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The Substance of Creation as Divine Self-Reflection

As Dante’s typically ritual circumlocutions intimate, the Trinitarian structure of the Deity is intrinsically self-reflective. The second divine Person is the perfect image of the first, while the third reflects the love between them. God has revealed Godself in and as nothing but perfect self-reflection. Dante’s poetry does not fail to highlight this in its incessant invocations of the Christian divinity. The self-possession of divinity, its dwelling within no other than itself (“sola in te sidi”), its being both sole subject and sole object of its own intellection (“sola t’intende, e da te intelletta / e intendente”), produces an equally self-reflexive self-affection (“te ami e arridi,” XXXIIL124-26). These features bring the paradigm of self-reflexivity to climactic expression in the final canto.

Dante’s final vision of the Trinitarian Deity appearing as three circles of different color, but of the same measure, is presented through the metaphor of a rainbow and its reflection in a second, and then of the reflection of the two together in a third:

Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza de 1’alto lume parvermi tre giri di tre colori e d’una contenenza;

e 1’un da 1’altro come iri da iri

parea reflesso, e ’1 terzo parea foco

che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri.

  • (XXXIII.l 15-20)
  • (In the deep and clear substance

of the profound light three circles appeared to me of three colors and one measure

and one appeared to be the reflection of the other

like rainbow from rainbow, and the third appeared fire that from the one and other was breathed forth equally.)

The self-reflexive structure of divinity is mimed here in language metaphorically transposing the Nicene Creed and its definition of the Trinity

Creation as Divine Self-Reflection 87 into imagery and language of reflected rainbows. Of course, the three mutually reflecting circles repeat the pattern already rehearsed from XIV.67-78, where the Holy Spirit (“Santo Spiro”) scintillates in the Heaven of the Sun. And the last line echoes verbatim X.2, quoted at the outset of Part I. Inscribed into this divine circling of “reflected light” (“lume reflesso”), the final vision of the Incarnation or of “our effigy” (“nostra effige,” XXXIII.131) is, in effect, Dante’s seeing himself reflected in Christ. To see himself reflected in God is his journey’s goal defined in inescapably relational and self-reflective terms.

Dante’s description in XXX, upon entering the Empyrean, of the light representing God in visible form is the direct predecessor of the final vision in XXXIII. This light is structured on the same motif of circularity (“si distende in circular figura”) that appears by virtue of self-reflexivity (“tutta sua parvenza I reflesso”), as is made clear by the immediately following verses:

“Lume e la su che visibile face

lo creatore a quella creatura

che solo in lui vedere ha la sua pace.

E’ si distende in circular figura,

in tanto che la sua circunferenza

sarebbe al sol troppo larga cintura.

Fassi di raggio tutta sua parvenza

reflesso al sommo del mobile primo, che prende quindi vivere e potenza.” (XXX.100-108)

(“A light is up there that makes visible

the Creator to that creature which has its peace alone in seeing him.

It extends itself in a circular figure,

so much that its circumference would be too large a girdle for the sun.

Its whole appearance makes itself a ray reflected at the top of the Primum Mobile, which thence derives life and power.”)

God becomes visible only as reflected on the outer and upper rim of the Primum Mobile. God makes himself visible in this way, even though nothing in the created universe, by its own nature, can be a reflection of him. The divine light makes the Creator visible to the creature. Free creatures (angels and blessed souls) see God in this light, but they see this light as a ray reflected in and thereby vivifying the material universe from its highest part.

This condition of self-reflexivity of the divinity reflected in the light of Creation is repeatedly alluded to in the imagery of reflection and mirroring—and even of reading—in God that pervades the whole cantica. Dante sees himself, together with all of the saved, as reflected in the divine Light. Conversely, God sees himself reflected in the celestial rose. This encompassing embrace of opposites, of divinity and humanity, is brought about miraculously within the narcissistic structure of self-reflection. Dante drinks in the light with his eyelids in order that his eyes may become “better mirrors” to reflect the Empyrean, which is itself made to appear by the ray reflected from the surface of the Primum mobile (XXX.85-90).

The language of reflexivity is unceasing from beginning to end of the poem. God himself is imagined as a reflective medium in guises such as a true mirror (“verace speglio,” XXVI.106) or a book (“volume,” XXVIII. 14, XXXIII.86) in which all things can be reflected. Cacciaguida also characterizes the Deity as the great volume (“magno volume”) and the mirror (“speglio”) in which Dante’s thoughts are displayed to all the blessed even before he thinks them (XV.49-63). In just this manner, the One is “mirrored” in the angelic orders, the “nine substances” (“quasi specchiato, in nove sussistenze,” XIII.59). Creation is a radiating of the resplendence of the idea of our Sire (XIII.52-54). Even so, this living Light or Love “remains eternally one with itself” (“etternalmente rimanendosi una,” XIII.60), in effect, the “One,” the “most simple of substances,” by which all things are measured, according to De vulgari eloquentia I.xvi.2-5.

Dante sees the angelic hierarchies as concentric circles around a point of light reflected in Beatrice’s eyes like a flame in a mirror (“come in lo specchio fiamma di doppiero,” XXVIII.4). As already in the third canto, he turns to see whether these reflected images tell him the truth (“e se rivolge per veder se ’1 vetro / li dice il vero,” 7-8). This time, unlike in Canto IV, he does have to turn around to see the reality itself. Even so, the reality he sees is still a reflected image. The angelic hierarchies that he sees are a visible image reflected onto the surface of the Primum Mobile from the Empyrean, for in the Empyrean itself they are invisible. Furthermore, they erroneously appear to enclose the point by which they actually are enclosed (“parendo inchiuso da quel ch’elli ’nchiude,” XXX.12) in an archetypal inversion of reality by its representation.

Dante turns to see this model of God and the angelic orders as reflected from the Empyrean through the Crystalline Sphere—as reflected on the latter’s surface. And this time there is no error. Yet the difference is not really between images that are reflections and ones that are not. All images and all finite realities are but reflections of the reality of the Empyrean. God’s being or presence can be seen only as reflected in finite creatures. Angels and souls count in Aristotelian metaphysics as substances. Still,


Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Seeing through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 169, suggests that the curvature of Dante’s eyeballs becomes one with the Primum Mobile’s so as to reflect the Empyrean.

Creation as Divine Self-Reflection 89 their substance is itself nothing but a reflection of divine being or substance. These created substances themselves can in turn be reflected in the more normal and literal sense of the word, as they are in Beatrice’s eyes and on the surface of the Primum Mobile.

True realities as we know them even in the heavens and even in the Empyrean are, deeply considered, reflections of the only true reality in itself—the One whom Dante calls God. Ironically, in his reverse-narcissistic error, Dante was in a way right, after all. Whatever we love is loved self-reflexively, although its reality is not the reflected self, but rather God as its ultimate Ground. Self-reflection is a risk because only God can actually make things to be reflections of himself. Our own selfreflections, taken for themselves, are mere presumption. Nonetheless, it is through self-reflection that we can come to resemble God and be restored to a semblance of his image.

In order to relate to God as, in essence, wholly unknowable and inaccessible, we have no alternative but to relate self-reflexively to ourselves. Such reflection is predicated not on positive knowledge of ourselves any more than of God’s nature as self-reflexive, but rather on our recognition of our inability naturally to know what is radically other than us and yet is our Ground. We must recognize, in other words, our ignorance of our deeper selves. By recognizing this as our predicament, we are dissolving the self-sufficient substantiality of the self. This self-reflection cracks the self open to its “beyond.”

To know our nullity is to open ourselves as (nothing but) a conduit to the All beyond us. One could understand this “beyond” as the “not-All,” since it is apprehended not positively, but only as a negation of self. The All is not totalized and grasped in any finite shape or form. Morever, this apprehension entails not a fixed privileging of the Other over what is one’s own, but rather a recognition that, for a finite self, whatever is one’s own can flourish only in relation to its others.

To see form in the Empyrean can only be an accommodation to Dante’s human limits via a poetic representation of the unrepresentable. The fact that Dante sees the blessed souls of the Empyrean in the flesh, in the “aspects” (“aspetti”) that they will really have only after the Last Judgment (XXX.44-45), indicates that this vision is not fully an objective seeing. It is rendered possible poetically and self-reflexively, by Dante’s gaze “re-circulating” (“ricirculando,” XXXI.48) freely, through the living light, up and down the rose.

Likewise, the vision of the Empyrean itself is possible only as reflected off the surface of the first material heaven (the “maggior corpo,” XXX.39) that Dante and Beatrice leave in “entering” the Empyrean. Dante sees the blessed souls’ faces lit up and smiling with God’s light (“Vedea visi a carita siiadi, / d’altrui lume fregiati e di suo riso,” XXXI.48-49). He is seeing them in God—and seeing God reflected in them. Thus he sees them in the white stoles (XXX. 129) of their resurrected bodies, according to his hope expressed to St. James (XXV.91-96), even before the Last Judgment and

Resurrection. He sees them as a “convent” and a “city,” thus combining metaphors for their organized gathering. This does not mean that Dante is simply making this up, but rather that his seeing the souls in God is self-reflexive, participative seeing. Seeing in God here coincides with a poetic seeing through lenses that focus the meaning of what Dante sees of divinity through analogous human experiences.

What Dante sees throughout Paradise, after all, are reflected images in the deeper sense that everything that is anything at all is dependent on God. Whatever is is only to the degree that it reflects God’s true Being. All created reality, on this account, is nothing but a reflected image, a “resplendence” (“non e se non splendor,” XIII.53). As the medieval jingle goes, “Omnis mundi creatura I quasi liber et figura I nobis est et speculum” (“Every creature in the world I is like a book and figure I to us and a mirror”).[1] In this metaphysical sense, empirical reality is but a reflection of God—of God’s own self-loving self-reflection (XIII.52-66). And true reality (God) is unseen. What Dante does see is real, as Beatrice informs him in III.30, yet not unconditionally, nor in itself. It is real, instead, always only with the proviso that it make manifest the reality that lies beyond manifest form. But to do this, it must disclose an ineluctable concealment as the shadow side of revelation itself? In other words, revelation makes all appearing manifest as non-ultimate reality, and to this extent makes invisible reality “appear.”

  • [1] Attributable to Alanus ab Insulis: Accessed 5/15/2017. 2 Andrew Hui, “Dante’s Book of Shadows: Ombra in the Divine Comedy,” Dante Studies 134 (2016): 195-224 distinguishes six stages of the shadowing of Dante’s true vision, ending in the metaphors of his poetic text (218).
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