Great DiscoursesDante first saw Beatrice when he was 9 and she was 8 (or so). He arrived at a party at her home with his parents and she was there. They didn’t even speak.In La Vita Nuova Dante suggests that at that moment he knew, for he says, “Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.” The story goes that he saw her two more times in the streets of Florence, never really speaking. She married someone else and so did he. When Beatrice’s husband died, Dante mourned for her. She died when she was only 24. Dante devoted the rest of his life to writing something worthy of her. The Divine Comedy is a pretty good memorial.
If I told you I was madly in love with someone I had only seen a couple of times and hadn’t really spoken to, and you were my 10 year old best friend, you might indulge my fantasy and walk by their house a hundred times in the summer–just in case my beloved was mowing the lawn. But if I was 20 or even 30 and still hankering after my 10 year old love, I think you’d tell me to find a good therapist, and you might want to warn my beloved about my potential stalking. So was Dante in need of an intervention?
Plato and Aristotle both say that of all our senses, sight is singularly prized. The sight of a beautiful thing is analogous to understanding some perfect truth. Sight, they believed, was akin to knowledge.
But, further, the sight of beautiful things incites motion. Beauty invokes desire.
We may want the beautiful thing to be for us. I see a chocolate eclair and I desire that it be mine. And then I reach out and take it. But the object of my love then no longer exists, except in my belly. Sometimes we do this with people. We possess the other and, in so doing, what we loved no longer exists. We’ve consumed them.
Or maybe we want the beautiful thing just to be. We desire its continued existence even if that means I can never really have it or experience it. This is how Dante had to love Beatrice. He wills her happiness even though it means he can never actively enjoy it with her.
Or maybe we get to have both. We desire that the thing be for us and we understand that for this to be so, we must also desire that it just continue to be. The best of loves are like this. We will the happiness of our beloved in and of themselves, and they, loving us in return, allow us to participate in their joy.
Dante imagines that this third kind of love is his. In The Divine Comedy, he finally meets Beatrice and comes to terms with what it means to truly love someone (particularly after she tells him off for being such a half-assed lover after her death (you might say Beatrice is high maintenance)). By the end of the poem, they have truly pledged their love to one another and we know that even though Dante has to return from his vision to real life, that their love will endure and no well-meaning intervention involving his mother and aunts will be able to stop it.
Dante spent his life trying to make himself worthy of a woman he wouldn’t truly meet until after death (or in a vision, if we are to believe his poetry). Her beauty at the age of 8 moved him to become a better person, a better writer, a better lover. And this is ultimately why “eyesight” (or however you might approach beauty) is to be prized. It brings us, perhaps unknowingly, to the highest of truths. It brings us to love.
Join me and see how even a schmuck like Dante can find love at Great Discourses.