“Dante: A Party of One”

by Robert Hollander

(First Things, April 1999)

Robert Hollander, professor of European literature at Princeton University, writes: “Rarely has a writer left a more indelible mark — and under less favoring circumstances — than Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). His major work The Divine Comedy is considered one of the crowning achievements of human expression. It lives even today, nearly seven hundred years after its making, as one of the two or three greatest poems ever written.

“It is important … to note the dangers of taking the Comedy as a sort of ‘summa’ of medieval thought. … A reader of the Comedy unversed in medieval debates and unaware of Dante's idiosyncratic notions about them is easily persuaded that this work indeed represents the late middle ages in nuce. In fact, Dante finds something to quarrel with in the positions put forward by almost every recognized authority, even those he respects the most, from Aristotle (whom he honors perhaps more than any other thinker) to Aquinas (with whom he fights mainly friendly but nonetheless frequent little battles).

“From Dante's first insistence that what is narrated as having occurred is to be treated as having actually occurred, it is clear he does not actually expect us to believe that the journey [through hell, purgatory and heaven] really took place. He does want us, though, to pay particular attention to the fact that he has claimed that it did. … Dante does not want his poem categorized as mere fiction, like those castigated by Aquinas and other theologians who held that poets are in effect liars and have little to say that is epistemologically valid.

“Nothing is more difficult for one who teaches this poem to students than to convince them that all of the damned souls, no matter how attractively they present their own cases, are to be seen as justly damned. The poem creates some of its drama from the tension that exists between the narrator's view of events (in Inferno often represented by Virgil's interpretive remarks) and that of the protagonist. What makes our task as readers difficult is that at some pivotal moments neither the narrator nor Virgil offers clear moral judgments. Instead, Dante uses irony to under-cut the alluring words of sinners who present themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators of outrage in the eyes of God.

“Everything in God is just; only in the mortal world of sin and death do we find injustice. … In the Inferno we see this insistence on God's justness from the opening lines describing Hell proper, the inscription over the gate of Hell (III,4): Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore (Justice moved my maker on high). If God is just, there can be absolutely no question concerning the justness of his judgments. All who are condemned to Hell are justly condemned. Thus, when the protagonist feels pity for some of the damned, we are meant to realize that he is at fault for doing so. This is perhaps the most crucial test of us as readers that the poem offers. If we sympathize with the damned, we follow a bad example.

“Yet it also seems to some readers that Dante's treatment of Francesca, Ulysses, and others asks us to put the question of damnation to one side, leaving us to admire their most pleasing human traits in a moral vacuum, as it were.

“It is probably better to understand that we are never authorized by the poem to embrace such a view. … Dante's innovative but risky technique was to trust us, his readers, with the responsibility for seizing upon the details in the narratives told by these sympathetic sinners in order to condemn them on the evidence that issues from their own mouths. It was indeed, as we can see from the many readers who fail to take note of this evidence, a perilous decision for him to have made.

The Divine Comedy's greatness is reflected in its rich and full realization of the complicated nature of human behavior and of the difficulty of moral judgment for living mortals. It asks us to learn, as does the protagonist, as we proceed.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.

A condensed version, in the words of the original author, of an article selected by the Register from the nation's top journals.