Dante's Commedia, Or How to Escape a Modern Inferno
Many today would consider Dante Alighieri a “Dead White European Male” of dubious relevancy. However, Dante is in fact alive and well, as are so many contemporary examples of the souls which inhabit his Inferno. Considering the deluge of angst and despair which flows from the pages of our contemporary literary world, it is almost as if we were reading the letters written by someone still wandering the depths of the Inferno.
Perhaps Dante and his Commedia are more relevant than many contemporary thinkers might like to admit?
The relevant question in our times continues to be “What ideas will define the course of history in the next 100 years, in the next 1000 years?“ Will the world sink into another Dark Age such as the one Dante depicted in his Inferno, or will citizens increasingly develop their faculties such that they will not become another “contemporary” example of the souls found in the Inferno?
This question will ultimately define the relevancy of Dante’s ideas.
However, we already hear protests: yes, Dante was a great poet and his ideas were profound, but the Commedia was written from a Judeo-Christian perspective, which by its nature excludes many different groups, backgrounds and schools of thought. The protestor should be challenged to go beyond the outward appearance of things. Despite the fact that the ideas of the Commedia are couched in religious garbs and portrayed using certain religious motifs (in line with Dante’s contemporary times of course), Dante’s ideas are anything but fixed dogmatic beliefs that should be taken on blind faith – they are universal ideas concerning the nature of the human species. One need only be willing to go beyond the garbs with which Dante has chosen to veil the ideas of his Commedia.
It should be noted that many readers who have been exposed to Dante remark that they find his Inferno to be the most interesting part of the Comedy. This is especially the case in popular culture. The current writer not only encountered this kind of thinking in the streets of Italy, but also in academics like one of his own English teachers who noted that they in fact never read passed the Inferno – they never got to Paradise. The problem is that much of the Inferno’s significance is lost if the reader does not experience with Dante the transformations that he undergoes across the three canticles of his Comedy: Inferno, Pugatorio and Paradiso. The Inferno becomes merely another interesting literary foray, albeit one written by a master craftsman. However, herein lies the crucial point: the idea of Dante’s Commedia exists in neither of the three books – the idea is defined by what happens in between.
The discontinuities located between the three canticles define the quality of change required from one’s own sense of creative identity, which will allow the reader to make the kind of revolutionary leaps in thinking which are associated with what many today might refer to as the quality of “genius.”
Who was Dante?
Dante was born in 1265, a time just preceding the European Dark ages in which the continent saw as much as half or a third of its population vanish. Dante lived in a time where 95% of the population had no genuine education, no literacy, and was ruled by a feudal aristocracy. If a man had been a farmer, his children would be farmers and that was the end of it – to say nothing of the status of women. It was a completely static and feudal society where change was not permitted. The human mind was banished as an agency by which the laws of the universe could be derived. Instead, the arbitrary authority of a priori thinking, typified by the works of Aristotle, reigned supreme. Church service and education were in Latin, though very little of the Italian population could speak, read or write Latin. As a result, the conception that human beings could develop and change their fate was almost non-existent. If this were not bad enough, the Italian language as such also did not exist: the territory known today as Italy was littered with local dialects numbering in the 1000s if not 10,000s, scattered across petty fiefdoms and kingdoms – each in perpetual strife with one another.
Life in the 13th century was for the most part a very ugly prospect. Moreover, because Italian as such did not exist, a literate language did not exist, which meant that there was no vehicle by which to develop and impart fundamentally new ideas – the precondition for any sovereign nation state to free itself from the shackles of empire.
Herein lies the genius of Dante Alighieri. He answered a question that many of us might ask today: how can we overcome a dark age and create a new renaissance in human thinking? Dante found a solution to this question in the same way Homer did with his Iliad and Odyssey, the same way Virgil attempted to do with his Aeneid, and the same way Shakespeare succeeded in doing with his dramas: through poetry .
Dante begins his Inferno with the lines:
“Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita, Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, Che la diritta via era smarrita.”
Within the midst of our life's winding way, I found myself within a darkened forest For I had lost the path that does not stray.”
One meets many of Dante’s contemporaries in the Inferno, individuals who held highly distinguished positions in society—especially church and state. They were the contemporary politicians and academic “experts” of our day.
In the Inferno human beings appear more like beasts. They are dominated by the blindness of the flesh, by rage and by disregard for any sense of lawfulness or meaning in the universe, which might impede their arbitrary will and desires.
One finds in the Inferno the famous story of Paolo and Francesca, who while both married to other people, become enamored and acted out of lust after reading the tale of Lancelot. When they were discovered by Francesca’s husband, they were both murdered. On hearing about their tragic fate, Dante faints with horror.
We have the examples of Pope Nicholas and the soon to arrive Pope Boniface, who will both be there for Simony, which involves the granting of indulgences to people who have sinned in exchange for payment, thus using their positions to enrich themselves. They are both stuffed in tiny little money pouches for eternity, in the eighth circle of Hell.
However, we even find some of his closest and dearest friends. Dante runs into Guido Cavalcanti, a famous Florentine poet and member of the “Dolce Stil Novo”(Sweet New Style) school of poetry, of which Dante was a leading member. He runs into his former master Brunetto Latini, who is damned under fiery rains. Latini was a famous politician, man of learning, ambassador, and the author of “Il Tesoro” (the treasure). The “Tesoro” is known as one of the first Encyclopaedias, which compiled of all the science and advanced knowledge available to Europe at that time. Latini compiled the work based on his travels as ambassador to courts across Europe. Most notable among Latini’s journeys would have been his visit to the court of Alfonso the Wise (El Sabio), whose Arabic translations of the ancients were known to be the most advanced documents available. After all, Dante’s Commedia was an assimilation of all the most advanced knowledge available in his time. Despite the virtues of both his mentors, Cavalcante and Latini were in Hell for their sexual deviances.
They are examples of people who in one form or another, even good people, allowed themselves to become victims of the arbitrary laws of the world and that of their immediate senses. The result is that they were blind to those higher laws, known only through our reason.
None of these observations require adherence dogmatic beliefs, or blind faith. The inability to grasp such ideas on the part of a reader today may be due to the contemporary critic’s inability to read beyond a literal interpretation of the text, but it may also be due to the fact that such readers are wanting in the emotional quality necessary to make the kind of leaps Dante requires from his audience. For, in the Commedia reason is not alone; it must be wed with love. How many of us are able to judge something as good or bad, but are yet unable to reach that higher goal because of some fear of what might become of us and all the familiar faces and places we’d become accustomed to – our “habits.”
When Dante arrives at the bottom of Hell, having seen the three treacherous faces of Judas, Brutus and Cassius as Satan’s own figure, the Inferno ends with:
Lo duca e io per quell cammino ascoso Intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo; e sanza cura aver d’alcun riposo,
salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo, tanto ch’i vidi de le cose belle che porta’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
My guide and I came by that hidden road, To once again catch sight of the bright world; And without care for any rest we trod
On upwards, he first and I following, Such that I saw something so beautiful, Which the heavens bore through a small opening.
It was there I once again regained the stars.
In elaborating a conception of the human individual, which is a sovereign individual, whose mind has the capacity to discover the ordering of the universe, “the stars”, therefore not being a victim of the blind forces of the flesh and fate, Dante is reaffirming that man is not a beast.
Despite the myriad images that speak to the contrary on Earth and in Hell, a lady from above, Beatrice, is calling for him, and has demonstrated her Love for Dante by intervening to rescue him from his fate in the darkened forest. Moved by the idea that someone would go to such lengths to save his sorry soul, to the point of sending another poet (Virgil) into the depths of Hell to rescue him, in spite of himself, Dante is committed to seeing his journey through and not letting her Beatrice down.
Having been witness to so many mortals blinded by their own earthly compulsions, and having perhaps seen a bit of himself in many of the souls he met, Dante now needs to cleanse himself of his own sins and shortcomings. This means becoming conscious of his greater sense of identity. What were formerly instincts, he can begin to understand through reason; and now the entire universe outside him becomes accessible. With this new thought in mind, Dante finds himself journeying into Purgatory. A soul that was once guided by blind instinct begins to become conscious of its own higher powers of reason.
In Purgatory, Dante finds himself in an uphill climb, fighting up the slopes of Mount Purgatory. Just like any bad habit that we choose to address, the climb at first is trying. However, the higher one climbs, and the longer one persists, the easier it becomes. Anyone who has experienced extensive periods of creative activity is familiar with how the process develops and becomes gradually easier as one gets more accustomed to intense periods of concentration. It is like the pangs of birth, which Socrates describes as giving life to a new idea.
After a long climb, Dante reaches the wall of fire. Virgil, his poet guide, tells him not to be afraid, that it will not burn him, but he is still afraid. All of his bodily senses are fighting him, all of his survival instincts are turning him back, yet the poet is reassuring: he will not be burned. Only a leap of faith is required.
At this point, between that present moment and future state, one can rely on nothing other than hope and faith in man’s own creative powers, what in the Christian terms of the Italian Golden Renaissance would mean acting in the image of the creator, in imago viva dei and capax dei.
By the end of Purgatory, having crossed the wall of fire and walked through the garden of earthly delights, where everything is green, sweet, and pure, the paradise sold to most believers in blind faith, Dante must now move on to something higher, something beyond the conception of an earthly paradise. In a theological and philosophical sense as well, Dante must leave Virgil behind as he reaches the last canticle of the Commedia. This signals a fundamentally new phase in world history, a new “discontinuity,” departing from the pagan world of antiquity to the modern Christian era, where the conception of imago viva dei is explicitly stated as a fundamental scientific principle that must define the policies of both Church and State.
The product of this new principle, which we will elaborate below, is the Italian Golden Renaissance. It is the image of a Da Vinci, a universal genius determined to unearth the invisible principles that govern the physical universe and its organization; and capturing that in all its forms, in engineering, architecture, painting and hydraulics. It is the image of Brunelleschi building the Dome of Santa Maria Del Fiore in the Republic of Florence, a monument that signaled a new era in human history where the intellect conquered the forces of evil, to as the Greeks stated a thousand years before:
Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
In Brunelleschi’s case, it required an architectural form that would allow the Dome to sustain its own weight throughout construction, on an order greater than anything that had ever been attempted before, and all that without relying on any scaffolding or props to hold it up. Otherwise, they would have had to cut down much of the forests encircling the city. It meant that Brunelleschi either had supernatural powers such that he could see the invisible structures of nature, or that he understood through reason, the invisible laws of physical-space time, such that he could build the dome directly into the shape of space itself! Any enemy who saw the Florentine duomo knew that they were dealing with a force not to be reckoned with. It was the equivalent of an Apollo mission in the 15th century.
Dante has gone through the trials of Hell and the uphill climb of becoming a self-conscious creative individual. It is a journey which all creative individuals must go through, fighting off everything that tries to come in their way, lifting themselves out from all the common and familiar things which the comfort of our senses and reassuring images of the familiar had conditioned us to fear – these individuals become brave enough to ask a new kind of question: what universe are we in?
The religious concept that formed the basis of Paradise is the “Trinity,” as embodied in the Nicene Creed. It had been agreed upon by both Eastern and Western Churches at the council of Florence in 1445. It stated that Christ was both God and Man, to the effect that the individual who should walk in the image of Christ (the flesh), was also in the image of God i.e. imago viva dei (a living god). Contrary to the fundamentalist variety of religion, which states that God is mighty and the individual puny, and contrary to the idea that this God’s infinite almightiness – in the Aristotelian sense – is unknowable to the finite individual and must thus be obeyed based on authority alone, here man has to love and use his reason, because that is what makes each man and woman in the likeness of a God, and gives them the ability to act in the image of a god, of capax dei – to be creative.
Devoid of its religious garb, it means how a people view their God or Gods, or absence of Gods, reveals what universe they believe they inhabit. Is their God, or are the laws that govern their universe based on Love? Are they based on a creative principle like that reflected in the individual human mind, which can discover the lawful ordering of the universe; or are they irrational, unknowable and maybe just altogether indifferent? God or no God, such questions will reveal how a person feels about their life and the universe. No person who thinks the universe is irrational will seek to be a rational creative actor. They may try, but they will inevitably be weighed down by the nagging sense of despair which reminds them that there is no real purpose in trying anyways.
In Paradise, right from the beginning, Dante wants to understand how the universe is organized. His new guide, Beatrice, is the woman who sent Virgil to help save him from the Hell of despair that he had found himself in.
All you who in your wish to hear my words have followed thus far in your little boat behind my ship that singing sails these waters,
go back now while you still can see your shores; do not attempt the deep: it well could be that losing me, you would be lost yourselves.
I set my course for waters never travelled; Minerva fills my sails, Apollo steers, and all nine Muses point the Bears to me.
Those few of you who from your youth have raised your eager mouths in search of angels’ bread on which man feeds here, always hungering,
you may, indeed, allow your boat to sail the high seas in the furrow of my wake ahead of parted waters that flow back.
Those heroes who once crossed the deep to Colchis, and saw their Jason put behind a plow, were not amazed as much as you will be.
– Canto II of Paradiso
As soon as Dante and Beatrice reach the first celestial sphere, the Moon, Dante begins to inquire about the nature of the universe in all its forms. He asks Beatrice:
But tell me what the dark spots are which, seen from earth along the surface of this body(the moon), lead men to make up stories about Cain?
Beatrice smiles and challenges him to put forward a hypothesis himself. Dante replies saying he thinks it is because of the difference in density. However she points out the fallacy in his reasoning:
She said, then: “I am certain you shall see that your beliefs are deeply steeped in error. Now listen to my counter-arguments:
She lays out several discrepancies in his reasoning and then challenges him to make an experiment using three mirrors placed at different distances in front of him. When a ray of light is shined on them, while a lesser size of the light is reflected back by the mirror which is furthest away, Beatrice points out that it is no less brilliant. Thus, density alone does not explain the phenomena of dark spots on the moon, or the existence of eclipses which would then have brighter and dimmer parts to them.
The principle being demonstrated is that of the sovereign individual’s ability to work through a problem and make a new fundamental discovery about the universe and its organization. It is this power of creative discovery, that man and woman can come to know the universe, and thus the principle which organizes it.
For anyone who may experience trouble with the theological or religious implication of this concept, it can be thought of as the spark of creativity, the thirst for knowledge and endless drive for discovery that is seen in each healthy individual from the earliest ages.
Every sovereign individual mind must already be a mirror in some form, if only dimly lit, which can then shine light on new ideas as they present themselves. Whether the new idea is provoked by a paradoxical appearance in the outer world, such as the reflections of the moon, or from an internal paradox, such as the question of where ideas come from in the first place, the potential answer to all such questions is defined by an innately human potential.
Arrived at the end of Paradise, having erred over and over again, and having made many new discoveries with the help of Beatrice, Dante says:
“Here force failed my high fantasy; but my desire and will were already moved – like a wheel who moves of its own accord,
just as the Love that moves the sun and all the stars.”
The only thing necessary for this discovery is our creative reason, what some call a divine spark.
That everyone is endowed with a divine spark should be undeniable; it is the principle which defines humans as fundamentally human. Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory and paradise expresses the universal process that every individual must go through in order to realize the full potential of their humanity.
Dante calls it a Comedy.
David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse, which is dedicated to publishing and promoting 21st-century classical poetry.
Notes:  It should be noted that Virgil was Dante’s chosen guide through the Inferno and Purgatory. Anyone who reads passages from the Aeneid, notably Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, will notice there is an uncanny resemblance. Could Dante have written the Commedia without first having known the Aeneid?