The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
Dante’s Divine Comedy (started in 1308 and finished in 1321) is a chronicle of his ascent from Hell (sin) through Purgatory (penance) and into Paradise (salvation). “The shifting scenes of the poem represent the respective states of the human soul after death as they correspond to man’s moral attitude in life.”[i] The less conscious a person was in living one’s life or the more assiduously one pursued plenty, pleasure and power, the more gruesome the experience of the afterlife.
To appreciate The Divine Comedy, defined as epic poetry, we must understand that it is allegorical. The dictionary defines allegory as: A literary, dramatic, or pictorial device in which each literal character, object, and event represents a symbol illustrating an idea or moral or religious principle. “‘Taken literally,’ Dante wrote to a contemporary, ‘the subject (of The Divine Comedy) is the state of the soul after death, simply considered. But allegorically taken, its subject is man, according as by his good or ill deserts he renders himself liable to the reward or punishment of Justice.’”[ii]
Here are the most central of these symbols:
- The desert represents P-B because being unconscious, humanity is lost and wanders aimlessly thirsting for reality. Reality is experienced only by those who wake up but that is a rare occurrence because as the Bible says, “narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Matthew vii, 14.
- The sensation energy center of the false self is the leopard which represents the temptations of the flesh.
- The power energy center is the lion with “the type of pride, the disposition which is the root of the sins of violence.”[iii]
- The security energy center is the wolf representing “the type of avarice, that covetousness of earthly goods which turns the heart from seeking the goods of heaven, and is the main source of the sins of fraud.”[iv]
- The forest represents the world of sense in which humanity is lost. To Dante this would mean living a life of sin.
- The hill represents the true course of life, a life of virtue, and it is bathed in sunlight.
- Spring represents the season of creation and the creative process in a human being.
Because of the allegorical nature and profound insights of The Divine Comedy, the story transcends time and space and becomes a universal narrative. The epic poem begins with the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) leading Dante to the gate of Hell and later into Purgatory. Here they see great suffering, of course, but also those that are “contented in the fire.”
Those that are contented are those who realize that they are being purified and made fit for heaven. P-B is both Hell and Purgatory as the Buddha realized in his insight that “life is suffering.” Suffering “purifies” or can motivate us to begin the process of seeking “paradise” or a new kingdom (P-A). Those that don’t acknowledge the reality of suffering, the First Noble Truth, remain in an unconscious state or Hell.
After he leaves Virgil, Dante is escorted to Heaven by Beatrice, his beloved (intuition). Virgil cannot lead Dante to heaven because he represents the intellect which is not capable of insight or of comprehending P-A (entering the NOW). Virgil is described as: “The most favored of the noble pagans who dwells in Limbo without hope of heavenly bliss, he represents the highest of achievements of human reason and classical learning.”[v] But also—he is not a Christian!
Notice how Hell is described as not being in the present moment. “Dante spoke to two of these tormented spirits and learned that all souls in Hell, who knew nothing of the present, can remember the past, and dimly foresee the future.”[vi] The closest a Christian contained in P-B can come to describing the NOW and the perfection of Oneness is this example by Frank Magill describing Dante in Masterpieces of World Literature. “Dante received the grace to contemplate the glory of God, and to glimpse, for a moment, the greatest of mysteries, the Trinity and man’s union with the divine.”[vii]
Dante also meets many characters whom he uses to represent various categories of sin. One is “Minos, the monstrous judge who dooms sinners to their allotted torments.”[viii] We recognize Minos as the false-self survival strategy which accounts for most self-destructive human behavior when reaction is chosen instead of response thus creating suffering.
“Ciacco, a Florentine damned for gluttony [security seeking], Brunetto Latini laments the sin of sodomy [sensation seeking] which placed him deep in Hell, along with Guido Guinicelli and Arnaut, love poets who submit to the flames which purify them of lust, [and] Nicholas III, one of the popes, damned to burn in a rocky cave for using the resources of the Church for worldly advancement [power seeking].”[ix]
As a Christian, Dante worshiped God but as a Western intellectual, he worshiped reason. He gave a special reward to Thomas Aquinas, the Scholastic philosopher. Aquinas tells Dante about the sphere of the sun, which is the home of those who have reached heaven through their knowledge of God.
He also meets St. Peter, St. James and St. John in Heaven who represent the virtues that specifically address the energy centers of the false self, namely poverty [security], chastity [sensation], and obedience [power]. These three Saints represent the behavior of the True-self, precisely the behaviors we want to emulate if we want to avoid the experience of the circles of Hell and Purgatory (P-B).
[i] Hibbard, Addison, and Horst Frenz. Writers of the Western World. New York: Houghton. 1954, page 474.
[v] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper. 1989, page 194.
[vi] Ibid., page 196.
[vii] Ibid., page 197.
[viii] Ibid., page 194.
[ix] Ibid., pages 194-195.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.