Dante ranks right up there with Shakespeare and Homer as the greatest writers of our civilization. Though the Italian poet, who lived from 1265 to 1321, embodies the High Middle Ages, he is sometimes called a proto-reformer for his bold condemnation of the popes of his day and his searing indictments of the corruption in the church of Rome.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is an allegory, that is, a story consisting of symbols. His hair-raising depiction of hell in “The Inferno” symbolizes what sin is, with the punishment of the different vices giving insight into why those vices are so wrong. You do not have to believe in purgatory to appreciate what Dante is doing in “The Purgatorio,” namely, symbolizing what it means to turn away from the different vices. And “The Paradiso” is a wondrous symbolic exploration of the love of God, with His light reflected to each other by the redeemed, whom Dante portrays as “mirrors” of God’s love.
With a great writer, symbols do not only stand for some idea; rather, they are ways of exploring that idea, presenting it in concrete, imaginative terms that can illuminate what it means. Consider, for example, how Dante writes about the seven deadly sins and the corresponding virtues.
Dante imagines purgatory — not as his church depicted it, as a realm of fiery torment and cashed indulgences — but as a terraced mountain with each level designed to purge one of the seven deadly sins. When the soul is cured of each vice, it “feels free” to advance to the next level. According to Dante, each of the seven deadly sins is a problem with love. Christians overcome their propensity for each of these sins by learning to love correctly.
The first terraces are for the vices that consist of loving oneself at the expense of loving others. The lowest level is for the unalloyed self-love that is Pride. (The sinners here must carry huge rocks on their backs, forcing them to bend low and to gaze on the earth until they learn humility.) The next terrace is for Envy, another kind of self-love. Instead of loving one’s neighbor, the envious person actually suffers because of his neighbor’s happiness. (The sinners here have their eyes sewn up until they learn to help each other.) The next terrace is for Wrath, the self-love that releases one’s own angry emotions at the expense of the neighbor. (Sinners here live in obscuring smoke, but they are given visions of people who demonstrate gentleness and forbearance so that the angry can learn from their examples.)
The fourth terrace is for Sloth, which Dante defines as the lack of love. For Dante, Sloth is not just laziness, but something like the besetting sin of our own day: boredom. Those who love only themselves at least love something, but the slothful do not even love themselves, sinking into a self-destructive inactivity. Nor do they love anything outside themselves, being bored with the world. (Dante forces the slothful into activity, making them run sprints around the mountain while reciting stories of both shameful sloth and decisive zeal.)
The final four terraces are designed to cure “excessive love,” that is, an extreme love for external goods. Thus, the next terrace is for Greed. People who are greedy do love things other than themselves — money, luxuries, possessions — which is an advance over the first three vices, but they love these material things more than they do their neighbors, to the point that in their greed they sometimes cheat or vaunt over their neighbors. (Dante makes the greedy souls lay face down on the rocky ground, contemplating all the while the virtue of generosity.) The next terrace is for Gluttony, for people who love food more than they do their neighbors (especially in those times of scarcity) or themselves (since eating too much harms the body). (Here the gluttons simply do without until their bodies are emaciated and they learn temperance.) The top terrace is for Lust, which at least is a kind of love directed to another person, but it is also a violation of true love and of God’s design. (The lustful stand in fire, but they are singing as they contemplate chastity.)
When the Christian learns to love the Lord his God and his neighbor as himself, he steps onto the top of the mountain, which is Eden, that earthly paradise from which, in Dante’s geography, we literally fell. To get to heaven, though, requires not even the perfection of human love; rather, it requires God’s grace. The love of God has to descend to raise the human soul into His presence.
Dante’s list of the seven virtues is different than the one used here in this issue of Tabletalk. He combines the four cardinal virtues of the classical pagan world — wisdom, temperance, fortitude, and justice — with the three theological virtues of the New Testament: faith, hope, and love.
The “virtuous pagans” of the first circle of hell were wise, could control their passions, had courage, and were fair to others. These are worthy virtues, and even non-Christians can have them. But, as with the rest of Greco-Roman culture, they had no faith, knowing nothing of Christ and the Gospel. Nor did they have hope; their pagan religion believed that all the dead go down to the dreary darkness of hades. Nor did they have love, as evidenced in their cruelty and infanticide.
Those who enter into Paradise must have faith in Christ, who, in turn, is the basis of their hope and the source of their love.