Why Read Dante Again and What You Will Need

I decided last year after going through Dante’s Divine Comedy in real time, that I was going to make it a yearly occurrence on the blog going forward, regardless of whether or not it was popular or whether anyone even took notice. Narcissistic? You could say that, but it’s not vanity on my part. 

Like all true classic literature, The Divine Comedy wasn’t meant to be a one-and-done. It wasn’t meant for you to struggle through as part of some class you had to take for credit and then forget as a nightmare. The Divine Comedy especially is one of those works you need to read on a regular basis to get the full effect. 

It’s in re-reading and re-treading the path year after year that brings better understanding not only to the text but to ourselves as we understand the world. Reading Dante in college is on thing. Reading Dante when you’re similar in age to him as he wrote it, is completely different because you’ve seen more, experienced, more, and suffered more. 

And you also end up finding bits and pieces of your childhood sold as “vintage” and your teenage fashions return to stores. 

Dante’s poem encourages to look at ourselves and our lives in ways we don’t normally consider. 

Today when we “take a step back” it’s about evaluating our work-life balance, our priorities, our goals, and our relationships. Sometimes we even go to therapy to work through our issues and past traumas. What I’m about to say isn’t meant to take anything away from any of these practices. These are good practices and for many, they help make us better people. 

Until they don’t. 

So, here it is: doing any of those things isn’t enough. It’s not. If you go to therapy and you end up weaker than ever. If you evaluate your life so much that you become isolated and inactive, and if you evaluate your traumas to the point where you start making excuses for everything in your life. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen (and others), is why Dante takes us to Hell. To see how bad it can really get. And to look at our own faults, one by one, no matter how much it disgusts us until we see ourselves for who we really are, even if what we really are isn’t something we want. 

Because, as he (and we) will learn as we go is that our choices are only as good as our characters. We must know our faults so we can manage them more effectively whether that is by religious means or not. Otherwise, our choices will continue being ineffective or, at worse, we will end up choosing our faults over and above anything else. Like the people Dante meets in Hell. 

And isn’t our world already full of people choosing their faults? 

Taking an introspective look at ourselves and our lives is healthy. The longevity of the story of Jesus Christ isn’t just in the hope of the resurrection and freedom from our faults at the heart of Christianity. It’s in the continual struggle to regain the “right way” when we’re lost. This is something common to all spiritual or religious practices. 

Catharsis, or purgation, is a basic human need. 

Catharsis is a cleansing of the emotions and a clearing of the mind. At its heart is the story of redemption. The idea that we’re less than we should be, but that we can somehow become more than we are. This is a basic human need, whether we want to admit it or not. 

Our obsession with cleanliness is proof enough of our need for purgation. So is our need to “come clean” or “get real” on social media. The widespread popularity of the Kon Mari method took hold for the same reasons. It’s cathartic, relaxing, to bring order to chaos and to start the day, or indeed life, with a clean slate. 

But it only comes about when we go to our deepest, darkest, most monstrous selves and admit who and what we are. Because you cannot purge your most evil form until you acknowledge it exists. We all like to gaze into the annals of history and judge our forbears for what they did or did not do, but we don’t like to gaze in the mirror and see the very same things reflected back at us. 

People like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung are held up as the ultimate evil. But, we don’t like admitting that we are just as capable of committing the same crimes as they. We don’t like admitting that had we lived in the time of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade we wouldn’t have done much of anything either. Nor do we like to admit that chattels slavery still goes on in the world. 

No, it’s much easier to blame other people. Easer to blame Hitler on extreme right authoritarianism. It’s easier to blame Josef Stalin on centuries of Tsarist oppulence. It’s easier to blame Mao Tse-Tung on European colonialism and inept emperors. It’s even easier to blame the trans-Atlantic slave trade on racism and greed. 

It’s much harder to see our own tendencies towards authoritarianism, oppulence, colonialism, and greed. And make no mistake, those sentiments are all alive and well in the modern world and they have new faces, new names, and new leaders.

Christians should be reading Dante to better understand Jesus. 

Now, if you are not a Christian, don’t worry, you’re coming next. This is section is strictly for those who claim some kind of Christianity. 

Dante set his Comedy during the events of Holy Week–the most sacred time of the Christian year. Reading it in the same setting, should be something every Christian at least attempts. We should, during the entire year, evaluate our lives for our faults and seek to correct them. It isn’t just because we want to become like Jesus, it’s so we can better understand him. 

We can only better understand who Jesus is and what he has done for us when we understand ourselves in all of our weak, pathetic glory. Which means when we look on the damned in Inferno, we’re looking on what could have been. And what still could be, if we don’t take our faith seriously. 

But we also have to understand that our story, and indeed our “tribe” goes beyond the living. It’s not popular among non-Catholics, but understanding the role of the departed in our walk is also crucial to understanding Jesus’ work on the cross. He not only gave us himself, he gave us an entire family of people who are continually praying for us in Paradise. 

Dante’s regains his path, not because of anything he does, but because others pray for him and send help to him. He’s not alone. He has the hosts of heaven looking out for him and praying for him. Now, if you are in a dark place alone, that is a thought beyond price. 

Not a Christian? You have a blueprint of what to look for. 

Even if you don’t seek Jesus directly, or even believe in him, you are at least given a blueprint of what to seek. The order of the sins in Inferno and Purgatorio are lessons in themselves of what every human being should seek to correct and why. 

The people Virgil meets also should encourage you in who you should look for in your circle. 

Virgil isn’t among the blessed, but he has a limited goodness of his own that we should all want. He doesn’t once abandon Dante, or deny him the delights of Paradise even though he cannot go there himself. Beatrice stays with him, and loves him enough to call him out on all of his failings–but only when he is finally ready to hear them. 

The Empyrean, where God sits in glory, may not be something you believe in, but it should at least encourage you to see the ultimate and highest good beyond what you can possibly imagine. But, like a Christian, you cannot get there until you have first gone through the entire process of getting rid of the other faults first. 

What you will need over the next week, if you want to take the journey for yourself. 

  1. A copy of The Divine Comedy. If you can get the Dorothy Sayers’ translation, I highly recommend you get yourself several copies of it. Whatever translation you do get, make sure it is both poetic and understandable for you. However, if that is not available to you, then find a translation which has enough notes to provide you with enough background information without being unreadable. 
  2. Annotation supplies and a journal. My favorite is a mechanical pencil. Nothing more. 
  3. A clear mind. Remove yourself from your presuppositions for a moment. Leave the modern world behind with all of its issues as much as you can. For the purposes of this journey, you are a rational, reasoning human being. And nothing else. Not a man, not a woman, not whatever gendered pronoun you think you are. You are nothing but a body, a soul, and a mind seeking for yourself and unencumbered by categories or external factors. 
  4. A copy of the timelines. I’m working on these right now, and the link will be available on the My Links page sometime tomorrow. 
  5. The Spotify playlists I put together just for this week!

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