I was late coming to Dante. Never read him in high school or college, and after my formal education ended with my bachelor’s degree, why on earth would I have bothered? As a professional journalist, I read voraciously, but a seven-hundred-year-old poem by a medieval Catholic was not high on my list.
And then, a year ago, I stumbled into the Divine Comedy by accident. I was going through a deep personal crisis and couldn’t see any way out. One day, browsing in a bookstore, I pulled down a copy of Inferno, the first book of the Commedia trilogy, and began to read the first lines:
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in some dark woods,
For I had wandered off from the
(trans. Mark Musa)
Well, yes, I thought, I know what that’s like. Like me, Dante (the character in the poem) was having a midlife crisis. I kept reading and didn’t stop until months later, when I slogged with Dante through Hell, climbed with him up the mountain of Purgatory, and blasted through the heavens to see God in Paradise. All made sense after that pilgrimage, and I found my way back to life. I was, in a physical and spiritual sense, healed.
That’s the testimony of a forty-seven-year-old writer, late to wisdom. What if I had encountered Dante as a young man and taken the lessons the pilgrim learned on his journey to heart back then? Would I have had an easier time staying on the straight path? Perhaps. At least I would have been warned how to avoid the false trails.
Most readers of the Commedia never go past the Inferno, which is a serious mistake. It’s impossible to understand Dante’s teaching without Purgatorio and Paradiso, which tell the reader how Dante, enslaved by his passions in the thicket of despair, finds his way back to light and freedom.
Nevertheless, Inferno is the book most relevant to young adults, most of whom will not have yet made the errors of passion that landed the middle-aged Dante in the dark wood. The pilgrim Dante must listen to the words of the damned with skepticism, for they are all liars—and, in fact, the chief victim of the lies they told themselves in life. “Be careful how you enter and whom you trust,” says Minòs, the judge of the underworld. “It is easy to get in, but don’t be fooled!”
What’s more, the testimonies of the damned reveal precisely the nature of the deceptions to which they fell victim—and to which Dante himself, like all of us, is susceptible. All the damned dwell in eternal punishment because they let their passions overrule their reason and were unrepentant. For Dante, all sin results from disordered desire: either loving the wrong things or loving the right things in the wrong way.
This is countercultural, for we live in an individualistic, libertine, sensual culture in which satisfying desire is generally thought to be a primary good. For contemporary readers, especially young adults, Dante’s encounter with Francesca da Rimini, one of the first personages he meets in Hell, is deeply confounding. Francesca is doomed to spend eternity in the circle of the Lustful, inextricably bound in a tempest with her lover, Paolo, whose brother—Francesca’s husband—found them out and murdered them both.
Francesca explains to Dante how she and Paolo fell into each other’s arms. How could she have controlled herself? she says.
Love, that excuses no one
loved from loving,
Seized me so strongly with
delight in him
That, as you see, he never
leaves my side.
Love led us straight to sudden
She ends by saying that reading romantic literature together caused them to fall hopelessly and uncontrollably in love—unto death, at the hands of her jealous husband.
To modern ears, Francesca’s apologia sounds both tragic and beautiful. But the discerning reader will observe that she never takes responsibility for her actions. In her mind, her fate is all the fault of love—or rather, Love. We know, however, that it is really lust, and that her grandiose language in praise of romantic passion is all a gaudy rationalization. It’s a rationalization that is quite common in our own time, as everything in our popular culture tells us that desire is the same thing as love, and that love, so considered, is its own justification.
For me as a writer, there is a more subtle lesson here, one I wish I had learned before writing so many column inches of cruel, clever journalism in my twenties.
Dante faints at the end of his encounter with Francesca, apparently overcome by the shock of her suffering in eternity for what he would hardly have considered a sin at all. It’s not hard to suspect, though, that Dante’s shock came at the recognition that the love poetry she read on her road to perdition included some of his own verses.
Francesca’s fate is not Dante’s fault, exactly, but that doesn’t mean he is not implicated. The lesson here is to think carefully about the things you say in public, because your words can have unintended consequences. This is not a warning to avoid ever saying anything critical or harsh. Sometimes, harsh criticism, even mockery, is necessary. But it is necessary far less than we think, and, in any case, one should never be deliberately cruel.
In the age of social media, this is even more important to keep in mind. Words written or spoken in public can have terrible private consequences. We all live in a narcissistic, confessional culture in which speaking whatever is on your mind and in your heart is valorized as “honest” and “courageous”—just as calling lust love falsely ennobles it by dressing up egotism with fake moral grandeur.
What Disney Gets Wrong
Believe in yourself. Many graduates hear some version of that advice in their commencement address. It’s as common as dirt and shapes virtually the entire Disney film catalogue. The pilgrim Dante hears it as well, deep in the heart of Hell, from his beloved teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini, thrilled to see his pupil passing through.
Brunetto suffers in the circle of the Sodomites, though Dante never mentions his old master’s sexual activity. Theirs is a tender meeting, with Brunetto full of praise for Dante’s work. “Follow your constellation,” the old man says, “and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory.”
It is terrific flattery, and it comes from a Florentine who was greatly admired in his day as a writer, scholar, and civic leader. Addressing Brunetto with great respect and affection, Dante says, “You taught me how man makes himself eternal.”
It’s enough to make the reader forget that Brunetto is damned. If Dante isn’t talking about sexual immorality, why is Brunetto in Hell? It becomes clearer later in Purgatorio, when Dante meets other Italian artists and learns that art pursued for the sake of personal glory, as distinct from the service of God or some other high cause, is in vain. Brunetto is a vain man, a writer who thought the way to pursue immortality was to serve his own cause in his work—and a spiritually blind teacher who sees Dante’s fame as bringing glory to himself.
How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, the fortune, and the glory they will receive from professional accomplishment but rather of the good they can do for others and, if they are religious, the glory they can bring to God through their service? Dante Alighieri’s early verse was good, but he would today be as forgotten as Brunetto Latini if he had not written the Commedia, which he composed for transcendent ends. Few if any of us will accomplish a feat like that, but what good we may do in this world, and what glory may remain after we leave it, will come only if we serve something greater than ourselves.
Tales of Selfish Ulysses
Following one’s own constellation can only get one lost—or worse. This is the lesson Dante learns in Canto XXVI of the Inferno, when he meets Ulysses, the great voyager, suffering in the circle of the False Counselors—that is, those who used their words to mislead others intentionally.
In the version of the Ulysses myth that informs Dante, the silver-tongued Greek cast aside his obligations to his family back home and to his faithful crew, urging them to keep rowing into forbidden waters, in search of discovery.
“You are Greeks!” Ulysses exhorts them. “You were not born to live like mindless brutes but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge.”
Who among us would disagree with that noble sentiment? Certainly not Ulysses’s crew, whose hearts blazed with desire to follow their courageous captain. Except it was a lie. Ulysses rationalized wanting to indulge his own boundless curiosity by sailing in uncharted waters, and he led himself and his men to their deaths.
Two lessons here stand out for the modern reader. First, selfishness that knows no limits, and that tells itself it is pursuing a worthy goal, can have terrible consequences that affect more than just the individual. Ulysses didn’t think about what he owed the old and worn-out crew that served him so loyally in war. Nor did he think about his own wife and son waiting for him at home on Ithaca. All he cared for was his “burning wish to know the world and have experiences of all man’s vices, of all human worth.”
Second, excellence and knowledge are fine things, but they do not justify themselves. The pursuit of excellence and knowledge must be bounded by moral and communal obligations that rein in the ego and hamstring hubris. Today we live in an age when science often refuses limits, claiming the pursuit of knowledge as a holy crusade. The world praises as daring and creative the transgression of nearly all boundaries—in art, in media, in social forms, and so forth—inspiring those who wish to pursue this debased form of excellence to be even more transgressive.
All these damned souls—Francesca, Brunetto, and Ulysses—suffer hellfire because they worshipped themselves and their own passions. In Dante, egotism is the root of all evil. Yet this unholy trio would be admired, even heroic figures in twenty-first-century America for their bold passion and fearless individualism. Love as you will, whatever the consequences, says Francesca. Follow your bliss and navigate by your own stars, says Brunetto. Honor that burning curiosity in your breast and pursue knowledge and excellence no matter what, says Ulysses.
For most of my twenties, I more or less believed these things, because that’s how our culture catechizes us. But then, Dante is rarely on the syllabus. Had I read the Divine Comedy as a younger man and taken its lessons to heart, I would still have been eager to pursue romantic love, achieve professional success as a writer, and explore and know the world—but I would have grasped that these goals can be understood as good only if they are subordinated to right reason, to virtue, and, ultimately, to the will of God.
Dante shows us that you can just as easily go to Hell by loving good things in the wrong way as you can by loving the wrong things. It’s a subtle lesson, and a difficult lesson, and a lesson that is no less difficult to learn in the twenty-first century than it was in the fourteenth. But it’s still necessary to learn. Happy is the man who embraces this wisdom at any point in his life, but happier is the man who does so in his youth.