Another clip from Patron Saints for Postmoderns. Dante’s story of his own salvation is also a story of the making of a Christian leader:
A Triune Salvation
Dante begins his poem with the confessional “midlife crisis”: “Once upon a time he had known the right way, la diritta via, la verace via; but he lost it, let it get overgrown and rank.” But as we get deeper into his epic poem, he mounts a sharp critique on his own irresponsible devotion to romantic love, his own intellectual pride and his own loyalty to party and to Florence. Dante the poet makes these character traits of Dante the pilgrim look less and less appropriate as he nears the Beatific Vision of God’s own person. In a stunning moment toward the end of Purgatorio Dante meets Beatrice again after a long separation. But the tender scene the reader expects (after all, it was Beatrice who arranged for this whole supernatural tour, in the interest of Dante’s salvation) does not come. Instead, shockingly, Beatrice lashes out, accusing Dante the pilgrim of gross sin and unfaithfulness to her memory in the period after her death. It is simply amazing that Dante would write this scene.
We will never know the exact nature of the sin. He does not tell us, but we may guess that he lost the cardinal virtue of hope—which is the very definition of hell—and even considered suicide. But Dante’s midlife sin was no single sinful act. Rather, it was a complex of habits and characteristics leading him off of the “straight and narrow road” and on to the broad way to damnation. These habits stemmed from his “disordered loves,” his pursuit of right ends—love, knowledge, citizenship—by wrong means and to wrong degrees.
Having used his own poem to critique himself on all three of these fronts, Dante comes to the central question of his life: If God’s grace could free him from these partial loves, how could he then, with all of his talents, best serve God and love—and lead—others? To answer this question, he tells a story about the wrong sort of leader, the character Ulysses from Virgil’s epic The Aeneid.
Ulysses, in an imagined dialogue with Dante, tells what had happened to him after the exploits recorded by Virgil. Back from the Trojan War, Ulysses became bored with normal life and convinced his shipmates through his powerful rhetoric to abandon their families and sail with him once more—to their collective doom. This last quest was the very epitome of a leader’s selfish abuse of his exceptional talent with words and with people, and it deprived his nation of their king. In fact, Dante’s portrayal of Ulysses is clearly also a portrayal of himself: a talented, charismatic person who is good with words, but who has misused them in idolatrous service to romantic love, philosophy and party. Now he must decide how to use his gifts properly.
A New Kind of Leader
As a mature, brilliant and well-educated leader-in-exile who is still well-placed in Italian society, Dante has (1) access to the ear of those involved in the factionalism, (2) the rhetorical and poetic ability to put things in persuasively striking ways and (3) the long experience of exile in which to think about how to frame his persuasion.
The climactic moment comes in Paradiso 17 and 18. There Dante meets his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida—a martyr in the Second Crusade. Cacciaguida offers Dante a “new crusade,” a war of peacemaking and perspective to be waged not with the sword, but pen: he is to describe for the good of the world all the people he has met in the three afterworlds—their stories, sins, virtues. Through their stories, Cacciaguida is saying, all parties will learn a new and compelling “universal view”; indeed, a God’s-eye view, compared with which their petty squabbles are like so many express trains to hell for themselves, and to misery for those caught in their intrigues and vendettas. Dante accepts Cacciaguida’s proffered quest, thus inheriting a mantle of prophecy from the Old Testament prophets themselves.
And so the author Dante, in one brilliant flash, illuminates both his salvation at last from all forms of self-interest and party-interest, and the purpose and vision of this, his greatest literary work. For all the wrong paths, disordered loves and wrecked lives we find in the Comedy, if we stick with Dante through the three realms of the dead, we come at last to this calling: to rise above pettiness and be a new kind of person, and a new kind of leader.