Unfiltered: Persuasion

*Unfiltered (and unedited!) thoughts on the idea and practicality of persuasion*

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:

Throw a blanket over a chair. In all likelihood, you would recognize immediately that there is a chair beneath the contours of the fabric. The blanket is not the chair, but the chair gives shape to the blanket. This is a possible image for thinking about a certain aspect of creation – the shape it is given by the Logos. For the Christian, the shape of the universe, and everything in it, points towards something beneath, within, and throughout it. The universe is not just a lot of things; the things make “sense.” And, not surprisingly, “sense” would be one of many possible translations for the Greek word, Logos.

In our world of secular materialism, we would not tend to think that “sense” is anything other than something our thoughts do. But this begs the question: why do our thoughts make “sense” of things. Where did their “sense” come from?

The Logos does not belong to the categories of “things.” It is not a mathematical principle, nor a law of physics. But both the principles of mathematics and the laws of physics point towards something else. In Christian theology, both are just blankets covering a chair.

The chair and blanket is a helpful metaphor for an aspect of the human experience that perplexes me often. It’s easy for me to despair of any possibility for true communication or persuasion among people who have a fundamentally different conception of what’s under the blanket.

Take, for example, the debate over abortion. How do people who believe the unborn is a fetus and people who believe the unborn is a child talk with each other in any meaningful way? To put it in the terms of the metaphor: the collection of cells and tissue is the blanket and the reality of the being underneath is the chair. For any progress to be made in such a debate would seem to require a complete overhaul of a person’s philosophical and theological presuppositions. Such a transformation would cut to the core of of an individual–a sense of identity and understanding of personal experience would have to be completely reinterpreted.

It would be easy to say, “Well, if that’s what it takes, so be it.” But it’s easier said than done. Who honestly wants to pull the rug out from under themselves like that? No one.

Buried in the issue of a debate like abortion, the whole world is at stake. “So,” in the words of Eliot, “How should I presume?” If you’re religious, can you hope to persuade anyone without divine intervention? And if you’re irreligious, can you hope to persuade without an existential crisis?

Maybe I’m making too much of it. But some days I wonder if it’s worth arguing with anyone unless you are willing to put your whole life on the line. I know that’s dramatic, but I don’t see a way around it if the goal is true persuasion.

For one perspective on the issue, I recommend listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Liz Bruenig. Liz argues that respect for human dignity and general hopefulness should motivate us to argue with one another. I think she’s right. To despair completely would enact a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Worried about being able to persuade someone? Don’t bother and you’ll know for sure that they aren’t persuaded!

I’d also add that it seems to me that true persuasion happens incrementally. To be persuaded is of cosmic significance, and no one person could survive a complete transformation of view/thought/experience. I just finished reading Dante’s Purgatory which impressed me with this reality. Not even sinners after death can expect to have their sin removed from them in its entirety. Such a surgical removal would annihilate a person. Cleansing, purification, transformation is slow and methodical. The sinners in Purgatory do not wish to rise too soon. When Dante meets Statius, a poet who had recently been released from his punishment, claims to have been surprised by his sudden desire to ascend. For the past five hundred years, he’s desired that his punishment last as long as necessary. And he did so without any idea of how long that might take.

So too with persuasion. No one will be persuaded of anything significant overnight. Someone who has believed that the chair shaped blanket covers a series of discrete cubes to give the illusion of a chair will not likely be convinced otherwise–that is, until argument and personal experience begin to converge and present a different picture altogether.

Thinking Through Hell: Hate to Die

I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: catalogue scenes in the Inferno where Dante exhibits a physical and/or emotional reaction to the damned. I’m sure someone has already done this somewhere, but I wanted to comb through the text myself. In every instance, either Virgil explicitly comments on the appropriateness of Dante’s reaction, or the narrative description invites reflection on Dante’s view of sin in that particular moment.

Below, I’ve listed the scenes with a brief summary of what happens. At the bottom of the post, I’ll remark briefly on my own conclusions about what I think is going when these scenes are taken together.

Note on the Translation: I used the online text available through the World of Dante website.

I. Canto 5: Paolo and Francesca, circle 2, Lustful

  • Dante: swoons and faints when he hears Francesca tell her story, “so that-because of pity- / I fainted, as if I had met my death. / And then I fell as a dead body falls” (5.140-42).
  • Virgil: No reaction.

II. Canto 6: Ciacco, circle 3, Gluttonous

  • Dante: “Ciacco, your suffering so weights on me that I am forced to weep” (6.58)
  • Virgil: No reaction. Tells Dante that the damned will receive their body again on the day of doom which will perfect their punishment.

III. Canto 7: N/A, circle 4, Avarice

  • Dante: Desires to meet some of the souls in this circle.
  • Virgil: Does not allow Dante to talk with anyone because… “That thought of yours is empty: / the undiscerning life that made them filthy / now renders them unrecognizable” (6.52-54).

IV. Canto 8: Filippo Argenti, circle 5, Wrathful

  • Dante: Insults Filippo (8.37) and then tells Virgil “I am very eager / to see that spirit soused within this broth / before we’ve made our way across the lake” (8.52-54).
  • Virgil: “you shall be satisfied; / to gratify so fine a wish is right” (8.56-57).

V. Canto 10: Farinata, circle 6, Heretics

  • Dante: initially afraid to speak to Farinata; lost in thought after his conversation with Farinata who has told him about the political future of Florence and the nature of a damned soul’s knowledge.
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for cowering at the sound of Farinata’s voice and forces him to speak with him; encourages Dante to remember the words spoken against him by Farinata.

VI. Canto 13: Piero della Vigna, circle 7, Suicides

  • Dante: breaks a twig of a tree that happesn to be Piero; cannot find the words to ask questions of Piero because “so much pity takes my heart” (13.84);
  • Virgil: tells Dante to break one of the branches though it “grieves me deeply” (13.51); encourages Piero to tell Dante his story so that he can refresh his fame (13.53); also takes Dante to the tree ravaged by the souls and hounds racing through the forest.

VII. Canto 14: Capaneus, circle 7, Blasphemers

  • Dante: —
  • Virgil: Rebukes Capaneus and tells Dante that in hell, Capaneus’ true nature is revealed (14.70).

VIII. Canto 15: Brunetto Latini, circle 7, Sodomites

  • Dante: Strongly desires to sit with Brunetto (15.34); remains fond of and grateful for Brunetto (15.82); narration end on a positive description of Brunetto.
  • Virgil: allows Dante to speak at length with Brunetto.

IX. Canto 16: Three Noble Florentines, circle 7, Violent Against God

  • Dante: speaks with them at length and then says, “Your present state had fixed / not scorn but sorrow in me-and so deeply / that it will only disappear slowly…” (16.52-54).
  • Virgil: Tells Dante that these three souls deserve his respect.

X. Canto 19: Pope Nicholas III, circle 8, Simonists

  • Dante: delivers a long invective against Pope Nicholas III
  • Virgil: appears happy with Dante’s rant.

XI. Canto 23: Two Friars, circle 8, Hypocrites

  • Dante: speaks with two friars; begins to respond to their story, “O friars, your misdeeds–” (23.109), but then he cuts it short when he sees Caiaphas crucified to the ground.
  • Virgil: Recommends the friars as sinners for Dante to speak to; he stares at Caiaphas in amazement (23.124).

XII. Canto 26: Ulysses & Diomede, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Dante: desires to speak to the “twin flame” that contains Ulysses and Diomede
  • Virgil: says that Dante’s desire is a worthy request, but forbids him from speaking to them directly–Virgil claims that they would shy away if Dante attempted to speak to them in Italian, so he speaks on Dante’s behalf.

XIII. Canto 27: Guido de Montefeltro, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Montefeltro’s story is detailed, but as soon as he’s finished speaking, the narrator simply says that Dante and Virgil walked away. Strange that there’s no description of Dante’s reaction to such a detailed–and sad!–story.

XIV. Canto 30: Master Adam & Sinon, circle 8, Falsifiers

  • Dante: “intent on listening” to two sinners insult each other (30.130)
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for being so captivated by the scene.

XV. Canto 32: Bocca Degli Abati, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: accidentally stubs his toe on Bocca; asks Bocca to identify himself, and when he refuses, Dante first tries to convince him by offering him fame, but eventually must yank his head back and pull out his hair to force him to respond.
  • Virgil: no response

XVI. Canto 33: Count Ugolino, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: listens to Ugolino’s story; instead of a direct response, the narrative complains that the people Ugolino betrayed should not have punished his sons along with him.
  • Virgil: no response

XVII. Canto 33: Brother Alberigo, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: Alberigo cries out to Dante to hear his complaint; promises to wipe the ice from Alberigo’s eyes if he tells the truth; when Alberigo has finished talking, Dante refuses to fulfill his promise to him because “it was courtesy to show him rudeness” (33.150).
  • Virgil: No response

XVIII. Canto 34: Satan, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: when he sees Satan, he says, “I did not die, and I was not alive…I became deprived of life and death” (34.25-27).
  • Virgil: No response

(Brief) Concluding Thoughts

The pattern of Virgil’s responses seem relatively straightforward: Virgil only reproves Dante when he fears or is entertained by the sinners. Anger and pity, however, are allowed and often praised.

One question that often comes up in discussions about the Inferno is why Dante must travel through hell before ascending Purgatory into Heaven. The answer, I think, lies in the pattern of Dante’s behavior that Virgil praises and censures. Dante must learn to hate sin. Hate encompasses a spectrum of responses to sin that range from anger to pity.

Dante must also be bold in facing sin. Cowardice cannot hate. Boldness counter-balances the opening scene where Dante “awoke” in a dark wood. He’d become lazy and fell asleep, no longer vigilant in his fight against sin. The way was lost to him because he didn’t keep up his courage.

The goal of Dante’s journey through hell is to hate sin so much he’d willingly die to it. Dante’s transformation ends in a form of death–i.e., a state of being deprived of “life and death.” This death is different than the kind of death the sinners in hell experience. Sin does not kill Dante. Rather, Dante’s perseverance throughout his journey suggests that he’s resolved to die before he allows sin to chain him in hell. Such a death ultimately liberates Dante and allows him to escape.

Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.

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Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.

Thinking Through Hell: Repentance

I just read Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno with my students. Dante is in the eighth ditch of the eighth circle where the Fraudulent Counselors are punished. Here he meets Guido da Montefeltro, a man who experienced a spiritual transformation in his life only to relapse into sin in response to pressure from Pope Boniface VIII.

I’m not going to give a full summary of Montefeltro’s particular sin. If you want a good overview, Wikipedia has a decent summary. I also recommend you check out the passage itself on the World of Dante website.

The fascinating part of the scene with Montefeltro occurs at the end. Although 08 | June | 2010 | Wickersham's ConscienceMontefeltro was hesitant at first, he decides to commit the sin of evil counsel because Boniface VIII guarantees him absolution ahead of time. On the day of his death, St. Francis attempts to take Montefeltro’s soul to heaven, but he’s stopped by a demon who says Montefeltro is bound for hell.

Why? Because, as the demon points out, the law of non-contradiction holds true for repentance. One cannot repent of a sin and at the same time commit that sin. Absolution, likewise, can’t be granted ahead of time because it does not function like an advance on a paycheck. Contrition and the resolve to avoid sin are the two conditions required for absolution to take effect.

My students raised a natural concern: what is the role of repentance in salvation? If we die without having repented of our sins, will God bar us from heaven?

These questions are worth struggling with because they force us to confront two oversimplified narratives of salvation. The first narrative concerns the relationship between faith and works and whether our works have any effect on our salvation. Protestants–especially those rooted in the reformed tradition–will quickly say “Faith alone!” Works are a product of faith in Christ. Works have no bearing on our salvation except as evidence of our salvation. God saves people. Period. Full stop. Insistence on faith alone guards against the first narrative of a works-based salvation.

A second narrative pushes the first to an opposing, though logical, extreme: if works have no bearing on the efficacy of faith and salvation, then God will bring sinners into heaven regardless of repentance or any other good work. In Montefeltro’s case, his initial conversion to Christianity should have been enough to carry him into heaven. Yes, he may have committed a sin at the behest of the pope, but such a sin–even without specifically repenting of it–would not inhibit the salvation that comes through faith. But the idea that God will save people regardless of repentance contradicts scripture and what many of the church fathers since the second century have taught about the nature of salvation. God does not infringe human will. In Dante’s scheme, the gates of hell are open. No one stands guard ushering sinners in or keeping sinners from escaping. Hell is the place for people who, because of their unrepentant life, would find heaven unbearable.

So what is the role of repentance in the Christian life? I’m still working the answer out myself, but here are some initial thoughts inspired by Dante:

Repentance is an act of faith. “Of” indicates that the efficacy of repentance is rooted in something outside itself. That is, repentance qua repentance is meaningless and useless unless it is oriented to some external end. Describing the relationship between faith and repentance in this way, however, dangerously over-emphasizes the subordination of the act of repentance to faith. A Christian cannot confuse faith with repentance, but he cannot pretend that repentance as a discipline of the faith is optional. St. James famously drives this point home in his discussion about the relationship between faith and works:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:24-26)

James’ formulation “faith apart from works is dead” works in reverse order as well: “works without faith are dead.” The two share a symbiotic relationship with each other. Too often in conversation with my protestant/reformed friends, discussion about faith and works inevitably ends in weird abstractions, as if a person’s faith exists as a non-material substance within the heart and mind. But as James points out, an abstract faith is no faith at all. Faith will prove itself through the discipline of good works.

“Discipline” is key to understanding how works and faith relate to each other. Insofar as repentance is a work of faith, it should be a defining feature of a Christian’s daily life. The works of faith will not come naturally to the Christian because converting to Christianity does not entail immediate sinless habits of thought or behavior. Instead, it prompts the process of sanctification. The work of sanctification progresses slowly and requires the purposeful participation of the sinner. Believing in Christ as the Son of God and in the salvation he brought through his death and resurrection is an important start. The rest, however, is prayer and repentance. St. Paul famously exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” and I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. The life of the Christian is a constant striving to live in communion with God every second of every day.

Through repentance, we recognize the variety and patterns of sins committed, and then we resolve to avoid them by calling upon God’s mercy and grace, trusting fully that God has and will answer our request: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Historically, the church has provided devotional disciplines to help facilitate and encourage repentance. Some of these practices include the sacrament of confession and seasons of fasting. There’s also a monastic tradition where monks and nuns frequently repeat the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, a discipline that conditions a person to pray for repentance without ceasing:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

 

Preparing to Teach Dante

This weekend I’m preparing to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy for the next five weeks to a group of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. The task feels overwhelming, especially when I consider the complexity and influence of his poem. Never mind The Divine Comedy, Without The Divine? – The Dishintroducing the Divine Comedy to a group of college/adult students, how do I distill the significance of Dante’s work for high school students without either misrepresenting the poem, making it impossibly tedious, or devoting the rest of the year to reading it?

I ask a similar question of almost every text I teach–this year alone, we’ve read The Consolation of Philosophy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Saga of the Volsungs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Murder in the Cathedral, etc. As far as I can tell, there is no easy or best answer. I can only hope to give students a sufficient introduction which will hopefully inspire them to return to the text later. This, after all, is only a first pass.

For the Divine Comedy, my introductory lecture will draw on Anthony Esolen’s introduction to the Inferno, where he lays out three underlying philosophical principles of Dante’s view of the world:

1. Things have an End

This is the Aristotelian conception of telos. All things have an end, by which Aristotle meant that all things have an ideal function/purpose. The fulfillment of that purpose will inevitably bring happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). To have accurate knowledge of a thing, you must know its telos, which is unique to every individual person/thing. The punishments in the Inferno correspond to each soul’s direct violation of his telos. The skin diseases of the alchemist, for example, “express, in brute corporeal form, the reality of the falsehoods the alchemists committed” (Esolen xv). Hell, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, is locked from the inside. God does not stand over hell imposing punishments on the sinners. They punish themselves by refusing to turn toward the true end and fulfillment of all their desires.

2. Things have Meaning

One of the most wonderful (or most tedious, depending on how you view it) is Dante’s belief that every minute detail plays into the overall importance of God’s created cosmos. Nothing is too small. Esolen illustrates the idea with Jesus’ reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the prophets Christ could have referenced–Isaiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc.–he chose one of the minor prophets as “a type, or forerunner” of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Jonah wasn’t merely a convenient symbol. He is a testament to the truth of salvation. It is possible to treat every aspect of Dante’s poem in the same way. Detailed descriptions of every punishment in Hell speak to the nature of the sin itself and of it’s corollary telos. This is true not only of the content of the poem but of its structure as well.

Here is Esolen’s description of Dante’s use of numerology:

Dante invented his rhyme scheme (terza rima) precisely to give glory to the Trinity; so, too, the threefold division of the poem, reflecting the threefold division of the hereafter into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since tradition held that Christ died at age thirty-three, each of the sections of the poem contains thirty-three cantos, except for the unworthy Inferno, which contains either thirty-four or thirty-two, an excess or a deficiency, depending on whether we consider that Hell begins in the first canto or at the gates in Canto Three. Just as the fall of Adam is the happy fault that brought the Redeemer into the world, so the numerical blemish for the Inferno brings the whole Comedy to an even one hundred cantos, the square of ten, itself the square of the Trinity plus Unity. (Inferno xvi)

3. Things are Connected

If everything has a telos and if everything has meaning, then naturally everything is connected in some way. For Dante, “each thing reflects the mind and plan of its Architect” (xx). Simultaneously, “it is not possible to separate, in this universe, those things which have to do with divinity from those things which do not” (xx). The endless interconnections of Dante’s universe speaks directly to the truth, power, and beauty of Christ’s incarnation. When God took on flesh, He did not merely save human souls, He set in motion the sanctification of the created physical world. This includes everything from mountain ranges to (it pains me to say) mosquitoes. Some of the best descriptions of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s redemptive work occurred during the debates surrounding the Christian veneration of icons in the eighth century. In support of the use of icons, St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…”

Since Christ saw fit to take on flesh, so Dante sees fit to spend much of his poetic energy in describing the physical appearance & condition of the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the Inferno, gruesome descriptions of bodily punishments (e.g., those who sow discord in the body) are balanced with physical beauty. It’s Beatrice’s physical beauty, for example, that makes Virgil himself eager to obey her request to guide Dante back to the “straight and true” path:

When she had finished speaking to me so,

she turned her glistening eyes all bright with tears–

which made me all the readier to go,

And so I came to you as she desired,

raising you from the beast that faced you down

and stole for you the short way up the hill.

Will a discussion about these three principles be sufficient to excite my students about reading the Divine Comedy? Will it be enough to help them grasp some of the basic and essential thematic components of the narrative? Maybe. I probably won’t know until we’ve moved on to a new book, and I’m again busy asking the same questions.