One of the things I discovered when studying ancient and medieval cosmology is how the language of desire and love runs through it all — through the theology and the natural philosophy, through discussions of why gravity works and the nature of evil, through, of course, the poetry and art. The world was as mixed good-and-bad, shadows-and-light, as ours — I don’t believe human nature has changed all that much over its recorded history — but their discussions of it centred around love, l’amor, as Dante says, che move il sole e le altre stelle.
That’s the last line of the Divine Comedy — “the love that moves the sun and the other stars” — that cosmological view, that the natural world is at its fundament moved by desire, is also the philosophical view that so too is humanity moved by desire. Love for Dante is all: it is what brings us to God, and misdirected love what brings us to Hell. Over the gates of Hell is written the following tremendous lines:
Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina potestate,
la somma sapïenza e ‘l primo amore.
Through me one enters the sorrowful city;
Through me one enters the eternal woe;
Through me one enters among the lost.
Justice moved my high Maker:
Divine power made me,
The highest wisdom and the first love.
(Inferno III.1-6; my translation).
Divine love made me.
This is not shrinking from the implications of the theology. The mercy and the love that Dante shows through the whole poem — Dante the poet, that is; Dante the character has his moments of uncharitableness — is there in Hell as well, for all that is in Hell necessarily once was good, was lovely. There is no created evil; it is the turning of the free will away from the Good towards a lesser good, loving not its proper end but some other thing, and therefore diminishing itself. We all do this to one extent or another, but to Dante, what matters is what you choose at the end. You can spend your entire life loving lesser goods (and they can be decidedly lesser, all the way down to the betrayals of intellect and love in the frigid core of Hell), but if you turn yourself at the end to the right end, then the mercy can speak to you.
It is the week before Easter, the last week of Lent, the run-up to Good Friday. I have been thinking about these things, the love of God in its ambiguity — the love of God for us, and our love of God in return. I think that all things are lovely, at least a little; that is because they exist, and existence is a good thing in itself. It’s not good for anything, any more than love is really for a reason. We love that which is lovely, which is to say, that which is good; which is to say, that which is.
How lovely it is, however — how good it truly is, how real it truly is — is a bigger question, and not one to be taken upon lightly, or perhaps at all. It is far too easy to make mistakes of judgment — and the old stories are full of reasons why you should be careful about judgments, especially judging by appearances. I mentioned the stories of gods and angels and good kings coming to test people in the guise of beggars asking for hospitality — there are as many stories about our propensity for judging internal loveliness by external beauty and circumstances. Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella are just two; the old story of Eros and Psyche is another one. In Beauty and the Beast the lover creates the beloved’s loveliness, sees what is lovely before it exists, calls it into existence through her loving. In some ways that’s what this week is about in the Christian church, about the ugliness being transformed into loveliness through the lover’s love, no matter that the cost is humiliation, rejection, abandonment, the journey through death, the harrowing of hell, the return from the dead. Good Friday and Easter. Deep ugliness (the crowds that had cried “hosanna” crying “crucify him”) — and the deep paradoxes of the Lord of Life dying, and the dead coming to life, and the beloved made lovely.
I think this is why I like Rupert Brooke’s The Great Lover so much, which I’ve discussed on my blog before:
I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame: – we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city: – and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor: – we have taught the world to di.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence.
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names,
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming . . .
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread …