Dante’s Recovery of Speculative Metaphysics as Productive
In the Paradiso, self-reflectiveness, for all its linguistic self-consciousness, is not just empty, formal repetition: it is ontologically productive. Even thematically and narratively, speculation has an active, effective role as a “making” (poiesis). At the literal level, speculation is the means by which Dante is propelled upward through the heavens. Through gazing into Beatrice’s eyes, reflecting her reflective gaze, he achieves progressively sublimer states of being that elevate him, each time, to the next higher sphere of the heavens. Immediately after the proem and a description of the setting at the outset of the Paradiso, Dante’s ascent to the first heaven begins with his imitating Beatrice’s contemplative gaze in an act described through the imagery of reflection drawn from the science of optics. The metaphor of the ray reflected back toward its origin is itself glossed in turn by the image of a pilgrim’s longing for return home:
E si come secondo raggio sole
uscir del primo e risalire in suso,
pur come pellegrin che tornar vuole,
cosi de 1’atto suo, per li occhi infusi
ne 1’imagine mia, il mio si fece, e fissi li occhi al sole oltre nostr’uso.
- (And as a second ray is wont
to issue from the first and climb back up, like a pilgrim desirous of return,
So her act, through eyes infused
into my imagination, was made my own,
and I fixed my eyes on the sun beyond our usual capacity.)
Speculation is productive and transformative. Dante’s gazing into Beatrice’s gaze—his mirroring her own regard (“Nel suo aspetto tai dentro mi fei”)—metamorphoses him, causing him to transcend human nature (“trasumanar”) and become divine like the fabled Ovidian fisherman Glaucus (1.67-70).
Dante’s speculative regard immediately results in a specular doubling of the phenomena of heaven itself in what suggests a leap from the sensible to an intelligible order. Dante’s Christian-Aristotelian heaven is equivocally both intellectual and sensible:
e di subito parve giorno a giorno
essere aggiunto, come quei che puote avesse il ciel d’un altro sol addorno.
- (and immediately day to day appeared
to be added, as if he who can
had adorned the heaven with another sun.)
Indeed speculation consists in a reprise and a giving back of what is given, namely, sensation, but without the same limitations of time and place. In reflection, all is transfigured by being repeatable and universalizable. Being is rather pluralized by being repeated as an image. Being, in its intrinsic infinity and freedom, is infinitely speculative and can produce images of being without limit. Such reduplication can be seen happening again, for example, in the heaven of the sun, where a second crown of sapient spirits accrues to and doubles the first: “and motion to motion and song to song was gathered” (“e moto a moto e canto a canto colse,” XII.5-6).
The whole universe is a speculation of God, in two senses—not only according to the medieval theory of the essences of things as His ideas, but also in the sense of mirroring and resembling Him through its orderliness. As explained in the course of Dante’s specularly propelled ascent narrated in the first canto of the Paradiso, the universal order of things is itself a resemblance to God:
“Le cose tutte quante
hanno ordine tra loro, e questo e forma
che 1’universo a Dio fa simigliante.”
- (“All things together
have an order among themselves, and this is form
that makes the universe similar to God.”)
This very order of things turns out to make up their essential being and plenitude, which is God.