Why Study Dante? The Case for Teaching ‘The Divine Comedy’ to Our Youth

It is becoming increasingly common — to my great dismay — to find one of two scenarios in both Catholic and Public schools in the United States when it comes to its exploration of great literature. The first is that modern educators completely ignore the study of Dante and his Divine Comedy, skirting past the father of the Italian language for the reason of the complexity of his message. The other is perhaps even more egregious and scandalous, which is the tendency for American audiences to be exposed only to Hell, with no hope of Heaven, or even Purgatory. This often leads those who do read Dante’s Inferno to be left with a severe distaste for his work, as well as for the Catholic faith in general, often viewing it as cruel, puritanical, and vengeful. Among modern Dante scholars, Scott Crider of the University of Dallas inveighs against this second scenario trenchantly and eloquently: “Teaching the Inferno alone is such a curricular perversion I hardly know how to be tolerant: no wonder generations of college graduates think of Dante as a cruel tormentor, and Christianity as all judgment and no love.”1 It is not a fitting assessment to give to Dante, whom Pope Benedict XV calls “the most eloquent singer of the Christian idea.”2

Those who have read the Comedy are all-too aware of the distinctly visceral, violent, and dark nature of Dante’s Hell, divided into nine concentric circles of increasing acridity and severity. The kinds of punishment doled out to those in Hell are both ironic and graphic in nature, ranging from the winds in the Second Circle, to the boiling rivers of blood in the Seventh Circle. This imagery remains embedded in the Catholic imagination, and even in the modern imagination of what a Hell might be, consistently replicated in all forms of modern storytelling that involve some sort of afterlife.

Some might even consider it offensive and repugnant, as one Thomas Hill, once-president of Harvard had done before. In a heated exchange with the Harvard Corporation, James Russell Lowell, the man who had succeeded famed American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was:

triumphantly [presented] a document, a stinging condemnation of the Divine Comedy by a “recently deceased British Poet.” “We hold our nostrils as we read,” it says, “we cover up our ears. Did one ever before see brought together such striking odors, filth, excrement, blood, mutilated bodies, agonizing shrieks, mythical monsters of punishment? Seeing this, I cannot but consider it the most immoral and impious book that ever was written.”3

This attitude is not lost in modern education, either. It is not surprising that Dante might find himself among the ever-growing list of “canceled” authors for a variety of reasons, whether it be the kinds of sins punished in the Inferno, or some of the particular people he poetically “damns” to Hell (most notably, “the Prophet” himself, Muhammad).

However, Dante’s Inferno is not all that the Sommo Poeta has to offer to us in the modern day. The Divine Comedy is more than the tale of man’s wretchedness in the venomous pits of Hell, but also stands as an epic whose main story is that of redemption. Where punishment and justice reign supreme in the Inferno, redemption takes the reins in the Purgatorio, and the mystical bliss of Heaven does the same in the Paradiso.

A good argument is made as to why Dante should be read by our students, even now in the modern day, spoken most eloquently by Thomas Aquinas College’s own press, saying,

First, Dante’s trip through the afterlife is remarkable in that it displays a solid formation in the liberal arts, in philosophy and the sciences, and in all of these as ordered to theology. Dante is a liberally educated man, and his poetry incorporates reason and argument without abandoning poetry’s fundamental aim of moving and cleansing the emotions.4

The Divine Comedy teaches young students the path toward spiritual cleansing in a way that will not be lost upon them. It begins in the Inferno, in the noxious and dark pits of Hell. Here they learn to recognize, despise, and attempt to dissociate from thier own sinful nature, with the help of natural human reason in the form of Virgil. Here they are exposed to the truth of whatever particular vice might trouble them by way of Dante’s contrapassi, or ironic punishments.

This redemptive journey, however, does not end in the escape from Hell. There are still two more canticles left, and before us lies the enormous Mountain of Purgatory. It is in Dante’s Purgatorio that the most beautiful symbols of redemption are put on display. It is a uniquely Catholic work, specifically due to the rejection of Purgatory by most Protestants. It is here that Dante employs the “whip and rein” system, rather than the “counter-step” system to punishments. Every terrace contains a punishment, or “whip,” and a reminder of good virtues, or “rein.” This is further explained by Heather Webb, who informs us that,

Much of the teaching in Purgatorio is achieved through example. With respect to posture, this activity entails not simply passive contemplation of an example, but rather active embodiment of that example. […] the postures of the penitent in Purgatory not only embody the character of the vices and the opposing virtues on each terrace, but also simultaneously reveal the means of transformation from vice to virtue.5

What this means is that the Purgatorio can serve as a teacher, far more excellent than even Inferno, on the nature of virtue and vice. Where Inferno lacks the virtues, Purgatorio overflows with them. Where Inferno teaches on the repugnance of sin, Purgatorio teaches the path to break free from its oppressive grip.

As an example: within the Terrace of Pride, the prideful spirits cleanse themselves by the carrying of enormous boulders, forcing them to bend down low to the ground in pain and humiliation. On the ground are inscribed images of the sin of Pride, such as the fall of Lucifer, which they step upon. However, on the side of the mountain, if they turn their heads, they are displayed images of humility, such as the Nativity, a reminder of what they seek to become in order to attain salvation. Webb explains that, “The prideful are doubled over […] denied the uprightness that constitutes the posture proper to humans, constrained to adopt a froglike squatting (rannicchiare). Worse, they are, in their misery, likened to architectural elements.”6

It is examples like this that are present throughout all Seven Terraces of Purgatory, and so the spiritual journey moves beyond the recognition and disgust with sin present in Inferno. Now, the reader is moved to witness examples of how to rise above each of the sins punished in Hell. The reader is also introduced to a hierarchy of the virtues which rings true with Church teaching just as much today as when it was written, with the division of Purgatory corresponding to an authentic revealed understanding of love. It is through this arrangement that one can make the argument that the truth of the Catholic Faith is strongest in Purgatorio, even moreso than the in the Paradiso. The entire work provides context to itself, explaining each canticle more deeply when read together. Paradiso explains why Heaven appears to be divided, or why Hell is sectioned off. Purgatorio offers hope from suffering and hope for the souls of the dead. That is why The Divine Comedy must be read in its entirety.

To teach Inferno alone is to teach without the context of two-thirds of one of the greatest works of Catholic Literature ever composed. Benedict XV notes that “we know now too how … many who were far from … Jesus Christ, and studied with affection the Divina Commedia, began by admiring the truths of the Catholic Faith and finished by throwing themselves with enthusiasm into the arms of the Church.”7 It should be noted that Benedict XV does not point out simply the Inferno, but the entirety of The Divine Comedy, without cutting out any of the canticles. Therefore we, as Catholics, should not simply study the Inferno, or skip past Dante in the hopes that his message will not offend. Instead, we must embrace our greatest author, and follow him, Virgil, and Beatrice through that spiritual quest which all men must undertake in order to find salvation.

Image: Domenico di Michelino, Dante con in mano la Divina Commedia, 1465, photo by Sailko, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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1. Scott F. Crider, “Saving Pedagogy: Dante as the Poet of Education,” Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute, August 21, 2021.

2. Benedict XV, In Praeclara Summorum, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, April 30, 1921.

3. Wai Chee Dimock, “Dante, Schelling, and Longfellow in the Classroom,” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, no. 128 (2010), 65.

4. Brian T. Kelly, “The Poet of Catholic Liberal Education: Why We Study Dante Alighieri,” undated article on the Thomas Aquinas College website.

5. Heather Webb, “Postures of Penitence in Dante’s Purgatorio,Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, no. 131 (2013), 219.

6. Ibid., 224.

7. Benedict XV, In Praeclara Summorum.