Paradiso Canto 15: Decline or Improvement?

As he ascends to the sphere of Mars, Dante encounters his great-great-grandfather. The only historical information about Cacciaguida comes to us in this canto. Dante tells us that his forebear had been baptized and that he had died in the Holy Land during an ill-fated crusade. He also tells us that his venerated relative lives now in paradise with other sainted souls. Dante also provides in this canto some reflections on the degradation in Florence that has taken place between the time of Cacciaguida and himself.

Would it not be a remarkable thing to encounter and have conversation with one’s great-great grandfather or grandmother? While a few of us might have known one of our great grandparents, I doubt that any of us have known or talked with any of our relatives older than a great grandparent. Talking to a great-great-grandparent would mean interacting with someone we had never met, who had lived a hundred or more years earlier, and who might have had a shaping influence on our lives. What would we discuss with such a relative? Inevitably, we would engage in comparison and contrast between our era and that of our now departed forebear.

It seems likely that a narrative of decline would feature prominently in such a discussion. To be sure, the astounding array of technological developments would take up the first part of the conversation. After a time, however, the question of human spiritual, moral, and cultural progress would arise. On that score, I doubt that the present state of human functioning would gain high marks. Most likely, we would lament how things have gotten worse in terms of religious adherence, civility, personal morality, and corporate ethics over the course of a century or more. People today seem more self-oriented, more secular, more impatient, less considerate of others, less willing to serve rather than be served, and less committed to delayed gratification in service to a higher good than they did at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. America ascendant now seems in many ways like America in decline.

Is it true, though? Does the narrative of decline actually match the facts? In asking this question, I am reminded of an observation by E. Brooks Holifield in his recent book God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Eerdmans, 2007) that in every era of American history there has been a narrative of decline about the pastoral role. I also call to mind the recognition that while the tenor of national political discourse seems to have reached an all time low, our American forebears made similar claims—and in several cases, with good reason. Many of us have a tendency to see the times in which we live as a fall from an earlier grace. Reading Dante in this canto, we can see that such a tendency has been around for a long time.

If we wish to make the opposite argument—that human morals and spirituality have actually progressed or improved from a hundred years ago—what evidence would martial in support? We would probably want to point to the changing role of women toward equality with men, the Civil Rights movement, democratic movements like the Arab Spring (powered by the widespread availability and use of social media), and stunning advancements in the quality of life brought about by breakthroughs in medicine and science. More people are free, live longer and better than at any other point in human history.

What criteria should we use to gauge human progress or regress with respect to morality and spirituality? I am sure that Dante would approve the use of Jesus’ teaching about the double love commandment for this task. Individually and collectively, do we love God and our neighbor more now than people did a hundred years ago? Five years ago? Last month? Perhaps the criterion of love would be our best bet to gauge the state of humanity today versus a hundred years ago.

How would you answer the question of our current situation in light of where things were in society a hundred years ago in light of the double love commandment? Have we declined or have we improved?

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About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary View all posts by gmikoski

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