The Amateur Academic’s Intro to Dante and The Divine Comedy

For several hundred years, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri has been a critical component of the European literary canon. The epic poem would go on to inspire great works of art, symphonies, and more recently, films and video games.

Despite the great influence Dante’s masterpiece has wielded over our culture, many often avoid taking the time to gain a deeper understanding of the work. Some cite the somewhat archaic language and historical allusions used throughout the work as reasons for not reading it, while others may feel alienated by Dante’s heavy reliance upon Christian (more specifically, Catholic) law and symbolism.

Diagram of Dante's Hell

What few realize, however, is that The Divine Comedy can be fruitfully read from both a secular and religious perspective. Moreover, with the right amount of patience and know-how, anyone can master and appreciate Dante’s very unique literary language. Take a look at the guide we have compiled below for some useful information on what to look for in The Comedy.

As mentioned briefly above, the reader of Dante’s epic poem should expect to gain at least a passing knowledge of the central laws and metaphors of the Catholic faith. The entire work is structured upon Dante’s progressive understanding of the Catholic metaphysical hierarchy of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Moreover, the characters he meets along his journey, from the former to the later, are shown to belong to their respective tiers on the hierarchy based upon their deeds on Earth.

Dante is guided throughout his journey by the Ancient Roman poet Virgil, who is best known as the author of the classic Latin epic The Aeneid. According to Dante, Virgil is unable to transcend to heaven because he had worshiped pagan gods. This is despite the great appreciation Dante had for the Roman’s life and works. Instead, Virgil becomes a guide for those who wish to traverse the realms of the Inferno and Purgatory, thus avoiding eternal damnation within the lower circles of hell.

In “Inferno”, the first part of Dante’s three-part journey, the poet structures the realm as 10 descending circles (which includes nine main circles and Satan’s domain at the bottom), with each circle representing progressively heinous sins committed by those who reside within. For example, when Dante enters the gates to the Inferno, the first circle he is confronted with, Limbo, holds those who worshiped pagan gods but led virtuous lives (like Virgil). The final circle of hell is a frozen wasteland that confines the world’s most nefarious traitors, three of whom (Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius) are chewed in the mouth of Satan for all eternity.

Once Dante successfully transcends the Inferno, he reaches the mountain of Purgatory. This realm in Dante’s hierarchy of the Catholic afterlife is similar to the Inferno in that it is structured around each of the Seven Deadly Sins. However, unlike the Inferno, Purgatory houses those who commit sins while under the influence of God’s greatest virtue: love.

As Dante reaches the summit of Purgatory, he must part ways with Virgil and accompany Beatrice, a woman Dante had known as a child and represented the feminine ideal in his mind. In Paradiso, Beatrice guides Dante through the celestial tiers of heaven, which are based upon Christian astrological concepts of the planets and stars that were in vogue during the Renaissance. Each of the seven celestial bodies that comprise heaven (many of which are named after planets in the solar system) represent a virtue or moral its inhabitants had exemplified during their lives, with the Garden of Eden awaiting Beatrice and Dante at the top of the celestial hierarchy.

What one may notice when attempting to read Dante’s work for the first time without prior research is the preponderance of historical figures that held particular notoriety during Dante’s time. Throughout each of the three parts of the comedy Dante includes major political and religious figures that the poet either intensely criticized or respected based upon his observations over the course of his life. Dante also showcases major historical figures before his time, such as Judas Iscariot (chewed by Satan), Thomas Aquinas and Plato. While it might be difficult for contemporary readers to relate to many of the figures Dante was intimately aware of during his time, finding out more about these people and the reasons behind their inclusion in The Divine Comedy is essential for gaining a deeper understanding of the work as a whole.

For those who may shy away from Dante’s epic because of the religious content so inherent to the work, many have tried and succeeded at reading The Divine Comedy from a secular point of view. Psychology plays an extremely important role in the work, with many of the work’s metaphors and themes reflecting primal psychological archetypes that are common to Carl Jung’s theories on personality. Dante was also very in tune with scientific developments during his time, particularly in the field of astronomy, which informs much of the celestial mechanics in Paradiso.

The influence Dante’s Divine Comedy on world culture has been dramatic to say the least. Europe experienced a revival of Dante’s epic during the 19th century at the height of the Romantic era, as exemplified by the paintings of Eugene Delacroix and Franz Liszt’s program symphony based on the entire Comedy. Gustave Doré’s world-renowned illustrations of scenes from Dante’s work are also an essential supplement to anyone’s reading of The Divine Comedy. In the 20th century, Salvador Dalí also created a series of paintings inspired by the Comedy, with each one done in the artist’s trademark surrealist style.

If taking on Dante’s epic poem still seems like an impossible project, keep in mind that the work has been studied and explicated for the last several centuries by scholars and amateur academics alike. The sheer number of resources and translations available in print and online ensures that anyone can absorb the material with the least amount of confusion. For anyone with even a passing interest in world literature, taking some time to read one or all three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy will be time well spent.

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