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Dante, Boethius, And Christianity
Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, of which the Inferno is the first of three books, called Boethius, an early Christian, "The blessed soul who exposes the deceptive world to anyone who gives ear to him." But Boethius was not a non-conflicted Christian, and it seems, neither was Dante, who wrote the Divine Comedy at least partly as a sort of historical-political payback. (For example, in Canto VI of the Inferno, Ciacco mentions Pope Boniface VIII, the reigning Pope of his time, "whose intervention in the affairs of the city was, in Dante's view, a main cause of its miseries" (Sinclair, p. 95). St. John, on the other hand, was a non-conflicted Christian, who believed wholly in Jesus as the son of God, and entertained no other ideas. Although he likely wrote, and therefore thought in Greek, his devotion to Jesus, as one of Jesus' disciples, was absolute. According to "John: Introduction":
The Gospel according to John is quite different in character from the three synoptic gospels. It is highly literary and symbolic. It does not follow the same order or reproduce the same stories as the synoptic gospels. To a much greater degree, it is the product of a developed theological reflection and grows out of a different circle and tradition. It was probably written in the 90s of the first century. Boethius, on the other hand, seemed, based on his writings, to vary between Christian faith and a Greek
belief system that included Philosophy, clearly a Greek conception and ideal, in the form of a woman.
I will examine Dante's Christian beliefs within, and possible other motivations for writing, the Inferno, and suggest that these were perhaps less purely Christian than the apparent overall subject of the Divine Comedy, and the Inferno in particular might suggest. In that same sense, a comparison may be made between Dante and Boethius who both wrote of Christians and Greeks within the same texts, and shared an allegiance to both, spiritually and philosophically. St. John, on the other hand, although he probably wrote both his Gospels and his Acts in Greek, had an allegiance only to Jesus, and was, therefore, a better, more serious Christian than was either Boethius or Dante, although all three wrote of Christianity.
Like Dante in the Inferno, Boethius seemed conflicted about his Christian beliefs. Boethius writes while imprisoned, for example in his The Consolation of Philosophy:
. . . when I turned my eyes towards her and fixed my gaze upon her, I recognised my nurse, Philosophy, in whose chambers I had spent my life from earliest manhood. And I asked her,' Wherefore have you, mistress of all virtues, come down from heaven above to visit my lonely place of banishment? Is it that you, as well as I, may be harried, the victim of false charges? ' 'Should I,' said she,' desert you, my nursling?
Boethius is a Christian, but his Christianity clearly co-exists with Greek (non-Christian) ideals, and he identifies these in particular as giving him comfort during his last days on earth: for him, a reflective time filled with disappointment and sadness. It is then that Philosophy comes to Boethius, in the form of a woman, to comfort him in prison. Further, Boethius' heroes and inspirations, much like Dante's later, seem not to be Christians, but instead, Greeks:
In ancient days before the time of my child, Plato, have we not as well as nowadays fought many a mighty battle against the recklessness of folly? And though Plato did survive, did not his master, Socrates, win his victory of an unjust death, with me present at his side? When after him the followers of Epicurus, and in turn the Stoics,
and then others did all try their utmost to seize his legacy, they dragged me, for all my cries and struggles, as though to share me as plunder; they tore my robe which I had woven with mine own hands, and snatched away the fragments thereof: and when they
thought I had altogether yielded myself to them, they departed.
Further, for Boethius, the concept of God seems perhaps a composite Greek (based on logic) and Christian (based on faith) one. Further, as the woman Philosophy states to Boethius,
and as Boethius implicitly agrees:
there cannot be two highest goods which are different. For where two good things are different, the one cannot be the other; wherefore neither can be the perfect good, while each is lacking to the other. And that which is not perfect cannot be the highest, plainly. Therefore if two things are highest good, they cannot be different. Further, we have proved to ourselves that both happiness and God are each the highest good.
Therefore the highest Deity must be identical with the highest happiness.
Dante Alighieri medieval masterpiece The Divine Comedy is similarly varied in its expressions of interest in and admiration of Greek ideals and serious devotion to a Christian belief system. First, Dante clearly admires pre-Christian figures, as does Boethius. Moreover, Dante even chooses the pre-Christian, never baptized Roman poet Virgil to be his spiritual guide through Hell and Purgatory, rather than a Christian guide (who could guide him through Paradise as well, while Virgil, having not been baptized, must stop before entering Paradise).
The Divine Comedy consists of three separate works, the Inferno (Hell); the Purgatorio (Purgatory) and the Paradiso (Heaven). The combined works are supposed to represent a spiritual Christian journey of Dante's, metaphorically and allegorically, at least: through Hell; Purgatory, and Paradise, so that Dante the poet/sojourner might learn, from this midlife experience following his own apparent loss of faith, what he needs to feel, experience, and believe in order to become a better Christian, and therefore ascend to Paradise when the time arrives. Like Boethius, moreover, Dante has been persecuted and ostracized. Boethius writes from prison; Dante writes from political exile.
Further, like the writings of Boethius, and even the Gospels of St. John, stylistically speaking (though not spiritually speaking) the observations, experiences, and feelings Dante expresses within the Inferno are far from purely Christian at all times. Dante's vision of the underworld, for example, is remarkably like that of Virgil, and before Virgil, that or Orpheus, neither of whom were Christian, having both been born much too early to be baptized.
The Inferno is filled with pagan references and imagery as well, none of which gives Dante any pause whatsoever, much less deters him in any way from his supposedly Christian journey. But Virgil is a pre-Christian Roman pagan, who may accompany Dante through Hell and Purgatory, but not up into Heaven. This in and of itself seems ironic, since, as Dante's personal and spiritual guide through Hell and Purgatory, Virgil assists Dante more than anyone else he meets, by far, in learning the requirements of Paradise, someplace he himself can never go.
The Inferno is also, perhaps, a mere elaborate metaphor for a spiritual journey of the creative imagination. Within the Inferno, Dante plays a dual role: that of poet and spiritual traveler. With his guide Virgil (who is, like Dante, a poet, and the author of the great Roman epic poem The Aeneid, about the journey of Aeneas through the Underworld) Dante emerges, at age 35 and in despair (possibly a metaphor for a spiritual (or other) "midlife crisis" and/or an episode of depression caused by his recent political exile from Florence). He spends the night in a "dark wood," from which he emerges into morning and a "sunlit hill" (Dante, The Inferno, Canto 1 (Introductory description), p. 1836). These are, in fact, predominantly Christian symbols (representing darkness and light, or heaven and hell), even if much of what awaits Dante and Virgil within the Inferno itself will not be.
Within the text of the Inferno, Dante refers to the previous night, before Virgil's arrival to guide him on his journey, as a "night of sorrow" (line 20). Clearly, within these opening lines, darkness is also used by Dante as a metaphor for sadness; hopelessness, and spiritual emptiness or loss. Light, on the other hand (which we associate, early on with Virgil, himself, when Dante first calls him: "O light and honor of all other poets" (line 82) represents truth, hope, spiritual clarity, and divine inspiration.
Various metaphors for both darkness and light (in the Christian sense, with darkness being closest to Satan, and lightness, closest to God) appear throughout the Inferno. As the poet and his Roman guide pass through each of the nine circles of Hell, they descend deeper and deeper into darkness (Satan's realm), to the point where Dante cannot even recognize the faces of those he sees there. Conversely, within Paradise, the face of God is pure light, the opposite of the deep recesses of the Inferno.
Virgil himself has been sent, to assist Dante, from heaven by Beatrice, where she herself, Dante's symbol of the sublime, is bathed in pure light. To reach Beatrice in Heaven, however, Dante must first pass…[continue]
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