Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dante on (true vs. faux) freedom

Speaking of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, here's Anthony Esolen (of Touchstone) in First Things on the freedom of Hell and Heaven... the West have inherited this ­suspicion of heritage. We share the assumption that ­freedom must mean freedom from—freedom from the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family. It seems not to matter that such freedom presupposes our alienation from one another. Existential alienation is a small price to pay for enlightenment, the fulfillment of the progressive movement, or the satisfaction of appetites.

It is hard to recall the medieval definition of freedom, which was not the political license to follow our bellies or the philosophical encouragement to send our elders packing. Freedom was understood, rather, as a growing into the habits, the virtues, that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.

In the Divine Comedy, the pilgrim Dante, having climbed the mountain of Purgatory and scoured away the effects of habitual sin, hears Virgil say that the fruit of joy once lost in Eden is now near. And so he fairly rushes into the freedom of being what he has been created to be: Will above will now surged in such delight / to climb the top, that with each step I took / I felt my feathers growing for the flight.

Dante's callow soul will soon be welcomed into the community of the blessed saints, for whom freedom means the grace-filled incapacity to will anything but the good for themselves and for one another. Thomas Aquinas steps forth from the constellation of the wise to express this freedom as the now utterly natural and supernatural virtue of love. Says he to Dante, who has been too stunned with wonder to ask his name:

When the radiance
of the Lord's grace, which lights the flames of true
love and by love still grows in eminence,
With such multiplication shines in you
it leads you up these stairs no man may take
descending, without climbing up anew,
He who'd deny his flask of wine to slake
your thirst would not be free, would have such power
as rivers not returning to the sea!

Thomas cannot do other than love. In that very propensity, as of a rushing river, consists his freedom.

In his way, Dante has foreseen our modern notion of freedom...and he has rejected it. That is not because such false freedom is often directed toward evil, as when it becomes the license to snuff out the life of an unborn child. It is, rather, because any freedom that severs us from one another, from our memories of those who came before us, is built on a lie about being. It is a misunderstanding of that Being whose essence is to exist. It is autonomy collapsing into antinomy, the denial of law itself and of our created being. Dante knows both that there is an autonomy in accord with the structure of created existence, which is truly free, and that there is an autonomy that violates it, caught by its own snare....


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