October 17, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas

Dante and the Ladder

Plato, in the Symposium, suggests that one could ascend the latter of love to glimpse truth in the beauty of the Forms; through love one could know beauty/truth. He also states in book ten of Republic that: “all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them.” Plato believes that imitation of sensible objects removed the poet, and the observer, from truth and reality by inspiring the emotions of pity and fear. Plato argued that philosophical knowledge is far superior that the mere imitative nature of art. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, seems to also climb the ladder of love literally, metaphorically, and contextually to achieve the supreme artistic expression, Platonically speaking.

Dante and Virgil on the ice of lake Leucocytes.jpg

Dante’s literary peregrination through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise begins at a sensual level and ends at a philosophical point that transcends even the limits of poetical expression. The souls in Hell are in a quagmire of sensual images, and these images continue throughout Purgatory to an increasingly lesser extent. When Dante finally reaches Paradise, the sensory images are driven to the margins in lieu of the philosophical ideas in the hierarchy of Paradise.

Plato begins his discussion in the Symposium with the notion that only God makes the true Form or idea for our use, and the artificer can only come near the image. The artist cannot create the Forms herself; she is a maker of appearances (painter) and particulars (carpenter) only—not reality, or universals. He continues by writing “that there is one who is the maker of all works of all other workmen”; i.e. God. The former of the three is the imitator of the true form created by the latter, yet he is thrice removed from the truth. There is another dimension to this: the object imitated, e.g. in a painting, is an imitation of an appearance (simulacrum), not reality; therefore, the painter, or artist in general, is a long off from the truth.

No artist can know the depth and scope of everything (virtue/vice, divine shapes, etc.) because she creates at a level far removed from the true reality of the forms. Before imitation there must be knowledge of a subject: a poet must existentially know her subject before she can imitate it—before she can mirror its truth. Mind should be the artist and the body the medium. This knowledge lies in universals—in the forms; therefore, an artist must have a knowledge of the universals before she can attempt to sow them into a particular. This idea leads to another distinction: true art is rational while partaking of intelligence, while pseudo art is an inaccurate, emotional distraction.

Dante seems to be learning as he journeys to the truth of God, and progresses from pseudo to true art. Dante's verse evolves from pity for the sensual crimes of Hell, to the contrition of Purgatory, and finally to the breakdown of anything created by man and removed form God: e.g. language. Like trying to explain the world out-of-water to a fish, the reality of Paradise is ineffable and cannot be related to those of us who have yet to glimpse the truth for ourselves. We do not know the language of Paradise, the language of God: it lies beyond our limited facilities.

The true artist is concerned with realities, not imitations. Without the true knowledge of what it is the artist is imitating, she will be unable to judge whether or not her imitation is ontologically good or bad; or, perhaps more importantly in the case of Dante, morally good or bad. Plato expounds that poetry can even hurt the good by bringing to the forefront emotions that would usually be suppressed by the rationality of the intellect. Indeed, opines Plato, we cannot admire a hero that is unwitting participant in an emotional, sensual excess. One who is properly restrained by reason is above deigning to the emotions of pity and fear. Plato feels that we must rise above these petty emotions or they will control our state. (Does this suggest, then, that Achilles is not a true hero?)

Dante, it seems, does just this. He is emotionally affected by Francesca’s story in Hell—resulting in his fainting. As he proceeds, Dante learns to react rationally rather than emotionally, i.e. out of pity and fear, for it is the emotional attachments, in many cases, that precipitated the demise of many of the souls in Hell and Purgatory; e.g. courtly love and other Florentine values. By the time Dante reaches Ulysses, another character with which he empathizes, he has begun to detach himself emotionally from his surroundings and will soon be ready to proceed to the next level. Let's face it: can we blame Dante for wanting to hear Ulysses tell the story of his death? Here, we the readers sympathize with Dante's need to know, yet ironically it is precisely this quest for knowledge that ruined Ulysses and his men in the first place.

While Plato acknowledges the brilliance of Homer, he vociferously denies him a place in the Republic unless poetry “makes a defense of herself . . . and show herself useful to States and to human life.” Plato concludes that the only acceptable poetry are “hymns to the gods and praises of famous men,” for all other poetry cannot be “regarded seriously as attaining to the truth.” Therefore, anyone who seeks the truth must not indulge in picayune, emotional poetry, but must reach for the true Idea of Beauty found at the end of the ladder.

Dante has evidently reached the truth at the top of Plato’s ladder, and perhaps become the Republic's poet. He has imitated the baseness of humanity, but has transcended that with his vision of God in Heaven. Through Virgil and Beatrice, Dante was able to transcend the bête noire of humanity to achieve a universal expression in The Divine Comedy. Is his expression representative of the truth? Well, only the faithful dead can truly tell, and their voices are muted by eternity—we only have Dante and faith. Dante's comedy has survived the test of time and has remained an expression of the universal struggle of all humanity to gain the truth. Even if one is not a Christian, one can still, however, grasp the universality of this struggle to achieve truth through beauty.