Classic Remarks: Is Dante’s Divine Comedy Still Relevant Today?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

What relevance does a medieval text like The Divine Comedy have for readers today?

Dante’s Divine Comedy can seem intimidating and antiquated to contemporary readers.  A lengthy poem in three books narrating Dante’s physical journey through hell, purgatory, heaven, as well as his spiritual journey from sympathy with sin to a recognition of the wisdom and love of God, the Divine Comedy does not immediately strike many as interesting.  Indeed, its concern with the spiritual state of its protagonist and Dante’s belief that individuals have free will and can commit wrong are troubling to many who believe that truth is relative and that they cannot sin.  Distaste for the Catholicism that Dante embraces also causes some readers to want to give Dante as wide a berth as possible.

However, embracing or agreeing with Catholicism is not a perquisite to reading and appreciating Dante’s work.  At its heart, the Divine Comedy is about free will and the choices individuals, societies, and institutions make.  It is concerned with questions such as what the role of an artist is, how love and lust are distinguished, and how far an individual should pursue knowledge.  And it fearlessly engages troubling questions such as whether upright individuals who were not baptized should go to hell, how individuals who are kind and serve their city might still damn themselves, and the confusing nature of God’s mercy, which allows an excommunicated murderer like Manfred to be in purgatory on his way to heaven and the pagan Ripheus to be in paradise, but keeps Virgil in Limbo.  Dante’s struggles with the nature of choice, the seeming unfairness of life, and the attraction to behaviors that he understands to be wrong, are struggles contemporary readers still face.

Plus, the Divine Comedy is just great entertainment.  It is highly political, leveling criticism at the corruption of Florence and boldly chastising the Church for its greed.  Dante places familiar figures in his world, cheekily assigning his personal enemy Pope Boniface VIII to hell for simony, but also allowing readers to see and interact with other famous names from history and literature.  His imagination is stunning and though most readers focus on his inventive punishments in hell and the contrapassos (the punishments fitting the crimes), the terraces of purgatory are also richly drawn.  And the journey through paradise is a rather trippy adventure that has Dante travelling through the spheres, meeting the just rulers in Jupiter (who arrange themselves in aerial patterns much like marching bands today during sports events), being questioned by St. Peter about the faith, and approaching God Himself.

Dante’s ideas are far from outdated.  Rather, Dante engages with the puzzles and the problems that continue to engage readers today.  From concern about political corruption to musings on the nature of love, Dante restlessly probes the underpinnings of his world, seeking to understand them.  His restless mind and his devotion to seeking truth can continue to speak to and inspire us.

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2 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Is Dante’s Divine Comedy Still Relevant Today?

  1. Dennis says:

    This is timely in that I am currently starting Paradiso having just finished Inferno and Purgatorio. You have a good start in suggesting the political machinations as an entry point to the poem, but I think that would leave Paradiso in the cold.
    As moderns we tend to view the Middle Ages as a monolithic time span where no one bathed, but there were great changes especially in the later half. Obviously the church was grasping more power unto itself, but the concepts of sin and redemption also had change significantly by Dante’s era. The original concepts revolving around property and fealty to a lord, such as Pope Leo’s “The Binding of the Strong Man”, had fallen out of favor and were replaced by gospels of love.
    Love is the cause of all movement for Dante. In Purgatory he claims that its universality is a drive toward perfection. Sin, therefore, is a corruption of love, imposed by free will as a movement away from God.
    With this in mind we can see the effects of sin in hell. The punishments there are less about what they deserve and more about what they wanted in there sin. Hence, Paolo and Francesca buffet about without control. Ugolino, who was trapped with his children, ate them after watching them starve to death, He now gnaws on the neck of the man who trapped him, but cannot enjoy the revenge because Ruggeri has been reduced to a thing, much like Ugolino’s children before is gruesome supper.
    Moving to Purgatorio we begin to see the causes of sin as each sinner seeks unburden his unhealthy habits. Paradiso is the array of love that shows the harmony inherent in the world.
    With all of this in mind we should see that harmony is focus of the work. The various stops on the way are illustrations. The desire is toward a worldly order even when evoking the heavens. It’s Dante’s way of saying, “This is why we can’t have nice things”, but without cynicism.


  2. Krysta says:

    I think that Dante’s interest in politics continues throughout the Comedy, as seen through the Valley of Rulers in Purgatorio and the just rulers in the sphere of Jupiter in Paradiso. These are positive rather than negative portrayals, of course, but he still manages to get a few digs in at the current situation through a lengthy chastisement of Italy in Canto VI of Purgatorio, mentions of rulers whose heirs did not live up their legacy in Canto VII of Purgatorio, and, of course, Saint Peter’s lament over the current occupants of his seat!


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