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Secular and Theological in Dante and Duns

In sum, the turn from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century posed the special challenge of rethinking the conflict between the Greco-Arabic scientific worldview, as mediated especially by Avicenna and Averroes, and the providential principles of Christian revelation. The ecclesiastical condemnation of radical Aristotelian propositions in 1277 in Paris in effect declared that the two worldviews that Thomas and Albert had attempted to harmonize were not finally compatible. The 1277 condemnations condition and motivate Duns’s reformulation of Christian metaphysics and theology, which radically revises the Thomistic synthesis. Bringing together Aristotelian metaphysics with Franciscan spirituality, Duns finds a new way to allow both rational philosophy and biblical revelation to

From Analogy to Metaphor 171 retain truth in their own proper spheres. Duns’s solution is a way that opens upon our secular world, and in this respect Dante’s project runs parallel. Both are inspired theologically to make secular thinking possible.

Even while remaining affectively attached and religiously oriented to a higher order of reality, Duns accords an independent secular status to objective (proto-scientific) knowing of the finite world severed from the infinite, which is unknowable in its singularity. Duns sees this secular realm thenceforth as illuminated only by the light of nature and as opaque to us regarding the divine Light. His metaphysics affords only an abstract knowledge that there is a First Cause and provides no means to see into its nature.

Dante, faced with the same uncoupling, qualifies human knowledge of the infinite and divine implicitly as subjective and recasts it as existential—or as poetic. Thus, for Dante, the finite remains translucent to the infinite, even in the acknowledged incommensurability of the two and in the admitted incapacity of human thought and language properly or adequately (scientifically) to know the divine. Still, there is a vast field of expressivity involving the entire cosmos and human history that can orient us to the divine source of our life. It can be leveraged by an analogical approach. This is the submerged basis for Dante’s triumphant theological affirmations.

Rather than abstracting from our existential involvement with worldly entities, as Duns does in order to render possible metaphysics as an objective science, Dante enters fully into this experiential dimension of knowledge as blindly groping toward the Source of things and existence. However, this dimension is for him as secular (or worldly) as it is for Duns, with his abstract metaphysical science. The secular sphere is, in either case, predicated on the realization—through self-critical selfreflection on the part of human reason—of God’s radical inaccessibility to human knowledge and language. Nonetheless, both pioneers, in their fields of metaphysics and poetics respectively, remain inspired essentially by theology in their efforts to give the secular world an autonomous status. Their scions, however, in large part, would lose this orientation and eventually turn to a more single-minded and one-sided pursuit of the secular.

Dante’s worldly knowledge remains fully integral to his theological vision rather than being split off for separate development. The split of metaphysics and empirical science from theology with Duns, in contrast,


Convivio II.iv.17 suggestively employs the image of someone perceiving the transfusion of light through closed eyelids like a bat. Such is human perception even of “spiritual creatures” (“creature spirituali,” II.iv.15), for which we have no sense (“non avendo di loro alcuno senso”). Still, some resplendence of their light shines through to our intellect (“pure resplende nel nostro intelletto alcuno lume”). Such translucence mitigates the inaptitude of human intellect to apprehend the divine intellect, which transcends it disproportionately (“da esso e improporzionalmente soperchiato,” II.iv.14).

while incipient, is nevertheless radical. Underlying this difference is the way in which Dante remained true to the analogical worldview, even after it was metamorphosed into only a subjective vision. Especially in the Paradiso, Dante obsessively acknowledges the divine’s inaccessibility to and transcendence of human knowing. However, analogy’s being subjectively mediated does not deprive it of reality for Dante, even though this is what in Duns’s vocabulary we would have to call “formal” reality. Dante still uses the vocabulary of analogy as if it were objectively real, just as he still deploys classical mythology, placing figures such as Minos or Cerberus realistically within his Christian Hell. But he has revised the truth status of both lexicons. He has devised for his fundamental truth claim a different basis in his new, self-reflexively constructed subjectivity.

In the new epistemological paradigm adapted to their different purposes by Duns and by Dante respectively, the secular and the religious are connected in the intention of a willful subject and its representations. Dante still invokes in all its splendor and power the symbolic universe, and his work is an extension and glorious culmination of medieval analogical thinking and its worldview.5 This is where he remains closest to Henry of Ghent. But he has made his own subjectivity into this universe’s linchpin, and this is the handle by which later poets of the secular age will pick up on his precedent. The subjective sensibility of an individual poet, such as one finds in Milton or Blake, or even in Leopardi, Baudelaire, and Rilke, is now the key to connecting things together analogically—or metaphorically, to be more exact—in the total order of the cosmos.[1]

Sensations, even smells (“ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens”), now have “the expansion of infinite things” (“ayant l’expansion des choses infinies”) in the “correspondences” of Baudelaire’s symbolist poetics. Such poetry begins in Dante’s ultimate testament, the Paradiso, with the “I,” who is reduced to reiterations of ineffability and synaesthetic metaphors vis-à-vis an unfathomably other God—in XX. 16-30, for example, where he sees sound take shape at the neck of a cithar. But precisely this limit opens a whole universe of metaphorical representation and free personal expression, the new sphere of “formal” modern poetic creativity inhabited by Mallarmé and Valéry. The individual subject— even in its explosion—has become the principle through which all reality is filtered and reflected. This approach is quintessentially modern, even though Dante conceives of it as still fully integrated within a total symbolic universe, a cosmos metaphysically ordered by the divine Logos.

From Analogy to Metaphor 173

Only subsequent to the application of Ockham’s razor would it seem possible, and even natural, to excise this wider context of meaning.

The imagination of a higher reality that cannot be properly represented, but that can be “repeated” (or realized) under the impress and influence of an experience of contact with the limits of possible experience and even its “beyond,” is, after all, still a kind of representation. Dante exploits just such representation in order to reconnect with an ontological fullness of the Other outside human conception and beyond instrumental reason’s reach. Duns, too, is still in touch with this other reality through liturgical reactualization of the event of divinity. Yet modernity, overall, will abandon the connection with any higher reality and treat the new formal reality fabricated by science as the true nature of reality itself. This is made possible, in Scotus’s terms, by univocity. Univocity, not analogy, is necessary for objective scientific knowledge, as it comes to be conceived especially by the Franciscans (influenced by Avicenna and Augustine) in this age of the split between positive theological knowing (fideism) and demonstrable scientific knowing (positivism).

Dante still works through images and likenesses, and with an investment of belief, in order to try to fathom God’s positive revelation in the Bible and in the cosmos. He recreates or repeats revelation through the probing of human experience taken to its limits. Yet he has accepted the fundamental point, embraced also by Scotus, that the secular world has to assume responsibility for itself and create by self-reflection its own relation to the transcendent order. It can do so only through love. Duns makes theology into an exercise in charity, availing himself of an Augustinian precedent and warrant. Dante does something similar in his own imaginative way: his representation of an imaginative universe consists in reflections of his mind and heart. All Dante’s representations are forms of self-reflection and self-affection. The metaphorical image for Dante, like the metaphysical or ethical concept for Duns, is a way of secularizing our contemplation of the divine—of rendering it in terms reflecting the world focused through the knowing subject.

Still, a cautionary note is in order here. It is important not to take this as a license for purely subjective fantasy. On the contrary, Dante becomes harsher than ever against arbitrary appropriations of Scripture. Paradiso XXIX.94-126 delivers a resounding reprimand against irresponsible preachers, pardoners, and friars larding their sermons with trivialities (“ciance”). In the age of representation, “invenzioni” and “favole” are liable to become means of vain self-promotion and exploitation of others. Such irresponsible fabrications are anything but disclosures of deep theological truth through personal investment and


Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) documents many historical stages of this shift from the self’s finding the ends of human life written into the cosmic order to its producing them from within itself.

ethical-poetic self-fashioning. Recognizing an inescapable mediation of all understanding by the subject makes it even more imperative—even if not easier—to distinguish what is authentic poetic vision and existential witness from what is not. We still live in the crisis engendered by this ambiguity.

  • [1] Bruno Shah, “Apocalyptic Specularity in Dante’s Eschatology: Narcissus and the Imagination of Salvation,” Modern Theology 34/1 (2018): 42-69, effectively demonstrates this for Dante in terms adapted from Hoff’s The Analogical Turn. 2 I carry out this interpretation of Dante’s laying down of the premises of modern poetics of revelation in Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante.
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