On Essays and Letters

When college students go to Europe, as so many do, I tell them to be sure to send me a card from this place or that, places they visit, usually randomly. Moreover, I tell them before they depart that, on coming to Ostia Antica, the port of Rome, they should read, preferably out loud, the account of the death of Monica there from the Confessions of Augustine. When they are in the Foro Romano, I add, they should read an oration of Cicero. When they go to Athens, they should read something of Plato or Aristotle or even St. Paul. When they travel to St. Andrews in Scotland, they should read from the wondrous accounts of Boswell and Johnson that they wrote there in a pause in their journey to the Western Isles.

And some students even follow my erratic advice. Just the other day, I received a photo of two young students who were in Florence. They were in Santa Croce before the tomb of Machiavelli. A couple of days later, I received a post card from a young student who is from Atlanta. She is studying in St. Andrew’s for the semester. After apologizing that she did not bring the Prince with her on her spring travels, she noted that she too was briefly in Florence. She thought to send me a post card of Machiavelli’s tomb. On it are inscribed the famous words: “Tanto Nomini Nullum Par Eligium.” “For such a name, no praise is equal.” The date is MDXXVII, 1527.

As I too had been in Santa Croce where Machiavelli is buried, I knew there was also what I remembered to be a tomb of Dante in the same church. I actually do not think the praise of Machiavelli is that “equal.”

The foundation of our civilization, as Machiavelli understood quite well in the fifteenth chapter of his book, is Socrates, whose praise he must eliminate if he (Machiavelli) is ultimately to rule the souls of young men who read and ponder the meaning of things in order to rule according to the Prince’s advice. As Socrates often said, however, in searing words we cannot forget: “It is never right to do wrong.” Machiavelli, the founder of political modernity, claimed this “right” to do wrong when it was “necessary” to achieve his end. The death of Socrates, and indeed the death of Christ, are both the price that was paid for upholding that principle upon which all human dignity and civilization stands.

The young lady from Atlanta, however, not to be outdone, sent a photo of the statue of Dante to assure me that she also knew of the sarcophagus, not tomb, of Dante in Santa Croce. I was so pleased at this bemused and vivid response that I went over to my bookshelves and found a copy of Dante’s Paradiso. Somewhat following the method of Augustine in the garden of the Villa outside of Milano, I opened the book randomly. The first lines that I saw were these, from the Tenth Canto:

Looking upon His Son with all that love
which each of them breathes forth eternally,
that uncreated, ineffable first One,
has fashioned all these moves in mind and space
in such sublime proportions that no one
can see it and not feel His Presence there.

Look up now, Reader, with me to the spheres,
look straight to that point of the lofty wheels
where the one motion and the others cross,
and there begin to revel in the work
of that greatArtist who so loves His art,
His gaze is fixed on it perpetually [Musa translation].

I was so pleased with this amazing passage that I sent it back to the student as a kind of reward for leading me, through a photo of the statue of Dante before Santa Croce, to reread this passage of the Paradiso.

And I thought later, isn’t is remarkable that the tomb of Machiavelli is found in a church of Florence called precisely Santa Croce, the Church of the Holy Cross! A vivid reminder of the fate of the just man in existing cities, as Glaucon reminded us in the second book of the Republic. It is never right to do wrong. Death is not the worst evil. No evil can harm a good man. The power of the politician is limited by the Santa Croce. Eternal life is not “endless immortality” in this world, as Benedict told us in Spe Salvi.

If we return to the last line of Dante—“His gaze is fixed upon it perpetually”—we notice that it does not say that the Divine Artist’s gaze is on His own inner Trinitarian life, which it is, but that it is “fixed” upon His ongoing work of Art, that is, on the cosmos itself and the drama of the free beings within it.

We are often struck when we think of our beholding the Glory of God, and it is a Glory, but we seldom have it pointed out to us that the loving gaze of God is also upon us and our words and deeds, on whether we hold and act on the principle and adventure that it is never right to do wrong or on the principle of the one of him whose “name no praise is equal” that it is sometimes right to do wrong.

I have never thought, in conceiving this column entitled “On Letters and Essays,” to include the post card as form of literature. I think, after the student card from Florence via St. Andrew’s and Atlanta and Washington, that I may change my estimate.

image Tanto Nomini Nullum Par Elogium.

His gaze is fixed upon the divineArt perpetually.

And yet, what are we to “do”—Machiavelli says it is not what we “ought” to do but what we “do” do that counts—on realizing the object of the divine gaze is precisely our world? Dante’s response to us is simply astounding. We are literally to “begin to revel” in this same work that the great Artist gazes upon. The beholding of this same Artist reminds us that we too are made for joy.

The adventure of our existence is stretched out through the heavens, “in mind and space,” to allow us to see it, if we will. The Paradiso is not possible without the shadow of the Inferno. We are to love what the divine Artist loves. No wonder Machiavelli is buried in Santa Croce. His effort to teach the potential philosophers who also read Socrates does not obscure the gaze of those who see in the Good that completes justice that it is also Beautiful. This is why, as Dante says, we “revel” in it.

James V. Schall, S.J., is professor of government at Georgetown University. His The Life of the Mind has recently been issued in paperback by ISI Books; his latest book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press).