There is a medicine for what is making us sick politically: A good dose of Dante is some of what Americans need just now.
This is not because American politics is hell, since Dante wrote about purgatory and paradise as well, though most uses of Dante (Games! Comics! Movies!) have forgotten all but Inferno. Instead we need Dante exactly because his contemporary politics are not relevant. We are gorged on relevant details and so have lost health.
Some Obviousness: Dante cannot be about us.
Every so often one is asked: “What does this great author say about me?”
The answer so far has been “Nothing.” Just to be clear: Great authors are not talking about me either!
Here is some obviousness: Dante lived a long time ago and his immediate issues are not generally our immediate issues. Dante said nothing directly about American politics or any of us, because there was no United States of America when Dante was alive. I stress this fact because every so often otherwise fine students who have been cheated of chronology by history in their high school miss the size of the gap. Dante lived a long time ago.
We should never be so vain as to think a great book is about us.
Dante is not writing about Democrats and Republicans even generally, since he was rooting for King Jesus and a revival of the Roman Empire. This is not a party presently powerful in the Untied States. As far as the local politics in the Divine Comedy, I hope not to be the only one to need to look up the Guelphs and Ghibellines and the nuances of their positions every time I read this great book. Their struggle is interesting, but not immediately relevant.
Less Obvious: Dante’s distance can help us.
Have you ever thought? “I know how people are going to react to this story?” Take an outrageous statement by a politician. There will be proper denunciations, then over-the-top outrage. This will be followed by “Tu Quoque,” the fallacy of our age, breaking out on all sides. Some will say: “How can we care about this outrageous statement when (insert horror) is going on in the world?”
It is all predictable and happens by script. Part of the script even has people like I am, thinking myself reasonable, writing about the script as if I am above it.
The fact that Dante does not know about our particular situation as he writes means he is off script. He is not crafting a Tweet as he prepares to lacerate a political foe in hell, redeem him in purgatory, or venerate him in paradise. His work is a world-class intellect who has no taint of our system. He is not responding to us at all.
He is not politically correct or incorrect: he does not write about our politics. He is immoral where we are better and (just perhaps) moral where we are ethically crazy. Nobody can buy Dante by giving him a shout out on Hannity or Samantha B.If all that mattered were the devilish details, then Dante would be useless to our politics. Yet details might matter less than justice, an ethical framework that is eternal. If goodness, truth, and beauty exist, as even many atheists and all theists assert, then they are external to us.
We will find it hard to care about Dante’s details (Who is the present King of France again?) and so can see the eternal things. The good news is that Dante uses his political now to point us to the political always. He loves his city, people, nation, his Florence, but he is in exile. He has to look for a better, bigger, more eternal home.
That’s it. That’s the medicine we need.
Details Matter, but the Eternal Matters More
If you starve your opponent’s kids to get power, even if he is no damn good, then damn you. (Read Inferno XXXIII.) There is deep truth there: power is not worth betrayal. We cannot do evil so good may come.
Everyone thinks that this battle, this fight, is existential and worth exiling, demonizing, killing people in our homeland.
The details of the fight will fade in time, but every evil done in the name of The Cause will be remembered. The good that cities do may not live after them, but the bad they do taints their side forever. Dante judges the practical politics of his day by the standards of Heaven and his times were found wanting.
Don’t you suspect ours will as well?
When we decry ugliness, except when being angry, profane, and mean to “them” (they were ugly first), then Dante knows how that will end. Sides will change, transform, and soon old friends will be enemies. We will curse those who pick emperor over pope until Team Pope wins and we divide between Really Team Pope and Sort Of Team Pope. Soon nobody not alive at the time will know or care why we killed, exiled, or tortured. They will just know we were a mess.
Better to lose than to win in that case.
Dante points out to cling to the eternal. No party is totally on our side: Republicans (more or less) for sexual sanity with most of the globe and Democrats for diversity (more or less) that allows for the rest of the world. Nobody is for us and so we should compromise our values for no man. We stand for marriage against (some) Democrats and the dreams of all God’s children against (some) Republicans.
The good news is that the eternal positions endure. Dante held them. We can. The temporary relevant details change. Let’s do good in the name of the eternal and do the best we can with the temporal. We never compromise the moral, but need mercy ourselves so must grant mercy.
Let’s read some Dante: relevant to the eternal: love, the heavens, and the stars.
My favorite translation just now is by Tony Esolen (though it is not in e-form). Read Charles Williams Figure of Beatrice and Dorothy Sayer’s notes for help!
Some thoughts before class on Dante at The College at The Saint Constantine School.