The following was a college essay written by Maria Keller. It has been edited and approved by Christianus Van Den Eijnden. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.
By Maria Keller, University of Notre Dame
In the Divine Comedy, Dante’s escorts through the afterlife form a Platonic ladder: they all draw Dante closer to the Empyrean, but they can also serve as distractions from the true path. Virgil’s role within The Divine Comedy is two-fold: firstly, he is the bridge between the Christian and the pagan, and therefore he represents the extent to which human reason can guide Dante. Secondly, he is Dante’s poetic guide: his great work, the Aeneid, is the foundation of Dante’s poetic instruction. However, both because natural reason is limited, and because Dante’s vocation as a poet calls him to greater feats, Dante must ultimately surpass Virgil and leave him behind. Beatrice is Dante’s muse; his relationship with her is Platonic. She draws him from Purgatorio through the spheres of Paradiso. Beatrice’s role as a guide extends further than Virgil’s because Beatrice originally initiated Dante’s journey and requested that Virgil accompany him. However, Beatrice too is left behind for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who is closer to the Blessed Mother, and therefore, to Christ, than Beatrice. As Dante transitions from guide to guide, he ascends through Purgatory and Heaven and is thereby growing closer and closer to God.
The readers first meet Dante as he is wandering through a wood, where he had strayed “from the True Way” (Inferno, Canto I, 12). Dante is stuck on a path of worldliness and is attacked by three beasts, representing various vices (Inferno, 5). Dante venerates Virgil as his
true master and first author, the sole maker from whom [he] drew the breath of that sweet style whose measures have brought [him] honor. (Inferno, Canto I, 82-84)
When Dante first meets Virgil, he is primarily concerned with his renown as a poet. Ironically, Virgil is both the source of Dante’s earthly glory and his guide in escaping the sin that resulted from his worldly success. Dante requests
That zeal and love’s apprenticeship that [he] poured out on [Virgil’s] heroic verses serve [him] well! (Inferno, Canto I, 79-80)
Despite his concentration on Virgil’s poetic virtues, Dante still hopes that Virgil will save him from the beasts of vice. Virgil predicts that a Greyhound will come one day and drive the ravening She-Wolf back into Hell. In this way, Virgil maintains his role as a pagan prophet of the Savior, as he supposedly prophesied the birth of Christ in Eclogue 4. However, Virgil also recognizes that he is limited in how far he can ascend. He can only guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory; eventually, “a worthier spirit shall be sent to guide [him]” (Inferno, Canto I, 116). This worthier spirit is Beatrice, who went down to Limbo to ask Virgil to aid Dante.
Virgil’s role as a poetic model sometimes comes into conflict with his desire to guide Dante in becoming more virtuous. When Dante is despairing his own worth to attempt such a journey, rather than falsely reassure Dante that he is as worthy as Paul or Aeneas, Virgil comforts him with the knowledge that three holy women desire his redemption. Later, when entering Limbo, Virgil explains to Dante:
“The pain of these below [them there], drains the color from [his] face for pity, and leaves this pallor [Dante mistakes] for fear.” (Inferno, Canto IV, 19-21).
Virgil clearly prefaces their entrance into Limbo with an explanation of how the Virtuous Pagans live without hope and implying that they are not to be envied for their worldly acclaim.
However, Virgil’s glory in Limbo confuses and distracts Dante from what is truly good. Virgil introduces Dante to the great poets of antiquity, and they welcome him into their company (Inferno, Canto IV). Despite his earlier fear of entering Hell, Dante is overjoyed as “the master souls of time were shown to [him] / [He glories] in the glory [he] has seen!” (Inferno, Canto IV, 119-120). Dante is distracted from his mission by the earthly joy he experiences in Limbo, and therefore Virgil’s renown undermines his ability to guide Dante. Virgil is later a source of pride for Dante, particularly when he tells the father of a rival poet that
Not by [himself he] is borne This terrible way. [He] is led by him who waits there, and whom perhaps [his] Guido held in scorn. Inferno, Canto X, 61-63).
Dante is implying that he is closer to the great poets of antiquity than Guido, showing that he is still highly concerned with worldly success. This concern is fed by the poetic renown of his guide.
Dante grows increasingly close with Virgil as the poem progresses. Virgil rescues him from various dangers and demons and is often Dante’s source for theological explanations. Dante repeatedly refers to Virgil with terms of endearment, such as “Father” (Purgatorio, Canto XVII, 82). Eventually, however, Dante reaches the limits of natural reason when he ascends to Earthly Paradise on Mount Purgatory. Virgil is associated with natural reason, as he is a virtuous pagans, and virtuous pagans lived their lives only by the light of natural reasons, not Divine Revelation. Dante’s sins have been purged from his being; no longer inclined to sin, Dante does not need the guidance of reason. Virgil hands over authority to Dante as he says “whatever your own impulse prompts you to: / lord of yourself I crown and mitre you” (Purgatorio, Canto XXVII, 142-143). Dante has spiritually surpassed Virgil: he no longer requires his assistance. Similarly, he no longer needs the pagan tradition as an intermediary for ascension to a greater understanding of divinity. Statius, the poet Dante and Virgil meet in Purgatory, is an example of the role of the pagan tradition in conversion to the Christian faith, as he describes how Virgil’s works led him to conversion. However, the pagan tradition is merely a rung on a divine ladder. Dante moves from the literary and spiritual fatherhood of Virgil to his Platonic love for Beatrice, but not without pain. Although Dante has been purged of his sins, he is terrified by the passion with which he loves Beatrice and turns to Virgil
with the same assured belief that makes a child run to its mother’s arms when it is frightened or has come to grief. Purgatorio, Canto XXX, 43-45)
However, Virgil has vanished, and Dante weeps for the loss of his spiritual father, “to whom [he] gave [his] soul for its salvation” (Purgatorio, Canto XXX, 51). Beatrice reprimands Dante for his tears, and for his sins in his earthly life. Like Virgil’s guidance, Beatrice’s guidance is both instructive and corrective for Dante. She reprimands him for his mistakes in his past life, and she explicates specific theological and cosmological points for Dante. In Canto I of the Paradiso, Beatrice corrects Dante, who mistakenly believes that they are still on Earth, when in fact they are rapidly traveling to Heaven.
Beatrice too presents a temptation for Dante: to value her love more than the Divine Love he is supposed to desire. In the Paradiso, Dante is continually struggling to put his love for God first and often failing. When Dante ascends to the Fourth Sphere and Beatrice commands him to give thanks, he is overcome with love, as
The heart of a mortal never could so move to its devotion, nor so willingly offer itself to God in thankful love, As his did when [those] words had passed her lips. (Paradiso, Canto X, 55-58)
Dante claims that he was so overwhelmed with Divine Love that Beatrice “sank to oblivion in eclipse” (Paradiso, Canto X, 60). However, Beatrice laughed
So that the blaze of her glad eyes pierced [his] mind’s singleness And once again divided it several ways. (Paradiso, Canto X, 61-63)
Beatrice even reprimands Dante for preferring looking at her over gazing at the vision of Christ (Paradiso, Canto XXIII, 70-73). The vision of Christ in Canto XXIII gives Dante the strength to gaze on Beatrice’s smile. Beatrice becomes increasingly beautiful as they ascend through the spheres of Paradise, with her beauty perfected in Canto XXX. Yet Beatrice cannot lead Dante to the end of his goal, and she is replaced by St. Bernard in Canto XXXI.
Unlike Virgil, Beatrice indirectly aids Dante through most of his journey. She requests that Virgil guide him through Hell and Purgatory, and the knowledge of her concern inspires Dante to continue onward in Canto II. Beatrice again inspired Dante to pass through the wall of fire in the seventh cornice of Purgatory (Purgatorio, Canto XXVII).
Dante also continually remains in awe of Beatrice from a distance, while Dante and Virgil grow closer, both in affection and in status over the course of the journey. Dante and Virgil’s relationship begins as one between a renowned poet and an ardent admirer and ends with Dante regarding Virgil as a father and Virgil crowning Dante as lord over himself. However, because Dante moves beyond Virgil in spiritual greatness, he can no longer rely on Virgil’s authority. Dante’s relationship with Beatrice is necessarily more distant than his relationship with Virgil because Dante’s love for Beatrice distracts him from adoring Christ. Dante’s relationship with Bernard is even more distant, as Dante has no personal connection with Bernard compared to his love for Virgil and Beatrice. Dante’s various relationships with his escorts demonstrate a paradox within Platonic ascension: as one grows closer to Divinity itself, one becomes more aware of the distinction between the human and the Divine.
Virgil and Beatrice, although both guides for Dante, aid and also distract him in different ways. Virgil demonstrates the limits of natural reason and helps Dante as he recognizes his sinfulness in the Inferno and is purged of his brokenness in the Purgatorio. Dante’s love for Beatrice inspires him to ascend through Purgatory and Paradise. However, both Virgil and Beatrice present temptations for Dante that lead him astray from his path. Virgil’s poetic glory amazes and distracts Dante from the pitfalls of worldly achievements, and Beatrice’s beauty divides Dante’s attention from the beauty of Paradise. Dante’s relationship with each subsequent guide is more distant. Dante’s various guides form a Platonic ladder, not only because he has to leave individuals behind as he ascends higher to the Empyrean, but also because his guides illustrate the paradoxical greater understanding of the distinction between the divine and the human as one grows closer to Divinity itself.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. Translated by John Ciardi. New American Library, 2003.