One of Dante’s great insights* is that out punishments are simply when we receive what we’ve chosen.  The fact that what we’ve chosen makes us miserable is not some arbitrary punishment delivered by an authority figure, but a consequence of there being a path to happiness and peace and us stepping off that path.  We are unhappy because we’ve chosen to be unhappy.  God’s punishment is to let us have what we’ve desired. 

In other words, it’s a mistake to see the current situation, in any of its various permutations, as necessarily leading to chastisement.  Instead, we must realize that the situation is the chastisement.  We’ve stepped off the path into the brambles, and our thrashing around amidst the thorns is the punishment for doing so, not the cause of some future, independent, punishment delivered from above. 

The great mercy of God is that He retains His love for us amidst this thrashing and, even more gloriously, turns our chastisement towards the Good.  Perhaps, in our stumbling through the thickets we clear a path for our, and others’, return. 

* I call it Dante’s but it is certainly not original to him; it’s all over Plato, for example.  And I wonder if we might find even more traces in the epics, Achilles perhaps, something to puzzle over next time I read them.

Excited to Read Dante Again

I saw a sun above a thousand lamps;
it kindled all of them as does our sun
kindle the sights above us here on earth;

and through its living light the glowing Substance
appeared to me with such intensity-
my vision lacked the power to sustain it.

O Beatrice, sweet guide and dear! She said
to me: “What overwhelms you is a Power
against which nothing can defend itself.

This is the Wisdom and the Potency
that opened roads between the earth and Heaven,
the paths for which desire had long since waited.”

Even as lightning breaking from a cloud,
expanding so that it cannot be pent,
against its nature, down to earth, descends,

so did my mind, confronted by that feast,
expand; and it was carried past itself-
what it became, it cannot recollect.

Paradiso, Canto XXIII (Mandelbaum)

Thoughts (Borrowed) While Looking at the Sky in Maine

By such signs, and on foot of such examples,
some say that bees have supped a draught that is divine,
that, as a matter of true fact, a god pervades the whole wide world,
sea’s expanse and heaven’s height,
whence flocks and herds and men, and all species of savage beast,
derive that fine line of life the second they are born.
And, what’s more, to him all things return in time, dissolved
and reabsorbed; there is no place for death–instead they soar,
still alive–to take their rightful place among the stars.
Georgics, IV.219-27 (trans. Fallon)
If, reader, I had ampler space in which
to write, I’d sing–though incompletely–that
sweet draught for which my thirst was limitless;
but since all of the pages pre-disposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue.
From the most holy wave I now returned
to Beatrice; remade, as new trees are
renewed when they bring forth new boughs, I was
pure and prepared to climb unto the stars
Purgatorio, XXXIII.136-145 (trans. Mandelbaum)

I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Last quarter I was lucky enough to work as a writing intern for a course which read Dante’s Inferno.  I love Dante, despite (more likely because of) feeling that I’ll never do more than scratch the surface of the Commedia.  Mostly, I just hang back and wonder at it.  A few images in particular that stood out on this read through.

In the 7th Circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil enter a vast forest, the suicides.  I read this while sitting in front of a fire filled with snow-damp branches:


Then I stretched out my hand a little way

and from a great thornbush snapped off a branch

at which its trunk cried out: “Why do you tear me?”

And then, when it had grown more dark with blood,

it asked again: “Why do you break me off?”

Are you without all sentiment of pity?

As from a sapling log that catches fire

along one of its ends, while at the other

it drips and hisses with escaping vapor,

so from that broken stump issued together

both words and blood; at which I let the branch

fall, and I stood like one who is afraid.


Later, he runs into Ugolino in the circle of traitors:


We had already taken leave of him,

when I saw two shades frozen in one hole,

so that one’s head served as the other’s cap;

and just as he who’s hungry chews his bread,

one sinner dug his teeth into the other

right at the place where brain is joined to nape

[Ugolino explains that he was walled into a tower with his sons, whom he watches die one by one of starvation.]

But after we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo,

throwing himself, outstretched, down at my feet,

implored me: ‘Father, why do you not help me?’

And there he died, and just as you see me,

I saw the other three fall one by one

between the fifth day and the sixth; at which,

now blind, I started groping over each:

and after they were dead, I called them for

two days; then fasting had more force than grief.”


When he had spoken this, with eyes awry,

again he gripped the sad skull in his teeth,

which, like a dog’s, were strong down to the bone.

“then fasting had more force than grief” is wonderfully (horribly?) ambiguous way to end what I’ve always found to be the most compelling speech in the Inferno.  On the whole though, Inferno is my least favorite of the Comedy, which is maybe why my favorite lines are the final:

XXXIV, 133-139

My guide and I came on that hidden road

to make our way back into the bright world;

and with no care for any rest, we climbed —

he first, I following — until I saw,

through a round opening, some of those things

of beauty Heaven bears.  It was from there

that we emerged, to see — once more — the stars.

As a bonus, Dante inspired me to revisit Virgil, mainly because the Georgics was already sitting on my desk.  I can’t articulate or even understand what makes Virgil great, I just know that he is great:

Georgics, I.47-50

Come the sweet o’ the year when streams begin to melt and tumble down the heavy hills

And clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds,

it’s time again to put the bull before the deep-pointed plough to pull his weight

and have the share glisten, burnished by the broken sod.