This is a continuation of Comparing Dante and Milton, Part 1 and Comparing Dante and Milton, Part 2.
In Dante’s Paradise the perfection of natural virtue and philosophy is confirmed by the realm of the Sun. Here the great scholastic theologians represent the perfection of philosophy. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas stand out as giants surpassing the genius of either Plato or Aristotle. Their position in the “sun” contrasts the position of the worthy pagan philosophers who dwell in the shadows of Limbo. Dante depicts for us the powers of natural philosophy residing in the “happiness” of Limbo, but he reveals the full potential of philosophy by the brilliant presence of the Christian philosophers in Heaven.
One might object that Dante’s positive relationship between nature and grace breaks down when one examines the negative depiction of the Church and the State. Dante repeatedly chides the Church and especially the Pope (in the person of Boniface VIII). Dante seems to believe that the Roman Empire as it has resurrected through the Holy Roman Empire is self-sufficient and entirely independent of ecclesiastical intervention. Here it seems that the Church and the State should remain separate like oil and water.
This is an overly simplistic reading of Dante. Dante does not dispute that the Church can and should sanctify the State. Dante protests against the intervention of the Church in matters of State. Going back to fourth century, Dante believes that Constantine blended the Church with the State and so confusion has reigned ever since. Dante sets forth a vision whereby the Church and the State exist in full harmony. However, this can only happen when the Church functions as a church and the State functions as a state. Dante is arguing for the nature to function as nature in the case of the State and grace to function as grace in the case of the Church.
Having established the positive way of Dante as putting forth a model of grace perfecting nature, we briefly examine Milton’s treatment of nature and grace as it regards the apophatic or negative way of supernatural fulfillment. At the end of Paradise Lost, Milton places into the mouth of Adam words that could not more perfectly summarize the tradition of negative theology:
Greatly instructed I shall hence depart,Michael responds: “This having learnt, thou has attain’d the sum.” (PL 12. 575) Thus, Milton articulates what he as illustrated all along. Natural reason, natural knowledge, and natural philosophy are at best dangerous, at worst sinful. It seems that the pride of Adam actually began to develop during his discourse with Raphael prior to the fall. Raphael descends with one sole purpose. Raphael has been sent by God to remind Adam to obey the divine command. Instead, Adam seems only interested in what we might call philosophy and science.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can contain;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learn, that to be obey is best. (Paradise Lost 12. 557-61)
The same pattern is seen in the fall of Lucifer. Lucifer cannot comprehend the role and place of the Son in the hierarchy of God’s kingdom. So trusting his reason, he rebels and falls away. Over and over again, we see that natural reason is in conflict with divine revelation. God reveals something that is incomprehensible. The agent then has the decision to rationalize the situation or obey the divine command.
Unlike Dante, Milton would not willing to trust the pagan Virgil through the pathway of Hell. Milton would also have no need for Purgatory. Man’s relationship with God is extrinsic and primarily focused on legal status. Adam is not given the hope of transformation—he is giving the hope of future justification. Milton would also find the guiding role of Beatrice to be superfluous. Beauty and love are temptations used by Satan (and heartily recommended by Belial in Paradise Regain’d). Beauty could not for Milton be a means of salvation. Lastly and most importantly, Milton did not and could not present God as a Trinity, because the Triune spheres of Dante are relational, the divine Son is “depicted with man’s very image”, and the Persons are relational—the very “love that moves the sun and the stars.”
Comparing Dante and Milton, Part 1
Comparing Dante and Milton, Part 2
Dante on Purgatory and Virtues