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The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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What types of love does Dante focus on in the Divine Comedy, and how does he structure the story around them?

Quick answer:

The main theme of the poem is Divine Love. The poem has been structured in such a way that Dante encounters examples of earthly love throughout the epic journey. This question asked about how Dante's concept of love was different from that of Aristotle, but it isn't clear what the questioner is referring to. If he means that Dante's conception of love is different from Aristotle's because Dante believes that God made himself known in human form, then it should be noted that this is not a particularly unique idea for a medieval Christian poet. Moreover, if he means something else by his question, then he needs to specify his meaning more clearly.

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Dante's understanding of divine love was entirely in keeping with the prevailing theological and philosophical wisdom of the time. God's creation of the universe was regarded as a loving act, an outpouring of the divine love that God wanted so much to share with his creatures. The most important philosophical influence in Dante's time was Aristotle. Indeed, so widespread was Aristotle's influence on medieval thought that he was often referred to simply as "The Philosopher." Aristotle's concept of God was different in many respects from that of the God of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, it shared certain features which are particularly relevant to Dante's treatment of the subject.

For instance, Aristotle writes of love, or eros, as the primordial power that moves the world. Dante's understanding of divine love is much the same. For him, love is a sublime force that moves the heavens. But unlike Aristotle, Dante emphasizes the human dimension of God's original loving act. The love that moves the sun and other stars isn't simply some impersonal cosmic force; it is made manifest in human form, in hearts that yearn to be reconciled to their creator.

This cosmic love doesn't just provide the intellectual and religious background to The Divine Comedy; it also shapes the structure of the poem. Dante has embarked upon an epic journey, and on the various stages of that journey he's encountered various examples of the earthly love that often brings its devotees to grief. It's only at the very last stage of his journey, when he ascends to the Empyrean realm, that he finally comprehends a higher love, one that moves the sun and all the stars, and provides the underlying structure of the universe.

 

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Throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante returns to the theme of love. In considering this theme, I'd like to discuss the two kinds of love that Dante focuses on the most and structures his poetry around: human love (the kind of love shared between humans on earth) and divine love (God's love).

On the one hand, Dante devotes a lot of time to human love. After all, Dante is originally compelled to begin his journey for salvation by Beatrice, a woman Dante loved but who has since passed away and been changed into an angel. Much of Dante's desire to forge a new spiritual path comes from his love for Beatrice, and so we can see that Dante views human love as a powerful motivating, and often virtuous, force. That said, Dante does not present human love in an entirely positive light. For instance, in Hell Dante encounters Paolo and Francesca, two lovers whose passionate and adulterous romance led to their murders and subsequent suffering in the afterlife. Thus, if Dante shows the positive affects of human love, he is sure to also show its potential drawbacks. 

After human love, we come to divine love. While human love is important, Dante ultimately concludes that divine love transcends human love, as it is God's divine love and grace that allows humans to enter Heaven. Beatrice ultimately goes beyond human love and learns to depend on divine love, which in turn inspires Dante to do the same. As such, divine love becomes an important structural component to the poem, as it is one of the chief forces driving Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Moreover, unlike human love, divine love has no potential drawbacks, as its only offering is boundless salvation.   

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