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Dante’s Presentation of Love and Science in The Divine Comedy

Dante’s Presentation of Love and Science in The Divine Comedy

Historically, Middle Ages received their name for being a transfer between antiquity and modernity. This was true about culture, science, religion and the overall outlook that people of Western civilization had. Dante Alighieri is a renowned representative of this epoch who used his literary works to ask questions about the sense of human life and the place of humanity in the  Universe. His Divine Comedy is more than a classification of sins; it covers a variety of philosophical aspects. Speaking about love, he discusses courtly love to a woman as part of love to God, stating its divine nature. Furthermore, he manages to reconcile science and theology by making them harmonious elements of God’s plan for humanity.

The structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which includes Inferno, Purgatory and Paradiso, is not accidental at all. The direction of the journey from the darkness of hell to the light of paradise is significant too, as it reflects the author’s intention to contrast the good and the evil and to make readers think about making the right decisions. The concept of love is presented by Dante in alignment with his overall Christian philosophy and ethics. Love is always a motivation for humans, no matter whether one speaks of small things or heroic deeds. God is a central concept when love is discussed because he is represented as its main source, as creative effort that resulted in the Universe to start. In the same way, humanity was created according to God’s intention of love, so love is the core essence of every soul that comes to earth and hence should  guide a person on his or her path.

The time was the beginning of the morning;

the sun was rising now in fellowship

with the same stars that had escorted it

when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty;

so that the hour and the gentle season

gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing

that beast before me with his speckled skin; (Inferno I, 37-43)

However, people are vulnerable to sin, so the purity of divine love is tarred when being mixed with other feelings like lust, lies, rage, jealousy and so on. It can be thus stated that Dante devotes so much space to detailed description of Inferno not just because he wants to warn his readers against sinful life but he wants to explore the deviations which make people ruin the divine love, which is their true essence. Yet, it is still possible to clear oneself from sin and approach God, so this is why the narrator should start from hell, then go through purgatory and finally reach the light that becomes brighter when entering the gate of Paradise.

When speaking about presentation of love, the character of Beatrice is significant. Her role in the poem is being a lodestar for the hero who should always remember his spiritual goals no matter what trouble he faces in his earthly existence. In this way, Beatrice is a ray of light from the sun represented by God.  When she is willing to help Dante, she is moved by the force of love, which is part of divine love:

For I am Beatrice who send you on;

I come from where I most long to return;

Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak.” (Inferno II, 70-72)

Dante is clear about his merging love to a woman and love to God, because the nature of his love to Beatrice is far from passion. On the contrary, this love is purely spiritual, which is underline by the fact that she is only a spirit after her death, so it is impossible for the man to have her nearby as a woman. So, loving a woman with no chance to possess her reflects the idea of courtly love that was popular in Dante’s epoch.

Paradiso is the part that best describes the idea of the poet on love. Even in Paradise people do not get an equal share of love from God. The closer they are to the center, the more love they can feel, like warmth from the sun but they cannot decide themselves how much love they are worthy. God’ s plans are secret for people, so Date believes that they should accept and be grateful for what they have. Thus, Picarda, who is an inhabitant of lower heaven, does not complain about her fate:

“Brother, the power of love appeases our

will so – we only long for what we have;

we do not thirst for greater blessedness.

Should we desire a higher sphere than ours,

then our desires would be discordant with

the will of Him who has assigned us here,

but you’ll see no such discord in these spheres;

to live in love is – here – necessity,

if you think on love’s nature carefully. (Paradiso III, 70-78)

An aspect of the divine love described by Dante is “charity”, which can be understood as love, mercy and compassion irrespective of whether one deserves it or not. Charity is an opposite side of God’s justice, which is so vividly demonstrated in Inferno. Nine circles of Hell expose an idea of retribution, which every sinner is bound to have. Justice is clear, severe and understandable, it a payment for wrong choices and wrong deeds. Yet, as Dante says, Love is something that is higher than justice and that cannot be totally comprehended by human mind. Sometimes people can be blessed and forgiven even they do not deserve it, so the charity aspect of divine love is what Dante highlights in the poem. This aspect is revealed through female symbols to a large extend, including Mary and Beatrice herself. An ability to give beyond the expected and to forgive is the magical concept of love covered by Dante. Thus, Virgil’s guidance of the narrator is possible because of Mary’s help, and Beatrice is merciful to his sins too. She mentions that she does not approve of his behavior to women after her death, yet she is still ready to forgive him and welcome in Paradise. The very journey that the character makes looks like a miraculous present from God, which a human does not deserve, and yet receives it. The narrator is grateful to Mary in the first place, and his prayer to her merges with his overall courtly worship of a woman:

That love whose warmth allowed this flower to bloom

within the everlasting peace – was love

rekindled in your womb; for us above,

you are the noonday torch of charity,

and there below, on earth, among the mortals,

you are a living spring of hope. Lady,

you are so high, you can so intercede,

that he who would have grace but does not seek

your aid, may long to fly but has no wings.

Your loving-kindness does not only answer

the one who asks, but it is often ready

to answer freely long before the asking.

In you compassion is, in you is pity,

in you is generosity, in you

is every goodness found in any creature. (Paradiso XXXIII, 7-21)

In addition to love philosophy, Dante’s Divine Comedy covers some aspects of science and its relation to spirituality. Although he generally does not approve of some scientific studies, especially related to alchemy, he gives a proper place in his picture of universe to science. Indeed, he puts some alchemists in Hell because he believes that magic is a sin, yet he is quite reasonable when accepting that there can exist science in alignment with theology.

One of the scientific areas explored in the text is astronomy, which balances at the brink of Dante epoch’s discoveries and his fantasy. On the one hand, he could create an absolutely imaginary universe with the structure that is different from the Earth. Yet, there was some reason for Dante to include his knowledge of latest astronomic data in order to make cosmology relevant to his contemporaries. For example, he mentions some sstars discovered in both hemispheres and the difference in time zones depending on the position of the sun. He used Ptolemaic model, which was believed to be the true one in his times. He also had a notion about how Milky Way is organized:

As, graced with lesser and with larger lights

between the poles of the world, the Galaxy

gleams so that even sages are perplexed;

(Paradiso, XIV, 97–99 )

Thus, the idea of the earth moving around the sun was not accepted yet, so he speaks about the spherical pattern. Besides, he inherited some major cosmology data from Aristotle, as was mentioned by researchers not once: “Dante’s Heaven and Hell are Aristotelian in nature and form. Dante’s notion of a corruptible and ever-changing earth surrounded by a series of immutable, nested crystalline spheres whose perfection increased with their distance Earth, was derived from the Greek philosophic tradition. While the Pythagoreans established the sphere as a perfect, if not divine shape, Aristotle synthesized earlier conceptions of the heavens into a cosmology congruent with his physical laws.”( Astronomy in the Divine Comedy). Thus, apart from the information that Greek tradition allowed on astronomy, Dante also adopted their approach to astronomy as both scientific and spiritual realm. In fact, he believed astronomy to be a noble science because its mission is to explore and discover the universal order that God created. Hence, astronomy should describe the Universe with worship and gratitude to God for allowing humans to the secret realm.

Dante’s approach to science demonstrated in the Divine Comedy, rests on the idea that science should be based on knowledge gained through experience, not only on philosophical works of predecessors. Thus, paying tribute to ancient tradition, he simultaneously underlines the necessity of education that is related to experiments and discoveries:

time offer

Your special

Yet an experiment, were you to try it,

could free you from your cavil and the source

of your arts’ course springs from experiment.( Paradiso, II, 94–96)

In this case, Dante describes the laws of life reflection when experimenting with mirrors, part of optics science test, when the image in the most distant glass appears to be smaller but equally bright as the rest of images. This example is not the only one in the poem and confirms Dante’s interest in the discoveries of science. Yet, he underlines that the main idea behind every scientific effort is whether it supports the overall divine harmony or undermines it. In other words, science should prove the rule of God, not doubt it or challenge it. This is why he is so severe with all kinds of alchemists and magicians who in his opinion want to take the role of God by going beyond the limits set for humanity. Besides, alchemy was related to communication with evil spirits and heresy, one of the most severe sins. Hence, Dante is well aware of his position in favor of spiritual science that glorifies God and his deeds and rejects any that can be dangerous for religion. Apart from astronomy and optics, mathematics is mentioned, for instance Thales theorem:

“… or if, within a semicircle, one

can draw a triangle with no right angle.”(Paradiso, XIII, 101–102):

All things considered, representations of love and science in Dante’s Divine comedy reflect the poet’s personal philosophy and medieval mentality on the whole. The author believes that human love and human science are just small parts of the grand perfect mechanism created by God, this is why people should live according to divine guidance no matter what they do. Courtly love for a woman is a special phenomenon of femininity worship, which was common in Middle Ages among nobility, merges with the idea of divine love represented through a woman. Beatrice is a guide of spirit because she motivates the character to go through hell on the way to paradise. Speaking of science, Dante’s concept is much based on Aristotelian ideas, yet he is open to his contemporary data in case they are in alignment with religion. 

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