Nelson Head, a boy in a story by Flannery O’Connor, is reared in the rural South, with little sign of education and in obvious isolation. Yet the boy is arrogant to the point of impudence, because he was born in the city. To cure him of this, his grandfather takes him into the city, only to find Nelson bristling with pride in his origins. To curb his arrogance, Mr. Head has the boy stick his head into the sewer entrance.
Then Mr. Head explained the sewer system, how the entire city was underlined with it, how it contained all the drainage and was full of rats and how a man could slide into it and be sucked along down endless pitch-black tunnels. At any minute any man in the city might be sucked into the sewer and never heard from again. He described it so well that Nelson was for some seconds shaken. He connected the sewer passages with the entrance to hell and understood for the first time how the world was put together in its lower parts. He drew away from the curb.
Nelson is disposed to hearing Dante’s Divine Comedy. He is ready to find hell somewhere—and somewhere nearby. More importantly, he expects that the world “was put together.” He thinks that there is an order among its parts and that this order can be seen with his eyes and grasped by his mind, at least in part. Further, he sees his own place within this order and is aware of certain consequences of his actions. After hearing his grandfather’s elaboration, he was “for some seconds shaken,” and “drew away from the curb.”
I suspect that most readers find Nelson Head naive, and I agree. Dante, too, for all his sophistication and art, seems to us in many ways “childish,” but we must be cautious of the modern feeling of contempt for medieval thinkers. Naivete—an unaffected, artless approach to reality—is the fundamental charge the Enlightenment has made against medievals and medieval culture—a charge made maliciously, though not altogether without reason. We can easily imbibe such a contempt for ordinary sense experience and the use of “common sense.” Dante offers us the most complete and articulated medieval imagination of the universe, but we can become too sophisticated to appreciate and profit from it.
The primary impediment to this appreciation and profit is the imagination of the universe that pervades modern culture and has replaced Dante’s. In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal describes this imagination in a chilling manner:
When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after—as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day—the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?
This modern imagination of the world received its most complete form in Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, or The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. There, he proposes, with an elaborate and admirable mathematical apparatus, the theory and “picture” of universal gravitation or heaviness. It is, according to Newton himself, justification of the claim by the atheist poet Lucretius that everything is falling.
When I call the works of Dante and Newton imaginations, I am contrasting them with understandings. An understanding leads the mind to what is most intelligible about the matter discussed. An imagination resolves to what can be held together in a picture. This does not exclude contradictions. For example, sometimes Dante’s hands pass through the bodies represented in the Commedia; at other times, these bodies feel him kick or pull. This does not dissatisfy imagination, but it may provoke confusion in the intellect. Newton’s work is not a work of understanding. It does not explain motion, space, and time, nor does it prove that its concept of inertia answers to anything in reality. Its synthesis, admittedly magnificent, demands only that we imagine these principles with sufficient clarity.
Today, we all share this imagination of vast, empty space in which bodies, more or less round, move with some regularity, unless disturbed. Since it cannot provide an ultimate grasp of reality, however, this imagination keeps us from seeing what is right before us.
There are numerous ways in which Galileo Galilei first formed a modern imagination of the universe. Some of these go back much further than his own time, even to the ancient world. However, they are not, until Galileo, elements of a common imagination. Galileo observed by telescope that Jupiter has moons and that the Sun has “spots.” Now, either discovery may seem to have an insignificant effect on a “picture” of the universe. Each demands, however, a new imagination of all its parts.
Galileo’s discovery that four bodies move in circles about Jupiter in the manner in which our Moon moves about the Earth proved that the Earth is not the only center of circular movement. This discovery makes clear that a center of circular movement may itself be moving. For, if moons travel both around Jupiter and around the Earth, and Jupiter seems to move around the Earth, then at least one of these centers is itself moving. And perhaps both the Earth and Jupiter move around the Sun.
This last suspicion, which must have been frightening when first imagined, has been the basis for the “solar system” model. A big yellow ball of fire floats in space. Around it circle small balls of irregular sizes and at irregular distances. One is red, two are very large, one has rings, and one is “where we live.”
Notice that we do not now imagine ourselves “at home.” When we see the Earth as part of the universe, we see it from somewhere else. We first “get off” the Earth to think about it circling the Sun. As we become aware of larger “systems,” nebula and galaxies, we move farther from the Earth. We look toward the Earth from somewhere we have never been. Thus, our common image of the world is dissociated from the actual experience of our home.
The distance between Sun and Earth was first imagined as bearing a decent proportion to the size of the universe. The new imagination of a “solar system” demands that this distance become trivial. Thus, the greater part of the universe in the “old world” must now fit into the part of our imagination where we once imagined only the Earth. Vast stretches open up between the “solar system” and the “stars.” As we view the world from these places, the Earth gets smaller and smaller and, more importantly, farther away.
Sophisticated fantasies, such as Star Trek and Star Wars, make even the picture of an immobile Sun seem naive. We now imagine the Sun and its “moons” as rather far from the center of its galaxy, the Milky Way. And we do not imagine the galaxy’s center to be the center of the universe, if there is such a thing. The more complex our vision, the farther we get from the Earth and the less able we are to find a place that provides order to all the parts of the universe. We are reminded of Pascal’s description of the “small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces . . . ”
Galileo also discovered sunspots. For our purposes, a sunspot is nothing more than a dark spot on the Sun. Galileo’s telescope showed that these spots show up, last for some time, and even move across the Sun’s face, assuming the Sun to be still.
These “spots” first suggest that the Sun is composed of parts that come to be and pass away. It is difficult for us to appreciate how shocking this is: The sky’s source of all life, too splendid for our eyes, often thought to be a visible god, turns out to be another changing and corruptible body. Although it has supported life on Earth for some thousands of years, it must at some time grow cold, and its death entails the death of the human race, along with all our endeavors and preoccupations. Together with the Sun, all those parts of the world called “the sky” or “the heavens” are no longer everlasting beings that constitute a permanent order. They have become bodies just like those we live among, and their formation and existence should be explained just as we explain the changing bodies on the Earth.
In fact, we are encouraged by the modern imagination to look for the explanation of all bodies, in “the sky” and on the Earth, in the combination and separation of some kind of indivisible parts or “atoms.” Though these atoms are too small to be seen by the eye, their supposed existence is thought to explain the mechanism of the universe. As this kind of explanation became more sophisticated, the “atom” itself was found to have its own parts, and the imagination of these parts and their movement became remarkably like the imagination of the “solar system.” The principal difference in these two systems of “colored balls” is that the one system is thought to be much bigger than we can properly imagine; the other, much smaller.
I know that what modern science actually proposes is in most ways far more sophisticated than these pictures, and that contemporary science has criticized many elements in them. Nevertheless, the method of modern and contemporary science at once inspires and depends on such images. And the place of science in modern life in fact depends on our imagining the universe in this way.
What I want to warn against is the abyss in our imagination between the “solar system” and the “atomic model.” The “big balls” dwarf anything a man can relate to in his immediate experience. The “little balls” escape his immediate experience. The imagination that now dominates our common life proposes that reality consists fundamentally in these two orders. In between them, as our imagination would have it, is an illusory world—the world in which we are born, play out our lives, and come to our end. The great moments of our lives, the terrible decisions and choices, the good and evil we do and suffer, all take place in a world we now imagine as unreal and private. Thus, Pascal continues: “the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me . . . ”
I am not proposing that the ancient and medieval account of how the world was put together is true. Nor am I denying that we have learned much about the world’s construction from modern science. I recognize that theological truths can be contemplated in light of modern opinions about the physical universe—sometimes more perfectly than through the medieval ones. Modern intellectual culture, however, has not gathered the theological fruit that a philosophical and theological contemplation of modern evidence offers to Christian faith.
Let us begin by imagining the world by day. Though “day” is not so prominent in the universe as it seems to us, it certainly dominates all life on Earth. And even if life is not of great importance statistically throughout the universe, it is of the greatest significance to us. Now, by day, we are aware above all of the Sun, of the Earth’s terrain, its trees and foliage, men, and other animals. The Earth’s terrain we recognize as having tremendous heights and depths, although in places it remains even in great plains. Yet the Sun’s movement, by the way it casts shadows and appears at rising and setting, makes clear that the Earth is rather even over all. Many of the Earth’s crevices are filled with water, whose surface is most even.
Closer examination, especially of oceans and seas, where the horizon is clearly round, shows that the Earth is spherical. Anyone familiar with the sea knows that a ship appears gradually on the horizon. The tip of its mast is sighted, then more and more of the mast, until its bulk appears. On board the ship, the land appears first to the sailor in the crow’s nest, then to those among the sails, and finally to the crew on deck. This can only occur upon a body more or less spherical.
Still looking at water, we see that it not only falls to earth from the sky in rain but always seeks the lower place on land. There, it spreads to form a spherical surface. Yet, after soaking its surface, the water stays above the earth. Of course it enters cracks and crevices and canyons, but it only goes below the earth where some hollow lays open to it. Some wood may rise to the water’s surface, but stones, metals, and other more solid bodies sink into the water. Thus, although both earth and water are heavy, earth seems heavier—not as measured on a scale, yet, in some sense, since it falls below the water. Since water is not as heavy as earth, it goes up, if pushed by earthy bodies. Throw rocks into a well, and the water rises. Overfill the deeper part of a pool or pond, and the water moves up into the more shallow part. Thus, rocks and most things made of earth tend only down, while water and other liquids that usually move down also go up in certain natural circumstances.
Let us look again at water’s movement down. Perhaps, at times, it displaces wood or something similar. More often, water falls into an empty place, a dry riverbed or an empty glass. Is there really nothing there, before the water fills it? Perhaps it is difficult to be perfectly certain, but it does seem that air or gas was in these places. At times, in containers of unusual shape, some air will even be trapped by water and may bubble to its surface.
Closely related is another experience of great importance: At times, a small body of water disappears, though none of the water has been drawn away. Another clearer experience suggests an explanation: We see water falling from the sky when clouds have gathered. The clouds seem to be a part of air or gas, though apparently a part more dense, a part that turns into water. One quite naturally supposes that, just as the parts of the sky called clouds turn into water, the pools and puddles of water that disappear turn into air and, perhaps, even into clouds. We see a cycle of water and air turning into each other. We also see, however, that, when water becomes an air or gas, it rises; having become a liquid again, it falls. For this reason, air or gas seems light—it goes up.
Even more prominent for going up is the strangest of bodies, fire. Two things must be noted about fire. First, that it goes up. It seems to go through the air the way that air will bubble through water. Does it come to rest above the air, as air comes to rest above water? It seemed so to the ancients when they considered another characteristic of fire: its brightness. Fire is bright like the Sun, the shiny blue sky, and even the stars of the dark night sky. Thus arises the naive view that the upper sky is made of fire. It is headed there when it passes through the air.
These general conclusions from ordinary observations shaped the understanding of the basic structure of the closest parts of the universe for the ancients and medievals—a spherical earth at the center of the world, more or less surrounded by water and water surrounded by air. Water moves through air toward earth, and air moves through water upward. Above the air is fire, which moves through air to the place where it surrounds the air.
We are all aware that the bright part of the world is where the Sun is and that day is distinguished from night by the rising and setting of that Sun. Thus, everyone is aware that the Sun seems to go around the Earth once per day. Also clear is the fact that the Sun stays longer in the sky in summer and is higher—that is, for us, farther north—while, in the winter, night is longer and the Sun is lower, farther south. The implications of this will be clearer from consideration of the night sky.
Such consideration is greatly obscured by modern life; city lights, streetlights, porch lights, lamp lights, and, most of all, televisions impede our observation of the night sky. Observation of the heavens was among the most important evening activities in early civilization. I cannot provide you with this experience, although I heartily encourage you to obtain it. I can describe some of its elements.
Even the lights of our major cities cannot prevent us from knowing that there are stars in the night sky. We may never have noticed, however, that these stars rise and set once per day, always moving toward the west. Thus, the entire heaven seems to move westward in a circle around the earth. It is all too easy to neglect another fact about the night sky: The stars change throughout the year. Over the course of the year, the stars that appear each night shift, so that the same stars will appear again in the same places 12 months later. This corresponds to another annual shift: the movement of the sun toward the north and the south. The shifting of stars is “caused” by the “fact” that, apart from its daily rising and setting, the Sun moves in a circle tilted from the equator of the heavens along a path called the ecliptic, or the zodiac. This movement toward the east causes our year and determines our seasons and the lengths of our days. The Moon and all the planets, in addition to their daily movement around the Earth, travel likewise along the zodiac, but with different cycles.
All of these movements appear to be circular. The Sun, Moon, planets, and stars do not move up and down—toward the Earth or away from it, as do rocks and rain and fire. They move in circles, and this circling suggests no sign of a beginning or an end. Thus, Aristotle made two or three closely related conclusions. First, since they move so differently from earth, water, air, and fire, these heavenly bodies are not made of the same stuff as are the things down here but of another—a fifth—nature or element. The stars, the Sun, the Moon, and each of the planets are moving within a transparent sphere made of the same element. Second, this element and the things made of it are incorruptible. They neither come to be nor pass away; they have always been and always will be. The third of these conclusions is a kind of corollary: To move in circles is natural to these bodies. Like them, such movement has neither beginning nor end.
Note here that Christians did not think the world has always been. So they rejected this one point in Aristotle’s account of the heavens. Still, it did seem reasonable to many medieval Christian thinkers that, although the heavens were created with a beginning in time, they were of such a nature that they would continue to exist forever and, if God had willed it so, they would have existed forever. Thus, they thought, together with the ancients, that the heavens were, by nature, incorruptible.
At some point, an outermost sphere was introduced to explain the bright blue sky. We only see the splendor of this sphere when the Sun lights up the spheres in between. This sphere, called the empyrean heaven, is utterly immobile, and, in the Divine Comedy, it seems to have no size. It is only the outer surface of the ninth sphere, the primum mobile, the first moving part of the universe. This ninth sphere was also introduced by the medievals. It is just beyond the stars. This is the sphere immediately moved by God.
Although Dante is describing a vision of souls separated from their bodies, he experiences this vision as related to parts of the corporeal world and, at several times, explains that he had a bodily vision of “airy bodies.” He describes some of these visions as taking place in Hell, where the resurrected bodies will spend their eternity. The vision of Heaven is more complex, as the blessed souls all inhabit the empyrean heaven. They manifest themselves in the several celestial spheres for other reasons.
In the Divine Comedy, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, taken in relation to souls separated from their bodies, are not truly places. Until the general resurrection, these souls have no spatial location. Here, the word place can only mean some relation or order of the soul to God and to each other. Thus, Dante’s use of parts of the world to represent this order is, in part, metaphor and, in part, anticipation of the last things.
The primary metaphor is taken from the parts of the universe themselves. Hell is placed in the earth, underground. Purgatory is a mountain rising out of the ocean toward the heavens. Heaven is experienced in the sky among the planetary spheres. It is not difficult to see the proportion of these places to the souls that inhabit them. As we see earth sink through water, and the heavier and more dense forms sink lower than those less dense, so the souls who preferred themselves to God move by their nature down into the earth. There they find the place within the earth that balances the weight of their sins. Souls inflamed with divine love that still need to be purged of their earthly inclinations are passing through the region of the air. The saints, who have risen above their fleshy nature and lived according to their immortal part, circle above this lower sphere of generation and corruption. There, they enjoy light and freedom of movement, an eternal freedom from the heavy burdens characteristic of this earthly life.
Why does Dante use this world, in such tremendous detail, in describing the other world? Of course, a poet must use sensible images. Even God must use metaphors and likenesses to reveal spiritual things to us, and any poet must do likewise, if he dares to take on such subjects. Dante, however, need not situate the other world so distinctly in this one. Nor does he lack the imagination to create another world.
Dante’s choice reveals a tremendous difference between the modern and the medieval mind. For Dante, the other world is near this one, and the passage from this world to the next is not difficult to imagine. This nearness is, of course, not so much spatial as moral. The moral proximity is reflected in the ease with which the other world can be seen from here. This points to the most fundamental difference: The medieval does not find the reality of the other world difficult to believe or imagine. Like Nelson Head, he is ready to find such realities in the universe. The medieval stands “for some seconds shaken.” He draws “away from the curb.”
The modern imagination of the universe, however, without a center, dominated by bodily force and randomness, with its irrelevance to human life and action, seems to offer no relation, spatial or otherwise, between men’s actions in this world and consequences in another. If Hell does exist, we have no sense of where to imagine it. We are in great need of a work like the Commedia to form an imagination of the other world that fits in some way to this one.
Reconsideration of the modern imagination makes our need even more clear. For our imagination is not as remote from the other world as it first appears. Our heavens are dark and lonely. They seem a more fit setting for Hell than for eternal bliss. And when all is done, we imagine both the heavens and the earth in the same way—cold, quiet balls revolving in black, empty space. And this emptiness is at the heart of our difficulties in reading Dante. While the medieval Florentine imagines a world that God’s love bathes with light and warmth, we see the world as cold and dark. Pascal, imagining “the infinite immensity of space,” took fright.
And we, in this vast unthinking emptiness, cannot imagine meeting somewhere with the satisfaction of all desire. We, too, should “stand for some seconds shaken.” We too should draw “away from the curb.” We have begun even here to experience the great pain of loss.