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Drawing on Boethius to Illuminate Dante

I do not know if late medieval Italy was more wicked than our time, but the Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), thought that his age was apocalyptically evil. Italy, once a cultivated “garden” of order and justice, had become a blasted moral wasteland, a dark, thorn-infested, noxious wood, lacking fruitful and life-giving vegetation, like something out of Lear.[1] “Beaten-down Italy” (Inf. 1:106) was now a “widow” (Purg. 6.112-13), bereft of all but a few genuine acts of love and heartfelt virtue. Italy was morally devastated, an apocalyptic desert, haunted by demonic beasts. What the prophet Jeremiah had spoken in elusive and enigmatic words, was now becoming plain and evident to all who were not a part of the corruption themselves (Jeremiah 5.3- 6). Indeed, the moral devastation of Italy had rendered it a land more loathsome than any imaginary landscape populated by the dreamiest poet with the most horrific mythological monsters he could think up. Classical writers had inventively written about deserts infested with all kinds of terrible “chelydri, jaculi, and phareae, / And also cenchri and amphisbaenae,” but none of these mythological landscapes had “so many venomous beasts or ones so evil” as what Italy now produced (Inf. 24:88-90).

This is the nightmarish reality that Dante portrays himself waking up to at the very beginning of his great poem (Inferno 1), and it is this awakening, this startling realization, that causes him anxiety, shortness of breath, and bodily pain just to narrate it (Inf. 1: 1-12).

Unlike other allegorical poems of his time (for instance, the Roman de la Rose), Dante’s poem is not a dream. Indeed, the sickening realization is that he is no longer dreaming, even though he wishes he were (cp. Inf. 30.136-141). The dream was pretending that everything was alright.

And so, Dante the Prophet, Dante the Preacher, Dante the Decrier of Sin, throughout the whole of the Comedy blasts, abuses, excoriates, and decries the corruption and the falsity of the wealth-obsessed, pleasure-seeking elites of his world. And he does it, city by city.

All of this is touching on why the poet felt he had to use such force, such linguistic violence, to heap scorn on evil and wake the somnolent up. It was no longer the hour for suave and winning words (cp. Purg. 1:92). When, for instance, Dante confesses to his great, great grandfather, that he’s afraid of being a “timid friend” to truth—that is, he’s afraid of not speaking out stridently enough—his old-fashioned, tough, military-minded ancestor smiles, and tells him that his prophetic cry should be like a wind that breaks the tops of trees (Par. 17: 133-34), and, even more brusquely, he sums up Dante’s poetic vocation like this: “where’s there’s rot, let them scratch” (Par. 17:129)! The former love poet, who had focused on getting mellifluous words to flow together in sufficiently smooth waves of sound, who had worried about how to construct individual syllable (as he described in his On Vernacular Eloquence, abandoned just before he started his linguistically-rougher Inferno), now portrays himself as receiving a divine commission to imitate the field surgeon’s rough  method of handling the severely diseased and mortally wounded: hack that limb off; cut this part out; seal that wound up. And for this task, Dante needed the wild-eyed prophet’s holy anger—Aquinas had said that you can sin by not being angry enough—and he would need words rough as sand paper and sharp as broken glass, words that no longer soothed and stroked somnolent audiences to sleep, or cleverly evoked from congregations polite little chuckles during homilies (see Par. 29.115-17). No. The time for that was over. What was wanted were words that burned like fire and cut like cold iron, words that blasted like war trumpets and sounded alarms (see Inf. 19.1-6).

But what if, somehow someway, you could get past that crust of bestial savagery and touch the inner heart, what Boethius called the “inner citadel” (arx abdita)? The real center of the human mind? What if you had some potent antidote to Circe’s venomous magic which had reduced humanity to feral cruelty? What if you could get human beings to put off their animal exteriors, slough off their bestial appetites, and hear the voice of the Lord again, or, to borrow from Dante’s Convivio, get your readers to taste and eat the inner “bread of angels” (Convivio, I.1)?[2]

In Boethius Dante could have found an ancient myth to express this desire: the legendary story of the mythological poet Orpheus, who went down to Hades and sang so beautifully that he made all of hell stop to listen. While he sang in hell, Cerberus went mute; the damned souls burst into tears to hear the beauty of his song; all punishments temporarily cease (Consolation, III.12m).

Although clothed in mythic language, the story of Orpheus was read as deeply psychologically revelatory, touching on “Platonic” truths: that is, deep down within, there is a part of the heart that remains incorruptible, and although it remains dormant for most of our lives, the music of Orpheus could touch it, wake it up.

[1] For Dante’s description of Italy as nasty, unclean “selva,” see his prose treatise, On Vernacular Eloquence, known by its Latin title, De Vulgari Eloquentia, ed. and trans. Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), I.15.
[2] “Blessed are the few who sit at the table where the bread of the angels is eaten, and most unfortunate those who share the food of sheep!” Convivio, trans. Richard Lansing (The Garland Medieval Library, 1990), https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/text/library/the-convivio,

Jason Baxter

Dr. Baxter is the Interim Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College. He holds a Doctorate in Literature from the University of Notre Dame. Prior to joining Benedictine, he spent time as a visiting associate professor at Notre Dame preceded by twelve years at Wyoming Catholic College. His written works include The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis and A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy, among others, and he is currently working on an original translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Baxter has written many academic and popular articles, and he frequently makes media appearances ranging from podcasts to EWTN.