As Dante and Beatrice rise through the traditional seven heavens of mediaeval astronomy, the experience of each is lovelier and more intense, each sphere as it were prepares and trains Dante’s sight for the holiness and beauty of the next.
For Dante the Heaven of the Sun represents and embodies the light and life of the mind, the sheer joy of pursuing and apprhehending truth. It is in that sphere that he meets the great masters of Christian intellectual life from Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy through to to the great Dominican and Franciscan masters of thought St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. For Dante the life of mind, the pursuit of truth and the interweaving of intellectual exchange, are seen not as contention or rivalry, as they might be in some places, but as a kind of glorious circle dance, centred on the Logos who is the light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. The theologians whirl around Dante and Beatrice in sheer joy and energy. That is the true vision of the life of the mind!
When I came up to Cambridge as a young man I was on my second read-through of the Commedia and I was delighted to discover that almost all the philosophers whom Dante meets in the Heaven of the Sun were still on my syllabus to read! Starting with Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy still remans one of the most important books in my life. Though earthly universities are not always an earthly paradise, I still enjoy in my Cambridge life some glimpses of Dante’s vision of the dancing and illuminated life of the mind!
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button. The image by Margot Krebs Neale which follows the poem reflects both its opening line and the idea ( a direct quotation from the Commedia) that ‘the inner brings the outer into life.’
A sun-warmed sapling, opening each leaf,
My soul unfolded in your quickening ray,
‘the inner brought the outer into life’;
I found the light within the light of day,
The Consolation of Philosophy,
Turning a page in Cambridge, found my way,
My mind delighting in discovery,
As love of learning turned to learning love
And explanation deepened mystery,
Drawing me out beyond what I could prove
Towards the next adventure, every chance
Discovery a sweet come-hither wave,
Philosophy a kind of circle dance,
Weaving between the present and the past,
The whole truth present in a single glance
That looked on me and everything in Christ!
Threefold Beholding, look me into being,
Make me in Love again from first to last
And let me still partake your holy seeing
Beyond the shifting shadow of the earth,
Minute particulars, eternal in their being,
Forming themselves into a single path
From heaven to earth and back again to heaven,
All patterned and perfected, from each birth
To each fruition, and all freely given
To glory in and give the glory back!
Call me again to set out from this haven
And follow Truth along her shining track.