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From the Dark Wood to the Beatific Vision

Several people have asked me lately how to read Dante. I’ve written a book about that [1], one that takes Dante for what he is and doesn’t try to make him into a modern therapeutic guru. We used to offer, through Libertas University, a live online course on the whole Divine Comedy– something I hope to revive one day. Much else might be done to make better known the greatest Catholic poet, and his ambitious poem, which takes you from being lost in a dark wood of sin to the Beatific Vision.

There’s nothing in all of world literature like it. I’ve written here [2] about how we want to re-emphasize our cultural mission as we approach TCT’s 10thanniversary next month. For anyone who senses the urgency of recovering Christian culture – not just theology, philosophy, and ethics (important as they are), but ways of thinking and feeling that breathe living fire into Christian logic – familiarity with a poem like the Comedy must be high on the list, for both sheer poetic power and unequalled scope.

Dante’s work doesn’t neglect formal logic and theological categories; he studied with one of Thomas Aquinas’ earliest students, Remigio dei Girolami, O.P. at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. And his mastery of several disciplines shows in the science, history, political theory, aesthetics, philosophy, and theology of his poem. In fact, one of the best jokes in the Comedy hinges on strict moral reasoning.

Guido da Montefeltro, the original for later mafia Guidos, is in Hell (Canto XXVII) among the “false counselors.” He spent most of his life as a kind of Machiavelli before Machiavelli, conquering towns by treachery. Late in life, he got religion and entered a monastery to do penance. Pope Boniface VIII (Dante’s sure he’s bound for Hell too) comes along and says (my quick summary): “You have to help me overrun one more town.” “Don’t do that kinda thing no more.” “Don’t worry I’m the pope, I forgive you in advance.” “You can do that?” “I’m the pope. Sure.”

But when Guido dies, St. Francis of Assisi comes for him, but a devil spells out the truth, one still worth remembering today:

Later, when I was dead, St. Francis came
   to claim my soul, but one of the Black Angels
   said: “Leave him. Do not wrong me. This one’s name
went into my book the moment he resolved
    to give false counsel. Since then he has been mine,
    for who does not repent cannot be absolved;
nor can we admit the possibility
     of repenting a thing at the same time it is willed,
     for the two acts are contradictory.”
Miserable me! with what contrition
     I shuddered when he lifted me, saying: “Perhaps
     you hadn’t heard that I was a logician.” [Emphases added.]
(Ciardi translation)

The Devil not only can cite Scripture for his purposes, he knows moral theology better than some highly placed in the Church.


In other parts of the Comedy, you have to sweat a bit to learn your way around the history, geography, even astronomy that enter into this vision – and to absorb the Aristotelean/Thomist scheme of vices and virtues that provide the structure of Dante’s world. (C.S. Lewis’ little book The Discarded Image [3] lays much of this out with admirable clarity.)  

The Comedy is a kind of poetic Summa, but you can just enjoy – and benefit – from the story it tells the first or the hundredth time:

Midway upon the journey of our life
    I found myself within a forest dark,
    For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
    What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
    Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
    But of the good to treat, which there I found,
    Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

That’s the famous opening in Longfellow’s slightly florid, but still readable, translation. And there are John Ciardi (quoted earlier) and our Anthony Esolen, with simple notes for undergraduates and beginners. Advanced students will want the fuller commentaries by Esolen’s teacher, Robert Hollander.

This reading isn’t always easy. But if you really think recovering the tradition is vitally needed at this moment, you have to be ready to work for it, as you do for anything valuable. It’s also crucial to know what tradition is. The great modern Christian poet T.S. Eliot noted: “if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand. . . .Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.”

Still, there’s much sheer pleasure in Dante. And if you prefer to approach him with more immediate, living guides, Esolen has a good recorded lecture series [4] as does Yale’s Giuseppe Mazzotta [5]– both serious Catholics.

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the Phi Beta Kappa address and complained that Americans were too concerned with the heritage from the past. Imagine. That persisted for quite a while, especially with regard to Dante. Longfellow and a whole series of New Englanders were fascinated by the Comedy. That stern Vermonter Calvin Coolidge even did a translation for his new bride as a wedding present.

No serious person would expect that today. We suffer from the opposite extreme: we hardly know a past – any past – existed anymore. But there is one, and it offers endless, inexhaustible richness, not just about the past but for the future as well. Dante covers a large swath of the Biblical, classical, and medieval worlds – as I say, another kind of Summa. Read him, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding many of the most important parts of Western Civilization and the Church.


*Image: Dante and His Poem by Domenico di Michelino, 1465 [Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence] Michelino’s fresco decorates the dome of the church. Dante holds a copy of the Comedy and points towards a procession of sinners.

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.