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    PloughCast #27 Atheism, Dante, and the Music of the Spheres

    Why We Make Music, Part 3

    By Peter Mommsen, Susannah Black, Esther Maria Magnis and Sperello di Serego Alighieri

    April 5, 2022
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    • Rebekah Copas

      The interview with Esther Maria Magnis really moved me, inasmuch as there is a reflection of the same kind of process in myself also, even though I re-embraced God's love more readily. What strikes a chord is her approach through a Rabbi, and study of how beliefs changed around witness of Holocaust. I now have an odd belief, which came to pass by having met an unusual atheist who believed in the power God invested in Arc of Covenant, but not in One God. He had a borderline personality disorder, yet also believed in himself that he was an incarnation of the same evil spirit as had inhabited the mind of Heinriche Himmler, and that Himmler had obtained Arc of Covenant by murdering many Jews, including a Rabbi who previously was custodian of Arc. The very word "Holocaust" means burned offerings. And so the insanity of a stranger, portraying Arc of Covenant as used to promote heresy by Himmler, somehow instigated in me, the idea of a full resolution of all heresy. These thoughts in me happened after I had become found by Jesus and had the Holy Spirit in me, and before I saw Jesus in a vision thereafter, and Jesus is asking me what is happening at Earth that is wrong now, and I am trying to show how I have witnessed wrong. This understanding of wrongness existing in the world, as if able to block us in our belief in One God, is also what I am relating to in what Esther Maria Magnis is telling. As if our witness of wrong was accorded the responsibility for all we have witnessed, as if it is our obligation to ever refuse to witness suffering, unless we become as we witness, and suffer. In this condition we must make our individual choice to follow Jesus and suffer, because the alternative might be to follow the Nazis. And so I think of all the books about the Holocaust, and all who were forced into facing that exact choice as children witnessing their families murdered. And I think about how so many persons have diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder now, and how in many of the hardest to resolve cases of PTSD, underlying their whole struggle, is the best choice they could have made, of identifying with those who suffer, because to have identifyied with those imagining they could escape suffering, was intolerable.

    Peter and Susannah speak with Esther Maria Magnis about atheism, faith, and her new Plough title, With or Without Me; then they interview Dante’s descendant, Sperello di Serego Alighieri, about his ancestor’s cosmology.

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    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah speak with Esther Maria Magnis about her recent Plough release With or Without Me, a memoir of her father’s death from cancer and her own loss and gain of Christian faith. How can a shattered faith be rebuilt after tragedy?

    Then, they have a wide-ranging conversation with Sperello di Serego Alighieri, Dante’s descendant, about his book on his ancestor’s cosmology, The Sun and the Other Stars of Dante Alighieri: A Cosmographic Journey through the Divina Commedia.

    They also discuss the various dramas of Dr. Alighieri’s Dantean year, the 700th anniversary of his ancestor’s death, including a playful relitigation of his ancestor’s banishment trial.

    Then, they go full galaxy brain: How did Dante’s ideas look forward to contemporary post-Einsteinian concepts about the shape of the universe?

    • I: Esther Maria Magnis: Losing and Finding the Beloved
    • II: Esther Maria Magnis: Life After Conversion
    • III: Sperello Alighieri: The Dantean Year
    • IV: Sperello Alighieri: The Shape of the Cosmos

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    Section I: Esther Maria Magnis: Losing and Finding the Beloved

    Susannah Black: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough. Today, we’ll be talking with an Italian astronomer, Sperello di Serego Alighieri, about his ancestor’s vision of the world as he describes it in his new book, The Sun and the Other Stars of Dante Alighieri. We’ll also be talking with Esther Maria Magnis about her new book with Plough, With or Without Me, and the surprising renewed faith in God that she found in the face of her father’s death.

    Susannah Black: Now welcome Esther Maria Magnis, whose beautiful book With or Without Me chronicles her fall away from her childhood’s knowledge of God and the surprising and painful circumstances in which she found him again. There’s an excerpt from that book in the current issue of Plough Quarterly entitled “The Strange Love of a Strange God” and we will be quite blunt with you right up front, dear listeners, that we would like you to go read the excerpt and then go buy the book.

    Peter Mommsen: It is really good. It’s amazing. Four years ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I just remember reading it on the plane home to New York and being so incredibly moved by it, and knowing by the time that the plane landed that we wanted to publish this book. So thank you for writing it, and welcome Esther Maria.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah. Thank you so much. Thank you for reading my book in German. Must have been hard.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, well, I lived over there for seven years, we won’t do the podcast in German though, so I don’t have to show my German up for what it is. And it’s funny, so this is a book that touches on some of the deepest things in human life: faith, death, loss. Things that could sound very difficult. And what you write about in the book is often very raw. And yet the experience of reading the book, Susannah and I were commenting, is a pleasure, a joy. It reads so beautifully.

    Susannah Black: It’s a strange kind of an enjoyment. And I was asking myself as I was reading it: Why? You’re describing these experiences that are some of the worst and most devastating experiences, not just in terms of what happens practically, but in terms of internal struggle, that we can experience. This is really a book of Ecclesiastes stuff. But at the same time, the way that you write, the strange humor and the playfulness of the language, which is a very strange thing to say, and the pleasure of the accuracy of what you’re describing, I think that might be part of the pleasure.

    Part of the pleasure is just there’s like this shock of recognition, of someone who is actually not cutting corners and not being dishonest about human experience. I think that’s at least part of why it is a book that you want to keep reading, even though it’s so painful to read.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah, when you did the translation and I had to reread it, I was a little bit shocked, because I forgot how direct or how … Yeah, I felt it was almost cruel somehow. And I think that it’s because I started to write it two years after my brother died and everything, the pain, was just real for me. Now I started to think about whether I would write it today like this, and I think I would be much kinder. It wouldn’t be a book like this anymore, but I had the feeling when I read it, it’s so cruel, somehow.

    Peter Mommsen: It is cruel. It is raw, but in a way that is also what makes it so convincing and so trustworthy. So we’ve been teasing our listeners. Talking about this book. What is this story that you’re telling?

    Esther Maria Magnis: That’s okay. I would say it’s about the about the God question. Even when I was a small child and I was staying at the sea, these moments when you experience something that is just strange. On the one hand you experience yourself, but on the other hand, you experience something that is totally not yourself, something very strange outside of you, like the whole world or the cosmos or whatever. These moments leave a question inside of you. When I was very small, that was the question: Is this God? Am I experiencing what the grownups told me about? I think that’s how the book starts.

    Is there a God? Or is there a God the way Christians describe? This question is in the book, not asked theoretically, or examined theoretically, but it is asked for real. Because my whole existence, you could say, became this question when my father was diagnosed with cancer when I was fourteen.

    After he died, after many years of extreme ups and downs, I broke with God. And the question suddenly turned. It was then, if there is God or if there is no God, why do I suffer from love? How do I get rid of the love I feel for my father? I don’t need that love, it makes me weak and depressed, and it puts me in danger. Then I asked the question, how do I get rid of all the wrong hopes and concepts of God and humans, and of myself? I felt that my whole concept of mind … Do you say that? I’m not sure. My whole concept of existence was soaked in European Jewish-Christian philosophy. Even the modern ideas of believing in God, or if you stop believing in God, were in my opinion, still sitting on this Jewish-Christian branch.

    So I really tried to empty my thoughts of this and try to live like an atheist and to stop sitting on these, I don’t know, you could say romantic leftovers in my thoughts. In the book, then I come to the point that is described at the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, where it said, I don’t know if I translated correctly, but after God created the world, after every day, it says, And God saw that it was good.

    I overstepped this point backwards. You understand what I mean? I went behind that judgment into that void that lay before it, and this is something you really shouldn’t do. You can do this theoretically, but you can’t do it for real. At the end, I was just insecure and I lost my identity and couldn’t say the word “I” anymore. From there a new faith started again. But I can’t describe how I got this new faith, because it’s so difficult. Because it was not the one turning point. Yeah, for me, it’s not so much … I am really bad in talking about the book, like talking about a story, maybe you have to do it. I don’t know.

    Susannah Black: I mean, in a weird way, the book that it reminded me the most of was C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. Which is a very strange thing to say, because your book is very painful and not at all sweet, and tweedy, and British like C. S. Lewis. But the way that it is similar is that it’s an existential quest. It does describe your, as you described it very well, almost a series of philosophical exercises that you did in response to the pain of your father’s loss and your experience of feeling betrayed by God who hadn’t saved him in order to almost unmake yourself. Then you got to the point of being unmade and then you were remade.

    You were raised Christian-ish; you knew God. The God that now is the same you knew then. But you describe first a breakup and then a deliberate removal of self, almost. If you’re going to really not believe in God, then you end up not believing in external reality also. So stepping back from that void into being told that existence is good and receiving his word, and that, it’s a profoundly painful and beautiful journey to go on with you.

    It’s a captivating book and it feels like it does something to you while you read it. I found myself praying. I found myself thanking God for his existence while I was reading it. There are so many conversion stories that are structured like intellectual detective stories. They’re like apologetics, they have rational arguments, and Lewis is a little bit like that. But yours really, it doesn’t have that rationalist edge, except a tiny bit in the sense of, if you’re going to say that anything exists at all, you end up including yourself. It’s not Descartes, but it’s not totally not Descartes either. You do get back to a belief and not just a belief in God, but the God that you believe in is a God who loves you. There’s no abstract belief that God exists without a belief in him as the one who loves you.

    That’s how it felt to me. It’s such a weird thing to talk about this book after reading. People should just read the book. Why are we talking about it? But at the same time, I don’t know, I do have some other questions, I guess. One is the Christianity that you return to is Catholic Christianity, you’re a Catholic. You’re half and half, right? Was it your mom who was Catholic?

    Esther Maria Magnis: My father was Protestant. Yeah. My mother was Catholic.

    Susannah Black: But when you returned to faith, when you came back to God and let him remake you became, you found yourself, a Catholic. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? How that happened?

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah. At the beginning and that’s also, might be interesting about the book too is, at the beginning, I was only asking myself if there is a God. When I turned again towards him, I turned to this foreign love that I was hoping was out there. But I was not a Christian. First I solved or I answered the God question for myself. So I turned to God, and at the beginning I thought, I had no idea where to go with what I believed. I even called in a synagogue to talk to, how do you say a Jewish priest? What is it? A rabbi?

    Susannah Black: A rabbi.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah. So I tried, I wanted to talk with him about my faith, because I did not know where I was standing. Then it took me a while to understand the reason why I started to accept the idea that it might be possible that Jesus has something to do with God came during my study. I was working on a piece. How do you say? Yeah, on a work or on a text.

    Susannah Black: Text. An essay?

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah. yeah, maybe an essay about the concept of God, how it changed after the Holocaust, after the beginning of the Holocaust. Then how it developed, how Jewish theology was asking these questions. I found a Jewish philosopher called Hans Jonas. He wrote a book about the concept of God. Everything that he wrote about God, I felt that I totally understood what he meant. He said something like, if you look at the Holocaust, usually you would give three attributes. Do you say three attributes to God? You would say he is all good, almighty and understandable because he says what he wants. He tells his people what he wants, so he’s understandable. If you look at the Holocaust, you can’t say that all these three things go together anymore.

    If he’s all good and almighty, and you look at the Holocaust, you just can’t understand him anymore. If he’s understandable and almighty, you have to say, he can’t be good facing the Holocaust. So that’s what it was all about. Then he came to the idea that you might lose one of these three things. He said the almightiness might go. Then he creates a very interesting idea of how God, in order to let the world come into being, he had to make space for the world that something can exist without him, in front of him. I had the feeling while I was reading it, I said, Yeah, that’s exactly what I believe. Then I woke up in the night and I understood that everything that he’s describing is also what I believe about God.

    But I would say that that’s the description of Christ. Let reality happen to you and suffer from your reality if you make space for reality inside of you. I had the feeling, I think he’s describing Christ, or I had the feeling that it might be Christ or what people say about Christ. So that’s the beginning, that’s how I started to think there might be something about God and Christ. Because I didn’t like Jesus before. I don’t know, I didn’t find him sympathetic, do you say that? So that was part of, and then I started to listen to … I went to the Protestant church and listened to the speeches. I listened to, how do you say these evangelical churches? In Germany we call them evangelikale Kirchen.

    Peter Mommsen: The evangelical churches.

    Esther Maria Magnis: They’re talking much more than Catholic churches too. Because I really needed to know what people think. Because I was so excited that there might be other people out there who know God. So I was very excited going there and listening to them again and to know what they have to say, and if they experienced maybe the same things that I know and so on. That was very interesting but at the end, I noticed in all of these churches, I was missing one thing, that was, that you kneel down. When I went to the Protestant church, the benches were not prepared for people to kneel. It was just there for sitting and staying and listening, but not for the kneeling.

    It’s a very, how do you say trivial? reason at the beginning, but that was the reason why I started to go back to Catholic church was I need … I don’t know. I trust that there is space for kneeling. So that’s why I went there. It’s very complicated. I started to notice that my sense of the way I sense reality, if you can say that, is Catholic. The combination or the expectance of the Holy Spirit in reality, it is in the Eucharist and how earnest reality is. Yeah. If that describes anything, I don’t know.

    Section II: Esther Maria Magnis: Life after Conversion

    Peter Mommsen: You describe in the book, how you went through at least a feeling of atheism, right? You’ve mentioned that today that you tried to be atheist. It was almost like a subjective condition: that God isn’t there, he hasn’t been there for me, and I don’t sense his presence. Is that something that recurs, do you still feel that way sometimes?

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah. Yeah. I have. It’s very easy to get me if I see people suffering. The last time was I think last year or one and a half years ago, a friend of mine died. She was a Christian too. She was a strong believer and she was praying. She married very late, and she was really waiting for the love of her life. Then she found him and then they couldn’t get pregnant and they prayed a lot. It was amazing because she suddenly got pregnant and got the baby although the doctors said it wouldn’t work. So she had this baby and then the child was three years old and she had to start to say goodbye to that girl, and then she died. Yeah, it’s not only these things, but that was the last time that I felt that my faith is trembling.

    I think if you have these problems with your faith, it’s like really a relationship problem or a trust problem that you have with God. It can only heal if you talk to him about it. It sounds stupid, but if you share it with him. But that was a very, I mean, that was a very, how you say? Obvious situation of getting that the faith was hurt again. But yeah, I have these phases once in a while and it’s a nightmare for me. I really hate it. Then there’s only this, as I try to explain, this step back into the void before the existence of everything, I just know in these moments of losing my faith, I only know, Okay, I can’t go back there. I know that I can’t not believe because it guides me into nothing. I’m not strong enough. I think some atheists are strong enough or like themselves or love themselves enough to know that it’s enough, that their opinion about themselves carries them or that their opinion about what is good and what is evil carries them enough. But I don’t have this secureness inside of me.

    Susannah Black: There’s always this question of, what does the Beatitude mean when Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but maybe being poor in spirit is not being someone whose opinion that his own existence is good is enough. We need God’s opinion that our existence is good in order to be. We don’t think that we can be fully existentialist, “Let me say yes to my own existence,” with nothing behind that. That might be someone who’s rich in spirit, but I know that’s not me. I need God’s opinion that it is good that I exist.

    Peter Mommsen: Since the book came out in Germany, you must have had, and you’ve done quite a bit of public speaking in various venues. I’m sure you must have met with other people, particularly younger people, struggling with faith, whether they believe in God. How do those conversations go? What do you tell them?

    Esther Maria Magnis: When I spoke publicly about these questions, it was always with people who didn’t believe in God. It was then always after my readings, mostly. Always with some journalists from print media. I didn’t speak to them. It was more that they were telling me their stories. I think I mostly listened to what they said. There was one, I think it was a journalist. He wrote me that he also thinks that the truth is important and he believes in truth, that truth exists.

    And because I wrote that truth is God or God is truth, I had to think, what’s the difference between him and me? And I told him that I believe the truth is real. That it’s not a concept that we just agree on, but it is something real, even if we don’t agree on it. That’s much stronger than just … I have the feeling, from an atheistic view, it’s all just playing. We play with words. I read a little bit Derrida, who talks about the destructurization of language. I have the feeling that this is what’s happening. If we just play with language, if it’s not about something substantial or something that really is there, then it’s just like air. It’s just like some smells that you have but they fade and it’s nothing real.

    Susannah Black: I was not raised Christian. I came to faith later on. Thinking about the more philosophical aspects of it happened throughout, and keeps happening. It doesn’t feel like something that I can put aside. One of the things that I’ve noticed about reality, through having lots of conversations with atheists, is that they are at least sometimes driven by this sense of “Well, we ought to believe what’s true.” That sense of obligation: If God doesn’t exist, let’s just grit our teeth and face that because we ought to believe what’s true.

    But that sense of ought, even the obligation to seek truth in itself flips you back to Christianity. If you believe that there is an obligation on you to seek truth, feeling that call, that thing within you that says, I can’t believe something that’s not true. I can’t just lie to myself: That call to believe the truth ends up being a call back to God because where does that ought live? How can there be such a thing as ought, if we’re just material? That’s also … I don’t know, that’s something that’s always struck me.

    How have things changed for you since the time that you wrote the book? I think you’ve talked a little bit about … you feel as though you might write it in a more gentle way now.

    Esther Maria Magnis: I gave birth to my first child in the same month when the book was published. Now, four children later, I’m a little bit more … I think … I changed, but it might change again. I don’t know. I would write more friendly now that I have small children.

    Peter Mommsen: There is something though, too – you described it as cruel. There’s an aspect of the book though, that reminds me of the book of Job, which is also cruel. I think its strength, and what makes it so unlike other books I’ve read that deal with the same questions, is that it’s beautifully written. If it’s cruel, it’s a very beautiful cruelty, as a matter of language.

    Could you talk about the literary influences that were on you as you wrote?

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah. There is definitely one author. It’s not the way he is writing, but he helped me to finish the book because I noticed when I started to write the book, I noticed I can’t continue … or I can’t write it without writing about myself. I didn’t like the idea of publishing something about myself and writing about myself, but if I didn’t want to write about the God question, all these things theoretically, I have to tell parts of my story and what I know.

    I really hated doing this. I’ve been asked very often in Germany if it was therapy for me, but it wasn’t. I think it was even counterproductive. During the time I was writing it, I came to the point that I wanted to quit. The only reason why I didn’t quit was that I had spent all the money I got from the advance! So I was spending nights lying in bed, thinking, Oh, how can I pay this money back? I can’t continue. I can’t write about myself anymore. It’s stupid and the book is leading nowhere and I really hated it. That was, at the time, the only reason why I had to continue, but what helped me, was a German artist. He’s called Christoph Schlingensief and he died of cancer, later.

    I think he had cancer while I was writing the book. He wrote a book about himself and he was talking about, You have to show your wounds. Then I was looking and I thought, Okay, yeah. That might be true. You just have to do it and you just finish it.

    In every Catholic church there is a cross, with Christ on it, who shows his wounds. It’s not something totally foreign, it shouldn’t be something totally foreign for us Christians to write about what we know or what we’ve suffered. That helped me to continue writing it.

    The language, I think, is influenced by German fairy tales. My mother read them to us every night, my whole childhood. Or not every night, but very often. It’s the Brothers Grimm’s language that influenced me and then a big influence also from … What’s his name? I’m so much into English now that I can’t remember German names. The Neverending Story by …

    Susannah Black: Michael Ende.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah.

    Susannah Black: Well, also, you mentioned Andersen, The Snow Queen. I hadn’t thought of that, but I could very easily see The Snow Queen behind your story.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah, I remember. The Snow Queen was the dying land, right?

    Susannah Black: The Snow Queen was with Kay with the shard of mirror in his heart.

    Esther Maria Magnis: In his eye too, right?

    Susannah Black: Yeah.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Pieces in the eyes and in the heart.

    Susannah Black: Yep, in his eyes, in his heart. That’s right. I hadn’t thought of that, but as soon as you said that, I can totally see … and then the Babes in the Wood. The part of the story where you’re drunkenly wandering around. It does feel like a nightmarish fairytale. I can’t believe that I didn’t put that together, but it makes complete sense to me that fairy tales would be a big part of your influence.

    Esther Maria Magnis: I’m reading to my children, I read … I don’t know if she’s famous in the United States … Do you know Astrid Lindgren?

    Susannah Black: Yeah, of course.

    Esther Maria Magnis: She’s the Swedish writer. I’m reading … what’s the English translation? It’s called in German, it’s called Ronja, Räubertochter.

    Susannah Black: Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter. Yes.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah, and I’m reading it to my children at the moment, and I thought, the relationship she has to her father … because they break, I was wondering if this was … I don’t know … how do you say? A picture or a road that I followed when I broke with God. I think these stories really influence you.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s an amazing thought. That book is one of my kids’ favorites as well. Ronia breaks with her father when she realizes that he’s cruel, right? Then she has to find a way of loving him.

    Esther Maria Magnis: Yeah, and she suffers from having to hate him.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thank you, Esther, for joining us. To our listeners, if you didn’t catch Susannah’s and my enthusiasm for this book, which is in some way as hard to describe as a fairy tale, we can only urge you to read the excerpt that’s in Plough, and then please consider getting the book. You’ll do yourself a favor. It’s one of the books that has stuck with me most that I’ve read over the last few years. Thank you for joining us, Esther. Thank you for writing the book.

    Section III: Sperello di Serego Alighieri: The Dantean Year

    Susannah Black: Sperello di Serego Alighieri is an Italian astronomer. Since 1990, he was at the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence, Italy, focusing on extragalactic research, cosmology, the evolution of galaxies, that sort of thing. More recently, having retired, his interest has turned to his ancestor, the poet Dante Alighieri. This past year was the 700th year since Dante’s death. To mark the occasion, he wrote a book, The Sun and the Other Stars of Dante Alighieri, which has just been translated into English. Welcome Sperello!

    I would describe this book as a Hitchhiker’s guide to the cosmos, or traveler’s guide to the cosmos, as Dante understood it. One of the things that was really interesting to me in the book was that you talk not just about the history of astronomy or the history of cosmology as Dante had understood it, starting from the pre-Socratics, but also about the political history of Italy at his time, and of Europe.

    Sperello Alighieri: First of all, I should say a few things. When I was asked to write the book by a person I know quite well, who’s really an expert in Dante, I thought about it, and I said, maybe I can do it. I thought that the book should have an introduction about the history of astronomy up until Dante. Since I’m not an expert about the history of astronomy, I thought about a colleague who actually is expert. Massimo Capaccioli, my co-author, who is a really nice person, he wrote the parts, in Italian he wrote the part on the history of astronomy, and then also on astrology and parallel universes.

    For the English version, we thought we should add something for the international public, because Italians, they do know about Dante, about Dante’s times more or less. We hadn’t written an historical introduction, but we thought we should do it for the English version. The historical introduction was written by Massimo Capaccioli, my co-author.

    Susannah Black: This is a little bit of a sidetrack, but if not for sidetracks, why are we here? One of the things that I heard that you were up to during this year was a reenactment of the corruption trial. Can you tell us about that? That sounded fun.

    Sperello Alighieri: Yes, that’s quite funny. I think it was in the fall of 2019 that I got contacted by lawyer in Florence. The lawyer, Alessandro Traversi is his name, he’s quite a famous lawyer in Florence. They contacted me, and they suggested, There is this Centennial, and we are thinking about making a revision of the motivations for Dante’s Condemnation. How do you say? I don’t know the English word.

    Susannah Black: The condemnation, yeah. The verdict.

    Sperello Alighieri: I said, Why not? This looks funny. Immediately, I took this as an amusement, if you like. There could be no practical effect clearly, and Dante does not need it either. I thought, Yes, why not? Let’s do it. I thought, if they invite me at this discussion about the motivation for doing Dante’s trials, they should also invite a descendant of Cante Gabrielli. Cante Gabrielli was the Podestà in Florence, who was the judge during Dante’s trial. He was the one who condemned Dante two times. Cante Gabrielli was from Gubbio, a town not very far from where I live in Perugia, it’s a town in Umbria.

    It was a usual thing that the Podestà of the city would be from outside, not to be involved in other things. Cante Gabrielli was the Podestà in Florence when Dante was charged. I had the pleasure of meeting a descendant of Cante Gabrielli, who’s a very nice person, because in Gubbio, in this town, they hold every year a medieval conference. Four or five years ago, both me and this descendant of Cante Gabrielli. His name is Antoine, because he lives in France. Part of the family of the Gabrielli, they moved to France centuries ago.

    He has a big family. He has seven, eight sons and daughters. They were all here. I suggested, you have to invite also Antoine. And of course, they liked this, and they said, Yes, let’s invite Antoine. I put them in touch, I told Antoine we were organizing to do that. But the other thing, which is very surprising about all this, I think it was January, 2021 when they were already well ahead about organizing this thing. On a Saturday afternoon, Alessandro Traversi, the lawyer, he phoned me and he said, the Corriere Della Sera, one of the biggest newspapers in Italy. They want to make an article about our event. Yes, why not? Good. And they want to publish something that you say, some words from you.

    I said, I think the best thing is you put me in touch with a journalist, and we can talk together and he can listen to me and write. A couple of hours later, this journalist phoned me, and I immediately understood that he was trying to say that I had promoted a revision of Dante’s trials.

    You are wrong, you are completely wrong. It’s not true. I didn’t promote anything. I was invited to participate, which is completely different. I made it very clear to this journalist that I didn’t promote anything, I was just invited, and I find this as an amusement. The next day the newspaper came out, the Corriere Della Sera, and a full page about our event. The title was, “Dante’s Descendant Asks For a Revision of Dante’s Verdict,” come on!

    Susannah Black: Oh man!

    Sperello Alighieri: No, it’s not true. I know quite a few people, I phoned Gian Antonio Stella. Gian Antonio Stella is a journalist who writes for the Corriere Della Sera, and I told him, In the Corriere Della Sera they have written this, but it’s not true. I didn’t say it, and I think this is completely wrong. He said, Okay, let me, let me deal with it.

    A few hours later, I was phoned by the head of the section in the journal where this article had appeared. He said, “I’m very sorry. We will publish your revision of the thing.” I wrote the revision, but the revision was very short.

    Susannah Black: And it appears in a little thing at the bottom, probably.

    Sperello Alighieri: There are two funny things after this. The first thing is that, on the day after, the Corriere Della Sera appeared on Monday. On Tuesday, there were papers on the Times and the Guardian, who had just taken the news from the Corriere Della Sera and reproduced it.

    Susannah Black: This is terrible journalism.

    Sperello Alighieri: This made me very amused in a sense, because I always thought that the British newspapers are very serious.

    Susannah Black: Careful.

    Sperello Alighieri: They check news. They didn’t do anything like that. If you go with just my first name Sperello, on the internet, you find my phone number. For any serious journalist, it would be very easy to …

    Susannah Black: Fact checking. Fact checking is not difficult.

    Sperello Alighieri: There is news about me, just type my name and you get my phone number. You check it. They didn’t.

    Susannah Black: That’s so annoying.

    Sperello Alighieri: They just reproduced it. I wrote to the Times and the Guardian complaining for this. The other funny thing is that, Spanish newspapers had checked with me before.

    Susannah Black: There you go.

    Sperello Alighieri: They did. The Spanish, the bloody Spanish, come on, British press!

    Susannah Black: Speaking on behalf of my profession, I apologize.

    Sperello Alighieri: Americans, I don’t remember. Let’s say I don’t remember. The other thing is that, some days later, the Italian journalist who had written the article, misinterpreting my words actually completely wrong, he phoned me, and he said, I’m very sorry, but I just reproduced what the lawyer told me, Alessandro Traversi.

    Susannah Black: Oh!

    Sperello Alighieri: He sent me by email something that Alessandro Traversi had written to him, exactly saying that I was the one who asked for the revision of the trial.

    Susannah Black: The plot thickens.

    Sperello Alighieri: Lawyers, I don’t want to say, but there is something to be understood about this. Everything comes from the sense of guilt of the Florentine people about Dante. They felt guilty almost immediately after putting him in exile, because he got famous very soon, and much more famous than most other Florentine people. And they had sent him away. He’s buried in Ravenna, not in Florence, because he died in Ravenna. He was exiled, so he couldn’t die in Florence, of course. He died in Ravenna, at least two sons were there when he died, and he was buried there. The Florentine people have tried for centuries to get the remains of Dante back to Florence.

    Susannah Black: Right, the urn with his ashes.

    Sperello Alighieri: In Santa Croce, which is a main church in Florence, there is a mausoleum for Dante inside the church, together with Galileo, Marconi, and other people. There is a mausoleum for Dante, but it’s empty. The Florentine people have a big sense of guilt about what they’ve done to Dante. The lawyer, I understood this later, legally, a descendant can ask for a revision of the trial, although this doesn’t have any effect, but a descendant can do it. A descendant can ask for the rests of his ancestor to be moved somewhere else.

    Susannah Black: Ah.

    Sperello Alighieri: Legally, see? This is what they were aiming at.

    Susannah Black: They were trying to clear Florence’s conscience towards a representative.

    Sperello Alighieri: Exactly. We’ve been asked, in the centuries my family has been asked many times whether we wanted to move the remains of Dante from Ravenna. My family always said, no, there’s no reason. There is no reason for me to change the idea. His reasons, although they are not, what can I say? After that I thought, to hell with Alessandro Traversi and his meeting.

    Susannah Black: With lawyers and journalists.

    Sperello Alighieri: First, I thought this, but then I said, I better go there to see what they do. Eventually I did, and I went with Antoine, we are very close friends. In fact the meeting, in the end, was correct. I had warned very seriously Alessandro Traversi not to try to do anything wrong. That’s the story.

    Susannah Black: That’s amazing.

    Sperello Alighieri: I had quite an intense year. Let me say one more thing, which is actually very important. I think it’s one of the most important things that I say in my conferences. The fact that Dante, being a medieval man, and being a genius, he could master in his mind all the knowledge available at this time.

    Susannah Black: Right.

    Sperello Alighieri: And all well. And this is something which is very important to understand if you want to understand Dante, because later on this couldn’t happen anymore. Every field of knowledge has developed since Dante, and it would not be possible now for somebody to master all the knowledge well, it’s impossible. People who deal with knowledge, we have to specialize. If you want to say something new, we want to work on it, we have to specialize on something. We cannot keep a broad view.

    This is what all of us do, but this means that, in order to understand Dante, you cannot listen just to one person, because that person would tell you about what he’s expert about, but he could not tell you about other things, for example, about astronomy, if he’s not an astronomer. This is very important.

    You should not trust people who tell you, I know everything about Dante. It’s impossible. When I talk about Dante, I always make it very clear that I’m only talking about one of the many aspects of Dante’s poetry, knowledge, et cetera, but there are many, many more. For those, you should listen to other people. This is very obvious. Well, it is obvious, but not everybody understands it. I think it’s important to point this out, that you have to listen to different people.

    Section IV: Sperello Alighieri: The Shape of the Cosmos

    Susannah Black: There was one thing in the book that I felt as though you were probably just about the only person who might have picked up on. There are so many aspects of the book that were fun and interesting, and it was like a tour guide. But in chapter thirteen, you talk about the possibility that Dante imagined, by some sort of stroke of cosmic imagination, or strange mathematical insight, the idea of the universe as curved, as a kind of an Einsteinian hypersphere.

    Sperello Alighieri: Yes.

    Susannah Black: I love that.

    Sperello Alighieri: This has to do with the whole structure of Dante’s universe. The structure of Dante’s universe starts from the universe of Tolomeo, the Greek Tolomeo nine spheres turning, so the earth is fixed in the center, and nine spheres turn around the earth. So the moon, Mercury, Venus, sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the fixed stars and the primum mobile. These are the nine spheres, which actually, apart from the primum mobile, all the others come from Tolomeo. That structure is from Tolomeo. But the nice thing, and actually the very surprising thing, is that Dante extends that structure beyond the primum mobile.

    What happens is, when Dante gets to the primum mobile with Beatrice, he looks back and sees all the spheres, with the earth down far at the center. This is the end of the, I think it’s the 27th canto of the Paradiso. At the beginning of the next, of the 28th, he looks at the other side, and he sees something symmetric, completely symmetric. Nine spheres, one inside the other, with a very bright point at the center, which is God. That’s the way that Dante explains it.

    Of course, there are other details, we will come to that, but this symmetric structure – immediately after Einstein there was a Swiss mathematician/physician, Andreas Speiser, he wrote an article in German pointing out the similarity between the structure of Dante’s universe and Einstein’s hypersphere. This was 1925. Einstein’s theory of general relativity is 1915, so only ten years later, not very much later, immediately, very soon people noticed. In fact, there is a very nice article by an American mathematician/physicist Mark Peterson, who appeared in the American Journal of Physics in 1979, I think.

    Mark Peterson, he refers to Andreas Speiser, he knew about that, and his article is really very nice. He uses some of the equations of Einstein’s hypersphere, but he cites all the parts of the Divine Comedy where the similarity appears. What’s important is the fact that Dante, in the Divine Comedy he says that it doesn’t matter where they’ve reached the Primum Mobile, Beatrice and him, it doesn’t matter. On the other side, they would’ve seen the same thing. This is very interesting, because it is actually linked to the hypersphere concept. The question is, how could Dante get to this? He didn’t know about Einstein, of course not. How could he get to this?

    The answer is, in medieval times spherical geometry was quite well known, probably even better than Euclidean geometry. I will explain briefly. Euclidean geometry has to do with parallel lines, planes, cubes, the theorem of Pythagoras, and other things like this. We all know about that. Spherical geometry is completely different. It deals with the geometry on the surface of a sphere, for example, like the surface of the earth. On the surface of the earth, there are no parallels. A line on a sphere is a maximum circle, and there all maximum circles across each other. There are no parallels.

    Susannah Black: Right.

    Sperello Alighieri: If you take a triangle on a sphere, the sum of the angles is more than 180 degrees, like it is in Euclidean geometry. The Pythagorean Theorem does not hold. It is completely different, one has to realize this. In Medieval times, it was well known. Why? Because it is the geometry where we move, where we build, where we travel, everything. It’s the surface of the earth, so it is important.

    The other thing is, Dante knew about it because he had been a pupil of Brunetto Latini. Brunetto Latini was his master, and Brunetto Latini had written a book which is called The Treasure, written both in Italian and in old French. It’s an encyclopedic book, it deals with many different things. He also deals with spherical geometry, and the way he deals with it is not looking at the sphere from outside, but being on a sphere, like we all do.

    He makes this example. Let’s take two horse riders. They leave from the same point in two different directions. Forget about seas and mountains, it doesn’t matter. They go, and they would meet on the opposite side.

    Susannah Black: Right.

    Sperello Alighieri: If we continue, they would meet where they started from. It’s clear, it’s very easy to understand. This concept was very clear to Dante. Of course, he could understand it. There is no problem in understanding this. Let’s move one little step further. Let’s make this example. Take the earth. Take one rider or one man or one ant, whatever you want, on the North Pole. Whichever direction he moves, he would go south. There’s no other way. What happens?

    He moves, going south, and he crosses circles of increasing size, the parallels, until he reaches the Equator, the biggest one. Be careful. If you put one parallel every ten degrees, you get nine circles from the North Pole to the Equator, which is exactly the nine spheres of Dante.

    Susannah Black: Yeah.

    Sperello Alighieri: When you get to the Equator, it doesn’t matter which point of the Equator you get to, on the other side, it is the same. It is the same. What you’ll do, you will cross circles of decreasing size until you get to the South Pole. This idea is very simple, Dante could understand it very well, no problem. This is how Dante could make his structure. It’s very simple, the way I explained it to you, he could do it, and he has done it. Of course, he couldn’t know about the hypersphere, Einstein. It’s just by chance that the hypersphere is similar, but he could do it.

    There are two more important things. In Dante’s universe, there was a big problem. At the center of the universe you have the earth, and at the center of the earth you have Lucifer. A universe with Lucifer at the center could not please Dante, and many others in this time. The structure that Dante imagined solves this problem, because the universe has two centers. On one side, there is the earth with Lucifer. But on the other side, there is another center, where is God! A big problem solved, you can imagine this.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. The three dimensional center is Lucifer, but the fourth dimensional center is God, as a point?

    Sperello Alighieri: No, there are two centers, let’s say, like the North Pole and South Pole.

    Susannah Black: Right.

    Sperello Alighieri: A few more things I want to say. The fourth dimension, in Einstein’s hypersphere, has to do with time. There are three spatial dimensions, and then there is time as a four dimension, and the way it becomes a dimension is, if you multiply time by the velocity of light, which is a constant, you get a dimension. Dante could not do this. The fourth dimension of Dante is not time, but he has a fourth dimension, which is rotation. When you start from the earth, the nine spheres rotate faster and faster. On the other side of the primo mobile, if they keep rotating faster and faster, this rotation is an increasing coordinate, all the way from the center of the earth to God. It is a physical coordinate, although in Dante’s view, it also has to do with the proximity with God and increase in virtue, and all that.

    But it is a physical dimension, because he specifically talks about the rotation. Rotation is physical. This is important to understand, and it explains one of the ways in which Dante could combine different aspects of knowledge.

    Susannah Black: That’s why in his vision the seraphs, the ones who are closest to God, are going fastest?

    Sperello Alighieri: Yes. About this structure, in Dante’s time they were discussing whether God was inside or outside the universe. If God is inside the universe, what is outside? These are big questions that we can also ask now. Dante has solved this, because in Dante’s structure, God is inside the universe, because he is there, he sees it. Outside, there is nothing. I have two ways to explain this. One, go back one dimension. Let’s think that we are two-dimensional beings, and we live on the surface of a sphere.

    The sphere, for us, is unlimited. We can go and not find a limit. It is finite, because the sphere has a finite surface, a million square kilometers let’s say. It’s finite.

    Susannah Black: Right.

    Sperello Alighieri: It is unlimited but finite. Outside there is nothing, because we are two-dimensional. Okay. The same goes with Dante’s universe, but it goes the same with our universe, the way we see our universe. We know for sure, I would say, that our universe started with an event, we call it the Big Bang, but bang is a wrong name, it’s a singularity, if you want. Time, it’s 13.7 billion years ago. Space and time started then, they didn’t exist before. The universe started expanding, creating stars, galaxies, and all the rest, and then human beings. Our universe is also unlimited, because we can travel and not find a limit, but it’s finite, and there is nothing outside. If you take a sphere of 13.7 billion light years, the universe cannot be bigger than that, because nothing can expand faster than light.

    Susannah Black: Sperello, this has been so wonderful. For our listeners, what’s your favorite passage from the poem, that has to do with cosmology? What’s the passage that is most meaningful to you, that has to do with these questions that you’ve spent your career working on?

    Sperello Alighieri: It’s the beginning of paradise. Dante, and Beatrice, they get to the moon, and Dante asks Beatrice about the reasons for the moon spots. The moon spots were a serious problem, because the moon is the only night body in the sky where, by naked eye, you can distinguish something. All the rest are points, even Jupiter, Mars, they are points, Venus. The only one you can distinguish is the moon. The moon has spots. Come on, how come? They’ve told us that the sky is perfect, spheres, precision, everything. The only one we can see has spots. This is wrong. Why is that? It’s a serious problem. Dante says, now I have Beatrice. I will ask her.

    The whole Canto goes on about this question. This is Dante asking Beatrice:

    che son li segni bui
    di questo corpo, che là giuso in terra
    fan di Cain favoleggiare altrui?

    Essentially, Dante asked Beatrice about the reasons for the moon spots. He goes on and says, Ella sorrise. This is very interesting, because it says, She smiled.

    Now, when Beatrice smiles, you can bet that there will be something interesting coming. Then:

    “S’elli erra
    l’oppinïon,” mi disse, “d’i mortali
    dove chiave di senso non diserra,
    certo non ti dovrien punger li strali
    d’ammirazione omai, poi dietro ai sensi
    vedi che la ragione ha corte l’ali.”

    Beatrice, first she says be careful, because the first thing that comes to your mind is not necessarily the right one. But then, she does something which is very usual, actually. When a student asks his professor a question, many times the professor will turn the question to the student, and this is what Beatrice does: “Ma dimmi quel che tu da te ne pensi,” “tell me what you think.”

    Now, Dante has to say something. And he says, “Ciò che n’appar qua sù diverso credo che fanno i corpi rari e densi.

    He refers to an old idea, from Alberto Manio And it goes on, but I don’t think we have the time to do it all, but anyway, ed ella,

    Certo assai vedrai sommerso
    nel falso il creder tuo, se bene ascolti
    l’argomentar ch’io li farò avverso
    .”

    Beatrice says, “you’re completely wrong. Listen to me.”

    This is very interesting, because it deals with the error. This is a concept that in science is very important, but unfortunately it’s not so important in other fields. People who make mistakes, they don’t admit it. They think this is all wrong, it’s something that you should never do. No, no problem. Mistakes are not a problem. Mistakes can lead you to improvement. But the only way to do that is to admit the error, the mistake. If you don’t admit the mistakes, there is no way you can improve. This would lead us to war and other things.

    Susannah Black: This has been such a lovely conversation, as usual.

    Sperello Alighieri: Yes. It’s dinnertime here.

    Susannah Black: Go have dinner.

    Susannah Black: Thanks for listening! Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and for a lot more content like this, check out plough.com for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $32/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to plough.com to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: Join us next week as we talk with Plough’s own Maureen Swinger about her piece “Doing Bach Badly,” and with Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in a wide-ranging discussion that will cover his new collection of plays, as well as the fate of literature and music in wartime, and the way that the church’s unity can come to the fore in the face persecution.

    Contributed By PeterMommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By SusannahBlack Susannah Black

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By EstherMariaMagnis Esther Maria Magnis

    Esther Maria Magnis, a German writer, was born in 1980. She studied comparative religion and history in Germany and Italy and has worked as a journalist. She now lives and works in southwestern Germany.

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    Contributed By SperelloAlighieri Sperello di Serego Alighieri

    Sperello di Serego Alighieri is an Italian astronomer, a descendant of Dante Alighieri, and the author of The Sun And The Other Stars of Dante Alighieri.

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