The Relationship between Faith and Reason in The Divine Comedy

Reading Time: 12 minutes

By Emily Evans, Holy Apostles College

In the beginning of the Divine Comedy, Dante is lost in the dark woods, which metaphorically symbolizes the state of his sinfulness, leading him to lose sight of God. Dante had sinned against Heaven by placing pagan philosophy over divine revelation, leading him to pursue pagan philosophy to the detriment of his faith, which led him basically to embrace pagan philosophy with the light of divine revelation itself. This is not to say, though, that pagan philosophy is inherently evil, but sadly, though, Dante had through his studies had come to place pagan philosophy over God, for he was unable to see God in philosophy itself. Because of this, Dante needed to be rescued from his present state, and this is through the divine efforts of his beloved Beatrice, who symbolically represents divine revelation itself. So, ultimately, Dante throughout his journey, must discover/learn that philosophy can indeed, lead man to God, but it can only guide one so far, for without divine revelation it is impossible to reach God as one needs both philosophy and divine revelation to fully attain the omnipotent and ever-loving God of Heaven and earth.

Dante’s Philosophic Background

Since The Divine Comedy was written during the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 A.D.), Dante was heavily influenced by the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. This is made evident in The Divine Comedy by frequent, subtle references to Aristotle’s and St. Thomas Aquinas’s Ethics and Metaphysics. For example, in Purgatorio, Dante sees that vices become engrained in the human heart when man does things in excess to the detriment of his being and other duties that God has assigned to him. Dante uses the example of the realm of the kings, where they neglected their spiritual life because of their duties as kings and protectors of the state. At the same time though, Dante also highlights King Henry III of England, who neglected his kingdom because he attended too many Masses. [1] In this respect, Dante is following Aristotle’s rule of the Golden Mean, where excesses lead to sin and culpability. According to Ryan S. Topping, “For Dante, following Aristotle, the virtuous person acts and feels according to the rule of the mean. . . we violate the principle of the principle of the mean whenever we choose secondary goods in a defective or excessive manner.”[2]

But more particularly, the Divine Comedy adheres to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. This can be seen when Dante references Aquinas’s greatest work, The Summa theologiae, throughout the Divine Comedy itself, particularly regarding the soul and immorality. So, from this, in the twenty-fourth canto in Paradiso, Dante distinguishes between the preambles and mysteries of faith. Aquinas does this as well St. Thomas holds that the articles of faith and the preambles to those articles are complementary, and as such, they are distinguishable. Articles of faith, like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Sacraments, can be known only by faith, but they naturally depend on faith’s preambles, like the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law, which can be known by reason. Moreover, Dante saw God as the Prime Mover of Aristotle, who could be demonstrated through metaphysical proofs. This is most likely why then that Dante references Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God. Dante writes,

“I believe in one God,/ sole and eternal, who moves all the heavens,/ himself unmoved, with love and with desire;/ and to believe thus I have not simply proofs/ physical and metaphysical, but given me/ too in the truth that rains from here/ through Moses, through the prophets and the psalms, / through the Gospel and through you who wrote/ once the ardent Spirit made you holy. . .”[3]

Ultimately though, Dante adhered to Aquinas’s understanding of man and God as man desires to achieve the beatific vision by living forever with the all-loving and eternal God Himself.

Virgil: The Symbolic Guide of Human Reason

It would seem at first strange to choose Virgil as Dante’s guide since Virgil was an epic Roman poet, who was famous for writing the poem, The Aeneid. Since Virgil represented human reason,  it would seem that an ancient Roman or Greek philosopher such as Aristotle would be better suited to this task. Principally, though, the reason Dante chooses Virgil to guide him through hell and Purgatory is because Virgil is an integral part of the Roman order, and Rome, to most Medieval minds, was really part of God’s divine plan of revelation. So, the choice of Virgil demonstrates the connection between the pagan and Christian worlds. The pagan, pre-Christian world provided man with philosophy, reason, and natural law to reach God, where the Christian realm fused this with divine revelation to really create the beautiful synthesis of faith and reason (fides et ratio).

Virgil, then, must always act according to the highest level of human reason in order to guide Dante. Virgil’s role is to explain through his reason the intricacies and mysteries of Hell and Purgatory, especially since Dante has lost his way, wherein he relies heavily upon him. This predominant theme of reason is especially prevalent in the structure of Hell as the further one moves down into hell, the darker it becomes, until it is completely black. This is symbolic of the fact that the further one moves down into Hell, the truth becomes more and more perverted, until reason is no longer present. Reason, then, is a beautiful gift from God so the further one moves away from God, the more reason decreases, until it disappears completely. This is evident by the fact that before one even reaches the first circle of Hell, the noble pagans reside in limbo, where they are guided by the visible light of their human reason. Scholar Jason Aleksander offers a grimmer view of limbo, where he writes,

Dante allegorically reserves a place in Limbo with ‘the master of those who know sitting among a philosophical family’ {Inf. 4.131- 32) who, despite their temporal perfections, are unable to reach any greater perfection than to live in desire without hope {Inf. 4.42), or—perhaps more in keeping with Dante’s theology—in ‘grief without torture’ {Inf. 4.28).[4]

From this then, since these souls have not received Baptism and the fullness of Heaven, they are unable to live in Heaven. This is a point of contention for Virgil, but Dante insinuates that at the final Resurrection, these pagan philosophers will be instilled at the Garden of Eden. Though happy, they still will not enjoy full perfection with God.

From this, philosophy possesses the potentially to lead man to God; this is evident in Purgatory, where Virgil, even though he himself was a pagan, seems to have through his writings helped souls convert or return to God. This makes it all the more incredible the ability of wisdom and truth to lead a soul to God. Scholar Bainard Cowan articulates this when he writes, “Virgil functions as reason leading to revelation and the idea of nature being completed but not abolished by grace.”[5] This point though is further evidenced by the fact that pagan philosophers such as Aristotle, saw that the universe is guided by a Prime Mover, a mover that is not dependent on another being’s motion and is the cause of other being’s existence (the first cause). This means then that philosophy since it is the pursuit of truth, it necessarily leads to the source of all truth itself, which is God.

Since human reason is limited though, it is impossible for man to reach God simply through this discipline alone. Jason Aleksander writes, “. . . natural reason alone is not a sufficient condition for salvation, it may nevertheless be a necessary condition since it is involved in the cultivation of the ethical, intellectual, and theological virtues.”[6] Virgil, as a symbol of human reason, can lead Dante to higher truths, but he is unable without the aid of divine revelation to lead Dante to the highest truths itself. This can be seen in several instances throughout the Divine Comedy. For instance, after Virgil finishes his explanation on love in Purgatorio, Dante wonders that if “love is offered us from without,/ And the goes by no other foot,/ There’s no merit in the straight or twisted way.”[7] In other words, if love is simply imposed on man, how then can man be held morally accountable for any of his sins? Virgil is unable to answer this question; rather, he tells Dante that he must wait for Beatrice, the symbol of divine revelation, to answer this and other questions as it is beyond the scope of reason. Virgil though understands the limitedness of human reason, for he says that,

He is mad who hopes that our reason/ may pass along the infinite way/ held by one substance in three persons./ Keep content, gentle man, with the quia;/ since, if you could have seen all, Mary need not have given birth/ and you have seen that fruitless desire quieted/ has borne them only loss unto eternity:/ I speak of Aristotle and of Plato/ and of many others. . .[8]

This does not mean that pagan philosophy is evil, but rather it is incomplete without light of God’s revelation. For if man only needed reason to attain the hope of Heaven, God’s divine plan of salvation would not have been necessary in the first place.

Beatrice: The Divine Symbol of Revelation

Principally, Beatrice acts as Dante’s love interest in the Divine Comedy. And in order to preserve her late memory, Dante has elevated her status from simply an object of human love to divine love itself. In other words, Beatrice, then, symbolically represents divine revelation or divine love itself. Because she represents divine love, Beatrice fulfills this role by acting as the principal being that endeavors to save Dante from his present state of sinfulness. It is interesting to note that, since she is divine love or revelation, she must inspire the symbol of reason, Virgil, to help Dante; thus, showing that human reason ultimately leads to God. With this then, Beatrice acts as Dante’s pathway to God and salvation.

Since she acts as the symbol of divine revelation, it is her role to reveal the mysteries of the faith that are unknowable to man due to the limitations of human reason. This is why she acts as Dante’s guide in Paradiso as Virgil is no longer able to guide Dante in what is simply beyond his understanding. For example, Beatrice answers a philosophical problem that if Heaven is a place of perfection and happiness why are souls of the heaven in the realm of the moon held morally responsible for their broken vows, especially since those vows were broken, not because of their own moral failures, but rather because of the violence to which these souls were subjected? Beatrice perfectly answers that the acts of others is not an excuse; rather, one’s will partially consents to the violence, most likely because of the fear of physical harm, even if one’s will does not absolutely consent to the break of one’s vows. For she says, “Should their will have stood entire, / as that which held Lawrence on the grate/ and made Mucius harsh to his hand,/ so would have pressed them once again, once loosed. . .” [9] In other words, man should never neglect their vows even in the face of physical harm. All of this rightly shows that she is necessary for the salvation of Dante’s soul as she manifests what is unknowable to philosophy and reason, as of which without divine revelation it is impossible for one to live forever in eternity.

When Dante does encounter Beatrice, it really represents the completion of Dante’s journey throughout the comedy, where he has achieved his purpose in life to not only be reunited with Beatrice but also to reach Heaven itself. But even though Beatrice is the symbol of divine revelation, Dante is careful to not position her as the ultimate goal of human happiness and perfection. Towards the end of Dante’s journey, Beatrice relinquishes her role as Dante’s guide to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who will instruct Dante on the mystical way. St. Bernard, then, is necessary as he will complete the remainder of Dante’s journey by spiritually leading Dante to God. In this respect then, according to Bainard Cowan, “Neither reason nor revelation is anything, in the end, but another stepping-stone [in order to reach God].”[10]

The Relationship of Faith and Reason Within the Divine Comedy

In the thirteenth canto in Purgatorio, Dante finally meets his beloved Beatrice. And it with this divine encounter with Beatrice, that it marks the end of Virgil’s presence in the Divine Comedy. This does not mean that reason is rejected when Virgil departs, but rather with the appearance of Beatrice, it shows the fulfillment and perfection of reason itself. In other words, reason though limited, is uplifted in the sense that through the act of faith, reason is encouraged to contemplate the very things that are beyond its human capacity and understanding i.e., the mysteries of faith.

So, reason as it has been shown is limited in the sense that it is unable to understand the fullness of divine revelation. Man, because he is a rational animal, is able to understand through reason the preambles of faith—that is the truths of God that can be known without the divine revelation. For example, man can know that the effects of God (His creation), ultimately have to derive from an uncaused, cause, which is God even if our knowledge is imperfect. In this way then, reason leads man to God, which in turn allows man to accept or believe in article of faith, which are not philosophically demonstrable. St. Thomas argued in the Summa theologiae that metaphysical proofs, “. . . remove obstacles to faith, by showing that what faith proposes is not impossible. . .” [11] There are certainly articles of faith that are beyond the scope of human reason such as that God is one in three persons. But even with these truths that are unknowable by human reason, it is not irrational for man to accept them, since there are various testimonies to attest to their validity as well through the presence of miracles and witnesses of divine events. [12] 

At the same time though, if man rejects reason, then one cannot possess faith either as faith without reason leads to fideism. This is because man cannot believe in an entity that one does not know, for one needs to know what one has placed one’s faith in. Pope St. John Paul II (1920-2005) argued this point in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, where he writes,

Similarly, fundamental theology should demonstrate the profound compatibility that exists between faith and its need to find expression by way of human reason fully free to give its assent. Faith will thus be able ‘to show fully the path to reason in a sincere search for the truth. Although faith, a gift of God, is not based on reason, it can certainly not dispense with it. At the same time, it becomes apparent that reason needs to be reinforced by faith, in order to discover horizons, it cannot reach on its own.’ [13]

Thus, faith and reason are compatible with each other as it is by coming to know God through reason, that one veritably grows in greater faith as one understands what one’s intellect, mind, and will actually believes and submits to.


As it can be seen then, it is impossible for faith and reason to be conflict with one another. This is because the ultimate aim of philosophy is to seek and know the truth and since God is the source of all truth itself, it would be impossible for there to exist a conflict between faith and reason. Essentially, if such a conflict existed, this would lead to a contradiction between God Himself as the source of truth, but because there never be such a contradiction with God, faith and reason must necessarily be complementary to one another as they both lead to same entity, which is God. With this, then, the dark wood of error can really be seen as the loss of the relationship between faith and reason, which is why Dante is lost and incomplete. Ultimately, then, to enjoy eternal bliss, the Divine Comedy shows that faith and reason are necessary to achieve perfection.

Annotated Bibliography:

Aleksander, Jason. “Dante’s Understanding of the Two Ends of Human Desire and the Relationship between Philosophy and Theology.” Journal of Religion, 91, no. 2 (2011): 158-187. Aleksander offers an examination of Dante’s understanding of philosophy and theology. Dante, in accordance with the Thomistic tradition, sees that philosophy is subordinate to theology, but like Aquinas he sees that philosophy reveals the way to theology, which in turn leads man to God.

Aleksander, Jason. “Teaching the Divine Comedy’s Understanding of Philosophy.” Pedagogy. 13, no. 1 (2013): 67-76. In this article, Aleksander examines Dante’s understanding of philosophy and how Dante offers an implicit defense of philosophy within the Divine Comedy, particularly in regards to ethical and political questions. He also offers a compelling defense of how the relationship of faith and reason is pertinent to properly understanding the Divine Comedy itself.

Cowan, Bainard. “Reason and Revelation in Dante’s Divine Comedy.” Ramify 5, no. 2 (2016): 81-88. Cowan examines the relationship between reason and revelation. He argues that the Divine Comedy acts as a form of revelation, where Dante demonstrates what reason cannot know and at the same time demonstrates what reason was created to bring man to, which is God. Ultimately, in this article, Cowan believes that the Divine Comedy is the Medieval ideal of the relationship between faith and reason.

 Konyndyk, Kenneth J. “Aquinas on Faith and Science,” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers 12, no. 1 (1995): 3-21. Konyndyk examines the relationship between faith and reason through the perspective of Aquinas. He argues that truth is a unified whole, which is why he maintains reason and faith can never be in opposition to one another.

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical on Faith and Reason Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998). In Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio, he analyzes how faith and reason are inextricably intertwined with each other. Since man is a rational being, the Pope sees that the relationship of faith and reason are necessary to achieve perfection.

Topping, Ryan N.S. Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2012. Topping argues in his work for the renewal of Catholic faith and culture, wherein he believes that an adherence to the Catholic faith elevates a being to a higher and nobler life than would have been possible on one’s merits. Ultimately, he argues that faith is a vital point to the elevation of the human person as it limits actions that are contrary to the faith, but at the same time it liberates the human person to seek after the good, and to imitate God Himself.

[1] Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, trans. Daniel Fitzpatrick (St. Louis, MO: Enroute Books and Media, 2020), Canto VII.

[2] Ryan N.S. Topping, Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2012), 164-165.

[3] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, trans. Daniel Fitzpatrick (St. Louis, MO: Enroute Books and Media, 2020), Canto XXIV. 130-137.

[4] Jason Aleksander, “Dante’s Understanding of the Two Ends of Human Desire and the Relationship between Philosophy and Theology,” Journal of Religion, 91 no. 2 (2011), 187.

[5] Bainard Cowan, “Reason and Revelation in Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Ramify vol 5 no.2 (2016), 86. 

[6] Jason Aleksander, “Teaching the Divine Comedy’s Understanding of Philosophy,” Pedagogy 13, no. 1 (2013), 69.

[7] Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto XVIII, 43-45.

[8] Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto III, 34-44.

[9] Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto IV, 82-85.

[10] Cowan, “Reason and Revelation in Dante’s Divine Comedy,” 87.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae , II, q. 2, a. 10, at New Advent,

[12] Kenneth J. Konyndyk, “Aquinas on Faith and Science,” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers 12, no. 1, (1995), 7.

[13] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical on Faith and Reason, Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998), §67.

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