2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (b. 1265). Dante was a poet, a politician, a philosopher, and a theologian. He is best known for his masterpiece, La Commedia, known to anglophone readers as The Divine Comedy. The Comedy is one of the greatest works of poetry in history and it is the Christian epic of the afterlife: a moral and intellectual and spiritual journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise to the beatific vision of God in the Empyrean, the highest heaven of the medieval religious vision. To mark the seventh centenary since Dante’s death, we are embarking on our own journey through the Comedy, accompanying Dante the pilgrim in his own epic quest to behold God face-to-face as a friend.
But why are we doing this with Dante of all people? Why organize one of the world’s largest reading groups to read this poem? There are, after all, a lot of great minds and important books from history that we could read. Why the Comedy?
It’s true that Dante’s Comedy is an important poem and there are lots of good reasons to read it due to that importance. It is one of the finest narrative poems ever composed in the Western tradition. To read it is to encounter one of the greatest minds the world has ever produced. There is a reason why it (or at least the infernal part of it) is a staple of North Atlantic education. As I say, it is an important work and these are all good reasons to read it.
Yet what often happens with “important” books is that we come to think of them as belonging exclusively to the purview of the classroom, among those expert enough to plumb their mysteries, acting as gatekeepers to their wisdom. We tend to think of “important” books as above us or beyond us, inhabiting a rarified air of distinguished genius, exalted beyond the reach of mere mortals. Reading “important” books can come to feel like a labor akin to eating one’s vegetables as a child: sure, it’s good for you, but there’s no delight in it.
One of the tasks of the 100 Days of Dante Project is for readers to rediscover the human and spiritual vitality of the Comedy: its prophetic voice, its moral urgency, its humane beauty, its humor, and most of all, its desire for God. In addition to being an important book, a pillar of the western canon, Dante’s Comedy is the story of a man’s transformative journey to God. It is a journey that takes him through the afterlife, that teaches him about love, beauty, justice, politics, sex, language, art, virtue, vice, desire, faith, and prayer. It is a journey on which Dante the pilgrim comes to himself, first lost in a dark wood, and then within the embrace of the divine life in the heaven of heavens. It is a journey of Dante’s self-knowledge in which he learns that there is no knowledge of self outside of knowledge of God. The Comedy is not simply an important poem. It is the tale of the pilgrim’s spiritual itinerary into the very life of God, of coming to know himself and creation in the light of his knowledge of God.
It is also a journey we are invited to undertake ourselves. We are not meant to be mere spectators of Dante’s journey, but active participants. This is how Dante’s Comedy can come to life, how it can find us in our lives. Dante’s journey becomes a story in which we find ourselves. As Dana Gioia wrote:
The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point.
We weave the fabric of our existence out of words.
And the right story tells us who we are.
The right story tells us who we are. Herein lies the spiritual and existential importance of Dante’s Comedy. For 700 years, readers have found in Dante’s great poem the right story, a story that reveals us to ourselves, showing us in all of our brokenness before God and neighbor, in our quest for healing and transformation, and in the hope and promise of blessedness, communion, and perfect love. The Comedy is the right story, telling us who we are and who with God’s grace we may become.
Now, this may sound like I’m overselling things a bit. It’s just a poem, after all. It’s an old poem, too, full of scientific inaccuracies, dubious claims and assertions, seemingly arrogant and vain preening by the poet, and so on. And yet for all of that, the Comedy is dispositionally directed toward us, as readers, as a poetic expression of the love of neighbor. In a letter written to his patron, Cangrande della Scala (ancestor of another great literary mind, Vladimir Nabokov), Dante explains that the purpose of the Comedy as a whole is “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss.” Dante’s words describe the narrative of the Comedy as the journey from the dark wood of isolation and sin to the celestial rose of heavenly paradise. It is also the narrative of our own lives and of our own pilgrimages toward the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
The right story tells us who we are. As you read the Comedy over these 100 days, may it become that kind of story. After all, as Peter Hawkins says, “you have nothing to lose by coming to the Commedia. Except, perhaps, life as you have known it thus far.”
Who Was Dante?
Dante was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy, to what we might generously call a minor noble family. Florence at the time of Dante’s birth was one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Italian communes. But it was also a place riven with political tension. Dante would eventually enter into this political fray, but only after securing his reputation as a poet. After publishing his first significant work titled La Vita Nuova, Dante became ascendant among the Florentine literati. He eventually entered the guild of Physicians and Apothecaries (a telling choice given Dante’s later assessment of the moral and imaginative therapeutics of which poetry is capable!). He entered Florentine politics in 1290, rising to become one of the seven priors of Florence. As prior, Dante participated in the expulsion of the rival Ghibbeline faction from Florence, including his “first friend”, Guido Cavalcanti, who was to die while in exile.
Dante’s political fortune changed abruptly in the early years of the 14th century. While on a diplomatic mission to Rome to meet the pope (the infamous Pope Boniface VIII, a scourge on Dante for the remainder of his life), Dante’s political adversaries entered Florence, and, conspiring with papal power, pulled off a coup, exiling Dante and his party from Florence. His wealth was confiscated and, not long after his exile, he received the sentence that he would be burned at the stake if he ever attempted to return to Florence. The year was 1302. Dante would see out the last nineteen years of his life in exile, a wanderer around Italy, relying on the generosity and hospitality of others, always hoping to return once again to his home in Florence. His hopes never materialized, and Dante died, perhaps from malaria, in Ravenna, Italy in 1321. For a man of such ambition, talent, and promise, his exile cast the last decades of his life in decisively tragic terms. What potential squandered, what success and fame lost?
And yet both grace and genius found Dante in exile. He set out on a few major literary projects during his wandering. Most of these he abandoned before their completion. Eventually, though, perhaps around 1307/09, Dante set out to write the Comedy, an ambitious linguistic project of 14,233 lines of epic, literary, philosophical, moral, and theological sophistication, written in the vernacular Tuscan dialect. The Comedy was completed in 1320, a year before Dante’s death. Dante is buried in Ravenna in the Basilica di San Francisco.
What is the story of the Comedy and how best to read it?
The Comedy tells the story of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey through the three realms of the Christian afterlife: hell, purgatory, and paradise. The purpose of the journey is to save his soul through a kind of spiritual and educational therapy. Dante wakes to find himself in a dark wood, a place that is “savage, brute, harsh, and wild” in Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation (1.5). What this dark wood is exactly we as readers cannot say, but its under-determined character is what renders it such a potent and translatable symbol for contemporary readers. We can project any number of interpretations on the symbol of the dark wood: depression, despair, betrayal, isolation, spiritual torpor, and so on. But the power of the image is consistent: Dante names a state of personal and spiritual crisis that we all find ourselves in eventually.
More significantly, however, Dante also shows us that the dark wood is not invulnerable to the interruptions and interventions of divine mercy. Dante stumbles upon the Roman poet, Virgil, who has been commissioned by heaven to guide Dante out of the dark wood and toward his beloved Beatrice who will take up the task of leading Dante to his salvation. The pilgrim’s journey will end when he has been thoroughly remade by divine grace and united with God in the highest heaven of the Empyrean, moved with the entire communion of saints by the Love that is God.
But first Dante and Virgil must travel through hell to see the fate of the souls in damnation. Inferno is the most well-known of the three cantica of the Comedy, as well as being the most often read. This does not mean, however, that it is particularly well understood. There’s a common misconception that Inferno is Dante’s grisly exercise of revenge against his political enemies. But I think it might be better to think of Inferno as an educational journey. It is an apocalypse or an unveiling of the true character of sin. The Inferno reveals sin’s true face, stripped of all of the comforting and aggrandizing delusions by means of which we normally justify or excuse ourselves. As one theologian put it: Dante’s hell is a morgue and the Inferno is Dante’s way of performing an autopsy on the soul.
How then should we read Inferno in the context of 100 Days of Dante? It is perhaps best to read it as a spiritual exercise. Reading Inferno in this way is to encounter images of souls in a state of damnation, to join with Dante in the autopsy of those souls and into the nature of the sin that killed them. This is the effective, spiritual, therapeutic work that Dante subjects himself to throughout Inferno. An example may be seen in the fifth canto where the pilgrim meets the adulterous lovers, Francesca and Paolo. Francesca is a master manipulator. As she introduces herself and describes the way that she and Paolo were caught and murdered in flagrante delicto by her husband she blames the power of the god, Love, who is “quick to kindle in the gentle [or noble] heart” and overwhelms lovers with uncontrollable desire.
The significance of this line often gets buried in the narrative drama, but it discloses the spiritual heart of Inferno. For it is a line that comes from Dante’s own early school of romantic poetry. Francesca quotes the poet himself, using his youthful theology of love as a kind of justification for her adultery. In a canto introduced with a scene of infernal confession, we have here a meta-literary example of Dante’s own confession of the way his early poetry could be used toward malicious ends. The poet seems to be using the poem to interrogate himself, his past, his use of language. He models this to us and invites us, as readers, into this work of self-confrontation and moral transformation.
The moral ground shifts as the pilgrim crosses from Inferno into Purgatorio. As readers, we grow accustomed to the cold and unrelenting moral logic of Dante’s hell. When we cross into Purgatory, however, we find ourselves in a realm of mercy. It is here that we encounter Dante as the great poet of mercy, as Pope Francis described him. This is also where Dante can be all the more challenging, because his vision of the purgative and healing power of God’s grace is neither safe nor sentimental. Purgatorio serves hard medicine, not only in the difficult — even painful — process of the soul’s purgation. Dante also confronts readers with a radical vision of mercy. The first souls we encounter among those being saved are Cato of Uttica (a virtuous pagan, and a suicide); Manfred (someone excommunicated by the Church); and Buonconte del Montefeltro (a deathbed/riverbed conversion). These are figures we may be surprised to find with us in purgatory yet they are nevertheless here, confronting us with our own limited, circumscribed understanding of divine mercy. Manfred confronts Dante and challenges the rest of us with the logic of Purgatorio: “Horrible was the nature of my sins, but boundless mercy stretches out its arms to anyone who comes in search of it…if hope reveals the slightest hint of green” (Purgatorio 3.120-123, 135). Dante’s Purgatorio is a great poem of the mercy of God experienced by us as the hope for salvation and healing.
The challenges of Paradiso are different still. Inferno and Purgatorio are moral dramas written in the comic, “low” style, while Paradiso grows into a “sacra poema” (Paradiso 23.62), a “sacred poem” that can speak truthfully of divine things. Paradiso marks the growth of the pilgrim into the poet and of the Comedy into a divine comedy. These transformations are what make up both the difficulty and the excitement of Paradiso. We share in the gradual conforming of the pilgrim’s vision, understanding, and love to the mysteries of glory revealed in each of his heavenly encounters. There are many more “didactic” scenes in Paradiso than in the previous two cantica, but this is to be expected when the central narrative involves the intellectual and spiritual apprenticeship of the pilgrim to the heavenly wisdom of the saints.
So what is Paradiso about? Inferno is about the “good that came” of Dante’s encounter with the souls of those who had lost the good of the intellect. Purgatorio sang of the realm where souls go to purify themselves. Both of these signify moral struggle. Paradiso on the other hand sings a different kind of song altogether. The Poet discloses the subject matter of Paradiso in the first line: “The glory of Him who moves all things pervades the universe and shines in one part more and in another less” (1.1-3, trans. Hollander). Divine glory is what Paradiso hymns. And it does this through the gradual unfolding and savoring of divine plentitude before our eyes and mind as we journey through the nine spheres of the Ptolemaic universe toward the Empyrean, the highest heaven outside of time and space altogether where God lives eternally with all His saints. Paradiso’s hymn to divine glory renders it a “sacred” poem.
It seems to me that the Paradiso is not an attempt to represent the state of blessedness in heaven; heavenly reality by its very nature must exceed all images. Rather, Dante here is trying to conform himself and his readers to the glory of God as it is revealed in creation, history, and human persons. As God’s grace attunes us to the reality of God, we begin to see God’s creation more truthfully, more perfectly, more justly. Dante himself learns the meaning of God’s creation late in his journey through the heavens:
“Not seeking any good that He had not — there can be none — but so that his shining-out could in return shine back and say, ‘I am!’, in His eternity beyond all time, beyond our understanding, as He pleased, the Eternal love opened out into new loves” (Paradiso 29.13-18, trans. Hollander).
Learning to see and to understand creation more truthfully means inhabiting it in conformity with God’s love: living more truthfully, more perfectly, more justly. The challenge of Paradiso is how we who have been remade and reformed by God’s mercy and grace come to perform God’s glory in the world in and through our lives. This, perhaps, is the meaning of the Comedy’s closing line in which the pilgrim finds himself, and we as readers find ourselves, no longer lost in the dark wood, but “turned by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso 33.145).
Understanding the Comedy
As we read through Dante’s Comedy over these 100 days, we will have many able guides who will lead us through the densest parts of this epic poem. We will marvel over Dante’s genius, his artistry, and his wisdom. But our goal shouldn’t be to encounter the Comedy because it is an important book, an artifact of genius. The goal instead is to understand the Comedy, which means, according to Rowan Williams, “knowing what to do or say next.”
The great challenge of Dante’s Comedy lies in knowing what to do or say next. When the pilgrim has found himself “moved by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” on the 14,233rd and final line of the poem, when we close the cover and return to real life, what do we do or say next? This is the challenge of these 100 Days of Dante. Perhaps in the silence that closes the poem, within the aporia of the poet’s memory and understanding, Dante offers our imaginations and desires the space to take flight and set off on our own pilgrimage toward God.
- This is Thomas Aquinas’ description of the beatific vision. See his Supplement to the Summa Theologiae, q. 92 for more. ↑
- Dana Gioia, “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet” in Pity the Beautiful (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012), 13. ↑
- There is ongoing debate on whether or not we should ascribe Dantean authorship to the letter. See John Took, Dante (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 527n7 for a recent state of this question. ↑
- Rowan Williams, Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 68.. Williams gives the example of writing a sequence down: 2, 4, 6, 8… You understand the sequence when you know what to say next, namely, “10.” ↑