- God’s Feet and Hands (Paradiso 4.40–48): Non-duality and Non-false Errors
When we discuss Dante we usually forget that for medieval Christian thought reality is ultimately one, and ultimately spiritual. 1 The understanding that drives medieval philosophy may be stated in four words: no mind, no matter. Matter has no existence apart from intellect (consciousness or awareness), but intellect is self-subsistent, because it is nothing in itself, it is the act-of-being. 2 In more or less rigorous and consistent guises, this principle grounds the thought of virtually every Western philosopher between the pre-Socratics and the trio Gassendi-Hobbes-Descartes, a span of two thousand years.
Our current world view, which perhaps could be described as materialistic psycho-physical dualism, is an exception in history. 3 The fact that our view is an anomaly blinds us to the fact that it is: we [End Page 1] assume we have understood what the rest of history has not. The truth is that world-views like ours have arisen before, in both East and West, and have been soon abandoned or superseded: one thinks of the Epicureans in the West, or the strict materialism of the Carvaka in Indian philosophy. Moreover, materialist movements of thought have invariably been (necessary) reactions to an idealism that has degenerated into religious dogma (always a disguise for political tyranny), or into the hollow forms of religious “instruction” and pious hypocrisy. 4 This is also true of our current moment, which is the tail end of the great liberating empiricism/materialism of the Enlightenment. Our metaphysical premises are in fact still essentially those of the Enlightenment and Newtonian science, although they are perhaps beginning to totter under the impact of relativity and quantum physics. In any case, the point is that we will not get very far if we attempt to understand the Comedy in terms of dualistic materialism, in part because that stance is utterly alien to Dante and to the essence of the philosophical-spiritual tradition of his time, and in part because it is probably less coherent than his own view. 5 To understand the Comedy as Dante conceived it is to feel the force of its understanding of the world.
In both Western and Eastern thought, the (nonnmaterialistic) [End Page 2] nonduality 6 implicit in the underlying principle no mind, no matter is usually more or less qualified, or rather disguised, by dualistic elements. Within Christian philosophy, this is principally the dualism creator/creation, God/soul, or form/matter. Those who regard Christianity as irreducibly dualistic forget that the second term of each of these pairs has no being apart from the first. The mystical import of the Incarnation and the Trinity is that each of these dualities, so real to human conceptual understanding, is ultimately one, or rather, not two. 7
It is only natural that nonduality should be expressed in dualistic terminology and imagery. It can be expressed in no other terms. Terms like matter, time, intellect, I, God, etc. . . ., denote things to the common understanding. Having a particular veduta, or point of view, human consciousness experiences itself as other than the ultimate ontological principle, and thus cannot recognize its identity with its own experience. This dualism, like that between the pilgrim Dante and his guides, is an inescapable stage, and usually insurmountable obstacle, in the progress toward understanding (the “vision of God”).
The result is that the understanding that underlies and motivates the formulas of nondualistic philosophical-spiritual traditions is easily obscured, and in danger of being lost. Instead of revealing the truth, those formulas end up entombing it. This has already happened whenever nonmaterialistic nonduality has turned into a set of (dualistic) doctrines familiar to all, but whose radical import is understood, experienced, and lived by almost none. Dante felt this was the case in his time: it is the world he portrays. Ulysses, who seeks wisdom by devouring space-time in the few days left to his senses, is a dualistic materialist. So is the passionate and ingenuous Francesca, who cannot recognize her own being in another name and form. So are all the churchmen and philosophers who think...