On Providence

It is difficult to see clearly when my people are wailing and gnashing their teeth. It is difficult to see clearly when those who are not my people are wailing and gnashing their teeth. It is difficult to know the truth when the algorithms controlling my 24/7 newsfeeds are ordered to confirm what I already believe, not to challenge it; to escalate emotional intensity, not to bring wisdom and peace.

There is a need for some critical distance, and nothing provides critical distance so well as the reading of old books. None put it better than C.S. Lewis:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook - even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth [now twenty-first] century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true, they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false, they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.[1]

Believing Lewis to be right, we at Ambleside place great importance on the reading of old books, even in the younger grades. Furthermore, we consider the abandonment of old books to be one of contemporary education’s most egregious failures.

Is it possible that this unwillingness to learn from the wisdom of old books (despite obvious flaws) has left us ill prepared to face the current civic moment?

Of late and with great satisfaction, I have been feeding on Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Considered one of the world’s greatest works of literature, The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem tracing the poet’s allegorical journey down into the depths of Hell and up to the pinnacle of highest Heaven. The epic is replete with characters drawn from the literature and history of the classical and Christian worlds. It offers an omnibus of human experience, our failures and successes, sins and virtues, intense longings, profound anguish and consummate joys. It also includes something of an exposé of the cruel vagaries of 13th and 14th centuries Italian politics.

Today’s Republicans and Democrats are rank amateurs in vitriol compared with that of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Dante was himself embroiled in the conflict, taking up arms on behalf of the Guelph faction. The defeat of the Ghibellines did nothing to end the civil strife, for the Guelphs promptly divided into two warring factions. This time Dante was on the losing side and condemned to perpetual exile. For the final nineteen years of his life, Dante was forbidden from returning to his beloved Florence. It was during his exile that Dante composed the The Divine Comedy, completing it a year before his death in 1321.

Allegorical Portrait of Dante c. 1530, public domain

Having lived it, how did Dante come to understand the pernicious vicissitudes of Florentine politics? In The Divine Comedy, halfway down the infernal descent, we are given a hint. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, pass through the fourth circle of Hell, the province of those who “wasted all their light” by either hoarding or squandering the gifts of Lady Fortune.

Now may you see the fleeting vanity of the goods
  of Fortune for which men tear down
  all that they are, to build a mockery.
 
Not all the gold that is or ever was
  under the sky could buy for one of these
  exhausted souls the fraction of a pause. [2]

As the two poets continue towards the fifth circle of Hell, the region of the wrathful and the sullen, Dante inquires of his mentor as to the nature of Lady Fortune. In classical mythology, Fortune is a goddess. In The Divine Comedy, she is the personification of God’s Providence.

“Master,” I said, “tell me—now that you touch
  on this Dame Fortune—what is she, that she holds
  the good things of the world within her clutch?”
 
And he to me: “O credulous mankind,
  is there one error that has wooed and lost you?
  Now listen, and strike error from your mind:
 
That king whose perfect wisdom transcends all,
  made the heavens and posted angels on them
  to guide the eternal light that it might fall
 
from every sphere to every sphere the same.
  He made earth’s splendors by a like decree
  and posted as their minister this high Dame,
 
the Lady of Permutations. All earth’s gear
  she changes from nation to nation, from house to house,
  in changeless change through every turning year.
 
No mortal power may stay her spinning wheel.
  The nations rise and fall by her decree.
  None may foresee where she will set her heel:
 
she passes, and things pass. Man’s mortal reason
  cannot encompass her. She rules her sphere
  as the other gods rule theirs. Season by season.

In short, Virgil, personifying the best of human reason, declares that Divine Providence, Dame Fortune, who “by her decree” causes nations to rise and to fall, rules her sphere in accordance with a “perfect wisdom” that “transcends all” and yet to mortals is inscrutable. For modern man, this is a particularly hard pill to swallow. How dare Providence be in charge! In our self-deluded arrogance, we are far too confident that we know what is best and that we can or at least should be able to control outcomes. We tell ourselves the world should conform to our will, and we become embittered when it does not.

And this is she so railed at and reviled

  that even her debtors in the joys of time

  blaspheme her name. Their oaths are bitter and wild.

And yet, Divine Providence is undeterred.

but she in her beatitude does not hear.

  Among the Primal Beings of God’s joy

  she breathes her blessedness and wheels her sphere.

As Virgil concludes his discourse, the poets come to the bog swarming with souls “savage with anger, naked, slime-besmutched.”

They thumped at one another in that slime

  with hands and feet, and they butted, and they bit,

  as if each would tear the other limb from limb.

Just beyond the wrathful are found the sullen, who, resentful and joyless in life, refused to welcome the sweet light of the Sun (Divine Illumination). In death, they are buried forever below stinking waters, gargling the words of an endless chant in a grotesque parody of singing a hymn.

"Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
  in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
  a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun;
 
sullen we lie forever in this ditch."
  This litany they gargle in their throats
  as if they sang but lacked the words and pitch.

Everything in the structure of The Divine Comedy is intentional. Dante set his discourse on Divine Providence between the infernal regions of those that hoard or squander the goods of this world and that of those who angrily rage or bitterly despair. Perhaps he is telling us that without confidence in the goodness of God’s providential care we are prone to a perverse relationship with the goods of this world, to a fiendish wrath or to a pernicious sullenness.

For our sake, and even more for the children’s sake, let us not be counted among those who wail and gnash their teeth, for we are on a sacred journey. Even if the path takes us through the Gates of Hell, yet we live in absolute hope. May it never be said of us, “There goes a one who lacks confidence in a benevolent Divine Providence.”


[1] C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius: The Incarnation of the Word of God, trans. by A Religious of C.S.M.V. (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 7.

[2] Excerpts are taken from Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, translated by John Ciardi. (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2003), 62-65.