Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio


Opening Passage:

O'er better waves to speed her rapid course
The light bark of my genius lifts the sail,
Well pleas'd to leave so cruel sea behind;
And of that second region will I sing,
In which the human spirit from sinful blot
Is purg'd, and for ascent to Heaven prepares.

Here, O ye hallow'd Nine! for in your train
I follow, here the deadened strain revive;
Nor let Calliope refuse to sound
A somewhat higher song, of that loud tone,
Which when the wretched birds of chattering note
Had heard, they of forgiveness lost all hope.

Summary: In writing a poem about Purgatory, Dante faced a number of significant challenges. Purgatory is, as it were, the Holy Saturday of the afterlife; it is not that it is unimportant, but by its very nature it is preparatory to, and therefore dwarfed by, something infinitely more important. That there is some kind of purification in the afterlife is implicit in intercession for the dead, but the theology of it is not particularly precise or developed, and was less so in Dante's day. Thomas Aquinas, who is Dante's usual go-to for theological guidance, says almost nothing about it, and what he does say is both minimal and early. Fewer artistic conventions had been developed for it than for Hell or Heaven; Dante cannot draw from any sort of extensive ready-made iconography. The tradition yielded very little more than general principles: it is purification, a penitential state but of satispassion and not (as our penitential practices are) satisfaction, the patient Church receiving our prayers and waiting to be made pure for Heaven. The Council of Florence had not yet clarified the relation between Latin and Greek doctrines. St. Catherine of Genoa had not yet written her visions.

Thus Dante's imagining of Purgatory gets a great deal of credit for originality; he was starting almost from scratch and trying to write a poem fit to stand with poems about Hell and Heaven, which had superabundant materials on which to draw. But as is often the case with real artistic originality -- and as Dante himself would certainly have thought -- the originality and novelty all has to stem from faithfulness to the root ideas. Dante is original not so much in the sense of making things up as in the sense of working systematically and rationally through a territory that had hardly been scored before. And I think we can identify fairly easily the basic principle on which he worked, although one might argue about the precise formulation of it. It is, I suggest, something along these lines: Purgatory is the completion of the penitential work of the Church as we know it. In a sense, the entire mountain of Purgatory is a church created by God to serve as the sacred space for the liturgy that prepares souls for the Communion of which Eucharistic communion is just a sign.

Purgatory is on earth, in the antipodes, and Dante emphasizes this a lot. It serves as a sort of mirror image of the work of the Church in the world on our mortal side of the globe; except that this image is intended to describe something more perfect than our failure-ridden and flawed work can attain. But, although the penitential life of Purgatory is more perfect, it is not fundamentally different. Everything achieved in Purgatory by patiently enduring, could have been achieved in life by active penitential practice. Purgatory is just a matter of finishing what we, foolish mortals with bad priorities, left unfinished; it is a matter of coming to live the life of the Beatitudes, which we were already called to do in mortal life.

Commentators often remark on the originality of what they call 'Ante-Purgatory', the area that is not quite Purgatory in which the excommunicated and the lately repentance congregate and wait before being allowed in. It makes sense as a reflection of the Church: in life, those delaying penitence tried to linger outside due to desires for other things, deferring repentance as long as possible; in Purgatory, they must endure an equivalent lingering-outside before fulfilling their desire to continue inward, thereby sharpening their desire for the repentance they must undergo.

It is also noticeable that Purgatory is filled with art. Dante as he goes his way through the Divine Comedy tends to pay special attention to the arts, especially his own field of poetry, but to a very remarkable degree it is a primary focus of the Purgatorio, perhaps second only to repentance itself. We are met with hymns from the very beginning. On the first terrace, in which the twisted love of pride is untwisted, we see engravings on the wall so perfect that they seem life-like, depicting examples of humility, and similar engravings on the floor depicting examples of pride. On the second terrace, devoted to envy, we have voices proclaiming fragments of stories. On the third terrace, dramatic visions before the imagination give examples of gentleness and wrath. On the fourth terrace, we have more shouted stories, concerning sloth and envy, and recitations of prayers reflecting on the fifth, reflecting on examples of avarice and prodigality. The fruit trees on the sixth terrace speak of gluttony; the penitents themselves allude to examples of lust as they walk the fires of the seventh terrace. What meets Dante in the earthly paradise is an elaborate and lush mix of tableau, pageant, and mystery play.

But art is not only pervasive, it is central. From Canto XXI, in which Dante and Vergil meet Statius, to Canto XXVI, when they meet Arnaut Daniel, there is a sort of convention of poets going on, discussing issues relevant to poetry. Statius praises Vergil and then, of course, is delighted to meet him; opponents of the 'sweet new style' concede Dante's excellence in it; Dante meets his influences. But I think there is even more going on here. The central cantos speak of free will and love. Love, of course, is the ultimate creative force in the Comedy, and precisely the distinction between Hell and Purgatory is that love in Hell is fake, and all love in Purgatory is genuine. The damned get what they desire, and shriek because it is sterile agony; the patient endure penalties as severe, and yet they sing, because they love justice, and, perhaps, even more, they love love. All vices are love twisted; all virtues are love rightly ordered. And, of course, the free creativity of love is the foundation of the self-discipline of art as well as the self-discipline of repentance; and the purpose of art, for Dante the ultimate love poet, is to uphold true and genuine love.

Art and penitential practice are thus allied, or, rather, intermingled, in Purgatory, as they are (albeit less perfectly) in the sacred art of the Church Militant. But it is not simply sacred art that is in view. Dante's devotion to Vergil is, if anything, even more intense in Purgatory than it was in Hell; and, more than this, we see in the meeting with Statius the essential idea that Vergil, by his excellence in poetry, prepared the way for the salvation of Statius's soul. The penitential Church presented by Dante is a thoroughly artistic Church; and it draws from all the art in the universe to turn it to its rightful end, the Love that moves the stars. Repentance is a restoration of love to its proper character; but love is inherently creative. A repentant Church is an artistic Church. It could not even stop itself from being so. And, likewise, art that has not been turned aside, but expresses well and clearly that love which creates, is morally good for us, an aid to repentance. The penitent face their sufferings singing; they are upheld and aided in their self-discipline by the visual arts; they re-learn what they should be through story.

One other striking thing about the Purgatorio is that Dante engages in self-critique. His forehead is carved with all of the vices. He regards himself as one of the greatest poets of all time, but he recognizes that this is a possible problem of pride that requires repentance. And, of course, when he gets to the terrestrial paradise and sees the splendid Beatrice, he is treated to a sharp and unrelenting lecture on his bad priorities -- and indeed, she as much as says at one point that he was so far gone that she got permission to have him see hell in the hope of saving him. Dante in Hell is an observer; Dante in Purgatory must do as the penitent must, and undo his disorders before he can see Heaven.

Favorite Passage: There are a number of good ones, but this, the prayer of the penitent proud from Canto XI, is particularly memorable:

"O thou Almighty Father, who dost make
The heavens thy dwelling, not in bounds confin'd,
But that with love intenser there thou view'st
Thy primal effluence, hallow'd be thy name:
Join each created being to extol
Thy might, for worthy humblest thanks and praise
Is thy blest Spirit. May thy kingdom's peace
Come unto us; for we, unless it come,
With all our striving thither tend in vain.
As of their will the angels unto thee
Tender meet sacrifice, circling thy throne
With loud hosannas, so of theirs be done
By saintly men on earth. Grant us this day
Our daily manna, without which he roams
Through this rough desert retrograde, who most
Toils to advance his steps. As we to each
Pardon the evil done us, pardon thou
Benign, and of our merit take no count.
'Gainst the old adversary prove thou not
Our virtue easily subdu'd; but free
From his incitements and defeat his wiles.
This last petition, dearest Lord! is made
Not for ourselves, since that were needless now,
But for their sakes who after us remain."

Recommendation: Well, obviously, Highly Recommended. If you pace yourself, I think it actually moves more smoothly than the Inferno or the Paradiso -- it lacks the sheer flood of name and story in the other two poems, and likewise the complicated schemes integrating massive numbers of themes.

Sanctify Thy Woe

by John Henry Newman

Mortal! if e'er thy spirits faint,
By grief or pain opprest,
Seek not vain hope, or sour complaint,
To cheer or ease thy breast;

But view thy bitterest pangs as sent
A shadow of that doom,
Which is the soul's just punishment
In its own guilt's true home.

Be thine own judge: hate thy proud heart;
And while the sad drops flow,
E'en let thy will attend the smart,
And sanctify thy woe.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Music on My Mind

BLQ, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross".

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
by Isaac Watts

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Pretty much everybody skips the fourth stanza; that's a bit unfortunate, as it plays a structural role bridging between the third and the fifth.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Statistics and Aesthetics

Rosmini has an interesting passage in the Theodicy in which he comments on what we might call the statistical character of some kinds of perception of the beautiful (sect. 277):

If you put into a bag 90 little balls of ivory, all of the same size, one sixth of them yellow, two sixths red, and three sixths black, and then draw them out one at a time at haphazard, there is no certainty that one colour will come out first rather than another, but there is probability in the proportions of one half for the black, one third for the red, and one sixth for the yellow. Whichever colour you happen to extract is always an irregularity, because that colour had not, so to speak, an entire right to come out, but only half a right, or a third, or a sixth part. But if, replacing the ball after each extraction, you go on repeating the same operation a very great number of times, you will find that the number of balls for each colour comes nearer and nearer to the relative proportions in respect of the colours. And the longer you continue, the more will the irregularity diminish, and the normal design become more apparent; thus clearly showing you, that the law which inclines the colours to regularize themselves, although accidentally disturbed in its action, would entirely prevail if you were to prolong the extractions to an indefinite length of time.

Agreeably to this, he who can only consider particular cases, is not in a position to be able to realize to himself the marvellous beauty of this universe; nay, in noticing the irregularities which are inevitable in it, he must take them as so many evidences of deformity; whereas he who considers a long series of events will see therein an admirably regular and symmetrical order.

In his example, if you look at a fine piece of embroidery, in which there is an immense amount going on, and you only look at a few threads, you will not see what is happening with the whole embroidery -- you will see a bit of color, then a bit of another color, and the like, and miss the whole picture to which each of the threads contributes.

The analogy is closer than it might appear. While we don't usually think of statistics as concerned with the beautiful, it is about the discovery of patterns and symmetries in a population, and thus connects directly to matters of beauty, which are also concerned with patterns and symmetries. If one can simply see the pattern or symmetry, one can perhaps simply see the beauty of something, but there are inevitably things whose full beauty is too big to catch at a glance, and in those cases the size and quality of your samplings can matter greatly, because fully seeing the beauty requires getting a sense of what is happening as a whole. But, of course, sampling alone is not enough, in statistical or aesthetic matters; one must have a way to make sense of the result.


Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard, cypress with spikenard. (Song of Songs 4:13)

The pomegranate tree, before its pomegranates are ripe, brings no enjoyment to those who eat; it is encased with thorns. So also is everyone who becomes God's garden and paradise in this life; first he must live with difficulty, with hunger and thirst and striving and exertion, and whatever other sufferings there are for virtue. Thus he constrains himself, and whatever trials come upon him involuntarily, whether caused by companions or by Satan, all of this he patiently and voluntarily bears for love of God. Afterwards, there will be appetizing fruit for God, like the pomegranate, which grows among thorns until it is ripe.

[Gregory of Narek, The Blessing of Blessings, Ervine, tr. Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo, MI: 2007) p. 133.]

And that's a wrap.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earth: and some indeed unto honour, but some unto dishonour. (2 Timothy 2:20)

For the gold and the silver are the good men, but the gold are the better men and silver the less good men. In the same way the wood and the earth are the wicked men, but he earth are the worse men while the wood are the less evil men.

Consequently he designates a diversity regarding use, so that the good are vessels of honor, as it were deputed for honorable use; the evil are earth and wood, as it were deputed for dishonor, that is, vile use. In the same way among men, some, namely the saints, are as it were precious vessels....But some are useless vessels, namely the evil.

[Thomas Aquinas, Commentaries on St. Paul's Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Baer, tr. St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, IN: 2007) p. 121.]

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Gerdil on the Possibility of an Actual Infinite Multitude

An interesting passage from Gerdil's Recueil de dissertations sur quelques principes de philosophie & de religion (1760); it is one part of an argument against the eternity of matter. The translation, which is mine, is just a rough first draft.

One can, it seems to me, give a demonstration of the impossibility of an actual infinite in quantity by a series of clear and incontestable principles.

(1) Every multitude, every collection composed of an infinity of terms contains as many ones as it has terms. For it is evident that in a collection each term is counted by a one.

(2) The natural series of numbers stands in place of every collection that has ones; because it is evident that in this assemblage one can designate one, then two, then three, and so in series, until one has gone through all the terms or ones.

(3) As to suppose a collection infinite in terms is nothing other than to suppose an infinite multitude of ones, it is evident that the natural series will be applicable to this collection, or at least that this infinite collection of ones will not possess infinity in another way than the natural series of numbers.

(4) In every progression of the natural series continued to infinity, the succeeding number never rises more than one unit above the preceding number; so there can be no leap from one number to the other, and one cannot reach one from the other, save by continual addition of one and one.

(5) In the natural progression the series of numbers increasing from 1 by the continual addition of unity to unity, and this without end, it follows that there is no assignable term in this series which is not preceded and followed by other terms, from which it differs only by one.

(6) Therefore, since this progression must always continue to infinity, it is impossible for the sequence of terms to arrive at a point where, after any finite state, it does not follow another finite term, and which is not only superior to it by a unit. The passage from the finite to the infinite is therefore not only obscure and incomprehensible, which alone would not be sufficient reason to reject it, but absolutely impossible. This must be demonstrated with the utmost accuracy.

I say, then, that in the natural series of numbers the passage from finite to infinite is impossible. If this passage is possible, there would then be a finite number after which follows the infinite number. This is borne out by the idea of ​​the passage from one to the other, for the natural series beginning with one, and rising by finite numbers, if it reaches infinity, necessarily there is a finite number one at which one passes to infinity. Now, in the natural series, it is impossible for an infinite number to succeed any finite number; for this infinite number must exceed the finite to which it succeeds by one alone, or an indeterminate number of units. If it exceeds by one only, then it is finite, since it has a finite relation to a finite number. If it exceeds it by an indeterminate number of ones, then it is not what immediately follows in the natural progression, contrary to what was supposed; and the natural series always rising by the continual addition of this indeterminate number of ones, in the resulting terms it will always be equally impossible to find the term that ceases to be finite.


And if the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? (1 Peter 4:18)

The Pelagians were unwilling to believe that the whole mass of the human race was corrupted and condemned in one man. It is the grace of Christ alone that cures and frees from this corruption and condemnation. For why will the righteous be saved with difficulty? Is it a labor for God to set free the righteous? Far from it. But to show that [our] nature was rightly condemned the Omnipotent himself does not wish to set [us] free easily from so great an evil, because sins are easy to slip into and righteousness is strenuous, except for those who love; but charity, which makes them lovers, is of God.

[Bede, Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles, Cistercian Press (Kalamazoo, MI: 1985), p. 113.]

Monday, April 10, 2017

Evening Note for Monday, April 10

Thought for the Evening: John Quincy Adams on Tropes

John Quincy Adams spent part of his life as a professor; he was professor of logic for a while at Brown University, and then accepted the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. It was a subject he was eminently qualified to teach, having both a thorough mastery of all the classical and modern works on the subject as well as a practical familiarity with the art itself, and, perhaps, just as importantly, a passionate belief in the importance of rhetoric to the survival and prosperity of a republic. President Madison asked him to be the first ambassador to Russia, and so after only a few years he resigned his professorship, but he was asked by his colleagues to publish his popular lectures, which he did, in 1810, under the title, Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory.

The lectures have much of interest in them, especially on the subject of figurative language, which he discusses at length. Adams has an associationist account of figurative tropes. As he conceives it, every figure of speech involves three elements of meaning -- the literal sense, which serves as a kind of reference point, another idea which one intends to convey, and a "chain of communication" between the two ideas, consisting of some association of imagination. On the basis of this assumption, he is able to give a coherent account of the traditional four major tropes (Volume 2, p. 311):

There are four distinct principles of association so familiar to the minds of men, that they serve as the foundations, upon which the use of a word, meaning one thing, for a thought meaning another, is justified in the practice of all nations. The first of these is similitude; the second, the relation between cause and effect; the third, the relation between a whole and its parts; and the fourth is opposition. These various relations form the connecting links of all the principal tropes. Hence it has been contended, that there are only four primary tropes; the metaphor, founded upon similitude; the metonomy, founded upon the relation between cause and effect; the synecdoche, standing on the relation between a whole and its parts; and irony, the basis of which is opposition. There are however various other distinctions, which the continual analytic process of theory has discovered, which form a secondary class of tropes.

This is fairly similar to Hume's list of principles of association -- resemblance, causation, contiguity -- especially when one adds the principle Beattie added in critiquing Hume, contrariety. I don't know that there is a direct influence here. Beattie had already remarked that Hume's principles of association were already discussed in the context of memory by Aristotle (in the De memoria), and all of these people read the same classical sources. On the other hand, Adams was extremely familiar with Hume, who also has an associationist account of figurative language (although not one developed in precise detail), so a direct influence can't be ruled out, either.

Adams says a number of other interesting things about figurative language. One of his particularly interesting ideas, which I think deserving of more consideration, is that figurative language has a quasi-synaesthesic character (which Beattie also notes). "The purpose of figurative speech," he says (p. 269), "is to address the eye through the medium of imagination." Hearing is a relatively impoverished sense, considered in itself; it receives sounds, but these sounds must be interpreted as signs to be of any use. However, because these signs are associated with other sensory phenomena in our imagination, the clever orator can make use of them to conjure up other sensory details in the minds of his audience. "Every image, under which a writer or speaker proposes to display thought, is a picture" (p. 274), and for this reason Adams recommends his students always test out their figures of speech by considering how they would seem if painted on a canvas -- because our sense of the quality of the figure of speech can be easily distorted by other things (e.g., familiarity), and a figure of speech is so often using sounds to encourage a picturesque vision in the imagination.

Adams often displays a sense of humor in his handling of his material. The best of his jokes is that with which he introduces irony (p. 340):

Perhaps of all the figures of speech, that, which would least require an explanation, is the irony; which is so convenient an instrument of that mutual benevolence, which mankind are delighted to extend to one another, that I question whether there was ever a student, who had made the proficiency necessary for obtaining admission within these walls, but understood its character, as well as any of his teachers.

Various Links of Note

* P. S. Ruckman, Jr. looks back at problems in the Obama Administration's approach to clemency.

* Some of the history of the persecution of Copts in Egypt.

* The history of the Comic Sans typeface.

* Alex Good, The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy

Currently Reading

Dante, Purgatorio
Christ Our Pascha
Donald Ainslie, Hume's True Scepticism
Mark Anderson, Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One
Michael Flynn, Eifelheim

Clap Your Hands

O, All Ye People, Clap Your Hands
by John Quincy Adams

O, All ye people, clap your hands,
Shout unto God with holy mirth;
In fearful majesty he stands;
He is the Monarch of the earth:
Before us nations he subdues,
And prostrates kingdoms at our feet;
For us a portion he shall choose
In favored Jacob's chosen seat.

God, with a shout, to heaven ascends;
Sing praises to our God and King:
Hark! the loud tempest ether rends;
Sing praises, praises, praises sing.
His power Creation's orb sustains;
Sing hymns of praise to him alone:
Jehovah o'er the nations reigns;
He sits upon his holy throne.

See gathering princes, men of might,
In crowds from earth's remotest shore,
With us in worship all unite,
And Abraham's God with us adore:
The shields of earth are all his own,
And, far o'er human ken sublime,
Eternal pillars prop his throne,
Beyond the bounds of space and time.

Yes, this is the same John Quincy Adams who was the sixth President of the United States.


For, for this cause was the gospel preached also to the dead: that they might be judged indeed according to men, in the flesh; but may live according to God, in the Spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)

God has such great concern, such great love, such great desire that we be put to death in the body but quickened in the spirit, that he has commanded [us] to preach the Gospel, the word of faith, to those also who are implicated in greater crimes and justifiably must be accounted among the dead, namely, because of their self-indulgence, desires, insobriety, gluttony, drunkenness and unlawful worship of idols, since even they, when they have passed judgment on, that is, rejected and put aside, their bodily desires, may be alive spiritually and may look for eternal life together with those whom the grace of the Gospel finds living innocently.

[Bede the Venerable, Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles, Hurst, tr. Cistercian Publications (Kalamzoo, MI: 1985) p. 109.]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Wildflowers of Central Texas

Texas is a wildflower state. Wildflowers are found in profusion naturally (more than 5000 species flowering plants, many of them very brightly colored), they are seeded by the state along the long stretches of highways (the state of Texas has more than 800,000 acres of side-of-the-highway land, and the Department of Transportation essentially landscapes most of it as wildflower grounds), and people go wildflower hunting. There has been quite an abundance recently; I intended to get out with a camera, but haven't had the time, and the weather is not cooperating today, so I will just use Wikimedia Commons.

The star of this spring has been the evening primrose, Oenothera speciosa, also known as pinklady. It's a common enough flower in the southern United States, but Central Texas tends to get them a bit earlier than most places due to mild winters and wet springs. This year I started seeing them in late February. It's usually a shy bloom, since you usually find them here and there in tucked-away places, but it has been all over this spring.

Showy Primrose

The state flower, of course, is the Texas bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis. Because it is a standard for seeding, for obvious reasons, you always see a lot.

Texas Bluebonnet (3) (129891889)

Another bright bloom is the Indian paintbrush, Castilleja indivisa, also known as prairie-fire. Its flowers are edible, but the plant is an efficient accumulator of selenium, which means that its leaves and roots can become quite toxic.

Castilleja indivisa

The Texas purple thistle, Cirsium horridulum, has also occasionally been making an appearance.

Texas Purple Thistle

Another one I have occasionally seen is Texas star, Lindheimera texana.

Lindheimera texana-IMG 3556

Every time it rains, there's a few days in which we get the rain lily, also known as the flor de mayo. Wikimedia commons doesn't seem to have an image, but you can see it at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website. It's a picky flower, and, as its name suggests it likes the rain; it comes after the showers and never stays around long.

There are some notable flowers that really aren't out yet this spring, like the Indian blanket, of which I have only seen one, or the giant spiderwort or the purple cornflower. Primary wildflower season usually lasts from March through June, so we are not even halfway through.

Not Mine

Hallowed be Thy name,
not mine,
Thy kingdom come,
not mine,
Thy will be done,
not mine,
Give us peace with Thee
Peace with men
Peace with ourselves
And free us from all fear.
[Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, Sjöberg & Auden, trs., Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 1964) p. 142]