The Odd Brilliance of Dante’s Epic Poem, The
An Earth Manifesto publication by Dr. Tiffany B. Twain
was one of the greatest epic poets in world history. He lived more that 700 years ago in
Italy. He created the extraordinarily
imaginative tale, The Divine Comedy, while
he was in exile from Firenze (Florence), his beautiful hometown. A fascinating history of political intrigue
had caused Dante to be sentenced to death in the year 1302 if he
ever stepped foot in the city again.
city council of Firenze approved a motion in 2008 to revoke this sentence of
exile. One might wonder why more than
700 years had elapsed before the city council finally gave this recognition to
its native son for his great contributions to literature and philosophy. Dante’s exile from his home town had caused
him great anguish and hardship, and he never saw his wife, children or
possessions again. He spent the last
twenty years of his life in various other towns in Italy, writing furiously in The
Divine Comedy about his imaginative conceptions of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Yes, those mythical places that some religious folks in the U.S.
still literally believe in, Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.
Oddly enough, the motion of the city council of Firenze in 2008
was approved by a vote of 19 to 5. One
might wonder exactly what the 5 people were thinking in their opposition! It seems that there is always some
antagonistic element that opposes every idea;
Why, there are even Americans who are against apple pie!
The Divine Comedy is a great allegory of good and evil. The action in The Divine Comedy is primarily
about Dante’s encounters and conversations with historic personages on an
eventful journey. In this epic,
according to the New World Encyclopedia, “Dante establishes a dialogue with the
past in a way never before realized, and leads the way into a future that would
become the Renaissance -- literally, the rebirth -- of European culture, a
recapturing and ‘baptizing’ of its Hellenic past.”
Just the thought of this
influential old masterpiece makes one wishful for a new modern day update of
all the characters who have lived in the last 700 years and gone on to an
afterlife in the hot place due to their transgressions of self-indulgence, abuses of power, violence or
malice. I would be quite curious to find out which persons may have more commendably made it into the seven terraces of Purgatorio -- and to find out about the eminences who have gotten
into any of the nine celestial spheres of Paradisio.
Being so inspired, I yearn instead to create a modern treatise that might
be effective in transforming our current day economic, political, social, moral
and environmental mess into a more auspicious future for us all, so as to
increase the number of folks who deserve to go to the good place and to
decrease the number of reprobates and exploiters deserving of an eternal destiny
in the bad place.
An exploration of Dante’s extraordinary story in The Divine Comedy can be a revealing undertaking. A review is undertaken below. Knowing that an author’s
writings can be best understood in the context of their own personal experiences,
and of the events of the times in which they lived, I will begin with a summary
of Dante’s eventful personal history and motivating drives.
Dante’s Life, and How He Came To His Perspectives
As a boy, Dante loved Firenze.
When he was nine years old, he fell madly in love at first sight, from
afar, with an eight-year-old girl named Beatrice who became a kind of
courtly-love inspiration for his poetry and philosophy for the rest of his
life. At the moment he
first glimpsed Beatrice, he regarded her as ineffably lovely and sublime. He wrote (as related in Inspiration,
Imagination, and the Deep Well of Human Impulses):
“The moment I saw
her, I say in all truth that the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost
depths of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt the vibrations
alarmingly in all my pulses, … As it trembled, it uttered these words
<Behold a goddess more powerful than I, who comes to rule over me> … From
then on indeed Love ruled over my soul …”
Dante and Beatrice never got together, but he occasionally glimpsed her
in Firenze and always felt a passionate sense of inspiration toward her. “Courtly love” was an idealized and
romanticized kind of relationship during feudal times that was modeled on noble
love relationships between an aspiring knight and a high lady of the
court. The courtly love relationship typically was not between husband and
wife because it was an idealized sort of platonic affair that could
not exist within the context of real life medieval marriages. Courtly love laudably sang of the nobility of
the feminine, which is an attitude I personally extol and appreciate.
When Dante were only 25 years old, Beatrice died. Dante was utterly disconsolate at the loss of
this muse that he had elevated to a high pedestal, so he devoted himself to
philosophical studies at religious schools in Firenze. He was known to have read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. This fact sends me back to Mnemosyne,
the mother of the Muses, and a
memory of reminiscences in Comprehensive
“Treachery had reduced
Boethius from a position of power and wealth to that of a condemned prisoner in
524 CE. A vision of Lady Philosophy came
to him in prison that embodied true wisdom and compassion. Lady
Philosophy provided consolation to Boethius, and he realized that happiness
comes from within. He observed: ‘Understanding of the self only arises in relationship, in watching
yourself in relationship to people, ideas, and things; to trees, the earth, and the world around you
and within you. Relationship is the
mirror in which the self is revealed.
Without self-knowledge there is no basis for right thought and action.’”
Dante had experienced his own feelings of being a victim of
treachery. He took part in disputes of
the times between Franciscans and Dominicans, two religious factions that were
involved in struggles between mystical beliefs, as represented by Saint
Bonaventure, and those who believed that reason should be paramount, as
embodied in the ideas of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The following two paragraphs are a parenthetical sidebar for background
Franciscan Order was founded in the 13th century by Saint Francis, who, in a
vision, felt he had been charged by God to rebuild the Church. Franciscans are typically characterized by
living lives of simplicity, penance, poverty and expressions of love for the
poor. Franciscan communities tend to
emphasize contemplative and apostolic pursuits, as the Capuchin Sisters of
The Dominican Order is known as the "Order of
Preachers". It was founded by Saint
Dominic, also in the early 13th century.
Dominic saw a need for greater education and engagement in intellectual
society. The “charism” of the Dominicans
– that is, the “distinct spirit that animates a religious
community and gives it a particular character” -- has its primary focus on preaching and
teaching, with a goal of converting souls.
Today, this apostolic spirit has adapted itself most notably to
education and catechisms of the young, so it’s common to find Dominicans in
schools as teachers and professors.
Dante’s particular inspiration came not only from his courtly-love
admiration for his muse Beatrice, but also from powerful political passions
that had been stoked by abuses of power by Pope Boniface VIII. Dante had been permanently exiled from
Firenze because he sided with a political faction that had fallen out of favor,
and he became bitter and desperately angry, and all but suicidal, because of
the extreme inequity of this harsh punishment.
He achieved a catharsis through the process of writing The Divine Comedy, and this impressive act
of creativity is said to have saved his life.
Here is how his exile came about.
A protracted conflict had been taking place between Guelphs and Ghibellines
in early Medieval Italy. The Guelphs
were a political alliance that supported religious authorities and the Pope,
and they were involved in a complex opposition to the imperial party, the
Ghibellines, who backed the Holy Roman Emperor.
The Holy Roman Empire
existed from 962 CE until 1806 in Central Europe, and the territory of the
empire was centered in the Kingdom of Germany.
This struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines can be accurately
understood as having been a conflict between the “church party” and the
“imperial party”, but the strife was actually in many instances simply a
manifestation of local rivalries between different city-states in Italy at the
time. Today in the United States, one
might note, the church party and the imperial party have united together into
one party -- the Republican Party -- and the supporters of this Party primarily
oppose the fair-minded ideals of the Democratic Party, an organization that
supposedly has its basic concern with the best interests of the majority of the
“Broadly speaking,” Wikipedia informs, “Guelphs tended to come from
wealthy mercantile families, whereas Ghibellines were predominantly those whose
wealth was based on agricultural estates.”
The conflicts basically pitted merchants against the aristocracy. A villainous act of treachery by a Florentine
man by the name of Bocca degli Villani helped the Ghibelline factions from
Siena to emerge victorious over Guelphs from Firenze in the Battle of
Montaperti in the year 1260, before Dante was born. Dante was later to relegate Bocca degli
Villani to the worst and lowest place in Hell, where Dante imagined
cold-hearted traitors to be consigned after they died.
Some years later, in 1289, the opposite outcome was achieved when Guelphs
from Firenze defeated Ghibellines from Siena at a battle in the Tuscan
countryside near Campaldino. Dante
himself, 24 years old at the time, was one of the combatants on the Guelph side
in this battle. After the victory, the
Guelphs divided into two factions who then fought among themselves: the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Dante’s father was a White Guelph. Severe civic disturbances resulted, with many
unintended consequences; one of these
was that Dante, as a member of the White Guelphs who were opposed to the
overweening power of the Pope, was exiled from Firenze for the rest of his
life. This was a terrible hardship for
him, as he desperately missed his wife, children, possessions and former
The Black Guelphs supported the Pope.
The White Guelphs were particularly opposed to the abuses of power by
Pope Boniface VIII, who Dante later placed in the eighth circle of Hell along
with those who practiced “simony”, a form of clergical malfeasance in which
religious authorities sold positions of power and trafficked for money in
spiritual matters. Pope Boniface VIII
had proclaimed that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human
creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.”
He basically claimed that the popes were the final authority over both
the church and the state. He arrogantly
stated: “God has set popes over kings and kingdoms.”
When men speak
for God and proclaim doctrines that appear nakedly self-serving or narrowly
biased or harshly discriminatory, it seems to me that it should cast suspicion
on their motives, and discredit and disgrace their doctrines. Another of the reasons
that Dante put Pope Boniface VIII in
one of the worst levels of Hell may have been that the scheming Pope conspired
to get his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, to abdicate his position in 1294, and
then after getting himself elected Pope, one of his first acts as pontiff was to throw his
predecessor in prison for the remainder of his life.
In a weak defense of Pope Boniface VIII, however, he did come up with one
clever and somewhat fair-minded plan. He
offered a full pardon for all sinners on a “Jubilee” that he declared for the
entire year of 1300. There were two
specific conditions for such Jubilee pardons:
(1) a sinner must confess his or her sins, and (2) the sinner must visit
the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome once a day for a whole month,
if they were Roman inhabitants, or once a day for fifteen days if they were
strangers to Rome. This was a brilliant
plan because the original Jubilee in 1300 saw an average of 200,000 pilgrims a
day in Rome for most of the year, so it was a windfall for the material benefit
of the not wholly holy city. Rome had
never received such crowds before, and the economic stimulus was no doubt
heartening to the local merchants -- and materially beneficial for the coffers
of the Church.
It is noteworthy that Pope Boniface VIII had originally intended
that a Jubilee of forgiveness would be held every 100 years, but it was so
popular that another was held in the year 1350, and every 25 years ever since,
more or less. The last Jubilee was held
in the year 2000, when conditions were liberalized for getting “indulgences”,
although it has always required confession, Communion, prayer for the Pope, and
freedom from all attachment to sin. (Prayer for the Pope, of all the possible
top priorities for salvation!)
These remissions of the penalties of sin have been a big source of profit
to the church -- and a significant source of scandal. An “indulgence”, curiously, was a remission
of all the penalties for sin, but NOT of the guilt of the sin itself, which God
would deal with, presumably with harsh vengeance, once the sinner has died.
Firenze in those days had become a place that had “lost its way, a
society that had sacrificed the good of the community to the interests of the
most powerful individuals.” This incisive
observation has resonance for us today due to widespread abuses of power, and it
reminds me of Mark Twain’s laconic remark, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Remember, in pondering the implications of these unfolding events in
Dante’s life, that religious establishments throughout history have always been
extremely undemocratic institutions. The
Pope is chosen, for example, by a group of very conservative old men -- the 115
to 120 conservative Catholic cardinals around the world.
Corporations in modern times are likewise highly undemocratic
institutions. They have oft
narrowly-focused goals, and they sometimes wield the power of their influence
even more ruthlessly than religious establishments. Since only governments have a semblance of
being democratic, among the primary institutions that affect our lives, this
understanding makes the fairness principles at the heart of democracy eminently
laudable. This way of seeing society
should parenthetically give us strength to resist the threats posed by abuses
of power by either corporations or churches.
These observations are the reason that a separation of church and state
is so crucial for fairness, social justice, and peaceful coexistence in the
world today. Also, a greater
independence of government from powerful business entities and the domineering
influence of wealthy people and church authorities is needed to bring greater
good goals into being. That’s my
The Divine Comedy - Particulars
One reason that The Divine Comedy is often regarded as the greatest epic poem in
world history is because of its complexity and grand scope. It is a tale of an allegorical journey that
is couched in medieval Christian theology, and it is also an exploration of
broader mystical, spiritual, psychological, philosophical and moral
themes. In addition, Dante used
remarkable symbolism in his story and made extensive references to famous personages
from historical times as well as his own contemporary day.
The poem’s 3 parts each consisted of 33 Cantos, and each Canto was
written in 3-line stanzas, and every line of every Canto contained 11 syllables
in its original Italian language. That is some complex haiku! Try to imagine how these constraints that
Dante imposed on his writings in The
Divine Comedy must have influenced the expression of his imaginative
ideas. Just try to write a single stanza that expresses something
meaningful using such constraints, and you’ll achieve a better appreciation of
the brilliance of this artistic accomplishment.
During medieval times, numbers held symbolic
significance. The number 3 was a symbol
of the Holy Trinity. Dante divided Inferno into three divisions, as
signified by a she-wolf that represented self-indulgence, a lion that
represented ambition and violence, and a leopard that represented fraud.
I personally find The Divine Comedy to be much more sophisticated than the astonishingly successful classic
by John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
from This World to That Which Is To Come. Like Dante, John Bunyan had
become burdened by terrible woes in his life.
As related in Inspiration,
Imagination, and the Deep Well of Human Impulses,
… he had become convinced that
all men are destined to eternal damnation unless they pursue a straight and
narrow path to salvation. He trembled,
and lamented, and became obsessed with the question, “What shall I do to be
This crisis eventually prompted John Bunyan to
create the thinly allegorical character Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian
was a man who was so mentally burdened by literal beliefs in terrible Biblical
teachings of sin and eternal damnation that he abandoned his family in a gamble
for the illusory goals of glory and eternal life. To abandon your family in such a gamble seems
to me to be “unconscionably irresponsible!”
My literary hero Mark Twain himself had strived to piggyback his book on
the shoulders of Bunyan’s classic by naming the best-selling of his works
during his lifetime The Innocent’s
Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.
Mark Twain, being a clever purveyor of sardonic humor, would have
appreciated Voltaire’s comment about Dante when he wrote that Dante’s fame was secure because
nobody reads him! Admittedly, Dante’s
story is conveyed in abstruse language and obscure references, but a study of The Divine Comedy can yield valuable
insights for people in their lives.
Dante’s magnum opus begins with the line, ”In the middle of the journey
of our life, I awoke within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” On
the evening of Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante had imagined himself in this
dark forbidding forest, fearful and unable to find his way out, and driven to
depths of despair and discouragement.
salvation but couldn’t find the way and was at the end of hope when he
encountered the ghost of Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who epitomized the
veritable voice of reason. Virgil claims
to have been sent to Dante by his muse Beatrice to guide him through Hell and
Purgatory. She herself could not come to
guide him because she was in Paradiso,
and was thus much too pure to be sullied by descending to the depths where he
needed to go on his journey of salvation.
Dante finds many persons from earlier in
history in Inferno, where those who
tried to justify their active sins were sent because they were
unrepentant. Others who admitted their
sins of intention and asked for forgiveness while they were alive were allowed
to avoid Hell and go on to Purgatorio. Dante’s allegory assumes a Christian
perspective of sin as worldly vice, so it is fascinating to understand that the
word “sin” is actually derived from a linguistic root in archery that meant,
“to miss the mark.” This meaning of the
word sin is less judgmental than conventional understandings, so it can point
us to an evaluation of how each of us may be missing the mark in our own lives,
and how our cultures determine what marks are to be regarded as virtue or vice,
righteous or sinful.
Virgil as his guide, the two seekers approach Inferno. Before entering the
vestibule of Hell, Dante and Virgil see the souls of the Uncommitted, the
people who did nothing in their lives that was either good or evil. These are outcasts who took no side in moral
conflicts, and instead eternally pursued a banner of self-interest, so they are
condemned to be constantly pursued and eaten by insects. This punishment of these souls involves them
being mercilessly stung by their conscience and eaten by spiritual
Wailing and blasphemy of damned souls
accompanies Dante on his journey in Inferno,
in contrast to the joyful and hopeful singing of the blessed souls who arrive
in Purgatorio on their journeys of redemption. Dante envisions the circles of Hell as
concentric, descending in gradual worsening states of wickedness through nine
levels that finally culminate at the center of the Earth where Satan is held in
bondage. In each circle, Dante imagines
sins to be punished with appropriately symbolic instances of divine vengeance
and poetic justice.
When Dante and Virgil enter the gates of
Hell to travel through its nine circles, they are assailed by three frightening
beasts they cannot evade: the she-wolf, the lion, and the leopard. Dante used these three beasts to symbolize
three types of sins: the self-indulgent
ones, the brutally ambitious ones, and the maliciously fraudulent ones. The first five Circles of Upper Hell that
Dante imagined were for those whose sins are self-indulgent; Circles 6 and 7 were for worser sins, the
violent ones; and Circles 8 and 9 were
for the worst sins, the malicious ones.
The first Circle of Hell is Limbo. This is where Dante consigns unbaptized
people and “pagans” who lived before Christianity was invented, and so could
not possibly have been faithful believers in the LORD God to come. Here Dante finds some of the world’s greatest
heroes and thinkers, and the most creative minds of ancient Greece and Rome,
including the classical poets Homer, Horace and Ovid and the philosophers
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Dante
envisioned Limbo as a rather admirable place, with lots of calm philosophic
discussions going on.
Since Christian eschatology expects every
person to conform to its dogmas and doctrines, those who have not accepted the
Christian Creation story are damned to this Limbo region of Hell-lite, which is
similar to Asphodel Meadows in Greek mythology.
Everyone who lived before the New Testament of the Bible was written had
to be relegated to Limbo because they could hardly have chosen to accept Jesus
Christ into their lives before Jesus even existed!
the second circle of Hell as a place for those who yielded to lust during their
lives, and who let their carnal appetites sway their reason. These sinners are blown about by terrible
winds with no hope of rest. Dante put
the famous lovers Paolo and Francesca, who were the models for Rodin’s
beautiful sculpture The Kiss, in this
part of Hell for their adultery-besmirched love affair.
the third circle of Hell as a place where those who indulged in gluttony during
their lives were forced to wallow in a vile slush. Those who surrendered to cold-hearted
selfishness, and who indulged in “empty sensuality”, resided in this third
circle of Hell.
Dante describes the
fourth circle of Hell as a place where two categories of people are found. The first were those who manifested
avaricious and miserly propensities, and hoarded possessions during their lives. Many clergymen, popes and cardinals fell into
this group. The second type in the 4th
circle were the “prodigal” wasters, who squandered material goods and
resources. These two groups form a
struggling multitude that jousted and cried out at each other: “Why do you hoard?” and “Why do you
squander?” (In today’s materialistic
times, we have developed a mindless insouciance toward wasting resources, but
this obtuse attitude may well prove to be a fateful form of reckless folly.)
In Canto VII, Dante examined these misers and
prodigals -- scrimping cheapskates on one side and wild spenders on the
other. “Useless saving, and useless
spending, robbed them of their time … Men may brawl and swindle their way into
Lady Fortune’s favors, but she deceives them.
Not all the gold that is, or ever was, could buy any of these exhausted
wretches a single moment’s rest.”
The fifth circle
of Hell is for those who wreak their wrath on others. Sullen and angry people in this part of Hell
lie gurgling beneath the surface of swamp-like waters of the mythical river
Styx, withdrawn “into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or
As they cross the
river Styx, Dante and Virgil approach the city of Dis and the sixth circle of
Hell, where heretics are consigned.
These souls are trapped in flaming tombs. Even the commendable Greek philosopher
Epicurus is found there, for his supposedly heinous sin of having expressed the
opinion that the soul dies with the body.
That is a belief that apparently contradicts one of God’s central
doctrines of the existence of an immortal soul, and is thus a hellishly evil
thing to profess.
Dante and Virgil
next entered Lower Hell where violent and malicious sins are punished. Foul-smelling, the seventh circle of Hell is a
place for violent people. It is divided
into three rings: an Outer ring for
those who perpetrate violence against property and other people, and are
immersed in a river of boiling blood and fire as punishment; a Middle ring, for “profligates” who
destroyed their own lives, and people who committed suicide; and a Lower ring for those who purportedly perpetrate
violence against God directly through blasphemy, and those who commit violence
against nature through acts of sodomy, and money lenders and usurers who
exploit other people. I encourage some
of today’s “conservative” evangelical Christians to clarify the reasons for
this odd ordering!
In the last two
circles of Hell, people whose sins involve conscious fraud or treachery are
punished. These people are judged as the
very worst sinners on Earth because they are guilty of deliberate, coldhearted
and intentional acts of treacherous evil.
The eighth circle
of Hell has an assemblage of people in it who have exploited others by
committing various kinds of fraud. This
circle of Hell includes a wide variety of people like panderers, seducers,
flatterers, false profits, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves and
deceiving manipulators. This place
includes people who sowed discord, like Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the
Islamic prophet Muhammad who caused the dangerous and violent schism between
Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Ali and
his descendants have been responsible for great grief in the world, and it
seems to be spiraling out of control in the Middle East in the year 2015 with
wars in Syria and Yemen. The eighth
circle of Hell is also the destiny of those who commit “simony”, the form of materialistic trafficking for money
in spiritual matters that involves the sale of religious offices, positions,
perks and power.
Dante called the
eighth circle of Hell “Malebolge” (“evil ditches”). Malebolge is envisioned as a funnel-shaped
cavern divided into ten concentric circular trenches, called bolgia. At the center of the Malebolge is the ninth
and final circle of hell. Dante and his
guide Virgil make their way into Malebolge riding on the back of the monster
Geryon, a personification of fraud.
Geryon possessed the smiling face of an honest man “good of cheer”, but
had a sinisterly sinuous body and the tail of a deadly scorpion. Just for fun, imagine a handsome dissembler
like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan pulling a reverse Ronald Reagan and becoming
actors to play the role of Geryon in a new Divine
The ninth circle
of Hell is reserved for traitors, the most outrageous sinners of all. The 9th circle is not a seething hot
cauldron. No, it is aptly a frozen lake
of ice called Cocytus. The source of
water in the lake is the tears of a statue of the Old Man of Crete, which symbolized
the sins of humanity. Cocytus is divided
into four descending rounds for different degrees of the sins of treachery that
correspond, in their order of seriousness, to betrayal of family ties, betrayal
of community and country ties, betrayal of the trust of guests, and betrayal of
benefactors. I can visualize the Old Man
of Crete crying in sadness and chagrin at the woes wreaked on the populace by
those who abuse power for nefarious purposes.
Tyranny, after all, sucks! Let’s
liberate ourselves -- and let democratic fair-mindedness, honorable Golden Rule
principles, and future-respecting factions prevail.
If any capitalists today act as traitors to
the people who help enable them to get rich, they are thus acting in ways that
Dante would have seen as deserving of the very worst of all the levels of
Hell. Since actions reveal far more than words, people like
Mitt Romney who have always shown a much greater concern for profits than
people would face a daunting future life in a hellishly hot eternity. “Dude, you may be going to Hell.” Ha! -- just kidding! (This quip was written when Mitt Romney was
running for President, and advocated slashing tax rates on rich people like
Dante imagines in The Divine Comedy that those who tried to justify their sins and
are unrepentant will go to Hell, while those who admitted their sins and asked
for forgiveness while they were alive were entitled to go to Purgatorio, where they would at least
have a chance to achieve redemption.
Satan is found at
the very center of Hell. He had been
condemned for having committed the ultimate sin: personal treachery against God. Yep, that’s the very worst sin there is. Dante imagined Satan as having three
faces. Each face had a mouth that is
chewing on a prominent traitor like Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ,
or Brutus and Cassius, who took part in the assassination of Julius Caesar in
the Roman Senate. The mouths chew their victims, constantly tearing the traitors
to pieces but never killing them. A real
lovely tale, that.
Finally Dante and
Virgil entered a hidden road to return to the bright world, “And without care
of having any rest … we came forth to rebehold the stars.”
Having survived the depths of Hell and ascended out of the gloomy
underworld, Dante sought to discover how a penitent soul can convert itself
“from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace”. He arrived, still guided by Virgil, to
explore Purgatorio on Easter
Sunday. On the lower slopes of the Mount
of Purgatory, an area is found where seekers of penitence must wait a long
period of time if they have been excommunicated by Church authorities for some act
considered egregious, or if they merely repented at the last minute before they
died. Church authorities vastly prefer
people to toe the line throughout their lives, and not just convert at the last
minute in case there actually may be an eternal life in a terrible hot place
for everyone who does not sincerely profess belief to attain everlasting bliss.
The angel at the gate of Purgatory uses two keys to admit pilgrims on
their journey; one is silver,
representing remorse, and the other is gold, representing reconciliation. These are the two qualities that were
regarded as necessary for salvation and redemption. I regret;
Dante and Virgil
then ascended up through the seven roots of sinfulness in Purgatorio, These sins were
seen to be “more psychological” than the sins in the Inferno.
Sins that are being absolved in Purgatorio
are based on sinful motives rather than on the sinful actions
of people who were consigned to Hell. The seven sins in Purgatorio arise from some
type of distorted love like perverted love that harms others or a wide variety
of kinds of deficient love, or the excessive or disordered love of good things
like wine, women and the wrong kind of song.
Purgatorio, the second part of Dante’s great allegorical poem,
tells the story of Dante climbing up a mountain from Ante-Purgatory at the
bottom through seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth beneath the
summit of Earthly Paradise. The seven
terraces of Purgatorio represent the “seven deadly sins” -- pride, envy, wrathfulness, sloth,
covetousness, gluttony, and lustfulness.
Dante had described Hell as existing underneath Jerusalem, and as having
been created by the impact of Satan’s terrible fall. The Mount of Purgatory lies on the exact
opposite side of the world, in the Southern Hemisphere, and was created by a
displacement of rock caused by the reverberating shock-wave impacts of Satan’s
fall. Amazingly enough, Dante was
brilliant enough to have realized that the world was round, and to do so almost
two centuries before Christopher Columbus dared to sail toward what many people
reckoned was the edge of the flat Earth.
Even more interesting, Dante even anticipated, in the early 1300s, a
discovery that was made more than 600 years later in the 1960s, which suggested
that the impact of an enormous asteroid at the Chicxulub (“Chick-shoe-lube”) Crater site near the Yucatan Peninsula
some 65 million years ago was responsible for setting off a long series of volcanic eruptions at the antipodes
of the colossal impact on the opposite side of the planet. There, in the Deccan Traps area of present day India, almost
200,000 square miles of land is still covered as much as 6,000 feet deep with
igneous flood basalt.
When spiritual pilgrims ascended the Mount of Purgatory and prepared to
leave it, Dante imagined them becoming shipwrecked if they trusted only their
own intelligence and shrewd acumen.
Reason alone cannot teach us the full scope of virtuous action; love, too, must be allowed to provide its
valued guidance. When a person is
shipwrecked, they require reconnection, community and a degree of grace. Remember, the gates of Hell are wide open,
but to enter the gates of Purgatory the keys of repentance and reconciliation
are needed. Right and wrong go walking
together in Purgatory.
Let the story of the life of St. Francis of Assisi inform this
essay. During his youth, Francis was a
dandy in dress and he was popular, handsome and musically talented, and he even
presided over the Dionysian Saturnalia in Rome as a kind of master of
ceremonies. This wild celebration was
such a debaucherous indulgence and involved such scandalous revelry in those
days that the Roman authorities decided to crack down harshly on the
festivities. The Vatican today, I
reflect, may want to investigate the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock
Desert of Nevada for any similar outrages to propriety and decorum.
Circumstances have a way of humbling the fortunate as well as
the unfortunate, and some profound humiliations rudely interrupted the privileged
life Francis had been leading. Mortified
by some real embarrassing experiences in his involvements with the Crusades, he
began hearing voices that told him to be a warrior for God and to renounce the
pursuit of wealth, status and material things.
So he sought solace in nature and made a vow of poverty, and preached to
birds, and eventually became the honorable saint of the natural world and
wildlife. Bravo! for that, no matter how
dark the woods had become or how lost he felt before being inspired to achieve
some transcendent good. Purgatorio done
At last, having completed his journey through Purgatorio, Dante passes through an immense wall of flame at the far end of the
terrace of the lustful, and he finally meets his enchanting muse Beatrice in Paradiso. She then guides him through the River Lethe,
which erases the memories of past sins, and he finally drinks from the River Eunoë that restores good memories, and he is pure and prepared for his ascent to Heaven and his “climb unto the
Divine Comedy was a comedy in a classic sense: it concerned everyday subjects rather than
more tragic affairs, and it had a happy ending.
Perhaps I should rename the Earth Manifesto The Earthly Comedy! This
modern Comedy has an auspicious happy ending, despite the travails that it
considers in transit, because it proposes many positive ways forward that could
have truly far-reaching and transformationally auspicious impacts on the future
well-being of humankind.
In the realm of ancient Rome, Fortuna (Lady
Fortune) was the goddess of fortune and the veritable personification of
luck. Lady Fortune figuratively smiles
and frowns on each of us, and since every person born will eventually die, the
ultimate criteria for a happy ending can only be one in which we all leave the
world a better place by our character and actions to make a positive
difference. Even illustrious people can
fall to ruin, as was shown by Dante’s disastrous personal life after he was
exiled from his beloved hometown.
Empathy and compassion are among the most honorable human principles,
and people who exhibit a jealously entitled sense of mean-spirited and
exclusive deservedness are of a much lower moral realm.
“I bemoan the wounds of
Fortune with weeping eyes, for the gifts she made me she perversely takes
away. The wheel of Fortune turns; I go down, demeaned; another is raised up; far too high up sits the king at the summit
-- let him fear ruin!”
--- Carl Orff’s operatic Carmina
Understanding that Lady Fortune can being both
good luck and bad, Christian philosophy explained random and often ruinous
turns of Fortune’s Wheel as being both inevitable and providential, because
they are a part of “God’s hidden plan.”
I myself doubt this, and imagine that God would be much too busy to
concoct each of our individual fates at every moment.
I believe, in contrast, that each of us has some
degree of free will, and that we should all work together to remake our
societies so that they will be fairer for all -- especially those of our heirs
in future generations, who we are harming by our obliviousness when we “miss
the mark” with our unchristian acts and ecological shortsightedness.
Dr. Tiffany B. Twain
September 21, 2015 (first published on
December 12, 2012, and revised several times since)