The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Dante’s “Birds of God”

Dante’s great value for a modern reader lies in the sheer scope and clarity of his vision. Every spirituality worth a moment’s notice has recognized that the world beyond is larger and richer than this one. But this realization points to a danger: as our awareness of reality expands, our ability to imagine all that exists — in anything but the vaguest terms — is pressed to the limit. The physical world of modern science, like the spiritual world of classical Christianity, dwarfs imagination. However, we cannot entirely ignore modern science and technology, while trying to forget the supernatural is a longstanding pastime of our race. Dante covers everything — the height and depth, the length and width of all spiritual reality, even what exceeds language and conceptualization — with a vigor that vindicates human imagination. And one of the most powerful means he uses to convey what exceeds, even as it sometimes breaks into our dumb human certainties, is his portrayal of angels.

The first mention of angels in the Divine Comedy, for example, stretches our habitual notions of the spirit. Dante tells us that in Limbo there are angels who were neither faithful nor rebellious to God, but stood apart. Contrary to the usual interpretation of this passage, this does not mean that, like a liberal Manhattan couple lazing through the Sunday Times over brunch instead of going to church, these angels had so little interest in God that they could not be said to be for or against Him. It means that it is possible to be unmoved by love at all — love of self or love of God. For Dante, refusing to love is a close to non-existence as an intelligent creature can come.

Real evil is far from insubstantial, so much so that the next time an angel appears in the Comedy (Canto IX), it is to open a path for Dante through the lower parts of Hell. Until then, Dante and Vergil have been meeting familiar excessive and disordered loves: the lustful, the greedy, the wrathful. Now they must move into pure malice. The very sight of such evil can turn men to stone, just like Medusa did in classical mythology. The heavenly messenger who arrives at this juncture begins to show the characteristic signs of Dante’s angels. They are not vague, general, or pretty (no chubby cherubs or playful putti appear anywhere in Dante), but pointed, specific, and — their beauties not withstanding — potent. This angel undoes a knot of evils b introducing divine grace at the very gates of Dis, and then turns, unfazed, back toward heaven, “like one whom other matters concerns instead of the one in front of him.”

This becomes a leitmotif for all Dante’s angels; they are quick and light, never knuckle-dragging Homeric figures as is sometimes the case for Milton’s angels.

Even the evil angels in Hell are not without their own agility, wit and (infernal) grace. In a famous episode (Canto XXVII), for instance, Guido of Montefeltro tells Dante and Vergil how he gave up a life of political treachery, but was recalled from the monastery where he was doing penance by Boniface VIII. The pope asked him how to do one more job — and promised pardon for the sin in advance. Later, after his death, Guido, who had taken the Franciscan habit, was met by Francis of Assisi and about to ascend to heaven when one of the “black cherubim” appeared and said he was being cheated: You cannot be absolved, even by the pope, unless you repent, because the law of contradiction does not allow it. Francis can find no flaw in this logic and the devil takes Guido down with him, driving home a point about the evil one that has as much relevance today as it did in the disputatious Middle Ages: “Perhaps you did not think that I was a logician!”

But the most striking angel in Hell is the bad angel who fell furthest because he began highest: Lucifer. There is nothing of the romantic rebel in Dante’s Satan. He is hideous and, from the heavenly point of view, frozen upside down, his wings flapping vainly and sending out icy blasts that fix him more firmly the more he tries to free himself from the only reality there is.

Dante is pretty battle-hardened from his trip through Hell by the time he reaches the bottom of the universe. (Medieval cosmology put Earth at the bottom of a hierarchy, and Hell even lower, far from the anthropocentric charges of modern misinterpretations.) But he describes a feeling on seeing ultimate malice that may strike chords of recognition for some readers:

I did not die, and did not remain alive;
think now yourself, if you have flower of genius,
what I then became, stripped of both death and life.

And yet, it is only after hitting bottom, as many have learned throughout human history, that the ascent via purgatory to heaven can begin.

Angels facilitate this process all the way, since no one achieves beatitude by his own efforts. Even Francis of Assisi is described by Dante as having been sealed with the stigmata by one of the “birds of God.” In fact, according to Dante the normal way a departed soul begins the trip to Paradise is to be ferried, not by Charon, but by an angel from the gathering place near the mouth of the Tiber to the foot of the mountain of Purgatory. All the angels from this point on are splendid, but even by that standard the angelic ferryman is remarkable. Vergil notes the flash of light as the angelic boat speeds over the waves toward them, then tells Dante:

Look how he disdains to use mere human means
such that he needs not oars nor other sails
than his own wings between such distant shores.
See how he holds them straight up toward heaven
drawing through the air with everlasting plumes
that never molt as mortal plumage does.

And in the subsequent hard mountain climbing up Purgatory, angels mark and confirm Dante’s progress toward virtue and freedom.

After the horrors of this century, Dante’s Hell and, to a lesser extent, his Purgatory are at least symbolically intelligible to anyone who has thought deeply about moral depravity and potential regeneration. But Paradise is another kettle of fish. Even Dante suggests at the beginning of his poem that he thought approaching Paradise easy until Vergil led him to the much tougher, but only available route down through Hell and up the sharp slope of Purgatory.

This is a lesson we might well relearn. The artificial paradises of technology, drugs, sex, psychotherapy, political revolution, personal liberation, self-esteem workshops, assertiveness training, aerobics, human-potential movements, and a host of other current nostrums, look sad and silly to a mature spirit. With just about everyone offering some kind of salvation, hope of the true paradise, obscure in every age owing to sin and death, seems more implausible than ever, even to the believer. A proper nonbeliever in this century usually feels, as George Orwell did, that the Christian Heaven is “a choir practice in a jeweler’s shop.”

Yet the impression we get in Dante’s Paradise is not one of childish fascination with gems and light and organ music. It is rather a child-like glee in the brightness and color and sound of even our humblest inanimate fellow creatures. The angels in Dante’s paradise are like stewards, musicians, and guests at the most perfect and exalted wedding feast, where everyone is cheered with good food and wine, and the singing and dancing never stop or tire, even when they go on and on in a circle forever. To understand this realm we need not the stern Puritanism of Orwell, but the perpetual joy of Chesterton, who reminded us that the sun, like a child, rises in ecstasy to perform the same task every day.

Christians usually take non-Christians to task for failing to admit the possibility of superhuman fulfillment, sometimes quite rightly. But that vision is not easy to reach or keep in this life, and all candid Christians know it. Perhaps Charles Péguy put it best for our time a few days before his death:

We enter here . . . into an unknown realm, into a foreign realm, the realm of joy. A hundred times less known, a hundred times more foreign, a hundred times less ourselves, than the kingdoms of sorrow. A hundred times more profound, I believe, and a hundred times more fecund. Happy the man who may one day have some idea of it.

Dante and all medieval philosophy were quite aware of this difficulty, which modern Christians wish to pass over easily without having to wait for true grace. At the outset of his Paradise, Dante warns that everything to follow — angels, saints, rivers of light, the mystical rose, the Beatific Vision of Man-God — only anticipates a reality that exceeds language and thought far more than any postmodern metatheorist has ever dreamed:

“Transhumanize” — it cannot be explained
per verba, so let this example serve
until God’s grace grants the experience.

But even more, it first requires an openness on our part to the possibility. Thus, the angel Gabriel and Mary are paired in the highest beauty near the end of Paradiso precisely because the hearer and the messenger correspond to everything that we are spiritually capable of in this life. Saint Bernard describes Gabriel:

All exaltation and graciousness, as much as soul or angel can contain is in him, and we all would have it thus.

This vision of glory does not reduce to a glow and a blur as in many weakly imagined contemporary theologies. In Dante, the angels and saints in Heaven are more distinctly themselves in their docile reflection of the light of God Himself. The angels, who medieval angelology thought were so unique that each one constituted an entire species, attain higher individuation even when they are all dancing, like children in a circle:

and all around that center, wings outstretched 
   I saw more than a thousand festive angels, 
 each one distinct in brilliance and in art.

The great 20th-century Italian philosopher and aesthetician Benedetto Croce, reflecting something deep in the spiritual movement of the past few centuries, thought all this description encumbered Dante’s ultimate vision. In Croce’s aesthetic, Dante should have written a soaring, brief lyric to suggest what Paradise felt like. But Dante belonged to a more sober and realistic tradition than modern Hegelianism. There is no upward movement through opposites combining and disappearing into “higher” syntheses here. In Dante’s Heaven, there will be stronger identity and sharper distinction absolutely simultaneous with ultimate harmony and unbreakable unity. Compared with that, the dialectic looks like a lumbering, early steam locomotive alongside the sinuous and flashing flanks of Pegasus.

All this is no doubt a medieval embarrassment, even to the postmodern Christian who is usually convinced both that the spiritual needs to become virtually indistinguishable from everydayness and that paradise, if it exists, will simply be unlike anything we know. Some future intellectual antiquarian will have to explain why the 20th century tried to make God a subdivision of this world, and push the transcendence of the next world beyond all human relation. That investigator will no doubt still be reading Dante, who thought, with all Christendom before us, that unexpected beings sometimes visit our world and that the next world will be like this one, only more so than most of us can imagine.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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