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Dante’s understanding of the heavens—as spheres rotating around the Earth—has been out of date astronomically for nearly half a millennium. Dante’s political world consisted of a score of perpetually warring Italian city states and a few greedy, scheming popes. His intellectual formation is remote from us; it reflects medieval scholasticism and, further back, a fragmentary and sometimes faulty knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. Why, then, do we read him?

We might answer by turning the question around: We value him precisely because he is not us. This goes against the belief, now current in academia, that we can learn only from people who speak directly to our preoccupations. But if that’s what we want, then we don’t have to study anything at all. Dante is not one of us, and therefore there are some things—perhaps many important things—that he understood with a depth and clarity we can only hope to attain. Partly this is because Dante had the good fortune to be born into a time in which three great currents converged: the courtly love tradition, the mystical (nuptial) love tradition, and medieval scholasticism.

The literature of courtly love, with its distant ladies who inspire virtue in their male devotees, presents an idealized love between man and woman that will never be irrelevant—so long as there are men and women—for it captures an enduring truth about romantic love. There is a gleam of it in all our romantic comedies (and romantic tragedies). Dante’s first book, La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), tells the story in verse and prose of his first meetings with Beatrice, the love those meetings kindle in him, and his confused reactions to that love. In all this, Dante was already operating with greater depth, ­intellectual sophistication, and intensity than any poet in the school of courtly love. And then, as he relates in the closing words of La Vita Nuova, after Beatrice’s early death he had a life-changing experience:

After I wrote this sonnet there came to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessèd one until I would be capable of writing about her in a nobler way. To achieve this I am striving as hard as I can, and this she truly knows. Accordingly, if it be the pleasure of Him through whom all things live that my life continue for a few more years, I hope to write of her that which has never been written of any other woman. And then may it please the One who is the Lord of graciousness that my soul ascend to behold the glory of its lady, that is, of that blessèd Beatrice, who in glory contemplates the countenance of the One qui est per omnia secula benedictus.

Scholars argue about what this passage means, but it seems to be the first seed of the massive edifice we call the Divina Commedia, or Divine ­Comedy: in particular, in its movement from the earthly beauty of Beatrice, to her glory in Heaven, to the ­Beatific Vision itself. All of this prefigures a revelatory passage in Canto XXVIII of Paradiso. That passage says something that has become familiar to us from thousands of love poems and pop songs: “­Darling, I see heaven when I look into your eyes.” Dante notices, after his long pilgrimage, that it’s literally true that the blinding light of Heaven is reflected in the eyes he loves. He describes this glimpse of the divine by analogy with something infinitely less spectacular, a candle seen in a mirror:

When she who does imparadise my mind
had revealed the truth against
the present life of wretched mortals,

then, as one whose way is lit by a double-candled lamp
held at his back, who suddenly in a mirror sees
the flame before he has seen or even thought of it

and turns to see if the glass is telling him the truth,
and then sees that it reflects things as they are—
as notes reflect the score when they are sung—

just so do I remember having done,
gazing into the beautiful eyes
which Love had made into the snare that caught me.

When I turned back and my eyes were struck
by what appears on that revolving sphere—
if one but contemplates its circling—

I saw a point that flashed a beam of light
so sharp the eye on which it burns
must close against its piercing brightness.

The star that, seen from here below, seems smallest
would seem a moon if put beside it . . .

This startling perception points us to the second great current Dante inherited: the mystical love tradition. The hundredth (and final) canto of the Commedia opens with a prayer to the Virgin Mary by the great mystic St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who becomes Dante’s ultimate guide, succeeding Virgil (who took him through Hell and most of Purgatory) and Beatrice (his guide in Paradise until the very last cantos). Most of us know little of St. ­Bernard, and it may surprise us that he—not Thomas ­Aquinas, not Francis of Assisi—is Dante’s choice of a near-contemporary saint to lead him at the highest point of Paradise. But Bernard is the most fitting: He was dubbed Doctor Mellifluus when he was named a Doctor of the Church, in part because of the sweetness of his expositions of “­nuptial mysticism.” In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Bernard expounds what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and other stars.” Dante is a poet of earthly love, yes. He is, as we will see, also part of the scholastic tradition in its relentless ­rationality. But it all comes together in what some modern theologians call nuptial mysticism: not the ­mysticism of sex and marriage, but the mysticism of the soul’s uniting itself to God, a divine nuptial of which earthly nuptials are the reflection.

Bernard’s famous prayer to the Virgin at the ­beginning of the last canto in the Commedia ­tenderly unites a series of seeming contraries: creator and ­created, mortality and immortality, and—­fittingly, given the themes of Dante’s ­poem—divine and ­human love:

Virgin mother, daughter of your son,
More humble and more high than other creatures,
The constant goal of the eternal plan,

You are the one who so raised human nature
That your Creator did not hesitate
To be created in your mortal flesh,

And in your womb was gathered all the love,
The warmth of which fills our eternal peace
And nourishes this flower as it grows.

For us in heaven you are the bright sun
Of charity at noon and to the living
You are the running fountain of their faith.

Lady, you are so powerful and great
That he who would seek grace and not seek you
Is one who would try flying without wings.

Your blessings do not fall only on those
Who ask for them, but many times they come
Freely to those who do not know their need.

In you is mercy, in you is pity,
In you is majesty, in you is gathered
All the good of all created things.

Yet Dante is a realist, and his poem is concerned not just with the beauty of divine love, but with how loves can become disordered. In the second circle of Hell, he meets Paolo and Francesca, an adulterous couple that was murdered by Francesca’s husband. Francesca tells Dante:

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.

Here is a mixing of half-truths with falsehood. Yes, there was love of a sort between them. We are always moved by love of something; even all sins and evils are instances of disordered or disproportionate love. Francesca gives the game away, even before she begins her love, love, love litany: She ­asserts, “If the king of the universe were our friend . . .” In other words, if God had just understood us, he would have let us do what we wanted instead of forcing us to follow the order of ­Creation, and we wouldn’t be damned. The result is predictable, not just in leading to infidelity, but in terms of the larger order of loves. Paolo and Francesca embraced unbridled feeling, and their fate is not the light and peace of God’s love, but what Dante calls the “contrapasso” (the resulting suffering)—a perpetual whirlwind of raw ­emotion.

For a simple way to characterize the episode, and Dante’s poem as a whole, we might look to St. Augustine’s famous phrase, “My love is my weight” (pondus meum amor meus). Depending on the nature of our loves, we either sink or rise. The whole of the Commedia embodies that basic dynamic. Those who follow Dante’s path are submitting to what Augustine called “setting our loves in order.” We don’t usually think that loves need to be ordered; they just are what they are, in most people’s understanding, at most times in human history. But this is why the virtue tradition arose, with its careful art of disciplining human impulse, an art mostly lost to the modern world. Our loves may conflict with, even thwart one another; and if they are not to produce chaos, they must be ordered, which means prioritized, which means set in a hierarchy. Anything else leads to absurdity. If I let my love of music divert me from caring for my parents, spouse, children, and neighbors, I do not merely suffer from disordered loves in some neutral sense. I’ve got my loves wrong. And not only must I understand that they are wrong—which is much of what Inferno shows Dante and us—I must discipline my loves to go in another direction, which is much of what Purgatorio is about.

This truth applies even to Dante’s notion of his poetic task. In Canto XXIV of Purgatorio, he encounters another poet, Bonagiunta da Lucca, a contemporary but lesser figure. Seeing Dante, Bonagiunta asks:

But tell me if I see before me
the one who brought forth those new rhymes
begun with “Ladies that have understanding of love.”

“Ladies that have understanding of love” is the title of one of Dante’s early, philosophically dense poems: Bonagiunta wants to know what distinguished Dante so much from others in his day. Dante articulates how his poetry works:

I am one who, when Love
inspires me, takes note and, as he dictates
deep within me, so I set it forth.

So it is Love that dictates poetry to Dante and, by implication, corrects the order of loves.

Only the God of Love can really bring order to human lives. That Christian perspective appears at the start of Dante’s poem, when he tells us that he began his journey lost and confused:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter, death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.

So the beginning of the poem is a turning point—but of a particular kind, because Dante says in the first line that it’s midway in the journey of our life. Every human being ever born must walk this path individually; it points to the verace via, the true way for the whole human race. So the poem is of interest not only as the record of one man, but as a guide for all of us. And our lostness in a dark wood will not, cannot, be resolved by any effort of ours. We immediately see that three beasts block Dante’s ascent, and he sinks back into the valley “where the sun is silent.” The Christian difference is this: It is precisely when a soul has realized that he cannot save himself despite his genius, will, and effort that he is in a state to receive help.

That help appears notably in the person of ­Virgil, the greatest of Roman poets and Dante’s “author” and authority as a poet. But behind Virgil stand three holy women. First is the Blessed ­Virgin Mary, who approaches Dante’s special saint, Lucy. Why ­Lucy? According to legend, this martyr of fourth-century Rome had her eyes gouged out before she was executed. She thus became a patron of the blind and visually impaired. After Dante’s vision in La Vita Nuova, he plunged into study, and read so intensely for thirty months that, he relates, he damaged his eyesight—to the point that the stars looked blurry to him. He rested his eyes and prayed to St. Lucy, who appears at various points in the Commedia. In this opening passage, at Mary’s prompting, Lucy goes to the third holy woman, Beatrice, to urge her to help her lost lover; and Beatrice visits Virgil, who is in Limbo among the other virtuous pagans. ­Dante portrays the complex, interlinked, unexpected workings of grace, which operate at first through a classical poet, anima naturaliter christiana (“a ­naturally Christian soul,” Tertullian’s famous formulation). He seems to have thought that he first needed what human wisdom (helped by superhuman graces) could provide, before the direct guidance of Beatrice and Bernard themselves.

Dante set the beginning of the poem just a few days before Easter 1300, when he was thirty-five years old, “midway” between birth and the three score and ten—seventy years—that the Bible says is the normal human lifespan. Modern commentators of a more psychological bent sometimes say that the poet is undergoing a “midlife crisis,” which he is, but not merely in the modern sense. Dante’s crisis evokes the old Platonic conceit, Christianized in thinkers such as Aquinas, of an exitus-­redditus: an exit of the world and the individual soul from God, and return to him in the course of time. ­Dante is beginning that return in the first words of his great work and, by setting the time of his journey at Easter, is linking it to the Redemption carried out by Christ himself.

There is much to be said about these opening lines. It’s been noted that Dante chose a dark wood, a common enough medieval symbol, but one with other resonances too: Aristotle used the Greek hyle, intending wood to mean “matter,” the metaphysical complement to “form.” Is this a hint that Dante is turning from a more or less worldly perspective to a fuller reality? He’s going to write, he tells us, in order that we may understand the good that he found on his journey, as disoriented as he initially was. He adds that he doesn’t know how he got so lost, because he was asleep when he took the wrong turn. This will be bracingly familiar to anyone with a little self-knowledge. No one sets out to sin, to lose himself and his bearings, in the middle of life. But it happens to all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, and largely unnoticed—which makes us all the more grateful when help arrives and we discover goods that we might not have found, had we not embraced redemptive graces.

The Commedia is a journey from confusion to order, and it draws deeply from the philosophy and theology that give an account of this order. Along with the traditions of courtly and mystical love, Dante’s ­poem shows the influence of the High Medieval flowering of scholastic thought. I had a friend, long dead now, a Shakespeare scholar who thought that ­Dante was merely rhymed Aquinas. Certainly, no other poet could have introduced the Aristotelian vocabulary of ­Thomism—substance, accidents, and so on—into his verse without awkwardness, even at the heights of mystical ex­perience. In the passage described above, when ­Dante glimpses heaven in Beatrice’s eyes, he ­expresses puzzlement. Beatrice explains:

My lady, who saw me in grave doubt
yet eager to know and comprehend, said:
From that point depend the heavens and all nature.

All created things, for Aquinas, “depend” on the ­uncreated, the Highest Being, the Unmoved ­Mover, the Primal Cause—in short, God. Modern astrophysicists sometimes say that we may view the universe as a hologram—in other words, a projection. This doesn’t mean the universe is unreal, but rather that it exists only because some other reality, not a “thing” in our this-worldly sense, allows it to. This analogy represents an interesting convergence with an old theological truth. When a modern scientist says there is no evidence of God “in” the world, he or she is correct. Gods that exist within the world are like the old pagan gods: perhaps immortal, powerful, beautiful, but ultimately just “things” like lesser things.

The God of the Bible—and in a sense the God of Plato and Aristotle, in their highest metaphysical speculations—transcends time and space. Anyone who believes that the only realities are those in time and space won’t perceive this transcendence. But then again, they will struggle to understand the most basic non-material realities: for instance, how it is that the weak and limited human mind, which is not a physical thing, is able to grasp the whole history of the created universe and speculate about what, beyond it, may have made it a possibility. That’s why ­Hamlet, whose creator lived in a time when empirical ­science had not yet crowded out everything else, could speak of “godlike reason.”

For an example of how the love tradition and the scholastic tradition flow into one another in the­ ­poem, look no further than the final canto of Paradiso, where Dante is going deeper and deeper into the vision of God, wherein will be united even basic philosophical distinctions:

O plenitude of grace, by which I could presume
to fix my eyes upon eternal Light
until my sight was spent on it!

In its depth I saw contained,
by love into a single volume bound,
the pages scattered through the universe:

substances, accidents, and the interplay between them,
as though they were conflated in such ways
that what I tell is but a simple light.

Unless we understand that all that exists proceeds from this simple light—God (an assumption Dante could take for granted a bit more than we can)—we will read Paradiso as the kind of self-directed mystical ascent that might be found in Plotinus or one of the Neo-Platonic seers, or in modern Hinduism and Buddhism. All the elements of the created world—which are true goods (properly understood), not limitations to be transcended by pure mind or spirit—remain, but reconciled, in the Beatific Vision. The uniquely Christian perspective of the goodness of multiple created things persists even as it moves toward unity in the Creator.

This background helps to clarify an aspect of the poem that may seem the greatest obstacle to modern readers: its assumptions about the structure of the cosmos. Many modern readers misconstrue Dante on this point. Because he puts Hell underneath the earth, with Satan at its center, they imagine that Satan is at the center of everything, with the planets circling around our globe. They imagine that Dante’s vision is geocentric, that everything points toward us. But as C. S. Lewis observes in his charming little book The Discarded Image, in ancient and medieval thought the earth was not the center but the bottom. Even in material terms, planets in their orbits and the fixed stars were orders of magnitude greater and much higher, in every sense of the word, than our modest planet. Some modern scientists and anti-Christian commenters mock the old—ostensibly hubristic—idea that humans are the center of things, an idea that would be eminently mockable if pre-modern thinkers had held it. But they didn’t.

Even a pagan like Aristotle knew that the whole order of the physical universe stemmed from something—we might now call it Being with an upper-­case “B”—that transcended everything physical. As he wrote in Book I of De Caelo, which Dante cites in his own philosophical essay The Banquet, when you pass out of time and space there is no movement, only eternity. There are no distances or bodies:

Hence whatever is there, is of such a nature as not to occupy any place, nor does time age it; nor is there any change in any of the things. . . . They ­continue through their entire duration unalterable and ­unmodified, living the best and most self-sufficient of lives.

Aristotle did not presume to say what was in that transcendent realm, which heirs to the biblical tradition would identify as Heaven. It took revelation to convey to us things that were beyond even the greatest reaches of human reason. Still, human reason as practiced by the best pagans, and the later figures who studied them, such as Aquinas or Bonaventure or Dante, pointed to the fact that all things in our physical universe are contingent, that they do not account for themselves. There had to be something else, properly speaking not a “thing” at all, a non-material foundation. And we have a poetic image for it in the structure of the Commedia, which begins in a dark wood, descends into the earth, climbs the mountain of Purgatory, ascends through all the heavens to the fixed stars and Primum Mobile, and then passes beyond them all. Indeed, as Dante and Beatrice transcend our world, things get turned inside out, and we see that the true center of all existence is God himself. If Earth had been the center, then Satan, frozen at the bottom of Hell, would have been the center of the center, an absurdity in any true moral or ­spiritual perspective. Reality, as Dante and many other pre-moderns saw it, is precisely the opposite.

People sometimes complain that the Commedia is too serious, that it does not have any of the humor and outright waggishness amid profundity that you find in Shakespeare. I would argue that there are many comic ­touches in the Commedia (if few outright belly laughs), and they spring from the same orderly mind that took such pleasure in scholastic thought. One of the very funniest episodes, in a bizarre way, takes place deep in Hell. Way down in Malebolge, the ten evil ditches in which fraud is punished, Dante encounters Guido da Montefeltro among the Evil Counselors. Guido was a wily “Machiavellian” before Machiavelli. He used all sorts of lies and tricks to gain military and political victories. Late in life, however, he realized that he had to do penance for his sins and entered a Franciscan monastery.

Pope Boniface VIII—Dante’s nemesis, who was partly responsible for the poet’s exile from ­Florence—came to Guido in the monastery asking for a favor. Boniface was having trouble with a noble Roman family, the Colonnas, who had fled to the nearby town of Palestrina. The pope needed to take the town and eliminate the troublemakers. Guido answered, essentially, “I don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” Boniface replied, “Look, I’m the pope. Do me this one last favor and I’ll grant you absolution in advance.” “Can you do that?” “Yes, I’m the pope. I have the Keys to the Kingdom.” So Guido proposed a stratagem: Promise the Colonnas amnesty if they let you enter the city, but when you take over, arrest them all. It works. The pope is happy. Guido goes back to his Franciscan monastery. Later Guido dies. St. Francis of Assisi arrives to take him up to Heaven, but the Devil arrives too:

Francis—the moment that I died—came then
For me, but one of the black cherubim
Called to him, ‘Don’t take him! don’t cheat me!

He must come down to join my hirelings
Because he offered counsel full of fraud,
And ever since I’ve been after his scalp!

For you can’t pardon one who won’t repent,
And one cannot repent what one wills also:
The contradiction cannot be allowed.

The Devil means here that the law of non-­contradiction—that a thing cannot logically be and not-be the same thing in the same way at the same time—does not allow a person to will something and not will it.

O miserable me! how shaken I was
When he grabbed hold of me and cried, ‘Perhaps
You didn’t realize I was a logician!’

We all should know that the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. Dante shows that he can cite logic as well.

But whether he was writing dark humor, scholastic philosophy, courtly love poetry, or mystical theology, the end Dante aimed at was the Beatific Vision. This was the goal he kept steadily in view throughout his vast poetic undertaking, which he began shortly after he was exiled from Florence and carried on for years despite poverty, hardships, factionalism, and instability. As the poem nears its end, Bernard sums up everything that has ­preceded and prays to the Virgin that after the ultimate vision, Dante will remain whole:

This man who, from within the deepest pit
the universe contains up to these heights
has seen the disembodied spirits, one by one,

now begs you, by your grace, to grant such power
that, by lifting up his eyes,
he may rise higher toward his ultimate salvation.

And I, who never burned for my own seeing
more than now I burn for his, offer all my prayers,
and pray that they may not fall short,

so that your prayers disperse on his behalf
all clouds of his mortality and let
the highest beauty be displayed to him.

This too, my Queen, I ask of you, who can achieve
whatever you desire, that you help him preserve,
after such vision, the purity of his affections.

After what he is to see, Dante must live again for some time back on earth. And in the poem, the poet’s art must rise to a higher pitch but still speak to those who have not yet had Dante’s mystical experience. This is a tricky prospect. How do you recall in human words something transcendent that, after you’ve seen it, has slipped from your grasp like melting snow or the prophecies of the Sybil, which were written on loose sheets that have been carried away by the wind?

From that time on my power of sight exceeded
that of speech, which fails at such a vision,
as memory fails at such abundance.

Just as the dreamer, after he awakens,
still stirred by feelings that the dream evoked,
cannot bring the rest of it to mind,

such am I, my vision almost faded from my mind,
while in my heart there still endures
the sweetness that was born of it.

Thus the sun unseals an imprint in the snow.
Thus the Sibyl’s oracles, on weightless leaves,
lifted by the wind, were swept away.

O Light exalted beyond mortal thought,
grant that in memory I see again
but one small part of how you then appeared

and grant my tongue sufficient power
that it may leave behind a single spark
of glory for the people yet to come . . .

Dante hoped to guide his readers to glory too. Even today, when love poetry, philosophy, and the mystical tradition have all but dried up, the ­Commedia still finds new devotees: not just those who want to be aware of a cultural high point, or who admire the scale of Dante’s imagination, but those who sense Dante’s ultimate aim. He told us of these visions to kindle a desire for Heaven in people yet to come, namely ourselves and all who have loved him over the centuries.

As Dante ascends, he sees three circles of light, the Holy Trinity, and somehow the human form as incarnated in Christ also fixed there. Even here in Heaven, this figure seems impossible, impossible like knowing the exact value of π: “Like the geometer who fully applies himself / to square the circle and, for all his thought, / cannot discover the principle he lacks, / such was I at that strange new sight.” (Even modern supercomputers cannot give us the complete answer to this question.) Despite the keen sight that Dante has developed in ­Paradise, he cannot obtain what he wants on his own:

But my wings had not sufficed for that
had not my mind been struck by a bolt
of lightning that granted what I asked.

Here my exalted vision lost its power.
But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving
with an even motion, were turning with
the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.

It was daring for anyone, especially a poet, to conceive of, let alone carry out, a work representing such a journey. It was even more challenging, to be sure, when he came to write here not only what had never been written concerning the influence of any woman—but the Beatific Vision, as he experienced it. That ultimate experience, plus all the sinners, penitents, and saints, historical and contemporary, who feature in the story along the way, add up to a poetic feat that, at least for this reader, has never been approached, let alone equalled, since it aspired to include everything. It is because of that bold reach into the realms of artistic and spiritual transcendence that Dante Alighieri is alive and read among us even today.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Thing.

Image by Larry Koester via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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