Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dante's dual ultimate

... man is, so to say, a middle term between corruptible and incorruptible things… and since every middle-term participates in the nature of the extremes which it unites, man must participate in these two natures. And since every nature is ordered toward some ultimate goal, it follows that man’s ultimate goal is two-fold… he is the only being who is ordered towards two ultimate goals [solus inter omnia in duo ultima ordinetur]… Ineffable Providence has therefore set man to attain two goals… the first is happiness in this life… the second is the happiness of eternal life…

De monarchia, III, xv, 3-8 (trans. D. Nicholl, quoted in Dante, Philomythes and Philosopher: Man in the Cosmos, 1981.)


A dual ultimate, or two ultimates, is a paradox; for, one thing cannot have two ultimates; and yet, according to Dante, following Aristotle's logic as unfolded further by Christian theology, human being does.

This paradoxical state of human nature -- of a dual ultimacy oriented toward two distinct goals seemingly at variance with each other -- is the tension of existence, as elaborated by the 20th century philosopher Eric Voegelin (who only unpacked what was already present in the perennial classical traditions of Western theology, philosophy and mythology).

The two goals -- happiness in this life, and happiness in the next life -- are often seen in stark contradiction among many believers in the eschatological religions of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. And there is definitely a tension between the two, not to be smoothed over by some sugarcoated New Agey acceptance of death, accompanied by an existential dulling of the senses both of tragedy, and of hope (or, worse yet, its pale modern cousin, "optimism") in the face of tragedy.  Or, in modern Christian terms, a one-way ticket to salvation as a consequence of undergoing the correct rituals and assenting to the correct dogmas.

Obviously, what disturbs happiness in this life are the Hesiodian ills -- disease, pain, injustice, loss and death. And, though a rich and/or a lucky man may be able to pull off a long life free of most, or all, of these ills, sooner or later the end of his happiness will catch up with him, if not also one or more of his loved ones before he dies (and if he has a conscience and compassion, he will be disturbed by the suffering of others who, unfortunately, continue suffering despite successive waves over the centuries of religions supposed to be solving that problem).

Meanwhile, what complicates happiness in the next life is, of course, the ineluctable uncertainty enshrouding it, circumvented happily only through denial of the doubts that inevitably cast shadows on faith, hope and love -- even as these latter divine sisters may be said, and felt, to be in some ineffable sense victorious.

This tension, on the other hand, should not become inflamed by a fanaticism strengthened by a Gnostic certitude that would transform it into a "struggle" (jihad) setting up a hostile alchemical reaction between the two ultimates, embodied and personified in Us vs. Them, the True Believers vs. the Enemy, obsessively elevating the one while denigrating the other, as Islamic tradition -- "We love death, you love life" -- cultivates in deadly spades.

Nor should some Pie in the Sky Jesus solve the Mystery and flatten our experience of "this rich pageant" (i.e., life) into some cheap transition from the stage made of cardboard cutouts, whose straight and narrow ramp headed straight to Heaven, like some bargain-basement Halloween house, is haunted on either side by externalized temptations to be avoided by horse-blinders, if not demonized when their cultural dominance besets from all sides -- all for the sake of some simplistic answer that insults our intelligence and the God who creates our mind not to take the easy way out, but to think and to reason and to wonder and to imagine.

The first ultimate -- happiness in this life -- does not flow smoothly as an easy ride into the second ultimate -- happiness after death. Nor are these two ultimates inimical to each other, as though happiness in this life were an evil seduction preventing us from gaining our eternal fulfillment -- or as though the latter were some puerile concoction by religious hypocrites or fools eager to hoodwink the rest of humanity into their religious game.

The truth is mysteriously somewhere between and beyond these two: difficult to conceive, oftimes difficult to bear; but really, the only way it could possibly be -- if, that is, the mind attends to, and takes seriously, the heart's deepest longing.

As we wend that way of our longing, in this wild wood of life we share with Dante, we come upon a fork. Somehow, the forked path leads to the same destination; but is this the forked tongue leading us astray or is this the heartbreak we all must face at the rift between the two lives...? Portending the higher love our weakness intuited all along? As the manifold tongues of flame in Dante's Paradiso at last unite in the love of all creatures and their Creator: what faith, hope and love intend, all the while in this life they may flicker and suffer and wither and die, apart from their occasional and fortuitous, even serendipitous, bonfires now and then, here and there, of communal, brotherly warmth.

Or, as that Russian proverb goes:

The longest way out, is the shortest way home.

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