Two Thoughts On The Commedia

I mentioned the other day that Shirley and I were rereading Dante’s Divine Comedy while we listened to a lecture series on it. The relationship between reader and literature is extremely complex. Except by committing what I think is a species of the use/mention error, one cannot simply say, this or that in a piece of literature somehow applies to me or to my time and place. But there is a process of absorption, of intellectually accommodation, that is undeniable. Simply put, reading great literature changes how one sees other literature and life itself. Of course, our secular world properly prevents the accommodation of many of the themes and motifs in the Divine Comedy. That said, there are two issues that struck me with this reading.
First, and at the risk of committing the use/mention error I just mentioned, a pervasive theme of the Divine Comedy is the evil of political factionalism, Florentine factionalism in particular. The prolonged struggle between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines had, in Dante’s view, devastated Florence, substituting one-upmanship for the good of the city. While here in the US we haven’t called in outside forces to help defeat our internal political opponents, much of our current political debate focuses on how to belittle those awful, terrible, really bad, folks with whom we disagree. Too often we’d rather do that than work through the complex issues that face us. Of course, it is easy to see this sin on the other side but one of the things that plagued Dante was the extent to which his own predispositions were part of the problem.
Second, and on a lighter note, I couldn’t help but think that many of those luminaries who presented themselves in the sphere of the Sun would have been happier in Limbo. I believe that if I were Thomas Aquinas I’d rather spend eternity in the company of Plato, Aristotle, Averroës (perhaps particularly Averroës), and other virtuous pagans then with most of the lot that occupied Paradise.