For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
What Frames What?: In Conversation With Dante

What Frames What?: In Conversation With Dante

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In the weeks leading up to our national election I found myself thinking more than ever about the question, “What frames what?”—not at some abstract level but in very personal ways. Most obviously, the intensity of our political divide had me thinking. For several years now I have felt a genuine sympathy for those whose largest framework for understanding human experience is politics. That has to be a hard place to live—even if you are on the winning side of the election. I remain concerned both for those who will see the results of this election as a disaster and for those who will celebrate it. I’m not sure that political solutions ever deliver at the levels we want them to, and I remain convinced that there are much larger frameworks in place. 

It is not just politics, however, that has been pushing me to ask, “What frames what?” Dante Alighieri has been pushing me too. If you read our Monday morning emails, you know that several of us are reading his Divine Comedy this year, and in recent weeks he has been doing some important work in my life. I won’t pretend that reading Dante has always been fun or always satisfying, and it certainly hasn’t been easy, but this fall we are reading the Purgatorio and with each ascending circle of purgatory, Dante’s great poem has become richer and richer and pushed me more and more at a personal level. 

I have had to admit that while I ask other people “What frames what?” I rarely probe as deeply as I might into my own answer to the question. I want the answer to the question to be biblical and Christ-centered, but when I examine my life, and extrapolate from what any given week actually looks like in order to figure out what my real framework for living is, I have had to wonder. As Jesus so succinctly put it, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and yet not do what I say?”

Reading Dante does raise one of the questions that many of us face when we read books worth reading. Namely: How important is it that you agree or disagree with the author? One of the lessons I’ve had to learn over the years is how to let authors, with whom I have significant disagreements, challenge and enrich my thinking. So often, I fear, we tend to think that the point of reading a book is to decide whether we agree or disagree with the author. We plod along simply trying to determine whether the author is “getting it right” or not. Please don’t misunderstand. I think truth matters—in the good old-fashioned sense of the word, of seeking a right understanding of reality. Having said that, however, I am so thankful that God has taught me to let a wide variety of voices inform and inspire me and take me deeper than I would otherwise go. 

The fact is that Michel Foucault has informed my reading of the psalms, Friedrich Nietzsche has deepened my understanding of the Ten Commandments, and Judith Butler has deepened my reading of Genesis three, so I am quite willing to let Dante lead me through purgatory. As Alan Jacobs observes in How to Think, we do best not when we “think for ourselves” but when we think together with people who will stretch us a bit. As my son-in-law recently observed, “Iron sharpens iron.”

I don’t always agree with Dante. In fact, I don’t think there is such a place as purgatory, and yet Dante’s reflections on purgatory are doing a lot of good work for me. He is making me think about what frames what in my own life, and he is enriching my thinking about becoming the person God calls me to be. Dante has me thinking about my own sanctification, about growing in holiness, about purging—or putting away—vice and cultivating virtue. Dante is exposing my idols, my indifference, and the poverty of my thinking about godliness. He has become a means of grace that God is using to remake me in the image of His Son.

It hasn’t hurt, in this case, to have Mike Sacasas providing guidance and offering the occasional gloss on Dante’s text. Since Mike’s earliest presentations at the Study Center a year ago, he has been encouraging us to see the moral life as a life of rightly ordered loves—of loving what we ought to love, not loving what we ought not to love, and of loving what we ought to love in the right ways and in the right order. Mike draws this way of thinking from ancient, medieval, and modern sources, and in recent weeks it has become clear that these sources include Dante. 

I am a novice with regard to Dante, so take my reflections with a large grain of salt, but one of Dante’s arguments that has caught my attention is that as love is natural to God, so it is natural in his creatures. We are created to love, Dante notes, and this natural love endures in each and every one of us. I would see this as an expression of the imago Dei, but Dante just focuses on the fact that as God is love, so we are all made to love. “As fire, born to rise, moves upward,” and “just like the zeal in bees for making honey,” so “this primal inclination” is innate in each of us. (XVIII, 28-29, and 68-69)

What’s in question, however, is how we direct this love. 

While it is directed to the primal good,
knowing moderation in its lesser goods,
it cannot be the cause of wrongful pleasure.

But when it bends to evil, or pursues the good
with more or less concern than needed,
then the creature works against his Maker. (XVII, 97-102)

To bend to evil, in Dante’s view, is to give in specifically to the sins of pride, envy, and wrath—three ways by which we do harm to our neighbor, but that is only the beginning of the story.

Often, our sinfulness lies not in pursuing evil but in failing to pursue the good in right measure. We pursue what is good, but “with more or less concern than needed.” This can take the form not only of loving too little but of loving too much. The fact that work or marriage or food or drink are all fundamental goods does not mean that we should allow any of these secondary goods to rise to the level of the supreme Good. The true goods in life need to be rightly ordered, and rightly loved. As we have just noted, when we lose sight of the “primal good,” and pursue “lesser goods” with more “concern than needed, then the creature works against his Maker.”

On the other hand, we can also fall short of loving as we ought, of giving less concern than needed. In fact, we often fail to give ourselves fully to goods that are truly good and that deserve our full attention. This is the sin of sloth or acedia, in which we love what is rightly loved but with less zeal than the good object of our love rightly calls for. We love with “a love of good that falls short of its duty.” We pursue “the good in faulty measure” and pull “the slackened oar,” not giving ourselves fully to the good that deserves our full attention. (XVII, 85-87)

We should beware, however, of thinking of sloth as simply being lazy. As Mike and others who reflect on the nature of contemporary culture have shown us, the sin of acedia can easily hide behind a great deal of busyness—busyness that consumes us and distracts us from the true goods we ought to be pursuing in any given moment. And while our digital technologies play a major role here, we ought not use them as an excuse for our own failings. My “to do” list, for instance, all too often created routinely and with little thought, can keep me busy, make me look good, and even help me feel good about myself, while also keeping me from the single, simple good to which the Spirit of God calls me in any given moment of the day. Paradoxically, getting free from busy slothfuness will almost certainly require stopping—doing nothing long enough to reflect and discern what we actually ought to be doing. Freeing ourselves from sloth may, ironically, require that we slow down, become more settled, unhurried, deliberate, but neither lazy nor frantic.

Ultimately, the issue of sloth, whether in its lazy or frantic form, matters not just in regard to how well we give our attention to any number of lesser goods, but with regard to our pursuit of the very highest of goods—the supreme or primal Good that is God and who alone gives true peace. He is that Good which frames all in all. “Everyone can vaguely apprehend some good in which the mind may find its peace,” Dante writes. “With desire, each one strives to reach it.” Sadly, we tend to seek that greatest Good in lesser goods that cannot give true peace. Our “appetites are fixed on things that, divided, lessen each one’s share,” and so our hearts fill with envy rather than with peace. 

As Pascal would put it several centuries later, when we reflect upon the nature of the sovereign good, we recognize that it is “impossible that this universal good, desired by all men, should lie in any of the particular objects which can only be possessed by one individual and which, once shared, cause their possessors more grief over the part they lack than satisfaction over the part they enjoy as their own. [We] realize that the true good must be such that it may be possessed by all men at once without diminution or envy.” (pensée #148)

Dante then takes us a step beyond Pascal, suggesting that when we fix our hearts on loving God, not only is the Good not diminished by being shared, it grows instead. The love of God is amplified as we give ourselves fully to him. Giving us this wisdom through the voice of Virgil, Dante writes: 

‘Because your appetites are fixed on things
that divided, lessen each one’s share, 
envy’s bellows pushes breath into your sighs.

‘But if love for the highest sphere
could turn your longings toward heavenly things,
then fear of sharing would pass from your hearts.

‘For there above, when more souls speak of ours
the more of goodness each one owns,
the more of love is burning in that cloister.

Dante, the pilgrim, then asks:

‘How can it be that a good, distributed,
can enrich a greater number of possessors
than if it were possessed by few?

To which Virgil responds:

‘Because you still
have your mind fixed on earthly things,
you harvest darkness from the light itself.

‘That infinite and ineffable Good,
which dwells on high speeds toward love
as a ray of sunlight to a shining body.

‘It returns the love it finds in equal measure,
so that, if more of ardor is extended, 
eternal Goodness will augment its own.

And the more souls there are who love on high,
the more there is to love, the more of loving,
for like a mirror each returns it to the other. (XV, 49-75)

Dante runs deep and always calls for still more careful reading, but perhaps it would help to see these lines as Dante’s gloss on the Apostle Paul’s image that at present, “we see in a mirror, dimly (enigmatically),” but in that day of heavenly glory we shall see “face to face” – to face to face to face. We will be like a hall of living mirrors in which the glory of God is reflected and amplified. And it should be noted that this thought from the Apostle comes as the conclusion to his own reflections on the primacy and enduring character of love.

Whether you are celebrating the outcomes of the recent elections or fearful that the sky is falling, I encourage you to keep asking, What frames what? What provides your most basic understanding of human experience and history? If, like me, you want the answer to this question to be richly theocentric and rooted in biblical wisdom, let me ask you what I ask myself: Does your life confirm or call into question that biblical framework?

I also want to encourage you to ask, “With whom am I in conversation?” This is the second of the two questions that I have asked students over the years, and the more we all settle into our comfortable feedback loops, the more I want to ask it.  What conversation partners are feeding your thought processes these days? Do you read and listen to only what you know will confirm the opinions you already hold? Do you stop reading or listening the moment you encounter a disagreement? 

Is there a Dante in your life? 

I’m not asking you to be wishy washy. I’m not even asking you to change any of your views. I’m just asking you to give yourself to thoughtfulness and to recognize how hard it is to do this if you don’t have thoughtful friends feeding your thoughts. Thoughtfulness is a worthy goal, and nothing keeps us from it more effectively than the slothful sin of staying busy, busy, busy.

So, let me grant Dante the final word in pointing us to the sovereign Good who frames all in all and who is the source of greatest peace. Beware “the slackened oar,” He tells us. Let not “the love that draws you on” be “laggard to know or have that peace.” 

And if you want some help in finding worthy conversational partners, allow me to invite you to join us in “Breaking Bread with the Dead” this spring.

Richard V. Horner

November 6, 2020

Study Center Resources

At the end of his essay, Dr. Horner invited you to join us in “breaking bread with the dead” next semester. In doing so, he was alluding to our reading of Alan Jacobs’s recent book by that title, which encourages us to connect with authors from the past in order to better ground our experience in the present. That same reading group is currently concluding another book by Jacobs,  The Year of Our Lord 1943. You can join our Zoom discussion this Monday, November 9th at 8:00 p.m. You can join the meeting with this link. The group is open to the public, so feel free to join in.

Associate Director Michael Sacasas was recently interviewed on the podcast of the The Institute for Policy Research, an interdisciplinary policy research center of the Catholic University of America.

Recommended Reading

— Craig Bartholomew on biblical wisdom for uncertain times:

Wisdom is not a technique that you simply take and apply so that you have it. It has to be lived, and we have to be formed into wise people. Job’s struggle is different from that of the Preacher. Job’s is existential whereas the Preacher’s is intellectual. Both are excruciating experiences, and both felt that their very existence was at stake. How did they find resolution?

The answer, but never simplistically, is God. Experiences like that of the pandemic bring us quickly to the very real limits of our own wisdom. That is the message of Job 28. But does this mean wisdom amid uncertainty is unavailable? No, because as Job 28:23 says,

God understands the way to it

and he alone knows where it dwells

God knows the way to wisdom because God is wisdom.

For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
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