Eastern Thoughts Part 2
Dante’s Biography 1
Dante Alighieri, the Father of Modern European Literature, was born in Florence in 1265, and lived there until his early thirties. He died in exile in 1321. Dante Alighieri was born to a family with a history of involvement in the complex Florentine political scene and this setting would become a feature in Dante’s Inferno years. Dante’s mother died only a few years after his birth. Dante did marry in 1277, but was in love with another woman-Beatrice Portinari, who would be a huge influence on Dante later in his life.
Shortly before giving birth in 1265, Dante’s mother had a vision. According to the 14th century chronicler Giovanni Boccaccio: “The gentle lady thought in her dream that she was under a most lofty laurel tree, on a green meadow, by the side of a most clear spring, and there she felt herself delivered of a son, who in shortest space, was feeding only on the berries which fell from the laurel tree, and the waters of the clear spring, grew up into a shepherd, and strove with all his power to have of the leaves of that tree whose fruit had nourished him; and as he struggled thereto, she saw him fall, and when he rose again, she saw he was no longer a man, but had become a peacock.”
This dream startled her a great deal that she awoke and quickly delivered a son, naming him “Dante,” which means “giver.”
Dante’s mother was Donna Bella degli Abati; “Bella” stands for Gabriella, but also means “beautiful”, while Abati (the name of a powerful family) means Abbotts. Bella Abati committed suicide because of unhappiness while living with her husband. She is later met in the Circle of Violence, within the Wood of the Suicides. Unlike his father, Dante’s mother was kind and pious. However, the constant abuse heaped on her and Dante drove her to desperation. She eventually hung herself, though Alighiero (Dante’s father) told Dante she had died of the fever.
As a victim of self-injury, she was condemned to the Wood of the Suicides, where she became a tree-made figure hanging from a wooden noose. Her will was joined with the trees producing Suicide Fruit, and when Dante enters her part of the woods, he is attacked by her tree until he batters it back. Afterward, she revealed to Dante that she did in fact kill herself, and admonishes him to save Beatrice. Bella begged Dante to absolve her, and when he does she grants him the Suicide Fruit magic.
Bella Abati is met in the Circle of Violence. She died in 1272, when Dante was about 5 or 6 years old, and Alighieri soon married again to Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi. She bore two children, Dante’s brother Francesco and sister Tana (Gaetana).
Not much is known about Dante’s education, and it is presumed he studied at home. He studied Tuscan poetry, when the Sicilian School – a cultural group from Sicily, was becoming known in Tuscany. His interests brought him to Latin culture with a particular devotion to Virgil.
When Dante was 12, in 1277, he was promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, daughter of Messer Manetto Donati. Contracting marriages at this early age was common, and was an important ceremony, needing formal deeds signed before a notary. Dante had several sons with Gemma. Jacopo, Pietro, and Antonia were his children. Antonia became a nun with the name of Sister Beatrice.
Dante met Beatrice, the truelove of his life when she was nine years old. He experienced love at first sight. The pair was acquainted for years, but Dante’s love for Beatrice was “courtly”. Its expression showed as a deep love and admiration from afar but remained unrequited. Beatrice died unexpectedly in 1290. Five years later Dante published Vita Nuova (The New Life), which details his tragic love for Beatrice. When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante tried to find a refuge in Latin literature. From the Convivio he read Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae and Cicero’s De amicitia.
When he was 18, Dante met Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia, and Brunetto Latini. Together they became the leaders of Dolce Stil Nuovo (The Sweet New Style). Brunetto received a special mention in the Divine Comedy (Inferno, XV, 82), for what he had taught Dante.
He then dedicated himself to philosophical studies at religious schools like the Dominican and one in Santa Maria Novella. He took part in the disputes the two principal monastic orders (Franciscan and Dominican) publicly or indirectly held in Florence. The former explained the doctrine of the mystics and of San Bonaventura, the latter presenting Saint Thomas Aquinas’ theories. His “excessive” passion for philosophy would later be criticized by Beatrice, in Purgatory.
Around the time of Beatrice’s death, Dante began to immerse himself in the study of philosophy and the manoeuvrings of the Florentine political scene. Florence was then a tumultuous city. It had groups representing the papacy and groups for the empire who were continually in disagreement. Dante held several important public posts. In 1302, he fell out of favour and was exiled for life by the leaders of the Black Guelphs (among them, was Corso Donati, a distant relative of Dante’s second wife).
The Donati political faction was in power at the time and they were in league with Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303). In 1294 conflict broke out between the pope and King Philip IV of France who wanted the Knight Templar assets for himself. In fact, the pope, and many other figures from Florentine politics were incarcerated in the most unpleasant hell that Dante was instigated to create ‘Inferno.’ Dante was driven out of Florence by then, but this would be the beginning of his most productive artistic period.
During the Dark Middle Ages, Italy was a mosaic of small states. The regions did not share a language, culture, or easy communications. While in exile, Dante travelled and wrote, The Divine Comedy. He withdrew from all political activities. In 1304 he went to Bologna, where he began his Latin thesis “De Vulgari Eloquentia” (“The Eloquent Vernacular”). He urged courtly Italians to embrace the fixed Italian of serious literary language in their every spoken dialect. The created language would as a result be one way to unify the divided Italian territories. The work was left unfinished, but it was influential nevertheless. In March 1306, Florentine exiles were expelled from Bologna, and Dante ended in Padua. Dante’s whereabouts for a few years between 1307 and 1309 remain unknown. Perhaps he spent those years in France.
The Divine Comedy2 is a tale poem describing Dante’s imaginative journey. Midway on his journey through life Dante realizes he took the wrong path. The Roman poet Virgil searches for the lost Dante at the request of Beatrice. He finds Dante in the woods on the evening of Good Friday in 1300 AD. He serves as Dante’s guide who begins his religious pilgrimage to find God. To reach his goal, Dante passes through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
The Divine Comedy is made up of three parts, matching with Dante’s three journeys: Inferno, or “Hell”; Purgatorio, or “Purgatory”; and Paradiso, or “Paradise.” Each part has a prologue and around 33 cantos. Dante and Virgil enter the wide gates of Hell. On Easter Sunday, Dante emerges from Hell. Through his travels, he has found his way to God and can, once more, to look on the stars.
On the surface, the poem describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven but at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul’s journey towards God. At this deeper level, Dante draws from medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially Thomistic philosophy and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. The philosophical school of Thomism is a legacy of the work of St Thomas Aquinas. His commentaries on Aristotle are his most enduring contribution.
The philosophy of St. Thomas became the foundation of both natural and spiritual sciences. Therefore, the Divine Comedy is called “the Summa” in verse. The work was originally simply titled “Comedça” and was later christened “Divina” by Giovanni Boccaccio. Written in the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri’s poem is a study of Western Church philosophy, astrology, and sciences during the 13th and 14th century.
Dante was born in Florence, Italy3. He was a soldier for a while before entering politics where he at first sided with the enemies of Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303) who would later be charged with political ambitions, treachery, and idolatry. He still stands accused of ritualised murders of child victims after sex acts in St. Peter’s Church. Boniface and his friends and allies had Dante and the de Medici family exiled from Florence. His best known work written while in exile is today an enduring classic: The Divine Comedy. He wrote 34 cantos of about 140 lines each.
A distinctive feature of Dante’s journey involves beliefs in the penitential system of Western medieval and the Roman Catholic Church that granted full or partial remission of punishment of sin. Granting indulgences was based on two beliefs. Penance it did not suffice to forgive sin – one needed to undergo punishment because one had offended God. Furthermore, indulgences rested on a belief in purgatory, in the next life where one continued to cancel the accumulated debt of one’s sins. From the early church onward, bishops could reduce or dispense with the rigours of penances. Indulgences emerged in only the 11th and 12th centuries when the idea of purgatory took widespread hold and when the popes became the activist leaders of the reforming church. In their zeal, they promoted the militant reclamation of once-Christian lands in the Crusades.
Therefore ‘Divine Comedy’ is about his imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. His experiences in the three after-worlds are based on Purgatory in 13th century. The poem opens with: “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.”
Behind Dante sits multitiered Mount Purgatory. An angel guards the gate, which stands above three steps: the white marble step is for confession; the splintered black stone is for repentance, and the red rock signifies Christ’s sacrificial blood. The angel marks each penitent’s forehead with his sword. Impressions of ‘seven sins” (peccatum) for the Seven Deadly Sins (p’s) are visibly branded on. Penance washes these wounds away and the soul enters earthly paradise at the mountain’s summit.
The third section of the Comedy is Paradiso. Here Dante visits the planets and constellations where blessed souls dwell. His interest in astronomy would have enabled him to see the group of stars in the southern region of the night sky which describes as: “four stars, the same / The first men saw, and since, no living eye” (Purgatorio,
At the gate of Dante’s hell, the condemned sinners were ferried by Charon, whom Dante borrowed from classical mythology. They were then sentenced by Minos, another classical figure, to their appropriate punishments. The bottom of hell was not fiery, it was a frozen lake. Dante was banished from his hometown of Florence in 1302 and threatened with incineration if he tried to return.
He never returned to his birthplace.
Meanwhile Dante while in exile in Ravenna made a name for himself. Upon his death in 1321, Florence wanted his body back but Ravenna refused. Florence repeated its demand a century and a half later; this time backed by Pope Leo X. Ravenna relented, however it is rumoured the city fathers shipped a sham coffin. Dante’s true remains were discovered in Ravenna in 1865 when the town was preparing to celebrate the 600th anniversary of his birth. The poem is Dante’s medieval vision of how Christians should live. It is depicted as an adventure of reflection, expressed as a voyage of idealism and a celebration of a famous romance.
Politics of Florence
Dante, like all Florentines of his day, became embroiled in the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict. In 1289 he fought in the Battle of Campaldino with Florentine Guelf knights against Arezzo Ghibellines. In 1294 he was among the knights who escorted Carlo Martello, the son of Charles of Anjou.
To further his political career, Dante became a doctor and a pharmacist in accordance with a law passed in 1295. It required that nobles who wanted to assume public office to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni di Arti e Mestieri. Dante obtained quick admission to the apothecaries’ guild. His preferred profession as a politician was inappropriate, because he accomplished little of relevance. Over a number of years he held various offices in a city enduring sustained political disturbances.
After their defeat of the Ghibellines, the Guelfs divided into two factions: the White Guelfs (Guelfi Bianchi) which was Dante’s party was led by Vieri dei Cerchi. The Black Guelfs (Guelfi Neri) was led by Corso Donati. These colours became the distinct colours of the parties in Florence.
For Dante, being engaged in politics was not easy. Pope Boniface VIII was planning a military occupation of Florence. Conditions weighing on Florence transcended the city. The contentious issues were beyond the scope of a local official. In 1301 Charles de Valois, brother of Philippe le Bel king of France, was to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker for Tuscany. The city’s government however, had already treated the Pope’s ambassadors badly a few weeks before. Florence was seeking independence from papal influences; therefore the Florentine council sent a delegation to Rome, to discover the Pope’s designs. Dante was the chief of this delegation.
Boniface sent away all representatives of the council and asked Dante to remain in Rome. At the same time (1301) Charles de Valois was entering Florence with Black Guelfs, who in the next six days destroyed everything and killed most of their enemies. A new government was installed of Black Guelfs, and Messer Cante dei Gabrielli di Gubbio was named mayor. Dante was condemned to exile for two years, and pay a huge amount of money. The poet could not pay his fine and was finally condemned to everlasting exile. If he were ever caught by Florentine soldiers, he would have been executed.
Dante took part in several attempts by the White Guelfs to regain the power they had lost, but they failed because of treachery. Dante, bitter at the treatment he had received at the hands of his enemies, also grew disgusted with the infighting and ineffectiveness of his allies and vowed, in his own words, to become a party of one. At this point he began sketching the foundations for the Divine Comedy. Thirty-three cantos were chosen because three was for the blessed Holy Trinity. He went to Verona as a guest of Bartolommeo Della Scala, but then moved to Sarzana Liguria. After this he lived for some time in Lucca with Madame Gentucca, who made his stay comfortable. She was later gratefully mentioned in Purgatorio (XXIV, 37).
In 1310 Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Romans (Germany), was invading Italy. Dante saw in him the chance of revenge. He wrote to him and to other Italian princes, several public letters violently inciting them to destroy the Black Guelfs. In Florence Baldo d’Aguglione pardoned most of the White Guelfs in exile and allowed them to come back. However, Dante was unpardonable because of the violent letters to Arrigo (Henry VII), and he was not recalled.
In 1312, Henry VII assaulted Florence and defeated the Black Guelfs, but Dante was probably not involved. In 1313 Henry VII (Arrigo) died, and with him any residual hope for Dante to see Florence again. He returned to Verona, where Cangrande I della Scala allowed him to live in a certain security and, presumably, in a fair amount of prosperity. Cangrande was also admitted to Dante’s Paradise (Paradiso XVII, 76).
In 1315, Florence was forced by Uguccione della Faggiuola (the military officer controlling the town) to grant an amnesty to people in exile. Dante too was in the list of citizens to be pardoned. But Florence wanted that, apart from paying a sum of money, these citizens agree to be treated as public offenders in a religious ceremony. Dante refused and preferred to remain in exile. When Uguccione finally defeated Florence, Dante’s death sentence was converted into confinement; on condition that he go to Florence to swear that he would never enter the town again. Dante refused to go. His condemnation to death was reconfirmed and extended to his sons.
Dante still hoped late in life that he might be invited back to Florence on honourable terms. For Dante exile was nearly a form of death, because it stripped him of much of his identity. Dante addressed that pain of exile in Canto XVII (55-60) of Paradiso, where Cacciaguida, his great-great-grandfather, warns him what to expect.
Dante’s Father Figure 4
Dante imagined a meeting with his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida in the central episode of the Paradiso. He was the father-figure representative for several significant ideas of entire poem. He followed the same format by electing spokes-persona Brunetto Latini in the Inferno and Marco Lombardo in the Purgatorio. Cacciaguida was born in 1091, entered the Christian faith in the Florentine baptistery, lived in an old quarter of Florence when its population was a fifth of its size in 1300. He became a knight under the emperor Conrad III, and was killed in the disastrous Second Crusade in 1147 when Conrad lost most of his army on the way to the Holy Land. Cacciaguida provided a detailed prophecy of Dante’s impending exile and the difficult years to follow (Par. 17.46-99). He also highlighted the theme of societal decline by describing the pure and tranquil (if mythical) past of Florence (Par. 15.97-129). He lamented this idealized past and the city’s current fall to its sordid state of affairs in the present (Par. 16.46-154).
Cacciaguida ended his long appearance in Mars by directing Dante’s eyes back up to the cross. He names each of the eight warrior spirits flash along the arms of the cross. From medieval French history and legend, Cacciaguida paired with Charlemagne, who restored the Roman Empire in the West, with his nephew and trusted military leader Roland.
Dante is most upset by the thought that relatives will carry out the treacherously plot his fate, as revealed by Cacciaguida, which needed him to accept “bitter with the sweet” (Par. 18.3). Dante would suffer the pain of unjust banishment from Florence after the take-over of the black Guelphs orchestrated by Pope Boniface VIII (Par. 17.46-51, 17.55-60), and his fellow exiles will respond to their misfortune in a foolish, dishonourable manner (Par. 17.61-65).
Dante’s exile was the result of friend’s deceit and betrayal: “the snares that are hidden behind a few circlings” (Par. 17.95-96). Dante would enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the eventual defeat of his political enemies (Par. 17.53-54, 17.65-69), and through his poetry he would deliver a message that healed an ailing world (Par. 17.130-32).
In 1308, Henry of Luxembourg was elected emperor as Henry VII. Dante was full of optimism about the changes this election could bring to Italy. It was hoped Henry VII could at last restore peace from his imperial throne while at the same time surrender his spirituality to religious authority. That is when Dante wrote his famous work on the monarchy, “De Monarchia,” in three books. In them he claims that authority of an emperor is not dependent on the pope but descends upon him directly from God. However, Henry’s popularity faded quickly, because his enemies had gathered strength, threatening his ascension to the throne. According to Dante, these enemies were members of the Florentine government. Dante therefore wrote a denunciation against them. He was promptly included on the list of those permanently banned from the city. It was around this that he began writing his most famous work, The Divine Comedy.
In the spring of 1312, Dante wet with the other exiles to meet up with the new emperor at Pisa (Henry’s rise was sustained, and he was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1312), but Dante’s exact whereabouts during this period are uncertain. By 1314, however, Dante had completed the Inferno. In 1317 he settled at Ravenna. There he completed ‘The Divine Comedy’ before his death in 1321. It became an allegory of human life presented as a visionary trip of the Christian afterlife.
It was written as a warning to a corrupt society to steer itself to the path of righteousness: “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them to the state of felicity.” Dante’s journey through the three Christian realms of the dead: hell, purgatory, and finally heaven took place with the Roman poet Virgil who guided Dante through hell (Inferno) and purgatory (Purgatorio). Beatrice meanwhile walked him through heaven (Paradiso). The journey lasted from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300.
The structure of the three realms of afterlife followed a common pattern of nine stages plus an added, tenth. There were nine circles of hell, followed by Lucifer’s level at the bottom. There were nine rings of purgatory, with the Garden of Eden at its peak. There were nine celestial bodies of heaven, followed by the highest stage of Heaven.
Crossroads of Dark Middle Ages & Renaissance 5
When Dante appeared, Florence was at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Dante helped lead the city of Florence into a new era. Ironically he spent much of his life in exile. Only after Dante’s death did Florence in Renaissance want him back.
Dante’s Italy in the Dark Ages was a tumultuous place. Kings and emperors battled with each other and papacy, pitting church against government and conversely; Guilds and powerful families carved Florence into spheres of influence. Fortunes could be gained or lost overnight. Dante’s family, the Alighieri, was of noble origin but no longer wealthy. Still, Dante took great pride in his ancestry. In Inferno XV, he claimed descendancy from the “holy seed” of the Romans who colonized Florence under Julius Caesar.
When Dante was still a child, his mother died and his father remarried his mistress. Dante wrote fondly about a sister in the ‘Vita Nuova’, but it is uncertain whether she was his full sister or a half sister. He also had three half-brothers. Before Dante turned 18, his father died. Before his death, however, he had arranged for Gemma Donati to be Dante’s wife. The couple had three or four children together. Although Dante made reference to his contemporaries, friends, and enemies in the Divine Comedy, he said nothing of Gemma. The most important event in Dante’s childhood was his first meeting with Beatrice Portinari at her father’s house, when she was 8 and he was 9.
In the ‘Vita Nuova’, Dante described the event: “She was dressed in a noble color, a proper and delicate crimson, tied with a girdle and trimmed in a manner suited to her tender age. The moment I saw her I say in all truth the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost depths of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt the vibration alarmingly in all my pulses. . From then on indeed Love ruled over my soul. . [and] I was obliged to fulfil all his wishes perfectly.” Even afterward, Dante considered Beatrice the love of his life.
He next met her nine years later. He saw her on the street dressed in white and with two girls. She greeted him sweetly by name, and he was enraptured. A short time later, having heard Dante’s name linked with someone else, Beatrice passed him without speaking, and Dante mourned for days.
Dante and Beatrice never shared a love affair in any modern sense. Their meetings were no more intimate than passing in the street, and both of them married other people. Dante’s feelings for her fit into the tradition of courtly love, in which the woman was idealized and eternally out of reach. A physical relationship with her was neither possible nor desirable. Beatrice died when she was only 24, but Dante kept writing sonnets about her.
Then, following a marvellous vision, Dante resolved “to write no more of this blessed one until I could do so more worthily.” He challenged himself “to compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman.” The result was the Divine Comedy.
In both the Comedy and the Vita Nuova, Dante’s love for Beatrice took on supernatural qualities. She became a holy figure, comparable to the Virgin Mary. Beatrice comforted the poet, scolded him after when he committed an unknown sin, and inspired him to write of his heavenly vision. She became a symbol and expression of divine love.
Dante’s life changed forever when he became involved in the war between two Florentine political parties: the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs. The parties had originally split over a family squabble, but they came to represent the division between the tacky, new-money Cerchi family (Whites) and the classier, old-money Donati family (Blacks). Dante was unfortunate enough to be a White, married to a Black. He went up the political office just when the conflict between the parties intensified into street warfare.
When the Blacks overthrew the Whites in 1302, Dante was swept up in the party purge. He was accused of bribery, fined 5000 florins, and exiled for life. He spent the rest of his years boarding with various patrons and writing after he left Florence. Dante wandered all over Italy and central Europe. In Convivio he wrote: “as a ship without sails and without rudder, driven to various harbours and shores by the parching wind which blows from pinching poverty.” Along the way, he was described by Cacciaguida in Paradiso (XVII.59-60) “How salt the bread of strangers is, how hard / The up and down of someone else’s stair.”
In 1312 the leaders of Florence declared a general amnesty for political exiles, but not for Dante. Eventually Dante settled in Ravenna, where according to Boccaccio, “he was honourably received by the lord of that city, who revived his fallen hopes with kindly encouragement, and, giving him abundantly such things as he needed, kept him there at his court for many years.” Dante’s sons Pietro and Jacopo and his daughter Beatrice came to live with him there. In the summer of 1321, while on a diplomatic mission to Venice, Dante became ill. When he returned to Ravenna he died. Ravenna buried its adopted son with honours, rebuffing Florence’s request for the body.
Dante in Love 6
The poet Dante’s feelings for Beatrice exceeded a childhood crush. Charles Williams (1886-1945), a regular member of the Oxford “Inklings,” was a literary critic of poetry, novels, drama, and theology. He believed that human love (conditional) and divine love (unconditional) is intricately connected. He saw earthly pleasures (for immediate happiness) as distractions keeping righteous people from God, who are harmless in thought, word and deed. He explored this idea on Dante, ‘The Figure of Beatrice’.
Dante declared his meeting with Beatrice as an intense personal experience. He defined the experience as a “stupor” of the mind as an awareness of a great and wonderful thing. The state in ‘unconsciousness’ produced a sense of reverence and a noble want to know more about That Inner Ecstasy. He was nine when he first met Beatrice, and she was eight. He saw her, during the next nine years, on several occasions, but it was not until he was eighteen that she spoke to him. As they passed each other, she looked at him and “saluted” him. The year was 1283, on a street in Florence. Those two meetings created a “falling in love” in Dante Alighieri, with an obscure emergence of a “different quality” of Love. A Spiritual Movement had taken birth in Dante’s unconsciousness Consciousness, which would later release him from the Illusion of Existence in Life.
The “spirit of life,” which stays in the most hidden chamber of the Love-heart, trembled and said: “Behold a God stronger than I (Ego) who is come to rule over me.” The “animal spirit,” which lived in the brain [mind] where all sense-perceptions are known, was amazed and said: “Now your beatitude has appeared.” The “natural spirit,” which stayed “where nourishment is distributed”-that is, in the liver-begins to weep and says: “O miserable wretch! How often now shall I be hampered?” He was referring to the extroverted human tendency for lust, greed, anger and covetousness.
It is not that his sex, like his intellect, was suddenly awakened. He perhaps had no desire of Beatrice. This first love admitted his “natural spirit” that was “impeded in its operations” so that he became weak and frail. He must have meant he had every potentiality [body-mind-intellect] connected with Intelligence. Afterwards he was to cry out: “The embers burn, Virgil, the embers burn,” because his sense-fires were still burning throughout him [in his Awareness].
Dante was a product of many elements of many cultural, political and religious traditions, Dante fashioned a towering new theology, said Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1998). Hans was an influential, controversial Catholic thinker. He had studied theology and philosophy though his thinking was broadly Thomistic; he became frustrated with Scholasticism and therefore investigated other writings.
Dante wrote his major works in Italian vernacular in about 1300. His engagement with philosophy therefore cannot be studied apart from his vocation as a writer. He sought to raise the level of public discourse by educating his countrymen and inspiring them to pursue happiness in the contemplative life. Intimately familiar with Aristotelian logic, natural philosophy, and theology propounded by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, his work became classical literature. His writings reflected the blending of philosophical with theological language. He invoked Aristotle and neo-Platonism side by side with psalms. Like Aquinas, Dante wished to summon in his readers the practice of philosophical wisdom. He did that by embedding in his poetry, truths, rather than mysterious statements found in scripture.
Professional educators were founded by Charlemagne. These ‘schoolmen’ were theologians who were so called because they lectured in cloisters of cathedrals and monasteries. Dante studied under Schoolmen and researched thoughts of Aristotle, Averroes and Siger; he later met scholasticism in the heights of Paradise, in the sun. It was in the lowest of the “higher spheres.” The impression left on him by the round dance of the “twice twelve teachers of wisdom” (the two groups led by Thomas and Bonaventure) was of a subtle interlocking mechanism of a clock with its chimes, or of a holy mill. And so the Dominican sang the praises of Francis, and the Franciscan praised Dominic.
Finally, the entranced Dante saw a third round dance detach itself from the other two-“just as on the approach of evening new lights begin to appear in the sky so the sight seems not real.” . His eyes, overcome, could not bear the sight, and Beatrice, laughing, drew him on to another sphere. Did Dante consider himself the originator of this new, third theology? In later times, Irish Catholics rejected the “common separation of spirituality and theology or spirituality and religion, because “spirituality without theology is just raw emotion while theology without spirituality is not the knowledge of God – it is just dead words on a page.”
The question is relevant because Dante was on a unique divine mission while gasping in a historical existence. Dante venture was a travelogue into the new, unknown. “I want to explain truths that no one else has dared to take on. For what contribution would it be if a man were merely to prove once again a theorem of Euclid, or to explain for the second time the nature of happiness, which Aristotle has already done?” He wrote that at the beginning of ‘De Monarchia!’
There were already traditions both in Paganism and in the Christian era describing journeys to the hereafter. Many like Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) would later describe their transcendental adventure and report of their ecstatic experience. However, Dante had intense awareness of both pagan and churchian traditions. In his writings, Dante combined scholasticism and mysticism from Antiquity and Christianity. He had experienced the sacral idea7 of Empire and the spiritual Franciscan ideal of the Church. In the Middle Ages ‘Religion’ then was based on Secular and Sacral Concepts. Dante succeeded in allowing ethics and aesthetics to coexist peacefully and strengthened one with the other.
State and Religion 8
Dante’s essay on “Universal Monarchy” (De Monarchia) is an encyclopaedia of knowledge, popular in the Middle Ages, but written in Italian. Aim was to bring it within the reach of the untutored reader. It is full of educational learning of the time. It was important for a comprehensive understanding of the Divine Comedy.
In “Universal Monarchy,” Dante summed up his theory of world politics. He showed there was a need for a ‘universal empire.’ He dispensed with and assigned Rome to be the seat of that religious empire. He insisted there had to be independence of the emperor in his relations from the pope. This theory of separation of church and state runs like a thread through the whole of the Divine Comedy.
Modern Western thought has traditionally relegated the religious and the secular to two different spheres. ‘Religion and Its Other’ by Shaheed Ismail Raji Faruqi took on this issue and was able to oversimplify the dichotomy. He traced the borders and gray areas between religion and the atheistic secular world. He thought Churchians, Hebrew, and Muslim cultures of past centuries as ‘different’ from Egyptian ‘paganism’, Jewish mysticism, and nonChurchian Greek agnosticism. There has always been historical and anthological evidence of existence of this ambivalence: Truth veiled by political power and greedy angels and devils for purposes of good and dreadful. That was and still is the social construction of religion and politics across the centuries. Dante constantly credited the sufferings of Italy to the lust for temporal power. Greed dictated the moves made by the popes and by monarchs.
The Inferno is crammed with greedy Florentines. Dante proclaims in De Monarchia, “Greed is the extreme opposite of justice, as Aristotle says in the fifth book of his Nicomachean Ethics. Take away greed and nothing opposed to justice remains in the will.” Dante was a devout Catholic and a son of the Papal Empire. He believed passionately in justice. But as a Florentine, he knew firsthand how much greed, graft, and gluttony stood in the way of his ideal.
Like many Italian cities, Florence boasted a well-developed economy in Dante’s day. It also featured a system of government, codified in 1293 in the ironically titled “Ordinances of Justice,” where money translated directly into political power. In theory, the Florentine system was a popular regime, because neither popes nor nobles held sway. In practice, though, the city lay in the grip of seven commercial guilds: judges and notaries, bankers and cloth traders, money changers, silk merchants, doctors and apothecaries, wool merchants, and fur dealers. A handful of families dominated the guilds, which further consolidated power.
Members of Florence’s ruling body, the officers of rank, were selected only from the guilds. According to law these individuals could hold office only for short periods of time, with periods of ineligibility between; but the same men were chosen repeatedly. Rich business leaders or magnates were tyrants, who were known for their power but not for their morality. To further aggravate the local conditions, ruling families feuded continuously. Laborers, who had almost no rights, resented the upper classes and even staged several uprisings in the fourteenth century,
The conduct of many individual ruling families did little to polish this image. In the 1330s, members of about two-thirds of the power families were convicted of crimes against communal law. Most could buy pardons. Guild feuds and depravity touched the lives of all Florentines, but Dante watched them especially closely. His father was a banker or money changer, and his brother-in-law was a moneylender.
In 1295 Dante joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries, an influential corporation that included writers. Then, books were sold in drugstores, art shops of local painters and in apothecaries. This guild of dispensing pharmacies to physicians and surgeons created the mighty Medicis, to means “doctors”. By joining a guild, in 1300, Dante was eligible to serve in the priorate.
Unfortunately, by this time the prominent Florentine families had become warring factions, and Dante’s job was to keep the peace. He tried to calm the situation by banishing instigators from both sides, including one of his close friends, the poet Guido Cavalcanti, as well as one of his wife’s kinsmen, Corso Donati. Cavalcanti, with Dante, sided with the White Guelf political party. Donati, with Dante’s wife, sided with the Blacks.
Cavalcanti was allowed to return because he said he had been sent to an unhealthy place-a reasonable claim, since he died in August of an illness contracted during exile. This show of mercy would cost Dante dearly, however, when his Black Guelf enemies denounced it as favoritism and charged Dante with corruption. Whatever the charges were, the truth was that Dante represented the wrong side in the factional battle. When the Blacks took over in 1302, he simply could not stay in Florence any longer.
Dante composed the Divine Comedy during his exile. Because many of Dante’s political enemies appear in the Inferno, some are believing the poem was cultivated as his revenge – a retribution forever preserved as evidence. His political affiliation was not what earned them Dante’s Florentine sinners a place in hell. Those who he condemned were selected self-serving guilds and insatiable families. For most, their common sin was money-related offences and others for greed. Therefore the hellhole of Inferno was packed full of greedy Florentines. (Elesha Coffman).
Dante met at least 30 identifiable Florentines on his guided tour of hell. The group included suicides, sodomites, heretics and other wrongdoers, but particularly thieves and usurers. Dante through a condemned soul reprimanded the city of Florence for its greed, deceptive business practices, and other offences.
Near the beginning in the poem, Dante conversed with a Florentine glutton nicknamed Ciacco, to mean he was a “pig.” Ciacco described Florence as a place “where envy teems / And swells so that already it brims the sack” (Inferno, VI.49-50). He also cited “Three sparks from Hell to include:”Avarice, Envy, Pride” (VI.74) for property and possessions, as the cause for the continued strife in the city.
Dante found nobody familiar among the hoarders and spendthrifts though he expects to. Because “these sinners have no faces”, his guide Virgil, explains, “Living, their minds distinguished nothing; dead, / They cannot be distinguished.”
The poet met a whole pack of hometown “heroes” among the usurers. Their faces were scarred by raining embers, but Dante recognized them by the family crests on the purses they wore around their necks. The Gianfigliazzi was identified by the azure lion on gold, who were notorious for usury. The Ubriachi, associated with a white goose on red, and Giovanni Buiamonte, was tagged with three goats. All had similar reputations. The practice of lending money at exorbitant interest rates (usury) was a form of mercenary greed in Dante’s day because, the interest on loans helped build the Florentine economy. Dante had involvement with that practice. His name as a debtor appeared in the public records of Florence.
On paper, the Roman Catholic Church opposed charging any interest on loans, but its practices did not reflect such sincerity. Many Florentine bankers grew rich by managing the pontiff’s assets and underwriting his military efforts. Collecting papal taxes was profitable. Firms would send loan sharks to lend money to peasants at enormous interest. That was followed by sending tax collectors. Many peasants could not pay their taxes. Tax collectors would then take their assets, the loaned money, and leave the empty-handed peasants to pay the interest. Dante did not condemn money lending. He considered banking a legitimate business enterprise. He did however punish bankers who gouged their customers with interests higher than was fair or reasonable.
Dante discovered five town-dwellers among the thieves, who came from well-known families. He could not recognize them, because their bodies constantly crashed, morphed, and redivided in changing forms. According to Dorothy Sayers who translated Divine Comedy to English, thieves cannot distinguish belongings of “mine” and “thine” and therefore cannot imagine their bodies as theirs.
The sight of five swindlers prompts Dante’s severest reproach of his hometown: “Florence, rejoice, because thy soaring fame/Beats its broad wings across both land and sea/ And all the deep of Hell rings with thy name!/Five of thy noble townsmen did I see/Among the thieves; which makes me blush anew/And mighty little honor it does to thee.”
The thieves, with all other residents of the eighth circle of Hell, occupied a region called the “Malebolge” to mean “sack of evil.” The sack image described the physical landscape of Florence. The concentric pocket-like trenches reinforced its connection between City of Dis (hellish) and the earthly city like Florence that was obsessed with wealth.
Dante’s major deliberation of Florentines was referred to in canto XXX among the falsifiers. They were a large group of thieves who were guilty of secretly stealing – the fraudulent. These falsifiers of diseased bodies and minds occupied a ring above the traitors in the furthest back of hell. While falsification was not inevitably about money-related, all of the Florentines did falsify for gain.
The anecdote of Gianni Schicchi illustrated the depths to which some Florentines would sink for profit. Schicchi was hired by Simone Donati to impersonate Simone’s deceased father Buoso, to dictate a will. Buoso’s estate included a lot of stolen property, and Simone was afraid that the old man would succumb to pangs of conscience and will the booty back to its legitimate owners. As requested, Schicchi dictated a sham will that bequeathed the loot to Simone. He also secured himself a tidy sum and swiped the best mare from the dead man’s stables.
By exposing his city’s corruption in the Divine Comedy, Dante hoped to steer Florence onto a higher path. He grieved for the city’s doom: “A glut of self-made men and quick-got gain/Have bred excess in thee and pride, forsooth,/O Florence! till even now thou criest for pain.” (XVI.73-75). But Dante was not alone in his apprehension. Many fourteenth-century humanists, including Petrarch and Salutati, argued that wealth did not lead to virtue.
A Pilgrim’s Way 9
The Italian poet Francesco Petrarch described the value of making a pilgrimage to Rome. He went on that pilgrimage in 1350. It was his private dream of reaching heaven (Paradiso) by visiting holy sites. Many Christian souls also wished to see the Holy City of Jerusalem which they imagined would be full of the sacred bones and relics of martyrs like Jesus. Visiting the land where precious blood of truth-seekers was spilt, was a strong motivation to go the pilgrim’s way. There they would roam from tomb to tomb in the company of high-quality thoughts. Such an achievement inspired medieval Christians-including Dante. Dante Alighieri made the same journey in 1300. Pilgrimages captured the imagination of millions. That fascination is reflected in the many pilgrim references in the Divine Comedy.
At first, pilgrimages focused on Jerusalem. They served to unify God’s Judaic people as early as King David’s reign (2500-540BC). After setting up the Christian Church as a new religious tradition between 30-312AD, Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem continued until the latter 1200s. Pilgrimages changed to Crusades which ran with Muslim Crusades. Many travelers had to arm themselves for protection. Then in 1291 Acre, the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land fell to the Muslims. Loss of contact with Christianity’s homeland was traumatic to both Muslims and Christians. Pope Boniface VIII responded in 1300 by fixing the first Jubilee pilgrimage to Rome. Boniface was one of a series of popes who recreated Rome as a flourishing city that attracted many artists to work on its churches and palaces. So when the fall of Acre made it difficult for Christians to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, structures like St. John Lateran and St. Peter’s Basilica stood as ready alternatives.
To make a Roman trek even more attractive, Boniface offered pilgrims previously unheard-of indulgences. The devout pilgrims could achieve 32,000 years of pardon for sin; including seven years for each step up or down the stairs at St. Peter’s. Early pilgrims often dressed in a sackcloth habit, usually hooded. They carried food and money in a soft leather purse that they attached to their sash-style belts. Pilgrims also carried a metal-tipped staff. Some pilgrims received their staff as part of an elaborate ceremony of blessing, commissioning them for their journey.
Before and after Dante’s time, skeptics questioned the value of pilgrimages. Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales also suggested that a pilgrimage was an opportunity to have a good time. Dante meanwhile applauded the spiritual benefits of making a holy pilgrimage. As the Comedy unfolds, Dante tells the story of a pilgrim’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven during the Holy Week of 1300.
The opening lines of the poem describe the pilgrim as “midway in life,” probably referring to Dante’s thirty-fifth birthday in the spring of 1300. Age 35 would be half the biblical life span of “threescore and ten years.” In the eighteenth canto of Inferno, Dante compared a procession in the eighth circle of hell to the Roman traffic pattern during the Jubilee: “In the bottom were naked sinners, who, our side//The middle, moved to face us; on the other//Along with us, though with a swifter stride//Just so the Romans, because of the great smother//Of the Jubilee crowds, have thought of a good device//For controlling the bridge, to make the traffic smoother//So that on one side all must have their eyes//On the Castle, and go to St. Peter’s; while all the throng//On the other, towards the Mount moves contrariwise (Inferno, XVIII.25-33).
Even if Dante did not take part in the Jubilee pilgrimage to Rome of 1300, he was familiar with it because he described it in great details. In the second canto of Purgatorio, Dante described new arrivals from a waiting area at the Tiber River. The musician Casella, a dear friend of the poet, arrived a long time after his death. When Dante asked him for the delay, Casella replied that he was often refused passage, but Boniface’s declaration of indulgences had enabled him to leave the waiting area and begin purifying his soul.
In the thirty-first canto of Paradiso, Dante described a Croatian pilgrim in St. Peter’s who was overcome on viewing the veil of Christ. According to legend, Veronica wiped Jesus’ face with her veil as he was carrying the cross to Calvary. This veil is said to bear the imprint of His face. The veil’s ability to inspire awe in pilgrims reportedly influenced Boniface to grant the centennial indulgence.
For Dante like many believers before and after him, “all of life is a pilgrimage.” Jeanetta Chrystie: author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Dante’s Religious and Political Views 10
Benedict Gaetani was Pope Boniface VIIII (1235-1303) who would be bullied by no one. He accused professors at the University of Paris of dabbling in papal affairs. The 39-year-old cardinal threatened the university’s destruction if they continued their course. “You Paris masters at your desk think the world should be ruled by your reasoning. I tell you that this is not so. It is to us the world is entrusted, not to you.” It would not be the last threat Gaetani (later Pope Boniface VIII) would make against Paris’s elite.
Born into a modest Italian family, Gaetani had a sharp legal mind with iron determination to advance to the Sacred College, the body responsible for electing the pope. Once inside the papal palace, Gaetani persuaded the inexperienced and weak Pope Celestine V to renounce the papacy and return to his monk’s cell. In Dante’s universe, this “great refusal” earns Celestine a place in hell’s vestibule, a home of the futile. Acting quickly, Gaetani negotiated support from his associate cardinals and in January 1294 entered St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome as the victorious Boniface VIII. Many people hated him for seizing the papal throne.
Boniface quickly secured a fortune for himself and for his family. He spent one-fourth of his pontifical revenue buying land for the Gaetani family. The rival Colonna family despised him and for that Boniface destroyed them. The pope’s critics accused him of simony to mean selling church offices and indulgences. Boniface appeared in the Comedy as the greedy pope next in line for the terrors of hell. Mistaking Dante for Boniface, Pope Nicholas III (another simoniac) cries out: “Art standing there already, Boniface? //Why then, the writ has lied by many a year//What! So soon sated with the gilded brass//That nerved thee to betray and then to rape//The Fairest among Women that ever was?” (Inferno, XIX.53-57)
Nicholas proclaimed that “the writ has lied” because, if Dante were Boniface, he had arrived early.” Dante set the Comedy in 1300, three years before the pope’s death. “The Fairest among Women” was the church.
Dante had special hostility towards Boniface. In March 1302, the pope had sentenced him to death for his political involvements in Florence. Dante then fled into exile, where he wrote the Comedy. He accused the papacy of “fornication with the kings of the earth,” believing Boniface’s use of power compromised the church’s spiritual mission.
True to Dante’s assessment, Boniface showed far more interest in politics than spirituality. He wanted supreme authority in Europe, but he had to fight King Philip IV of France to get it. “To Boniface, who calls himself pope,” Philip wrote, “little or no greeting. Let your stupendous absurdity know that in temporal matters, we are subject to no man.” To this Boniface replied, “Our predecessors have deposed these kings of France. Know that “we can depose you like a stable boy if it prove necessary.”
But Boniface had met his match. Shortly after issuing the bull Unam Sanctam in 1302, which proclaimed the pope the earthly ruler over all Christians, Boniface was captured and humiliated by Philip’s agents. Among them was Sciarra Colonna, seeking his family’s revenge. Though the pope’s allies rescued him from Philip’s men, Boniface never recovered from the shock. He died shortly afterward. In the end, Boniface’s search for earthly honor failed. He is numbered among the worst popes in history.
Emperor Henry VII 11
For Dante, Emperor Henry VII (1275-1313), the young king from Luxembourg was a gift: “Rejoice, O Italy! . Soon you will be envied throughout the world! For your bridegroom, the solace of the world and the glory of your people, the most clement Henry . hastens to the nuptials!”
In 1309 the princes of Germany chose an obscure count named Henry to be their new king. Within the year, Henry also emerged as Holy Roman Emperor. Winning the title was the easy part. The ruling over that far-flung constellation of princes and principalities would prove more challenging. Henry was neither rich nor too influential before his selection as king and emperor. He therefore had to build up goodwill a little at a time. He began working throughout northern Europe to create diplomatic alliances.
He succeeded but yearned to bring similar unity and peace to Italy. Regrettably, he underestimated the network of political interests, old hatreds and the power of emerging city-states that had divided the Italian peninsula into countless factions. Before visiting Italy, Henry sent ambassadors on an advance mission. The promises of loyalty Henry VII received bolstered his impression that Italy was ready for a kindly emperor.
He therefore assembled an honor guard to escort him to Rome for his formal coronation. Henry crossed the Alps in 1310. At first all went well, as northern Italy quickly lined up behind the emperor-elect. Suddenly opposition to Henry’s rule erupted in a different place in Italy, centering in Florence. The resistance was not personal. Even Henry’s enemies recognized his noble virtues, his valiance, courage, magnanimity, and generous pacific goals, but politics overcame personal esteem.
Henry’s forces were pushed into battle throughout the peninsula. Henry did make it to Rome to be formally crowned king of the Romans in 1312 but could not unify Italy. In 1313 he took ill and died suddenly, perhaps from poisoning, near Pisa. Henry’s spectacular failure to control Italy under the protection of Holy Roman Emperor marked the last time anyone would make the attempt.
While it lasted, Henry’s mission seemed to Dante to be a divinely appointed occasion for peace in Italy and a new order in politics. Dante imagined a king subject to the authority of the pope only in spiritual matters, not beholden to him in secular political affairs. In Henry, he saw the best chance to realize this vision. In the Divine Comedy, Henry merited a select spot in heaven as the “soul predestined emperor . who will rise one day / To straighten Italy” (Paradiso, XXX.136-138).
In his public letters, Dante compared Henry to the Messiah, suggesting that “Isaiah had pointed the finger of prophecy [at Henry], when by revealing the Spirit of God he declared, ‘Surely he hath borne our grief, and carried our sorrows.’ “Dante called Henry the “sole ruler of the world” and the “new offspring of Jesse,” as if he were a latter-day King David. But David had successfully united the 12 tribes of Israel. Despite Henry’s best tries, Italy remained as fragmented as ever. Jonathan Boyd works as a freelance historian in Chicago.
Virgil (70-19 BC) 12
Dante’s wise guide and companion through most of his journey was Virgil who was no stranger to him. Dante had travelled with Virgil (29-19 BC): “I sing of warfare and the man of war” when he recounted his adventures after the Fall of Troy. Therefore his journey to the underworld with Virgil, the author of the Latin poem ‘Aeneid’ would be with a trustworthy guide.
One of the most influential Roman authors in history, Virgil was recognized even by his contemporaries as an exemplary poet and a model of tenderness, humanity, and deep religious sentiment. He was born a peasant in Andes, near Mantua (now Pietole). His love of the Italian countryside and those who cultivated it permeate his poetry.
Because Virgil lived before Jesus, he appeared in the Divine Comedy in Limbo with the other righteous pagans. Unlike most residents of Limbo, Virgil had the freedom to travel through hell and even purgatory. He could roam in earthly paradise, but because he lacked faith in Christ he could not enter heaven.
But did Virgil know about Christ? Dante must have known the difference between Jesus the man and Christ the achievement of Its actualization as Self through faith and its practice. “Otherwise believe for the works’ sake. Amen, amen I say to you, he that believeth in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do” (John 14:12-14).
In the pastoral soliloquy written as a poem ‘Eclogue (IV)’, Virgil anticipates the birth of a Wonder-Child who would restore the world to its Golden Age. Medieval Christians interpreted these lines as a prophecy of an expected Messiah. Dante quoted the Eclogue in Purgatorio: ” ‘To us,’ thou saidst, ‘a new-born world is given//Justice returns, and the first age of man//And a new progeny descends from Heaven’ “(XXII.70-72). Because of this disclosure, medieval Christians have sometimes called Virgil “Maro, the Prophet of the Gentiles.”
In her introduction to Purgatorio, Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Virgil is necessary to Dante; he is his ‘contact’ in the world of spirits, lending him eyes to behold the secret things; he sustains and heartens him for the steep ascent, his teachings lay the foundations for the loftier revelation to come, he is the preparation for the Gospel here as in the world of the living.” Janine Petry editorial coordinator for Christian History.
Bernard of Clairvaux 13
Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) was a French Abbot and builder of a reforming Cistercian Order. He is recorded as saying: “You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason he is to be loved.” He was a dominant voice of Christian conscience in the middle of the twelfth century. His authority ended the papal schism of 1130-1138 assembled after the death of Pope Honorius. It resulted in a double election – of an antipope and pope. He was the primary preacher and supporter of the Second Crusade. He was devoted to venerating the Virgin Mary and promoted a personal relationship with a compassionate God through Mary’s intercession. This deeply spiritual ascetic was a sincere example of the values he promoted.
When Dante quoted Bernard of Clairvaux near the end of the Comedy, he used the language Bernard applied to the Virgin Mary throughout his sermons, epistles, theological treatises, and homilies. Bernard’s special devotion to Mary became the natural choice for a heavenly guide to address the Virgin on Dante’s behalf: “O Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son//Lowliest and loftiest of created stature//Fixed goal to which the eternal counsels run” .”(Paradiso, XXXIII.1-3)
Bernard led a public life by defending the faith against heresy, calling the church to crusades, and championing the papacy. Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida was among those who died after answering the call to the Second Crusade in 1147. He appeared in Paradiso in the fifth heaven with other warriors of God. When describing his involvement in so many arenas of life, Bernard declared he was “a kind of chimera . neither a cleric nor a layman.”
In paradise, Bernard symbolized the contemplation that allows man to behold the vision of the deity. He replaced Beatrice as Dante’s guide when she returned to her place among the blessed, pointed out the principal saints, explained the arrangement of the thrones of the elect, and solved the poet’s doubts regarding the salvation of infants.
In the poem’s final canto, Bernard offered a famous prayer to the Virgin, pleading for her intercession so Dante might see a vision of God. At the end of his prayer, Bernard signalled to Dante to look up, and Dante beholds the “eternal light,” the “Infinite Good” whose glory far exceeds human description. (Janine Petry).
Marcus Portius Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C) of Utica was the great-grandson of Cato the Censor. Cato the Younger was a Roman politician, a leader of the conservative senator aristocracy and a strict republican of the old school. He tried to preserve the Roman government against power seekers, but especially against Julius Caesar.
In 49 B.C., when Caesar waged civil war on Pompey and the Aristocrats, Cato took action. Although Cato had formerly opposed Pompey, he fought beside the Roman general, realizing that this was the last chance to save the republic. Leading a small remnant of troops, Cato shut himself up in the North African city of Utica.
Even after the decisive defeat of the republican forces at Thapsus, he kept the gates closed until all his allies could escape by sea. When the last transports had left, Cato, rather than make conditions with the victor or endure imprisonment, he committed suicide. Dante placed him in purgatory.
In canto XIII of Inferno, Dante watches those who committed suicide suffer terrible punishment-transformed into withered trees, they pour out blood and sorrow when their limbs are broken. But Cato appears later as the old man with flowing beard and “reverend mien” guarding the way up Mount Purgatory.
While pleading with the political leader on Dante’s behalf, Virgil recounted Cato’s deeds at Utica and his passion for liberty. He asked Cato to be merciful to Dante. With those words, permission was granted, and the journey continued.
In a corrupt age, Cato provided the Aristocrats (Optimates) with honest leadership, and he became for Romans the model of Stoic virtue. In Dante’s mind, therefore, his suicide was not a moral failure but rather expressing supreme devotion to liberty. The pagan statesman therefore guarded the way upward, toward freedom.
Heaven and Hell 15
Dante and his social group had inherited descriptions of heaven and hell from the Bible, early Christian writings, and imaginations of the Middle Ages. These shifting images made it impossible to grasp what only God understood. The Bible depicted heaven and hell as places with physical characteristics: heaven was being eternally with God; with absolute Love for Him and all kith and kin. Hell was separation from God and kith because of a person’s refusal to accept His Love.
The Old Testament focuses on the covenant between the Lord and the people: the people of Israel. For Hebrews, salvation was communal and not individual. Hebrews identified heaven with the City of Jerusalem. That was a reasonable interpretation because Prophet Zechariah proclaimed Jerusalem as the center of Israel now and in the future for the Lord said:”‘I will return to Zion and remain in Jerusalem” (Zech. 8:3). This place is where resurrection and judgment will take place, and the Messiah will bring the Kingdom of God to earth with the return of the people of Israel to the Promised Land.
The New Testament speaks little about the heavenly realm, however the Book of Revelation contains a Prophecy of a ‘world’ renewed: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”(Revelation 21:1-2, and “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).”
Revelation continues to describe heaven with: “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass” (Revelation 21:16-21).
The New Testament gives no detailed description of hell, though Jesus says that at the final judgment his Father will tell the unrighteous, who are on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Jesus also describes hell “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30) and, quoting Isaiah, as the place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).
Revelation adds a few more vivid descriptions of unrepentant sinners’ agony. An angel says of those who receive the beast’s mark, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name” (Revelation 14:11). Later in the book, “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14).
Of all the early Christian philosophers who expanded the idea of heaven, the most important was Irenaeus (130-200), a bishop, theologian, and opponent of heresies. He summed it up: Paradise is the beginning, heaven the end, to mean that humanity was created in paradise without flaws but fell through personally created sin. Humanity redeemed through becoming Christ-like is being in heaven without flaw. All the blessed will see Christ, be in communion with saints, for renovating the world. They will live in their true home, and with Christ they will enjoy eternal peace and comfort.
Hell was popularized by the “Apocalypse of Paul,” in an early fourth-century manuscript. “By which road shall I go up to Jerusalem?”.The Holy Spirit was speaking. “And I saw there a river of fire burning with heat, and in it was a multitude of men and women sunk up to the knees, and other men up to the navel; others also up to the lips and others up to the hair.”
In this description, different types of sinners received different punishments. “Pits exceeding deep” hold those who refused to trust God, while worms crawl out of the mouth and nostrils of an immoral deacon. The merciless are “clad in rags full of pitch and brimstone of fire, and there were dragons twined about their necks and shoulders and feet, and angels having horns of fire constrained them and smote them and closed up their nostrils.” Dante was familiar with this work. Early writers wrote more from spiritual and poetic angles rather than in theoretical.
Ephraim (306-373), a monk in Syria, described heaven vividly. “If you wish to climb to the top of a tree, its branches range themselves under your feet and invite you to rest among its bosom, in the green room of its branches, whose floor is strewn with flowers. Who has ever seen the joy at the heart of a tree, with fruits of every taste within reach of your hand? You can wash yourself with its dew and dry yourself with its leaves. A cloud of fruits is over your head and a carpet of flowers beneath your feet. You are anointed with the sap of the tree and inhale its perfume.”
The most influential theologian of all time, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), expressed his ideas of heaven in his work, City of God. Augustine described the human need for heaven. In his Confessions, he admitted “our heart does not rest until it rests in God,” and in City he said, “God is the font of our beatitude and the goal of our needs.” At the end of City, he announced: we shall “rest and see, see and love, love and praise.” Therefore Augustine’s heaven was a free and unshakable embrace. Heaven was enjoying God with companion lovers of Christ by the whole human in body and soul. Each held individual personality, which was distinct from God and from others. Salvation incorporated the Whole who love God.
Augustine’s had personal experiences which deeply influenced his theology of heaven. In Confessions he described a day, before his mother’s death, when he and she were standing together at the window looking out at the garden. There they together experienced the presence of God: “Rising as our love flamed upward, we passed in review the various levels of bodily things, up to the heavens themselves, whence sun and moon and stars shine on this earth. And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marvelling at Your works: and so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to come at last to that region of richness unending, where You feed Israel forever with the food of truth: and there life is that Wisdom by which all things are made: . it is as it has ever been, and so it shall be forever.”
Bede (673-735), the English monk, historian, and natural scientist, reported the vision of a man named Drythelm who had returned from the dead: “When we came to the wall, we were now, I know not by what means, on the top of it, and within it was a vast and delightful field, so full of fragrant flowers the odor of its delightful sweetness immediately dispelled the stench of the dark furnace [of hell]. So great was the light in this place that it exceeded the brightness of the day, or the sun in its meridian height. In this field were many assemblies of men in white, and many companies seated together rejoicing.” That was as close as Drythelm got to innermost heaven before he was obliged, like Dante, to begin his return to earth.
Hell always played a more vivid role in folk religion. Lurid descriptions of darkness, fire, worms, and torture, hell, the Devil, and death often took on striking, vicious personalities. For Tondal, as for many other medieval writers, hell became at least as vivid as heaven: “This horrible being [the Devil] lay prone on an iron grate over burning coals fanned by a great throng of demons. . Whenever he breathed, he blew out and scattered the souls of the damned throughout all the regions of hell. . And when he breathed back in, he sucked all the souls back and, when they had fallen into the sulphurous smoke of his maw, he chewed them up.” This medieval vision set the tone for Dante’s Inferno, whereas medieval theology set the tone for Paradiso. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, scholastic theologians who were usually university professors, applied rational philosophy to traditional doctrine. Scholasticism resulted at the University of Paris in the brilliant, detailed philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
According to the scholastics, salvation of fulfilment, where each realizes his or her absolute potential is not a created good. It is Universal Good, which is God. Aquinas like other scholastics were against the idea that each merged with God in heaven. They felt each enjoyed a beatific vision, understanding, and wisdom of a loving God. His creatures lived in peace and harmony with God in a dynamic and increasing intensity. The idea of Oneness versus Duality raged.
The beatific vision was based on the New Testament: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2); and “Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me [as Christ] hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou [then], Shew us the Father? Believe me that I [am] in the Father, and the Father [is] in me: or else believe me for the works’ sake” (John 14:9-11). Scholastics tried to give a coherent view of the cosmos through philosophy. Dante did the same through poetry. But unlike Dante, the scholastics showed little interest in God in His immanence and God in His transcendence.
For Aquinas heaven was a perfect vision where there was satisfaction of all wants, especially wants for delight, honours, knowledge, and security. He wrote in the twelfth century, “In heaven there will be the happy society of all the blessed, and this society will be especially delightful.” He made no further attempt to describe it.
Aquinas even gave more vivid picture of hell. It was a place where the wicked, separated from God, suffered remorse and despair. Hell therefore is a place or a state in which the souls of the damned suffer the outcomes of their sins eternally: “It is the fire of hell which tortures the soul and the body; and this, as the Saints tell us, is the sharpest of all punishments. They shall be ever dying, and yet never die; therefore it is called eternal death, for as dying is the bitterest of pains, such will be the lot of those in hell: ‘They are laid in hell like sheep; death shall feed on them’ [Ps. 49:14].”
For the scholastics knowledge of the material world yielded inferior truth. They wished to point to the greater truth-theological, moral, and even divine. By contrast, the worldview was that materialism was more real than spiritual things. Visualizing the striking images of Dante and others restored in his readers a sense of wonder to the ancient creedal affirmation: “I believe in the resurrection and the life of the world to come.” (Jeffrey Burton Russell is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.)
Dante’s Purgatory 16
Dante was the first writer to draw an elaborate map of Mount Purgatory, but he did not invent it. The idea of a place between death and heaven, as well as the practice of praying for the dead, dates from the earliest days of the church.
Though not directly mentioned in the Hebrew canon that became the basis for the Protestant Old Testament, prayers for the departed are encouraged in the Greek Septuagint, on which the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments are based. For example, 2 Maccabees states: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” Other verses cited as proof of purification after death include 2 Samuel 12, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, and Matthew 12:32.
The latter verse, in which Jesus declares that “anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come,” struck Augustine. He argued in City of God, “That some sinners are not forgiven either in this world or in the next would not be said unless there were other [sinners] who, though not forgiven in this world, are forgiven in the world to come.”
Words of hope and comfort (forerunners to the modern “Rest in Peace”) appear on many early Christian monuments, especially in the catacombs. Believers gathered there on death anniversaries to ask mercy for the departed souls. Expansions of this practice, such as granting indulgences for the dead, developed later.
Another aspect of the doctrine of purgatory is that some sins will be punished more severely than others, an idea vividly sketched in the Divine Comedy. The distinction between major and minor sins and the belief in cleansing after death are found in early Christian texts, notably in the visions of Perpetua, a third-century North African martyr. Greek and Latin Church fathers of the second and third centuries (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen) refer to these as fixed doctrines.
Belief in purgatory was widespread throughout the early Latin Middle Ages, but it was not unchallenged. In the fourth century, Acrius taught that prayers for the dead were fruitless, an assertion of Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, rebutted in his “Refutation of All the Heresies.” Some early Greek (Eastern) theologians also dissented from the emerging consensus on purgatory, while others supported it.
Later in the Middle Ages, the Albigensians, Waldensians, and Hussites all rejected purgatory, however for different reasons. John Calvin did as well and to a slightly lesser extent Martin Luther. At the same time, though, Latin theologians were systematically developing the doctrine. It was affirmed after discussions between Latin and Greek theologians at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274.
Purgatory was defined at the Council of Trent in 1545-1563: “Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar.”
Although purgatory is described intricately by Dante and others, this Catholic doctrine boils down to a short list of essentials. Sin estranges us from God. By Christ’s paying our eternal penalty on the cross, God forgives us. At that moment the guilt and eternal punishment owed for having betrayed him is removed as far from us as east is from west. But the wound remains not in God, but in us.
God is pure holiness. No imperfection can enter his sight (Hab. 1:13). The temporal traces left behind by sin must be removed before we can enter God’s presence. In purgatory the fire of God’s love burns away the impurities not already removed by devotion to God before death, readying us for God’s presence.
Purgatory is not a second chance to accept or reject God’s ever-preferred grace. Only those who will eventually reach heaven spend time there. Thus it is not a question of if a soul in purgatory will see God, but when. (Dennis Martin is associate professor of historical theology at Loyola University (IL). Elesha Coffman contributed to this article.)
Inferno was about profound sadness. Divine Comedy arched over centuries to weave an existence through hopelessness, a determined striving and an elevation that distanced him from the ground. The poem gave the reader an amazing command that was concurrently far-flung and personal. Dante defined the people of his time and connected them as shared memories of their classical common history.
Dante reawakened existences of noble but uncouth persons with the noble sword made famous by Dynasties of Warriors. Here the hero was sometimes hesitant and petulant fellow. Dante expressed his individual complaints against a backdrop of tides of history. Florence’s was a town with its unique politics with an already prophesied eventual fate. He bridged centuries through realms of Family Genealogy, Timeline, Memories, History and Personal dissatisfaction and Love.
Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Arabi 17
Ali ibn Muhammad ibn’Arabå, just known as ‘Arabi and was born in 1165. In medieval Europe he was called Doctor Maximus. After his father’s death, Arabi served as military advisor to Sultan Almohade and relocated to Seville. Arabi’s dogmatic and intellectual training began in Seville (Spain) where his cleric teachers taught him the sciences of Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence or sharia) and Sirah (various traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad).
‘Arabi was sixteen when he went into seclusion. There is a story that ibn ‘Arabå was at a dinner party which ended with a round of wine. As he took the wine cup to his lips, he heard a voice: “O Muhammad, it was not for this that you were created!” This gave him an urge to quit worldly pursuits and to embark on the search of God. When he saw a vision of the three great prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, Arabi was sent by his father to meet the great philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who was a defender of the Aristolean Philosophy and founder of secular thought in Europe. Averroes later declared: “I myself was of the opinion that spiritual knowledge without learning is possible, but had never met anyone who had experienced it.”
Arabi claimed to have met with Khidr (In medieval Islamic tradition, Khidr is described as a messenger of the prophet) three times over the course of his life. When Arabi met Khidr in Seville, he said to Arabi: ‘Accept what the Sheikh says!’ In 1193 at the age of 28 Arabi visited Tunis in Tunisia to meet the disciples of Abu Madyan (1126-1198), a seminal figure in Sufism. He stayed there for about one year and met Khidr for the second time. He was returning from Tunis by boat, when e saw a man walking on the water towards him. Khidr stood on the sea and showed him that his feet were still dry. Khidr conversed with Arabi in a strange language. Arabi met Khidr for the third time in Andalusia in Spain to convince a sceptical Arabi.
Ibn ‘Arabå began writing in 1194, he wrote one of his first major works, ‘MashÉhid al-AsrÉr al-Qudusiyya’ (Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries) and also composed the voluminous TadbårÉt al-IlÉhiyya (Divine Governance). Over the next five years Ibn Arabi studied under the guidance of various spiritual masters of the West. From this interlude Ibn Arabi merged into universalism. After the death of both his parents caring for his two young sisters became his responsibility. He left Seville with his sisters and settled in Morocco in Fes. In Fes, Ibn Arabi met two men of remarkable Sufi spirituality. It was a happy period of his life. He dedicated himself to spiritual work. His spiritual mentor in Fes was Mohammed ibn Qasim al-Tamimi a Moroccan Hadith scholar.
Arabi now began his next journey. He left behind all traces of his past, and began his journey to the East from Marrakesh in Morocco. Here he had a vision of the Divine Throne. He saw the treasures under the Throne where beautiful birds were flying. One bird asked Arabi to take him as his companion to the East. This companion was Muhammad al-HassÉr of Fes. He saw a dream about the secrets of letters and stars. He saw himself united in marriage with all the stars of heavens and then the letters. The dream was later interpreted as the great Divine Knowledge bestowed on Ibn Arabi. Arabi’s travels took him to Palestine, and through all major burial places of the great Prophets in Hebron (Abraham) and other placed where Prophets are buried. He visited Jerusalem, the city of David and then Medina, the final resting place of Prophet Muhammad.
He finally arrived at Mecca, in 1202 AD. He had spent 36 years of his life in the West and 36 years in the East, with 3 years in Mecca in between. It was here in Mecca that he started writing the best of his works Al-FutuhÉt al-Makkiyya, (The Meccan Illumination). It contains 560 chapters of esoteric knowledge and is truly the encyclopedia of Islamic Sufism. The book is divided into six sections: 1.Spiritual Knowledge (al-ma’Érif); 2. Spiritual Behaviour (al-ma’lñmÉt); 3. Spiritual States (al-ahwÉl); 4. Spiritual Abodes (al-manÉzil); 5. Spiritual Encounters (al-munÉzalÉt); and 6. Spiritual Stations (al-maqÉmÉt)
Got to part 3 – Medieval History
1 Dante Biography; www.biography.com/people/dante/
2 The Divine Comedy: en.wikipedia.org/wiki;
3 Christian History: firstname.lastname@example.org
4 Danteworlds: Dante’s Pardiso -Mars. Utexas.edu
5 Alternative History of Western Roman Empire: althistory.wikia.com
6 Christian History Home > Issue 70> Dante in Love.net
7 Religion and Its Other: Secular and Sacral Concepts and Practices in Interaction; edited by Heike Bock, Jîrg Feuchter and Michi Knecht Campus Verlag, 2008;
8 The Root of All Kinds of Evil www Christianity Today;
9 A Pilgrim’s Way: Christianity today.com;
10 Dante’s religious and political views: Steve Gertz; Janine Petry
11 Henry VII; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
12 Virgil: en.wikipedia.org/wiki;
13 Bernard of Clairvaux; en.wikipedia.org/wiki;
14 Marcus Cato the Younger; en.wikipedia.org/wiki;
15 Heaven and Hell; plato.stanford.edu/entries/heaven-hell;
16 Dante’ Purgatory;en.wikipedia.org/wiki;
17 Ibn Arabi: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/