Teaching Dante in Catholic schools

Lovers of the Great Books argue interminably about which is the greatest? Among philosophers, the argument might focus on the relative merits of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works—or those of Augustine and Aquinas. Among literature lovers, some will argue that Homer’s epics are the greatest, others, possibly, though perhaps less convincingly, that Virgil deserves the laurel.

And then there are those who will insist that Shakespeare is as good as it gets. And yet, for Catholics, we can hardly leave Dante out of the discussion. From a purely Catholic literary perspective, he must surely stand supreme. He is to Catholic literature what Thomas Aquinas is to Catholic philosophy. If Thomas is rightly called the Angelic Doctor, might Dante not deserve to be called the Angelic Poet?

If this is so, and it is, we can say that Dante’s Divine Comedy must be seen as an indispensable part of the curriculum at any self-respecting Catholic school—both at the high school and college level. The problem is that Dante’s magnum opus is often taught poorly, even when it is taught at all. At the root of the problem is the tendency to remain trapped in hell, never venturing forth into purgatory and paradise. This is a consequence of the way that Dante has been taught for decades, indeed, for centuries.

Ever since the Reformation, it has been the tendency to teach the Inferno to the exclusion of the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. The reason is obvious enough. Protestants believed in hell but not in purgatory. As for paradise, the Protestant idea of heaven precluded the hierarchy of the communion of saints which Dante presents in his Comedy. Since Dante’s purgatory and paradise were considered to be heretical, the Protestants were left with nothing but his hell in which to wallow. Disagreeing with Dante about the nature of the Divine Light, Protestants could at least agree with him with regard to the darkness which is the consequence of its absence.

The tendency to teach the Inferno to the exclusion of the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, already established as common practice by Protestants, was continued by the children of the superciliously self-named Enlightenment. Whereas these skeptic-souled secularists might not believe in hell any more than they believed in purgatory or heaven, they could at least see that evil existed, even if they no longer called it sin, and they could perceive its harmful consequences. As such, the Inferno still resonated psychologically, even if its theology was now ignored.

It might be argued that none of the foregoing is of much concern to Catholics in general, or to Catholic educators in particular. If Protestants and secularists want to wallow in Dante’s hell because they have excluded themselves from purgatory and heaven, that’s their problem. Of what concern is it to us? The problem is that Catholic schools are also often stuck in hell, having excluded themselves from purgatory and heaven. In all too many schools, we find that only Dante’s Inferno is on the curriculum.

Why is this?

In part, it’s because we have bought the Protestant and secularist lie that the Inferno is far superior to the other two books of the Commedia. This is quite simply not the case. It was not the view of the Poet who composed it, nor of those who understand the Poem best. Take, for instance, the judgment of Maurice Baring, one of the most cultured and well-read men of the last century:

Scaling the circles of the Paradiso, we are conscious the whole time of an ascent not only in the quality of the substance but in that of the form. It is a long perpetual crescendo, increasing in beauty until the final consummation in the very last line. Somebody once defined an artist … as a man who knows how to finish things. If this definition is true – and I think it is – then Dante was the greatest artist who ever lived. His final canto is the best, and it depends on and completes the beginning.

Having seen through the lie, or at least the misconception born of ignorance, that the Inferno is superior to the other two books of the Commedia, why, one wonders, do some Catholic schools still not teach the Purgatorio and the Paradiso? An all too common reason is that the teachers are only teaching what they were taught. Since those who teach were only taught the Inferno, they only know the Inferno. It is, therefore, easier to stay in one’s own comfort zone (in this case, ironically, hell!) rather than venture forth into unknown and uncharted territory. Quite literally, as well as quite literarily, the path of least resistance for many Catholic teachers leads to hell—and, what is worse, having led there it stays there.

A final reason for sometimes only teaching the Inferno is that there’s simply not enough time to teach the whole Commedia. Sadly, this is usually true. And yet, if this is so, why not teach the Purgatorio or the Paradiso and not the Inferno? Better still, and this is the way that I normally teach the Poem, why not select certain cantos from each of the three books, thereby at least giving the students a sense of the majesty and integrity of the whole work?

Regardless of the degree to which the world is only at home in hell, it is imperative that good Catholic schools assent to the ascent which leads from hell, via Mount Purgatory, into the celestial spheres of Paradise. Where else should Catholics seek to be than in the presence of God and his saints? Why accept any less, still less the ultimate “less” which is God’s infernal absence?

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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