Introduction

Learn about one of the most famous books in Italian Literature, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I will give you some background of the book, the author and we will take a deep dive into The Divine Comedy.


Audio Podcast


The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Introduction

In our immortal book for today, we will take a journey through hell and into heaven, led by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in his work the Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy is an epic poem set in the year 1300 and the details of Dante’s trip through the afterlife. His journey is prompted by a spiritual crisis in midlife when he finds himself lost in the woods. As you can imagine, the woods that Dante finds himself lost in represent a personal sense of confusion and darkness. This is the kind of symbolism that we’ll see throughout Dante’s long journey. 

What Prompted Dante to Write the Divine Comedy

But before we go with Dante to the other side of reality, we need to understand what prompted him to write of such a trip. We also need to understand why this poem is considered a masterpiece of literature and political commentary. Of course, every author leaves their personality and their opinions in their work. But Dante especially uses His Divine Comedy as a vehicle for expressing his anger at the corrupt government of his native city, Florence. The poem is filled with inhabitants of Florence, Italy and the ancient world who appear sometimes in heaven, sometimes in hell, depending on where Dante felt they would end up. One of the uses of the poem and critics disagree as to which use was most important in Dante’s mind is its use as political and historical commentary. Dante was an extremely well educated man, so full of knowledge about the world, that he at one time wanted to write an encyclopedia.

Dante had then great intelligence, a wide range of knowledge and strong opinions that he was not afraid to express. He also had a deeply spiritual nature and longing for truth. The Divine Comedy is more than a tour through the world of the dead. It’s Dante’s search for personal meaning as he sees and hears what those who went before him have experienced. Let’s look at Dante’s life and times before we review his epic poem. 

Dante’s Life and Times

Dante was born in Florence in 1265. And as he tells us in the Divine Comedy, he was a Gemini. Dante was especially intrigued by astronomy, astrology and mathematics, and his knowledge of these subjects is obvious. His family name was Alighieri. And although they were belonging to Florence’s most powerful families, they did have political and financial influence. The family had in fact been exiled for more than 10 years prior to Dante’s birth, a result of their political involvement. This practice of exiling people who are out of favor with the current government was common then, and was a fate destined for Dante in his adult life. 

Medieval Italy was not a united country, the Holy Roman Empire centered in Germany had little influence in Italy. The most powerful figure in Italy was the Pope, who ruled certain areas that were known as the Papal States. Folks at that time didn’t hesitate to act as heads of state, some Popes commanded troops in battle. The Papal States were mostly centered around Rome, and this left the rest of Italy divided into independent provinces and city states. These smaller principalities constantly made and broke treaties with each other and with the Pope, as they feared being overthrown by each other, so while the time of Dante was supposed to be civilized, there was no consistent or enlightened rule in his home. 

Dante married when he was about 20. It was an arranged marriage as was the custom, and the couple had at least three children. But those events had little meaning to Dante compared to the day he met Beatrice, his inspiration. They were children when they met, Dante was nine and Beatrice was eight. He loved her immediately and dedicated his life to her at first sight. He didn’t see her again for nine years. At their second meeting, Beatrice spoke to him for the first time calling him by name. They probably had few meetings after that. Dante wrote many poems about Beatrice, her loveliness and grace. To him she embodied love. We’ll see Beatrice in the Divine Comedy as Dante’s guide in heaven. 

Beatrice died young in her 20s but her influence on Dante was lifelong. We may question the love of a nine year old especially since he never had what we would call a relationship with Beatrice. However, their relationship and his feeling for Beatrice is in the best tradition of the medieval concept of courtly love. In those times, marriages were arranged and not meant to be alliances of love. Men and women found true love outside of marriage. True love that is courtly Love is not necessarily a sexual relationship, but more of an idealized feeling like a Knight’s chivalry for his lady. Beatrice’s role as Dante’s spiritual inspiration is very real, no matter what we may think of their human relationship. 

To return to Dante’s life. He studied extensively, both in theology and in philosophy. He also served in the Army in two important Florentine battles and was politically active. He was very outspoken in criticizing Pope Boniface, the eighth, who ruled from 1294 to 1303. This Pope was later instrumental in Dante’s exile from Florence and the pope appears in the Divine Comedy. Beatrice’s last words to Dante are a condemnation of this Pope.

Dante was part of a powerful ruling faction in Florence. But fortunes changed and the opposing party seize charge of the city. Dante was in Rome when the new party took control and charged him with graft, plotting against the Pope and conspiring against the peace of Florence. In his absence, Dante was sentenced to death by burning. That began Dante’s exiled from Florence. He dreamed that one ruler would bring order to Italy and an end to the constant plotting and his exile. He hoped that the Holy Roman Emperor Henry the seventh would do this. When Henry died without extending his authority to Italy. Dante lost hope for the country’s rule, and that he could return to Florence. Dante, like so many Italian citizens deeply loved his native city where his family had lived for many generations. This loyalty to home made his exile even more bitter. 

The Divine Comedy was written in Dante’s exile, a time when he lived in a number of different courts throughout Northern Italy. He was respected for his intelligence, knowledge and political talents. Dante died while on a diplomatic mission to Venice. He’s buried in the Italian city of Ravenna in a monastery of Franciscan friars. 

The Divine Comedy Brief Overview

Now I’ll give you a brief overview of the Divine Comedy before I tell you some of the details of this work.

First, the title. The word comedy in this instance doesn’t mean something that’s amusing. It’s taken from an Italian word that means a prosperous ending after a difficult beginning. The poem was written in Italian, which was a revolutionary thing in Dante’s time. Most important works then were written in Latin. Italian was considered the language of the masses, and it was a new concept that people would read and enjoy poetic literature. 

The comedy is written in three books, hell, purgatory, and paradise. Each book is a place in the world beyond our own, and Dante visits each of these realms. Not only do we see what happens there, but we get to know how the realms are physically constructed. Most editions of the book show artists renderings of the levels and geography of hell, purgatory, and paradise based on Dante’s explicit descriptions. He’s divided these places into specific circles, and each one represents the result of an earthly experience for good or bad. We will go into detail about that later. It’s interesting to notice Dante his use of numbers. There are three books in the Divine Comedy which correspond to three places in the afterlife. There are 33 short poems called cantos in each book. The extra canto that introduces the Divine Comedy makes for a total of 100 cantos. Each poem is written in a particular form where each three lines has a rhyming element. Hell, purgatory and paradise are divided into nine major sections, but each has an additional vestibule or level, making a total of 10 levels in each realm. 

Dante used numbers symbolically, especially the numbers three, nine, ten and one hundred. In Christian theology, three is the number of the Holy Trinity, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the Middle Ages, ten was considered a number of perfection. Multiples of three and 10 are bound in the book. There isn’t time to go into other occult details, but Dante’s poetry is filled with numerical and astrological significance. For example, each of three sections of the book ends with the word stars. This use of astrology and numbers goes beyond superstition. He’s pointing out that there’s an orderly structure to God’s universe, and that structure is represented in this poem.

There are scholars who spend their whole lives going through Dante’s work and searching for meanings. We can only describe some of the most significant parts of this complex story, which asks a question that we all want to know about – what happens after we die? 

The Divine Comedy – Inferno

And now, let’s look at the most popular of the three books that make up the Divine Comedy, the Inferno. Then we’ll explore the other two books, purgatory and paradise. In his first verse in the Inferno, the entire poem is told in the first person by Dante, Dante says, when I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest for I had lost the path that does not stray. 

Most scholars agree that Dante is referring to the biblical age of 35 when he refers to half our life’s way. But even if we didn’t know that we know that Dante is saying that halfway through his life, he found himself lost. Dante uses an interesting phrase, that he’s lost the path that does not stray. For mystics, this means that Dante has lost the spiritual path, a path that is always straight to God. So Dante says that he was on the path, but now he’s lost. He can’t even remember how he got to the forest, because he was too full of sleep when he strayed from the path. This is a reference to being asleep to God which resulted in the poet’s adventure. Three beasts appear frightening Dante, but the guide comes to help him, the Roman poet Virgil, who wrote the epic poem, The Aeneid. We will talk about the Aeneid very soon in our Immortal Books series, but we should know a little of it here. 

The Aeneid, the story of Italy’s founding predicts that Italy will be the world’s first civilized government. But the ideal Roman justice has obviously been lost by Dante’s time. So perhaps Dante hoped that his poem could inspire a rebirth of the noble spirit that Virgil predicted. A footnote here, Italy and Europe would experience a cultural rebirth in the Renaissance, which started about 100 years after the Comedy was written. Also, the hero of the Aeneid, Aeneas, goes through many trials to found Italy in Rome, including a trip to the underworld of the dead, a trip Dante is about to take.

To return to the woods, Virgil offers to lead Dante through hell, the Inferno. Dante is afraid. He knows that Virgil’s hero Aeneas and the Christian St. Paul went to hell during their lifetime. But how can he expect to live through such a trial? He doesn’t think himself a hero or a saint. Virgil reassures Dante and says that he, Virgil, was sent by Beatrice, Dante’s beloved, to guide him. 

Here is a description of that Dante’s Hell. First, it’s shaped like a funnel and descends into Earth getting smaller towards the center. Satan is at the center of the funnel receiving all the dirt and pain that washes down from the earth. On the way down this funnel, Dante and Virgil go through levels. Each level describes a kind of sin and punishment to match. Some of the levels are divided by rivers, chasms, or walls. At each level sinners are punished according to the type and degree of their sin. The two proceed to the gates of hell and read the famous inscription, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’. 

Now Dante begins his trip to the Inferno, a place of devastating horror. He and Virgil first entered the vestibule to hell, a place where people who lived without commitment to either good or evil, are punished by eternally chasing a flag that’s beyond their grasp. Then the two enter the first of nine descending concentric circles, the levels of the Inferno. 

The First Circle of Dante’s Inferno

The first circle is Limbo for people who lived good lives but were never baptized into the Catholic religion. They’re not being punished but they do suffer the pain of never seeing Dante’s Christian God. There are great poets here such as the Greek, Homer, and many of the ancient world’s philosophers. A few biblical figures who died before the time of Jesus Christ, were taken out of limbo to heaven. They include Adam, Noah, Moses and others. It should be noted that this Catholic doctrine is still taught. And there’s also a belief in many Protestant faiths. Given the fact that most people on the earth now and in the past, live in countries with little interest in or exposure to Jesus Christ, it’s interesting that Western religions grants salvation only to their own followers. In contrast, Eastern religious philosophies often view love for any God as valid and redeeming. 

The Second Circle of Dante’s Inferno

Virgil and Dante enter the second circle of the inferno where a judge assesses each sinner and assigns the correct circle for punishment. This is really where hell begins and it’s marked by a dark whirlwind rising from a cleft in the ground. It was caused by an earthquake at the time of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. This circle is for the sin of lust, and Virgil points out some famous lovers in the violent winds. Dante is moved by two famous lovers, one of whom was married. The two fell in love while reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. When they reach the part of the story where Lancelot kisses Guinevere, they couldn’t keep themselves from imitating that. And as they say to Dante, that day, we read no further. Dante’s view of love must be remembered here, as many of his time felt, ideal love was spiritual, not physical. 

The Third Circle of Dante’s Inferno

The next circle is for the sin of gluttony, and there is an unending rainstorm here that makes the damned souls howl continuously. A three headed dog tears the souls apart in an ongoing action. One of the attributes of hell is that there is no end to the punishment; it keeps repeating itself. In the circle, Dante speaks with a Florentine named Ciacco, which means pig. Ciacco predicts the outcome of a Florentine political struggle, and tells Dante that there are only two just Florentines and no one listens to them. This is the first of Dante’s many interactions with Florentines and other Italians, who asked about each other and comment on the past or future of Italy. Often what they said reflects Dante’s opinions or hopes. In this first interchange, Dante asks where two dead Florentines are, and Ciacco tells Dante that he will meet them further down in hell. 

The Fourth Circle of Dante’s Inferno

In the fourth circle of hell, Dante and Virgil meet Pluto, the God of wealth, and see those who sinned through greed or through overspending. These two groups are forever rolling huge boulders against each other, as they taunt each other for having the opposite characteristic. But both groups the hoarders and the spenders share the same basic sin. 

The Fifth Circle of Dante’s Inferno

The fifth circle is for the wrathful and the sullen. The wrathful souls are stuck in mud and they strike each other with their hands, heads and feet. Beneath them in the stagnant water are the souls of the sullen. It’s easy to understand these punishments. Those who are angry are literally stuck in the act and those who pout are ignored and silent underwater. 

The Sixth Circle of Dante’s Inferno

Virgil and Dante take a ferry to the next circle. As the boat starts to sink under Dante’s weight. The soul of a Florentine named Argenti comes from under the water to ask for help. Dante recognizes him as a violent and selfish man who acted against Florence and Dante curses him. Other souls in the water pull Argenti down and furiously attack him which pleases Dante. While Dante seems unkind, we need to remember his intense loyalty to Florence and his anger with those who harmed his home. 

Dante and Virgil reaches city gate and after an encounter with demons, an angel opens the gate to the two travelers. The first sins which we just saw punished in upper hell are sins caused by lack of control over the physical body. Now Dante and Virgil are in the part of hell reserved for those who sin through immorality, through purposeful wrongdoing. They come to the sixth circle where heretics are punished. A heretic is a person who speaks falsely against a religious ideal in this hell it’s reserved for those who would speak against the Catholic Church. The heretics live in prisons wreathed in flames. 

A number of ghosts speak to Dante during his travels, and one emerges from a flaming tomb. It’s another Florentine, a man who twice exiled Dante’s ancestors. He tells Dante that one day Dante, too, will know what it feels like to be an exile. Certainly this ghost is experiencing the pain of exile in hell. Dante is worried about the ghost’s prediction, but Virgil tells him not to think of it. When Dante sees Beatrice, he’ll understand the future.

Now the travelers cross an Abyss and they’re assaulted by an unbelievable odor, so strong that they have to pause to get used to it. 

The Seventh Circle of Dante’s Inferno

Then Dante and Virgil enter the realm of sins of violence, the seventh circle. These sins are divided into three sections for three kinds of sins, sins against others, against self and against God, nature and art. Sins against others are punished by immersion in a boiling river of blood. The sinners are immersed at different depths, depending on the severity of their crime. The second ring, sins against self, is the forest of suicides. The trees in this are souls who have killed themselves, they produce poison instead of fruit. Since they have destroyed their bodies, they will never have them back, not even on judgment day. In the third section, for those who commit sins against God nature and the arts, Virgil and Dante find a desert under a rain of fire. They walk along the edge of the forest of the suicides to avoid the burning sands, and then come upon a stream that crosses the desert. As they walk along its banks, Dante recognizes one of the sinners in the sand as Brunetto Latini, an influential Florentine writer and philosopher. Latini tells Dante that he will have an illustrious career, but will suffer politically. Dante expresses his gratitude at Latini’s works, which were an education for Dante. Latini names a number of Florentines, priests and philosophers, saying that they, like him, are homosexuals – the sin that brought him to the section for sins of violence against nature. 

The Eighth Circle of Dante’s Inferno

The stream that Dante and Virgil walk along falls into the next circle, circle eight, for sins of theft. There are ten sections in the circle of theft. Each level gives a particular punishment for a particular kind of fraudulence. For example, the first section is for seducers, the second is for flatterers. Among the other sins in the eighth circle are hypocrisy, fortune telling and theft. Flatterers are punished by being submerged in human excrement. In one trench are the sinners who bought and sold church positions. Their punishment is to be buried so that only their feet show and flames burn their souls. The flames of one pair of feet shine especially bright, indicating an intense degree of guilt. Dante discovers that this is Pope Nicholas the third. Nicholas says that he’s waiting for Pope Boniface the eighth to take his place. You may recall that Pope Boniface was partially responsible for Dante’s exile. The ghost tells Dante that Pope Boniface will in time be replaced by Pope Clement the fifth because Pope Clement will put the church in the hands of the French. 

It’s important to remember that Dante’s views of the church and politics have greater meaning than simple social commentary. Dante viewed the church as the divine authority on earth. He also felt that ethical leadership by kings was important to the morals of all citizens. When he criticizes these power figures, he’s condemning not just them personally, but making a statement on the desperate events in the world that happen when people are not given spiritual support through good leaders in church and state. 

As Dante and Virgil make their way through circle eight they see an array of tortures and recognize a number of the sinners. Among some of the interesting punishments is the one reserved for fortune tellers. As punishment for looking into the future. Their heads are twisted around so that they face backwards. They walk backwards, too.

As Virgil and Dante make their way to the end of the eight circle, a demon tells them that a cliff they want to take collapsed around the time of the crucifixion. The two take an alternate route and come upon the spirit of Caiaphas, who advised the Romans to kill Christ. Caiaphas is crucified on the ground in a path where other sinners walk on him continuously. 

Virgil discovers that he was lied to by the demon, the bridge they wanted to take is intact, but now the two have no choice other than to climb a steep cliff. As they travel they encounter many Florentine thieves. One of them is so embarrassed of being seen by Dante that he tries to upset Dante by foretelling the events that precede Dante’s exile. The thieves are being punished by serpents, which raises Dante’s opinion of snakes immeasurably. At this point, Dante makes a sarcastic remark about Florence’s fame, which, as he can see from the many Florentines who inhabit hell, has spread beyond the earth. This makes Dante sad for his city and himself. 

Before the two leave the eighth circle they see Ulysses, a Greek hero. He is punished with other evil counselors because he helped bring about the defeat of the ancient city of Troy. He also was an explorer, who urged his men to go beyond known realms which led to their deaths and his. 

Virgil and Dante come to the ninth section of the eight circle of theft for the sowers of discord, sinners here on mutilated, torn apart to show how they’ve torn apart the Christian church. There are horrible images here that show complete lack of respect of faiths other than that of the Catholic church and that’s why I am not even going to mention them here. They are some of the most disturbing in the Inferno, and here I will have to pause and say that talking about Dante’s Divine Comedy is not by any means a manifestation of my own beliefs. I am strictly talking about this immortal work of literature as literature, so I would also want you to think of it as a work of literature. We may not agree with a lot of things in The Divine Comedy based on our different faiths, and here let me assure you that I do have profound respect for all the faiths people have around the world, but not to stray too much in that direction. We are only talking about works of literature, which stood the test of time, regardless of the beliefs of their authors. 

There is a school of thought that Dante’s characters and situations are symbolic, and that his trip to the inferno is not to be taken literally. The pain that the sufferers go through could represent the tortures of guilt or anguish, either on this earth or another. But when Dante uses major spiritual leaders from other faiths as examples of sinners, it’s hard to find a symbol that they would stand for since their background is not symbolic of anything in Western culture. We can only assume that Dante believed as did many in medieval Europe, that the church teaching were literally true, including condemning those who believe differently. 

The Ninth Circle of Dante’s Inferno

Dante and Virgil come to the lowest region of hell, the ninth circle reserved for traitors. The traitors are divided into those who mistreated their families, their country, their guests, and worst of all their masters. For each of these kinds of traitors, there is a fitting punishment of course, the first section for traitors against family is named after Cain, the biblical Cain who murdered his brother Abel. Although I am not going to talk about all of them in detail here, each section of each circle is named for a particular figure who embodies the sin of that section. 

In this section named for Cain, Dante sees two brothers who killed each other over their inheritance. Their punishment is that they are immersed to the neck in ice and are so close together that their hair intertwines. At the sight of Dante, they start to cry and their tears turn to ice and freeze on their eyelids. 

In the second section for those who betrayed their guests, Dante sees a monk whom he thinks is still alive. He’s told that sometimes an evil soul will go to hell before his body is dead. The body is kept alive by a demon until it dies a natural death. This particular sinner is from Genoa, and Dante makes a rude remark about that city saying that its sinners are so evil, that they go to hell before their time. 

Now Virgil and Dante reached the last section for those who betrayed their masters. It’s named after Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, and at its center is Satan frozen from the waist up in the lake. Some sinners are immersed in the ice, some lie on it, and some stand on their heads. There is an icy wind caused by the constant motion of three sets of huge bat-like wings under each of Satan’s three faces. Satan holds in his three miles three great sinners, Judas in the center, and Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s murderers on either side. Satan weeps bloody tears. 

Virgil says to Dante, it is time for us to leave. We have seen everything and to make their way out of hell, they continued their descent by climbing down the side of Satan. When they reach Satan’s hip, they reverse and climb up. Dante thinks they will end up back in hell, but Virgil explains that they’ve passed the center of the earth and though they descended in the Northern Hemisphere, they will now come out in the southern hemisphere. 

Virgil explains that when Satan who was called Lucifer when he was an angel was cast out of heaven. He was thrown into the world and where he struck the earth is covered with water. The ground he pushed out of the earth became mount purgatory, which is where the travelers now go, as they leave the inferno and catch their first glimpse of the sky. Dante says, We emerged to see once more the stars. 

Why Is The Inferno the Most Widely Read Book of the Three That Make up Dante’s Divine Comedy?

Before we go through purgatory and paradise we should explain a little about Dante’s Inferno, the most widely read of the three books and the one most frequently praised for its rich poetry. One reason for this popularity may be painfully obvious, it is easier for us to identify with hell than with heaven. For one thing, the inferno has places that are similar to Earth, there are woods, lakes, deserts. These might not be pleasant, but we understand them. It’s hard to understand a subtler realm comprised of light or music, which we’ll see in the next two sections. Also, we understand the actions of the sinners in the Inferno, their sins or our sins, if one cares to call them that, we could say that their actions are actions that we’ve seen or participated in in some way. I mean, who hasn’t been selfish or spoken unkindly about their boss? 

So we learn consequences here and Dante’s Inferno, even if the crimes and consequences are beyond what we think of as reasonable. We learned that each action brings a reaction, if not in the present then at some future time. This is a valid lesson in morality as well as practicality, even if we don’t subscribe to Dante’s Roman Catholic theories. 

The Divine Comedy – Purgatory

Let’s go on now to the realm purgatory, Dante and Virgil’s second stop, and the second book in the Divine Comedy. Physically, hell was a funnel that led into the earth. Purgatory is a cone-shaped mountain on top of it, and is closer to Heaven than Hell is. Purgatory is on the other side of the Earth from Jerusalem, according to Dante. There are two parts to purgatory, the first section of two ledges, like the vestibule to hell, and the second section of seven terraces, one for each of the seven deadly sins, with the less severe sins on the higher levels. Altogether, these make up nine levels to purgatory, the 10th level, the top of the mountain is the Garden of Eden.

Purgatory is the place of hope, and its inhabitants both remember their earthly lives and are grateful for this place and the opportunity it provides them to redeem themselves. There is music here, and kindness. If hell was like Earth at its worst, this is like Earth at its best. Virgil and Dante reach purgatory before dawn on Easter. Before they can climb the mountain, Dante has to wash off the stain of the Inferno. They see a ship approaching, it carries a group of souls, one of whom Dante recognizes as a musician and composer of some of Dante’s lyrics. The group of spirits sing, but they’re interrupted by purgatory’s guardian who reminds them that they need to start their mission on the island. 

First, Virgil and Dante pass through the two sub levels of purgatory. These are for people who were thrown out of the Catholic church or who neglected their religious duties, and for people who were so busy with their daily lives that they ignored the spiritual. These are the negligent souls and they wait in the valley for their turn to go up the mountain. Virgil and Dante sleep here that evening, and wake up the next day to find themselves at the main entrance to purgatory. Just as someone judge those entering into hell and send them to their proper punishment, here in purgatory, an angel meets each person and puts seven P’s on their forehead, one for each level or sin. 

The Seven Terraces of Dante’s Purgatory

The first sin is pride. And on the first terrace, pilgrims along the way, see carvings of famous acts of humility. The Pilgrims on this mountain are called penitence, because they are making penance for their sins. This is how they will win the right to go to heaven or as Dante calls it, paradise. 

Once again Dante and Virgil encounter souls on the journey, they go to the second terrace for the sin of envy. Dante realizes that climbing becomes easier when a terrace is complete and the P letter on his forehead that corresponds to that terrace is gone. At the second terrace, a lady from the Italian city of Siena speaks to Dante. she regrets her envy which was greater than her love for her city, and she asks Dante to say good things about her to her neighbors. 

As Dante and Virgil complete the second terrace, another P has gone from Dante’s forehead. Virgil tells Dante that material possessions can cause envy and fear of sharing, but spiritual possessions only increase when they’re given away. 

The third terrace is for the sin of anger, and the penitents here must walk in an irritating cloud of smoke. Dante sees visions in the smoke – visions of insane anger. 

He and Virgil go on to the fourth terrace where souls rush towards them with enthusiasm. This is the place where those who committed the sin of laziness must learn to do the opposite. Most of these busy souls don’t stop the talk, but a few tell Dante their sad stories. 

The next three terraces are for sins of excess greed, gluttony and lust. We’ve seen the sins in hell too, but the nature of the sins there was much more harmful than the sins being atoned for by purgatory’s penitents. 

On the fifth terrace, Pope Adrian the fifth is among the sinners who lie facedown reciting prayers and Psalms. Suddenly Dante and Virgil feel an earthquake and all the spirits say aloud, glory to God in the Highest. A spirit explains that the quake is a sign that one of the souls has finished its penance. The spirit is a Roman author and poet, and he is so pleased to meet Virgil that he stays with them for the rest of their journey through purgatory.

On the last terrace, there is a river of flames for those who committed the sin of lust. Here Dante sees some of the earliest singers and songwriters The Provençal troubadours known for their love songs. Dante is told to walk through the river of flames but he’s afraid to. Then Virgil tells him that his beloved Beatrice is behind the flames and Dante walks through them. He suffers greatly from this although his skin is not marred by the fire. The Pilgrims go to the top of the mountain, and Virgil tells Dante that his mission is complete. Now Dante will be his own guide. 

Dante in the Garden of Eden

Dante is in the Garden of Eden now and he finds Matilda, a beautiful young woman, who leads him along the bank of a clear stream, the river of forgetfulness. They come upon a magnificent procession on the other side of the river. Beatrice arrives in a chariot and greets Dante with a reprimand for his sins. He weeps at the thought of them, and then faints with remorse. When he comes to, Matilda leads him across the river of forgetfulness, and Dante forgets his sins, and meets Beatrice with a joyful heart. 

Beatrice is so beautiful to him, that he can only stare at her. Finally the procession reassembles itself around the tree. Dante falls asleep and when he awakens almost everyone has gone. Beatrice tells him to carefully observe and later write down what happens next. The remnants of the procession and the blossoming tree are destroyed by an eagle, a fox and a dragon. A wanton woman gets into the chariot that had pulled Beatrice and a giant joins her. When he sees the harlot look at Dante, he beats her and pulls the chariot into the woods. Beatrice explains these things to Dante and prophecies and riddles. When he becomes confused. She says that she wants him to understand that his intellect cannot comprehend everything. Then she promises to speak clearly to him in the future. 

Beatrice asks Matilda to lead Dante to the river that restores memory of good deeds. After drinking the water there, Dante feels pure and prepared for the next realm, that of paradise. He says, “I came back from those holiest waters new, remade, reborn, healed of winter’s scars, perfect, pure and ready for the stars. 

The Divine Comedy – Paradise

The last book of the Divine Comedy, Paradise, has been pulled the hardest to understand, and we can imagine that it is hard to describe where God lives. Dante the poet explains heavens geography like this. There are nine spheres beyond the earth. In this order, the moon which stands for faith, mercury, which stands for hope, Venus which stands for love, the sun which represents prudence, Mars, which represents strength, Jupiter, which represents justice, Saturn, which represents work, the fixed stars and ninth, a realm called the prime mover, which as its name suggests, causes the movement of all heavenly bodies. 

According to medieval thought, all matter was given life by God’s mind. And the force of God was the energy behind this ninth realm, the prime mover, then beyond the ninth realm was the 10th called the Empyrean. Empyrean is beyond time and space. It’s the infinite realm of God, the angels and the saved.

These structures of planets and God’s force were Dante the poet’s interpretation of astronomy, combined with Christian theology. 

Beatrice is Dante’s guide through Heaven, which is divided by virtues instead of sins. Souls here have forgotten the Earthly Delights still remembered by those in purgatory. The only feeling in Paradise is love, and its expression is through light. Beatrice shines with light, and the virtues are illustrated by light. Just as darkness and pain illustrated the passages of hell. 

Many readers feel that this book is the least successful, yet it was written last and should represent Dante’s most complete spiritual understanding and artistic achievement, now that the poet has lost some of his bitterness and political stridency. Dante completed the inferno and purgatory around 1315. He died six years later, and paradise was published after his death, so it must have been written right before that time. 

Here’s a brief synopsis of Dante’s trip to paradise. It’s noon on the first day of spring when Dante and Beatrice discover around the brightness and the music of the spheres. They are in the sphere of fire flown there faster than thought, as they progress through the spheres of virtue Beatrice grows more and more beautiful with each ascension. The souls are glowing lights. They don’t have physical forms except for those in the Empyrean, the furthest place. In the sphere of mercury, Dante meets Justinian, who wrote the Roman legal code. Justinian discusses the role of Roman rule as part of the divine plan for humanity. 

In the sphere of the sun, Dante sees St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic theologian, and Solomon, the biblical King. St. Thomas discusses the merits of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis’s religious order the Franciscan monks. He, Thomas, regrets the religious order that he founded the Dominicans, whom he says have forsaken their divine purpose. 

Dante and Beatrice go through realm after realm each one brighter, each one having more and more illustrious saints, and each one adding to Beatrice’s light and beauty. Finally, they reach the realm of the fixed stars and Dante looks back to Earth, how small it is in God’s perspective. Then Dante looks up the vision of Jesus Christ, then of his mother, Mary, moving toward the Empyrean, the last abode. St. Peter, James and John come forward to question Dante on his understanding of faith, hope and love. When Dante says that his understanding of love is based on both reason and revelation, all the souls chant in joy.

They come to the realm of light, only light. This is the Empyrean where Dante can see the saints in their bodily forms. At first he sees a river of light which becomes a white rose. Its petals are rows of saints. Beatrice points out a place reserved for the Emperor Henry the seventh, the ruler Dante hoped would unite Italy. Angels fly from the heart of the rose to the petals and take their places there. Beatrice joins the saints and angels in the rose and tells Dante to look up to Mary’s seat above them all. Beatrice has completed her work with Dante. She was his youthful infatuation, his muse of poetry, and his guide to this state of light, always urging him on with loving inspiration.

Dante looks at Mary, who nods granting Dante the chance to see God’s face. Dante looks at the heart of the white rose and says, I saw within its depth how it conceives all things in a single volume bound by love, of which the universe is the scattered leaves, and in the face of God, Dante seems to see the image of a person. This is the answer, from the depths of hell, through the delights of Earth, to the center of all knowing and the mind of God. In each place, humanity exists. And the underlying force that creates    and unites humanity, as Dante says, is the love that moves the sun and the other stars. 


Comprehension Check

Choose the best answer that reflects your understanding of what we discussed in the episode.

How many main sections make up the Divine Comedy?
Which of these sections is NOT a main section of the Divine Comedy?
Which of these reasons is NOT a reason why Hell is the most widely read section of the Divine Comedy?
What is the meaning of Comedy in the title 'The Divine Comedy'?
How many circles are there in Dante's Hell?
What do the P's stand for in Purgatory?
Who leads Dante in most of his journey in the Divine Comedy?
Who was Beatrice to Dante?
Which is true about The Divine Comedy?
Which is NOT true about Dante Alighieri?

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