Thursday, June 28, 2018

Dante, Fortune, and the Universal Destination of Goods

In Canto 7 of Dante's Inferno, the narrator and his guide, Virgil, descend deeper into Hell, encountering the avaricious and profligate. Here Virgil tells Dante, "Bad giving and bad keeping has deprived them of the lovely world and set them to this scuffling.... Now you can see, my son, the brief mockery of the goods that are committed to Fortune, for which the human race so squabbles" (7:58-59, 61-62, Durling trans.). These sinners have erred by keeping too much, or too little, as if they were somehow able to avoid the allocations of Fortune.

Dante, seeking to better understand asks, "This Fortune that you touch on here, what is it, that has the good of the world so in its clutches?" (7:67-69) Virgil replies:
He whose wisdom transcends all things fashioned the heavens, and he gave them governors who see that every part shines to every other part, distributing the light equally. Similarly, for worldly splendors he ordained a general minister and leader who would transfer from time to time the empty good from one people to another, from one family to another, beyond any human wisdom's power to prevent.... This is she who is so crucified even by those who should give her praise, wrongly blaming and speaking ill of her; but she is blessed in herself and does not listen: with the other first creatures, she gladly turns her sphere and rejoices in her blessedness. (7:73-81, 91-96)
Just as the celestial bodies have "governors" - imagine here some kind of angels that enforce the laws of physics and keep the stars and planets on their courses - so too earthly goods have a governor, Fortune. Like the angels who oversee the heavenly bodies, she is "blessed" and does not care what praise or blame is given by men.

But why would God create Fortune at all? Why must the sphere of worldly goods turn in the way that the celestial bodies turn? There are probably many potential answers, though one that strikes me involves what we have come to know as the "universal destination of goods." As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains,
In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.

The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. (CCC 2402-3)
In other worlds, while particular individuals hold particular goods (i.e., private property) in order to care for themselves, all goods ultimately belong to everyone. Although private property is the day to day norm, the "primordial" reality of the universal destination of goods remains. But what if someone should acquire too many goods, to his neighbor's detriment? Here Fortune turns her wheel: the wealthy are impoverished while the poor are enriched. Or, as Mary puts it, God (acting through Fortune)
has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)
There is certainly a coherence to Dante's notion of Fortune: she reflects the justice of God, her creator. The sins of avarice and profligacy are rebellion against her God-given authority and, for such rebellion, those who commit such sins are punished. And I think there is merit in the idea of Fortune as the guarantor of the universal destination of goods.

But for anyone who has observed the actions of Fortune, she often seems capricious, even vicious. It is one thing for the man of comfortable means, upon having lost some bit of wealth he did not really need, to curse Fortune as fickle. He is in the wrong, as Virgil contends. But what of children who starve because of natural disaster? Can we look upon them and glibly say, "Fortune gives and Fortune takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord"?

Aquinas argues that there is no discontinuity between chance and the divine order (Summa theologiae, 1a, q. 22, articles 2-3; Summa contra gentiles, 3.94) while Boethius likewise argues that seemingly random events in fact have a divine cause (Consolation of Philosophy, 4.6). I am not well-versed in the works of either Boethius or Aquinas, and I happily admit my intellectual poverty in their company.  (I only have the citations because Robert Durling provided them in his notes on Dante.)  But I can hardly think that the problem of destructive and capricious Fortune is so easily resolved.

Here we must recall that Adam and Eve's fall has ripples that are wide and enduring, not only for human beings but for the entire world around us. Where once rains simply watered the earth and made it bring forth food, now they also produce flooding and devastation. Although the natural world was created good, it too is fallen and can now bring forth evil as well as good. Fortune, like storms or fire, has been damaged by our sins. How exactly this came to be I do not know - perhaps no one does - but it accords with both Dante's understanding of her as akin to the forces of nature and with everyday experience of Fortune's power and vicissitudes.

Today's image is from the medieval Burana Codex.

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