The guiding theme of our book can be stated in a series of questions. First, what understanding of human being has shaped the various epochs in the history of the West? In particular, how did the various accounts of human being understand what it is to be us in relation to what we experience to be greater than ourselves, or outside of us, or beyond us; in relation, in short, to what we have held sacred in our various ways. Second, how did these understandings of human being, and of the sacred, work in history to keep the problem of nihilism at bay? And finally, is there anything we can take from these various understandings to organize our own response to the nihilism of our secular age?
These are the questions that direct a phenomenological, rather than humanist or Hegelian, reading of the history of the West. A phenomenological account of this sort focuses on the way people experienced themselves and the sacred – on their phenomenology – rather than on the rational conceptions they had of themselves and their world. It sees in our history not unidirectional progress – neither forward nor backwards – but a series of different paradigms of cultural practice each of which highlights some aspects of human experience and covers up others. In our reading of the great texts that focused the epochs of our history we ought, then, to look for whatever it was about those epochs that allowed them to avoid the problems we have, and yet that led to our problems nevertheless.
We begin this chapter with Dante Alighieri, the pinnacle of and paradigm for the High Middle Ages. Perhaps the central feature of Dante’s world is his sense that the Universe is created by God, and therefore that its moral and spiritual meaning is written on its face. Medieval Christendom, in other words, was a world in which absolutely everything had its place. This is about as anti-nihilistic a universe as one can imagine. Far from their being no intrinsic meanings, the medieval world is absolutely replete with them. So one question to ask ourselves is: are there experiences at the margins of our own world that reflect the anti-nihilistic aspect of this medieval understanding?
The medieval understanding of Creation is no longer accessible to the West in its original form. Even most believing Christians don’t understand our world today as a created world in which every aspect of the universe has a God-given meaning and value that it wears on its face. Still, Dante’s general idea, that we are free to retrain our desires so that they are directed toward what ultimately sustains and fulfills them – so that they become attuned, in other words, to the meanings that are already out there in the world – this idea will turn out to be an important clue for our nihilistic age.
As we follow the stages by which our culture lost touch with the gods, and so with all mattering and meaning, Dante will have several other important insights for us as well. He will offer a warning about the attraction of hell that we have yet to heed; he will disclose a promising possibility about how to find meaning in our earthly lives, though he himself finally failed to appreciate this possibility; and he will give a stunning demonstration of how in the end the Greek understanding of reality undermines the Judeo-Christian revelation it was introduced to articulate.
Christianity was very radical indeed, and it needed a lot of articulating. For almost 1000 years the Western world had tried to articulate Christianity in Platonic Greek terms: it had tried, in other words, to give a central place to an incarnate god while at the same time accepting Plato’s adoration of an abstract eternity and his resulting denigration of the body. Then, a surprising breakthrough occurred. A bunch of lecture notes that had been decaying in a cellar for years were rediscovered, translated into Arabic, and eventually translated into Latin and brought to the West.
The author, Aristotle, turned out to be a brilliant critic of Plato’s philosophy. He held that enduring, material things like trees and tables – not eternal, abstract ideas as in Plato – were the most real. He also contended that being embodied was not enfeebling or humiliating, as Plato and Augustine had held. Rather, bodies were empowering, according to Aristotle; indeed, embodied individuals were more perfect than disembodied souls.
Christian philosophers and theologians soon recognized that Aristotle rather than Plato was their man. They devoted themselves to making Christianity intelligible in Aristotelian terms. Greatest among these articulators was St. Thomas Aquinas who lived from 1225 until 1274, and who took on the huge task of writing a Summa Theologica, which reconciled the Greek and Christian understandings of reality. And the great popularizer of St. Thomas’ theology was Dante Alighieri, who lived a generation after St. Thomas.
Dante laid out Thomas’ achievement in a poem he called The Comedy. It was written in the vernacular Italian instead of the scholarly Latin, and it focused and held up to the people of the day their medieval understanding of everything that is. In this way it was a work of art that functioned like a god. In his “Historical Introduction” to The Inferno Archibald T. MacAllister writes that
before [Dante's] death in 1321 the first two parts [of The Comedy] had already … achieved a reputation tinged with supernatural awe.”i No wonder that by the 16th century, Dante’s poem was recognized as sacred and thereafter called The Divine Comedy.
Aristotle held that the world is hierarchically organized. That means not only that it is unified, but also that things are ranked within it with respect to how perfect they are. At the top of all this order is a being Aristotle called The Prime Mover. The Prime Mover draws all beings to itself thanks to its perfection.
According to Aristotle, the hierarchical order is primarily manifest in the natural world. But the idea of a hierarchical universe in which everything has its place fit well with the Judeo-Christian belief in a creator God. In the Medieval world everything from lead to gold, from mice to elephants, and from sinners to saints is ranked. Even each type of sin is ranked. As Dante descends into Hell in the first part of The Divine Comedy, each type of sinful life he sees is worse than the one above it. Indeed, even the saints are ranked! In the final part of the poem, as Dante is drawn upwards towards Paradise, the saints he meets are more and more saintly. One could call this monolithic monotheism. There is no place for the poly-worlds of Homer or for tragically conflicting situations of Aeschylus at all.
Dante popularized St. Thomas’ metaphysics and theology in his famous poem, but his initial motivation was much simpler than that. At the age of nine he had met an eight-year old girl in Florence named Beatrice Portinari. He fell in love with her “at first sight”. From that moment Dante took Beatrice to be his Lady, and he vowed to write a poem about her like nobody had ever written for his Lady before.
And he did.
The Divine Comedy is set in 1300, when Dante is thirty-five years old. He has gone “astray / from the straight road”, he writes in the famous opening lines of the poem, and “woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” We know nothing of how Dante has gone astray, only that he has; and that he must undertake a journey, therefore, to save his soul. The journey itself, however, is clearer. It will take him through the entire Christian spiritual universe. First Dante must walk down through Hell itself, where he will see every type of sin that Christianity names, along with the punishments that are fit to each. Next he will ascend the mountain of Purgatory, where he will see the souls of those who sinned but repented, and the process of purification they must undergo. And finally, in Paradise, he will see the various types of saintly souls, and the increasingly blissful states they can achieve. In this way Dante will gain an understanding of precisely what a worthy life consists in, and what the various ways of failing to achieve it are.
Along this journey Dante will have two guides. Through Hell and Purgatory the great Roman poet Virgil will lead the way. Virgil is a peculiar choice to guide Dante through the Christian universe. After all, he died before Jesus was born. Indeed, there are interesting ways in which Virgil’s Roman Stoic philosophy leads him to misunderstand what matters in the Christian world. Finally, though, Virgil’s understanding gives out altogether, since Reason alone is not capable of comprehending Christian love. This is when Dante’s second guide appears. As he ascends through the various levels of Paradise, his Lady Beatrice leads the way. In real life Beatrice had died ten years before. Dante fulfills his vow to her not only by giving her an eternal place in Paradise, but also by giving her the job of leading him to God, and thereby being the salvation of his soul. As we will see, it is traditionally the job of Jesus to stand as mediator between man and God, and it is about as amazing a testament as possible in the Christian world to put Beatrice in that exalted place. Before we get to that, however, we must see what happens in Dante’s Hell.
The Gates of Hell through which Dante and Virgil pass are inscribed with a dedicatory poem that ends in the famous line: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”ii Hell is a place from which one never leaves.
Hell is preserved not only for those who have sinned but also for those who had the misfortune to live before or otherwise outside the influence of Christ. Of the nine circles in Hell, the first and least severe by far is the first circle, called Limbo, which is reserved for the virtuous pagans and unbaptized children. In Limbo Virgil finds his eternal home, along with the other great figures of the Classical and Old Testament Worlds: the poets like Homer and Ovid, the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and originally at least, the Hebrews like Abraham, Noah, and David. These virtuous pagans never had a chance to be Christians, so the lives they lived were the best one could manage under the circumstances. In Limbo they continue their virtuous lives, acting with moderation and dignity. But they can sense that they are missing something. As Virgil says, they are spared the suffering of Hell except for one affliction: “that without hope we live on in desire.”iii Sighing fills the air of Limbo, as the virtuous pagans sense the absence of something they cannot quite understand or articulate. In Dante’s Christian world to be a human being of any epoch is to have been created by God to need total fulfillment. But God’s universe offers that fulfillment only if one gets in the right relation to it by catching the Christian mood of agape love. The problem is that nobody knew this until Jesus came along and showed it, so the noble souls in Limbo have missed their chance.
In the next four circles of Hell a variety of sinful souls are described: lustful, gluttonous, avaricious, and wrathful souls, among many others. Unlike the souls in Limbo, these are Christians who have gone astray. Without going into the details, it is worth pointing out only that their sins all have a certain structural similarity: they loved something that was not sufficient to fulfill their desires. The lustful, for example, loved the carnal delight of sex – they “sinned in the flesh.”iv Among these Dante counts not only Paolo and Francesca, whom we met in Chapter 1, but also Cleopatra, Tristan, and of course Helen and Paris. (Notice how different Dante’s interpretation of Helen is, compared with Homer’s.) The sin of these souls was to have wasted all their love on something that couldn’t in the end offer spiritual fulfillment.
Without considering yet Dante’s positive alternative, one can see what he thinks is wrong with lives like these. The way Dante understands them they are various kinds of sex and love addicts. (Or they are addicted to food, or money, or even their own anger.) The structure of addictions like these is uniquely unfulfilling. Consider it on analogy with an addiction to cigarettes. The addict keeps coming back for more of the thing that they think will fulfill them, make them happy, or give their lives meaning. It looks desirable to them, and therefore it looks like it will satisfy their desires to have it. But in fact it’s the wrong kind of thing to give them fulfillment. When they’ve finished one cigarette, therefore, they discover that it hasn’t made them feel better after all, but has only left them with a craving for more. Ultimately they never get anything but the desire for more of the unfulfilling thing, a desire that when satisfied leaves them just as unfulfilled as when they began.
Dante is certainly right that a life devoted to this kind of addiction is to be avoided. But his Aristotelian picture gives him a particular analysis of the case. On Dante’s view God’s perfection, like the perfection of the Prime Mover in Aristotle, draws everything to him. Human beings, in particular, are to be fulfilled by love of God. Therefore, there is only one right and truly fulfilling object of one’s love – namely God – and to let your love be averted from Him to some other object as if it could be fulfilling, just is to have lived an unworthy life. It is a real question, though, whether love of anything earthly – even love of his Lady Beatrice – is guaranteed to be ultimately unfulfilling. Dante thinks that is the right account of human existence, but we will have to see whether he is right.
Whether it is possible to gain fulfillment through commitment to another person or not, the souls deeper down in Hell have got a different problem. After the fifth circle there is an enormous wall that separates upper from lower Hell. Within the wall is Hell proper, what Dante calls the City of Dis. (Dis is the Roman name for Hades.) In order to get to the bottom of Hell, and from there out to Purgatory and then Paradise, Dante and Virgil will have to enter the City of Dis.
Here is where Virgil’s non-Christian background becomes a problem. In his capacity as tour guide, Virgil marches off to demand entrance through the imposing city gate. “Take heart,” he tells his fearful guest.
Nothing can take our passage from us
when such a power has given warrant for it.v
When he reaches the gate, however, and presumably demands access in the name of God, the group of guards at the gate run away and quickly slam the door in his face: “I couldn’t hear my Lord’s words,” Dante reports of the scene,
but the pack that gathered round him suddenly broke away howling and … slamming the towering gate hard in hard face.”vi Virgil is stunned. “Who has forbidden me the halls of sorrow?” he wonders.vii And the reader too must wonder what has gone wrong. The problem is that Virgil misunderstands the spiritual layout of Hell. He thinks that the lowest circles of Hell must be like a sturdy prison built to keep the worst offenders in. After all, that is certainly what Hell would be like in the Roman world. And indeed, he says at one point in describing the souls of Dis, “I will explain how each is prisoned, and why.”viii But the City of Dis is not a prison to keep the most sinful souls in; it is a fortress built to keep God out. Dante, the Christian, understands this immediately. He talks about how he was
…eager to learn what new estate
of Hell those burning fortress walls enclosed.ix
The reason the City of Dis is a fortress instead of a prison is that the souls who live within it have not just turned their love towards something less fulfilling than God; instead, they have actively rejected Him. Saint Thomas distinguishes between carnal sin and spiritual sin, and that distinction is mirrored in the geography of Dante’s Hell. Carnal sin is loving good things such as food, sex, and materials goods, but loving them too much. Such over evaluation is punished outside the wall of Dis. Spiritual sin, by contrast, is rejecting God’s creation. The spiritual sinners have barricaded themselves inside the wall of the City of Dis, and they are punished there.
But why would anybody rebel against God? We can learn from Milton’s Paradise Lost. There, Satan says he “would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He resents being created by God so that he, Satan, can find peace and fulfillment only in contemplating Him. He wants to make up his own mind about what to worship. Likewise, Dante’s Satan, and the rebellious angels who follow him and defend the wall of the City of Dis, are dedicated to freely choosing what satisfies them. They reject God’s creation so as to give their own meaning and value to things. Thus the sinners inside the City of Dis substitute for natural attractions willfully and actively chosen ones. For example, in Hell Dante finds the homosexuals who cruise in packs. In Dante’s world this is a rebellious rejection of a natural desire for monogamous heterosexual love.x An even more serious sin is the rejection of life itself, so suicides are punished even deeper inside the City of Dis.
As we shall soon see, the further Dante goes down in Hell the less open the shades become to the attractiveness and fulfillment offered by things created by God’s love. Likewise, the more they become closed in on themselves. Moreover, the further away from God the shades are, the less moved they are by his love. As a result, they become more and more immobilized. At the bottom of Hell the most serious sinners are literally frozen in a pool of ice. They can’t move at all because they were unmoved by anything in God’s creation. Milton’s Protestant Hell is hot all the way down; and we are used to an active, interventionist Satan at the head of armies of fallen angels. But Dante’s Satan is so self-sufficient that he is not drawn to do anything. He is almost completely immobilized in the ice at the bottom of Hell. All he can do is flap his wings, and indeed it is thanks to his flapping that Hell freezes over.xi The Enlightenment admired all ways of life that strove for independence, so they praised the self-sufficiency that gave itself its own laws as autonomy. For the Medievals, however, such self-exclusion from bliss in order to save one’s autonomy was the very essence of sin. Dante can thus be read as warning his contemporaries about the evils of autonomy. That warning could include those of our contemporaries who are tempted by Nietzschian willfulness such as David Foster Wallace. In a creation that draws us towards what is fulfilling, the attempt to set up one's own values and assign one’s own meaning to things rather than cultivate their latent meaning can lead to a sad sort of nihilism where nothing moves one in any way at all.
If Dante is against the kind of willful autonomy found in the City of Dis, then how can he have any notion of freedom of the will at all? Dante needs a place for free will in his system, for otherwise there wouldn’t be any sense in the idea that souls are punished for bad lives and rewarded for good ones. If your free will ultimately has nothing to do with the kind of life you lived—if that life was pre-ordained and there was nothing you could have done about it—then what sense does it make to reward or punish you for the life you lived?
Dante does, indeed, have a place for free will in his system, but it’s not the kind of free will we’re used to. For one thing, freedom in Dante lies not in your ability to choose which life you’re going to live or what actions you’re going to perform, as we might imagine. In particular, it doesn’t involve the freedom from some kind of external constraint upon your action. That’s the kind of freedom that most naturally goes against a notion of determinism, and it’s the kind of freedom we worry about most. But it’s not at all what Dante has in mind.
Rather, freedom according to Dante consists in being free to retrain your desires so that they are directed towards the things that are ultimately capable of sustaining and fulfilling them. In Dante’s view the job of training one’s desires lies principally with the State and the Church, and the problem with the modern world is that the State and the Church have failed to do their job.xii Indeed, if we were raised properly and had the right kinds of desires then each of us would go straight to God like an arrow shot from a bow.xiii But even in Dante’s world, when the Church and State are failing to train us properly, we have the freedom to retrain ourselves on our own if we so desire. That is the phenomenon described in detail in Dante’s account of Purgatory.
Dante’s overall view is that the senses, and our desires, are bound by what grabs them, but we have the freedom to form those senses by means of our will and intellect so that the right things grab them. The reforming glutton, for example, can retrain himself in such a way as no longer to see in food the only object worthy of his desire. Those in Purgatory are actively engaged in this type of retraining. The main difference between Hell and Purgatory, then, is that those in Hell embraced their bad desires, while those in Purgatory repented them. The act of repenting is the free act of the will on the basis of which one can be judged. Repentance puts one on the path to salvation, and the “punishment” consists in freely going through the regime of reforming one’s senses and desires so that they are directed in the right way.
All souls are naturally attracted to things in the world, according to Dante. The question is what we are supposed to do about this in living the most worthy life. Two options seem to present themselves. The first says to try to withhold your desire, or even rid yourself of it. The glutton, for example, would simply try to get rid of his desire, as if desire itself were a bad thing. This is a typically Stoic type of approach, and it is the one that Virgil adopts. “Reason must guard the threshold of consent,” he says.xiv The appetites, in other words, are to be kept in check; reason must keep us from giving in to our desires.
Dante has a different, Christian, view. All love is good on Dante’s view as long as it is directed toward an appropriate object in an appropriate way. He counters Virgil’s Stoic view that free will should curb love with the Christian view that free should direct love. Dante thinks that you should intensify your love and be committed to whatever attracts you with total devotion, and then if it fails to satisfy you, you can learn from your mistakes until you finally find someone or something worthy of total passion and commitment. The last thing you should do is cut down your desire. Free will, for Dante, is not the freedom to keep yourself from doing something; it is instead the freedom to train your desires to draw you towards something else. On such a picture so far it looks as if Dante admits a variety of possible desirable things.
At least that’s what it looks like. The question is whether Dante can be consistent in this respect. In particular, the question is whether Dante thinks it is possible to find someone or something here on earth that is worthy of total passion and commitment. To the extent that he cannot, he runs the risk of recapitulating Augustine’s error: of giving an interpretation of Christianity, in other words, that can’t make sense of the embodied, incarnated Christ.
In his poem Dante does not neglect Jesus and seek access to an eternal disembodied God by way of his deepest inner self as did Augustine. Dante was a totally outgoing person deeply involved in the politics of his city of Florence and also totally devoted to the woman who inspired his poem. Happily for him the early Christian mood of total devotion to Jesus had indirectly inspired a group of French poets called Troubadours to develop a new understanding of love. It wasn’t Greek erotic desire,but it wasn’t Christian overflowing agape either. It was a new mood that came to be called courtly love. This new kind of love involved total devotion to some special person who became the center of your life. Indeed, in the Troubadour tradition your beloved actually gives you your identity. You understand who you are entirely in relation to her, and therefore you are ready to die for her; without her you would cease to exist as the person you are. In short, the Troubadours invented romantic love and Dante was a romantic lover. Beatrice was his Lady.
The depth of Dante’s devotion to Beatrice is signaled in his poem. In the middle of The Divine Comedy, at the top of the mountain of Purgatory, Dante witnesses a beautiful pageant of the books of the Bible; the pageant portrays the history of the church. In the middle of the pageant a cart arrives pulled by a griffin. The griffin is a traditional symbol for Jesus: as a beast with two natures it mirrors Him who was both man and God. The procession comes to a halt, and the cart stops just in front of Dante. In the cart he notices a hooded figure. The imagery is clear so far: something is happening which is the culmination of the history of the church. It becomes clearer still: angels come flying overhead singing, “Blessed is he who comes.” We are fully prepared for the hood to pull back and the figure of Jesus Christ appear. But here is where Dante pulls his most audacious trick. For the figure in the cart isn’t Jesus, it turns out. Instead he has put his girlfriend in Jesus’ place! Dante has put Beatrice literally in the role of Christ. He has, indeed, written a poem about his beloved that glorifies her more than any poet before him has ever exalted his lady.
There is something phenomenologically plausible about this as well. The phenomenon here is that there can be a love that draws one to a particular other human being as the center of one’s world. If one is lucky enough to find such a love, then everything in one’s life makes sense in relation to her, and the sense it all makes is shining and glorious and completely satisfying. One understands oneself completely and happily in terms of the definition this love gives to one’s life.
If this is the experience Dante had, then it is not crazy for him to see Beatrice in the role of Christ the Savior when he sees her in the pageant at the top of Purgatory. The feeling of romantic love for another is not so far, after all, from the various forms of the sacred that we have seen so far. For one thing, it is not a feeling that one can choose willfully. Like being guided by Athena or catching the contagious mood of agape in the presence of Jesus, romantic love too is something that strikes one, takes one over. Furthermore, it demands a sense of gratitude in its presence. Finally, one understands exactly how to act on the basis of it. Romantic love gives one a kind of attunement to the situation that makes everything matter in its appropriate degree. If Dante had stopped with Beatrice at the top of Purgatory, therefore, he’d have described a completely livable world that had the chance of bringing joy and meaning to his life.
Moreover, the kind of devotion that he has to Beatrice is devotion to her as a physical, embodied being. He talks about her beautiful green eyes, her lovely mouth, and especially her legs, in characterizing to total devotion he feels. In this way Dante captures an essential part of the Christian intuition that the saving mood is one that happens in the physical, embodied world. If he finds his fulfillment in his commitment to Beatrice, then he has found a way to resist the Augustinian mistake of trying to interpret Christianity in a completely abstract and disembodied way. This is the moment when Dante has the chance to give an interpretation of Christianity that frees it from the Greek abstractions with which it is incompatible.
Unfortunately, that is not the path Dante takes. The West will have to wait another five hundred years before Søren Kierkegaard develops the view Dante could have had. In Dante’s case, however, although Beatrice does play the role of guiding him through Paradise, at least until one of the very final circles, Dante’s existence does not end up getting its meaning through his commitment to her. Rather, having guided Dante through the circles of Heaven, Beatrice returns to her seat in the rose in which the saved souls sit when contemplating God. Having placed her in the position of Savior, having put her in the place of the one who is the truth and the way, Dante then turns her into a stepping-stone, a ladder he later can toss away after he climbs it. For Beatrice herself is not the ultimate object of love in Dante’s final picture.xv Rather, she is the way but not the truth.
When Beatrice returns to her seat, Dante can see her high up in the rose, right below St. Peter. She gives Dante one last smile, and then turns back to contemplate the radiance of God. Dante reports that: “Experiencing that radiance, it is impossible to think of ever turning from it.”xvi Beatrice does lead Dante finally to achieve a direct contemplation of God. But the bliss of this kind of love is so overwhelming that far from organizing his life and providing the point of all his actions, it takes him out of his life altogether. Instead of returning to politics with renewed vigor, or returning to his life with a sense for how he needs to act in order to live in accordance with his love of Beatrice, Dante seems to lose all sense of who he is or can be as an individual. There is literally nothing that makes him any different from any other person. According to St. Thomas the beatitude caused by the contemplation of this radiance is the ultimate goal of human life. The bliss of contemplating God is so overwhelming, however, that it makes all other earthly joys irrelevant.
So Beatrice is never going to turn back to look at Dante. What had been the most important commitment in his life on earth turns out to be irrelevant to his being fulfilled. In effect, the single most important distinction – the distinction between his love for Beatrice and everything else in his life – gets completely leveled by the bliss of contemplating God.
Similarly, Dante’s commitment to politics ends up looking irrelevant. From his place in Paradise Dante looks back towards the earth and reports: “I saw this globe so lost in space that I had to smile at such a sorry show.”xvii He sees that everything earthly, even politics, is trivial and says: “I saw the dusty little threshing ground that makes us ravenous for our mad sins.”xviii Like his love of Beatrice, everything political that was meaningful in his life has been trumped by God’s radiance. Once Dante sees God, he is never going to turn away from God’s radiance to take sides in politics or to gaze on Beatrice again.
Aristotle’s description of the Prime Mover is that it moves all the other beings by way of the attraction of its perfection. The last lines of The Paradiso describe the Christian version of the Greek Supreme Being taking control of Dante’s desire and will:
… I could feel my being turned … by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars. [Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, line 143-46]
The Dante who, thanks to the Troubadours, found that the most important experience in his life was his love for an individual woman, has been drawn into the circular movement caused by the attraction of The Prime Mover. His individual will along with his love of Beatrice and his political commitments has been overwhelmed by the bliss of contemplating God. One might say Dante has been blissed out. The difference between bliss and joy is that while bliss wipes you out, joy makes you more intensely you. And in Dante's world every joy is meaningless compared to the bliss of the contemplation of God. “Bliss beyond bliss, all others joys transcending,” he says.xix So Dante ends up totally absorbed into the love of the universe for the divine.
But is this really the way to a fulfilled existence? It seems more like the way to avoid a meaningful life rather than the way to attain one. Indeed, it seems like a Medieval form of nihilism; for it says that there is nothing in life that has any meaning whatsoever—even the saving love of Beatrice or Dante’s deep political motivations—compared with the love of God. Indeed, this last move of Dante’s shows that the Greek metaphysics Aquinas is working with actually undermines the agape love we saw in the early Christianity of John and Paul. On the early Christian model one lives in the world with Jesus in you, and that means that you live in the mood of joy not bliss, a mood that guides you to definite and directed action in the world of the Word made Flesh. But in Dante’s final mystical merging there is no place for Jesus as an embodied object of total devotion. Dante’s final experience is merely that God' radiance is “painted with man’s image.”xx Jesus is just a face, on Dante’s view, with no body to hold it up.
We have seen in the Inferno how autonomy leads to an active nihilism where all meaning depends on our meaning-giving and therefore has no authority over us and no power to move us. Now we see that if we try to put the Christian experience of love of an incarnate Jesus into Aristotelian terms we end up with a Supreme Being and a love so overwhelming and passive that it wipes out all individuality and meaningful differences. Dante’s unconditional commitment that has drawn him to Beatrice, and that might have offered him and his Medieval Christian culture a new source of personal meaning, is wiped out by an impersonal, Greek, mystical experience. Indeed, it turns out that what has been called the Medieval Synthesis—Aquinas’s and Dante’s achievement of conceptualizing the Christian revelation in Aristotelian terms—is not the answer to nihilism but part of the problem.
St. Thomas, following Aristotle, claimed that the highest goal in life was contemplating the Prime Mover – renamed The Supreme Being. St. Thomas understood this as the bliss or beatitude of directly contemplating God. But as we have just seen, in Dante’s poem this leaves no place for Jesus and agape love, nor for a community of joyful Christians, nor, indeed, for individual selves.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that Martin Luther, writing a century after. Thomas and Dante, was determined to rescue Christianity from Aristotle and get back to the early Christianity expressed in the letters of Paul. Luther minces no words in stating his disgust at the disastrous influence of Aristotle:
It grieves me to the quick that this damned, conceited, rascally heathen has deluded and made fools of so many of the best Christians with his misleading writings. God has plagued us thus for our sins.xxi And he adds:
The universities need a good, stiff reform… It is my advice that the books of Aristotle, …which have hitherto been esteemed the best, be entirely removed from the curriculum.xxii Luther is thus a decisive break with the attempt to bring together Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian experience. He could be criticizing St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Dante when he says: “It does [the sinner] no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.”xxiii Or more succinctly: “The ‘theologian of glory’ calls the bad good and the good bad. The ‘Theologian of the cross,’ says what a thing is.”xxiv That is, Christians are not called to experience the Greek-type pure presence of the divine, but are called to relate to Jesus, the “Word made Flesh” as described by John and experienced by Paul.
In general, Luther had no use for mystics and monks. Both types were cut off from the world in which, according to Luther, communal joy is the contagious Christian mood - not blessed-out contemplation of God. Luther is adamant that
we … ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christians to one another and Christ may be the same in all that is, that we may be truly Christians.xxv Rather than leaving the world by contemplating god's truth in the depth of the self like Augustine, or by merging with the love moving the whole creation like Dante, the Christian is reborn “a new man in a new world.”xxvi A new world was, indeed, on the horizon. Thanks to Luther the Aristotelian/Thomistic/Dantian theology ceased to hold center stage in our cultural understanding of what it is to be a human being and how to live. The reborn Christian, whose mood is directly shared with Jesus and with all other Christians, does not need the mediation of Popes and priests. According to Luther, every Christian is a Pope and "all they which faithfully believe in Christ are saints."xxvii This is not a way of being a self-sufficient or autonomous being, but it does open the possibility of thinking of oneself as at least self-sufficient vis à vis the church—up to then the most powerful institution in the West. In the new world of the Enlightenment that Luther ushers in, this can come to sound very self-sufficient when he says:
[A] Christian man, if ye define him rightly, is free from all laws, and is not subject unto any creature, either within or without. ... For he hath such a gift, such a treasure in his heart, that although it seemeth to be but little, yet notwithstanding the smallness thereof, is greater than heaven and earth, because Christ, which is this gift, is greater.xxviii Luther’s reformation, and the Protestant Reformation more generally, thus provided a corrective to the medieval passive nihilism of Dante. But its emphasis on individual freedom also prepared the way for the active nihilism associated with the death of God.
Luther’s corrective to medieval nihilism centers around his insistence that God’s love embraces us despite our sins. The mood of Christianity in Luther, therefore, is joy and gratitude.xxix In Luther’s own life this mood gave him a certainty about how to act. This certainty was manifest in his famous statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Certainty about how to act in this world therefore—a certainty for which one would “die a thousand deaths”, as Luther says in his Letter to the Romans—stands in stark contrast with the hope that a mood of bliss might lift one out of this world and its commitments, as in the medieval nihilism of Dante.
But the corrective came at the price of a loss of meaning. In order to emphasize the peculiarities of this mood of joy and gratitude, Luther stressed that it was experienced in terms of a personal and individual relation to Jesus. This personal and individual relation to Jesus is not the same as the Enlightenment celebration of the independent individual but it was a step in that direction. Reform Christianity had the effect of emphasizing the individual as defined by his inner thoughts and desires at the expense of a God-given hierarchy of ordered, worldly meanings outside the individual.
Indeed, in Luther’s account of Christianity the world in its political, religious, and environmental forms is entirely disenchanted. We are now far from Dante’s medieval hierarchy of meanings – in which the value of everything is written on its face. Rather, each individual is identical to a king, according to Luther, since one no longer follows the laws in service to the king and his state. One is indebted instead to the mood that God’s love and Christ’s suffering instill in you, and it is this mood that determines what is lawful. That is to say, love fulfills the Law. One is no longer dependent on the priests and their mediation or intercession in one’s relations with God. Rather, Jesus justifies you as an individual by giving his grace and love to you directly.
This brings us a long way towards the Enlightenment understanding of the self as the self-sufficient source of meaning in the universe. But unlike the Enlightenment thinkers, especially Descartes and Kant, Luther still had a strong sense of the individual’s dependence on a Savior. According to him, works of devotion offered by the church and by individuals are worthless willful acts of pride, unless they are experienced in faith and humility. We can’t give faith to ourselves any more than we can give ourselves our other moods:
Faith is a living and unshakeable confidence ... [it] makes us joyful, high-spirited, and eager in our relations with God and with all mankind. ... Righteousness of this kind cannot be brought about in the ordinary course of nature, by our own free will, or by our own powers. No one can give faith to himself, nor free himself from unbelief.xxx Descartes made the next big step towards nihilism by denigrating receptivity entirely and focusing exclusively on what one can obtain by one’s own will power.
By the early 17th century we finally arrive at the French philosopher René Descartes, the only radical reconfigurer in the West besides the Jesus figure we have described. Just as Jesus established our Christian culture, Descartes established our modern one. In so doing, Descartes draws on Augustine's discovery of the inner depths of the soul and on Luther's emphasis on each Christian's independence. But Luther, with his understanding of moods—especially agape and gratitude—preserves a sense of the necessary receptivity of the Christian while Descartes claims that human minds at their best are completely detached, self-contained, and, far from being passive, have a will power so great that it rivals God’s. He says:
It is free-will alone … which I find to be so great in me that I can conceive no other idea to be more great; it is indeed the case that it is for the most part this will that causes me to know that in some manner I bear the image and likeness of God.xxxi One stand-in for the experience of the sacred that we have used consistently is the experience of moods. We described the gods of Homer in terms of the overpowering moods that they set and the actions that they draw out of people by virtue of those moods. But we have seen other moods as well: the mood of patriotism in Aeschylus, of agape in John and Paul, of bliss in Dante, and of joy and gratitude in Luther. A crucial feature of the Enlightenment is that moods—insofar as they are discussed at all—are stripped of the central features that have characterized them in earlier epochs. Typically moods were public and shareable—one could catch the mood of fierce courage from being in the presence of Ares or Achilles, or one could catch the mood of agape from being in the presence of Jesus. But in our current Cartesian characterization of the individual as a subject, moods become private, inner states that are essentially unavailable to others. We will see that the older, public notion of moods as the stand-in for the sacred is crucial to Melville’s way of resisting all forms of will and all forms of monotheism.
It should be clear from what we have said so far that one does not have to believe that the Greek gods actually exist in order to gain something deep and important from Homer’s sense of the sacred. (The same holds for Jesus.) One does, however, have to reject the modern idea that to be a human agent is to be the sole and self-sufficient source of the actions one performs. Because this modern notion of human agency is so pervasive, it can lead us to act in ways that cover up the phenomena that Homer was sensitive to. To see this we need to trace briefly the genesis of the modern view of the self.
Before Descartes people had little sense of having a self-contained inner self. As we saw, St. Augustine had to work to make people believe they had one. It seemed obvious that we are beings essentially open to all sorts of forces from without. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was taken to be obvious that the human soul is a battleground for the forces of good and evil in the universe. On this medieval view, to be a human being just is to be naturally receptive to the divine force of God’s love. The only thing that can get in the way of that divine force is the self-sufficient wishes and desires of the individual. Indeed, one thing the Homeric world and the Medieval world have in common is the idea that we are at our best when we don’t allow our own thoughts and ideas to get in the way of what we are immediately drawn to do.
Descartes, by contrast, building on Augustine, brought to the fore the idea that we are self-sufficient beings, beings who stand on our own and are defined by our private, inner, thoughts and desires. If I want to know who I am, on this Cartesian view, I can do no better than to look within—to ask myself which thoughts I endorse as mine. If one were a Christian one looked at one's desires.
Under Descartes’ influence, then, we have come to understand ourselves as subjects—sites of inner thoughts, desires, and volitions -- while "the external world," according to Descartes consisted of meaningless objects—those non-subjective entities that stand over against me. Before Descartes, people did not understand themselves as subjects and objects, but rather as God's creatures. After Descartes, they came to see themselves as almost infinitely free meaning-givers, who can give whatever meaning they choose to the meaningless objects around them.
This completely and radically overthrows the more traditional idea that we are beings essentially open to the world and open to its various forces upon us. For the first time in human history, therefore, we are confronted by the question: how ought we to live if we understand ourselves in this completely self-contained way?
Descartes thought he had the answer. He claimed that with his reason and experience he could find rules for figuring out rationally what in each situation was the right thing to do. He was determined to work out his ethics as soon as he finished his work in science and mathematics. He notes:
[L]est I should remain irresolute in my actions in the interval. . . I drew up for myself a provisional code of morals, consisting of some three or four maxims.xxxii But he apparently found no way to base an ethics on the austere world of subjects and objects, so, while his contribution to science and mathematics are important breakthroughs, he never returned to developing an ethics. Still, he managed to reconfigure the world entirely, taking what in Dante had been the central feature of evil in the universe and making it the most fundamental aspect of human being. In this way he contributed a crucial step towards nihilism.
How could an inner subject, cut off from the world of objects, know what to do in that world? The answer to this natural question was first worked out in detail by Descartes' articulator, the great 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that if we are self-sufficient subjects then there can be no law about how we should act other than the law we give to ourselves.
On Kant’s view the subject replaces God as the orderer of the world. Kant argued famously that Enlightenment means learning finally to take responsibility for your own actions. The maturity that comes with Enlightenment requires me to obey the Pope or the King only if I freely choose to do so. Autonomy, or setting up my own laws and choosing to act in accordance with them—Dante's ultimate sinfulness—, now becomes the highest human good.
This Kantian view is both indebted to Luther and at the same time a deviation from his position. True, Luther emphasizes the importance of the individual. But it is essential to Luther’s Christianity that the mood of joy and gratitude comes from the experience of receiving God’s grace. It is only because I feel indebted to God that I am in a position to be certain about how I ought to act. So Luther can say: "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me." The certainty is an existential certainty in Luther—it is the feeling of being joyfully committed to acting in the way I know I must.
By the time Kant turns it into a recipe for practical activity, however, it has turned around completely—as Kant himself recognizes. Whereas in Luther the source of my existential certainty about how to act is my experience of Jesus’ unfailing love for me, in Kant I alone am responsible for all my acts. And indeed, according to Kant, this is a sign of my maturity.
There are lots of details in Kant about what features this self-given law ought to have, but the essential issue here is that the moral law must be given to us by ourselves. In Kant’s terminology, we are self-law-givers – “autonomous” agents who ought to act in accordance with the principles we set for ourselves. Nothing outside of us – no God or other force, no impulse, no revered text, no parental demand, custom, or state decree – can be that upon which we base our actions when we are acting at our best. All external forces are denigrated by Kant as “heteronymous determinations of the will”.xxxiii That is other-given causes of our actions. If we allow these external forces to influence us in our actions, then we are failing to live up to the demands placed upon us as the kind of free, self-sufficient beings we essentially are.xxxiv Although the Kantian view is formulated in abstract language, its basic impulse is woven deeply into the modern world. It is natural and intuitive to us to think that a person is criticizable if he fails to take responsibility for his actions. Human actions just are, in the modern conception, behaviors for which the human agent is responsible. In the middle of the 20th century the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre worked out the logical extension of this view in his existentialist philosophy. “Existentialism,” Sartre writes, “places the entire responsibility for [man’s] existence squarely upon his own shoulders”.xxxv The modern view that we are entirely responsible for our existence stands in radical contrast with the Homeric idea that we act at our best when we open ourselves to be drawn from without. Indeed, once we see the force of this contrast it becomes obvious why the central Homeric phenomena are covered up in our modern world. What Homer considers to be the paradigm of excellence seems to Kant and to most of us hardly to count as human action at all. Homeric excellence, to the modern world, looks like heteronymous determination of the will—wrongful abandonment of our freedom. Helen’s running off with Paris seems to us an addiction or a compulsion. She seems to us an eminently criticizable case of a woman who loves too much.
The danger of the Kantian position is that by making us entirely responsible for our actions we place in our own hands the question of what matters most. But the history of the last 150 years suggests that we are not the proper source for meaning in the world. Indeed, the step is very short from the Kantian notion of the human being as a fully autonomous self to the Nietzschian notion of the human being as a free spirit who makes up whatever meanings he likes. And this just is the active nihilism that Dante already recognized could not sustain a meaningful conception of human existence.
Writing less than a century after Kant, and a generation before Nietzsche, Hermann Melville could already see threat of this kind of nihilism in the contemporary age. What is even more amazing, though, is that he could envision the recovery of Homer’s polytheistic gods. We turn now to Melville to bring the story full circle.
i Dante, The Inferno, A. T. MacAllister, Introduction, xiii.
iiInferno, Canto III, line 9.
iiiInferno, Canto IV, line 42.
ivInferno, Canto V, line 38.
vInferno, Canto VIII, lines 101-102.
viInferno, Canto VIII, lines 109-112.
viiInferno, Canto VIII, line 117.
viiiInferno, Canto XI, line 21.
ixInferno, Canto IX, lines 10-105.
x Monogamous homosexual lovers suffer the least of all sinners. They are purified by fire at the top of Purgatory. There Dante meets several of his friends.
xi Dante never says so in so many words, but his description in Inferno, Canto XXXIV, lines 76-77 makes clear what part of Satan’s anatomy is at the exact bottom of the material universe.
xiiPurgatorio, Canto XVI, lines 67-87.
xiiiParadiso, Canto I, lines 91-93.
xivPurgatorio, Canto XVIII, line 63.
xvParadiso, pp. 341,342
xviParadiso, Canto XXXIII, line 102.
xviiParadiso, Canto XXII, line 134-5.
xviiiParadiso, Canto XXII, lines 152-3.
xixThe Paradiso, Canto XXX, line 42.
xx Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, line 131.
xxiMartin Luther - Selections from his Writings, John Dillenberger, Ed., Anchor Books, 1962, 470.
xxii From Luther’s list of reforms to the German nobility. Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1914.
xxivMartin Luther, 78.
xxvMartin Luther, 76.
xxviMartin Luther, 105.
xxviiMartin Luther, 160. Kierkegaard saw that Jesus’ introduction of the agape mood implied that after the Incarnation there is no need and no way to relate to God the father. Find reference.. Kierkegaard saw that Luther was not very good at seeing the implications of his pronouncements. He notes in his Journals that “Luther acted rightly, but his preaching is not always clear or in agreement with his life—a rare occurrence—his life is better than his preaching.”
Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, Volume 3, L-R, Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Assisted by Gregor Malantschuk, 78.
Indiana University Press, 1975.
xxviiiMartin Luther, 112-113.
xxix Luther's love of music was later fully expressed in Bach's church cantatas. They express neither the activity of individual meaning giving, nor passive mystical bliss, but, rather, a community of joyful worshippers who share a sense of the sacred they are swept up by – a mood which they then joyfully cultivate.
In the Fourth Preface to his hymnal's many editions, Luther writes:
"Cheerful and merry must we be in heart and mind, when we would sing ... For God hath made our heart and mind joyful through his dear Son whom he hath given for us to redeem from sin, death and the devil. Who earnestly believes this cannot but sing thereof with joy and delight, that others also may hear and come."
xxxMartin Luther, 24-25.
xxxi René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Fourth Meditation, 1641.
xxxii René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part III, in Descartes: Philosophical Writings, Selected and Translated by Norman Kemp Smith, The Modern Library, 1958, 111.
xxxiii The words “autonomy” and “heteronomy” will make more sense if we point out their Greek roots. “Nomo’s” in Greek means law, while the prefixes “auto” and “hetero” refer to the self and to others. Thus, “autonomy” literally means self-law and “heteronomy” literally means other-law.
xxxiv The great lesson of the Enlightenment, according to Kant, is that the mature, fully developed human being uses his own understanding to determine how to act. “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity,” he famously writes. (Opening line of “What is Enlightenment”). Get full reference.
xxxv Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a humanism, Yale University Press, 2007.