Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life: Inferno, Canto IV, Part 2

A Reading Room series

Dante and Virgil continue onwards through a forest—a forest of “thick-crowded ghosts.” Not very far into this forest Dante sees a fire blazing in the darkness. Even though they are still somewhat distant from it, Dante is able to see that there are several people near the light. Dante asks Virgil what merit these people have to be separated from the rest of Limbo and to be able to enjoy a little bit of light amidst the darkness that characterizes the rest of the first circle of Hell. “These are the people with good names,” Virgil tells him. 
Even though they were unbaptized, their reputations for good behavior have won them favor in Heaven—and this favor has granted them this slight reprieve from Hell, and this relatively honorable place in Limbo.
 In the meantime Dante hears someone—who has apparently recognized Virgil—shout out, “All honor be to the preeminent poet.” Dante then sees four large spirits approach; these spirits (or “shades,” as Dante usually refers to the souls he sees in the Underworld) appear neither glad nor sad. Virgil tells Dante that the first one, bearing a sword, is Homer, “Poet sovereign”; the next is Horace, “the satirist”; the third is Ovid, and fourth is Lucan. And because I am also one of their kind, says Virgil—meaning, a poet—I have been able to attain this honorable place in Limbo as well. 
The four great classical poets—Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan—talk amongst themselves and then give Dante a genial greeting, the sight of which makes Virgil smile. Dante tells us that these poets wanted to make Dante the sixth (Virgil being the fifth) of their pack. Together they journey on as far as the light will take them until they reach the foot of a high-walled, moat-encircled castle with seven walls and seven gates; they are able to walk over the water as though walking on dry land. Passing through the portals, they reach a fresh, grassy meadow. Dante glimpses some slow-moving people on the meadow; they have a solemn, authoritative bearing. Though they are not speaking much, Dante can tell that their voices are very gentle. 
 Dante and Virgil move off to one side, toward a higher, illuminated area of the meadow from where they’re able to get a better view of these people. From here Virgil is able to point out to Dante who these people are—and they are such eminent people (now spirits, or “shades”) that the mere sight of them, says Dante, is enough to make him feel exalted. He sees Electra (the mother of the founder of Troy), with many of her companions; the great Trojan heroes Hector and Aeneas; Caesar clad in armor, with falcon-like eyes; and other warrior-hero allies of Troy who fought alongside the Trojans during the Trojan war. He sees Lavinia, daughter of the King of Latium and the wife of Aeneas, and other early Roman heroes who were instrumental in the founding of the Roman Republic, as well as significant figures of the later Roman Republic (and the eventual Roman Empire), including Julia, the daughter of Caesar and wife of Pompey; Marcia, the second wife of Cato; and Saladin, the famed leader of the Muslim forces who opposed the Crusaders during the 12th century. 
 Dante raises his eyes a little and sees “the Master” of “all those who know”, sitting with his own group of companions, and being gazed upon and honored by everyone around him. It is Aristotle, accompanied by Plato and Socrates. Nearby them are Democritus, the Greek philosopher and scientist who proposed the existence of atoms, and other great Greek men of learning: Diogenes (founder of the philosophical school of Cynicism), Empedocles (originator of the idea that the world is composed of four basic elements), Zeno (one of the first Stoic philosophers), and the pre-Socratic philosophers Anaxagorus, Thales, and Heraclitus. Dante also sees the legendary mythological musician Orpheus, and the great Roman orators Cicero, Livy, and Seneca; the great geometrician Euclid; the astronomer Ptolemy; and the first great classical medical scientists, Galen and Hippocrates. Amongst this group Dante also sees Avicenna and Averroes, the great Islamic philosophers who, through their commentaries on Aristotle (which were later translated into Latin), were responsible for bringing classical Greek philosophy into the Medieval Christian world. 
 Dante tells us that he cannot describe them all, because his time there must be short; Virgil is driving him on, because they need to move on to the next phase of their journey through the Underworld—away from this illuminated, placid area and back again toward the dark place where the air itself trembles… 

In this remarkable scene—as near a literary equivalent as there has ever been to Raphael’s famed School of Athens fresco (1511)—Dante takes us to the place in Limbo where all the great figures of classical learning have gathered. That Dante places the great men of learning and some of the renowned male and female military and political leaders of ancient Rome together in a special, separate area of Limbo reflects his deep-seated belief that good deeds and constructive political and societal action as well as a sincere devotion to the intellectual life is salvific. In Dante’s mind (and in the minds of nearly all other Christian theologians of his time) it was not enough to earn one a place in Heaven, but for Dante living such a life could at least help one escape the torments of hell. 
 This was no small stand for Dante to take. The dominant trend in Christian theology in the Middle Ages was that all unbaptized individuals were condemned to Hell. No matter how good a life one may have lived, if one did not accept Christ, one’s soul would be condemned to Hell for eternity, according to Christian theology. Dante accepted nearly all tenets of medieval Christian theology—and The Divine Comedy reflects Dante’s profound commitment to these beliefs. But he did not accept this particularly Christian teaching. Instead of placing these individuals in actual Hell, Dante places them in Limbo, a significant departure from the Christian theology of his era—and a departure which showcases that his love and commitment for classical learning was as strong as his commitment to his Christian faith. 
 Faith and reason—religion and the intellect—need not be separate from one another. One can be religious and still committed to a life of learning—and vice-versa. Dante’s Divine Comedy is the greatest evidence we have for this proposition, and this canto may be the greatest illustration in all of The Divine Comedy of this idea. Such an illustration would only later be duplicated in Raphael’s aforementioned School of Athens two hundred years later. 
The School of Athens, perhaps one of the most oft-reproduced images in the history of art, also depicts a gathering of many of the most renowned figures of classical science and philosophy: Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Euclid; Pythagoras, Archimedes, Diogenes, and Heraclitus; Parmenides, Averroes, and Democritus as well, among others. Many of us have probably seen this image countless times in a great variety of contexts. But we may not have known (or, if we had known, we may often forget) that this image was originally painted on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, where it can still be seen today. 
 The life of the mind can—and, according to Dante and Raphael, should—live equally alongside the life of the soul. Cultivating both our minds and our souls is they key to true human flourishing, for Dante—in this life and the next. The next time a preacher or pastor tells you that you must shut off your mind or sacrifice your intellect in order to be a true person of faith, point him or her to The School of Athens, and to Inferno, Canto IV—and to the fact that if the Pope commissioned Raphael’s School of Athens, and if Dante—the greatest Christian theological writer in the history of world literature—composed Inferno, Canto IV—perhaps the lesson such preachers should be teaching is that persons of faith cannot be truly religious without literature, science, philosophy, and astronomy.