The Christian Mystery
II. The medieval view of the world in Dante's Divine Comedy
11 February 1906, Düsseldorf
Today we'll consider one of the greatest works in world literature, Dante's 11Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). Divine Comedy. 12Rudolf Steiner was here considering the fundamental aspect of La Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy. He spoke of this in a very different style in the lecture given to the workers at the Goetheanum on 14 March 1923, published in GA 349, Vom Leben des Menschen und der Erde. Über das Wesen des Christentums (in process of publication). The influence of Brunetto Latini was discussed in a lecture given in Dornach on 30 Jan. 1915, published in GA 161, Wege der geistigen Erkenntnis und der Erneuerung künstlerischer Weltanschauung (not yet translated) and a number of lectures given in 1924, especially in Dornach on 10 Sept. 1924, published in translation as Karmic Relationships vol. 4 (in GA 238). 10 lectures, Dornach 5-23 Sept. 1924. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1957. For the translation of this lecture I have followed the terminology used in Dante Aleghieri, The Divine Comedy, text with translation by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1981. Translator. We have to understand that to gain even a little insight into this work we must go back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Goethe has Faust say:
The spirit of our times, as you will say,
is basically just the gentlemen's own mind
acting as mirror for the times. 13Faust I, 577-578.
When someone wants to discuss a work written in earlier times he usually does so from his own point of view, finding in it the things that come from his own subjective feelings.
In the case of Dante's Divine Comedy we can see how hard it is to go back to the Middle Ages in one's mind. All kinds of interpretations are available, among them Cameri's translation into German. 14Cameri, B. Sechs Gesänge ausDantes Göttlicher Komödie, in German, with an introduction on Dante's use of alliteration. Vienna 1896. The introduction shows that Cameri was attempting something very difficult. He said the Divine Comedy was always spoiled for one because it was given theological interpretations. He himself had given it a purely human interpretation. Cameri was the ethic philosopher of Darwinism. 15Sir Bartholomaeus Cameri (1821–1909). See essay ‘Bartholomaeus Cameri, der Ethiker des Darwinismus’ (not translated) in GA 30, also in Steiner R. The Riddles of Philosophy (GA 18). Tr. F. C. A. Köllin. New York: Anthroposophic Press 1973. Basing himself on Darwinism, he developed noble ethics which, however, were materialistic, with no awareness of spiritual powers in the world. The whole of his translation reflects a materialistic attitude. That is ‘the gentlemen's own mind acting as mirror for the times’.
But let us now really enter into the spirit of that past time. For once let us forget everything we have taken in from childhood and enter into those times. People both thought and felt very differently about things then. We have learned that the planets and the sun are one system and that this system is one of many. At school we learn that the sun is at the centre of this one system, with the planets orbiting around it. Abstract rational laws govern everything which is in orbit there, everything that lives and moves in the infinity of cosmic space around us. Anyone who thinks like that sees nothing but cosmic bodies orbiting in a vast empty space, cosmic bodies that have life forms on them.
The people who lived in Dante's time saw the world very differently. No one would then have thought of such abstract ideas. The earth was to them the centre of the whole world system. It was not only a solid planet, however, for within it were spirits that related to human beings. These were the powers that made man animal-like. They were at the centre of the earth. The different stages of ‘hell’, as it was called, were there. Dante described things that were wholly real to people in those days. He did not invent them. Anyone who thinks even for one moment that Dante believed it all to be mere superstition does not understand him. The idea people had at that time was that yonder, on the other side of the earth, the pull of gravity went in the opposite direction. In medieval times people thought of the forces that were in opposition to man, forces that removed him from everything there was by way of earthly gravity in mind and spirit. That was kama-loka, the purging fire.
Looking out from there into the starry heavens people had very different ideas then. The moon was not a mineral but the body of a spiritual entity and the abode of many spirits—a cosmic body. The spirits who lived there had gone through similar evolutional states as human beings, but had fallen deeper than man. Their vices were, however, of a more spiritual kind than the animal vices of humanity.
Mercury was also seen as a body encompassing a spirit. Just as we derive man from his innermost soul qualities, so did medieval people see the sun, the moon, mercury, venus, mars, jupiter and saturn as spiritual entities. People saw spirit everywhere then. The world was populated by spirits for them.
The Christ lived in the region of the fixed stars since he had left this world. Beyond the fixed stars was the empyrean, the tenth heaven, where the source of all being was. People thought the spirits which were not here on earth and in this body dwelt in some region or other beyond the earth. A warrior who had gone through death would have to be sought on Mars. Someone who had lived a contemplative life would be on Saturn. Those who had risen even higher had to be sought in the region of the fixed stars, where the Christ was after he died. Beyond this would be even higher spirits.
Dante wrote his Divine Comedy out of this way of thinking. Today people have simply no idea that people in his day still saw something of the spirit in everything material. For them, nothing was wholly physical and nothing purely spiritual. Interweaving matter and spirit was something entirely natural for them. If we enter into such a way of thinking we are alive to the feelings out of which the Divine Comedy was written. It is pointless to fight over whether Beatrice was just a symbol or Dante's lover. The two are not contradictory. Beatrice was a real person, and she also stood for all that is spirit. For someone not lead astray by learning she was the true personification of Theologia.
Let us consider the atmosphere in mind and spirit in which the work evolved. It gives sublime expression to 13th and 14th century strict Christian Catholicism, before the Church came to be divided. People like Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, 16Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). See Steiner R. Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age (GA 7). Tr. K. E. Zimmer. Blauvelt: Steinerbooks 1980. Also Steiner R. The Origins of Natural Science (GA 326). Tr. M. St Goar, N. Macbeth. New York: Anthroposophic Press 1985. whose thinking was that of scholasticism. Dante was a student of scholasticism. He saw the world the way his teacher Thomas Aquinas did. 17Aquinas, Thomas (1225–1274). In his teachings high scholasticism reached its pinnacle. Rudolf Steiner spoke about him at Whitsun 1920 in Dornach (see The Redemption of Thinking. A study in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (GA 74). Tr. A. P. Shepherd, M. R Nicoll. London: Hodder and Stoughton 1956.) Concerning his relationship to Aristotle, see lecture given in Munich on 20 March 1908 (in GA 108, not available in English).
What was the mission of Christianity? It was to create a new basic religious approach. Before that, a girdle of religious views spread around the whole world. Christianity brought a different basic approach to religion.
We have to go back a long way to enter into the basic tenor of Dante's work. About ten thousand years before the Christian era 18The first German edition said ‘thirty thousand years’. It is doubtful, however, if the figure was written down correctly. See Steiner R. Occult History (GA 126) lecture of 31 Dec. 1910. Tr. D. S. Osmond, C. Davy. London: Anthroposophical Publishing Co. 1957.2nd edn Rudolf Steiner Press 1982. the vast continent known as Atlantis was gradually sinking. Theodor Arldt 19Arldt, Theodor, b. 1878, palaeontologist and palaeogeographer. has given scientific proof of the existence of Atlantis in the journal Kosmos. 20Das Atlantisproblem. Kosmos 1905; 2: Nr. 10. The Flood, as we call it, refers to that continent gradually becoming flooded. The ancestors of the people who now live in Europe and Asia lived on Atlantis. The mythologies of all these nations show profound similarities. German mythology speaks of Atlantis, calling it Niflheim, home of mists. A view of the world has come down through tradition that gives us the figure of Wotan, the ruler. Wotan is the same as Bodha or Buddha. And Veda and the Edda have the same linguistic origin, for example.
These views, which are, as it were, a sediment from the past, have something in common. Reincarnation was originally taken as a matter of course in all of them. Buddhism then spread among Mongol tribes, however, and not among Aryans. The Semitic element entered into the views of Aryan peoples, and reincarnation is unknown in this. The most sublime expression of this type of religion, which thinks in terms of one incarnation only, is Christianity. It is a characteristic feature of Christianity that it considers one incarnation only. This was not the case with esoteric Christian teachings, but the popular teaching did not include the idea of reincarnation. Ancient Judaism and Arabism knew nothing of reincarnation.
Knowing this, we have the basic tenor of Dante's magnificent work. It represents a vision beginning on Good Friday. That was the day to mark life's victory over death. People did not think of this in abstract terms. They would feel that the sun was given new powers of spring on Good Friday and at Easter. It rises, entering into the sign of the Ram or Lamb, 21Dante's Divine Comedy, Inferno 1,38f The general view held at the time was that the sun was in the Ram when god made the heavenly bodies move in orbits. Thus be the day when Dante set out on his journey would have been the first day of spring. (Comment on 1,38 in W. v. Wartburg's German translation). The German translation has ‘panther’ instead of ‘leopard’ (translator). letting the plant world come into active growth. The sun was considered to represent a particular spirit. People thought that the powers of spirit and soul related to the spirit of the sun body. And Good Friday night was felt to be the best time for the soul to enter the realm that lies beyond death.
Dante's work is a vision of the kind initiates know, something real in the world of the spirit. Dante was truly able to perceive the spiritual. He perceived the world of the spirit with spiritual senses. He gained his images as a strictly Catholic initiate. As he had his visions he brought into them the catholic world that had come alive in his organism, but he would see it in the spirit. People always see things of the spirit through the spectacles of personal experience. As the child's presence in the mother's womb relates to the physical level, so does one's presence in the world of the spirit relate to the things we know in the spirit here on earth. Our life on this earth is like a maternal womb in which we grow mature so that we may later arise in the spirit. The senses we have developed for things of the spirit depend on our life here on earth. Here we mature for the other world, preparing spiritual eyes and ears for the other world. Dante had thus developed his spiritual organs in the way made possible in a strictly Catholic world.
When we enter into the other form of existence we are able to perceive the things that are now inside us. They then become outwardly visible. We say that passions, instincts and drives are ours. When we have entered into the worlds of spirit, the contents of our soul organism become something that exists outside us, just like the objects we perceive around us in physical existence. The things that live in our souls become visible in symbolic form.
Dante wrote of three symbols representing three main qualities in his astral body, the body of drives or lower soul—a leopard, a lion, a she-wolf. 22In Roman mythology, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, sons of Mars, who later founded Rome were suckled and reared by a wolf. His three main passions thus appeared to him in the form of three animals. This was no mere symbol, however. When man enters the astral level, his lower passions truly appear to him in the form of animals. The she-wolf represented one passion. This is the she-wolf who once suckled Romulus and Remus. It is the passion people adopted at the founding of the Roman nation, the passion which lives in everything connected with property—the desire to possess and on the other hand the right to have personal possessions. This passion was implanted in human beings at the time when the wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. Before this, humanity gained the power of courage, indicated by the lion, which can become lust for power. Even earlier came the increased cunning that developed from priestly rule—the leopard, the ability shown by Odysseus. 23Odysseus or Ulysses, in Greek mythology king of Ithaca. Homer spoke of him in his Odyssey as being cunning and wise. When Virgil 24Divine Comedy, Inferno 1,94 f. Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70–19 BC). Roman poet highly esteemed in the Middle Ages. came to meet Dante he said: cannot make those animals go away, least of all the she-wolf? He said so because Dante had grown up in what remained of those old Roman passions in Italy. Virgil, who had given a picture of the initiation process in his Aeneid, 25Virgi's Aeneid, a great epic about the role ofRome in ancient history, speaks of the wanderings of Aeneas after the sack ofTroy before he finally settled in Italy. had to be Dante's guide. It was from the works of Virgil that people learned most about the other world in those days. They saw that world as having three levels—hell, purgatory and heaven.
There are only two consistent views of the world—that of Augustine 26Augustine (354–430), greatest of the Latin church fathers. He taught that because of Adam's fall into sin humanity was incapable of goodness (original sin), with individual people chosen for eternal salvation by an act of grace (predestination). See Steiner R. Christianity as Mystical Fact and The Mysteries of Antiquity (GA 8) chapter on Augustine and the Church. Tr. H. Collison, rev. C. Davy, A. Bittleston. Bristol: Rudolf Steiner Press 1992. and that of reincarnation and karma. Augustine said: ‘Part of humanity on this earth is destined to be good and part to be evil’. According to the other view we develop through many incarnations. These are the only two possible views. Dante took Augustine's view, according to which human beings prepare here on earth for a destiny that will be eternal. Because of this, life on earth is immediately followed by hell, purgatory or heaven. The one life was all that counted. The person was all that was considered.
If we go beyond the person we are beyond birth and death. The principle that enters at birth and departs again at death goes beyond the personal. It is the individual. Anything the individual has done wrong must be compensated for in a next life. If we take away reincarnation and karma, everything has to be compensated in a single life. If one looks for retribution for everything concerning one person, a counter image of the personal is created and that is hell. Hell is nothing but being utterly caught up in the personal. The counter image of the personal in this world is hell in the other world. The personal must not be caught up in this world to such an extent that it beautifies existence. Christianity brought the view that everything depends on the one life between birth and death. The earth world had therefore to be made into a vale of sorrows, and people had to be told to let go of earthly things. Art on the other hand was a pagan element that made people be caught up in the personal aspect. The artists of old sought to make this earthly realm beautiful. Someone who sees only the personal element will say: ‘This personal aspect must do away with all that is beautiful. The earth must be made less beautiful, the person must be tom away from all that belongs to this world.’ It was therefore perfectly logical for Homer and all the poets of antiquity to appear to Dante in hell. 27Divine Comedy, Inferno 4, 25 f
Dante gave a true picture of avaricious and prodigal people on the astral level. 28Inferno 7. There people see their own passions in mirror images. On the astral level an avaricious person will see what he has done with his avarice in the image of a prodigal. The prodigal will see his attributes in the counter image of an avaricious person.
In the city of Dis, Epicurus represents the approach to life that aims to expand and develop this world. 29Inferno 10. The city of Dis stands for physical reality. There people are in coffins. The materialists are living dead. They have been saying that man is but a corpse. As dead souls they now have to lie in coffins.
From hell Dante is taken into purgatory. Princes who neglected their soul's salvation over affairs of state also need to be purified in the fire. 30Purgatorio 7, 64 f. The strictly Catholic view is that the personality must be developed. Princes who have not done so must therefore languish in the fire.
The next region between purgatory and heaven Dante enters is the Garden of Eden. 31Purgatorio 27, 124 f; 28 f. Here we are introduced to the truly Christian view, which is that the origin of the Church rests in the realm of the spirit. Anyone wishing to understand the medieval view of the ideal Church must organize himself in a higher way so that he may see its original image in the other world. 32Purgatorio 29 f. Dante used the views of the heavenly hierarchies held by Dionysius the Areopagite 33Dionysius the Areopagite, member of the Areopagus, the highest judicial and legislative council in ancient Athens, converted to Christianity by Paul (Acts 17:34). The works published in his name in the 6th century were much venerated by scholastics and mystics and translated from Greek to Latin by Johannes Scotus Erigena in the 9th century. They include the treatises On Divine Names, On Mystical Theology, On the Heavenly and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, and 10 epistles. See also Steiner R. The Spiritual Hierarchies and their Reflection in the Physical World (GA 110) lecture given in Düsseldorf on 12 April 1909. Tr. R. Querido. New York: Anthroposophic Press 1983. for this. Dionysius wrote of a ranking order of angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, seraphim. The ranks in the temporal hierarchy of the Church were meant to reflect those heavenly hierarchies. Dante wrote of the hierarchies in symbolic form in the Garden of Eden.
Then Beatrice took on the role of guide. 34Purgatorio 30. We distinguish between a female element in the soul, which is inner soul nature, and a male element, which is the spiritual principle in the universe that impregnates the soul. The female soul draws us upwards. Medieval alchemists called the female aspect of the human being the ‘Lilium’. 35Purgatorio 30, 21. This is also why Goethe spoke of the ‘beautiful Lily’ in his Tale. 36Goethe's Tale (of the green serpent and the beautiful Lily) first appeared in the literary magazine Horen in 1795, concluding the story ‘Conversations of German emigrants’. See Allen PM, Allen J deRis, The Time is at Hand! Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press 1995., and Steiner R. Goethe's Standard of the Soul. As illustrated in the Fairy Story of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (GA 22). Tr. D. S. Osmond. London: Anthroposophical Publishing Co. 1925. In the Dantean way of thinking Beatrice represents the edifice of scholastic theology.
Spirits of the moon who had broken their spiritual vows were first of all brought before Beatrice. 37Paradiso 3. They had broken their vow to serve only the spiritual and had fallen back into sensuality. In ancient Greek theosophy Mercury 38Paradiso 5,91 - VII. was still the spirit who had a role to play when the ancient Atlanteans advanced to a concept of the I. The earliest Atlanteans were not yet conscious of the I. The personal comes under the sign of the god Mercury, Hermes. Man came to the personal level when he fell into I-nature, egotism. This also made us into people who want to have possessions and is the reason why Mercury was also the god of merchants.
On Jupiter Dante found the princes who exercised justice. 39Paradiso 18, 70 f. Something very important occurred on the sun. 40Paradiso 10-14. Dante was shown the true nature of eternity on the sun; how to see the day known as the Day of Judgement. The Day of Judgement changes everything. Two people made their appearance—Thomas Aquinas and King Solomon. Thomas Aquinas represented life in terms of Christianity, of the New Testament, and King Solomon was the teacher of the Old Testament.
Christians saw the priesthood as a physical expression of what the Christ meant to them in spiritual development. After life on earth the Christ had gone away and was now triumphant in the fixed star heaven. Someone who has prepared his spiritual embryo here on earth so that he has spiritual vision is able to see the Christ in the fixed-star heaven. The disciple who had been most profoundly initiated, John, appeared as the teacher of this view. 41Paradiso 26, 1-69; 31, 58 f Only the Christ and Mary were able to take their bodies up into the fixed star heaven. A master also has his body fully in hand. Just as people are learning to master their passions with moral ideas in our present civilization, so does someone who has reached a higher level truly learn to control the physical body. Jesus and Mary had hallowed their physical body to such a degree that they were able to take it with them to the highest regions.
Then St Bernard 42Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). See Steiner R. A Sound Outlook for Today and a Genuine Hope for the Future. Lecture given in Berlin on 16 July 1918. Typescript translation C 50, Rudolf Steiner House Library, London: ‘Perhaps the most significant figure in the 12th century.’ became the guide for the higher regions where God is beheld and one enters wholly into the divine self. There Dante went beyond the teachings of the Church. He saw the three cycles, the threefold original essence of the world, father, son and spirit. They are called Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Indian religion. Here the trinitarian nature of the universe became apparent, with Dante rising to pure vision in the spirit, to contemplation.
In the end we are shown how we live, move and are in God but must not presume to understand God. 43Paradiso 33, 124 to the end. In the end, Dante only wrote of growing certainty in the human ability to recognize God. For him, this work was the drama of the world seen from the other side.