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Dante The Judge: The Incorporation Of Pagan And Sinful Figures In The Divine Comedy

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Throughout Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, we see frequent inclusion of and reference to pagan and sinful cultural figures. From mythological beasts to great poets, such icons fill this primarily Christian text. In many ways, a parallel can be drawn between their inclusion and the Harrowing of Hell. Culturally, Dante saves many hand-picked figures, as Christ did spiritually. Specifically, through their placement in The Divine Comedy and Dante’s interaction with them, such flawed individuals are pushed forward into a Christian world despite their spiritual weaknesses. This is not to argue that Dante saves anyone from a fate in Hell as Christ did, but rather that he shows certain characters in a relatively good light in his own work based on their redeeming attributes, similar to the selection of individuals in the Harrowing of Hell. Their cultural importance, philosophical achievement, or righteous behavior justifies their inclusion in Dante’s most important work, though their limitations and flaws are shown as well. Looking at the text through this lens, Dante’s treatment of Virgil, Brunetto Latini, and Farinata degli Uberti stand out as prominent examples of this concept at varying degrees. As mentioned in Canto IV of Inferno and hinted at in the Bible, Christ brought many biblical figures that came prior to him from Limbo to Heaven after he was crucified. This event, commonly referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, gained popularity over time, peaking in 1215 and 1274, at which points the church officially declared its agreement on its occurrence (Harrowing of Hell). The concept itself originates from the New Testament, but draws many of its details from the Gospel of Nicodemus. While interpretations of these writings vary over time and between Christian denominations, the underlying idea of the Harrowing of Hell is that Christ, given the authority to do so, saved the ancestors he deemed righteous. Dante, understanding the significance of this, alludes to the event in his text; in Inferno Canto IV lines 53 through 61, Virgil explains, “‘I was new in this condition when I saw a Mighty One come here, crowned with sign of victory. He took hence the shade of our first parent, Abel his son, and Noah, and Moses, obedient giver of laws, Abraham the patriarch and David the king, Israel with his father and his children and with Rachel, for whom he did so much, and many others; and He made them blessed…”. Dante himself, in some ways, parallels this story. Culturally, Dante commits a similar act through The Divine Comedy. While he doesn’t save anyone from their spiritual fate, he reminds us that we must not forget and devalue all spiritually flawed figures simply due to their lack of faith. Rather, there is merit to works of the past and those who sin despite their imperfection. Throughout the text, Dante highlights this idea, picking and choosing who is culturally and rationally fit enough to warrant decent treatment.

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As such, Dante repeatedly interacts with his predecessors and their ideas in ways that show both their positive attributes, though don’t neglect their downsides and limitations. Perhaps the most developed example of this is Dante’s incorporation of Virgil into the text. As argued by Professor Kevin Brownlee, in the context of The Divine Comedy, Virgil can be considered from two angles: that of Virgil the guide to Dante and that of Virgil the actual ancient Roman poet. Under this framework, we can evaluate the merits and limitations that Dante highlights in Virgil using both aspects of his character. Dante first and most notably expresses his approval of Virgil through his designation as the guide for the first two thirds of Dante’s divine journey. Virgil explains to Dante in Inferno Canto I lines 112 through 120, “Therefore I think and deem it best that you should follow me, and I will be your guide and lead you hence through an eternal place, where you shall hear the despairing shrieks and see the ancient tormented spirits who all bewail the second death. Then you shall see those who are content in the fire because they hope to come among the blessed, whensoever that may be; and to these if you would then ascend…”. In this way, Dante acknowledges the poet’s authority and expertise in reason. In this role as Dante’s guide, Virgil displays many characteristics and behaviors that reflect Dante’s appreciative opinion of the poet. For example, he often provides security and reassurance for Dante in times of uncertainty, particularly in the beginning of their journey through Hell. Specifically, we see Dante cower behind Virgil and turn to him out of fear in key encounters, including with the thousand angry sinners at the Gate of Dis, the Furies, the tomb of Farinata, and the talking plants of the third ring of the seventh circle. Furthermore, Virgil is able to answer the majority of Dante’s questions about the realms of Hell and Purgatory. He’s familiar with many of the souls and guardians of the various circles, knowing how to deal with them and aid the progression of Dante’s journey. Virgil explains to Dante the rules and intricacies of placement in Hell and ascension through Purgatory. This reflects Dante’s beliefs about Virgil’s expertise in reasoning and moral virtue, the primary drivers of the inhabitants of either realm. Perhaps most tellingly, Virgil, as Dante’s guide, is chosen and backed by several high holy figures, namely Beatrice, St. Lucy, and, ultimately, the Virgin Mary. This divine purpose behind Virgil’s selection is highlighted in Inferno Canto II lines 93 through 120, as Beatrice explains of her recruitment of Virgil, “In Heaven there is a gracious lady who has such pity of this impediment to which I send you that stern judgement is broken thereabove. She called Lucy, in her request, and said, ‘Your faithful one has need of you now, and I commend him to you.’ Lucy, foe of every cruelty, arose and,coming to where I sat with ancient Rachel, said, ‘Beatrice, true praise of God, why do you not succor him who bore you such love that for you he left the vulgar throng… On earth no one was ever so swift to seize advantage or flee from harm as I was when these words were uttered…’”. Essentially, by using Mary, acting through Lucy and Beatrice, as the ultimate impetus behind Virgil being called to lead Dante through the first part of his journey to the light of God, Dante not only gives divine credibility to the purpose of the journey, but also to Virgil himself. That such high powers in Heaven would choose him to do their bidding is a testament to his positive qualities in spite of his lack of faith. Beyond his role as guide through Hell and Purgatory, Virgil is shown to have positive effects through other avenues.

For example, Dante uses Statius to further highlight the merit of Virgil’s cultural influence. When they cross paths in Purgatory, as Statius introduces himself and his work, it’s odd in that he refers to Virgil’s most famous work as divine, stating in Purgatorio Canto XXI lines 94 through 100, “The sparks which warmed me from the divine flame whereby more than a thousand have been kindled were the seeds of my poetic fire: I mean the Aeneid…”. In this statement, Statius not only recognizes the poetic importance of Virgil’s work to his successors (most notably Statius himself), but he also alludes to its role in his faith. Statius elaborates on this in Purgatorio Canto XXII lines 65 through 71, explaining, “You it was who first sent me toward Parnassus to drink in its caves, and you who first did light me on to God. You were like one who goes by night and carries the light behind him and profits not himself, but makes those wise who follow him…”. To settle the confusion as to how Virgil, a pagan, could have led Statius to Christ, the mechanism by which this happened is then made apparent: sections of the Aeneid were so in line with the words of preachers that Statius turned toward them. This instance further shows how Dante believes Virgil, despite his lack of faith, to be a cultural positive. Virgil’s work itself is capable of divine acts, of converting pagans to Christians and therefore guiding them to eternal salvation. However, Dante doesn’t simply proclaim Virgil good without exception. Rather, Dante is nearly as quick to highlight Virgil’s limitations as he is to propel him forward. Specifically, in Inferno Canto 1 lines 121 through 123, directly after explaining that he will lead Dante through Hell and Purgatory just prior to his ascension to Heaven, Virgil continues, “…there shall be a soul worthier than I to guide you; with her I shall leave you at my departing”. Here, Dante shows that, as a pagan, Virgil is not good enough to lead his complete education. Rather, his reliance on reason and lack of divine knowledge and faith fall short of Dante’s needs in his journey. When this statement manifests itself in Dante leaving Virgil behind, Virgil’s shortcomings are reemphasized. In the closing cantos of Purgatorio, Dante shows us Virgil’s ultimate limitation: his lack of faith bars him from entering Heaven and indefinitely imprisons him in Limbo. This inability to guide Dante through his complete journey is not only implicit in Beatrice’s arrival, but also made apparent once Virgil leaves his fellow poet and returns to Limbo. Dante writes in Purgatorio Canto XXX lines 49 through 53, “But Virgil had left us bereft of himself, Virgil sweetest father, Virgil to whom I gave myself for my salvation; nor did all that our ancient mother lost keep my dew-washed cheeks from turning dark again with tears”. Due to its emotional nature, this is the most apparent display of Virgil’s shortcoming in faith. As much as Dante can culturally further Virgil and speak of his merits, we cannot forget his paganism. Similarly, the aforementioned encounter with Statius, in which Statius credits his faith to Virgil’s work, conveys Virgil’s shortcomings to readers. He’s compared to the carrier of a light that leads others yet doesn’t benefit himself. By construct, Virgil fails himself in this role. As well as he can point others in the direction of the light of God, he can never quite see it himself, nor can he use it to find a path to salvation. Dante reiterates the imperfection of Virgil and his work in the closing lines of Paradiso, subtly declaring himself the higher poet. As noted by Professor Kevin Brownlee, the final canto of Paradiso contains the final comparison of Dante’s journey to that of Aeneas, which is critical in some ways.

Specifically, Dante alludes to the limitation of the Aeneid as a model for himself. He does so by referencing the Cumean Sibyl in describing his inability to remember or convey the sight of the light of God. In Paradiso Canto XXXIII lines 60 through 65, Dante notes, “…such am I, for my vision almost wholly fades away, yet does the sweetness that was born of it still drop within my heart. Thus is the snow unsealed by the sun; thus in the wind, on the light leaves, the Sibyl’s oracle was lost”. In the Aeneid, Aeneas visits the Cumean Sybil prior to descending into Hell in order to receive a prophecy. The Sibyl largely conveyed her prophecies through writings on oak leaves, which Dante refers to; if the wind were to scatter these leaves, they would not be reorganized, and thus the prophecy would be lost. Through this reference, we observe Dante compare his own failures to a piece of the Aeneid, reflecting a critical and condescending element to Dante’s view of Virgil’s work. Several minor characters stand out as selected to be shown in a good light despite their spiritual flaws. One such individual is Brunetto Latini, who Dante encounters in Inferno Canto XV. Many of the positive aspects of Brunetto that cause Dante to cast him in a relatively favorable light originate from the fact that Dante is closely aligned with Brunetto in many ways. Brunetto Latini and Dante share much, including a passion for Florence and a relationship in which Brunetto served as Dante’s intellectual guide. Intellectually, Brunetto had a significant influence on Dante through his works the Tesoretto, the Rettorica, and the Tresor. More specifically, as proposed by Professor Charles T. Davis, Dante draws opinions on the work of Cicero and inherited nobility directly from Brunetto, as made evident by the similarities between Dante’s statements on these topics in the Convivio and those made in the Tresor. Furthermore, Dante’s son, Pietro Alighieri adds in his commentary that Brunetto Latini taught the poet, “the acquiring of fame for virtue and knowledge, by which one lives eternally in this world and has a deathless name”. Moreover, Brunetto had a strong influence on the rhetoric of Dante, though it’s not conclusive whether he ever directly taught Dante. Some believe this due to Dante’s address of Brunetto as “lo mio maestro,” however, it’s entirely possible that, as an active political figure in Florence, he didn’t actually take time to teach and rather led by example. Politically, Brunetto, was very involved in Florence, as was Dante. Over the course of his life, amongst carrying out several smaller assignments, Brunetto served Florence as Chancellor, Prior, ‘dittatore’, and ‘arringatore’. Furthermore, Brunetto was involved in the Guelph faction, the White subsect of which Dante was a supporter. As such, he was exiled from Florence in 1260 following the Battle of Montaperti. Similarly, Dante himself was exiled from Florence in 1301 after an invasion by the Black Guelphs, as their leadership forced him out of the region. This further similarity is all the more reason for Dante to see and portray Brunetto rather favorably. Considering the aforementioned alignment of Dante and Brunetto, it is sensible that we observe Dante treat his former inspiration well upon their encounter in Inferno. For example, Dante refers to Brunetto as, “my master,” and Brunetto is quick to requite this with his use of, “son” is addressing Dante. Dante also expresses an utmost desire for Brunetto to stop and speak with him, saying in Inferno Canto XV line 33, “‘I beg it of you with all my heart’” (Alighieri, Inferno 155). Additionally, Dante speaks with great gratitude and appreciation for Brunetto, adding in lines 79 through 87 of the same canto, “‘If my prayer were all fulfilled,” I answered him, “you would not yet be banished from human nature, for in my memory is fixed, and now saddens my heart, the dear, kind, paternal image of you, when in the world hour by hour you taught me how man makes himself eternal; and how much I hold it in gratitude it behooves me, while I live, to declare in my speech”. In this lengthy praise of Brunetto, Dante reaffirms many of the aforementioned assumptions of their relationship.

The paternal reference confirms a guide-like intellectual relationship between the two Florentines, and the statement about man achieving immortality refers to Brunetto’s teaching that virtue and knowledge lead to eternal recognition. In this fond recognition and praise, Dante shows appreciation for his fellow Florentine throughout their interaction in the text. However, Dante still reminds us of Brunetto’s spiritual limitations. Most evident through his placement in the third ring of the seventh circle of Hell, Brunetto was a sinner. This particular location in Hell implies sodomy as the sin, though interpretations of this vary. For example, while some consider Brunetto’s sin to be sexual in nature, many scholars such as Professor Richard Kay argue otherwise. Kay highlights that, biblically, the city of Sodom’s issues were not largely sexual. Rather, under Kay’s framework, Brunetto’s violence against nature stems from his political actions, in which he led Florence in such a way that may have violated the natural order in the opinion of some, most importantly Dante. Regardless of the form of the sin itself, as shown, despite this sin, Dante considers Brunetto to be great, implying that his accomplishments in Florence outweigh his sin. Tangentially, this could also be considered a comment on the lack of importance of the sin of sodomy. Another minor character that Dante includes, revealing redeeming qualities despite a lack of faith toward God, is Farinata degli Uberti. In contrast to the relationship between Brunetto Latini and Dante, that of Dante and Farinata is far less friendly. Little of the pair’s lives aligns. The most significant disagreement between Dante and Farinata lies in their political views. Specifically, Farinata led the Ghibelline faction of Florence from 1239 forward. Farinata, the direct opposition of Dante’s Guelphs, was soon forced out of Florence, though after defeating Guelph forces in Montaperti, he and his men captured Florence. Therefore, one might expect Dante to behave angrily toward Farinata and show further disdain beyond his placement in Hell. Their exchange is hostile to begin, as the two go back and forth over their ancestors and political alliances. This hostility can be directly observed in their initial meeting, upon which Farinata demands in Inferno Canto X line 42, “Who were your ancestors?”. After hearing Dante’s answer, Farinata responds in lines 45-48, “They were fiercely adverse to me and to my forebears and to my party, so that twice over I scattered them”. Such argument continues, though the tone of the conversation eventually shifts. In spite of stark contrast of political opinions, one underlying factor leads Dante to treat Farinata with respect: a love of Florence. In this canto, Farinata explains that he helped prevent the destruction of Florence. He states in lines 90-93, “…I was alone there where all agreed to make an end of Florence, the one who defended her before them all”.

In response, Dante wishes him and his ancestors well, adding in lines 94-95, “Ah, so may your seed sometime find peace…”. A mutual respect can be seen throughout the passage, as Dante continues to ask a question and favor of Farinata and is met with responses in both cases. Once again, the sins of the character are not forgotten by Dante, as evident in Farinata’s placement in the sixth circle of Hell, where heretics reside. His punishment, to be buried in a flaming tomb and only able to see distant events in time, is a comment on the sin of Farinata itself. Farinata was known to be a heretic due to his identity as a “philosophical” Epicurean, meaning his particular deviation from the doctrine of the church was in his pursuit of worldly intellectual pleasure. This reflected a denial of the immortality of the soul, a defining belief of Epicureans. Under such an assumption, pursuit of earthly good exceeds spiritual pursuits, and, as such, Farinata is placed in the sixth circle of Hell by Dante. As shown, throughout The Divine Comedy, Dante selects who to cast in a positive, respectful light in spite of their sin or lack of faith. While these choices don’t save any individuals from their fate in Hell, they do represent some form of cultural salvation. Dante, through his depictions of such characters and his interactions with them in the text, argues for their redeeming qualities and attributes. Their cultural importance, philosophical achievement, or righteous behavior justifies their inclusion, though their limitations and flaws are shown as well. Thus, this treatment highlights who has merit that overcomes, or perhaps works to counteract, his spiritual shortcomings. Such a framework parallels the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ descended into Hell to save his virtuous ancestors; the process of choosing individuals based on positive characteristics in relation to sin and paganism mirrors Dante’s treatment of Virgil, Brunetto Latini, Farinata degli Uberti, and more. While the extent to which Dante favors these individuals varies greatly, he sees beyond their sin nonetheless.

01 February 2021

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