illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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What motivated Dante to write The Divine Comedy?

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In addition to personal and practical motivations, Dante had an instructional purpose for writing The Divine Comedy. He wanted to provide lessons to readers about living ethically and following God’s law. The Divine Comedy is an epic poem about people going to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory after they die. Dante uses this idea to voice strong views about right and wrong, and the consequences of one’s actions.

Consider other figures Dante meets throughout The Divine Comedy. Think about what landed them in Hell or earned them a place in Heaven. Draw a conclusion about what this fate may have said to the reader about their own life: could the reader learn about how to best live their life according to Dante’s system of reward and punishment?

Be certain to use examples from the text. If your translation of The Divine Comedy is annotated, it should tell you more about the people Dante encounters on his journey. Otherwise, you can research these names online (but make sure you use a reputable source and credit it as needed). Which historical figures end up in Hell or Heaven? What did they do to get there? Remember that the character of Dante actually meets people that Dante knew in real life. For example, Filippo Argenti was a member of a rival political party in Florence. In Dante’s story, Argenti is among the wrathful in Hell. Dante placing his rival in Hell tells us about Dante’s own politics but also serves as a warning to readers who might have supported the “wrong side.”

In addition to the story itself, think about the beautiful language Dante uses to draw in the audience or the powerful imagery he uses to emphasize his points. For example, one of the first sights in Hell is the angels who refused to pick a side in the war between God and Satan. They run in a circle being attacked by insects for all of eternity. It’s an ironic and brutal punishment that tells the reader what Dante thinks about cowardly indecisiveness in the face of important struggles. The Divine Comedy is filled with such examples, and nearly all of these examples have some moral behind them.

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When Dante began writing The Divine Comedy he felt he'd reached a crossroads in his life. As a devout Christian in the middle years of his life, he was profoundly concerned about his personal salvation. One could look at The Divine Comedy as Dante's way of working out his own salvation, of confronting the numerous spiritual challenges that he faced.

Many of Dante's contemporaries will have understood his concerns. They will have attempted to deal with their own salvation through going on pilgrimages, performing acts of penance, founding religious institutions, and so on. But as a great poet, Dante's method was rather different: he would write an epic poem, one of the very greatest, that would stand comparison with the immortal works of Homer and Virgil. Along with its immense literary value, The Divine Comedy would allow Dante to work out his personal salvation while also lighting the way for others to follow.

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As the opening line of the poem indicates, the poet is "midway in the journey of his life" at age 35 and has lost his sense of direction. He doesn't know who he is anymore and is looking for divine guidance. He feels as if he is in a dark woods and can't find the route back to salvation. The poem emerges from the question "who am I?" which is answered as, with Virgil and Beatrice as guides, the narrator tours hell, purgatory and heaven. At the end, he shares his wisdom with the world: his soul has becomed aligned with God's love, as should all our souls.

Another, more pragmatic motivation, aside from dealing with questions of identity and salvation, was exile: Dante opposed a group in Florence called the Black Guelphs, and ended up banished, which is sometimes how great books get written. Because he could not participate in politics, he had time to devote to this magnus opus. 

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Since the poem is such a multi-faceted work, there are several answers to this question.  First, as a great artist, Dante reflects the ideas, concerns, and attitudes of his time; The Divine Comedy is no less than a summation of the medieval European mind.

In a letter he wrote to his patron, Dante states that his goal was to lead his readers from the state of misery to the state of happiness.  In other words, the poem is supposed to teach the reader.

Finally, Beatrice is a major figure in the poem.  At the end of his poetic autobiography called La Vita Nuova, Dante says that he intends to write of Beatrice "that which has not ever been said of another."  So, in addition to being a religious, philosophical, and political poem, The Divine Comedy is an astonishing love poem.   

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