… ma gia volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,
Si come rota ch’igualmente e mossa,
L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.
(Paradiso. xxxiii. 143-145)
Were he alive today, Dante Aligheri would rock social media, and not just because of his poetic brilliance. In truth, Dante was a proud—even at times arrogant—voluble, enlightened but often (by his own account) volatile Florentine who harbored—at least initially in the creation of his masterpiece—a rather robust penchant for revenge. Through his writings, Dante was willing to expose the prevalent hypocrisy (including his own) and the persistent abuse of authority in both secular and religious Florentine society. He wrote with a fierce determination to speak truth to power (after all, what other devout Catholic in the 14th century—or any century—would place a pope in hell?) and to expose malfeasance wheresoever it was found. One can only imagine his tweets from #therealdivinecomedy.
Dante’s greatest work was, of course, his ‘divine’ Commedia, and while there are many sources that inspired its composition, one of the most crucial was his own immediate environment. Dante looked at the world around him and was unhappy with what he saw or, at least, with what he perceived to have become the status quo: the apparent dissolution of social ethics and community responsibility, a languid relativism undermining common moral values and a pervasive ambivalence about intellectual and theological integrity. Sound familiar? It is intriguing, then, to consider what Dante would make of the current global pandemic and of the tested responses of responsible institutions, as well as of the reaction—from world leaders and from average people—that have ranged from the admirably effective to the abysmally ineffective. It goes without saying that Dante would be impressed by the valiant efforts of the medical professionals and other ‘frontline’ workers, the teachers, the mail carriers, the grocery clerks, the trash collectors and so many others. It is also clear that he would be disheartened (but perhaps not surprised?) by other behaviors that percolate through social media, such as the demands for exclusion, the threats of violence and the reckless dismissals of cautionary oversight. He likely would take to social media to call out the smugly self-absorbed, the hypocritical anger-mongers and the thoughtless betrayers of trust and of the truth.
Dante’s Commedia is commonly acknowledged to be one of the greatest treasures of western European literature and, like all literary artifacts, it lends itself to different interpretations. It is a narrative poem of an epic scale and a bountiful excursus of the world of late medieval Italy. It is a compendium of the robust interdisciplinarity of learning in the medieval world, connecting theology to classical literature to law to mythology to history to art to politics to science, and it is a study in poetic composition and astonishing versification. However, the Commedia is more than a cultural or literary or historical artifact: it is an examination of social ethics and individual dignity, and it is also a spiritual narration of universal relevance. It is true that for the (post) modern reader, the very structure of the poem into three cantica titled Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, might seem archaic, peculiar, even ludicrous, but that tripartite structure is an organizing principal that is meant to guide the reader through her/his own journey of self-reflection, self-awareness and self-assessment—a journey that must be completed to regain the connection to God (having strayed away midway through life) and one’s full humanity. Yet, that journey is never a singular enterprise, nor is it an occasion to celebrate exclusively the individual, paradoxical as that might seem.
Dante’s journey through the three ‘conditions of being’ follows a tri-level pathway of encounters with others: even Dante’s vision of God, while personal, was not achieved alone. The souls whom he meets along the excursion are those of individuals whose adjudicated placements are primarily the result of the kinds of relations they had with others: they loved others either not at all (and themselves too well), or too tepidly (and eventually realized their failing) or quite exquisitely (with the purity of agape). How we love each other—and therefore love God—is at the core of the Commedia. The multiple episodes of the ‘souls’ throughout the Commedia are the means by which Dante can address the brokenness of his world, a culture that seemed to him to be elevating love of self over love for others, and a love for material existence over a love of God. Dante chided his contemporaries (and himself) for the errors of the day: an escalating monetization of society, an increasing inward turn of both the intellect and the spirit, a rising interest in self-promotion at the cost of relational engagement and an intensifying disillusionment with shared ethical values.
Like Aquinas, Dante was a student of Aristotelian thinking (expanded with Pauline belief), and so he accepted the dictum that people are by nature relational and can realize the flourishing of their humanity in communion with each other: the common weal takes precedence over the desires of any one individual (see 1 Corinthians 12: 4-26). Dante likely would have regarded our current ‘cult’ of individualism, the fraught promise of the modern age, with grave concern, even condemnation, especially in a society that has the luxury to know better and the means to do well. His is a cautionary tale for our times.
Yet Dante was not without hope. His journey does not remain mired in inevitable damnation (Calvin is still two centuries away). Once Dante and Virgil emerge out of the darkness of the Inferno and begin the ascent of the purgatorial mountain, Dante encounters souls whom he can celebrate for their atonement, the souls of those who redirected their lives from sin (pride, envy, wrath, greed) to virtue (humility, compassion, patience, generosity), always with the help of others. No one can make the journey alone. The souls in Purgatorio did not just cease from sinning, they embraced active lives of virtuous behavior and reconnection to others (and, through others, to God). Yet Dante was also a resolute believer in free will, and so he also insists that we always have choice in how we live our lives, whether we choose the dark wood of fear and despair, self -pity and resentment, or the clear path of benevolence and joy, empathy and love.
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, literature and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.
…tanto ch’i’ vidi de la cose belle
che porta ‘l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stele.
(Inferno. xxxiv. 137-139)
1 Trans.: …my desire and will were already moved, like a wheel turned uniformly, by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
 Trans.: …until I saw, through a round opening, some of those things of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there that we emerged to see again the stars.