Introduction to Dante's Inferno: The Celestial Spheres and the Great Chain of Being
GOOD, EVIL, & MAN’S PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE The Medieval to Renaissance Transition Mr. Gilliand English IV Honors
MAKING SENSE OF THE UNIVERSEHow do we understand the universe? Whatis your current conception of the way theuniverse works?
MEDIEVAL CONTEXTNow, take yourself back in time.You are an educated,inquisitive individual, but the circumstances weredifferent at the end of the Medieval Peried. Canterbury Tales c. 1387 Dante’s Inferno c. 1308 Roughly contemporary works
MEDIEVAL CONTEXTHow did Medieval Europeans understand theuniverse? What was their conception of the way theuniverse worked?
THE MEDIEVAL UNIVERSEThe Celestial Spheres •Earth-Centered (geocentric) Universe (Heard of it? It’s important!)
THE MEDIEVAL UNIVERSEA note on 7th Heaven...The idea of the Celestial Spheres predatesChristianity and is sometimes credited to Ptolemy, the Roman (90AD-160 AD). However, the Babylonians had a similar cosmology asearly as 2300 BC.Whatever its origins, Ptolemys geocentric model was used by severalreligions to describe the physical workings of the cosmos. MedievalJews and and later Muslims believed that the outermost concentricsphere was the boundary to the home of God and, so, called it 7thHeaven. The word entered the English language from these traditions,but only very recently: probably in the 19th century as a result ofBritish Imperial contacts with Islam.
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEINGThe Celestial Spheres weren’t enough because theydidn’t explain man and his place in the universe.Philosophers needed more.The Great Chain of Being
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING According to Medieval Catholic Church doctrine, everything existing in the universe has its "place" in adivinely planned, unchangable, hierarchical order,which was pictured as a chain stretching from thelowest, least Godly thing to the highest, most God-likecreation. An objects "place" depended on the relative proportion of "spirit" and "matter" it contained--the less "spirit" and the more "matter," the lower down it stood in the hierarchical chain.
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEINGNear the Top Humans, Angels/Demons, GodNear the Bottom metals, stones, the 4 elements (earth, air, ﬁre, water)...inanimate objects
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING Each link moving up the chain has more perfection (isSpirit more God-like) than the link below it. Even within each category, there are ﬁner distinctions. For example, useful animals are more Division perfect than house-pets and kings are more Godly (by divine ordination) than commoners. The implication is that they are more spiritual and, therefore, closer to God. Popes, asMatter kings of kings, are still more perfect.
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING Spirit TGCoB explains the importance of man. Man connects the Division physical world to the spiritual world. It also explains how sin debases man (moves him away Matter from spiritual perfection).
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEINGThe fear of "disorder" was not merely philosophical--ithad signiﬁcant social and political ramiﬁcations. The “mandate” against trying to rise beyond ones place ) perpetuated political and religious stability, because it helped to justify authority and threatened eternal punishment for ambition. Civil rebellion caused the chain to be broken, creating chaos in the order of the universe. Under threat of divinely-ordained damnation, the average, uneducated commoner simply accepted his place in the world.
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEINGTo depart from ones proper place was to betrayones nature, which was a crime against God, whocreated that nature. Human beings, for example, were pictured as placed between the beasts and the angels. To act against human nature by not allowing reason to rule the emotions--was to descend to the level of the beasts. Likewise, to aspire to a higher place was equally unnatural. This sin was called ambition!
LITERARY CONNECTIONSHow does all of this relate to literature? TGCoB was the accepted “science” of the day. Imagine trying to understand the cosmos without experimental data about gravity or nuclear fusion, or astronomy. The people had only what they were taught to form their beliefs. What was possible in literature was deﬁned by what was accepted as true.How might TGCoB have inﬂuenced The CanterburyTales?
DANTE’S INFERNOIn Dantes cosmology, TGCoB and the Celestial Spheresare extended, literally, to explain Hell, Purgatory, and Heavenand how sinners move through the afterlife.The earth is at the center of the universe and Hell is acone-shaped crater reaching from near the earthssurface to the center of the planet which is the center of theuniverse and the farthest point from God. In this way,Hell mirrors TGCoB. The sides of the crater are a series ofconcentric terraced circles reaching down to thedeepest pit. On each terrace, speciﬁc classes of the sinnersare punished with each deeper circle dedicated to worsesinners than the last.