Woodrow Wilson once remarked that the purpose of the modern university was to make young men as unlike their fathers as possible, fathers who had immersed themselves in business and could no longer see the grand sweep of history. Otherwise, their sons would be hard to enlist in the progressive movement, man’s march toward greater enlightenment and freedom.
Wilson’s dictum was, in a way, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, translated into practical politics. Man is growing at last into adulthood, Kant suggested in his 1784 manifesto What Is Enlightenment? Man is learning to think for himself, liberating himself from the malign influence of traditional authorities and the past. “Reason,” wrote Kant, “must regard itself as the author of its principles, independent of foreign influences; consequently, as practical reason or as the will of a rational being, it must regard itself as free.” Those foreign influences include the claims of loyalty impressed on us by those among whom we live: the “book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth.”
There is something chilly about Wilson’s vision of liberated men, marching, like Christian soldiers, away from their forefathers—individuals all, and good party members. And there is something treacherous in Kant’s dismissal of tradition and community, as though they were not gifts to be received in gratitude, whatever their limitations.
Nonetheless, we in the West have inherited this suspicion of heritage. We share the assumption that freedom must mean freedom from —freedom from the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family. It seems not to matter that such freedom presupposes our alienation from one another. Existential alienation is a small price to pay for enlightenment, the fulfillment of the progressive movement, or the satisfaction of appetites.
It is hard to recall the medieval definition of freedom, which was not the political license to follow our bellies or the philosophical encouragement to send our elders packing. Freedom was understood, rather, as a growing into the habits, the virtues, that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.
In the Divine Comedy, the pilgrim Dante, having climbed the mountain of Purgatory and scoured away the effects of habitual sin, hears Virgil say that the fruit of joy once lost in Eden is now near. And so he fairly rushes into the freedom of being what he has been created to be: Will above will now surged in such delight / to climb the top, that with each step I took / I felt my feathers growing for the flight .
Dante’s callow soul will soon be welcomed into the community of the blessed saints, for whom freedom means the grace-filled incapacity to will anything but the good for themselves and for one another. Thomas Aquinas steps forth from the constellation of the wise to express this freedom as the now utterly natural and supernatural virtue of love. Says he to Dante, who has been too stunned with wonder to ask his name:
When the radiance
of the Lord’s grace, which lights the flames of true
love and by love still grows in eminence,
With such multiplication shines in you
it leads you up these stairs no man may take
descending, without climbing up anew,
He who’d deny his flask of wine to slake
your thirst would not be free, would have such power
as rivers not returning to the sea!
Thomas cannot do other than love. In that very propensity, as of a rushing river, consists his freedom.
In his way, Dante has foreseen our modern notion of freedom—the notion expressed by Wilson and Kant—and he has rejected it. That is not because such false freedom is often directed toward evil, as when it becomes the license to snuff out the life of an unborn child. It is, rather, because any freedom that severs us from one another, from our memories of those who came before us, is built on a lie about being. It is a misunderstanding of that Being whose essence is to exist. It is autonomy collapsing into antinomy, the denial of law itself and of our created being. Dante knows both that there is an autonomy in accord with the structure of created existence, which is truly free, and that there is an autonomy that violates it, caught by its own snare.
In the first part of his epic, Dante and his guide Virgil descend ring by ring, down into the sludgehole of the universe. This is the funnel of hell, leading to an icy and windswept wasteland. Students who read the Divine Comedy for the first time may be surprised by the relative absence of fire from hell. Dante employs fire as punishment for sins that affront the majesty of the Deity: blasphemy, for instance. But, for the poet, the activity, freedom, and divinity of fire, and the love that fire suggests, make it less fit for the worst sinners—the traitors—than the hard, dead stasis of ice.
So there Dante and Virgil are, picking their way among the ice-encased traitors, slowly making their way toward Satan, the creature of fundamental sin, error, and falsehood—fundamental, because traitors mistake what it means for any of us to be. This is not a Satan who spits out a volley of abuse, like the demonic stooges of the popular drama. Nor does Dante create a grand antihero, uttering Milton’s great words of defiance: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven! Indeed Satan does not speak at all. The creature called by Christ “the father of lies” says nothing. He seems sublingual, even subsapient. And his speechlessness reveals the poet’s deep insight into the nature of truth and love and created being.
Though he says nothing, Satan does do a few things, with the terrible regularity of an automaton. He has three mouths, from three faces, joined ignobly “where the cock sports his crown,” and in those mouths he gnaws forever the naked bodies of the great traitors of Church and empire, the two great communions Dante believed were ordained by God. Satan gnaws Judas Iscariot headfirst, in the central mouth, and Brutus and Cassius feet first, to the left and right. With his claws he strips the leather off their backs—blood is a rich part of this diabolical communion. He strips and chews, strips and chews. And he does one thing more:
Beneath each face extended two huge wings,
large enough to suffice for such a bird.
I never saw a sail at sea so broad.
They had no feathers, but were black and scaled
like a bat’s wings, and those he flapped, and flapped,
and from his flapping raised three gales that swept
Cocytus, and reduced it all to ice.
Consider the flapping of those wings. It is natural for earthbound human beings to see in the flight of birds a symbol of freedom—a disconnection with the earth. If we could fly, we think with our misty apprehension of infinity, we would make contact with a terrestrial world only when and where we wanted. We should be princes of the air.
Yet it is that very motion of the wings that raises the gale above the River Cocytus and freezes Satan in his place, along with all the other traitors. If he could cease to move those wings, the gale would subside and the Cocytus would melt. In other words, if he could cease to act on his will to rise, he would be able to rise.
Now the foolish way to regard this is to see in it only an adventitious connection between Satan’s flapping and the ice that locks him in place. That is, God has decided, with malice, to stick Satan in just that hole wherein his sin—if it be a sin to wish to rise and be free—would be self-thwarted and self-punished. It is exactly as if God were to plunge a thirsty man into saltwater, with the added zest that the man would never die.
But readers of Dante’s Inferno who have traveled with him all the way to the bottom know that the essence of one’s sin is made manifest in the punishment—that the punishment is the sin repeated endlessly and inexorably. And appropriately so. Thomas Aquinas, in justifying the eternity of hell, notes that mortal sin is an infinite and self-defining act of enmity against the peace of the City of God. Such sinners long for immortality, he says (quoting Gregory the Great), so that they might sin forever—for, even more than they love life, they love the sin to which they have given their lives.
What exactly, then, is the sin made manifest here in hell’s deepest pit? The flapping of wings, the ice, the act of treachery, and the temptation of Satan that penetrates time all derive from falling to the temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.” These four motifs have much to teach us about freedom and autonomy, rightly and wrongly understood.
The Psalms lend a hint: All things, says the psalmist, declare that “he made us; we did not make ourselves.” Even the atheist must agree that we did not make ourselves. The statement expresses contingency and dependence, and these are plainly discernible by reason. I did not come into the world self-made. Indeed, I came into a world already present for me to enter: an intelligible world, not a congeries of arbitrary and unrelated forces. Had there been no such world, I would not have existed.
To claim, then, that we did make ourselves would be to deny the real contingency of our beings—which would also be to deny the web of relations into which we have entered by our being and without which we must cease to be. Deep at the heart of this denial is the prideful sin of ingratitude. We see that we are provided with what we could not have provided for ourselves: not only the material conditions that support our existence—our food and drink, the care of our parents—but the fact of our existence itself. Yet we respond with a lie. We repeat what Satan implicitly affirms at the bottom of hell, the loneliest words ever uttered: “I am my own, I am my own! My mind is my own, to fashion what truth I shall please. My body is my own, to dispose of as I please. My will is my own. I rise—by my power. I exist— by my power .”
If this is autonomy, if this is what it means to be a law unto oneself, then law is the first thing that must die. No genuine communion among such autonomous beings is conceivable. We would be left with a chaos of isolated atoms of will, sometimes rebounding against one another in war or in the falsely called love that is often worse than war, but always essentially alone. To deny that “we did not make ourselves,” either explicitly or by our behavior, is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world and the community into which we have entered.
The man who says, “I am my own, good and evil are what I declare them to be,” may happen to have a gentle temperament, never lifting his hand in anger. But when he dies, he dies a traitor nonetheless. If we missed it in the murderous history of the twentieth century, we can still see it in the frozen Cocytus of Dante’s hell. Frozen in isolation from one another are the traitors—those who partake most fully of the fundamental lie that is also the fundamental mistake, those who in their treachery most clearly say, “I am my own, I rise by my power.” They are free in the sense in which a being, cast out of the universe and severed from true connection with every other being, would be free. They have made their law, and they obey it; they are bound to it.
With every flap of his wings, Satan sins again, commits treachery against God and also against all contingent and dependent beings. That treachery locks him in the ice of his self-imposed law. While he flaps those wings, he engages in an act that should remind him of his contingent being, but it becomes a sign of his brute power over other beings: He eats Judas and Brutus and Cassius, everlastingly. Not that he derives nourishment from them. His wings never manage to lift his hide out of the ice.
It is no surprise that Satan does not speak. What would he say? The idea of a word, for a contingent being, implies the existence of one who is not myself (the one to whom I speak) and the existence of a truth that is not myself (that about which I speak). Language is a robe for love. The fundamental lie is that we are not for or from one another. Such a lie distorts existence itself. The devil is a liar and the father of lies, says Dante, quoting the Word of God, and that is why, in the end, Satan has nothing to say.
Let us affirm, as Dante did, that freedom is a good thing and that the word good has substance to it. What, then, is freedom good for? If it is supposed that some contingent beings are free, then freedom must be good for them , and for them as contingent beings . But then freedom must unite them, precisely because they do not possess their existence from themselves. Such beings can be, together, a law unto themselves—autonomous—if they recognize that the law in question is not one they give themselves. That is, if they recognize and accept their contingency.
They will then see that the law that binds them together depends not on any one contingent being nor on all contingent beings taken in a collective but rather on the fact of contingency itself. It will depend on what it means to depend—one on another, and all together on a world that no contingent being has made. They will thus be free in their gratitude for that world, in their humble recognition that their existence is not necessary, and in their love for all those who share their mode of being and on whom they rely.
Gratitude, humility, love—we do not see these in hell. But we do enjoy them in that realm of the Divine Comedy where souls go in fellowship to learn how to be free; we enjoy them in purgatory. At the base of the island-mountain of purgatory, Dante and Virgil see a light swiftly approaching them through the mists of dawn. Virgil recognizes what is coming and cries:
Now fold your hands in prayer! Fall to your knees!
Behold, it is the herald of the Lord!
Now you will see such ministers as these.
See how he holds man’s instruments in scorn:
he needs no oars nor any other sail
but his own wings, between such distant shores.
See how he lifts his pennons to the sky,
sweeping the air with his eternal feathers,
changeless—unlike the hair of those that die.
Their crossing of the waters of hell required many of man’s instruments, notably the long pole that Charon, the ferryman of the dead, plants in the mud of the Acheron to punt his miserable vessel along, bringing the damned to their eternal loss. The angel pilot in purgatory, however, needs no oar, no sail; he sweeps the air with his wings and speeds the blessed souls across the ocean with a swiftness that befits their journey to freedom.
In that angel’s beating wings, there is no likeness to Satan’s. The blessed spirit lifts his pennons “to the sky,” to the heavens, and thence comes his power. He is immersed in the curious freedom of one who acknowledges that he is not his own, that he is neither from himself nor for himself. For though he need not bother with an oar, the angel pilot is not too haughty to deal with air and boats and human souls. He assists those souls, and his last act is to bless them with the sign of the cross as they disembark. He is free to love them. The exaltation whereby he can ferry them across the seas is one with the free humility whereby he will do it; though an angel, he is a member of their community.
As for those souls, they’re glad to be in the boat and are eager to reach the mountain where their purgative suffering will begin. They are singing their burial hymn, In exitu Israel de Aegypto, the psalm that the priest and acolytes chanted as they took the body from the church to the grave. Yet it is a jubilant song of freedom, not from the body but from the bondage of sin, which is itself a living death, a turn toward nonbeing. They rejoice to have begun their journey of liberation from Egypt, with all its worldly might, its fleshpots and vast tombs, across the sea and desert to the Promised Land.
The souls in purgatory do not seek a freedom to be found after death. They seek, instead, a freedom from death to be found by dying to themselves. As Christ says, “Whosoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” These souls in the boat have made their final and complete confession of being from and being for .
That gives them the strength and the freedom to do a few things the reader has not yet seen in the Divine Comedy . They are together, not just in space but in spirit, as they sing with one voice. They reverse the curse of the traitors, because they reverse the sin. They can form a community. By their song they assist one another in hope and worship. They are not disconnected Israelites but Israel , and it is only in their being together that they individually find themselves. To paraphrase Aristotle, man, the contingent being—not self-sufficient even for his modest material needs, let alone for his intellectual thirst—is the sort of being that thrives only in the context of a community. Man is an ecclesiastical animal.
Thus the blessed souls of purgatory can be trusted to love. They do not need to be “herded like sheep into hell,” as Psalm 49 puts it. No Minos confronts them, slinging his bull’s tail round his waist to indicate the number of their prison cell. No one in purgatory pushes them. The discipline of the mountain, embraced by all the souls, will cure them of the remaining effects of the lie they no longer accept, until finally they will enjoy autonomy, needing no one to enforce from without the law of their created beings. Lord of yourself I crown and mitre you are Virgil’s last words to Dante after he has passed through the final stage of purgation, the wall of fire separating the mountain slopes from earthly paradise at the peak.
To be free of the delusion that I am my own: This is what the souls, praying and singing in the boat, illustrate and foster. Prayer is impossible for a soul trammeled up in itself, and therefore there is no prayer in hell. There is also no song in hell, for song would require bursting the prison walls in the freedom of exuberance. But we may justly say that song and prayer are what purgatory is, as a foretaste of and preparation for paradise. The prayer is a confession of dependence, and the song is an expression of gratitude for what has been given. What the angel does with his wings, they do with their hearts and voices.
But the song means more. Consider again the mystery of singing. There is something about song that is playful and gratuitous, like the splendor of finches’ wings. It swells forth from the abundance of the heart. Whence should contingent beings derive this plenty, if not from a being that possesses it in himself? It is insufficient to say that God is capable of love. God, as the Gospel of John puts it in one of the most misunderstood verses of Scripture, is love. His love is not contingent on creation. God is Love, before he ever spoke the light into existence and saw that it was good. Love is essential to his being, his life. He is, as Dante puts it, “the One who moves all things,” loving them into being and loved by them in turn, whence comes their motion.
To dwell on the meaning of God’s love, for the Christian poet, is to stand at the brink of a glorious and unfathomable sea. When Dante has risen to the utmost heights of paradise, he stands before a vision of that one God—the unity that comprehends plurality. There is a plenty in the being of God, and this plenty admits of love, receives love, and is love: O Light that dwell within thyself alone, / who alone know thyself, are known, and smile / with love upon the knowing and the known! Dante revels in the plenitude of God, for whom even the ancient Israelites, to whom we owe the clearest expressions of his oneness, used the plural Elohim to describe a power and glory that burst the bonds of what we can comprehend as single and alone. “Let us make man in our image,” says God (Gen. 1:26).
The Trinity, then, has something to teach us of freedom. Even had he never created a universe, God would himself have been a universe of love. As Benedict XVI has written, God, in his own being, comprehends being from and being for ; “man is in the image of God precisely because the being for, from, and with constitute the basic anthropological shape.” Thus, if any contingent being longs to be truly free, he must reflect that ultimate freedom of God. His autonomy can make sense only in the self-emptying of love.
Love opens our eyes, allowing one contingent being to reveal the mysteries of beauty to another. But it also gives us wings, prompting the intellect to soar in contemplation of that beauty. Throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante’s beloved Beatrice has been preparing the pilgrim for the ultimate and yet infinite flight, to see the Beloved face to face.
In harsh contrast is the vision of Satan and his trinitarian heads. They are seamed together, but incongruously. There is no harmony among them, as there is no interaction among the traitors he gnaws. No community, no exit from the self. “Hell is other people,” said Sartre, and he was correct in this sense: If for you hell is other people, then you are in hell, and so are your fellow traitors.
Satan’s lie, then, is also Satan’s mistake. He who is not God wants to be God, to rise by his own power and be his own. But God is his own precisely in his love—in his being for. “You should be as gods,” Satan says to Eve, and he unwittingly speaks the truth. We should be as gods, and we can be, in gratitude and humility and love. For the outpouring of a grateful heart, which loves because it receives what it has not deserved, reflects the exuberant power of God, who loves into existence beings whom he does not need. And the self-emptying that is essential to love—the humble willingness to acknowledge that, as we did not make ourselves, we do not exist for ourselves ”reflects the plenitude of God, who in his creation deigns to put himself at the disposal of the contingent beings he loves.
He is the cup that runneth over—in love. He can be sung about; he can be prayed to. If we would be laws unto ourselves, Dante would say, we must wisely and freely embrace the laws of our contingent being, obeying them as an obedient and beloved son cheerfully obeys his father, growing into the father’s authority by deeper and wiser and freer acts of obedience. And in obeying those laws we will find ourselves great-souled, able to love one another. We should be as gods.
Therefore, Dante’s last vision is not of God as Creator but of God as the power and wisdom and love that lie at the heart of reality—the three Persons that Christians adore in the Trinity. Within that Trinity, Dante beholds the central mystery of God, the ultimate being for: the Word made flesh. He sees two rings, with a fire proceeding between them, and in the second ring the image of a man. He cannot fathom how this can be: “Mine were not the feathers for that flight.”
The pilgrim poet is straining to understand with his contingent intellect what incontingent love is all about. He is flapping his wings, to no avail. Yet it is God who has given him these wings, and it is he who descends to speed Dante on an instantaneous flight, smiting his mind like a bolt of lightning.
This is, finally, what it means to be a law unto oneself, utterly free from the shackling self-will of the traitor. The law is Love, who freely gives the freedom to fulfill the law:
Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.
Already were all my will and my desires
turned”as a wheel in equal balance”by
The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College and senior editor of Touchstone magazine. He has translated Dante’s Divine Comedy for Modern Library.