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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