“The vision of Dante reveals, on the one hand, the continuity between Christian faith in God and the search developed by reason and by the world of religions; on the other, a novelty appears that surpasses all human research: the novelty of a love that moved God to take on a human face, even to take on flesh and blood, the entire human being.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
Dante and Virgil are climbing the steep base of Purgatory Mountain, not sure of the way, when they notice what in that realm is a rarity: a “spirit all alone,” says Virgil, “alone and looking at us quietly” (Purg. 6.58-59). He seems impassive, this spirit, aloof, yet possessed of great nobility. Dante’s description captures the man in a few magnificent strokes:
O soul of Lombardy,
how proud and full of dignity you stood,
deliberate in each movement of the eye
And honorably so. No word he said
but watched us as we neared him, as a lion
at rest will watch and never turn his head.
But man is not meant to live alone. Man, says Aristotle, the philosopher whom Dante revered as “the master of all those who know” (Inferno 4.131), can only attain his perfection, the pursuit of moral and intellectual virtue, in the context of a city. Naturally, Aristotle was thinking of Greek republics such as Athens and Sparta, but his wisdom was not lost on Thomas Aquinas, who saw much to be praised in the natural goods that man pursues in the city, while acknowledging that the Christian must look in hope for a good that no city here on earth can provide.
That is why Dante sets his readers up for a surprise. For this soul who seems solitary is most devoted to his homeland and his people. When Virgil asks him the way, he does not pass the time with personal introductions or idle questions about the journey, but speaks immediately from his heart, making
But to inquire about our native land
and who we were in life; and the sweet guide
began with “Mantua,” when that desert shade
Rose up from where he’d stood so firm in place –
“We share one country, you of Mantua!
I am Sordello!” – and the two embraced.
With that outburst of love and patriotism Dante calls the dramatic scene to a halt, suspending the action for a seventy-five-line invective against the Italy of his day, and against his own Florence in particular, whence he was unjustly exiled on pain of death in 1302, and where he would never return. His exclamation after the embrace above is a stern rebuke to all of us who despise patriotism as quaint or illusory:
Ah Italy, you slave, you inn of grief,
you ship without a pilot in the storm,
no lady of the shire, you house for whores,
That noble spirit felt a love so warm
just from the sweet sound of his country’s name,
he ran to greet his townsman even there,
While now in you those still alive all pitch
battle, and gnaw each other, and so near
as those divided by a wall and ditch! (76-84)
Patriotism and worship
Americans still celebrate their Independence Day, with fireworks and barbecues and ballgames; but seldom, I think, with proud faces lifted high, with filial devotion, and even a tear of gratitude. We are perhaps too rich for that, and wealth will ever blur the memory of benefits past. Dante was himself a fierce patriot, one who loved Florence so well that he burned to see her made just. But why should his sacred poem be preoccupied with Florence? What does patriotism have to do with the Christian life?
A great deal more than we wish to admit. No altar, no community: without the common bond of worship, men do not form a city or a nation, and this is as true of America as it was of ancient Athens. No man will lend his heart to a low tax rate or to a system of national roads. But speak to him of liberty, and his eyes grow bright; tell him that that honor was granted to him by his Maker, and he will lay down his life, if need be, to ensure that the honor be respected, for himself and his children, for all generations. So it is that the state can attain its perfection only by recognizing a divinity beyond it; if its dome is not the vault of stars above, it must collapse.
But it is also true that our villages and towns and countries are provided by God as foreshadowings of the world to come. When Aquinas talks about the heavens above us, he uses the Latin caelum or caeli; so too when he discusses heaven as an object of metaphysical reflection. But when he talks about the life of the blessed saints in heaven, it is never caelum but patria – the homeland, the land of one’s fathers. If we are poor lovers of our homeland here, how shall we be prepared for dwelling, as Dante puts it, “where Christ is Roman, in that Rome above” (Purg. 32.102)? There we will find a kingdom, a city, peopled with saints who honored their fathers and mothers here on earth, and who honored the earthly nation that too is father and mother, that directs our hearts to the land of glory. For Aristotle was right: man is the sort of creature who shall attain his perfection only in a city. But the name of that city is not Athens, nor Florence. It is the new Jerusalem.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, and a contributing editor of Touchstone Magazine. He has recently translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House).
From Magnificat, July 2007.