As the medieval poet Dante Alighieri ascends the mountain of purgatory, in the second canticle of his great poem, The Divine Comedy, he arrives as the terrace of the envious. There, those who took pleasure in the misfortunes of others do penance for their sins by sitting for years with their eyes wired shut. “My eyes . . . will be denied me here,” observes Dante, but he fears much more the punishment for another sin: pride.
It is not hard to understand why. The author of an epic poem that features himself as main character, Dante depicts himself welcomed into the company of Homer and Virgil as one of the greatest of poets of history. Many of the souls he passes, as he descends through hell, then ascends through purgatory, and at last approaches the very throne of God in the heights of heaven, recognize the importance of his poems and praise them. Just like the redeemed Dante, we gather, his poem will live forever.
Dante (1265-1321) might be excused his pride. A minor Florentine politician during a tumultuous period in Italian history, he managed to fight in wars, suffer exile, work as a diplomat, and compose important treatises on language, politics, and ethics. Across the course of his life, he wrote some of the first great works of Italian poetry, culminating in the Comedy, which is generally viewed as the greatest poem of the Middle Ages.
And yet, on this seven hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, we may rightly ask if the Comedy does indeed still live. When I first encountered the poem as an adolescent, I certainly felt the occasion to be momentous. Dante begins his poem “lost in a dark wood,” but soon finds himself on the path of destiny, thanks to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the guidance of the shade of Virgil. Along the way, he acquires an everlasting life of learning.
As I read Dante over the course of many years, I felt my own lost self set on a nobler and better path. The poem gave direction as I made my way through the world. But, thanks to the baffled response of one uncle, when I began explaining, over Easter dinner, the different circles of sin in which the poem has enclosed the damned, I have sometimes wondered if my love of the Florentine poet were just a personal eccentricity. At a time when less than half Americans attend a church and fewer still fear the punishments of hell, perhaps Dante’s extended journey through the world beyond this one no longer can compel the reader.
I wondered as much again, this last week, as I visited Magdalen College, a small liberal arts institution in the New Hampshire countryside, to give a lecture as part of a program commemorating the anniversary of Dante’s death. What I had to say on the question soon dropped away, as I listened to the students there, who had spent the last year reading Dante, share their own thoughts on the Comedy. They articulated just those qualities in Dante that I had perceived but could never have put into words.
One student compared Dante’s poem to the medieval gothic cathedrals. Both the author of the poem and the builders of sacred architecture took delight in the way mathematical structures give us a clue to the order of creation. Just as God is triune, Dante gives to each stanza of his poem three lines of thirty-three syllables all of which add up to create three canticles of thirty three “cantos.” One introductory canto then makes the poem’s total number of cantos a perfect and even one hundred. Just as the cathedrals have their sweeping symmetries adorned with luminous stained glass and carven gargoyles, Dante populates his world with a vast and finely detailed cast of saints and sinners.
If modern people find mathematics good because it is useful, because it allows us to do things, the Christians of Dante’s world appreciated mathematics for what it revealed about the invisible truth of nature, which is at once complex and unified. They did not so much harness mathematics for their own purposes as seek to express it in their works for the greater glory of God. Dante’s careful use of numbers in his poem serves to reveal to us the order God has made.
The student who spoke next compared this selfless surrender to the order of things to the all-conquering ambition of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon once stabled the horses of the French army inside one of the great medieval cathedrals, and Napoleon himself praised Dante, not for the order his poem reflected, but for the singular genius and ambition Dante showed in reinventing heaven and earth. Dante may have considered his pride in his own poem a sin, but Napoleon saw it as the greatest of virtues—one in which they both shared.
And yet, said this student, Dante’s achievement lay not in his individual self-assertion, but precisely in his drinking deep of the order of the cosmos. He studied the mythology, history, philosophy, and theology of his ancestors and contemporaries, and found a place for it all on the cosmic canvas of his poem. Much like the anonymous builders of cathedrals, Dante’s concern was not to direct our eyes to himself but to the rich and comprehensive account he gives of human nature, morality, and theology. “Here, reader,” he calls to us from the terraces of purgatory, “let your eyes look sharp at truth, / for now the veil has grown so very thin.”
Still another student considered the moral consequence of that turning outward of the self to an order that transcends it. We are accustomed to think of love just as does the damned shade of Francesca, whom Dante depicts driven forever on the winds of passion through the circle of the lustful. Love is a passion before which reason runs away helpless. Love compels us and brooks no opposition. Whatever we happen to love, therefore, must self-evidently be our personal good.
Dante feels this way himself, at first. Realizing he has been wrong about love, in fact, causes Dante to black out “as if I had met my death. And then I fell as a dead body falls.” Over the course of his long journey to God, he learns that love is the font of all reality and cause of all movement, but that it is not the same thing as lust. Lust drives out reason, disintegrates, and destroys, but love is a movement directed by the divine intellect that, when obeyed, brings order to human life and to all creation.
At the very center of the poem, Virgil, Dante’s guide, unveils the nature of the soul, love, free will, and the moral structure of the universe. True love lies at the heart of the poem and even gives its form a perfect symmetry.
At the very end, as Dante stares into the divine light of God, he feels his “desire and will” to be “moved already . . . by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” The love interior to himself has been given over entirely, transformed by and conformed to, the order of God’s love that causes all things to be and to move toward their true destiny. Dante learns that to be lost is to be loveless and alone with oneself. To be found is to be drawn into the redeemed, intellectual order God’s love makes real.
As we stare upon the inferno of our own age, a period when individual identities and passions assert themselves as absolute goods that would tear down everything, from our schools and churches, to our manners and civil society, in the name of individual freedom, I suspect many readers will see the appeal of Dante’s glorious cathedral in words.
Hell, he tells us, is the self in its passion broken free from reality. Salvation is to discover the order of things that transcend us and discipline ourselves by its just and merciful love. In the numbered verses of Dante’s poem, we find a first hint or gleaming of that order. As we follow him on his path, we are given the means of discovering our own. Dante may justly have felt pride in what he had wrought, but he earns our attention by purging himself of that feeling and leaving to us the intricate lines of the poem itself.
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