THE SATURDAY ESSAY
The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’
‘The Divine Comedy’ is not just a classic of world literature. It’s the most astonishing self-help book ever written
By ROD DREHER
Updated April 18, 2014 6:38 p.m. ET
Dante’s goal was ‘to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of bliss.’ Above, ‘Portrait of Dante Alighieri’ by Attilio Roncaldier De Agostini/Getty Images
On the evening of Good Friday, a man on the run from a death sentence wakes up in a dark forest, lost, terrified and besieged by wild animals. He spends an infernal Easter week hiking through a dismal cave, climbing up a grueling mountain, and taking what you might call the long way home.
It all works out for him, though. The traveler returns from his ordeal a better man, determined to help others learn from his experience. He writes a book about his to-hell-and-back trek, and it’s an instant best-seller, making him beloved and famous.
Everyone knows that “The Divine Comedy,” is one of the greatest literary works of all time. What everybody does not know is that it is also the most astonishing self-help book ever written. “The American Conservative” senior editor Rod Dreher discusses. Photo: Getty.
For 700 years, that gripping adventure story—”The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri—has been dazzling readers and even changing the lives of some of them. How do I know? Because Dante’s poem about his fantastical Easter voyage pretty much saved my own life over the past year.
Everybody knows that “The Divine Comedy” is one of the greatest literary works of all time. What everybody does not know is that it is also the most astonishing self-help book ever written.
It sounds trite, almost to the point of blasphemy, to call “The Divine Comedy” a self-help book, but that’s how Dante himself saw it. In a letter to his patron, Can Grande della Scala, the poet said that the goal of his trilogy—”Inferno,” “Purgatory” and “Paradise”—is “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of bliss.”
The Comedy does this by inviting the reader to reflect on his own failings, showing him how to fix things and regain a sense of direction, and ultimately how to live in love and harmony with God and others.
This glorious medieval cathedral in verse arose from the rubble of Dante’s life. He had been an accomplished poet and an important civic leader in Florence at the height of that city’s powers. But he wound up on the losing side of a fierce political struggle with the pope and, in 1302, fled rather than accept a death sentence. He lost everything and spent the rest of his life as a refugee.
The Comedy, which Dante wrote in exile, tells the story of his symbolic death, rebirth and ascension to a higher state of being. It is set on Easter weekend to emphasize its allegorical connection with Christ’s story, but Dante also draws on classical sources, especially Virgil’s “Aeneid,” as well as the Exodus story from the Bible.
Dante’s masterpiece is an archetypal story of journey and heroic quest. Its message speaks to readers, whether faithful or faithless, who are searching for moral knowledge and a sense of hope and direction. In its day, it’s worth recalling, the poem was a pop-culture blockbuster. Dante wrote it not in the customary Latin but in Florentine dialect to make it widely accessible. He wasn’t writing for scholars and connoisseurs; he was writing for commoners. And it was a hit. According to the historian Barbara Tuchman, “In Dante’s lifetime, his verse was chanted by blacksmiths and mule-drivers.”
Who knew? Not me. I always thought “The Divine Comedy” was one of those lofty, doorstop-sized Great Books more admired than read. Its intimidating reputation is likely why few people ever walk with Dante through the fires of the Inferno, climb with him up the seven-story mountain of Purgatory and rocket with him through the stars to Paradise.
What a pity. They will never discover the surprisingly accessible beauty of Dante’s verse in modern translation. Nor will they grasp how useful his poem can be to modern people who find themselves caught in a personal crisis from which there seems no escape. Dante’s search for deliverance propels him on a purpose-driven pilgrimage from chaos to order, from despair to hope, from darkness to light and from the prison of self to the liberty of self-mastery.
Dante showed me how to do it too. Midway through my own life, my journey brought me back to my hometown, where, in the wake of my sister’s death, I had hoped to start anew with my family. The tale of my sister Ruthie’s grace-filled fight with cancer and the love of our hometown that saw her through to the end changed my heart—and helped to heal wounds from the teenage traumas that had driven me away.
But things didn’t work out as I had expected or hoped. By last fall, I found myself struggling with depression, confusion and chronic fatigue—caused, according to my doctors, by deep and unrelenting stress. My rheumatologist told me that I had better find some way to inner peace or my health would be destroyed.
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My guides were my priest, my therapist and, surprisingly, Dante Alighieri. Killing time in a bookstore one day, I read the first canto of “Inferno,” in which the frightened and disoriented Dante comes to himself in the dark wood, all paths out blocked by savage animals.
Yes, I thought, that’s exactly what this feels like. I kept reading and didn’t stop. Several months later, after much introspective prayer, counseling and completing all three books of “The Divine Comedy,” I was free and on the road to recovery. And I was left awe-struck by the power of this 700-year-old poem to restore me.
This will startle readers who think of “The Divine Comedy” only as the “Inferno” and think of the “Inferno” only as a showcase of sadistic tortures. It is pretty gory, but none of its gruesomeness is gratuitous. Rather, the ingenious punishments that Dante invents for the damned reveal the intrinsic nature of their sins—and of sin itself, which, as the poet says, makes “reason slave to appetite.”
On the spiral journey downward into the Inferno, Dante learns that all sin is a function of disordered desire—a distortion of love. The damned either loved evil things or loved good things—such as food and sex—in the wrong way. They dwell forever in the pit because they used their God-given free will—the quality that makes us most human—to choose sin over righteousness.
The pilgrim’s dramatic encounters in the “Inferno”—with tormented shades such as the adulterous Francesca, the prideful Farinata and the silver-tongued deceiver Ulysses—offer no simplistic morals. They are, instead, a profound exploration of the lies we tell ourselves to justify our desires and to conceal our deeds and motives from ourselves.
This opens the pilgrim Dante’s eyes to his own sins and the ways that yielding to them drew him from life’s straight path. The first steps to freedom require honestly recognizing that one is enslaved—and one’s own responsibility for that bondage.
The second stage of the journey begins on Easter morning, at the foot of Mount Purgatory. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, stagger out of the Inferno and begin the climb to the summit. If “Inferno” is about recognizing and understanding one’s sin, “Purgatory” is about repenting of it, purifying one’s will to become fit for Paradise.
Like all the redeemed souls beginning the ascent, Dante girds himself with a reed symbolizing humility. This is a truth every 12-stepper knows: Alone, we are powerless over our addictions.
But we aren’t entirely powerless. On the Terrace of Wrath, where penitents must purge themselves, amid choking black smoke, of their tendency toward anger, the pilgrim meets a shade called Marco, whom he asks to explain why the world is in such a bad state. Marco sighs heavily and points to the poor choices that people make. “You still possess a light to winnow good from evil, and you have free will,” Marco says. “Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.”
With these lines, the poet tells us to stop blaming other people for our problems. As long as we draw breath, we have it within ourselves to change.
Change is difficult and painful. But the penitents of Purgatory endure their purifications with joy because they know that they are ultimately heaven-bound. “I speak of pain,” says a repentant glutton, now emaciated, “but I should say solace.” The holy suffering of these ascetics unites them with Christ’s example and sacrifice, which gives them the strength to bear it.
Dante’s guide Virgil, who represents the best of human reason unaided by faith, can take the pilgrim to the mountaintop, but he cannot cross into Paradise. That task falls to Beatrice, the woman whom Dante had adored in life and in whose beautiful countenance young Dante saw a glimmer of the divine.
When he meets Beatrice at the summit, Dante confesses that after her death, he learned that he should set his heart on the eternal, on a love that cannot perish. But he forgot this wisdom and made his goal the pursuit of what Beatrice calls “false images of the good.” This confession and his abject sorrow open the door for Dante’s total purification, making him strong enough to bear the weight of heaven’s glory.
“Paradise,” which tracks Dante’s rise with Beatrice through the heights of heaven, is the most metaphysical and difficult of the three books of “The Divine Comedy.” It offers a vision of the Promised Land after the agonies of the purgatorial desert.
Allegorically, “Paradise” shows how we can live when we dwell in love, at peace with God and our neighbors, our desires not denied but fulfilled in harmonious order. It describes in rapturous passages how to be filled with the light and love of God, how to embrace gratitude no matter our condition and how to say, with the nun Piccarda Donati in an early canto, “In His will is our peace.”
The effect all this had on me was dramatic. Without my quite realizing what was happening, “The Divine Comedy” led me systematically to examine my own conscience and to reflect on how I too had pursued false images of the good.
A portrait of Dante from the late 16th century. He hoped his poem would lead readers ‘to the state of bliss.’ National Gallery of Art
I learned how I had been missing the mark in my vocation as a writer. My eagerness to chase after new ideas before I had mastered old ones was a form of intellectual gluttony. The workaholic tendencies I considered a sign of my strong professional ethic were, paradoxically, a cover for my laziness; the more time I spent writing, the less time I had for the mundane tasks necessary for an orderly life.
Most important of all, reading Dante uncovered the sin most responsible for my immediate crisis. Family and home ought to have been for me icons of the good—that is, windows into the divine—but without meaning to, I had loved them too much, seeing them as absolute goods, thereby rendering them into idols. They had to be cast down, or at least put in their proper place, if I was going to be free.
And “The Divine Comedy” persuaded me that I was not helplessly caught by my failings and circumstances. I had reason, I had free will, I had the assistance of good people—and I had the help of God, if only I would humble myself to ask.
Why did I need Dante to gain this knowledge? After all, my confessor had a lot to say about bondage to false idols and about how humility and prayer can unleash the power of God to help us overcome it. And at our first meeting, my therapist told me that I couldn’t control other people or events, but, by the exercise of my free will, I could control my response to them. None of the basic lessons of the Comedy was exactly new to me.
But when embodied in this brilliant poem, these truths inflamed my moral imagination as never before. For me, the Comedy became an icon through which the serene light of the divine pierced the turbulent darkness of my heart. As the Dante scholar Charles Williams wrote of the supreme poet’s art: “A thousand preachers have said all that Dante says and left their hearers discontented; why does Dante content? Because an image of profundity is there.”
That image is what Christian theologians call a “theophany”—a manifestation of God. Standing in my little country church this past January on the Feast of the Theophany, the poet’s impact on my life became clear. Nothing external had changed, but everything in my heart had. I was settled. For the first time since returning to my hometown, I felt that I had come home.
Can Dante do this for others? Truth to tell, it is impossible for me, as a believing (non-Catholic) Christian, to separate my receptiveness to the poem from the core theological vision both Dante and I share.
But the Comedy wouldn’t have survived so long if it were just an elaborate exercise in morality and Scholastic theology. The Comedy pulses with life, and it bears witness in its luminous lines and vivid tableaux to the power of love, the deathlessness of hope and the promise of freedom for those who have the courage to take the first pilgrim step.
Over Lent, I led readers of my blog on a pilgrimage through “Purgatory,” one canto a day. To my delight, a number of them wrote afterward to say how much Dante had changed their lives. One reader wrote to say that she quit a three-decade smoking habit while reading “Purgatory” over Lent, saying that the poem helped her to think of her addiction as something that she could be free of, with God’s help.
“I’ve had the sensation of maddeningly stinging, prickling skin during the nicotine withdrawal phase when I’ve tried to quit before,” she said, “but reading Dante helped me to imagine the sensation as a cleansing fire.”
Michelle Togut, a Jewish reader in Greensboro, N.C., told me that she was surprised by how contemporary the medieval Italian poet seemed. “For a work about what supposedly happens after you die, Dante’s poem is very much about life and how we choose to live it,” she said. “It’s about spurning our idols and taking a long, hard look at ourselves in order to break out of the destructive behaviors that keep us from both G-d and the good life.”
The practical applications of Dante’s wisdom cannot be separated from the pleasure of reading his verse, and this accounts for much of the life-changing power of the Comedy. For Dante, beauty provides signposts on the seeker’s road to truth. The wandering Florentine’s experiences with beauty, especially that of the angelic Beatrice, taught him that our loves lead us to heaven or to hell, depending on whether we are able to satisfy them within the divine order.
This is why “The Divine Comedy” is an icon, not an idol: Its beauty belongs to heaven. But it may also be taken into the hearts and minds of those woebegone wayfarers who read it as a guidebook and hold it high as a lantern, sent across the centuries from one lost soul to another, illuminating the way out of the dark wood that, sooner or later, ensnares us all.
Mr. Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservative, where portions of this essay first appeared. His most recent book, “The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming” (Grand Central), was published in paperback this week.