Sept. 14th of last month (the Feast of the Holy Cross) was the 700th anniversary of the death of the greatest poet of all time, Dante Alighieri. On that day in the year 1321, he passed from this world into the “Paradiso” that he envisioned in the splendid “Divine Comedy.”
I should have celebrated the occasion better. Dante and I have something of a personal bond: we share the same birthday.
I am a fan. I own at least five translations of his work, from his remarkable vernacular Italian into accessible English. The rest of the shelf (and another whole one) is devoted to commentaries, glossaries, and many, many illustrations. Even though I don’t understand much, I love reading Dante’s terza rima Italian out loud. It flows. It sounds mellifluous.
Pope Francis is also a fan. Earlier this year, on March 25th (the Feast of the Annunciation), he published a long papal letter that extolled the poet who — it could be said — unified the common Italian that was emerging as its own language, apart from its mother Latin.
The letter was called (of course in Latin), “Candor Lucis Aeternae.” Or “Splendor of Light Eternal.” It was a mighty tribute, almost hagiographical in form and content.
But in Dante’s own day, and for some time after his passing, the popes did not like him at all. More than once, the “Divine Comedy” was censored by the Inquisition. For centuries, its publication was discouraged.
Why? Maybe its suppression had to do with the fact that in the first part — the “Inferno” — Dante puts one pope, Pope Nicholas III, in hell (head down in a tube with his feet sticking out of the top and on fire — an inversion of what happened at Pentecost). Soon to join Nicholas would be two other pontiffs: Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Celestine V.
Dante was something of a prophet: he wanted the Church to be the real Church — not a political institution that waded into partisan maneuvering and outright war ... not a means for individuals to accumulate wealth and power.
Dante wanted the Church to return to the theological and sacramental message of the Gospel and the Apostles. He couldn’t stand seeing clergy engage in partisanship, wield naked power, or revel in first class luxury and riches.
And beyond the Church, he desperately wanted civilization to be “civilized.” He longed for a society that encouraged virtue and discouraged vice. Society should be marked by a desire for the classical, cardinal virtues of Reason, Justice, Courage, and Moderation, and the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.
Maybe, just maybe, if Love were desired and practiced enough, it could utterly displace Hatred: because that is the only way to get rid of vice (purging and prohibiting never really work).
But Dante’s Italy was a time and place of constant civil war. Hypocrisy, switching of sides, throwing red meat to the masses, making money off of pain and suffering, and war-mongering were accepted as reality, as in “it is what it is.” A new thing was rising: mercantilism, in which everything was commodified — land, woods and water, animals, works of art, and even people.
So Dante, in his impoverished exile, set about to write a long metaphysical journey that ends well. And that is why it is called a “comedy.” And for the first time, a comedy story was called “Divine.”
It is a story that involves the individual, the family and community, and civilization. It is a story that goes from the crisis of here-and-now, starting from the very bottommost in the Inferno, working up through growth and the ascent of Mt Purgatorio, and entering, finally, upon full communion with God in the Paradiso.
Dante was not drawing a realistic map of hell, purgatory, and heaven in the “Divine Comedy.” It was always meant to be read poetically.
It is a terrible mistake to read Dante literally, because he did not mean “Divine Comedy” to be taken that way. He used poetry — alluring rhythm, poignant historical allusion, transcendent symbol, long similes often lengthy to extremes, even acrostics — to do two things. One was to leverage a hard critique against the Church and society. The other was to call his readers to see past crowd opinion and more deeply into truth, and to see with a higher perspective, even to the stars.
Frequently, his depictions of the Inferno and Purgatory contradicted (and improved upon) official church doctrine at the time. In the Limbo of the Comedy, there were no unbaptized babies. The great Roman and pre-Christian orator Cato, who committed suicide, was the first one met in Purgatory. The whole idea of deathbed conversions was deeply criticized. Homosexuals were not damned outright, and neither were Muslims: Mohammed was depicted as a Christian heretic, and the noble Muslim warrior Saladin was placed in Limbo.
Dante put usurers — that is, those who profited from charging interest — lower in hell than violent murderers and blasphemers. It is significant that Dante, contrary to the anti-Semitism that was rife in Christendom at the time, listed not a single Jew in this circle. Dante deliberately refused what Shakespeare did not hesitate to do: Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” is proof enough of that.
Heavens, I could make a strong case that Dante’s guide and hero — and pagan — Virgil (author of the Aeneid) was also making the pilgrimage of salvation. It is likely that the Roman poet did not return to Limbo, but started his own journey up the mountain of Grace and would eventually win Paradise. That would never have been a possibility in normal 14th century dogmatics.
Dante recognized that his civilization was sinking into the vices of shallowness and violence. Too many leaders were threatening and encouraging bloodshed: history shows the sad truth that if a politician talks about violence, violence will come (something that the callow North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn, and others, should bear in mind).
Dante’s prescription was the therapy of looking upward to the stars, and climbing up to meet them. He invited readers, in every single one of the hundred cantos that composed the Divine Comedy, to desire God in response to the fervency of God’s desire for humanity.
The only hope for Dante’s Italy, so infected by civil strife, seething hatred and commercialism, rank hypocrisy and treachery, xenophobia and bloodlust, was to take the soul’s journey from hell, up the purgatorial ascent, and look into paradise.
America is wrestling with the same barbarism. The same vile deterioration into barbarism that beset Florence and Siena, Naples and Rome, is now a Republican and Democratic reality.
It’s time to look inward and upward. To the stars.
Pope Francis concluded his commendatory letter with these lines, to which I can only say Amen:
“At this particular moment in history, overclouded by situations of profound inhumanity and a lack of confidence and prospects for the future, the figure of Dante, prophet of hope and witness to the human desire for happiness, can still provide us with words and examples that encourage us on our journey. Dante can help us to advance with serenity and courage on the pilgrimage of life and faith that each of us is called to make, until our hearts find true peace and true joy, until we arrive at the ultimate goal of all humanity: ‘The Love which moves the sun and the other stars’ (Paradiso XXXIII, 145).”
“L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.”