September 14 of last month (Feast of the Holy Cross) marked the 700th anniversary of the death of the greatest poet of all time, Dante Alighieri. That day in the year 1321, he passed from this world into the “Paradiso” which he envisioned in the splendid “Divine Comedy”.
I should have celebrated the occasion better. Dante and I have a personal bond: we share the same birthday.
I am a fan. I have at least five translations of his work, from his remarkable vernacular Italian to accessible English. The rest of the shelf (and an entire one) is devoted to comments, glossaries, and lots of illustrations. Even though I don’t understand much, I like to read Dante’s Italian terza rima aloud. It flows. It sounds melodious.
Pope Francis is also a fan. Earlier this year, on March 25 (feast of the Annunciation), he published a long papal letter which praised the poet who, one might say, unified Common Italian which emerged as his own language, apart from his Latin mother.
The letter was called (of course in Latin) “Candor Lucis Aeternae”. Or “Splendor of Eternal Light”. It was a powerful homage, almost hagiographic in form and content.
But in Dante’s day, and for some time after his death, the popes did not like him at all. More than once, the “Divine Comedy” has been censored by the Inquisition. For centuries, its publication has been discouraged.
Why? Perhaps its removal had to do with the fact that in Part One – “Hell” – Dante puts a pope, Pope Nicholas III, in Hell (upside down in a tube with his feet sticking out from the top and on fire – a reversal of what happened at Pentecost). Soon two other pontiffs would join Nicolas: Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Célestin V.
Dante was sort of a prophet: he wanted the Church to be the true Church – not a political institution that engaged in partisan maneuvering and outright war … not a way 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 to see the clergy engage in partisanship, exercise naked power, or revel in first-class luxury and wealth.
And beyond the Church, he desperately wanted civilization to be “civilized.” He yearned for a society that encouraged virtue and discouraged vice. Society should be marked by the desire for the classic and cardinal virtues of Reason, Justice, Courage and Moderation, and the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love.
Maybe, just maybe, if Love was wanted and practiced enough, it could quite supplant Hate: for it is the only way to get rid of vice (to purge and never really forbid work).
But Dante’s Italy was a time and place of constant civil war. Hypocrisy, changing sides, throwing red meat at the masses, making money out of pain and suffering, and war were accepted as a reality, as in “this is what that it is “. A new thing arose: mercantilism, in which everything was commodified: land, woods and water, animals, works of art and even people.
So Dante, in his impoverished exile, set out to write a long metaphysical journey that ends well. And that’s why it’s called a “comedy”. And for the first time, a comic story was called “Divine”.
It is a story that involves the individual, the family and the community, and civilization. It is a story that starts from the crisis of the here and now, starting from the lowest in Hell, progressing through the growth and ascension of Mount Purgatorio, and finally entering into full communion with God. in Paradise.
Dante did not draw a realistic map of hell, purgatory and paradise in the “Divine Comedy”. It was always meant to be read poetically.
It is a terrible mistake to read Dante literally, for he did not mean that “Divine Comedy” was to be taken that way. He used poetry – seductive rhythm, poignant historical allusion, transcendent symbol, long comparisons often long in the extreme, even acrostic – to do two things. One was to capitalize on harsh criticism against Church and society. The other was to call on its readers to see public opinion past and more deeply into the truth, and to see with a higher perspective, even to the stars.
Frequently, his depictions of Hell and Purgatory contradicted (and improved upon) official Church doctrine at the time. In the limbo of comedy, there were no unbaptized babies. The great Roman and pre-Christian orator Cato, who committed suicide, was the first to be met in Purgatory. The whole idea of deathbed conversions has been heavily criticized. Homosexuals were not outright damned, and neither were Muslims: Muhammad was portrayed as a Christian heretic, and the noble Muslim warrior Saladin was placed in limbo.
Dante placed loan sharks, that is, those who profited from the collection of interests, lower in hell than violent murderers and blasphemers. It is significant that Dante, unlike the anti-Semitism then reigning in Christendom, did not include any Jews in this circle. Dante deliberately refused what Shakespeare did not hesitate to do: Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” is sufficient proof of this.
Heaven, I could make a strong case that Dante’s guide and hero – and the 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 began his own journey on the Mountain of Grace and would eventually reach paradise. This would never have been a possibility in normal 14th century dogma.
Dante recognized that his civilization was sinking into the vices of superficiality and violence. Too many leaders threatened and encouraged bloodshed: History shows the sad truth that if a politician talks about violence, violence will come (something that North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn, and others, should keep in mind).
Dante’s prescription was the therapy of looking up to the stars and climbing to meet them. He invited the readers, in each of the hundred songs that made up the Divine Comedy, to desire God in response to the fervor of God’s desire for mankind.
The only hope for Dante’s Italy, so infected with civil war, bubbling with hatred and commercialism, hypocrisy and betrayal, xenophobia and thirst for blood, was to make the soul’s journey from there hell, the ascension of purgatory and paradise.
America is grappling with the same barbarism. The same infamous degradation in 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 letter of praise with these lines, to which I can only say Amen:
“At this particular moment in history, overshadowed by situations of profound inhumanity and a lack of confidence and prospects for the future, the figure of Dante, prophet of hope and witness of the human desire for happiness, can still help us provide words and examples. who encourage us on our journey. Dante can help us move forward with serenity and courage in 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. to the ultimate goal of all humanity: “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso XXXIII, 145).
“The starter moves it sinks to the altre stelle.”
Jonathan Tobias is a resident of Edenton.