Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Free Will And Dante's Divine Comedy

"Before me things created were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure. 
Abandon all hope, you who enter here."

The Desk Columnist of the Catholic Times begins his column with the words written above the gate to Hell in Dante Alighieri's  Divine Comedy. He read the poem when he was in middle school, and it left a lasting impression on him. He reflects on the poem in his column.

Dante, at the age of 35, in the evening of the day before Good Friday, was wandering in a dark forest. The next day at dawn he came to a hill which he tried to ascend and  met three wild beasts and his guide, who was like a father to him, the Roman poet Virgil. The poet leads him through Hell and Purgatory, where he meets Beatrice, who will be his guide to Heaven, where his eyes will be opened to the love of God.

The poem begins with sadness but ends with joy. The columnist mentions that the part that bothered him the most in middle school was to see the large number of clerics Dante had placed in hell. He was able to come to an understanding of this later in life:  Dante was showing his disapproval of the corruption of the Church of his time.

The columnist wonders if Dante would see the problems we have in the world today as representative of the hell he described: divisive feelings among people and nations, wars, jealousy, greed, hatred, etc. Our free will choices have been harmful to ourselves and others, as Dante makes clear, especially in the first book of the Divine Comedy: The Inferno. Free will is a gift of God, a faculty that allows  us to accept or refuse what is good or bad according to our reason.

The cantos of Purgatory have a great deal to do with philosophy and free will. It is our choices that will determine the road we will be taking, leading either to happiness or to misery. Dante considers free will the greatest of the gifts we have received.  And when we use it to make the right choices we will meet our Beatrice, who will lead us to heaven.

It is easy to have doubts about our freedom. However, as Christians our freedom is beyond doubt. We can limit our freedom by the  way we live, acting from instinct and habit, influenced by others and losing the ability to love, which only can be an act of a free person. The columnist wonders if hell is the place where we lose all our freedom.             

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