Dante: Reason and Religion: Though It Is Immersed in the Theological Ideas of the Middle Ages, the Cosmology of Dante's Divine Comedy Is Sophisticated, Sceptical and Tolerant

By Burge, James | History Today, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Dante: Reason and Religion: Though It Is Immersed in the Theological Ideas of the Middle Ages, the Cosmology of Dante's Divine Comedy Is Sophisticated, Sceptical and Tolerant


Burge, James, History Today


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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Florentine author of the medieval masterpiece of fantasy-fiction known as the Divine Comedy (la Divina Commedia), provides the modern observer with a unique insight into the worldview of a thinking man at the height of the Age of Faith. His great work provides a remarkable resource that is of interest to anyone, even those such as Richard Dawkins who are concerned that religious faith poses a real and present danger to post-Enlightenment rationalism. Dante is the outstanding representative of a period during which, as Dawkins would have it, the shadow of superstition was at its deepest. Since that time, goes the humanist view of history, humankind has slowly dragged itself into the light of reason. The concern that exercises today's secular humanists and radical atheists is that, although the triumphs of scientific rationalism are all around us, backsliders and fanatics are still numerous enough to threaten to undo the whole project and plunge us back into the Dark Ages. Dawkins in particular is clear about the root cause of this state of affairs: religion. He and those of like mind are certain that it is faith itself which threatens rational thought.

If this is the case then Dante, who not only lived at a time when religion was all pervasive but whose unshakeable personal faith is evident in nearly every line he wrote, should have borne the full brunt of this intellectual pollution. Religion should have turned him into an unquestioning puppet of the pope, an intolerant fanatic blind to the benefits of rational discussion and opposed to anything resembling scientific enquiry.

We are fortunate to be able to test this fashionable analysis because in the Divine Comedy Dante records his own opinions and beliefs about a broad spectrum of topics including morality, politics and science. The poem is a fictional first-person narrative (Dante arguably comes very close to being the person who invented the novel with the first modern use of this form), but the author's intention is always ultimately didactic. He wants to make people better by helping them to understand the true nature of the universe and in his writing he is never slow to pass an opinion or to show off his knowledge. As a consequence, the Comedy provides a picture of the world as Dante saw it and by examining his worldview we can test the Dawkins hypothesis. It should be emphasised that in this exercise we are not investigating the rightness or wrongness of Dante's faith in itself, but whether it had the effect on him that Dawkins and his followers would predict.

To deal with the question of papal authority first, Dante lived through the papacy of Boniface VIII (c. 1235-1303), who represents, according to some historians, the apogee of papal power. With a combination of intelligence and brutality, as well as the good fortune that the Holy Roman Empire had been obliged to reduce greatly its sphere of influence, he managed from 1294 until his death to wield more political power than any pope before or since. Dante pays a great deal of attention to Boniface in the Comedy. Even though he was still alive at the time that the Comedy is set, Dante devises a precise description of what will happen to him when he dies. He will be stuffed headfirst into a fiery hole in the ground while flames lick around his feet. Again and again Dante returns to the subject of the wickedness of Boniface until he finally enlists St Peter himself to state unequivocally that he is responsible for turning the papacy into a sewer. No unquestioning obedience there, then. Dante supports the institution of the papacy, it is true; for him the pope is an essential part of God's plan. But that is all the more reason to scrutinise the behaviour of individual popes and to speak out when they transgress. Boniface is by no means the only pope to be mentioned as being condemned to an eternity in Hell.

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The precise sin of which Boniface is guilty is simony, the selling of spiritual benefits for material gain.

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Dante: Reason and Religion: Though It Is Immersed in the Theological Ideas of the Middle Ages, the Cosmology of Dante's Divine Comedy Is Sophisticated, Sceptical and Tolerant
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