What changes in the concept of hero and saint emerge at the start of Romanticism, as can be seen in Dante? How do these changes in philosophical thought show development over time?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Romantic hero was a type of protagonist made popular during the Romantic era, which peaked from about 1800 to the 1850s. He was different from the typical hero before this era in that he was imperfect yet still a leader. According to literary critic Northrop Frye, the Romantic hero was always one that stood outside of the accepted structures of society ("Romantic Hero"). Instead of being influenced by society, the Romantic hero questions society's standards and is alienated by society. However, despite his alienation, he is able to lead society through his "acts of good[ness] and kindness" ("Byronic Hero: Definition, Characteristics & Examples").

The character named after Dante in The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri, is certainly an example of a Romantic hero. We see Dante's struggle against society symbolized in the fact that at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, Dante's character is "lost in a dark forest" and climbs up a mountain to try and find his way. Being lost in a dark forest symbolizes being lost among society's norms and Christian dogma. While Alighieri's work is never anti-religious, it certainly is anti-dogmatic and speaks against the norms of the clergy (eNotes, "Themes"). As Alighieri's character makes his way out of being lost in the forest and towards salvation, using Virgil and Beatrice as his guides, he has revelations about human nature and the consequences of sin. Alighieri especially exposes through his character that every sin is punished in proportion to the sin committed. Such a revelation would contradict the dogma of the Catholic Church who taught at that time that salvation can be bought through indulgences. Hence, the character of Dante represents a social outcast, like all Romantic heroes, because Dante reaches revelations that contradict the social norm represented by the Catholic Church. Alighieri's character also acts as a leader in the fact that he achieves salvation at the end through unity with God by realizing that the universe is in God. Hence, Alighieri's character realizes that so long as one aligns one's self with the universe through love and justice, then salvation can be achieved. Alighieri's revelation of how to achieve salvation shows that the character of Dante is also a leader, just like all Romantic heroes.

Similarly to the Romantic hero, the notion of sainthood also changed. The concept of sainthood was at one time more aligned with the Greek concept of a hero. According to Greek philosophy, literature, and mythology, a hero was understood as a superhuman, someone who is half god and half man capable of performing miracles. Such heroes courageously overcame any adversity for the "greater good of all humankind" ("Hero"). Hence, just like Jesus Christ, a saint was understood as being one who also courageously overcame adversity for the sake of greater good. However, just like the Romantic hero, a saint has also become understood as one who acts contrarily to social norms, is a social outcast, and yet acts as a leader through acts of goodness. We can best see this idea of a saint described in Paul's admonitions. For example, Paul encourages the church members of Philippi to do all things like blameless and innocent children, contrary to "crooked and perverse society." He also encourages them to be "as lights in the world," which would also make them stand out from the rest of society. Hence, all in all, he is telling the saints, meaning those who are sanctified by Christ, to do things contrary to society, thereby acting as an example to society through goodness, as we see in his lines:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world. (Philippians 2:14-15)

Hence, based on Paul's writings, we can see how the definition of a saint can be likened to the same definition of a Romantic hero, showing that the understanding of a saint changed from the earlier understanding of a Greek Hero.