By Chet Yarbrough
The Modern Scholar: Dante and His Divine Comedy
Lectures By Timothy B. Shutt
Narrated by Timothy B. Shutt
Timothy Shutt’s lectures on “The Divine Comedy” are a valuable guide to understanding Dante’s masterpiece.
The origin of the story seems simple but its meaning is complex and revelatory. Dante Alighieri is a wealthy aristocrat that represents a major leadership faction in 13th century Italy, the “White Gulphs”, which are vying for power with the Ghibelline. Their conflict is over the integrity of the Pope in Rome when the papal enclave is to be relocated to Avignon, France. The move occurs in 1309 and lasts for 67 years.
Pope Boniface VIII sides with the Ghibelline to over throw the Gulphs and excommunicate Dante. Dante loses his political position, his wealth, and coincidentally, the life of the woman he loves, Beatrice. This crushing change in Dante’s life compels him to complete (between 1308 and 1321) what Shutt calls the greatest single piece of literature ever written.
Over a century before Martin Luther posts the “95 Theses” objecting to the church’s sale of indulgences; i.e. the sale of “the word” is a preeminent issue between the Gulphs and the Ghibelline. Pope Boniface betrays the Gulph Christian community by siding with the Ghibelline who endorse sale of indulgences.
The Pope, in Dante’s view, is a traitor to his community. In the pit of Dante’s despair, he creates an image of purgatory. He writes of a hell and heaven that crystallizes human belief in the divine. Virgil becomes Dante’s guide on an imagined journey from earth, to purgatory, to hell, and back.
Dante meets the souls of the dead and explains where they are, what sin they committed, what fate awaits them, and why some sins are greater than others. Dante reveals how all sins in life may only be forgiven with the grace of God. The keys to heaven lay in asking God’s forgiveness before death.
Dante defines sin, and redemption. Human death places souls in one of three places; i.e. purgatory, hell, or heaven. All sins are not created equal but all humankind begins life in sin and can only be redeemed through good works, baptism, forgiveness, and the grace of God.
Good works alone do not protect one from hell, or purgatory. It seems all transgressions can be forgiven but only with a request for grace from God before death. Sins have a weighted hierarchy; i.e. lust as the lesser; while being a traitor to one’s community is the greatest sin of all.
Dante’s hell is sometimes hot and sometimes cold—just below the ninth and lowest circle of hell, Dante sees Lucifer who dwells in an ice-cold wasteland. The devil does not speak but has three faces with three stuffed mouths that eternally chew on the bodies of three traitors; i.e. Brutus, Cassius, and Judas—the greatest of earth’s sinners in Dante’s poem. Surprisingly, some say, Pope Boniface VIII is at the eighth circle of hell; presumably because his betrayal was the lesser of Dante’s selected and unrepentant traitors.
After passing through the final depth of hell, Virgil guides Dante back to the beginning of the journey; here, Dante meets the soul of Beatrice. Virgil leaves, and Dante accompanies Beatrice in a journey to heaven.
Dante’s heaven encompasses all that is known and unknown. Dante journeys to the planets and stars. He sees God and views an inversion of time and space. He finds earth is the center of all that is God and that nothing exists that is not created by God.
Heaven is a circle of angels that dance and spin so fast that heaven and God are everywhere at all times and in all places. There are degrees of heaven but all who are worthy will have eternal life. Degrees of heaven have no consequence to those who dwell in higher or lower levels because they are happy in their place–without envy; and with acceptance, and grace for the imperfection of their souls.
Purgatory may be a way-station to heaven for a believer that is cleansed of their sin, or it may be an eternal home for the traitor, non-believer, or pagan. Hell is perdition for eternity with no surcease of pain or opportunity for escape. Heaven is a place of eternal rest, peace, and love.
One is overwhelmed by Dante’s genius whether or not he/she is a believer. Shutt gives one a better understanding of who Dante was and why “The Divine Comedy” is a classic.