Plato and Dante

In Raphael’s Vatican fresco The School of Athens (1509-1511), Plato and Aristotle, walking side by side under magnificent arches, hold centre stage. Plato’s right forearm is held upward, his index finger pointing towards the heavens, Aristotle’s right arm extends forwards, his hand flat, palm towards the ground. The symbolism is clear but wonderfully achieved, pure thought versus experience, or idealism versus realism. All around are other Greek philosophers and it is said that Plato is a portrait of Leonardo. It is certainly the case that Heraclitus is a portrait of Michelangelo, which Raphael added after seeing the first half of the Sistine Chapel ceiling unveiled in 1511. On the extreme right of the fresco a modest Raphael looks out of the composition towards those who stand before his work. It is a picture which sums up human intellectual achievement as known in Renaissance Italy up to that point. Although bare description suggests it might be horribly kitsch, it is, in fact, absolutely breathtaking. But it has spawned a a whole series of crass synoptic visions of human history from the Albert Memorial to various Halls of Fame beloved of magazine editors seeking to boost circulation. But there will always be a wish to rework the history of the human race into an intelligible story. We do not want to believe, like Macbeth, for whom it seems just punishment, that history ‘is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing’.
Although there were great predecessors to Plato and Aristotle, they are the twin founders of modern philosophy. In the Middle Ages Aristotle was better known in Italy than Plato, so that Dante, while referring to Plato and Socrates by name, says of Aristotle ‘vidi il maestro di color che sanno’ (I saw the master of those who know) Canto 4, line 131 Inferno. Some distinguished pagans are located by Dante in limbo, an anteroom to Hell itself. By the time of Raphael, Plato’s works, though they had never been lost, were better known and his mystical vision of profound unity and harmony had considerable appeal, as also his Platonic ideas or forms which reach up through a hierarchy towards a highest form which might be called the One or the Good. It is important to appreciate that this form should not be thought of as an abstraction, but absolutely the reverse, a whole universe organised in a single order. Such a vision is difficult to sustain in our fallen world. I have been intrigued to notice that Eliot described Dante’s final canto of the Paradiso as giving a description of a revelation in what Eliot clearly regarded as the greatest poetry ever written, while Auden in one of his US lectures to undergraduates in the forties described it as a piece worked up from notes gathered from theological and philosophical tracts. I have to say I was taken aback by Auden’s irreverence, and think it may not have been his considered or final opinion. At any rate the pagan Plato and the Christian Dante were both visionaries. The greek noun, idea derives from the verb, idein – to see. But Platonic ideas are not visible but intelligible, not what appears and is changeable but what is timeless and most real.
Dante when he meets St. John and is questioned about love loses his sight, which is later restored to him, preparatory to his final vision. The reason Dante is given by St. John for his losing his sight is that Dante peers too hard into the luminous presence of the beloved disciple in order to see whether he has been raised bodily into heaven as have Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Ultimately this refers back to the final scene in the final chapter of St. John’s Gospel and probably to the contemporary fresco cycle by Giotto in the Peruzzi Chapel at Florence painted in 1320 and including an ascension of St. John into heaven. At this time Dante would already have been exiled from Florence, but would doubtless have had intelligence of this painting possibly from Giotto himself. (Why so much on this strange byway of medieval Christian thought? Because it troubled me in the past to the point of making me ill).
In Plato’s Phaedrus, the soul through its experience of physical beauty begins a quest for illumination which proceeds by way of ascent from physical to spiritual beauty and ultimate reality.
In similar fashion Dante’s encounter with Beatrice leads him after a long journey through the three realms of creation to a vision of the Paradisal Rose. and the Trinity.
All lovers of poetry should acquaint themselves with this extraordinary final Canto of Paradiso (33rd). Chaucer translated a small part of it in the Prologue to the Second Nun’s Tale, about fifty years after Dante’s death. Here is a translation of lines 85-90 of the 145 line Canto.
Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe; substance and accidents and their relations, as though together fused, after such fashion that what I tell of is a simple flame. And Dante’s italian:-
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna
legato con amore in un volume,
cio che per l’universo si squaderna;
sustanzia ed accidenti, e lor costume,
quasi conflati insieme per tal modo
che cio ch’io dico un semplice lume.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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