October 21, 1995
Dante’s Cosmology and Idea
Dante’s age was highly legalistic. People wanted exact definitions of their status in society and of their expected behavior. They considered most of their relations to others a rigid contract, with reciprocal obligations. A great school of law had been recently established in Bologna, to revive the Latin Corpus Juris, or civil law. Vigorously developing its canon law, the church had many conflicting areas of jurisdiction. Which, for example, should try a murderer or a sinful friar?
People wanted their universe and governments clearly defined. So degrees or virtue and degrees of sin were definitely clarified. There was a range of categories and encyclopedias of knowledge. Dante had, himself, started a categorization of all knowledge. You must think of Dante's universe as rigidly hierarchical. Everything was set in stages, rank by rank: orders of plants and beasts—of classes and government—of church officials—of the very angels, who were subdivided into nine ranks. Within humans, the body was lower than the mind; and within the mind, the senses were lower than reason. This dominant image of hierarchy—of a natural, fixed place for everything—fostered otherworldliness. Since life, and death, were progressions up or down, the world was only a transitory place. Paradise, with its degrees of blessedness, was above; Hell, with its downward steps, was within.
The earth was the center of the universe, around which moved nine spheres: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, fixed stars, Primum Mobile (motion), and beyond these the abode of God, the Empyrean. Each of these spheres was on of the nine heavens through which a soul mounted to Paradise. Hell had to be placed farthest from God's light. Therefore, it must be at the very center of earth, a funnel with narrowing ledges. It nine ledges, or circles, balanced the nine heavens. The River Lethe (forgetfulness) led from the bottom pit of hell out to the Mount of Purgatory on the underside of the world—which Dante thought was entirely of water.
With so much progressing to do—in one direction or another—each individual was a pilgrim in life. Actual pilgrimages and Crusades were filled with the wonder and excitement of travel. Figuratively, Dante is the soul-on-pilgrimages. His allegorical vision can be called a soul-pilgrimage, or psychomachia.
In this psychomachia, we will see that sin is a violation of proper place and progression. In God's universe of hierarchies, or natural order, each persona and thing had its duty to strive toward perfection—fulfillment in its own perfect form. Perfect form and fulfillment, for humanity, was union with God. Sin was improper use. Sin was impediment to orderly progress. One could choose either sin or salvation. A wrong choice brought punishment, and punishment was understandable. Punishment was keeping the sin one had chosen and living with it to its ultimate development. This final development of sin was its horrible distortion in hell.