Dante Alighieri died here in Ravenna, a little city where any sane man or woman might well choose to live and die. Like most people, I come here from time to time to stare stupidly at the Roman and Byzantine mosaics—though as the years go by I notice most people are letting their cameras and iPhones do the staring—and to eat simple food that has been prepared carefully and loyally for decades at places like La Gardèla, Ca’ de Vèn, and Bella Venezia. Anyone fond of eating—I most definitely do not refer to “gourmets”—regards these places as a sultan might look at his wives. They’re all fine, but which one do I choose tonight?
Betrayed by his fellow citizens, Dante prowled northern Italy, looking for sanctuary and respect, first from the counts Guidi in the Casentino (I have a photograph of Bill Mills and me under the statue at Castello Poppi), then in Verona with Can Grande della Scala, and finally with the Guido da Polenta here in Ravenna. The faithless Florentines have many times tried to buy, beg, or steal his remains, but here he stays, faithful to the city and family that gave him refuge. I like to think of him wandering among the most ancient collection of splendid Christian monuments that have survived from the ancient world.
A nationalist might consider the exiled poet a traitor to his country. If you will read, sometime, his letter to the emperor or his epistolary jeremiad against the Florentines, you will learn the meaning of righteous indignation and begin to understand why Dante’s typical word we translate as justice is vendetta. Indeed, when modern Christians read Dante’s travelogue of his adventures in the next world, they are often shocked by the poet’s scheme of values. The adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca are in rather cushy quarters near the entrance, while bribe-taking politicos and faithless friends suffer terribly in the deepest pits of Hell. In our universe, Bill Clinton is pilloried for denying his fling with a plump assistant, but the bribes he and his wife chivvied out of aspiring agents of influence are viewed as one of the sacrifices a statesman has to make in making the world a better place.
The first important character from his own time whom Dante meets in Hell is Francesca da Rimini, the adulteress killed by her vindictive husband. His sympathies are enlisted by Francesca if only because she is the aunt of his patron, Guido da Polenta, the lord of Ravenna. But he has other reasons for his sympathy. The Circle of Lussuria contains those who are eternally punished for loving “not wisely, but too well,” to quote a famous Venetian. Lust is the proper technical translation for this sin, but in Italian lussuria might also be used in a more positive sense to mean erotic love. Dante was famous as the poet of love. He was also a great reader of Arthurian tales. It is fitting, then, that he should see Tristram—who took his uncle Mark’s wife, Iseult, as a lover—and then be told by Francesca that her illicit love was kindled when she and Paolo were reading the story of Lancelot. Dante, rather than condemning the fair lady, faints from pity. It is not just his merciful nature, I think, that overwhelms him, but his sympathy for those afflicted with erotic passion, a more understandable and pardonable sin than disloyalty to family and friends. Dante is shockingly mature, but not at all in any modern sense. He would no more understand or condone the Playboy Philosophy than he would the self-justifying priggishness of American Puritans.
As we make our way through Dante’s Commedia, we find ourselves in an alien moral universe, whose principles are as foreign to modern times as the Code of Hammurabi or the writings of Lao Tze. It is as if we have landed on a planet in some distant star system, where we are bewildered by the two suns shining in the red sky, by purple grass and the talking insects that raise humanoid creatures for food.
It helps to recall that Dante’s Commedia is a work designed to be read on several levels. The first impression is made by the dramatic narrative and descriptive brilliance, but only a simpleton could fail to understand that there are other levels of meaning. In his letter to Can Grande della Scala, which serves as preface to Paradiso, Dante advises us that his work has been composed on a literal tier of meaning, but there is another tier that he describes as allegorical or moral or anagogical. The allegory, even the most casual reader understands, has something to do with the soul’s progress toward the heavenly kingdom, and he probably also assumes that immoral people, who knowingly do bad things, are not on the right path, but anagogical may throw him. In fact, the word has two meanings. Most commonly it is used to describe a process of interpreting the Scriptures so as to disclose their meaning on the plane of the divine, but there is another aspect of the word: In a primary sense, an anagoge refers to a process of drawing mind and spirit upward in a process of edification. If the Commedia is both anagogical and moral, it is not simply that it can be interpreted in a moral sense, but that the intended effect of the work is edification.
Interpreters of Dante seem to have paid more attention to the geography of the next world and the philosophical understanding that underlies the work and rather less to Dante’s moral teaching. Perhaps they are right: Dante makes few explicit references to moral philosophy. Apart from condemning gluttony, corruption, and lust and praising their opposing virtues, the poet does not give us much in the way of ethics, at least not in the way ethics is taught in modern philosophy departments. In Dante we have no system of universal and uniform obligation such as Kant requires, no reduction of complex cases to abstract rules of the type that philosophers since Descartes have elaborated, and he does not impose an impartial spectator or angelic perspective on either the poet-pilgrim or the reader, such as Adam Smith devised. There is not much in Dante for an academic ethicist to chew on, much less to inspire a dissertation.
But what is the Commedia if not a moral drama in which a frail and imperfect human being is first terrified by the punishment of sin and then experiences the purgation of his sins, one by one, and finally, in his purified condition, is permitted to enter Paradise? A modern philosopher, with the goal of moral edification in mind, would have described a process of education in moral reasoning. Instead, his poem depicts a man helped by his friends along a path that leads to perfect love.
In his epistle to Can Grande, Dante touches on the difficulty of friendship between unequals, such as a gentleman poet with some small pretensions to aristocratic background and one of the most wealthy and powerful noblemen in the world. His answer gives us a strong hint. Useful and pleasure-bringing friendships often join unequals, and “Why not? Since not even friendship between God and man is impeded by the disparity!”
Dante would have picked up the division of friendships into useful, pleasurable, and virtuous from Aristotle directly and by way of Saint Thomas, and in his prose work, Convivio, Dante relied on Aristotle and Cicero’s essay on friendship (De Amicitia) as the philosophical texts on which he based his argument. Indeed, he confesses that it was Cicero’s essay that drew him to love philosophy.
Friendship exists in many forms. In ancient Rome, amicus, “friend,” could be applied to a comrade or political ally, but not so much to a close relative. For the Greeks, however, blood relations were the defining form of friendship. Latin and Italian has to express this notion of “friends and family” with different words. The Italian is typically “I miei”—my folks. In Purgatorio 8 Currado Malaspina says with pride, “I bore love to my folks,” whereas the evil and malicious barrator (bribe-taking public servant) from Navarre boasts (Inferno 22) that he is so full of spite he can cause harm “ai miei,” that is, to his own people.
Hell and Purgatory are filled with examples of flawed human beings who were redeemed by friendship. In order to raise an impossibly high ransom to save his friend’s life, the insufferably proud Provenzano Salvani actually begged alms in the Campo of Siena. This deed of self-abasement for a friend bought him an immediate entry into Purgatory!
Our ultimate happiness is to be found in contemplation of God, as Thomas (following Aristotle) tells us, but friends are necessary in this life so that we can do them good and be helped by them in good work. While we make friends for many reasons, friendship is a means by which we cultivate virtue, mutually, as we grow morally and spiritually. It is the part of a friend to instruct us and to use a candor that might otherwise be inappropriate. In Purgatorio 22, Vergil, in asking Statius rather personal questions, says it is the part of friendship to loosen the reins. Truth is so necessary to friendship that Dante can even say that he does not wish to be a timid friend to truth.
Dante famously put into Hell people he regarded as enemies, but he also meets, in his journey through Inferno, people he admired and liked—and continues to like. This is a bit of a problem, as Cato explains in Purgatorio 1, since souls in Heaven have no concern for their former loved ones who are in Hell. In this sense, continued friendship with the doomed or damned can be seen as an obstacle to one’s spiritual and moral development. In De Amicitia, Cicero had already argued that one could not be friends with those who are not virtuous, and for Christians the argument extends to those who have died and gone to Hell.
It is in Purgatorio that we begin to understand that Vergil’s role is more than that of an exemplary poet and spirit-guide: He is Dante’s true friend, a kindred soul of the highest type. He explains that he took on this mission at the behest of a lady in Heaven, whose friend, lost in his suicidal follies of ambition and lust, stands on the verge of death and damnation. Beatrice describes Dante, significantly, as L’amico mio—e non de la ventura (“my friend, though no friend of fortune”). Thus, it is Beatrice’s friendship—and not any rational exercise or fulfillment of duty—that will lead Dante to divine love by the instrument of a long-dead poet who will serve as Dante’s friend, rather in place of Beatrice.
In Convivio, Dante tries to explain how his love for a woman evolved into the love of wisdom known as philosophy. The term philosopher, as he knows, is literally translated not so much as “lover of wisdom,” but as “he who is friends with wisdom,” though as he also seems to understand, the distinction between love and friendship is far from clear-cut. In fact, throughout the Convivio Dante repeatedly equates friendship with love. He interprets his own line of verse, “Love that speaks to me within my mind” as the study he engaged in when he tried to acquire the love of the lady. Of course, in Latin study means “zeal” or “enthusiasm” and, secondarily, dedication to the pursuit of learning. The poet’s study or dedication to love is not a practice that leads a man to acquire knowledge. Rather, his study is the diligence and zeal and dedication by which he makes use of that knowledge. The “study” we employ for the purpose of acquiring a friendship
from the beginning reflects on the great things of friendship. This is that study and affection which in men customarily precede the birth of friendship, when love has already been born on one side and desires and seeks to engender it on the other; for, as has been said above, Philosophy exists when the soul and wisdom have become such friends that each is wholly loved by the other . . .
Since the subject of friendship, abstractly considered, is the “pursuit of virtue,” then the end of friendship is delight in doing good. It is certainly not too much to say that Dante, following Aristotle and Thomas, believed that it is not so much in studying ethical theory that we become moral but, rather, in developing the right sorts of friendships.
This is not to say that ordinary human friendships do not stop far short of that perfect love we owe to our Creator for the love He has poured out on us. That is the agape or charity that Christ enjoined on us in His Two Great Commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor. But, despite all the sermons that erroneously distinguish “agape love” from friendship, Dante knows that charity is only the highest form of friendship.
Saint Thomas asked if friendship were charity, and answered the obvious objections by pointing out that friendship is a mutual feeling that requires communication:
Accordingly, since there is communication between man and God, inasmuch as He communicates happiness to us, some kind of friendship must needs be based on this same communication of which it is written, “God is faithful: By whom you are called unto the fellowship of his Son.” The love which is based on this communication is charity: wherefore it is evident that charity is the friendship of man for God.
Poor Francesca da Rimini tells Dante (Inferno 5.91) that she and Paolo would pray for him to find peace, “If the king of the universe were our friend [amico].” God is the friend of the virtuous, but not, obviously, of the damned—and, in a nutshell, that is their horror.
Friendship, which may exist at the lowly level of fishing buddies and brothers who have grown apart but continue to do favors for each other, may rise, as we mature, to a self-sacrificing love that brings us closer and closer to God. Currado Malaspina’s claim to have borne love to his friends is not a trivial or offhand remark. This Currado was the father of Marcello Malaspina, who would shelter Dante in exile. The whole sentence reads, “To my people I bore the love that here grows fine.” Some commentators think there was something coarse in Currado’s affections that needed to be purged; in fact, Currado was a faithful and constant friend whose exercise of human love is turned, in Purgatory, to the love of God.
Even the highest and most spiritual earthly love must give way to a higher. Near the end of Paradiso, Dante recaps, for the last time, the story of his love for Beatrice, whose beauty now exceeds all telling.
From the first day when I beheld her, while
She was in this life, till this vision blest,
Never from her did aught my song beguile;
Yet needs must be relinquished further quest
To follow in verse her beauty, it now forgoes,
As must each artist to his last power prest.
For mightier notes than this my trumpet blows
So lofty I leave her, to assay the height
Of the arduous theme, which draws now towards its close
Dante’s love for Beatrice has been sublimated and surpassed, but his earthly progress in friendship, charity, and the love of a woman has been the route by which he arrived in Paradise. Greater even than faith and hope, this concrete and pragmatic love of the other—and not any abstract conception of duty, rights, or equality—lies at the heart of the Two Great Commandments. If we had any doubt that friendship was part of the plan of salvation, we have only to understand Christ’s comment on the scriptural promise that the faithful will receive garments of salvation: “the sign of souls that God has made His friends.”