This is an excerpt from my new book, The Secret Teachers of the Western World,a look at the history of the western esoteric tradition as seen through the lens of new developments in split-brain theory and the evolution of consciousness.
My central argument is that the western esoteric tradition has been the victim of a smear campaign, conducted by the left brain against the right. Yet despite the efforts of reductionist minds to eradicate it, the western esoteric tradition remains and throughout the book I show how its insights and intuitions have informed some of the most important figures in western culture and thought. The following section shows how Dante's Divine Comedy can be read as a key text in what the poet and William Blake scholar Kathleen Raine calls "the learning of the imagination."
Dante’s Inner Voyage
Like all great masterworks, The Divine Comedy can be read on several levels, and Dante himself, in his adoption of four levels of reading – his “polysemous interpretation” that we can trace back to the Neoplatonists – tells us that there are different ways to understand his account of his inner journey. In a letter to his benefactor, Can Grande (“Big Dog”) - to whom he dedicated The Divine Comedy - Dante spelled out what he meant. There were, he said, two basic ways of reading, the literal and the symbolic, a distinction we have come across before. But symbolic reading itself has gradations, what Dante called the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogic.
The literal reading of Dante’s journey, he told Can Grande, is simply the state of the soul after death. His narrative can be read simply as a Christian vision of what happens to the soul when we die. “Allegorical” in Dante’s time had a particular meaning, and had to do with showing how events in the Old Testament prefigured those in the New Testament, thereby showing that the Old Testament is a “pre-echo” of Christ’s coming, and how He is its fulfilment. The moral sense is a kind of psychological reading; it tells us of the state of the soul. So while the literal sense of Dante’s opening line “Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,” tells us that, at around thirty-five, Dante found himself in a dense forest, the moral reading means that Dante found himself in a state of alienation, of uncertainty about himself and his life, what we call a “mid-life crisis.”
All of these different levels are important, but the level of interpretation that concerns us most here is the anagogic, that is, the spiritual, which, in modern terms, we can say relates to changes in Dante’s consciousness. “The inner journey of the poet” that Dante undertakes is, as Kathleen Raine puts it, “an exploration of the psyche, of the inner worlds and states of the poet himself.” And as Swedenborg would say some centuries later, the hells Dante enters are not literal places of torment, but “states” of the soul, constricting circles of selfishness and egocentricity which the poet must confront before he can be free of them. Here the literal, left-brain approach to reading must be abandoned and a more metaphorical tack taken, something Dante told Can Grande in his letter. And while The Divine Comedy is full of Dante’s personal animosities, his political views, and some fairly orthodox Christian teaching, it is also an attempt to synthesize all the knowledge that was available to him at the time, of both the spiritual and the secular worlds, into a universal vision, an attempt, that is, at unifying our two disparate cognitive halves into a coherent whole.
It is not too difficult to find signs that Dante’s inner journey shares in many of the esoteric themes encountered in this book. The three main settings for his inner voyage – hell, purgatory, and paradise – can be seen as the basic blueprint for spiritual awakening. Hell, then, is the material world we find ourselves in, with its allurements and traps and restrictions. It is a kind of false, half- life, and like many of us, when Dante awakens to the fact that it is leading nowhere, that its temptations are hollow – when, that is, he finds himself in the dark wood - he is disturbed, and seeks a way out of it.
Purgatory represents the initiatory trials, the purifications and spiritual struggles necessary to free the soul from the weight of matter and prepare it for its spiritual awakening. This happens in paradise, when the soul, hitherto lost in darkness, has risen in the light of the divine, and having been freed from false desires and vision, shares in the brilliance of the true light and beholds the unity of all creation. That it is the Virgin who grants Dante the supreme vision, and that this consists of an “exalted light,” tells us that his mystical experience is in the Sophianic and Neoplatonic tradition; Dante even tells us that when Dionysius the Areopagite thought of the “angelic orders,” he named them “true and best.” That Dante’s journey takes place from Good Friday to Easter links it to similar “rebirth” narratives we have looked at, and that he sees God as three concentric circles symbolizing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reminds us of one of Plotinus’s few concessions to imagery, when he depicts the One, the Intellect, and the World Soul in the same way.
Dante’s inner geography is also in line with the different but similar ontological ladders we have encountered so far. The journey from the circles of Hell, up through Mount Purgatory and Paradise, leads to the same celestial trajectory as the Hermetic “journey through the planets.” Having passed from the earth, Dante must travel through the “seven heavens” (the planets) that will lead him to the “eighth” and “ninth heaven,” rather as the Hermetist travelled to the “eighth” and “ninth sphere,” or as the kabbalist worked his way through the sephiroth. Here, the seven deadly sins of hell, after being transformed through Dante’s struggles in purgatory, become the cardinal virtues in service to the divine order, just as the Hermetist transmuted the heavy weight of the planets into spiritual energies transforming the soul.
At the top of this mystical spiral, Dante has a vision of the transcendent God, of the Neoplatonic One, the “tenth heaven” that is beyond time, space, and matter. Here Dante is beyond words; he has reached the union with the divine sought by those who walk the via negativa. Yet Dante asks the “Light supreme” to relent a little, so that he is not entirely overcome and so that in his words “may burn/One single spark of all Thy glory’s light/For future generations to discern.” Like all writers, Dante wants to communicate his experience, to capture it so that it will not disappear, “as the sun melts the imprint on the snow.” The ultimate experience of the divine may be beyond expression but Dante the poet, a traveller on the via positiva, knows that man needs beauty, images and symbols in order to truly love. We should be thankful that the divine granted Dante his wish, and dimmed its glory, so that we can share in some small part of it.
This plea for the need for images and symbols links Dante to the Imaginal World, to Suhrawardi’s intermediary realm, through which the reader of The Divine Comedy has just journeyed. Like “the stranger” in Suhrawardi’s “initiatory tales”, Dante meets an inner figure who will serve as his guide, something C.G. Jung would also do some centuries later when he embarked on his own descent into the underworld during his own “mid-life crisis” following the breakup of his friendship with Freud. In the first two parts of Dante’s voyage, through hell and purgatory, his guide is Virgil (70 B.C. – 19 B.C.), the Roman poet who, like Homer before him, and like Orpheus before Homer, made the journey into the underworld. Yet Virgil, who represents the best of the classical world, can only take Dante so far. When he reaches the limits of the earthly realm Virgil must hand over his charge to Beatrice, who will take Dante further: we can say that philosophy and reason (the left brain) must allow insight and intuition (the right brain) to take charge now. In order to reach Beatrice, Dante has had to climb through Mount Purgatory, much as “the stranger” in Suhrawardi’s initiatory tales must make his way up the difficult slopes of “Mount Qâf,” the “cosmic mountain,” in order to find his true self and reach the “spiritual city,” Hūrqalyā.
The outskirts of Hūrqalyā, we’ve seen, start at the “convex surface” of the “Ninth Sphere, or Sphere of Spheres” which encompasses the whole cosmos, much as the Primum Mobile or “Ninth Heaven” of Dante’s geocentric system is the last layer of materiality before the transcendent realms of the unmanifest source. In pointing out these similarities between Dante’s journey and Suhrawardi’s account of his own inner voyages, I am not suggesting that Dante somehow knew of Suhrawardi’s work, although we have seen that there is good reason to believe that the Arabic and Sufi versions of central Neoplatonic themes most likely informed the Sophianic tradition within which Dante worked. More important and initiatory in its own right, is the recognition that Dante and Suhrawardi’s accounts are similar because they both journeyed to the same place, to the “inner worlds and states of the poet himself.” That is, into the human mind or, as we have already called it, the mundus imaginalis, the Imaginal World that resides within and without all of us.
Although Dante’s and Suhrawardi’s inner worlds are decorated, so to say, with the symbols and iconography of their own particular place and time – Catholic and Islamic as the case may be – the basic terrain, the fundamental geography is the same. We can say that both share a kind of similar topography of the imagination. This is a tradition, not in Guénon’s sense of a specific doctrine handed down through the ages, but in Kathleen Raine’s sense of a “learning of the Imagination.” It is a tradition that has its source, not in a “secret teaching,” revealed to mystic sages at the dawn of time, but in the human mind itself.