Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Dante

Diverse People Need Diverse Communities

Then he [Charles Martel] again: “Would man not be worse off
Below if he were not a social being?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and here I need no proof.”

“And how could that be so, if men on earth
Did not live diversely with diverse functions?
It cannot if your master [Aristotle] writes the truth.”

So he continued logically like this,
Then he concluded: “Now it follows that
The roots of your effects must be diverse:

So one is born a Solon, Xerxes one,
And one, Melchizedek, another he
Who, when he took to flying, lost his son.

Whirling nature, who puts her seal upon
The mortal wax, does her work well, but favours
One lodging no more than another one.

And so it comes about that Esau is
Estranged from Jacob in the womb, Quirinus, [Romulus]
Although base-born, is thought to come from Mars.

Those engendered would have to take the road
Taken by those who have engendered them,
Did not divine provision override.

Now that’s before your eyes which was behind,
And so that you may know how you delight me,
Here’s a corollary to wrap you round.

Face any nature with discordant fate,
And like a plant outside its proper climate
It cannot fail to yield a poor result.

And if the world down there only paid heed
To the foundations which are laid by nature,
And built on them, then people would be good.

But you’re perverting to religion such
As are born fitter to gird on the sword,
And fashion kings from men who ought to preach:

And so you wander off from the right road.”

Dante, Paradise VIII

I suspect Dante is not to everyone’s taste, but he is to mine, and this thought is one of his most important. At its heart is this simple but profound point – we are all made different. And this means that what we need to thrive – to make the most of natural talents and needs – is also going to vary.

However if we don’t recognise this simple truth then the dangers are great. For people will be mismatched in their work or their other roles.

Of course we cannot know, just by looking, what someones’s nature demands. The process of living is the process of finding out what does and does not work for us. But if we care about our own development, or the development of those we love, or the development of our fellow citizens, then we must care profoundly about the opportunities that society creates that allow people to explore for themselves what is the role for themselves.

But this requires two things – freedom and diverse communities.

I think this is a much healthier way of thinking about that rather dubious good – ‘social mobility’. Too often social mobility is defined in a class-bound and hierarchical way: how do we help people go upwards? (although defined in this silly way it must also logically mean: how do we help people go down?).

Dante offers us a different challenge: how do we build a society where everyone’s talents are recognised where there’s a positive role for everyone?

Equality With or Without Degree

For there is no other heaven – the hierarchy admitted, there is, it seems, no hierarchy at all; no higher or lower; all is here, in the first. “Only,” and as if (lover-like) Beatrice exerted herself to explain to her lover, she seems to use an intense metaphor – “only – they have a sweet life differently, by feeling more or less the eternal breath” (per sentir piu e men l’eterno spiro (IV, 36)). The swifter ardour of that sweet immingled life is all the difference any can know; passion is their law, not place. Anything else is democracy intoxicated with itself, the moon-lunacy of equality without degree, as without equality degree is sun-madness. Even in this world, even outside love, one does not envy Caesar or Shakespeare or the God-bearer; existence is equal, function hierarchical; at every moment the hierarchy alters, and the functions re-ladder themselves upward. To know both – to experience and to observe both is perfect freedom.

From Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice

Understanding how to take equality is one of the most important challenges of both political philosophy and morality.

As Arendt observed there is a grave danger that the ideal of equality will be corrupted into some kind of enforced normality – what I think Williams might call “equality without degree.” If we say equal, but think normal, then all those of us who are ‘too different to be equal’ will be at risk.

The challenge is to combine equality and degree.

Williams is exploring Dante’s picture of heaven – which is (whether or not you believe in heaven) a useful intellectual exercise. In heaven there must be a fundamental equality – can you imagine yourself as somehow envious, proud or demeaned in heaven. There can be no pretence that we are ‘better’ in heaven. But we cannot all be the same – that would be hell.

Dante imagines heaven as a hierarchy of multiple perfections – the hierarchy seemed problematic, even to Dante himself; but it is then revealed as a way of understanding the beauty of our diversity.

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