September 2019 Print

Science and Beyond: Dantean Moon Spots

by Andrew J. Clarendon

Dante begins the final part of his Divine Comedy, the Paradiso, with a sweeping summary of all reality:

The glory of the One who moves all things penetrates all the universe, reflecting in one part more and in another less.

This one tercet encapsulates the entire poem; the other 14,230 lines are an extension and application of these simple and profound words. From the one God comes all of the many things of creation and the diverse parts of creation point to the unity that is God, who is Himself three Persons in one Being. The ultimate and most complete way of understanding creation is the realization that everything reflects God, but not in the same way or in the same capacity; this is the true sense of unity in diversity, the concordia discors of Horace and ancient Greek philosophers. Or, as Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet, puts it: “God’s utterance of Himself in Himself is God the Word, outside Himself is this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God. Therefore, its end, its purpose, its purport, its meaning is God, and its life or work to name and praise Him.” Although writing about the afterlife—Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—Dante gives many images of the natural world firstly to add verisimilitude to his story and secondly to make the above point about the nature of the universe. At times writing about what we would today call science, Dante then extends the discussion further, insisting that what is known about the material world is only part of the true nature of things, expressing eternal ideas that remain true whatever the prevailing model of material reality.

One of the most famous ways in which Dante makes this point is in the discussion of moon spots in the second canto of the Paradiso, but to understand it a word about Dante’s model of the physical universe is in order. As Barbara Reynolds explains in her introduction to Sayers’ translation, in Dante’s poem “the form of the literal story is, of course, as much dictated by contemporary science as is that of any story of planetary adventure by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, or C. S. Lewis.” Cosmology in Dante’s day was as much driven by philosophy as anything else and so the picture used to describe the heavens was painted accordingly. The earth is at the center of the universe with the various heavenly bodies arranged in perfect spheres around it: our moon, the known planets of the solar system (Mercury to Saturn), and our sun, then everything else in the eighth sphere, that of the fixed stars. The ninth and farthest circle from the earth is the Primum Mobile, the first mover, the sphere that turns the whole system, since the earth is motionless at the center. The various planets and stars, being of heavenly material, are perfect, and as they revolve around the earth, produce a heavenly music that we on the corrupt and mutable earth cannot hear. Such an ordered vision of the universe, coming first from the ancient Greeks, held sway in the West for many centuries; Shakespeare, for example, writing 300 years after Dante, often alludes to this conception of the universe.

Dante’s Inaccurate Picture

Having ascended to the moon from the earth with his guide Beatrice—herself a symbol of theology—the Pilgrim asks about the nature of “the dark spots...which, seen / from earth along the surface of this body, / lead men to make up stories” about Cain with a thorn bush or the Man in the Moon. Following a format similar to St. Thomas’ Summa, Beatrice begins with objections, asking the Pilgrim what he thinks. He answers: “The differences we see from earth, / I think, are caused by different densities.” Since physically speaking moon spots come from different types of rock, the Pilgrim is perhaps not that far off, but Beatrice points out that if parts of the moon were simply thinner than others, “the moon could not / fully block out the sun: in an eclipse / some light would shine through the transparencies.” She even invites the Pilgrim to do an experiment about the reflection of light. With his “intellect stripped clear,” she reveals the true reason for the differences in the moon. In brief, the glory of God streams forth from Him and hits the edge of the Primum Mobile, the edge of the universe, of space and time. While this an image of God keeping the universe in existence, as much of the light of God as is possible is also taken into the sphere itself and passed on to the next. Each sphere accepts, uses, and passes on the light, row by row, in a celestial hierarchy, guided, Dante adds later, by the nine angelic choirs. The spots on the moon, along with other differences in the universe, involve both this blending and lessening of the glory of God and the differing ability of various parts to receive the light. In other words, some parts of the moon are less excellent, less of a reflection of the glory of God than others—and so it is for everything that exists.

Whatever the inaccuracy of Dante’s physical picture of the heavens, the vital point is clear: at the root of things is a qualitative difference, a metaphysical relationship that is more important than merely material ones. Hence, Barbara Reynolds’ insightful comment that “It does not follow that because Dante’s schematic arrangement of circling spheres is an inexact picture of the physical heavens...that the religious and moral ideas which his cosmos allegorizes must, logically, be discarded.” Dante, Reynolds goes on to say, would have been perfectly able to convey his main ideas in a heliocentric universe, the ten-dimensions that Einstein’s law of gravitation requires, or even the centerless universe which would fit “conveniently enough with the famous dictum of the Schoolmen that ‘God is a circle whose center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere.’” Another aspect of this qualitative difference between things is the teleological sense of the universe; Dante, following the rich tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas, both expresses the ultimate cause of things and affirms their purpose. Modern man looks up at the night sky and sees randomness, uncertainty, and eventual annihilation; medieval man saw that “among all things, however disparate, / there reigns an order, and this gives the form / that makes the universe resemble God /...[Who] is that great artist who so loves His art, / His gaze is fixed on it perpetually.” The whole system, moreover, exists not for itself and not only to give glory to God, but also to call man back to that same God: “The heavens wheeling round you call to you, / revealing their eternal beauties”; they, like all things, bear the “imprint of Eternal Excellence— / that goal for which the system is created.”

Purpose Beyond Physical Creation

Now almost 700 years after his death, this fundamental theme of Dante’s is more important than ever: to limit our understanding of reality to the merely material is a falsification of that same reality. This is not to deny that science and its various applications have achieved many incredible things: less than 75 years passed between the Wright brothers’ first flight and man landing on the moon, for example. In fact, it is because modern science, to paraphrase Fr. Paul Robinson, is so good at describing material reality that some have fallen into what is sometimes called “scientism:” the idea that the physical discoveries of science is all we can know. Dante, along with the other poets, philosophers, and theologians, asserts the proper domain of science; that is, describing the glories of God’s physical creation while realizing that the ultimate causes and purposes are beyond. As science continues to paint an ever more exact picture of physical reality, the closer scientists will approach the limits of science at summit of knowledge—where the theologians, philosophers, and poets have been for centuries—and all the more will they affirm with Fr. Hopkins that “all things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God, and if we know how to touch them´╗┐, give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of Him.”