Cor ad Cor: This Week at Newman

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping
/ Categories: Cor ad Cor

A Journey in Love with Dante

“How are you liking the Divine Comedy so far?” I asked the class. One student said he admired the imagery, another that he couldn’t put the poem down. I felt the same. Over the past two weeks in our Introduction to Catholic Studies course, all of us, I think it fair to say, have been enchanted. At the same time that students are working through Aquinas’ Treatise on Happiness in the Summa in their philosophy course, Cicero’s Rhetoric in their writing class, and medieval chant in their Way of Beauty choir, here in our seminar, we’re taking the long, slow, delightful trek with one of the West’s finest poets up mount Purgatory.

Reading a poem like the Divine Comedy is like entering a new country. There’s so much to explore. There are endless histories to understand, customs to interpret, relations to uncover, literary devices to decode (what, precisely is the difference between an analogy and an allegory?).

Last class, for instance, we explored the ‘logic of confession’ as we worked through key lines from Canto IX of Purgatorio (where the poet steps up into Peter’s gate). We also peeked in at one of Dante’s own letters about the poem, the celebrated Letter to Congrande. There he’s been telling his readers these past 700 years – yes, in case you didn’t see it, 2021 was the Comedy’s 7th centenary! – how the epic needs to be interpreted in the same way we interpret the Bible. (And how is that, you ask? I commend to you his letter.)

Setting aside these observations, here I simply name one other theme that arose from our discussion: the centrality of love. This should not surprise. Dante is the poet of love par excellence. The whole of the Divine Comedy Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – is structured around love’s loss and recovery. Love grown cold is the theme of the Inferno. Love’s education is the theme of the Purgatorio. Love’s consummation is the theme of the Paradiso.

For us postmoderns, the emphasis on love appeals. Many among us are leery of ‘principles.’ We are skeptical of metaphysical claims. Rules seem opposed to freedoms. But love: Who could deny it?

“Love is love” was the most important slogan of progressive politics a few years ago. And, in one respect, Dante would agree with it. Love really should define all our relations. It is one goal toward which all lesser goals unite. Dante’s great teacher, St. Thomas, will call love a “unitive force.” It is the power that draws all things in the cosmos together. Along these lines, in one of the two most important Cantos of the Purgatorio, love is called “the spring” of the cosmic drama. Amor, he will say, is the sementa in voi d’ogne virtute, love is the seed in you of every virtue (Purgatorio, XVII, l.104)

Of course, there’s more to be said. Love is also the seed, as he remarks in the next line, of “every deed that merits punishment.” Only the unobservant could imagine that all loves are of equal value. They are not. Love is like an electric current. It needs to be directed, or else it will burn.

While [love] is fixed on the Eternal Good,
And observes temperance loving worldly goods,
It cannot be the cause of sinful joys;

But when it turns toward evil or pursues
some good with not enough or too much zeal –
The creature turns on his Creator then.
(Purgatorio, XVIII, l.97ff, trans Musa)

Love needs discipline. Love demands order. Love becomes itself only after serving in the long apprenticeship of virtue. Though this road may be the one less travelled, Dante’s poem makes clear the rewards that well await.

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is a professor in the BA in Catholic Studies Program and the Director of NTC’s Benedict XVI Institute for the New Evangelization

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