an image, but true virtue, because he touches what’s true? But in begetting true virtue and nurturing it, it is given to him to become god-beloved, and if any other among men is immortal, he is too.”

    I’m trying, through all this, to make the point that these two are similar.

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