Dante’s Holistic Theological Poetry
For Dante the ultimate meaning of human history can be understood in terms of salvation history. That is, Dante believes strongly in God’s providential guidance over human history; yet, within God’s providence there is a place for human freedom and deliberation. God creates humans in his image, which entails the gift of freedom, and this freedom is to be used in the service of God. In the Divine Comedy, Dante tells of how he strayed from his own vocational calling (to be a Christian epic poet) and how, by God’s grace working through figures like Beatrice, he was able to fulfill his calling.
Dante understands the entire created order as sacramental in nature. In other words, beauty, art, images, and the physical all have value in Dante’s worldview. We see this in Dante’s relationship with Beatrice. Beatrice was a particular, historical person, whom Dante at a young age came to admire and even love. Apparently, Beatrice was a virtuous woman who was trying to lead Dante to higher things, the most important of which is the Christian God. From some of his other writings (Convivio), Dante seems to have been “led astray” by false schools of philosophy or by using philosophy wrongly. That is, Dante, instead of using philosophy as a handmaiden to revelation, exalted philosophy to the detriment of revelation. As a result, Dante finds himself lost and in need of guidance.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante (the character) has to journey through hell and purgatory and after the purgation process, finally makes his way to paradise and ultimately experiences the beatific vision. Vergil serves as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory. This seems to suggest that natural reason can only take one so far (even though one wonders how Vergil has knowledge of Purgatory). This is not to devalue natural reason, as by the proper use of natural reason one can become virtuous. Dante is thoroughly familiar with the Greek tradition of virtue as acquired by practice via the use of practical reason and which then becomes a habit that produces stable character. Humans, in a way unlike any other animals, have reason and are able to deliberate and choose the good in various circumstances. Dante readily acknowledges by his choice of Vergil as his guide and by the appearance of various unexpected characters in Purgatory (e.g., Cato—an expression not only of political freedom but also of moral freedom).
With his depiction of purgatory, Dante brings together the Greek tradition of virtue acquisition with the Christian tradition which stresses our need for the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. The theological virtues do not destroy the natural virtues; rather, they crown and complete them. Dante also affirms the goodness of creation, art and beauty by his positive portrayal of the use of images and the sensory in Purgatory (e.g., singing, liturgical acts etc.). Vergil’s role, however, is limited and after Dante has gained mastery over himself, Vergil hands the torch to Beatrice. Under Beatrice’s guidance, Dante is taught a number of theological truths and undergoes a painful time of confession. One can interpret this confession as Dante’s admission that he had been seduced by Lady Philosophy and has now seen the errors of his ways.
Beatrice plays a special role as a universal-particular. That is, Beatrice was a concrete, historical person—Dante, after all, tells us that she did in fact die and that he knew her as a young boy. Yet, in the pageant scene, she appears in the vision as an image of the integrity of the Church (as she chases off the “heretics” presented as foxes etc.) Though Beatrice is Dante’s guide and is his superior with regard to theological knowledge, she is clear that Dante is not to worship her. When Dante at times stares too fixedly at her, she immediately exhorts him to turn his attention to Christ. (This is in keeping with Dante’s need to fulfill his calling. The fact that he turned away from Christ and made philosophy an idol is the reason for his wandering in the first place).
Dante’s final guide is St. Bernard, a mystic and a poet. With the choice of St. Bernard, Dante gives a literary picture of the traditional Catholic teaching of grace completing nature and the compatibility of reason and revelation. That is, revelation, though supra-rational, is not irrational. The Incarnation, as Dante makes clear at the end of the poem, ultimately cannot be fully articulated by finite, human language. St. Bernard, as a mystic points us to the mystery of the Trinitarian God whose Love opens the way for union with him. With the completion of his Divine Comedy, Dante has fulfilled his life’s calling and thus has participated in the ultimate meaning of human history—to glorify God.