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since I am of opinion that he had for one of his principal aims (perhaps his paramount one) not only to imitate Homer and Virgil, by celebrating the creed of his own country, as they did that of their's, but to expound it with unrivalled accuracy; and since therefore, according to a fundamental rule of good taste, all poetical ornaments should, far from frustrating that main aim, be strictly subservient to it, and indeed be nothing more than the honey to recommend the draught; –— we are arrived at a passage, where, to do justice to him as a poet, it is requisite to see whether he has erred as a Roman Catholic theologian: and this appears to me the more necessary, not only because it has been neglected by former commentators, but be-, cause even a judicious admirer of the Divine Comedy has, in this instance, attempted to rifle it of one of its surest titles to immortality — that of handing down a correct notion of the spiritual tenets of one of the most lasting and widely-spread forms of worship (to say nothing of its holiness) which mankind ever professed (). If Homer and Virgil still live, they owe it in great measure to their faithful delineation of the religious doctrines of Antiquity: hereafter Dante may be prized on a
(1) Les punitions du Dante sont pour la plus part proportionnées aux crimes, et font honneur à son jugement et à son esprit de justice. Ce n'est qu'avec répugnance et a contre coeur qu'il damne les hommes célèbres, et il sauve autant qu'il peut sans trop heurter les dogmes de
son Eglise et quelquefois même en les heurtant. Merian, Mem. de l'Acad. de Berlin. 1784.
GANro Iw. like account with even better reason; and no doubt but ( indulging occasionally like other mighty spirits in the prescience of his immortality of fame) he felt, that the sacred poem, to which, in his own words, “both heaven and earth contributed (1),” would be afterwards resorted to for theological information by curious men not only not his co-religionists, but perhaps of creeds the most widely different, in distant lands and ages. Yet this ought never to be the case, and he were no longer an authority, if his orthodoxy were questionable on any one point. The mode in which he disposes of the Pagan heroes in this Canto, and of some others in Purgatory and Paradise is the ground of much misplaced sarcasm against his Church, and of encomium equally misplaced upon him; as if the vigour of his fancy corrected the narrowness of his religion. But it is an absolution he cannot receive: it is strictly as the poet of Catholicism that he stands upon his deliverance, and to discredit his orthodoxy is to shake the pillars of his poetic temple. It is indeed an axiom of the Roman Church that belief in the Messiah is, and always has been, necessary to salvation. This is a general position; as it is likewise one, that “neither thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God (2).” And
(1) Parad. Canto xxv, (2) I. Cor. 5. 10.
GANTo lv. it is certain they shall not, as long as they conti
nue thieves or extortioners; for nothing impure shall ever enter there: but who can tell that another has expired thief or exortioner? We, who can only judge by appearances, may be easily deceived. It is the same with regard to faith. We can pry little into another's mind at any time, even while that mind has the will and the power of words to assist us; but before it separates from the body communication between it and us has entirely ceased — for in even the suddenest death the loss of articulation precedes the departure of the soul; and what may be felt, or learned during that fluttering paroxysm, when life has retired from its outworks, the senses, to the heart, which is its citadel, or what change may be then undergone by the spirit, or what invisible agents may be in attendance, we shall never be able to determine, until fallen into a similar condition ourselves; and then we shall be quite as uncommunicative to those we leave behind, as our precursors were to us. But not only for this reason the ultimate fate of an individual is not to be pronounced; but that general axiom of theology bears itself a theological exception named by the schools invincible ignorance: and who has lived or died in a state of invincible ignorance is avowed to be another secret inscrutable to us (). This
(1) What invincible ignorance is, the Church of Dante does not pretend to define; but she permits our reasoning thus: ~ Every one
dAsro ro, much however we know from the Apostle, that “the wisdom of the wise” is folly (); and from the strictest rules of logic, that in comparison with a Being infinitely wise our philosophers are as ignorant as our ideots, since the capacities of both are finite. Here then the axiom of exclusion is again inapplicable to individuals: and we remain in the dark, except when aided by a miraculous interposition of heaven; to which Catholics pretend only in those cases where their Church has decreed canonization , and in those others recorded in the Bible, and which all Christians equally believe. But understand the necessity of a belief in Jesus ever so literally, I repeat that it is not
ignorant of the true faith is so either vincibly, or invincibly. If vincibly, he can conquer it; so if he does not, he is wilfully ignorant: but such wilfulness is guilt; and the wilfulness precedes the ignorance, so that something criminal, and not mere ignorance, is, as it ought to be, the real cause of his diaster, should he expire deficient in the knowlege necessary to salvation. If invincibly ignorant, he is involuntarily so; and the converse of the proposition seems equally correct, that all involuntary ignorance is invincible. Then no man involuntarily ignorant of the true faith will ever be called to account for that igno. rance : and whatever be his circumstances, whether born in Christendom, or among Heathens, whether totally uncivilized, or decorated with all the folly of the wise (mis-named by us learning), if he be not wilful in his ignorance then is he invincibly ignorant and in the opinion of the Church innocently: and, if his life be in other respects as innocent, his eternal portion will be with the pure of heart, in spite of appearances which easily deceive us. But, in fine, whose ignorance is or ever was, vincible, or invincible, voluntary, or involuntary, may have been enquired by particular divines on their own authority, but it is certain that the dogmas of Catholicism most prudently and charitably abstain from it. (1) I. Cor. l. 19-20.
decided who has been blest with that belief, or who has not. There is no death but supposes a space between it and full life: and that space, however imaginably brief, is less evanescent in comparison with all the ages since the creation, than these are with eternity. No instant of time but may be compared with the longest human life: but neither that instant, nor that lengthened life, can bear the least comparison with eternity; so it is mathematically correct to affirm, that in the balance with eternal existence all portions of time, the greatest, or most minute, are absolutely and equally insignificant. The instant therefore which is so transient in our perception, may in that of the Divinity be of neither more nor less duration than the most protracted human life: so if this life can merit an eternity of bliss, that instant may be just as capable of meriting it. Truly speaking then (because speaking with reference to the Fountain of truth ) the space supposable by us in even cases of suddenest mortality, between utter dissolution and full life, is not comparatively short; and things may take place during it of which we blind mortals can attain no knowledge; but which may secure the individual a crown of infinite joy quite as possibly as the whole sum of his thoughts, words, and deeds, during the pittance of years he had been seen to live. Neither the Catholic doctors, nor, I believe, any power on earth, pretend to be acquainted with what may