The Divine Comedy Themes
The three main themes in The Divine Comedy are education and salvation, choices and consequences, and art and experience.
- Education and salvation: Dante—and, by extension, the reader—learns how to attain salvation on the journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise.
- Choices and consequences: Dante comes to understand that while God knows in advance what choices people will make, individuals must still choose how to act and face the consequences.
- Art and experience: The poem was intended to provide an example for readers, urging them to embrace salvation and, if necessary, change their lives.
Last Updated on January 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434
Dante’s work, while largely in keeping with fourteenth-century Catholic teachings, reveals the vision of an individual. For example, Dante’s tripartite division of the afterlife into hell, purgatory, and heaven follows standard dogma, but his depiction of purgatory as a soaring mountain in the southern hemisphere was his own invention. Dante is never anti-religion, although he is at times anti-clergy. He sometimes criticized religious leaders because he had a clear personal concept of the spiritual role of the church and the worldly role of the empire, each of which he saw as divinely ordained in its specific role.
Dante also had a clear concept of Christian ethics. In his work, he shows the tradition of courtly love as transcended by divine love. He also portrays love as the root cause of all human vices and virtues. Dante uses the idea of contrapasso (retribution) to provide the rationale for dealing with good and evil actions during life and finding everybody’s proper place in the afterlife. Every human deed receives a punishment or reward that is not only in proportion but also symbolically in kind. For example, the repentant sinners in purgatory walk through fire to burn away the earthly fire of lust. Dante uses the image of fire sparingly to keep it symbolically appropriate and to avoid glamorizing sin; he prefers to show the bone-chilling coldness of evil.
Salvation, according to Dante, can be achieved only through divine grace. Human reason may be enough to lead a virtuous life on earth (as in the case of the so-called virtuous pagans), but it alone cannot lead to salvation. Because humans have free will, salvation starts with human reason but depends on grace. Beatrice, by transcending human love for divine love, is a source of revelation for Dante, and by her acts, she makes divine grace accessible to him.
Dante imagines God as moving everything in the universe. His union with God reveals to him that, paradoxically, the universe is in God, taking the form of God’s thought, and because God is love and justice, the universe is also just, even if it is not fully understood by humans. The complex character of Dante’s union with God suggests that full understanding may not be necessary because the experience itself is joyful and puts him at peace with himself and God. Dante’s final union with God is, for a Christian, the most happy ending; therefore, his using the word “comedy” in the title of a tale that begins with sin makes sense because the story leads to the ultimate good news of salvation.
Last Updated on January 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1481
The Divine Comedy recounts the travels of Dante Alighieri’s alter ego and the reader's Everyman (a figure with whom every reader can relate) through three regions: hell, purgatory, and heaven. His goal is to reach spiritual maturity and an understanding of God’s love. Having achieved his goal, Dante has the ultimate vision, a face-to-face encounter with God.
Education and Salvation
Learning how to attain salvation is the main theme of Dante’s epic and subsumes all its other themes. The Divine Comedy is, therefore, a tale of Dante’s education and, by association, the reader’s. The reader follows Dante through hell in Inferno and learns with him about sin’s pervasiveness. The torments of the sinners, who exist forever without hope of redemption or of an end to their suffering, graphically illustrate sin’s consequences. As the reader and Dante move through the underworld, the shades they see and speak with provide physical examples of and exemplary lessons on the seven deadly sins. At the end of Inferno, Dante and the reader are better able to recognize sin in its various forms and to avoid committing it. Salvation and further spiritual education are impossible without such knowledge.
In the second section, Purgatory, Dante and the reader move up the Mountain of Purgatory to the Garden of Eden at its peak. Along the way they learn the value of contrition and repentance, of having to suffer for causing suffering and for disobeying God. They learn this again by seeing and interacting with shades who represent the seven deadly sins but who here exemplify the desire for contrition and repentance.
The learning process concludes in the third section, Paradise, where a plethora of saved souls appear to Dante and explain the workings of grace and God’s love to him. In this celestial region, Dante takes a series of what we might call oral exams which test his growing knowledge. Schooled by his experiences in the three regions, having gained a firm understanding of sin and grace, Dante passes his exams and graduates to the vision of God. He, then, becomes a teacher, because he returns to earth with instructions to write about his experiences for the benefit of others.
Choices and Consequences: Providence and Free Will
Inextricably linked to the theme of education and to the soul’s salvation is the theme of free will and its relation to God’s Providence. Following the writings of Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, which permeate The Divine Comedy, Dante shows the reader that God’s Providence, his vision, encompasses all events and all of time. Since God knows and sees all simultaneously, he knows exactly what we will do and when we will do it. Dante’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, explains to Dante in Paradise that this does not mean that our actions are predestined, only that God has full knowledge of them. We can and do choose how to act, how to employ our free will, and we must accept responsibility for those choices. As he does in the scene with Cacciaguida, over the course of the poem Dante comes to understand that his actions have consequences and that he bears ultimate responsibility for those consequences. This is of the utmost importance, for failing to understand this can damn one for eternity, as it has those in hell.
Art and Experience: The Power of Literature
Closely tied to the themes of education and the correct use of free will is that of literature’s power to influence its readers’ actions. Dante made the revolutionary decision to write his poem in Italian and not Latin—the language of epic, of the church and of lofty themes—so that it would reach a wider audience. Among other things, he meant his Divine Comedy to be an example, to focus the reader on the next life and, if necessary, to change the way the reader was living this life. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that Dante expected his poem to be read with the same seriousness as Scripture.
Dante himself was profoundly influenced, poetically and spiritually, by sacred and secular texts from his own time and from the ancient past. Perhaps most telling for this theme was the impact Augustine's Confessions had on him. In book 8 of that important work, Augustine (354–430) writes about the power of literature to convert and uses himself as a moving example. He tells of sitting in a garden during a time of intense emotional and spiritual turmoil. In his moment of greatest anxiety, he heard a voice telling him to open the book he had with him to a random place and to read. Doing so, he finds St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the story of his conversion to Christianity (13:13). Paul's tale has such a profound effect upon Augustine that he puts down the book, reading no further. Immediately, his suffering is relieved and he converts to Christianity.
Dante used this episode from the Confessions to make a point about the power of literature and the need for correct reading. In Inferno (5), Dante has Francesca tell of the effect reading had on her and Paolo, her lover. They were not reading Scripture like Augustine, but a medieval romance, Lancelot. Francesca says that she and Paolo reached the place where the lovers in the tale kiss. Then, echoing Augustine, she says they read no further, implying that they consummated their adulterous relationship and that Lancelot inspired the act. The difference between these two reading episodes is clear: both readers were affected by the power of the tales they were reading, but Augustine read Paul’s account correctly and took up the faith. Francesca and Paolo allowed the medieval romance to negatively affect their actions. For “misusing” the text and their free will, they must spend eternity in hell.
The other major example of this theme, and one that counterbalances the Francesca episode, is the meeting between Virgil (70–19 BCE) and Statius (61–96 CE), the poet in Purgatory 22. Ecstatic at meeting Virgil, the great pagan poet, Statius tells him that his Fourth Eclogue, a poem that the Middle Ages read as prophesying the coming of Christ, inspired him to convert to Christianity. Unlikely as this might seem, Dante uses it as another example of the power of literature and the need for right reading, for correctly employing free will in the service of salvation.
Order and Disorder
Dante’s age was a chaotic one, and his poem, particularly Inferno, takes the fourteenth century’s sacred and secular strife as a dominant theme. He rails against corrupt popes and clergy and lashes out at politicians, assigning many of them permanent places in hell. Nonetheless, we must understand that Dante did not hate the institutions of church or state. As a political and religious conservative, he saw such institutions as vital to maintaining social and spiritual order. Indeed, Dante hoped for a reduction of papal political involvement and that an omnipotent Christian emperor would arise and restore order to his chaotic world. He had great faith in Emperor Henry VII’s ability to do so. Unfortunately, Henry was never able to overcome his political opposition nor to maintain papal support, and his unifying efforts failed.
A supporter of institutions in the abstract, Dante was angry with those individuals he thought abused their offices or who were corrupt in other ways. For example, he placed Pope Nicholas III (d. 1280) in hell, angrily stuffing him upside-down in a hole, where tongues of fire eternally "baptize" the soles of his feet (Inferno 19). He then goes a step further and prophesies that Boniface VIII (1217–1303) and Clement V (d. 1314) will join Nicholas in his hellhole, where they, too, will pay for perverting the papacy. Politicians fare no better, particularly the Ghibellines, members of the political party that exiled Dante from Florence. For instance, Dante finds the Ghibelline leader, Farinata degli Uberti, entombed with other heretics in hell (Inferno 10). Dante was not above condemning members of his own party, the Guelfs, to hell either, as we see in the circle of violence. There Guido Guerra and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi run after the green flag with the other naked sodomites.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is itself representative of the need he felt for the comfort that comes from order and stability. It is almost as if Dante, through the order he built into his poem, was trying to counteract the disorder he saw all around him. As the last great hierarchical epic of the Middle Ages, this intensely ordered poem attempts to synthesize and summarize the histories of pagan and Christian thought and to weave those systems into a cohesive whole. The sheer complexity of this whole, however, almost works against its author’s need for order and desire for comfort by illustrating just how difficult—if not impossible—constructing and maintaining such a complex system can be.