One of the most intriguing paradoxes of Dante’s Divine Comedy is the pervasive presence of pagan classical antiquity in what was meant to be (and is) Europe’s greatest Christian poem.  Dante juxtaposes and interweaves classical and Christian, from Virgil’s appearance in the poem’s first canto to the homage to Aristotle (“the love that moves the sun and the other stars”) in its last line.

English Dante scholar Kenelm Foster devoted a set of three essays to interpreting and reconciling “The Two Dantes.”  Foster suggested that Dante’s “attachment to paganism was more like that which a man may feel to his youth, except that paganism was a stage in the history of Dante’s race, not of himself personally,” but he recognized the problem with this explanation.  For Dante the classics are not what we would call ancient history.

There is a sense in which the pagan “object” of his attachment was not something past and done with, existing only in history or legend or works of art; rather it was a permanent part of himself, an alter ego; it was that second self which his imagination took into the Other World in the form of Virgil and which, once it had assumed this form, was allowed to take charge of, to guide and govern the Christian protagonist of the resulting poem.

Indeed, the Classical Tradition was not only “a permanent part” of Dante but a living reality in Christian Europe.

The Divine Comedy begins with Dante waking at age 35 to find himself in a moral, religious, and artistic quandary.  Three allegorical beasts, representing at least (or inter alia) the three main Aristotelian divisions of vice (incontinence, violence, and fraud), are keeping Dante from climbing the mountain that leads to human fulfillment and divine salvation.  They are frustrating his “pursuit of happiness.”  In despair Dante glimpses a figure that is “faint through long silence” and appeals to him for help—“miserere di me” (“have pity on me”).  The figure is a shade from Limbo, the first circle of Hell, where virtuous pagans dwell eternally.  The Virgin Mary summons Saint Lucy to tell Beatrice to descend there to ask Virgil to save Dante from despair and damnation.

Why Virgil, a damned pagan poet?  Why not Francis of Assisi, for instance, or Thomas Aquinas, or Dante’s great-grandfather, Cacciaguida?  Dante eventually meets them in Paradise, where they have a lot to say to him.  Who is Virgil, anyway?  John Ciardi is reporting the standard interpretation when he calls “the shade of Virgil, Dante’s symbol for Human Reason.”  German philosopher and theologian Romano Guardini, in his posthumously published lectures on the Divine Comedy, asked the parallel question, “Who is Dante?”  Some scholars suggest that he is Everyman.  The problem with this answer is that Everyman was not born in Florence, exiled in a political dispute, in love with a girl named Beatrice who died young, descended from a great-grandfather who fought in the Crusades, or hailed by the greatest classical poets as their peer.

Similarly, Virgil introduces himself by saying,

My parents were Lombard and Mantua was their hometown.  I was born sub Iulio, although it was late, and I lived in Rome under the good Augustus at the time of the false and lying gods.  I was a poet and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilion was burned to the ground.

This sounds less like Human Reason and more like the author of the Aeneid.

If we must have an allegorical interpretation of Virgil, I would prefer to see him as a symbol of the Classical Tradition.  Is this reasonable?  In the Middle Ages, whose store of cultural riches, though impressive, was less than ours, could Dante really have found the classics essential for earthly success and heavenly bliss?  After all, Francis of Assisi did not seem to have felt the need for a classical education to fulfill his vocation.

C.S. Lewis argued that the classics are a necessary foundation not just for a solid liberal-arts education, but for a Christian life.  When his friend Arthur Greeves suggested omitting the classical quotations from the chapter headings of Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis refused, “for one of the contentions of the book is that the decay of our old classical learning is a contributory cause of atheism.”  Lewis felt the loss of the classics had cut his contemporaries off from a natural route to understanding Christianity.  In Pilgrim’s Regress the Guide tells the pilgrim John and Vertue that “till recently the Northern people had been made to learn the languages of Pagus ‘and that meant,’ said the Guide, ‘that at least they started no further from the light than the old Pagans themselves and had therefore the chance to come at last to Mother Kirk.’”

We need to take seriously Dante’s assertion that Virgil was indispensable for his artistic vocation and his moral and religious life.  On meeting him, he exclaims, “You are my master and my author.  You alone are the one from whom I took the beautiful style that has given me honor.”  We see the crucial importance of Virgil for art and life in Purgatorio 21, when Dante introduces him to Statius: “The man who guides my eyes from above is that Virgil from whom you took the power to sing of men and of gods.”

Statius starts to kneel to embrace Virgil’s feet, but Virgil stops him: “Brother, don’t do that, since you are a shade and you are looking at a shade.”

In the next canto, Virgil asks Statius when he became a Christian, since at the time that he was composing his masterpiece, the Thebaid, “it did not seem that the faith without which good works do not suffice had made you a believer.  If this is so, what sun or what candle dispelled your darkness so that you directed your sails later behind the fisherman?”

Statius answers,

You first set me on my way to Parnassus to drink in its grottoes and you first lighted my way to God.  You were like the man who walks at night carrying a light behind him—he does not help himself, but he makes the people behind him wise—when you said, “The world renews itself; justice is returning and the first age of man; and a new offspring is coming down from heaven.”  Because of you I became a poet, because of you a Christian.

Statius is quoting Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which predicts a new Golden Age that will replace the Dark Age of the late Republic, the return of the virgin goddess of Justice, and the birth of a miraculous child.  The Latin translated by “secol si rinova” is magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo, the source of one of the mottoes on the Great Seal of the United States: novus ordo seclorum.  It assumes the traditionalist worldview where the ages run from gold to silver to bronze to iron, and then return to gold.  Many American Founding Fathers were traditionalists like Virgil, and classically educated like Dante.  They no more thought their new republic was founded “from scratch” than Virgil did about the new age he predicted.

Of course, the Fourth Eclogue was not primarily a prophecy of Christ’s birth.  The poem is securely dated to 40 b.c. by its dedication to Asinius Pollio, the consul of that year.  The virgin it mentions is the goddess Astraea, who was not the mother of the eclogue’s promised baby.  Dante’s moving simile shows that he understood this.  Constantine thought Virgil was predicting Christ’s birth.  Other Christians argued that Virgil, while not a prophet himself, had read Sibylline Oracles that predicted the birth of a savior.  Christians following Augustine felt that a great poet like Virgil could be the recipient of divine inspiration without being conscious of the prophecy’s full meaning.  This may be what Dante thought.  If so, Virgil is not only a great poet who inspired a thousand other poets and understood the significance of the Roman Empire, but one who prepared the world for the coming of a savior and a new Golden Age.  This last trait describes Virgil, but not the role of Human Reason.  For Dante, Virgil does not know the Christian revelation, but his poetry is inspired by an insight that surpasses philosophy.  It is compatible with and points to Christian truth.  Instead of an abstraction, Dante’s Virgil is an example of what the non-Christian Classical Tradition was capable of at its highest and best.

Dante believed that God had given mankind two great revelations.  One is the Bible, the Scriptures par excellence.  The other is found in the Classical Tradition: Greek myth and philosophy with Roman literature, history, and law.  These sources were foundational for two great institutions: the Christian Church and the Roman Empire.  The Church was founded by Our Lord, and Her natural head was the Bishop of Rome, but Her roots went back to the Old Testament.  The Roman Empire, founded by Caesar and Augustus, was based on the Roman Republic, and its natural leader was the Roman emperor.

Saint Augustine (City of God 5.12) had memorably denounced the injustice and violence of the Roman Empire.  Later papal and ecclesiastical writers echoed his view.  In Monarchia Dante says he once agreed with that assessment.  In the Comedy the justice and authority of the Roman Empire is expounded in a dignified and learned speech that fills Paradiso 6, the only canto devoted to the words of one speaker without interruption.  Virgil vanished once Dante reached the Earthly Paradise, but the Roman Empire still matters in Heaven.

In the Second Circle of Heaven, Dante meets the emperor Justinian.  The great legislator edited the Roman legal code—not innovating, but “removing from the laws the excess and empty.”  First, however, the Pope, “blessed Agapetus,” had to convert him from the Monophysite heresy: “I believed that there was but one nature and not a second in Christ, and with that faith I was satisfied.”  Once properly instructed, Justinian can fulfill his mission: “As soon as I moved my feet with the Church, it pleased God by grace to inspire me with the high task, and I gave myself to it wholly.”  Dante spent the last years of his life in Ravenna, where Justinian and Theodora look down upon the worshipers in the church of San Vitale.  Agapetus guided Justinian by persuasion to the true Faith, while Justinian reformed the law and appointed the great general Belisarius to restore Roman hegemony.  They exemplify what we now call the “separation of Church and state,” both ordained by God, both equally valid and authoritative in their proper sphere.  The Pope did his job so the emperor could do his.

In the Comedy as in Monarchia, the Roman Empire is as central to God’s plan for human salvation as the Church is.  Justinian’s 63-verse summary of Roman history reaches its secular climax with Augustus.  His victories over Brutus, Cassius, and Cleopatra bring peace to the world.  (“With him [the Roman eagle] brought the world into so much peace that Janus’ temple was locked.”)  The goal of history, however, is the reign of Tiberius, “because the living Justice that inspires me [Justinian] granted [the eagle], in the hand of [Tiberius] the glory of taking vengeance for his wrath.”  As Dante explained in Monarchia 2.13, unless Jesus were punished by a legally just authority, his death would not have paid for the sin of the human race.  Unless the authority of the Roman Empire is just, mankind cannot be saved.

Justinian continues: “Afterward [the eagle] ran with Titus to take revenge on the revenge for the ancient sin,” referring to the sack of Jerusalem in a.d. 70.  Beatrice resolves the paradox of just revenge for just revenge in the next canto (Paradiso 7.19-51).  If Christ’s Passion is viewed in the light of His human nature, it was just because it punished the Original Sin of human flesh.  If, however, it is viewed in light of Christ’s divine nature, it is a crime because it is inflicted on the Son of God.  The paradoxical justice and injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion depends on the dual nature of Christ, which was denied by the Monophysite heresy.  Justinian had to be taught this by Pope Agapetus before he was fit to revise Roman law and restore the Roman Empire.  The Two Natures of Christ are essential to explain the religious effectiveness of the salvific nature of Christ’s Passion and the secular necessity of Rome’s role in condemning and executing Jesus and sacking Jerusalem.  The classical and the Christian need each other.

Justinian’s survey of Roman history concludes with Charlemagne’s defense of the Church of Rome from assault by the Lombards and his coronation in Rome in a.d. 800, deeds that establish the Holy Roman Empire as the legitimate heir of the ancient Roman one.  Church and state, the Bible and the Classical Tradition—these all are shown to be essential elements of God’s plan for human fulfillment in this world and the next.

Virgil’s Aeneid and his Fourth Eclogue have their roles to play.  They are great because they are beautiful and true, and lead men to create further beauty and comprehend additional truth unknown to Virgil.  They serve justice and rise to the vision of God.  Dante expended his great talent to teach this lesson to his age.  His message now speaks to ours.