Dante’s Divine Comedy
Introduction to Dante
Reason and Faith
Love and Free Will
Development of Soul & Body
Introduction to Dante
Dante Aligheri (1265-1321), of Florence,
One of the 4-5 greatest poets of the Western
tradition (with Homer, Virgil, Milton,
His masterpiece (The Divine Comedy)
embodies the Thomistic synthesis of Greek
philosophy & the Biblical worldview.
Structure of the Divine
– The Inferno (Hell). A depiction of the
consequences of unchecked evil.
– The Purgatorio (Purgatory). A representation of
human nature in this life (of which purgatory is
an extension): the conflict between good and
– The Paradiso (Heaven). The ultimate,
supernatural end of human life. The vision of
Issues to Consider
Love as the source of both good and evil.
The paradox of free will: is it compatible
with a scientific (Aristotelian) picture of the
workings of human nature?
The relationship between body and soul.
Faith & Reason
Dante gives a high status to natural reason.
– Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell and
purgatory, was a pre-Christian Roman poet.
– Aristotle is described as “the father of them that
– The philosophers and poets in limbo, although
unbelievers, are treated with great respect, and
suffer only the sadness of the loss of heaven.
Limits of reason
At the same time, Dante clearly asserts the
limits of reason, and the need for its
supplementation by faith.
– Beatrice (representing grace) must take over for
Virgil as Dante enters heaven.
– Certain mysteries (like that of free will) lie
beyond the scope of reason to explain
– The souls in heaven, enjoying the vision of God,
have transcended all natural limitations.
Humanity is commingled with God’s essence.
Love as the source of Good
Virgil distinguishes between animal and
The second is fallible, both in respect of its
object and its intensity.
– Wrong object: Pride, Envy, Wrath
– Too weak: Sloth (accidie)
– Too strong: Avarice, Gluttony, Lust
Love directed toward the
good, but fallibly
“All men, though in a vague way,
apprehend a good their souls may rest in,
and desire it; each, therefore, strives to
reach his chosen end.” (Pur. xvii)
“Though love’s substance (object) always
will appear to be a good, not every impress
made, even in finest wax, is good and
clear.” (Pur. xviii)
The Enigma of Free Will
“If love springs outside the soul’s own will,
it being made to love, what merit is there in
loving good, or blame in loving ill?” (Dante
to Virgil, canto xviii)
“As far as reason sees, I can reply. The rest
you must ask Beatrice. The answer lies
within Faith’s Mysteries.” (Virgil’s reply)
“All love springs from necessity, but you
still have the power to check its sway.”
Marco’s Discourse (canto xvi)
Until quite modern times, astrology was
taken to be scientific, revealing laws
connecting heavenly motions to earthly
If we substitute modern physics & chemistry
for astrology, the same philosophical
question arises: how is human freedom
compatible with a world of natural causal
Free Will & the Intellect
Marco answers: it is the human intellect that
frees man from the heavens’ influence. By
understanding the laws of cause/effect, we
can transcend them.
Unsolved problem: why doesn’t the intellect
merely introduce its own chain of inexorable
cause & effect? Whence comes the freedom
to assent or dissent to reason’s conclusions?
The Place of Training, Civic
The fact of free will does not (for Dante)
negate the need for training: “restraint by law
to guide love to higher things”.
The bad state of the world (in Dante’s time)
Dante attributes to bad leadership of both
church and state (but, especially, of church).
Another paradox? Is it bad environment or free
will that is the ultimate explanation of evil?
The Development of Soul &
Statius’s Discourse -- Pur. canto xxv
Describes the development of the human
fetus, beginning with the “formative power”
present in the sperm.
This formative power shapes the blood in
the uterus through successive stages: plantlike, jellyfish-like, human.
Emergence of the rational soul
This “formative power” could be identified
with the genetic information contained in
the gametes (like Aristotle, Dante
hypothesizes no genetic contribution of the
As the fetal brain develops, God steps in
and creates a rational soul, which then
draws into itself the powers of the
vegetative and perceptive souls.
Three Medieval Theories
Dante endorses what was known as
“creationism”: that each individual human
soul is specially created by God.
Augustine and others endorsed
“traducianism”: the human soul is formed by
natural powers possessed by the sperm & egg.
Dante clearly rejects Averroism (ibn Ruhd):
that all human beings share a single soul.
Dante’s Vision of Heaven
Dante’s Paradiso was based on the current,
Ptolemaic (earth-centered) model.
Dante passes through successive, concentric
circles: moon, Venus, Sun, planets, fixed
After reaching the primum mobile (first
mover) beyond the stars, Dante’s universe
undergoes a disorienting, non-Euclidean
What had been the center (the earth) now
becomes the extreme periphery, and the
sphere of the primum mobile is seen to
revolve around concentric spheres of
angels, centered in God.
Thus, Dante’s universe is really not geocentric at all, but theo-centric.
Introduction to Joseph Butler
Sermons, published in 1726.
Had profound effect on moral philosophy in
Britain, well into 20th century.
2 major themes:
1. Nature is the standard of good/bad,
2. The problem of the relation between selflove and love for others.