Musings on Dante

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Dante’s Divine Comedy has always been a work which I have revered…and feared. It is literally epic, not just in length (which was not the scary part), but in its scope or substance (that was the scary part). It was renowned for its allegorical layering, political polemics, and theological treatments…not to mention its poetic beauty. Particularly as it was a poem about the Last Things which culminated in a consideration of God Himself, I found the prospect of grasping such an artful treatment of the most Sublime Things intimidating. Poetry is just that -poetry- and therefore requires an ability to unpack metaphor; and, the metaphors are about God, the most important subject. Could I do it? And what would I focus upon?

As to the first question, I’ll let those of superior intellect and position judge that. As for the second, that was a bit easier. There are many things addressed in Dante’s epic; many subjects I could contemplate and focus my efforts on. In general, theology is my favorite subject. Naturally I leaned there. But what theology? Though in reality theology is one, it can be considered through multiple aspects: 1) dogmatic, 2) ascetical/mystical, or 3) moral. (People might dispute this division, but that is not my concern here.) Dogmatic theology is certainly treated in the poem, but not with as great a depth until one reaches the Paradiso (and I had to select my topic and complete the project before we were through the most of it). I would not touch ascetical/mystical theology, not because I am not interested in it, not because it is not in Dante’s work, but solely because I am not worthy to treat of such matters. The spiritual masters –the Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Dom Columba Marmion, Fr. Garrigou Lagrange, et. al.– they can treat of the subject, not me. That left me with moral theology.

Morality is the least interesting and the most poorly treated (not poorly with frequency, but poorly with quality) of the subjects. From pulpit to manuals, priests and theologians, from my personal experience mind you, moralize in such manner as to make the moral life the least inspiring thing to live. Christ’s yoke is sweet…these others embitter it, and, as a consequence, drive people away from the very end these ministers are trying to direct them to.i Ironic. Why, then, would I want to consider another moral treatment? Though I am already being moralized out my ears (with poorest possible effect), why would I want to contemplate morality some more? It is simple.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, I find, inspires one toward the moral life.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, like Christ, makes the yoke sweet. As such, it is medicinal…it is an antidote to the poison of inept moralizing that becomes like the clanging of brass to the ears of people who were previously well disposed to live a holy life. I delighted in the antidote and inspiration and wanted to contemplate it in detail. That is why I chose this for my semester project.

The learning here was not so much intellectual. Not that the intellect was not involved, but rather, the intellect through the medium of the poem seemed to work with the will. The truths Dante expressed were not new to me. But the mode of delivery, his poetry, stimulated that intellect to ponder more deeply and move the will to its proper end. That is the moral life. And Dante took us all the way.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov 1:7) And Dante begins there with the Inferno; but he does not remain there. Transitioning through the Purgatorio, Alighieri, in the Paradiso, culminates in Divine Love, the beginning and end of all our activity. His treatment therein is moving and inspiring and directs us to our Final End, reminding the reader what the reward of a moral life is –not so much the avoidance of hell as the attainment of Good/Bliss/Love/God.

So what did I learn? I re-learned that the treatment of morality or the moral life can be inspiring to live the moral life. In short, morality as a subject can be treated well, even if done so rarely. Is that a profound lesson? Probably not. But it was a necessary lesson.

How is this lesson to be applied in the future? This seems so practical, but, then again, morality is practical by its very nature: I see the Divine Comedy as a reference point, not in lessons of morality as such, but that morality can be treated well and in such a way that the End can be constantly viewed as the inspiration for perseverance. Again, this is not profound, but necessary the next time the brass starts clanging again. Was this the only lesson I learned? No. But it was the most striking for the present, so much so as to be a reference point in the future.

Pax et bonum!

i I grant that most Catholics have a markedly different experience in this matter. Theirs is the case in general; but one can find the opposite extremes on occasion. Rarely is that holy, Catholic balance to be found.


Written by Paleo Thomist

December 12, 2010 at 5:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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