The “heart” of the Western Tradition: Dante


Nudged by Cheri, I’m re-reading Dante’s Inferno right now on my Kindle. Reading Dante is always a good idea.

The Inferno, or Hell, is the most gripping of the three parts of Dante’s epic Divine Comedy–the more boring parts being Purgatory and Paradise. (And isn’t that interesting, by the way: As every journalist and writer knows, the awful makes for an infinitely better story than the hunky-dory.)

But in this post I want to make a different, more historical, point about Dante: He may just be the single best illustration of a metaphor I told you about last year to explain–really, really explain–the entire Western Tradition.

To recap that post very briefly: You can think of “Western culture” as a human body.

  • The left leg is ancient Athens and Rome, Socrates and Aristotle;
  • the right leg is Jerusalem and the Bible, Moses and Jesus;
  • the crotch is the end of the Roman empire when the two “legs” met;
  • the torso is the Middle Ages, when the two traditions became one;
  • the left arm is the Renaissance;
  • the right arm is the Reformation;
  • the neck is the Enlightenment; and
  • the head is us, ie modernity.

(The metaphor, which comes from Professor Phillip Cary, is more subtle, so please read the older post.)

So where does Dante fit in?

Well, he was a product of the Middle Ages, located in the “torso” just below the left arm pit, where the Renaissance was to begin. The Renaissance, or “left arm”, in this analogy, was to be Petrarch, a fellow Tuscan and co-founder, with Dante, of the “Italian” language.

You see this all through the Inferno: the surprising and constant mixture of Athens/Rome and Jerusalem, of the (pagan) classics and the Judeo-Christian, Bible-thumping fire and brimstone, so that the two legacies merge to form a new and distinct tradition, as two haploid gametes unite to make a new, diploid human being.

The overall structure, both narrative and psychological, is, of course, Biblical: We are in Hell, after all. (The ancients did not have Hell, a place where we are punished for our sins. They only had a boring and gloomy place named Hades.)

But look who guides Dante through this Hell: It is Virgil, the greatest of the Roman poets, who told of brave Aeneas surviving the sack of Troy and founding the Roman nation. Dante can think of no one nobler, and yet Virgil is a pagan, so Dante meets him, along with Homer, Horace and the other ancient greats, in the first circle of Hell. Relatively un-dreadful, this circle is the limbo where those hang out who were unlucky enough to live before there was a Christianity to be baptized into.

Together, Virgil and Dante then descend deeper and deeper, from one circle to the next, to witness the torments of the sinners increasing with the vileness of their sin. But again, look whom they encounter:

  • Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded Hades (although Dante describes him slightly differently),
  • Charon, the ferryman who brought the dead souls across the river Styx for their final destination in Hades,
  • Centaurs, half men and half horses, who caused mischief in the Greek myths,
  • even historical characters such as Alexander the Great, whom we meet boiling in a river of blood in return for the blood that he spilled. (Hannibal must have been floating nearby.)

On and on. Virgil and Dante casually discuss things such as “your ethics”, which is assumed to mean Aristotle’s Ethics (the only text on ethics that the medievals had recourse too).

This, then, was the torso just before Petrarch emphasized its left (humanist, classical) side, thus launching the Renaissance and eventually provoking others to raise the right (Protestant, then counter-Reformationist) arm.

Located just below the left arm pit of the Western Tradition, Dante was thus … its heart!

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20 thoughts on “The “heart” of the Western Tradition: Dante

  1. Since we appear to have reached the top of the human head, and have nowhere else to rise to, does the whole thing spell triumph or disaster? Or do we now face an awful void? If triumph and disaster are impostors that we have to treat the same, is the truth simply nothing? Matter and anti-matter, good and evil, Yin and Yang, logic and intuition, body and soul, joy and suffering, Zen and nothing, East and West … do they simply annihilate each other? When we have run our race and spent our time, is that it, courage or not? Humour me, I’m nearly old.

  2. If modernity is the head, then where do we go in the future? I’m afraid all of the individual “I’m right, you’re wrong” lines of thought will continue to diverge as strands of hair growing from the head. Can you imagine a contemporary writer melding diverse ideologies as nicely as Dante did in The Divine Comedy without raising complaints from someone saying that their ideology is ‘trivialized’ by being commingled with someone else’s?

  3. Were you surprised by Dante’s layering of sins and sinners? Were you stunned by his descrption of the Circle 9? And who was in it?
    I’ve not instructed at the university level, but would have loved to have students create their own Inferno…

    Who would be your nominee for residence in the. 9th Circle of Hell?

    • I’m not in Circle 9 yet, because I read only after my work is done and the kids are asleep and they never seem to be. (I think that’s called Circle 10)

      But yes, the layers so far are, shall we say, exotically derived. Then again, the entire concept of Hell is utterly alien to me. I’ve always assumed that I either pay Charon a gold coin to cross Styx when my time comes, or that I re-merge into the Tao, the Brahman, the state of formless energy.

      A lot of things are weird to me, even the little ones: The Centaurs are shooting arrows at the sinners who try to climb out of the river of blood, but why would I, a deceased and disembodied shadow boiling in blood, care about an arrow hitting me?

      I will of course write more once I finish. But I’d quite like your take.

    • In between Virgil and Confucius, I have been rereading Dante (again). I am reminded how important it was to me to have the, Ciardi translation. At the end of each Canto, he explains many of the references, many of which I would never have known.

      What makes this word so amazing is that Dante wrote it in the early 1300’s.
      His descriptions of the reciprocal nature of the sinners and their sins is also
      of interest.

      I couldn’t help but think of Dante when I heard that the Ft. Hood shooter has regained consciousness, is paralyzed, and complains of pain in the hand.


  4. Richard and Thomas, you guys have an interesting take on the metaphor. Professor Cary meant it as a backward-looking diagnostic analogy, in which we (the head) look DOWN at our bodies to understand what we “stand” on, ie our foundation. But the metaphor of course completely breaks down when we go beyond the whence to extrapolate the whither.

    What I propose is something else: Future historians will use a different anatomy (perhaps a spider or a centipede) to explain to students how the “West” came about. There will be Athens, Jerusalem, the Middle Ages, but also Latino legs and Ellis Island and as-yet-unnamed influences.

    We might even go one step further and say that “the West” stops at the head. For most of western history, we Westerners had no concept of it. We may soon stop finding it useful again. I venture to guess that we are moving into a Bladerunner future, where new concoctions of cultures produce new traditions.

    Thomas, re the ideologies: Dante was actually a rigid ideologue in the civil war of his time, which was between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and which we can not even understand. What he does in the Inferno is different that mixing ideologies, I think. He effortlessly reflects a culture that is already mixed, as we think nothing of celebrating “Christmas” on (pagan) Yuletide, hiding (pagan) eggs on Easter, and so forth. Or as New Age types mix East and West, Om and E=MC2.

  5. The entire concept of Hell is indeed foreign toe as well. My mom told me we may be living our heaven/hell right here on earth.

    Hearing that big idea at age 7 colored my observations of good and evil; but I must admit that the underworld that Dante fashioned in 1302
    captured the child within who wonders still about where bad people go.
    I know critics see the punishments in Inferno as “poetic justice” but I have also viewed them as great artistic ironic inversions.

    And to make a tangential comment to your Circle 10, my daughter and her husband are there too with an 18 mo old and a 6 year old who are nocturnal.

    • “…….I must admit that the underworld that Dante fashioned in 1302 captured the child within who wonders still about where bad people go……”

      Maybe bad people come back here, to be reborn and live a life on earth all over again aka Reincarnation, which would be my idea of hell.

      Interestingly, between 20% and 25% of people in North America and Europe believe in reincarnation, regardless of how the previous life was lived. Those believers (in reincarnation) I’ve spoken with (who all belong to what JK Galbraith called the “contented” class) seem happy that they’ll live on earth again, obviously believing they’ll be reborn into the comfortable life they just left.

      The “contented” class notwithstanding, it is a fact that death is the ultimate mystery. If we do continue to exist in some way or other, we will, in the moments after we breathe our last, be in the postion of the people in John Rawls’ hypothetical world, where “………no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like…….”

      John Rawls’ world may not be so hypothetical after all!!!

  6. Circle 10:bin there,dun that. Circle 11: CERN – have they relit the fuse yet? Bonfire night tonight. Wasn’t Guido Fawkes RC?

  7. I can’t wait. The Guy falling into the bonfire. Flames leaping all over the place. Rockets fired into the crowd. Big bangs. Why is it Mum and Dad always want to do things without me?

  8. “Suffer little children to come unto me”, said Jesus (if he existed) before all the overlay of virgin birth, divinity, resurrection, heaven, hell and purgatory. How he managed to do all that babysitting and still find time to stand up in the violence and hell of the Middle East to talk about peace and tolerance, I don’t know.

    Where does the “Foreign toe” fit in with the metaphor, Cheri?

  9. Since I felt strongly that I was making a fool of myself, Idetermined to throw myself into Dante’s black hole. Edgar Allan poe says that anything which cannot be read at one sitting cannot be regarded as poetry, and so I decided to read and not stop until I finished.

    I gave up at Canto XXV, and only got that far with Longfellow’s help.

    It rapidly became apparent to me that without the necessary scholarship, I had no chance of acquiring anything more than a passing acqaintance with this work, and I have no chance whatever of ever gaining that scholarship.

    I come away, however, glad that I am post-enlightenment. This Hell was a reality and life’s preoccupation for most in days gone by. How Dante sucks you in and and how you identify with those lost souls! How it is a metaphor for the darkest reaches of the mind! It is Freudian free association rather than poetry, I hazard.

    I aspire to being a Christian, but one who marvels at the mysteries of a world I can see, touch, hear and assess for myself. If a sense of wonder, eternity, awe and love ensues, then so be it.

    To bed!

  10. Bravo, Richard!

    25 Cantos in one sitting!

    Cheri must be beside herself with pride about what she has started–namely, a Dante boomlet.

    Let’s not feel bad that some of this is over our heads. The bits that aren’t are beautiful.

    As to your style of faith, it appears to be Einsteinian. You are in good company.

    • Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is in on the boomlet. In his review of “A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch in The Guardian Weekly, his one dissatisfaction is that MacCulloch left out Dante. He says, “Dante’s Paradiso sets out what it was like, imaginatively and spiritually, to sense these dimensions of faith [the philosophical and the relational/personal] as essentially one.”

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