Dante’s narration portrays himself as a pilgrim lead by the poet Virgil and later by his beloved Beatrice. This setup is an obvious device which allows for questions and expositions to be dealt with at a more personal level rather than taking the technical approach of a textbook. Whilst it lacks the precision of a Socratic dialogue, the poetic imagery can be effective.
Lead by the poet, Dante travels down through the circles of Inferno (Hell), before climbing up the terraces of Purgatorio (Purgatory) and then traversing the spheres of Paradiso (Heaven) with Beatrice. Whilst on this journey, he experiences the pains of those in Hell and Purgatory, and the joys of those in Purgatory and Heaven. He also explores other subjects, including human will and intellect, fallen human nature, the nature of sins and good deeds, the theological virtues, Church authority and Divine Grace, Divine Providence and Salvation.
A potentially annoying, although not necessarily irrelevant, aspect of this work is Dante’s political commentary of his contemporary Florence and his use of names of people who are supposedly in Hell, Purgatory or Heaven when these cannot be found in either Church authority or Holy Tradition. Also, the purgatory presented is not what Purgatory is meant to be, but it is admittedly a poem, not a textbook.
Depending on the translation, this may not be an easy read. It helps to know some history, Scripture and theology to appreciate Dante’s imagery and allusions. In any case, this work is a classic worthy of contemplation.
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