The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 antireligion, although he is at times anticlergy. 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.

Themes

(Epics for Students)

The Divine Comedy recounts the travels of Dante Alighieri's Pilgrim, his alter ego and the reader's Everyman (a figure with whom every reader can relate), through three regions: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His goal is to reach spiritual maturity and an understanding of God's love. Having achieved his goal, the Pilgrim 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 the Pilgrim's education and, by association, the reader's. The reader follows Dante's Pilgrim 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 Pilgrim 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, the Pilgrim and 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 , the Pilgrim and the pilgrim 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...

(The entire section is 1,920 words.)