Christ’s revaluation spreads and dissolves Paganism. Idealizing the supposed self-denial of the martyr. A catalyst for an earthquake within the Western canon which still reverberates through our value judgements to this day, whether we like it or not. This change is expressed in the lineage of the epic poems in Dante’s Inferno. Utilizing a meta-narrative, Dante breaks the fourth wall making himself the protagonist. Replacing the self-assured heroes of the Greek and Roman traditions with a figure of self-doubt.
Through this innovative device it seems Dante is expressing the difficulties posed to the confidence of organizing meta-values and personal self-assurance that comes with an ideal of meekness.
At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.
How hard it is to say what that wood was,
a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!1
At the invocation his location is geographically indeterminate, just as lost is the subject of his muse. The Inferno’s ‘heroic’ subject matter is the lost nature of the Christian soul. This soul asserts an absolute good and evil in morality, value is changed theologically becoming asserted through the Christian philosophical tradition. Yet the nature of these philosophically asserted notions always point to a theological origin, a unified ‘good’ and a perfect ‘bad’. This is an inevitability of Christendom’s monotheist foundations. Sacrificing poly-theist complexity to the idol of theological unity will necessarily leave the fallible and disunified human being lost like Dante. Dispute the historical layers of technically complex philosophical justification the essential uni-theocratic nature of Christianity leaves us teased by this ideal good through mortal grasps.
The mind of Dante’s subject meanders so that he enters a scepticism all too familiar to the lost denizen of overt and personal Christendom. Dante almost wishes for a release of death to cure him of this disorientation. This leads onto the subject of Inferno, the negative eschatological fate of the Christian soul.
So bitter, that thought, that death is hardly worse.
But since my theme will be the good I found there,
I mean to speak of other things I saw.2
Dante’s wandering mind rebels against the monolithic ‘good’. Asserting as a subject of his great epic, the “good” “found there” in his journey to the deepest of monolithic ‘evil’.
So chasmic is the gap between the value projections of the epics, with the arrival of Christianity, Dante sees fit to cast Virgil himself as his guide into Hell. Virgil, being from a pre-Christian world knows not of Dante’s unified god. When invoking the divine to his guide he even remarks knowingly: “God whose name you do not know”.3
Dante writes initially adrift in his searching and distance from God that his way out is to descend into the depths of evil itself. The worst possible eschatological fate in order to remind himself of it’s opposite. Dante requires Virgil as a guide, not only in poetry but to assist with the value-gap left by the previous epics of antiquity.
[…] I beg — so I may flee
this ill, or worse — lead me to where you say,
to find gates where now Saint Peter stands —
and all those souls that you say are so sad.’4
Dante’s verse meanders right up until the second Canto before he evokes the muse explicitly. Dante addresses the muses with great reverence, invoking them through connection to Virgil’s subject (Aeneas, “sire of Silvius”) and in turn connecting Rome to the eventual establishment of Christendom:
I call the Muses. You great Heights of Mind
bring help to me. Memory, you wrote down all I saw.
Now shall be seen the greatness of your power.
‘You,’ I began, ‘my poet and my guide,
look at me hard. Am I in spirit strong enough
for you to trust me on this arduous road?
As you once told, the sire of Silvius
travelled, though still in fragile flesh, to realms
immortal, and his senses all alive.
Nor will it seem (to those of intellect)
unfitting if the enemy of ill
should thus so greatly favour him, recalling
what would flow from him, his name and who he was.
He was ordained, in empyrean skies,
father of Rome – its noble heart and empire.
To speak the truth: that city – and the sphere
it ruled – was founded as the sacred seat
for all inheritors of great Saint Peter.
You have proclaimed the glory of that march.
He on his way heard prophecies that led
to all his triumphs and the papal stole.
And then Saint Paul, the chosen Vessel, came –
to carry back a strengthening of that faith
from which salvation always must begin.5
Dante takes the opportunity to express his anti-papism (Saint Peter’s “glory” and “triumph” where stolen by the institution and reclaimed by the purity of Saint Paul). This is a common dilemma of the tension between formal institutions and the personal faith.
Christian epics cease to be ‘heroic’ in the Homeric or Virgilian sense. No longer do we read the invocations of glorious victory, disunified divinities or dangerous journeys. The Christian epics, starting here with Dante, contain not visceral literal battlefields but battles over the eschatological destiny of souls.
Dante splutters, blinded by the purity of the Christian light:
But me? Why me? Who says I can? I’m not
your own Aeneas. I am not Saint Paul. No one – not me! – could think I’m fit for this.
Surrendering, I’ll say I’ll come. I fear
this may be lunacy. You, though, are wise.
You know me better than my own words say.’6
Dante has such doubt in himself that his subject must be the depths of evil, hell and ultimately the devil himself. This is what it takes for him to rediscover the one God whom the Christian must always return to when they are lost.
Subscribe for more essays and updates:
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno: The Divine Comedy I. Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick. Penguin Classics, 2010. Canto 1, 1-6.
Ibid. Canto 2, 7-30.
Ibid. Canto 2, 30-36.