Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 1 – Dante and Augustine on the Light of God

Introduction

This is the first post in a series on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

CANTO 1

The first canto was more rich than I remembered the first time I read through the Inferno. From what I have read in various commentaries, the dark wood where Dante finds himself mid-way through his life represents the darkness of unbelief or the like. He sees the glorious light on a “small hill”  (Ciardi translation). This seems to be the glory of God or his goodness. Dante is turned away from his climbing approach by three beasts who he seems to get from Jeremiah 5:6.

Therefore a lion from the forest will attack them, a wolf from the desert will ravage them, a leopard will lie in wait near their towns to tear to pieces any who venture out, for their rebellion is great and their backslidings many.

Some say these represent political forces which Dante was dealing with, others that these are three vices with which Dante must contend and, in his condition, cannot overcome. So he will literally have to go through Hell first. Although it is near Easter, the time of resurrection, Dante is going the opposite way. Of course resurrection only comes through death, and apparently Dante needs more than a symbolic death (baptism?) to reach his goal. I thought it was funny that Dante described it this way – as if reaching God were only a matter of climbing a small hill (perhaps Dante has had a change of perspective by the time he reaches the Mountain of Purgatory! ).

This scene seems to recall some of Augustine’s Confessions (see below), and thus Dante may have been attempting to reach God philosophically – through the light of reason (which often sees God as an easy reach). But whereas his mind is strong, his will is weak. He is simply not good enough to walk right up to God.

“Dead now was that evil and abominable youth of mine, and I was passing into early manhood: as I increased in years, the fouler became I in vanity, who could not conceive of any substance but such as I saw with my own eyes.” (7.1)

“So, then, trying to draw the eye of my mind from that pit, I was plunged again therein, and trying often, was as often plunged back again. But this raised me towards Your light, that I knew as well that I had a will as that I had life: when, therefore, I was willing or unwilling to do anything, I was most certain that it was none but myself that was willing and unwilling; and immediately I perceived that there was the cause of my sin.” (7.3)

“For it is one thing, from the mountain’s wooded summit to see the land of peace, (Deuteronomy 32:49) and not to find the way there—in vain to attempt impassable ways, opposed and waylaid by fugitives and deserters, under their captain the “lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and the “dragon;” (Revelation 12:3) and another to keep to the way that leads there, guarded by the host of the heavenly general, where they rob not who have deserted the heavenly army, which they shun as torture.” (7.21

Again, perhaps some echoes of Augustine – this part is breathtaking:

“But having then read those books of the Platonists, and being admonished by them to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Your invisible things, understood by those things that are made; (Romans 1:20) and though repulsed, I perceived what that was, which through the darkness of my mind I was not allowed to contemplate,— assured that You were, and were infinite, and yet not diffused in space finite or infinite; and that Thou truly art, who art the same ever, varying neither in part nor motion; and that all other things are from You, on this most sure ground alone, that they are. Of these things was I indeed assured, yet too weak to enjoy You.” (7.20)

I have seen numerous comments on his climb attempt – one foot rising higher than the other. It seemed like such an innocuous statement to me, but Freccero spends an entire chapter on it! Amazing.

Philosophical efforts (pretensions?)  put aside, Dante finds guidance from a poet! A fallen poet, of course, who will not be able to lead Dante all the way to his goal, (for that he will need the help of the gracious Beatrice), but he can at least guide him through Hell.

Anyway, there is so much here and I am sure I missed a lot of it! As a professor once replied to a student when she claimed she had read Dante . . .  “No, my dear, you have BEGUN to read Dante.”

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