Sources for the Dantean Ascent

Bruce MacLennan


In Plato’s Symposium, the ascent to Beauty has three stages: (A) experiencing beauty in things, (B) experiencing beauty in souls, (C) experiencing the idea of Beauty itself. That is, there is a shift of focus, from (A) outside us (extra nos), to (B) within us (intra nos), to (C) above us (supra nos): extraversion, introversion and supraversion. St. Augustine (354-430) adopted this basic scheme, but divided it into seven substages. However, Dante was following St. Bonaventura (1221-1274), who split each of Plato’s stages in two, giving the six stages of ascent, which correspond to Dante’s six guides (Virgil, Cato, Statius, Matilda, Beatrice, St. Bernard).

The Augustinian Ascent

In On the Dimension of the Soul, St. Augustine distinguishes three powers of the soul (relating to matter, the soul and God), which he then subdivides into seven degrees:

The Soul’s Power in…

The Seven Degrees of the Soul

(A) the body

of the body

I. Animation

through the body

II. Sensation

about the body

III. Art

(B) itself

toward itself

IV. Virtue

in itself

V. Tranquillity

(C) God

toward God

VI. Approach

in God

VII. Contemplation

The degrees of the soul may be described briefly as follows:

  1. Animation, vitality: This power gives life to the body, regulating its nourishment, growth and generation.
  2. Sensation: The power of sensation and locomotion, by which the soul seeks what is suitable for the body. The generation, care, protection and nourishing of offspring.
  3. Art, reason: The power of reason and thought, which is the power proper to human beings.
  4. Virtue, evaluation: Moral goodness and true worth. The soul distinguishes the good of the world from its own good. At this stage the soul withdraws from baser things and cleanses itself.
  5. Tranquillity, stabilization: In the previous stage the soul made itself pure, but now it must maintain its purity. As a result it is in a state of joy, for it fears nothing and is disturbed by nothing.
  6. Approach, fixation: The soul advances to the Truth itself (i.e. God). This is the soul’s highest vision, but to be able to maintain a calm and steady gaze on the light of Truth, the soul’s vision must have been cleansed (in stage IV) and protected and strengthened (stage V); otherwise the light will be misperceived or rejected. (One may compare the experience of the light described in Plato’s "Myth of the Cave.")
  7. Contemplation: The vision and contemplation of the Truth, which is not so much a step as a dwelling place. The delight and enjoyment of God; undisturbed peace and eternity.

All humans manifest the first three degrees of the soul. Religion, however, aids in activating the third and higher degrees. In these, religion:

  1. engages the soul and begins to lead it;
  2. purifies;
  3. reforms;
  4. leads into;
  5. feeds.

The later degrees do not replace the earlier, but are layered upon them. The entire ascent may be accomplished quite rapidly or much more slowly, depending on one’s love and merits.

The Bonaventuran Ascent

In The Mind’s Road to God, St. Bonaventura begins with the three Platonic stages, in which God is contemplated (A) outside us (extra nos), in the world; (B) inside us (intra nos), in His image in our minds; and (C) above us (supra nos), through His light:


Principal Aspects of Mind


A. corporeal

animality, sensuality

looks to external body

focus on traces which are corporeal, temporal & outside us

B. spiritual


looks inward into self

enter into our minds, which are the eternal image of God; spiritual & internal

C. divine


looks above self

pass over to that which is eternal, spiritual and above us; looking to the First Principle

He divides each these into two substages, the first focusing on a mode in relation to the prior mode, the second focusing on the mode in its own purity. These pairs of modes are compared to seeing through a mirror and to seeing in a mirror. Thus we have the six rungs:


Soul’s Power

God seen…

A. Nature

I. Empiricism


through created things

II. Theory


in created things

B. Psyche

III. Cognition


in our natural faculties

IV. Ethics


in our inner virtues

C. God

V. Being


in His Being

VI. The Good


in His Goodness

These stages may be explained as follows:

  1. Empiricism, sense: The whole sensible world is seen as a mirror reflecting God. Delight in the apprehension of things.
  2. Theory, imagination: By abstraction, one understands the eternal, necessary truths of the physical world. Bonaventura says, "number is the outstanding exemplar in the mind of the Maker, and in things it is the outstanding trace leading to wisdom."
  3. Cognition, reason: We enter into ourselves and see the divine image stamped on our own natural faculties, which include memory, discursive reason and choice (deliberation, judgement and desire). We are led toward the divine by the powers of the rational soul.
  4. Ethics, intellect: This is an affective rather than a rational process, which requires the three theological virtues – faith, hope and charity – which respectively purify, illuminate and perfect the soul. We are led toward the divine by the power of the soul reformed by the virtues, the gifts of Grace, which must descend into the heart before the spirit can ascend.
  5. Being, intelligence: Apprehends God in His Being, as a Divine Unity. "See then purest Being itself," "One in the highest degree," "One, the universal source of all multiplicity." "If you see this in the pure simplicity of your mind, you will somehow be infused with the illumination of the eternal light." Being is experienced as "an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
  6. The Good, apex of the mind: Apprehends God in His Goodness, as a Divine Plurality (the Trinity). Bonaventura tells us to "look with the mind’s eye on the purity of goodness, which is the pure actualization of the principle of Charity, pouring forth free and due love, and both mingled together…" This stage is paradoxical; one cannot expect to understand rationally the Trinity, which is incomprehensible. "In this consideration [stage VI] is the perfection of the mind’s illumination, when, as if on the sixth day, it sees man made in the image of God."
  7. Rest: Nothing remains but "the day of rest, on which, by the elevation of the mind, its insight rests from all work which He had done."

The ascent is accomplished with grace, not instruction; desire, not intellect; prayer, not study; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; "not light, but the whole flaming fire which will bear you aloft to God with fullest unction and with burning affection. … He who chooses this death can see God… Let us then die and pass over into darkness…"


This is a tentative comparison between the systems of ascent that we have seen. Correspondences are not exact, but I think they are approximately correct.





(A) beauty in body (matter)

I. Matter

I. Animation

II. Irrational Soul

II. Sensation

I. Empiricism

III. Rational Soul

III. Art

II. Theory

(B) beauty in intellect (spirit)

III. Cognition

IV. Intellectual Soul

IV. Virtue

IV. Ethics

V. World of Forms

V. Tranquillity

(C) Beauty Itself

VI. Love of the Good

VI. Approach

V. Being

VII. Union

VII. Contemplation

VI. Goodness



  1. Augustine, St. The Magnitude of the Soul (De Quantitate Animae), tr. John J. McMahon, chs. 33-36. In Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. Ludwig Schopp, vol. 2. CIMA Publishing Co., 1947.
  2. Bonaventura, St. The Mind’s Road to God (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum), tr. George Boas, Liberal Arts Press, 1953.

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©2001, Bruce MacLennan. Last updated 2001/3/31 17:15 PM