October 08, 2007

Virgil was sent via a chain of holy women, viz., Beatrice, St. Lucia and the Virgin Mary

As many commentators of Dante’s Divine Comedy have noted, Dante’s choice of Virgil as his guide is as pregnant with meaning as it is perplexing.[1] In light of the fact that Dante is a Christian, the question immediately arises as to why he selects a pagan to lead him out of the “shadowy forest” in which he finds himself? Virgil, of course, was a virtuous pagan who was well-respected by Dante for his literary excellence and for his role in making Rome great via his writings.
Yet, as Dante makes clear as the story unfolds, Virgil’s ultimate home for all eternity is Limbo-a place that houses many famous philosophers and poets (e.g., Plato, Aristotle) who lived prior the Christian era. On the one hand, it seems clear that Virgil serves as a kind personification of natural reason or wisdom. Yet, on the other hand, Virgil, now existentially knowing the truth of the claims of Christianity, has both grown in his wisdom and is now in a sense a servant of the Christian God. That is, Virgil has not come to Dante’s aid of his own accord, but was sent via a chain of holy women, viz., Beatrice, St. Lucia and the Virgin Mary.
In other words, though Virgil surely represents human reason and the wisdom that can be gained by a proper use of this God-given faculty, nonetheless, Virgil also has come to realize the limitations of natural reason and, as we shall see, is often quick to confess the superiority of divine revelation. Here I suggest that Dante’s choice of Virgil was in part to communicate Dante’s own preference for a kind of Christian philosophy wherein there exist certain mysteries of the faith that transcend human reason and are yet not irrational but supra-rational.
For those familiar with the Christian philosophy of St. Thomas, my description above seems to suggest a good deal of continuity with Thomas’ understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. Though I readily acknowledge a number of similarities-both actual and formal, I remain unconvinced that Dante’s presentation of the faith/reason relationship is an accurate embodiment of Thomas’ conception of this relationship[2]-in fact, anachronistically speaking, one might develop a strong case that the way in which Dante instantiates his view of the relationship between faith and reason is closer to a Lutheran or even Kierkegaardian understanding.[3]
Substantiating that proposal, however, is not my present pursuit. Rather, in this essay, my goal is simply to highlight the complexity of the faith/reason relationship as presented by Dante via his choice of Virgil as his spiritual guide and to raise various questions along the way that attempt to bring the surface the seemingly unavoidable tensions involved in Dante’s choice of this virtuous, yet eternally exiled pagan.[4]

Notes [1] Cf. Kenelm Foster, O.P., The Two Dantes and Other Studies (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1977), pp. 137-253 and Robert Hollander, “Tragedy in Dante’s Comedy,” Sewanee Review 91(1983): 240-60.
[2] Cf., H.L. Stewart. “Dante and the Schoolmen,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 10, No. 3 (June 1949): 357-373.
[3] This suggestion is not meant to speak pejoratively of either Luther or Kierkegaard-here I have in mind Kierkegaard’s own views on faith and reason as presented in his writings under his own name (e.g., Training in Christianity) and not the views set forth by his various personae (e.g., Johannes de Silentio). Contrary, to the all-too-common caricature of Luther as the great adversary of (natural) reason, I tend to follow Heiko Oberman’s interpretation of Luther as presented in his book, Dawn of the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.
[4] Given time constraints, I have focused mostly on passages from Purgatorio. Seeing that I have not yet completed my reading of the Purgatorio, nor have I read the Paradiso, my account as it stands may (and likely will) need revision.

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