“Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.” So wrote the eminent French psychologist Emile Coue, whose schtick on autosuggestion was the rage of his time. Name it and claim it. Say it’s so, and viola: better.
Coue’s 19th Century fad seems to me to be the epitome of our standard definition for hope. What is hope? Pretty basic here: hope is the idea that things will get…better. And by better, it’s perhaps stupidly simple to say what that means: we want things to be like we want them to be. We want to see the future as different from the present. Better.
So, key here – for Emile Coue, and for us – is our operational definition of hope. That’s what this Canto is about. This section of Paradiso is about Dante surviving three pop quizzes on the hit parade of three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Love), given by none other than each of the three closest apostles to Jesus himself: Peter (who proctored the Faith exam), James (here, grilling Dante on hope), and John (soon to give Dante the SAT the nature of virtue numero uno: Love).
So – what is the nature of hope? To break down what is a very dense piece of poetic cheesecake, for all the symbol and interwoven imagery, the heart of the matter in this canto seems to be this: is hope what we can see? That’s what Dante’s playing around with, methinks.
So, here’s what I mean: does hope mean that things get better? Are we expecting a different picture in the future? To riff on that strange admixture of virtues 1 and 2 in the famous line from Hebrews: “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” Or, as Paul bluntly puts it, “hope that is seen is no hope” (Romans 8:24) Hmm. We seem to be in a whole different ballpark here. The progression goes like this “Faith, gives us hope…and hope’s about what’s notseen.”
OK – maybe this will make clear what I mean. Years ago, I read in an excerpt from Jim Collins’s hit business book Good to Great, which has to do with what he calls “the Stockdale Paradox.” It involves a story about Admiral James Stockdale. You may remember him not so fondly as Ross Perot’s not-too-articulate running mate in the 1992 Presidential election. But his renown came, in many ways, out of his experience as a prisoner of war in Viet Nam, a guest in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison. He was the highest ranking prisoner in that prison, which by all accounts was one of the most miserable and inhumane places on earth.
But, as difficult as that experience was, Stockdale claimed that “it was the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Not sure what to make of this, Jim Collins (in his interview with him) asked him the question, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“That’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
Confused by his answer, Collins pressed him to clarify:
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Stockdale paused for a moment, and continued: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Dante starts this Canto off with an understanding of hope that is pretty standard. This is the picture he’d love to see: Me, says Dante…me, standing at the baptismal font of the Church of San Giovanni. Yeah, and someone gives me a laurel crown. The crowds gather around; everybody’s carrying a copy of the DC. They see the greatness of my poetry now. They applaud as I slowly lift it onto my head.
Lady Bea snaps him out of his momentary reverie, and gets him to…see…what is really meant to be true hope: what is embodied in the scriptures. What can be seen not with the eye, but with the heart, via the scripture.
It’s St. James who arrives, the scriptural poet of hope – dude number two in the trifecta of Peter – James – John, Jesus’ inner three.
What ensues is a very interesting play on Dante’s sense of…well, sense. His visual sense to be precise. Dante is afraid to “look up” so that his eyes meet the vision of this “illustrious being” for fear it will blind him. James, reading Dante’s mind naturally, encourages Dante to go ahead – look at me. Well, here’s how James puts it:
Lift up your head, look up an do not fear,
for all that rises from the mortal world
must ripen in our rays from sphere to sphere.
And ultimately, at the end of this Canto, it’s by “looking up” at John – the herald of Love – that Dante becomes blind. Can’t see. He employs a rather elaborate simile – of a man who becomes blind by looking at the sun to see an eclipse – to indicate several rather subtle meanings. He’s dispelling the myth that John actually rose bodily into heaven (only Jesus and Mary got that ticket) – thus the thing Dante’s trying to “see” is John’s earthly body, eclipsing the radiance of his soul. But what is also being eclipsed, to my mind at least, is hope itself, in the effort to see it.
“Why do you blind yourself / trying to see what has no true place here?” Meaning – his body. Meaning hope – in a place where hope is ironically meaningless – but for the opposite reason it’s meaningless in hell. It’s already here, there everywhere to be “seen” – and by seeing it, Dante’s mortal eyes are blinded by it.
See? In the attempt to see it, with the eyes, you become blind to it.
And to become blind is to “ripen” the means to see it.
Paradox is cool, huh?
Thus, Dante becomes blind in order to see. As we shall see.
But wait! you say. That wasn’t Dante’s answer on the quiz; that’s not exactly how Dante puts it. “Hope,” he says, “is the certain expectation / of future glory.”
Aha – but what is the future glory we await? In the here-and-now we may need to face “the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.” But how does one do that? We do that with the certain faith that, as the good Admiral puts it, “you will prevail in the end.” The future glory is not our prevailing, not our attached-to-the-outcome vision; that certain expectation is the victory of God. And we should never confuse the two.
Sometimes, to “see” that hope, we need to become blind. Paul met his ultimate hope in the risen Christ, after he had fallen off his horse and become temporarily blind.
In Shakespeare’s great King Lear, Gloucester, Lear’s friend, is blinded by the cruel wiles of his son, but it is in becoming blind that he’s able to “see, feelingly.” In relinquishing the ocular data, he develops the inner vision to see things as they are.
The “certain expectation of future glory,” may not be a picture of Dante donning the poet’s laurel at San Giovanni. That would be a really pretty sight. But no – the real glory that awaits us, is that which blinds us.
Don’t be afraid: look up.