Loss of Place

Loss of Human Scale, a consequence of our modernist progressive world.

Design to human scale is the first principle of architecture because architecture is first designed for men to live in. So likewise is it with all man made constructs. We design those constructs, cigarettes, cars, cities, civilizations, for our use which entails that they must be designed according to human scale.

Or at least, they must be so designed if they are properly ordered to their end.

The following is an essay I first read in Chronicles Magazine some years back.


Reading Dante’s Commedia Today

John Francis Nieto
Thomas Aquinas College

The modern imagination of the universe poses an impediment both to the proper reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy and to thinking realistically about the realities the poem attempts to describe. Reconsidering our imagination of these realities will assist us in reading the Comedy. Even more important, reading the poem well can aid us in thinking rightly about the natural and supernatural realities it is concerned with.

Now the word ‘impediment’ is formed from the Latin word for ‘foot’, pes, pedem, and the prefix in- or im- with its privitive or negative sense, as in the word ‘impossible’ (not its intensive sense, as in the word ‘inflammable’). An impediment is something that prevents one from moving his feet or from moving forward. I am thus concerned here with an obstacle to our walking through the other world with Dante, as through a world as real as the one in which I am now speaking to you.

Let me begin with a character from American literature who is unencumbered by our impediments. In this way at least, he seems more ready than most of us to read the Comedy. The character is Nelson Head, a boy in a story by the Southern writer Flannery O’Conner. Nelson is raised 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 impudence his grandfather takes him into the city, only to find Nelson bristling with pride in his origins:

Mr. Head was appalled. He saw the moment had come for drastic action. “Lemme show you one thing you ain’t seen yet,” he said and took him to the corner where there was a sewer entrance. “Squat down,” he said, “and stick your head in there,” and he held the back of the boy’s coat while he got down and put his head in the sewer. He drew it back quickly, hearing a gurgling in the depths under the sidewalk. 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 pitchblack 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 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.”

Now Dante is a much better guide than old Mr. Head, and he will show us very much more. But we must be fit to receive what our guide has to teach us, if we also intend to be moved by the Comedy, to stand “for some seconds shaken” and to draw “away from the curb.”

We must be particularly cautious of the modern feeling of contempt for medieval thinkers. I expect that most readers find Nelson Head naive. I do not disagree. Dante too, for all his sophistication and art, seems to us in many ways “childish”. Naïveté, an unaffected, artless approach to reality, is the fundamental charge modern enlightenment has made against medievals and medieval culture. A charge made maliciously, though not altogether without reason. And therefore we can easily imbibe the modern 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. Blaise Pascal, in his Pensées (68), 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 rememberance 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 and articulated 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.

Note that I am calling Newton’s work an imagination. I do so advisedly. 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 in the Commedia, Dante’s hands pass through the bodies represented there, 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 (things?) with sufficient clarity.

Now we all share this imagination of vast empty space in which bodies, more or less round move with some regularity, unless disturbed. Some form this imagination more, others less. Some with greater detail and articulation, others with only a vague awareness. Some consciously and willingly, others by osmosis. But, as it cannot provide an ultimate grasp of reality, this imagination keeps us from seeing what is right before us. To help us see the world and thus to see it a little more as Dante did, I intend to do three things here. I shall discuss some elements of the modern imagination, as introduced by another great Italian, Galileo. Then I shall speak about the ancient and medieval imagination of the world. Finally, I shall make some general considerations about Dante’s use of this imagination. Here I will pay particular attention to this question: Why are the cosmology and geography of this world so important in a poem that offers us a vision of the other world?

There are numerous ways in which Galileo Galilei first formed a modern imagination of the universe. Some of these go back much farther than his own time, even to the ancient world. But they are not, until Galileo, elements of a common imagination. I shall not discuss, even if I touch upon, several of the most important. For example, the imagination of natural bodies as moving and interacting “mathematically”. This seems part of some ancient descriptions of the world, but it plays little role in the development of ancient or medieval physics. On the other hand, this “billiard ball” model is central to the modern approach to nature and even to philosophical disputes about the reality and nature of cause and effect. In fact, one can find almost all the elements of the modern imagination somewhere in Galileo, though only a few are thoroughly worked out.

The elements I will discuss depend upon two discoveries. 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. But each demands a new imagination of all its parts.

Let us begin with the discovery of the moons of Jupiter. Here on earth we see something we call the Moon. This body appears to travel around the earth. Leaving aside its daily rising and setting in a westward direction, the Moon moves eastward (at a different angle) around the earth approximately once every month. The Moon appears to move in a circle with the earth as its center. Ancient cosmology understood all other heavenly bodies, the Sun, the planets, and the stars, to move about the earth as well, while the earth remained immobile at the center of the universe. But Galileo’s discovery that four bodies moved 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.

Further, 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. Notice also that 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.

Again, 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.

Now, sophisticated fantasies, such as Star Trek and Star Wars, make even the picture of the 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 “the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces...”

Now 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 and the other much smaller.

I have no intention of discussing here the value or the dangers of these imaginations for science itself. 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 upon such images. And the place of science in modern life in fact depends upon 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 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...”

Before examining the cosmology we find in the Comedy, let me make several things clear. First, 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 am speaking here only about the images associated with each cosmology. Second, I recognize that theological truths can be contemplated in light of modern opinions about the physical universe, and sometimes more perfectly than through the medieval ones. But modern intellectual culture has not gathered the theological fruit that a philosophical and theological contemplation of modern evidence offers to Christian faith. And here I am concerned only with how the common reception of views about the universe affects the medieval and the modern ways of imagining the universe.

Now 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, of course, 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 upon 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 usually move down, also go up in certain natural circumstances.

But 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 river bed or an empty glass. Now, 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 one another. But we also see 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. The first is just the fact 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.

This last point will undergo revision, yet 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. This “picture” is composed from observations made here on the earth, but even when the medievals imagined this world from outside (as painters sometimes did), its structure is the same as it appears to be from within.

Before going on to consider our experiences at night, I shall make clarifications and review. I think it most probable that the earth moves, that the solar system and “gravity” exist, and that something corresponds to what we call molecules and atoms. I am, on the other hand, anxious that we pay attention to what we directly experience. Further, the lower three parts of the ancient world are still readily experienced, although we understand them differently. Fire no longer seems to be a distinct substance, but a gas as it is released from some compound. But we experience solids, liquids, and gases, and they move in relation to one another as the ancients thought. We call these the phases or states of matter and believe that they depend upon the structure of molecules and atoms. Finally, any account of gravity that explains things like solar systems and galaxies must depend in some way upon the differences between these phases or states, especially, the difference between the solid and the gaseous. That is to say, an understanding of the universe will still demand some grasp of the difference between these states and the reason for their movements.

Now I wish to remind you of some things we have already seen by day. First, the bright part of the world, the upper part, seems to be fire or fiery. Second, 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 a 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, street lights, porch lights, lamp lights, and, most of all, televisions impede our observation of the night sky. Such observation 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. But we may never have noticed that these stars rise and set once a 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. Not only do they go around the earth once a day, but 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 twelve 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. I shall say very little else about this motion, except to mention that the moon and all the planets, in addition to their daily movement around the earth, travel likewise along the zodiac, but with different cycles.

Now all 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, the Greek philosopher 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 corrollary: 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 their 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 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.

Now let me make some general observations. 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, those of 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.

But note that 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. The word “place” here 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 earthly nature down into the earth. There they find the place within the earth that balances the weight of their sins. Souls enflamed 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.

I should like to close by considering a question that will underscore the importance of our modern impediments to reading the Comedy: 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. But Dante need not situate the “other” world so distinctly in “this” one. Nor does he lack the imagination to “create” another world.

It seems to me that Dante’s “choice” here 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 irrelevence 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 which God’s love bathes with light and warmth, we see the world as cold and dark
When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after—as the rememberance of a guest that tarrieth but a day—the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of space 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.

And in this vast unthinking emptiness we 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.