dante meets beatrice

When teaching about the history of science, I make sure to talk about the medieval physiology of love. Teaching the history psychology can, ironically, be quite soulless if Plato, Aristotle, and the medievals are glossed as bumbling fools. I like to make the connection between Plato’s ladder of love, physical vs intellectual eros, and Dante’s medieval synthesis. The Vita Nuova (prequel to the Divina Comedia) is a great place to start:

At that moment I say truly that the vital spirit, that which lives in the most secret chamber of the heart began to tremble so violently that I felt it fiercely in the least pulsation, and, trembling, it uttered these words: ‘Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi: Behold a god more powerful than I, who, coming, will rule over me.’ At that moment the animal spirit, that which lives in the high chamber to which all the spirits of the senses carry their perceptions, began to wonder deeply at it, and, speaking especially to the spirit of sight, spoke these words: ‘Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra: Now your blessedness appears.’ At that moment the natural spirit, that which lives in the part where our food is delivered, began to weep, and weeping said these words: ‘Heu miser, quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps!: Oh misery, since I will often be troubled from now on!’

From then on I say that Amor governed my soul, which was so soon wedded to him, and began to acquire over me such certainty and command, through the power my imagination gave him, that I was forced to carry out his wishes fully. He commanded me many times to discover whether I might catch sight of this most tender of angels, so that in my boyhood I many times went searching, and saw her to be of such noble and praiseworthy manners, that certainly might be said of her those words of the poet Homer: ‘She did not seem to be the daughter of a mortal man, but of a god’. And though her image, that which was continually with me, was a device of Amor’s to govern me, it was nevertheless of so noble a virtue that it never allowed Amor to rule me without the loyal counsel of reason in all those things where such counsel was usefully heard.  (transl.  A.S. Kline 2001)


(update from 2017)

Dante and Plato’s “Ladder of Love” was a nice bridge to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the chivalric virtues. Asking students whether they have experienced the desire to be a better person for someone they thought to be beautiful is always an engaging conversation.