Manny's Reviews > The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
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Dec 27, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: science-fiction, why-not-call-it-poetry, transcendent-experiences, life-is-dante
Read in January, 1999

"You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another truth."

- Niels Bohr

I was thinking about Dante the other day and wondering how one could approach him from the angle of a GoodReads review. One of the obvious problems is that he lived a long time ago, and many of the cultural referents have changed. You're constantly having to think "Well, nowadays what he's saying would correspond to THAT". It isn't so bad in Hell, when there is plenty of entertainment to be had in seeing how the different sins are punished, and indulging your schadenfreude. Then Purgatory tells a moral story that's more or less timeless if you go for that sort of thing, but once you arrive in Paradise it starts getting seriously tricky. A lot of the stuff at first sight just seems irrelevant to the 21st century world... all these explanations about the mechanics of Ptolomaic astronomy, and Dante querying the inhabitants of Heaven on obscure theological points. It's notorious that readers most often give up somewhere in the third book. I started wondering if there was any modern-day author one could identify with Dante, and if that might help us connect to his concerns. And in fact, I do have a suggestion that some people will no doubt condemn out of hand as completely heretical: Richard Dawkins.

Now of course, I am aware that Dante was deeply immersed in the Christian world-view, and Dawkins is famous for being the world's most outspoken atheist. But it's not quite as crazy as it first may seem. Dante was a Christian to the core of his being, but he was furious with the way the Church was being run; he put several of its leaders, notably Pope Boniface VIII, in Hell. On the other side, I challenge anyone to read "The Ancestor's Tale" to the end, and not, at least for a moment, entertain the idea that Dawkins is in actual fact a deeply religious man. He admits as much himself: as he puts it, it's often not so much that he disagrees with conventionally religious people, more that "they are saying it wrong". Amen to that.

As noted, both Dante and Dawkins are extremely unhappy with the way mainstream religion is being organized. The other characteristic that unites them for me is this passionate love for science. One has to remember that, for Dante, Ptolomaic astronomy was state of the art stuff, and the details of the angelic hierarchy were a topic of vital importance; of course he cross-examines the hosts of the blessed to find out more. These days, I imagine he would be trying to get inside information on what happened during the Big Bang before spontaneous symmetry breaking occurred, whether or not the Higgs particle really exists, and how evolution produced human intelligence. For Dante, there didn't seem to be any opposition between religious faith and science - they were part of the same thing. I do wonder what he would have thought if he had been able to learn that many leading religious figures, even in the early 21st century, reject a large part of science as being somehow unreligious. It's wrong to spend your life dispassionately trying to understand God's Universe? I can see him getting quite angry about this, and deciding to rearrange the seating a little down in Hell.

I keep thinking that there's a book someone ought to write called "Five Atheists You'll Meet in Heaven". Please let me know when it comes out; I'll buy a copy at once.

**************************************

PS I couldn't help wondering what Paradise might have looked like if Dante had been writing today. Obviously we wouldn't have the old geocentric model of the Universe - it would be bang up to date. I think there is now far more material for an ambitious poet to work with than there was in the 14th century. For example, when we get to the Heaven of the Galaxy, I imagine him using this wonderful fact that all the heavy elements are made in supernova explosions. "We are all stardust", as some people like to put it. Then when we get to the Heaven of the Cosmos, we find that the light from the "Let there be light" moment at the beginning of Creation is still around - it's just cooled to 2.7 degrees K, and appears as the cosmic background radiation. But it's not completely uniform, as the quantum fluctuations left over from the period when the Universe was the size of an atomic nucleus are the beginnings of the galaxies created on the second day. Finally, we reach the Heaven of the Multiverse, and find that we are just one of many different universes. It was necessary to create all of them, so that random processes could make sure that a very small number would end up being able to support life. How impious to assume that God would only be able to create one Universe, and have to tweak all the constants Himself!
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message 1: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu You should write that book, Manny! This review was so spot-on, that I almost stood up and applauded! Indeed, it's quite fascinating how Dante united theology and science into a cohesive fabric. I know for certain, that if he were alive in present day, he'd be appalled at the creationists and their kin for their attempts at disrupting the natural course of things... I reckon he'd also be wired in to all the new happenings in Quantum Mechanics and the GUD. I could see a lovely get-together with Hawking, Penrose, Thorne and Dante. Haha, I'd pay a hefty sum to be at that conference!

I'm certain that there are an innumerable amount of other universes outside of our own - the multiverse theory makes perfect sense. In fact, I wrote a treatise on the physical likelihood of a multiverse - I'd be happy to send it sometime.

Alas, one would be led to believe that a symmetrical and polar universe lies just beyond a black hole - a la past the singularity. All the matter that is consumed by the hole is thus drawn to the Schwarzschild metric where its chewed up before merging with the singularity. The world line of said matter ends at this spot, however, here's where it gets interesting; it's passing into imaginary time. By means of the frothing of spacetime (and the Wick rotation), this imaginary time continues on a path not unlike the original world line. At this point, the spacetime is torn whipped into a frenzy, it becomes porous. The imaginary matter traveling along the imaginary time line passes through the singularity, through the "other side".

What lies beyond that is anybody's guess, however, it's quite possible that the matter expelled from the other side of the hole is congealed into a patch of infinite density and temperature, it contains quite a few dimensions... sound familiar? Naturally, this dense blob is wholly unstable - it explodes outward - a new universe is formed. The matter from the original universe becomes the matter in the new universe. A great recycling occurs. Was our own universe created this way? It's pretty crazy stuff.


I'm always happy to chat physics, Manny!













Manny Hey thank you Matthew! The singularity physics sounds interesting. Is this the story that Smolin tells in "Life of the Cosmos"? For some reason, I seem to have ended up reading his books in reverse chronological order, and I haven't yet got back to the first one.

About the meeting with Hawking et al: for quite a long time, I worked at SRI International's Cambridge office, which is just across the street from the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics where Hawking works. The only nice lunch restaurant within easy walking district is the Thai place on the other side of the Millpond. So one lunchtime we had Swedish people visiting for our speech translation project, and we scheduled a lunch meeting at the Sala Thong. We'd just got our food and started discussing technical stuff, when in came Hawking, Penrose and a bunch of other people I didn't recognize. They sat down at a table about two metres from us and started discussing the Schrödinger equation on curved space-time. We all felt utterly insignificant... it was simply impossible to continue talking about our trivial little problems in multilingual syntactic-semantic analysis, so we sat there and listened to them instead. Not that we understood anything much.

I can't write the book until I have five plausible atheists. I do have one more, in fact... will post about him soon. But I'm still less than halfway there. Any suggestions? I'd be happy to make it a team project :)


message 3: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu Hah, no, that was my personal theory on universal expansion. And... that's amazing! I'd be in awe if I heard them talking next to me. If I ever met Penrose, I'd have him sign my copy of his treatise on Manifolds on Light-like Hyper-surfaces. Haha, that would be the greatest thing ever.

You can add Freud to the list of Atheists!


Manny I have seen comments on the Smolin theory, and it sounds like there are connections - is that right? I really must get his first book. And please send me your treatise on the multiverse! Not sure I'll be able to follow it, my general relativity is extremely rusty, but sounds interesting...

BTW, talking of Hawking and creationists, I assume you are familiar with the work of MC Hawking?


Stephen Manny, very good review. Have you read the Dorothy Sayers translations? They are my favorite. She not only translates, she makes it rhyme, in English! Also, her notes are outstanding.




Gary I like the original translation by Henry Wadworth Longfellow. I also have a new version translation. I need to look at it,and see who did it. I read Dante's Inferno in college,and was totally enthralled with it. Then I reread it after reading Matthew Pearl's book, THE DANTE CLUB. I loved his book.

http://matthewpearl.com/

I've met Matthew in person,and he's one of my members on the group i am moderating, for EDGAR ALLAN POE.


Nick Black For example, when we get to the Heaven of the Galaxy, I imagine him using this wonderful fact that all the heavy elements are made in supernova explosions.

when i first learned this and really grokked it, i wandered around my apartment for a full two days, skipping classes and work and marveling. it was my most religious experience of the past fifteen years.


Gary has anyone seen the gorgeous illustrations of THE DIVINE COMEDY by Gustave Dore?? I can provide the website, if anyone is interested.


Nick Black Gary wrote: "has anyone seen the gorgeous illustrations of THE DIVINE COMEDY by Gustave Dore?? I can provide the website, if anyone is interested."

I actually put one into a presentation for a Multicore Architecture class =D =D =D

http://dank.qemfd.net/tabpower/sprang...


message 10: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary That is way cool, Nick! I bought a book of all the illustrations he did for the Poem from doverpublications, if you're interested in ordering a book for yourself, I can give you the website. I also ordered other books of his illustrations for THE RAVEN,and THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.

unbelievable the detail in those drawings. truly amazing!


message 11: by John (new)

John First things first: Manny, fine job on a well-night impossible subject. I'm esp. glad you took time & care w/ "Paradiso," often slighted, but in fact Dante's bravest leap of the imagination.

Second, the Dore engravings are indeed superb, must see -- but don't forget that Wm. Blake, no less, also did some Dante illustrations, Inferno all the way up to Paradise. Then there's Botticelli's fascinating unfinished group of paintings & drawings. Yes, Botticelli.

Dante, well. He's a touchstone for me, & certainly, Manny, his balance of of science & faith is one of the reasons why. I haven't posted anything here on GR about him, though; I just can't seem to cofine myself enough for that. I do have a long essay in print, the old technology, in *The Southwest Review.*

Anyway, bravo.


Manny John, thank you very much for your kind words! And if you love the Paradiso, you really should read Jan Kjærstad's trilogy which starts with The Seducer - by the time you get to the last volume, which I believe has just been released in English, I guarantee you will see why. Another Scandinavian novel you might want to check out is Carina Burman's Den tionde sånggudinnan.


message 13: by Elle (new)

Elle I found these absolutely fascinating.


Daniel Seems a bit of a reach to compare Dante with Dawkins. But then, I'm speaking from the view of someone that hasn't detected the "religious" connotations in Dawkins that you say you have discovered. Interesting theory regardless.


Manny Dan wrote: "Seems a bit of a reach to compare Dante with Dawkins. But then, I'm speaking from the view of someone that hasn't detected the "religious" connotations in Dawkins that you say you have discovered. ..."

Well, if you haven't read The Ancestor's Tale, you might want to take a quick look at my review...


message 16: by John (new)

John Manny, others, for whatever it's worth, a couple of other folks tell me they've found my Dante essay online via academic database engines, EBSCOhost in particular. My name & "Tower, Tree, Candle" should turn it up, but the original pub was in *Southwest Review,* a fine mag, in '08.

For whatever it's worth.


message 17: by Scribble (last edited Jan 02, 2011 04:03AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Manny wrote: "I couldn't help wondering what Paradise might have looked like if Dante had been writing today."

In a post-post-post modernist world where everything is relative and equally valid surely Paradise would be designed to reflect the individual's desires, as their own reward?

Hmmm. On the other hand, that's pretty much how it's always been described.


Manny In a post-post-post modernist world where everything is relative and equally valid surely Paradise would be designed to reflect the individual's desires, as their own reward?

Hmmm. On the other hand, that's pretty much how it's always been described.


I totally disagree! Dante's Paradise is about finally discovering the objective nature of reality. No post-modernism here, thank you. A modern version which stayed true to his vision would have to respect this.


message 19: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Manny, go read Popper.

And as a parthian shot - you logical positivist, you!


Manny Um... at risk of stating the obvious, Dante predates Popper and wouldn't necessarily agree with his ideas. Though now you raise the question, I would dearly like to overhear a conversation between them!


message 21: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca You just told me you wanted Dante in the here-and-now! Popper would thus be the antecedent.

But yes, I agree. Eavesdropping would be interesting. Have you a Time-Turner handy?


message 22: by Marte (new) - added it

Marte It's sad that some religious people still think like they did in the dark Middle Ages. But I guess that's just religion; it won't support proof even though it's right in front of it.

I guess an atheist like me just have to deal with religion if I want to read classics.


message 23: by Manny (last edited Apr 30, 2014 10:59AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny Dante may have lived in the Middle Ages, but he was a very enlightened person. You can see that brought him into conflict with many of the religious authorities around him.

There is no proof of anything: science is about skepticism, not proof. This is, unfortunately, the part that some people find hard to accept. You would hope that that the traditional Christian virtue of humility would help, but apparently not in all cases.


message 24: by Marte (new) - added it

Marte He may have been enlightened, but it seems as though he didn't even question God. I guess it's wrong to analyze him from a 21st century point of view.

Great review btw!


Manny Thank you!

To me, Dante's faith is not so different from the faith a modern scientist has, to the effect that the universe is governed by laws expressible in mathematical form. There is interesting discussion of this in Omnès's Philosophie de la science contemporaine, which I read recently.


message 26: by Dhove (new)

Dhove The graphic novel version must have REALLY missed the mark then. It claims the universe is 6,000 years old and chastises any priest who claims that the sudden blotting out of the sun is caused by an eclipse. I like your version better.


Manny Dhove wrote: "The graphic novel version must have REALLY missed the mark then. It claims the universe is 6,000 years old and chastises any priest who claims that the sudden blotting out of the sun is caused by a..."

Well, thank you, but where did this stuff about eclipses come from? Dante's pretty careful with his astronomy, and does his best to give you cutting-edge late medieval science. I just looked around a little to refresh my memory, and there's some very sensible discussion of solar eclipses in Canto 2 of the Paradiso, where Dante clearly knows they are caused by the Moon coming between the Earth and the Sun...


message 28: by Dhove (new)

Dhove I'm not sure where it came from. It was used in an illustration to show how priests who tried to use science to explain miracles were WRONG.


message 29: by Elena (new) - added it

Elena Manny, this review of yours is deeply surprising, to me. I rather imagined you were a positivist - a subtler, more critical one - but a fairly straightforward positivist nonetheless. This review comes as quite a shock and demolishes THAT theory about you. You've just left open avenues of exploration of connections that others have long since been content to slam shut. I guess they are not to be condemned, really - the complexity and ambiguity of the human situation is enough to make one's head spin, and an insistence on neat and tidy (over)simplification can be simply an insistence on preserving a carefully hedged-in sanity at all costs. And that is a noble, albeit doomed (if you value understanding) effort.

The question of what shape an empirically informed mythopoiesis would take today is a very pregnant one. That is one of the most poignant cultural questions of the day, is it not? I commend you for broaching the subject. We are in bad need of a universally cohering metanarrative, and I figure as the homo sapiens simply cannot banish myth from its cognitive processes, that myth might at least be empirically engaged. Then we can use our expanded (through science) capacity to SEE our world as the starting point for making humanly meaningful cosmic narratives that satisfy our full capacity for understanding (as embodied, imaginative, affective, and not just intellectual) existents, while also giving us a sense of how we fit into the larger continuum of being. The perspective on our history that you sketch in this review I think identifies the real way of approaching this understanding of continuity...


message 30: by Elena (new) - added it

Elena BTW, Dante probably took notes from Aquinas' philosophy with regards to this whole attempt to reconcile reason and faith. Aquinas believed that reason is a divine gift and integral to our nature. As such, he argued that we best worship if we do so with our entire beings, with reason and faith working together. He seemed to think that reason informed by a reverential attitude towards the universe (ie, God's creation), can better illumine our inquiry. This didn't seem to necessarily mean to him that we should take dogmatic tenets of religion as given structures that we then try to cram all evidence into (and explain away all the rest) - though he seems to have often been interpreted as such.

Rather, he also suggested that our faith in an all-good and supremely rational God logically leads us to have faith in the gift of reason he gave us, and that if we inquire into the rational structure of nature, we can't find anything contrary to his design. Of course, the critical operating assumption here that later led to the breakdown of this tidy reconciliation was the idea that the pattern of universal rationality is human rationality (of the medieval, ptolemaic, geometric variety). That later had to go, and in comes Giordano Bruno, who says that the church's God is “too small,” and thoroughly conflated with a man-made, philosophical fiction. He argued, as you do, that acknowledging the infinite centerlessness of the universe would give us (indirectly) a truer picture of the real vastness of its maker.

And you want Dante to converse with Bruno (and Pascal) and mythify his world picture! But that may be an impossibility, as we're dealing here with the limits of human representation. Dante and Aquinas at least stayed safely within those limits, with their circles and all.


message 31: by Manny (last edited Jun 03, 2016 11:13AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny Elena, you always have such an interesting angle on things! Until you posted these comments, it hadn't occurred to me that I might have said anything surprising. I was just asking what seemed to me a straightforward question, namely how one would update Dante in the light of modern scientific knowledge.

When I wrote that, I was trying to see the question from Dante's point of view, and I still don't think that he would have thought there was anything very odd about it. Okay, we know more now about God's Creation, which is wonderful and exciting... but surely it doesn't change anything fundamental? For some reason, most people today assume the contrary, but it's by no means clear to me that they're right and that Dante would have been wrong.

A modern thinker that immediately occurs to me here is Einstein. He's constantly bringing God into his discussions: why did God do this, and could God have done that, and surely God would never do the other thing. It's normal to assume he was speaking whimsically or metaphorically - but at the end of the day, is the difference between that and Dante's (supposedly) literal view so very clear? I try to imagine Dante talking to Einstein, and I don't see them violently disagreeing. I think they'd be best friends by the end of the evening, and the collected Einstein-Dante letters would run to three volumes.


Manny Elena wrote: "BTW, Dante probably took notes from Aquinas' philosophy with regards to this whole attempt to reconcile reason and faith. Aquinas believed that reason is a divine gift and integral to our nature. A..."

Sorry, I only really responded to your first post, but the second one maybe asks even more interesting questions. I don't think we've in any way sorted out the puzzling issues that arise from the apparent parallels between universal rationality and human rationality. It is really strange that we seem to be able to understand a large part of the structure of the universe, and that we've only been able to do that for the last hundred years or so. Most of us just don't stop and think about the weirdness that entails, but it's still able to make cosmologists feel distinctly unhappy.


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