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Dante on the “Angelic Butterfly”

David Klinghoffer

We open the new e-book from Discovery Institute Press, Metamorphosis: The Case for Intelligent Design in a Chrysalis, with a citation from a 1923 poem by Vladimir Nabokov: “We are the caterpillars of angels.” Nabokov himself was a fierce Darwin doubter, as I discuss in Chapter 8 of the book. (Download it, a FREE companion to the Illustra documentary Metamorphosis, here.)
DanteAs an epigraph that little verse is a winner for the additional reason that, apart from the suggestion of design that a butterfly conveys, it points to metaphysical meanings people have attached to this dancing, elaborate and whimsical creature. Now a perceptive reader, a physician in Argentina, writes us here at ENV in appreciation of the book but also to point out that in the matter of this particular image, seeing humans caught in a transformative process like the one enacted by caterpillars and butterflies, Nabokov was scooped by Dante in the Divine Comedy.
I looked up the passage and can report here that, on consideration, the meaning actually comes out a little more clearly in Dante. It’s in an apostrophe directed at the backsliding faithful (Purgatorio, Canto X, 121-126, Mandelbaum translation):

   Oh Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched,
whose intellects are sick and cannot see,
who place your confidence in backward steps,
   do you not know that we are worms and born
to form the angelic butterfly that soars
without defenses, to confront His judgment?

   Why does your mind presume to flight when you
are still like the imperfect grub, the worm
before it has attained its final form?

What Dante alludes to is a unique quality of human beings. We are born to freely transform ourselves — not physically, which happens without our choosing it, but morally and spiritually, something that, DNA similarities aside, is untrue of our animal “cousins.” Some have said that’s why the Biblical narrative has Adam, the first man, being formed from the ground, the adamah, as a token of our power to bring forth such potentials from ourselves in the manner of a plant that springs from the soil. An animal, by contrast, has no potentials to realize. Even a chimp is what it’s born to be, and no more.
In the challenge of personal transformation or metamorphosis, we are free to fail or succeed. And that — the question of moral freedom and moral responsibility, whether in fact we are free or instead the purely, fully determined product of faceless impersonal physical forces — may be the profoundest divide separating traditional theists from Darwinian and other materialists.