Dante: Inside the Mind of a Believer

James explores the impact of religion on Dante Alighieri.
Posthumous portrait in tempera by Sandro Botticelli, 1495
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Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) the Florentine author of the medieval masterpiece of fantasy-fiction known as the Divine Comedy provides the modern observer with a unique insight into the world-view of a thinking man at the height of the Age of Faith. This means that his work provides a resource that should be of interest to anyone who, like for example Richard Dawkins, is concerned that religious faith poses a real and present danger to post-enlightenment rationalism. To them Dante is surely the perfect representative of a period during which the shadow of superstition was at its deepest. Since that time, goes their view of history, humankind has dragged itself into the light of reason. The concern that exercises them is that, although the triumphs of scientific rationalism are all around us, backsliders and fanatics are still numerous enough to threaten to undo the whole project and plunge us back into the dark ages. Dawkins in particular is clear about the root cause of this state of affairs: it is religion. He is sure that it is faith itself which is destroying rational thought.

If this is the case then Dante, who not only lived at a time when religion was the norm but whose unshakable personal faith is evident in nearly every line he wrote, should have borne the full brunt of this intellectual pollution. Religion should have turned him into an unquestioning puppet of the pope, an intolerant fanatic blind to the benefits of rational discussion and opposed to anything resembling scientific enquiry.

We are fortunate to be able to test this prediction because in the Divine Comedy (usually known nowadays simply as the Comedy) Dante records his own opinions and beliefs about a broad spectrum of topics including morality, politics, and science. The poem is a fictional first-person narrative (Dante arguably comes very close to being the person who invented the novel with the first modern use of this form) but the author’s intention is always ultimately didactic. He wants to make people better by helping them to understand the true nature of the universe and in his writing he is never slow to pass an opinion or to show off his knowledge. As a consequence the Comedy provides a picture of the world as Dante saw it and by examining it we can test the Dawkins hypothesis. It should be emphasised that in this exercise we are not investigating the rightness or wrongness of Dante’s faith in itself but whether it had on him the effect that Dawkins’ theory would predict.

To deal with the question of papal authority first, Dante lived through the papacy of Boniface VIII who represents, according to some historians, the very apogee of papal power. With a combination of intelligence, brutality and the good fortune that the Holy Roman Empire had been obliged greatly to reduce its sphere of influence he managed to wield more simple political power than any pope before or since. Dante pays a great deal of attention to Boniface in the Comedy. Even though he is not dead at the time when the story takes place, Dante devises a precise description of what will happen to him when he is. He will be stuffed head first into a fiery hole in the ground while flames lick around his feet. Again and again Dante returns to the subject of the wickedness of Boniface until he finally enlists St Peter himself to state unequivocally that he has turned the papacy into a sewer.  No unquestioning obedience there, then. Dante supports the papacy, it is true, for him the pope is an essential part of God’s plan but that is all the more reason to scrutinise the behaviour of individual popes and to speak out when they transgress. Boniface is by no means the only pope to be mentioned as being in Hell.

The precise sin of which Boniface is guilty is simony or selling spiritual benefits for material gain. He had induced various cities to support him in one of his military campaigns by handing out indulgences: special blessings that guaranteed the holder a direct entry into Heaven. In other words he had crossed the line between temporal and spiritual power. There is however another reason why Dante hated him: it was his greed and ambition that caused the political melt-down of Florence, precisely and chillingly described by a contemporary chronicler, which resulted in Dante being exiled, his possessions being looted and he and his children being condemned to death. He started work on the comedy after the exile so we can be certain that these events were on his mind. Perhaps, then, this is a special case. Perhaps personal circumstances overrode the credulous cringing to the pontiff which would have been more in keeping with his faith.

We should consider the question of punishment further. It is, after all, what the Inferno is about. Here we do seem, at first sight, to be on shaky ground: divinely ordained punishment sounds like just the sort of implacable and unjust vengeance that detractors of religion fear. It should be conceded that, since attitudes have changed in the intervening 700 years, our own ideas of reasonable punishment are indeed unlikely to coincide with those of someone from the late Middle Ages. But the idea of a just punishment has not been abandoned in our own enlightened times and there are few among the new detractors of religion who would argue that the great thing about atheism is that criminals never need to be punished. The issue about punishment is not whether Dante approved of punishment but whether his attitude to it is one of inflexible bigotry. In fact Dante displays a wide range of reactions to punishment. When he sees the fiery hole which will one day contain His Holiness Boniface VIII he cannot stop himself from gleefully exclaiming: O Highest wisdom, even in hell  How justly does your power make awards! [1]. As an author he energetically devises ingenious and horrific punishments for the damned but this is really no more than a prerequisite of successful fiction (then as now) and Dante displays a fine intuitive sense of what his public wants.

In other Infernal encounters Dante does display human sympathy. One example is his meeting with the adulterous couple, Paolo and Francesca, in the outer reaches of Hell. They are not placed very deep into the Inferno because, contrary to what one might expect, sins such as lust and (a little worse) heresy only rate the mild outer edges of the pit. In the middle of Hell are placed those guilty of the sins relating to fraud. At  the very centre are the sinners who have betrayed their close comrades and friends. Paolo and Francesca’s relatively light punishment consists of being whirled through the darkness by an eternal wind. For Dante’s benefit they are held still while he speaks to them. He is plainly very sympathetic with Francesca (Paolo doesn’t get to speak so it is harder to determine his attitude to him). She is represented as heroically unrepentant. The nearest she comes to a confession of guilt is an attempt to blame the whole lustful episode on a story the couple read in a book. There is no self-righteous condemnation in the mind of the poet. Francesca’s plight has brought out the novelist in Dante and driven out the theologian.

With regard to anti-Semitism, an all too frequent form of medieval intolerance, Dante also acquits himself well. While in the outer circle of Hell it is explained to him that being Jewish can be, in the right circumstances, a get-out-of-Hell-free card. His companion Virgil, who was there at the time, tells the story. He explains that, not long after his own death in 19 BC Christ, whom he describes simply as ‘a man crowned with the sign of victory’, arrived and led those souls who are mentioned prominently in the Old Testament — Moses, Abraham, King David and Jacob — directly to Paradise. Elsewhere in the Comedy Dante mentions that some people believe that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was a punishment for the crucifixion. This view was not uncommon in the Middle Ages but it should be noted that Dante distances himself from it. He is specific that he is talking about the symbolic destruction of a building rather than harm to living persons and he is at pains not to say that he himself holds to this belief.

His treatment of another traditional object of prejudice, Islam, is also interesting. It seems, in fact, that many of the ideas in the Comedy have their roots in Islamic lore. Scholars have posited written sources that might have been available to Dante but an equally plausible explanation for these rather piecemeal borrowings is that he had discussed these matters with visiting Muslims, of whom the trading city of Florence would have had many. That would provide a possible explanation for his eccentric treatment of the prophet Mohammed himself. It is hardly surprising that, in a book written by a medieval Christian, the Prophet should be represented in Hell. What is unexpected is that he is found not among the heretics but in a circle reserved for schismatics, those who created rifts in the unified fabric of Christendom. Dante seems here to be accessing a rather strange medieval myth in which the Prophet was once a Christian bishop who broke away from the Church and founded Islam as a splinter movement. Given that Dante elsewhere shows himself well informed about Islam it is hard to believe that he was really taken in by this unlikely tale. Perhaps he deliberately chose to allow the religion of the Saracens a glimmer. After all where now there is schism once there was unity.

It is, however, in the matter of homosexuality, where one might expect a set piece display of bigotry, that Dante shows the greatest tolerance. We meet several gays, some are in Purgatory where they are assured an eventual place in heaven. They are grouped with other sexual transgressors and await only their moment to pass through purifying fire before entering paradise. They pass the time by processing round the mountain, divided into two groups – straights and gays – who move in opposite directions. As they pass each other the groups greet each other with extravagant air kisses. Dante says they look like ants who greet each other by rubbing their feelers. The two groups are roughly equal in number and undergo exactly the same degree of purgation. There is absolutely no discrimination.

Dante does meet some gays in hell. In particular, the soul of Brunetto Latini, an elderly historian and diplomat. Dante had known Brunetto in life and from their conversation it is clear the he had been an early inspiration. Brunetto remembers Dante kindly as well because of all the souls in Hell he is the only one who greets Dante with any sign of pleasure: ‘Qual maraviglia![2]’, he exclaims when he sees him, ‘Darling how marvellous!’. Brunetto is condemned to walk forever on the flaming sand of the sixth circle of Hell. Dante strolls alongside and the two of them discuss the moral shortcomings of the Florentine state. Then it is time for Brunetto to leave. He jogs off to catch up with the group of souls to which he is assigned. Dante watches him go and notes that he looks like a runner in a race, endeavouring to catch up the with main field. Then, in the final line of the canto, he makes an extraordinary remark  ‘But to me’, he says ‘he seemed like the winner [3]’. It is hard not to believe that in that line centuries of prejudice and hatred have momentarily melted away.

But Dawkins and others perceive the corrosive influence of faith most clearly in the field of science.  Is it possible that, although Dante may demonstrate some tolerance in matters of human relations, when it comes to scientific enquiry the door of his mind may be closed? Here again he is a good subject for this enquiry because, from the very beginning, Dante seems to have possessed a natural scientific bent. In his description of his first meeting with the nine year old Beatrice for example (he was also nine at the time but his description is from a recollection written down in his late teens) he produces a scientific account, in terms of Aristotle’s theory of the soul, of the effect that the first meeting and falling in love had on his psyche. In fact he is so taken with the contemporary philosophy and psychology of love that he omits ever to tell us such fundamental facts about Beatrice as the colour of her eyes or her hair. Dante’s scientific approach never leaves him. In all his work he displays a fascination with nature and how and why things work. His last work was not the comedy but a brief monograph on the distribution of land and sea on the surface of the globe.  It would not be an unreasonable exaggeration to call him a nerd.

Dante’s fascinated curiosity about the nature of the universe does not conflict with his religious orthodoxy: for him the two things are naturally complimentary. In the Comedy in particular Dante has to get his science right; he is, after all, writing science fiction. In the Inferno the protagonist travels to the centre of the round earth. Dante is not displaying any special knowledge when he says the earth is round. Everybody believed it was round and had done so from the beginning of recorded history. The notion that people in the olden days thought that the earth was flat is just a sad example of out tendency to patronise the past. When Dante gets to the centre of the earth, however, he does use his scientific imagination in a creative way.  He describes what it is like to pass through what he calls ‘the place where forces converge’. Dante passes the centre of the earth by climbing down the thigh of the Devil, (the fact that the Devil is stuck there in a cavern is a product of Dante’s poetic imagination, by the way, not medieval Christian doctrine). During the climb he experiences a reversal of the direction of the gravitational field — down becomes up — and he emerges to see the Devil’s hooves sticking upwards into the air.  Dante knows that there will be a twelve hour time difference on the other side of the world and from this moment on the narrative works to ‘purgatory time’ as he ascends to the other side of the earth. This feat of imagination is clever enough but one cannot help but think that he came within a whisker of noting that the forces are in fact converging from all directions which would render Dante apparently weightless. You can’t have everything.

As Dante leaves the surface of the earth and commences the space travel part of the Comedy he is at pains to describe the journey while respecting the constraints of the science of his time. He provides an explanation of why he is ascending in the first place — a fundamental ‘change of substance’ means his natural state is now to ascend. He imagines what the earth looks like from space, correctly guessing that it is blue. He even attempts to respect the distances between the planets as understood by medieval astronomers (less than current ideas but not ridiculous). This last example leads him to invent one of the mainstays of science fiction. Dante requires his protagonist make journeys of millions of miles. At any realistic speed the narrative would take forever and most of it would be very boring. He therefore works out a get-around: whenever Beatrice smiles at him he is instantaneously transported from planet to planet. Later writers would call this ‘beaming up’.

It may of course be objected that the ‘science’ of Dante’s day was approved by the church and therefore not susceptible to genuine rigorous debate. There was in fact much dispute in medieval science. Hardening of attitudes tend to come when, as in the case of Galileo, scientific dispute begins to look like a symbol of more concrete dissent. In Heaven Dante even hears about one cosmologist who obstinately clung to a wrong-headed idea about the structure of the universe, only giving it up when he was taken to heaven where he could see for himself how it was. Nor is it a criticism of Dante’s scientific credentials to point out that the science he respected was wrong. All science is wrong eventually.

It is in the understanding of the whole universe on the grand scale — cosmology, to give it its medieval name — that Dante displays his greatest scientific insight. At the end of the Comedy the protagonist comes to the edge of the universe. He is in the outermost sphere, the Primum Mobile, that sweeps the stars around the heavens and is the origin of all motion. This is the dramatic conclusion of the Comedy and it is mystical: beyond this sphere Dante must come face to face with the divine love which drives the universe.  All of this is outside the domain of science and Dante is clear that he recognises this. There is, as Beatrice says, no ‘where’ beyond this point. His account of going there is an account of the breakdown of the laws of logic: numbers are of no use to count them, even the laws of perspective do not hold. Dante is enough of an empiricist to know not to make his beliefs susceptible to experimental disproof. Part of scientific understanding surely consists in knowing what is not science.

Neither in the Comedy nor in any of his other writings does Dante display the pathology of the intellect that Dawkins expects from the man of faith. Far from obstinately believing untruths while remaining deaf to reason Dante and his religious contemporaries saw the world itself as a subtle and complex puzzle to be analysed and interpreted in order to reveal the wonders of nature. This attitude extended also to religious texts which were also susceptible to interpretation at many levels.  To Dante a belief that one should interpret the bible rigidly and literally would simply have been a sign of lack of sophistication at best and ignorance at worst.

The version of religion against which Dawkins tilts is a modern construct, a straw man made by stitching together assorted fanatics and muddle-headed paranoids of various faiths. The people whom he singles out usually are indeed intolerant and unpleasant but their existence does not add up to a critique of religion. Dante is simply one of the millions of counter-examples that undermine the claim that religion produces these effects. If we wish to understand them we must seek other explanations for their intolerance and other causes for their hatred. Dante shows us a picture of a balanced and harmonious universe and he exhorts his readers to respond to it as such. As a metaphor and as literature it is a message that can be appreciated by anyone.

[1]  Inferno XIX 12

[2]  Inferno XV 24

[3]  Inferno XV 124