How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem
by rod dreher
regan, 320 pages, $29.95
In 2011, Rod Dreher returns to his hometown in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, after years living elsewhere in pursuit of a (highly successful) journalistic career. Now middle-aged, he hopes to find a more authentic community than he has in big cities and to draw close to the family from which he has been estranged. Instead, he falls into a kind of depression—the combined effect of resurgent stresses within the family, the death of his sister Ruthie from cancer, and the Epstein-Barr virus—which causes fatigue, the need for large amounts of sleep, and no little turmoil over how to work his way out of the dark place in which he finds himself.
He turns for help to the pastor at his local Orthodox church for spiritual counseling, as well as to a Christian psychologist. But as he recounts in this deep and moving memoir, an utterly unanticipated source of guidance came to him unbidden. As he is browsing in the poetry section of a bookstore one day, he stumbles onto a translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which tells of a pilgrimage from a threatening and dark wood through Hell, Purgatory, and the Heavens to the Beatific Vision. For some reason, that medieval Florentine poet threw a spiritual lifeline to this modern American writer.
The title of the book that resulted, How Dante Can Save Your Life, may seem exaggerated, in the way of recent books like Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. It is. Dante can’t save you. Only God can. In our postmodern culture, there’s recently been a raft of works that look to tony literary sources for meaning and substance in a world that seems to have obliterated both. But don’t be deceived by superficial resemblances. Dreher’s book is much more deeply rooted in theology—and reality—than are those other efforts.
There are lapses, unfortunately—perhaps because Dreher chose to make this a kind of self-help book. Two-thirds of the way in, for example, in one of several boxes summing up advice gleaned from Dante, the reader comes upon the heading “How to Stop Wasting Time and Start Becoming Great.” For a text arguing that humility is the foundation of wisdom and that fame and the pursuit of greatness are false paths, this is an unfortunate slip back into self-absorption. Even worse, Dreher implicates Dante: “He was helping me work out my own destiny, inviting me to be the hero of my own life.” Happily these false notes are exceptions in a much more rewarding exploration.
Reading Dante as a guide to his personal problems, Dreher—as might be expected—bends the text at points toward things that were, strictly speaking, no concern of Dante’s. Purists will object. But Dreher’s approach is not without its rationale, since Dante deals with questions that are perennial and he wanted to write a universal spiritual guidebook in the form of a long poem. In the modern world, we’re not used to that kind of poetry. Many people have favorite poets whom they regularly revisit for relaxation or verbal beauty. But Dante is not that kind of writer. In the very crafting of his singular world, he’s openly didactic—though not in the way that usually short-circuits works of the imagination.
In a letter to his patron Cangrande della Scala, in which he explains the Paradiso, the concluding third of the Commedia, he writes: “The subject of the whole work, then, taken in the literal sense only, is ‘the state of souls after death,’ without qualification, for the whole progress of the work hinges on and about that. Whereas, if the work be taken allegorically, the subject is: ‘Man, as by good or ill desserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing justice.’”
On the surface, this may seem unpromising and abstract and anodyne, but God—and the Devil, and everything between, including each of our lives—lies in the details. The circles of Hell, the cornices of the mountain of Purgatory, and the heavenly spheres in Paradise use the old Ptolemaic astronomy to embody carefully calibrated distinctions between levels of sin, purgation, and beatitude. St. Augustine famously said, “My love is my weight.” Dante depicts an entire universe in which human loves either weigh us down into the torments of Inferno, are slowly being purified and making our souls lighter, or in Heaven have become like flames of fire that naturally fly up toward our true Patria.
Some of Dante’s categorizations are traditional but surprising. Usurers and sodomites, for example, share the same circle of Hell, where they run over burning sands under a rain of fire, because they both, in Dante’s understanding, sought to make fertile what nature and nature’s God made sterile: money for the usurers and same-sex acts for the sodomites. Punishments and rewards, here and elsewhere, are fitted to the spiritual state. Other souls Dante creatively assigns to odd and unexpected places. Cato the Younger, who committed suicide rather than live under Julius Caesar’s tyranny, serves as the gatekeeper to Purgatory—presumably because, as Virgil remarks, he understood how dear real liberty is since he was willing to give up life for it.
There is in Dante’s poem a great deal of philosophy and theology; astronomy, astrology, natural science, and geography; history and contemporary politics; Scripture and classical literature; ecclesiastical theory and spirituality—indeed, virtually the whole of what was known to the culture of the High Middle Ages. And some of that is rendered in verse as part of the overall journey that Dante (the character, not the poet) takes. But the greater part of the Commedia proceeds by dramatic encounters with the “shades” of persons in the otherworld, and it is by that interaction—subtle, polysemous (Dante’s term), and, above all, artful—that the significance of the whole emerges.
Dreher takes this to heart and draws many solid and useful lessons from the text. If, as is the case in a Christian view of the world, it is our disordered loves that lead to perdition, in both this life and the next, reordering our loves is the prerequisite to knowing the truth that sets us free. Dreher: “Sin is not the breaking of moral rules, but a failure of love. We love the wrong things, or we love the right things in the wrong way. All of us do this; it is the human condition. Nevertheless, you are responsible for your own sin. It is why you are in crisis.” And Dante:
He set his steps upon an untrue way,
Pursuing those false images of good,
That bring no promise to fulfillment.
Purgatorio 30, 130–32
In this scheme, the famous adulterers Paolo and Francesca, for example, illustrate the first, almost imperceptible step into damnation. Their affections are an alluring counterfeit of true love between persons—a very common deception, which is finally purged among those souls on the pilgrim’s way only at the very end of Purgatory, right before they reenter the earthly Paradise we lost at the Fall. The adulterers’ specific story is shrewdly rendered by Dante—they have appealing, deeply emotional excuses: Francesca’s husband deceived her, perhaps, into marrying him and is abusive; Paolo is tender and they share a taste for chivalric romances. It’s all so understandable:
O living creature, gracious and kind,
that comes through somber air to visit us
who stained the world with blood,
if the King of the universe were our friend
we would pray that He might give you peace,
since you show pity for our grievous plight. . . .
Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,
seized this man with the fair form taken from me.
The way of it afflicts me still.
Love, which absolves no one beloved from loving,
seized me so strongly with his charm that,
as you see, it has not left me yet.
Love brought us to one death.
Caïna waits for him who
quenched our lives.
Inferno 5, 88–108
So civilized, so genteel, so delicate, so charming. And yet that so unfriendly King of the Universe, who must be some cruel monarch or jealous courtier, just didn’t understand. (Has any other poet ever conveyed the essence of a sin in a single word?) Of course, this is just what the seduction of a false love—all false loves—really is: the deceptive face of goods that are not goods, at least not to the degree or in the way they are being pursued. And all the other deadly sins spread throughout Dante’s world are false loves of differing specific gravities—greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, wrath, and the peculiar and ultimate pride of Lucifer.
Dreher is not prey to any of these grosser sins, at least not now in his maturity. His distance from and nostalgia toward his family, however, presents a complex of disordered affections that bites deep and is probably a more common malady than is often recognized these days. It’s not an easy problem to fit within Dante’s mostly Aristotelean-Thomist categories. But it does have parallels with Dante’s own exile from Florence and separation from his family. The way Dreher integrates his growing insight into his familial situation, an Orthodox approach to spiritual maturity, and Dante’s exhaustive hierarchy of sin, purgation, and illumination is often, in a word, marvelous.
Anyone familiar with Dreher’s earlier book Crunchy Cons may understand why his failure to reconcile with his family and find local community cut so deep: “Since 2002 my journalism career had been in part devoted to promoting a return-to-roots traditionalism that puts family and place first. But when I chose to live up to my ideals, I had wandered triumphantly into disaster.” He tries to get his family to see things from his perspective, fails repeatedly, and, before reaching a kind of resolution and acceptance, comes to a harsh judgment about them: “They achieved this stability, this deep rootedness, in part by remaining steadfastly uncurious about the world.” And about himself: “I mistook gifts of God—family and land—for God. Nearly all the other sins and errors of my life, and the pain they have caused me, come from that one radical mistake.” So it’s a kind of family idolatry—a theme not foreign to the Divine Comedy—that he discovers as the ultimate root of his problems.
The turning point for him comes in two ways. After repeating the Jesus Prayer many times daily over a long period, as a spiritual discipline, it entered his heart—not just his mind—that “God loves me.” And perhaps as a result of internalizing that paternal affection, he slowly also realizes that he doesn’t have to convince his family of what he sees as the truth. Instead, he has to accept that his mistaken search for a childhood home of innocence and perfect unreflective solidarity is really only an immature dream.
To an outsider, it might seem that Dante is not absolutely necessary to this spiritual and emotional healing. But the ways of grace are many and always personal. Indeed, a further temptation appears as Dreher goes obsessively deeper into Dante. His wife Julie, wise about a husband in ways only a good wife can be, warns him, “Careful with that . . . you know how you are.” She also has to remind him about his obsession with his parents and sister: “The kids and I are your family too, you know.”
But the key, the initial help, that Dante provided is (as in his own meeting with Virgil in the dark wood) to know that you are lost and yet that “there is a way out.” You do not know the way out yourself. If you did, Dante wouldn’t need Virgil, and Dreher wouldn’t need Dante. It’s not an easy step to accept that you need to have faith in someone else. But without it, the ego sunk in its own self-centeredness has no exit.
This will be a helpful book for people in various conditions, especially those of a literary bent who hope to think or read their way out of their difficulties. The irony is that the book ends with the author’s counsel that what you need is not merely to read another book—you cannot read your way to salvation. You need to work out another way of living, a better way, which Dante and Rod Dreher can make a good bit clearer to us all.
Robert Royal is the founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing.