Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 4 – enter Virgil, voice of reason

Dante is driven downhill. Image from Digital Bodleian MS. Canon. Ital. 109. Divine Comedy, with proemium by Jacopo Alighieri. Licensed under creative Commons CC-BY-NC 4.0

Reason, sweet reason! How we – or some of us, at least – long for you in the age of Brexit, Trumpism and other mass delusions. As in our time, so in Dante’s.

At the end of my first tasting note we left Dante confused and terrified, alone in the “dark wood” of his erring self, where he spends a piteous night. With the dawn comes hope: though still in the wood, he can see sunlit uplands – literally! – the morning sun lights up the shoulders of a distant hill.

Dante starts to climb the hill, but is driven down to dove il sol tace, “to where the sun is silent”, by three wild beasts: a leopard, a lion and a wolf. These are thought to represent the sins Dante sees as his own: lust (and inconstancy), pride and greed.

I’ll write more about Dante’s model of the universe later on, but for now note that the hill foreshadows the mountain of purgatory, which the poet will climb for real in the Comedy’s second cantica, the cantica of redemption, while the sun stands for divine grace, which will enable the ascent.

No sunlit uplands for Dante. Photo by Paul Albertella on Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Dante’s initial, failed attempt to climb, in Inferno 1, is the first and foundational lesson of the Comedy: that, of ourselves and by ourselves, we can do nothing; without grace, our sins will drive us back down into the dark.

As he rushes downhill in renewed terror and despair, Dante sees a shadowy figure standing before him in the desert, a figure chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco, “who seemed hoarse from long silence”.

This is clever stuff! The figure turns out to be the great Roman poet Virgil, who has been dead for over a thousand years, so hasn’t done much speaking (except, we must suppose, to the other good pagans he hangs out with in limbo). But there’s also a personal meaning: there wouldn’t have been much point in Virgil’s speaking to Dante, who has been deaf to the voice of reason these past years.

For that is what Virgil, who is to be the first of Dante’s two guides on his journey through the afterlife, represents: the voice of sanity, the calm, reassuring voice of reason, basing his pronouncements on facts and knowledge. His voice is the route, for Dante as for us all, out of the tangled thickets of emotion and self-delusion.

On meeting Virgil, Dante’s terror turns to effusive joy and hope. He pours out his admiration for him as the source of his own poetic inspiration and begs him to save him from his sins:

The other road indicated by Virgil is the way down into hell. Dante must see for himself the depths to which human beings can fall before he is ready for redemption. Who better to be his guide than Virgil, whose own description of the Underworld, visited by Aeneas in Book VI of The Aeneid, was a source of Dante’s inspiration. Virgil explains that he has been sent by Beatrice – Dante’s first love in life and now a saint in heaven – to accompany him through the first two realms.

Time and again, as we descend through the circles of hell, Virgil will come to Dante’s aid, serving not just as knowledgeable guide and wise leader but also as protector at moments of danger and as a comforter and morale booster when the going gets tough. The relationship deepens as the poets progress, becoming, in the lower circles, one of utter dependence.

In Inferno’s final canto, Virgil will carry Dante on his shoulders as he descends the tufted flanks of Satan, forming a barrier between the poet and the tempter. In the words of John Sinclair’s great commentary, Dante “holds to his reason still” as they grapple with the source of all evil, at the material centre of the universe.

Florence, Dante’s beloved home city. Photo by Heidi Kaden on Unsplash

Dante’s world was in a mess, just as ours is now. The warring city states of Italy were torn by endless conflict between Guelfs and Ghibellines (supporters of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor respectively), a struggle that, in its divisiveness, resembles today’s between Leavers and Remainers in the UK. (Incidentally, Dante would have voted Remain: he was a firm believer in the role of the emperor as the guarantor of peace and stability throughout Europe.)

And the Guelfs themselves were divided into two sects, Black and White, that fiercely opposed each other, particularly in Florence, Dante’s beloved home city. The poet fell foul of this, being banished during a coup that occurred while he was away on a diplomatic mission. Try as he did, he was never able to achieve political rehabilitation and remained a refugee for the rest of his life.

Dante longed for a saviour, a strong but wise leader who would bring peace and reconciliation. Virgil, as Dante portrays him, has many of the right qualities.

In sum, the idea that reason is the best guide to human behaviour, including political action, was as strong in Dante’s time as it is today. Then as now, reason is key to mental and emotional health, to wise decision making, to light in our spiritual darkness.

In his hour of crisis, reason came to Dante’s rescue. May it do so in ours too.

Virgil – bust at the entrance to his crypt in Naples. Photo by Armando Mancini from Wikimedia Commons. Licensed by CC-BY-2.0

Genius line:
‘tu se’ solo colui da cu’io tolsi/lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore’: Dante attributes to Virgil alone the inspiration for the dolce stil nuovo, “the sweet new style” he developed in the sonnets of the Vita Nuova, the early volume of love poems for which he was already feted. In my opinion Dante’s being a bit disingenuous in order to butter Virgil up and secure his help: Virgil wrote in Latin, whereas Dante’s immediate predecessors who wrote in the vernacular were arguably much more influential in this regard. Guido Guinicelli, 1225-1276, is usually considered the “father” of the dolce stil nuovo.