Happy Birthday, ‘Sommo Poeta’

If you believe the scholars – and sometimes there’s no reason not to – today or maybe tomorrow or at any rate one of these days under the sign of Gemini, is the 750th anniversary of the greatest Catholic poet, probably the very greatest poet of all human history, Dante Alighieri.

We’re pretty certain of this because Dante himself tells us about his astrological sign and we can be confident about his dates (1265-1321). There’s a lot we don’t know about him, though we know far more about him than, say, a figure like Shakespeare, thanks to the relatively high degree of literacy in Dante’s medieval Florence.

Indeed, you could say that he’s one of the early transition figures between the middle ages and the Renaissance, which makes him both a singular representative of the great medieval theological, philosophical, and cultural synthesis, and a remarkable exponent of how that high Christianity has to be actually lived by individual human beings.

In Italy, there are events of various kinds commemorating his life. In Florence, first of all, which exiled Dante, even though he had occupied the highest political office in the city before he had turned thirty-five, and towards which he, therefore, ever after had a love-hate relationship (including pure hate towards Pope Boniface VIII, who helped engineer his exile).

The Italian actor Roberto Benigni (“Life is Beautiful”), who memorized and recorded the whole of The Divine Comedy a few years ago (though he is Jewish), has been giving live readings. The Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti recently recited the first canto of Dante’s Paradiso from the International Space Station, which speaks of,

    The glory of Him who moves all things
    Pervades the universe and shines
    In one part more and in another less.

Dante’s constant theme is love, “The love that moves the sun and other stars,” as he came to put it, famously, in the very last line of his vast (though not particularly long) poem, The Divine Comedy. But he arrived at that summit of divine love – having traversed everything the middle ages knew of earth, hell, purgatory, heaven, before the final Beatific vision – starting out from the quite ordinary human love of a man, Dante, for a woman, Beatrice. There’s nothing even remotely comparable in all of literature, theology, or philosophy to his treatment of the whole spectrum of our loves.

In his earliest complete work, The New Life, Dante marks the point at which love first entered his existence. He sees Beatrice, then a young girl, when he is himself a mere boy, and is smitten. The “new life” to which this introduces him contains various sorrows and revelations until, after Beatrice dies while still a young woman, he has an unusual experience:

“it was given unto me to behold a very wonderful vision: wherein I saw things which determined me that I would say nothing further of this most blessed one, until such time as I could discourse more worthily concerning her. And to this end I labour all I can; as she well knoweth. Wherefore if it be His pleasure through whom is the life of all things, that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman.”

“Dante Alighieri in exile” by Domenico Petarlini, 1860 [Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy]
“Dante Alighieri in exile” by Domenico Petarlini, 1860 [Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy]

When Dante says “more worthily” and that “I labour all I can,” he’s not kidding. He undertook a strenuous program of study with both the Dominicans (none other than Remigio dei Girolami, one of Aquinas’s early students) and the Franciscans in Florence.

He studied so hard that his eyesight went blurry for a while. But he didn’t let it turn him into a dull scholar. His great poetic gifts lifted up all that learning into a simply spectacular vision of love as it is spread out through the entire universe. St. Augustine memorably spoke of the ordo amoris (“order of love”) and affirmed pondus meum, amor meus (“my love is my weight). But Dante shows what this means.

I’ve taught Dante many times and most people fail to appreciate him because they get bogged down, as he did not, in trying to figure out the meaning of the various encounters with people in the different circles of Hell, on the cornices of the mountain of Purgatory, and in the concentric spheres of the heavens. But as the great Dorothy Sayers discovered when she first read Dante, the first thing to appreciate about him is that he is “telling you a story.”

In merely astronomical terms, Dante used the Ptolemaic geocentric system to help provide carefully calibrated assessments and ordered presentations of evils in the damned souls, the slow process of purgation for those on the way, and even the different degrees of vision experienced by individuals in Heaven itself.

In order to do this he mobilizes virtually everything known in the middle ages about the Bible, the classical world, history, literature, philosophy, theology, astronomy, astrology, geography, politics, morals, mysticism, and just about anything else you can name. And he therefore encounters in the other world the “shades” of figures as diverse as Virgil and Homer, Plato and Aristotle, Ulysses and Mohammed, Saladin and Manfred, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and many lesser-known (even unknown) souls spread out across the universe.

It’s a Summa in its own way, but presented in a series of dramatic encounters that draw you into the living current of loves as nothing else ever written. The Divine Comedy is one of those classics that you feel you have yet to read, even if you have read it through scores of times.

Some people think the vision it presents has been superseded by modern science – certainly the cosmos of those times has been. But Dante was really all along just using that to present a complete vision of God and the soul. Not only has that not been superseded, it can’t be.

So if you’ve been looking for something good, that offers classic Christianity in an attractive form, what are you waiting for?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.