Theosophy – October 1897

THEOSOPHY AND THE POETS: DANTE — Katharine Hillard

I. — DANTE.

When one is asked to write a series of articles on the Theosophy to be found in the writings of the greatest poets of the world, a certain dilemma immediately presents itself. Either we mean by Theosophy its purely mystical and moral teachings, the ideas of spiritual unity, of universal brotherhood, of absolute justice, of unselfishness and devotion to others, — in which case we are at once told by the critics that "these doctrines belong to all religions worthy of the name, and they cannot rightly be labeled Theosophy," — or else we mean such special tenets as the doctrines of reincarnation and karma, of the astral body and the sevenfold nature of man, and, at least under these headings, we find little or nothing upon these subjects in the poets.

But there are few dilemmas that are absolutely insurmountable, and the way out of this one is to look at the spirit rather than the letter. "For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."

In the first place, then, we should answer our critics by saying that Theosophy does not claim to be a new religion with an imposing body of new doctrines, but simply, and in its widest sense, to be what Lowell has called it when he speaks of Dante's Beatrice as "personifying that Theosophy which enables man to see God and to be mystically united with Him even in the flesh." In this sense the word is used by all writers upon mysticism, and it is, of course, especially in this sense that we find Theosophy in the greatest of our poets from Dante down to Walt Whitman. And in the second place, in its more distinctive and narrower sense, it is the claim of Theosophy to demonstrate the original unity of all religions, and to show that "the Divine Wisdom" was the same in all ages, and in all parts of the world. The higher our mount of vision, the less difference will appear between the summits of the little hills far below us; the eye takes in great masses, not petty details, and the higher the genius of the poet, the more clearly he sees the important things of the soul, and the nearer he will be to the uplifted minds of all ages. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." You cannot help that simple statement by any attempt at amplification or adornment; there is the greatest of all mysteries, the goal of spiritual life stated in a few short words, — but you can write volumes about the ceremonials of the church.

In Prof. Norton's essay upon the New Life of Dante, he has spoken of the great Italian as essentially a mystic, and says that "his mind was of a quality which led him to unite learning with poetry in a manner peculiar to himself. . . . Dante, partaking to the full in the eager spirit of his times, sharing all the ardor of the pursuit of knowledge, and with a spiritual insight which led him into regions of mystery where no others ventured, naturally associated the knowledge which opened the way for him with the poetic imagination which cast light upon it." This is a very significant remark, and coupled with Lowell's saying that Dante was "the first great poet who ever made a poem wholly out of himself, . . . the first keel that ever ventured into the silent sea of human consciousness to find a new world of poetry," will give an invaluable clue to Dante's double nature.

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In the same essay from which I have just quoted (v. Among My Books, J. R. Lowell, 2d Series), Lowell says: "It is not impossible that Dante, whose love of knowledge was all-embracing, may have got some hint of the doctrine of the Oriental Sufis. With them the first and lowest of the steps that lead upward to perfection is the Law, a strict observance of which is all that is expected of the ordinary man. But the Sufi puts himself under the guidance of some holy man (Virgil in the Inferno), whose teaching he receives implicitly, and so arrives at the second step, which is the Path (Purgatorio) by which he reaches a point where he is freed from all outward ceremonials and observances, and has risen from an outward to a spiritual worship. The third step is Knowledge (Paradiso), endowed by which with supernatural insight, he becomes like the angels about the throne, and has but one farther step to take before he reaches the goal and becomes one with God. The analogies of this system with Dante's are obvious and striking," even more so, says Mr. Lowell, when Virgil bids him farewell, telling him that the inward light is now to be his law.

The fact is that Dante's meanings were manifold. He says himself that all writings may be read and ought to be explained in four principal senses: The literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the mystical, and the last "is when a book is spiritually expounded." This is to him always the most important, and therefore we may feel sure that the more spiritual our interpretation, the closer it will come to Dante's real meaning.

Of Dante's works the principal ones are the Divine Comedy, the Banquet, and the New Life. These, taken in inverse order, form a trilogy, descriptive of the history of a human soul, the poet's own inner experience. The story of the three, very briefly summed up is this: That from Dante's early boyhood (the New Life begins with his ninth year) he had felt a strong love for the contemplative life (or study of Divine Wisdom); that amid the distractions of the active life of his maturer years, the pursuits of the world, the cares of the state and the family, the duties of the soldier, the studies of the artist and the scientist (for Dante was all these), the heavenly Beatrice, the "giver of blessings," the Divine beatitude, passed away from him. Then came the consolations of scholastic philosophy, with its false images of good, in whose attractions his whole soul was for a time absorbed, until at last the vision of the higher life as he had seen it when a boy, came back to him, and he returned to the love of Divine Wisdom, who revealed to him first her eyes (or intellectual truth), and then her smile (spiritual intuition), "through which the inner light of Wisdom shines as without any veil." These distinctions correspond very closely to the eye and the heart doctrine as described in the Voice of the Silence.

For any details as to Dante's idea of Beatrice, as developed through these three books, I must refer you to the original text or to the translations of the Divine Comedy by Longfellow, of the New Life by Chas. Elliot Norton, and to my own translation of the Banquet, because it is the only one. The general idea of Beatrice as representing the Gnosis was embodied in an article published elsewhere.

Here I have only space to set forth a few of Dante's ideas on subjects more particularly treated by theosophical writers. One of these is the contemplative, as distinguished from the active life, and this is a topic he loved to dwell upon. In the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that in this world there are two modes of devotion: that of those who follow speculation, which is the exercise of the reason in contemplation, and that of devotion in the performance of action. Dante says the same thing, and in almost the same words. The angel at the sepulchre (he tells us in the Banquet, IV. 22), says to those who have wandered from the true way — that is, to all who have sought for happiness in the active life — that it is not there, but it goeth before them into speculation, or the contemplative life. And this use of the intellect in speculation (by which Dante means not an intellectual exercise, but the absorption of the soul in the contemplation of the Divine), he tells us is the highest Good beyond which there is nothing to aspire to. This he dwells upon again and again, notably in the 27th Canto of the Purgatory, where Rachel and Leah are used as the types of the contemplative and active life. The union of the soul with God, Dante says, is like the partaking of the stars in the nature of the sun. And the nobler the soul the more does it retain of this divine effluence. This union may take place before death, but only in souls perfectly endowed by nature. And some are of the opinion, says Unite, that if "all the powers of earth and heaven should cooperate in the production of a soul according to their most favorable disposition, the Deity would descend upon that soul in such fulness that it would be almost another God incarnate." For Dante believed in the influence of the constellations and in the complex nature of man, which he says is threefold, and consists of the vegetative, the sensitive, and the intellectual natures, while in the Purgatory he is careful to explain that these are not three separate entities, but divisions of one being, the vegetative answering to the "kama-prana," the sensitive to "kama-manas," and the intellectual to "manas" and "buddhi," for Dante makes a careful distinction between the powers of the highest part of the soul which he calls Mind.

Dante's description of the embodiment of the soul, as given in the Banquet, (Bk. IV, 21) and in the Comedy (Purg. 25), is wonderfully like the hints given in the Secret Doctrine. We read in the latter (Vol. I, 223-4), that "Wiessman shows one infinitesimal cell determining alone and unaided . . the correct image of the future man in its physical, mental, and psychic characteristics. Complete this physical plasm . . . with the spiritual plasm, so to say, . . . and you have the secret. This inner soul of the physical cell — this 'spiritual plasm' that dominates the germinal plasm — is the Key that must open one day the gates of the terra incognita of the Biologist." (Vol. I, 219.)

In the passages of his works above-mentioned, Dante described the germ-cell (1) as carrying with it the virtue (or powers) of the generating soul, and that of the heaven, (or stars) then in the ascendant, united to its own potentialities, and those of the mother. The life within it is at first that of the plant, (the vegetative soul) with this difference "this still goes on, the other has attained," (Purg. 25, 54) that is, the plant, unlike the soul, is incapable of further development. Then the embryo becomes like the sea-anemone, that moves and feels, and the sensitive soul develops, and the latent potencies of the germ begin to show themselves in the development of the organs of sense and of action. As soon as the brain has sufficiently developed, says Dante, the divine spark settles there, and the intellectual soul draws all the faculties into itself, and makes of them one being.

"So the sun's heat turns itself into wine,
United to the sap within the vine."
     ( — Purg. 25, 77.)

And when death frees the soul, it leaves the body with its senses mute, but with the spiritual faculties, the memory, the intellect, the will, more active than before. By its own impulse it takes its destined course, and as the air filled with rain shows itself bright with the reflected colors of the rainbow, so the soul, by virtue of its formative power, makes to itself an aerial body, the shadow and resemblance of itself. And like the sparks that follow all the changes of the fire, says Dante, with another beautiful simile, so this new form follows the changes of the spirit, and shows forth all its emotions and desires, and therefore it is called "the shadow." (This Dante is said to have got from Origen.) And it is these "shades" which he meets in Purgatory, answering to the "kama-loka" of Theosophy.

But it is only in one sense that Dante's other world is that beyond the gates of death, because as Lowell has pointed out, it is in its first conception "the Spiritual World, whereof we become denizens by birth and citizens by adoption." Dante believed with St. Paul that to be carnally minded is death. In the Inferno (3,64) he speaks of "these miscreants who never were alive," and in the Banquet he says that "to live with man is to use reason, and he is dead who does not make himself a disciple, who does not follow the Master. . . . For taking away the highest power of the soul, the reason, there remains no longer a man, but a thing with a sensitive soul only, that is, a brute" (Banquet, IV. 7). So at the entrance of the Inferno, Virgil tells Dante that he will there behold

— "the people dolorous,
Who have foregone the good of intellect,"

which is "the Truth, in which all intellects find rest" (Paradiso, 28, 108). He speaks more than once of the "second death," and in a manner that has puzzled the commentators. In the first canto of the Inferno we have mentioned

      — "The ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;
And thou shalt see too, those who are content
Within the fire, for they still hope to come
Whene'er it may be, to the blessed ones."

I think myself that Dante here refers to the old Platonic idea of the second death that separates the soul from the spirit, roughly speaking, or as the Theosophist would say, sets free the immortal Ego from the degraded lower personality, with its sin-laden memory. These "ancient spirits disconsolate" suffering in "kama-loka" the torture that their own wickedness has brought upon them, cry out for the death of the animal soul, that the Divine Self within them may cease to suffer. Those spirits whose better nature still bids them hope that their sins are not too great to be purged by the fire, are content to endure its purifying pangs. I think this explanation more in the line of Dante's thought than that of Lowell, who believes the first death to be that of reputation, the second that of the body.

But Lowell is quite right in saying elsewhere that "the stern Dante thinks none beyond hope save those who are dead in sin, and have made evil their good. . . . But Dante is no harsher than experience, which always exacts the utmost farthing, no more inexorable than conscience, which never forgives nor forgets." He believed above all things in the freedom of the will, that man is given his choice between good and evil, and must take the consequences of the choice he makes. His idea of punishment was always that which the sin to be punished would naturally bring about, and the guilty soul had always the chance of expiating its guilt, and once more winging its way upwards. And just inside the gates of hell he placed those ignoble souls that were neither good nor bad, but lived solely for themselves.

"These had not even any hope of death,
And their blind life is so debased and low,
They envious are of every other fate.
The world has kept no memory of them;
Mercifulness and justice both disdain them;
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass."

Dante was of the same mind as Browning, who considered that the weakness which interfered with the execution of an evil purpose only added to the debasement of the soul. To live to themselves alone was the sin of these men, and there is a beautiful passage in the Banquet where Dante says that one should give his help to another without waiting to be asked, as the rose gives forth her fragance not only to him who seeks it, but to all who come near her.

Mr. Lowell says that Dante was so impartial that the Romanist can prove his soundness in doctrine, and the anti-Romanist can claim him as the first Protestant, while the Mazzinist and the Imperialist can alike quote him for their purpose. And he even calls Christ "the supreme Love," and uses the names "God" and "Jupiter" and "Jehovah" as equivalents. Outwardly at least he held to all the doctrines of the Roman church of his time, but he certainly believed in the unity of the human race, and their conception of the Divine under different names. The man who boasted that he made "a party of his own," in politics, was capable of a like independence in religion, and Dante's association with the Templars had undoubtedly taught him how to see beneath the letter of the creed the spirit of a universal truth. He who could soar through all the sevenfold spheres and returning, see this globe,

"Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance,"

was not a soul to be confined within the limits of any church. He had the spiritual intuition that enabled him to discern the truth, and the intellectual subtlety that helped him to clothe it in a guise that might escape the condemnation of the Church. He says at the end of his first Canzone in the Banquet, what might be said of nearly all his writings;

"Canzone mine, I fear that few they are
Who all thy meaning deep will understand,
So dark and difficult thy speech to them.
Wherefore if peradventure thou shalt go
To such as seem not to perceive thy worth,
I pray thee then take comfort to thyself,
And say to them, my new and dear delight,
'Behold at least, how very fair I am!'"

It would take volumes to expound the beauty of his poems, and whole libraries of his commentators' efforts to explain their "dark and difficult meaning" have been in vain. For they have fixed their eyes too often on the letter, and have failed to realize that the poet had risen to those spiritual heights where the little differences of creed sank into nothingness, and where all around him rose the white and shining summits of the eternal Truth, "the Love that moves the sun and all the stars."

FOOTNOTE:

1. Of course he does not use this term, but the scriptural expression, the seed, which he calls "the most perfect part of the blood." (return to text)


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