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"Divine Comedy": How Dante Used Faith and Reason to Argue for a Separate Church and State
Though Dante Alighieri’s "Divine Comedy" is universally thought to be about the repercussions of sin and virtue, many additional lessons and statements are laced into its verses.
According to Barbara Reynolds, “It was not [Dante’s] intention to simply preach a parable about punishment for sin and rewards for virtue. He was deeply concerned about the state of the world and believed that he had found a solution: the acceptance throughout Europe of the supreme secular authority of an Emperor” (Reynolds xiii). In a very direct form, this opinion is exposed in Dante’s De Monarchia. Nevertheless, this same sentiment is expressed, perhaps just as exhaustively and with an even stronger argument, in the Divine Comedy.
Indeed, Dante uses the themes of reason and faith in his "Divine Comedy" to prove the necessity of a separate church and state. His argument begins with a strong argument for faith in "Inferno," founded on principles presented in The Dream of Scipio, various works by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine’s Confessions. It culminates in Purgatorio, where reason and faith rule separately but with equal power.
Ultimately, Dante revealed radical political thought by weaving it into a complex poem, thus successfully spreading his sentiments without directly attacking the church. While his "Commedia" did not go down in history as a treatise favoring a separate church and state, Dante nevertheless anticipated what would become the norm for most developed political arrangements in modern times. Thus, Dante was truly a man of vision in more ways than one.
An Introduction in Favor of Faith
Dante ignites his "Divine Comedy" with "Inferno," which depicts a purely secular state ruled with an absence of hope and faith. Though "Inferno" (along with any purely secular autocracy) is usually remembered for its most violent and inhuman scenes, the most compelling political argument in "Inferno" takes place in Limbo.
Limbo provides the perfect reflection of a peaceful, perfectly orchestrated secular state. It is orderly, beautiful, and full of great thinkers, such as Homer. Despite its lovely state, Limbo’s inhabitants are set to an eternity of heavy sighs, for they live a life without faith and thus no hope. Just as these souls (including the Pilgrim’s wizened guide, Virgil) have no hope of ascending anywhere beyond the reaches of reason, citizens of even the most virtuous secular state will languish without a church to guide their souls toward God.
Dante recognizes the soul-threatening risk that one runs from erring on the side of too much reason and too little faith, and acknowledges such not only through allegory regarding the "Inferno" but also through himself as the Pilgrim, for he wandered into the dark wood of error and sin and thus deviated from “the course of the just man, leading to God” (Durling 34) by becoming overly immersed in the works of pagan philosophers.
The Foundations for Dante’s Reasoning
Though too much reason is risky and can lead to perdition, Dante nonetheless recognized the importance of maintaining reason in the pursuit of faith and thus derived inspiration from Cicero’s Dream of Scipio regarding the necessary relationship between the state and church. Written long before the birth of Christ, this work meshes surprisingly well with Catholic beliefs and has a very strong emphasis on the importance of the state.
In the Dream of Scipio, Publius Cornelius Scipio meets his adoptive grandfather Africanus in heaven and is told by him that “Of all those things one might do on earth, nothing is more pleasing to the Supreme God, ruler of the universe, than the gatherings of men who are bound together by law and custom in those communities we call states” (Cicero). Right off the bat, this work emphasizes the importance of order and traditions created by temporal power, and in so doing, he acts as a strong advocate for reason.
Though worldly order is accentuated, Cicero’s Dream points out that, after death, the fame and honor a soul has achieved on earth mean very little. As Scipio stares raptly down at Earth from the heavens, Africanus rebukes him saying, “Don't you see how insignificant this earth is? Think on the heavenly regions! You should have nothing but scorn for mortal things. For mortals can't give you any fame or glory that is worth seeking or having” (Cicero). Thus, the Dream of Scipio emphasizes that, after death, worldly matters and achievements are no longer of importance.
Understanding this, Scipio expresses a desire to relinquish his life on Earth so that he may live in heaven with his ancestors. Africanus explains to Scipio that if he were to cut his life short, he will have failed his duty, “the duty which you, like every other human being, were meant to fulfill” (Cicero).
This reveals that, while reason and earthly matters pale in comparison to the glory of faith, humans have an obligation to fulfill their lives’ purpose before being released from their mortal bonds. What Dante may have taken from this work, then, is that while the glories of heaven are in a completely different realm from rational earthly matters, each human has an inherent duty in life to live a virtuous life in a well-ordered state.
While Cicero represents the best of ancient thought, St. Thomas Aquinas acts as a bridge between pagan philosophy and Catholic theology, and he surely influenced Dante’s work a great deal. Aquinas, too, wrote of the importance of reason as part of an ultimate effort to grow closer to God. He noted that “to love reason, the higher part of ourselves, is also to love virtue” (Selman 194). Aquinas's support for reason and rationality no doubt supported Dante’s understanding that reason is an essential part of seeking the pious life.
Nevertheless, Aquinas believed “we are joined to got as to the unknown” (Selman 19), essentially indicating that, as one is close to uniting with God, the use of reason is not effective. Thus, again, Dante is presented with a sense of separation of reason and faith.
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In the words of Fulton J. Sheen, “Aquinas discussed the problem of man, for he was at peace; Augustine considered man as a problem, for that is what he once made himself by vice” (Pusey xi). Indeed, Aquinas presented Dante with information on various trials and challenges of faith and understanding that face man in his theological pursuits, whereas Aquinas revealed the relationship between reason and faith by experiencing it in his own life.
Dante was surely inspired by St. Augustine’s Confessions, and this work offers a third exploration of the complex relationship and occasional necessary separation of reason and faith. Augustine was a man who understood very well what it was like to live a life led by reason. “At the close of his university career, he practiced as a teacher of rhetoric, training young lawyers in the art of pleading” (Augustine, 3), and should common prejudices hold true, lawyers are as cold, calculating, and rational as humans can be.
As Fulton J. Sheen writes, Augustine existed in a time when “human hearts sick with the odors of the dying lily of paganism were frustrated and unhappy (Pusey viii). He lived in the presence of faith, but for the first part of his life, he was ruled by heresy and reason. Though he eventually broke from his Manichean heresy, Augustine was still plagued by temptation and sin. The cause of such torment was ultimately due to the unsatisfying shallowness of a life ruled by too much reason and too little faith.
Even though Augustine sought to create a stronger relationship with the Catholic religion, his thirst for absolute certainty hindered his progress. Ultimately what saved him and brought him closest to God was an act of complete faith as he heard a divine voice and opened the Bible to discover a passage that utterly consoled him. This experience of his reveals that, while reason can guide one through a successful life and even to a high degree of faith, true proximity to God can only be achieved by letting go of reason entirely and only maintaining a sense divine love.
In sum, Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine’s Confessions all reveal that reason is an instrumental aspect of worldly success, but true closeness to God can only be achieved in the presence of faith. Dante applied the reasoning and wisdom in these men’s works to his own epic poem to create a sound argument in favor of a separate but equally powerful church and state.
How Dante Expressed His Political Sentiments
Dante used the themes of reason and faith (or divine love) to emphasize the importance of a separate church and state in three ways: through Virgil and Beatrice, souls the Pilgrim encounters, and the overall format of the "Commedia."
Dante employs Beatrice and Virgil to set the terms for his complex allegory and also uses the characters to demonstrate the relationship and separate functions of the church and state. By using the Pilgrim’s guides as a two-layered allegory, Dante is able to express radical political ideas without being overly direct.
Virgil’s representation as reason is clearly appropriate as the historical individual was well-known for his great intellect, and despite his pagan roots, there is speculation that he foresaw the birth of Christ. Nevertheless, Virgil’s representation as the state is also very appropriate, being that he is the author of the Aeneid, and wrote of the founding of the Roman Empire. Beatrice, as a representation of both faith and the Catholic Church, need not be so complex as faith and the church go hand in hand. In sum:
Virgil = Reason = State
Beatrice = Faith = Catholic Church
Because Virgil and Beatrice are used as representational tools, their status throughout the "Commedia" reveals how Dante believes the state and church should interact. Naturally, in the "Inferno," there is no appearance of Beatrice, and only Virgil leads the Pilgrim. The terrible conditions of Hell reflect the state of temporal power in the complete absence of faith. In Paradiso, only Beatrice is present, and this reflects how heaven is not governed by reason or the state, as is pointed out in Cicero’s Dream of Scipio.
In Purgatory, however, both Virgil and Beatrice play important roles. Purgatorio is the most important environment when it comes to Dante’s argument for a separate church and state because it is within those cantos that Dante reveals how the two entities should interact. He uses Virgil and Beatrice to show how, in life, it is the state that directly interacts with souls, giving them the reason necessary to find virtue and purge sin, but it is the church that ultimately motivates souls to progress. An example of this is seen on the verge of Earthly Paradise in Canto XXVII when the only enticement that convinces the Pilgrim to brave through the Wall of Fire is the promise of seeing Beatrice.
Dante also uses lesser characters and conversations in his Divine Comedy to emphasize the importance of a separate church and state and to reveal the evil that resulted from the Catholic Church obtaining temporal power. In the Inferno, Dante’s sentiments become especially clear as the Pilgrim and Virgil encounter the Simoniacs. In that area of Hell, all the souls that misused the temporal power of the church are destined to suffer for all eternity. Throughout the Commedia, the Pilgrim and other souls lament the corruption of the Papacy and rue the day that temporal power was ever bestowed upon the high religious authority.
Dante espouses the virtues of a separate church and state throughout Purgatorio, and especially in Cantos VII, VIII and XIX. In Canto VII, the Pilgrim encounters the Negligent Rulers. In this part of Ante-Purgatory, Dante places royalty and political leaders who, in their dedication to the state, neglected to develop a closer relationship with their faith. Though these souls were by no means the most pious of all, Dante places them in a beautiful flowering valley, complete with singing and pleasant odors. By doing so, Dante indicates that these men deserve accolades for doing what pleases God, which, according to Cicero, involves leading strong states bound by law and custom.
To complement his presentation of the ideal temporal leader, Dante presents Pope Adrian V as an exemplary religious leader amongst the Avaricious in Canto XIX. Upon identifying the Pope, the Pilgrim expresses great desire pay homage to him, however Pope Adrian dislikes the attention and wishes more than anything to humbly pursue his purification. By presenting such a humble, focused pope, Dante thus argues that the ideal church leader is not in the least concerned with temporal matters, but is utterly focused on the salvation of the soul.
In addition to the guides, souls, and dialogue, Dante manipulates the poetic style of his Divine Comedy to prove his point. In Hell, readers encounter a world that is utterly visceral. Descriptions are literal, the language is often crude, and the souls’ punishments all emphasize very physical pain. In Purgatory, the language is more civilized, and literal occurrences are laced with visions and dreams. In Heaven, everything is explained allegorically and “the technical problem involved in finding a stylistic correspondence to this transformation reaches insoluble proportions by the poem’s ending, for it demand straining the representational value of poetry to the ultimate, approaching silence as its limit” (Ciardi, 586). In sum, the language used across the Commedia ranges from the absolute literalness of reason to the complete silence of faith, thus carrying through with the earthly mixture reason and faith and their otherworldly separation. This allegory, of course, translates directly to Dante’s discussion of the church and state, thus arguing that in hell there is no church, in heaven there is no state, but on earth both must co-exist.
This being so, Purgatorio is the climax of Dante’s argument for independent religious and political powers, for it explains how the church and state must co-exist. Dante creates an environment in which the entities work together, but do not mingle. Reason (and thus the state) is presented in the Whips and Reins of the various levels, instructing souls on how to cleanse themselves of sin. Faith (and thus the church) is presented in the angels, who stand before each level’s transition, remove the burden of each P from souls’ foreheads, and spur souls on with inspiring song.
The angels do not instruct the souls, just as the Whips and Reins do not intrinsically motivate. Each aspect of Purgatory serves its specific function: the Whips and Reins provide structure and reason while the angels provide inspiration and faith. By presenting this configuration, Dante argues that therefore the state should provide structure and the church should provide direction toward Divine Grace. The two should compliment each other; they should not issue from the same source.
With his guides, dialogue, poetic form, and allegorical structure, Dante effectively argues his point without being overly direct. The result is a work that expresses a strong political statement, but in the guise of many other theological and philosophical messages.
The Ultimate Result
John Freccero suggests that Dante Alighieri’s "Divine Comedy" is a result of “his long and painstaking exploration of the problem of evil” (Ciardi, 274). After being expelled from his home in Florence in the year 1302, Dante had due cause for searching out the root of his misfortune and the political chaos that lead to his present state.
Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the integration of temporal power into the Catholic Church was the source of this evil. Being a man of strong principles, Dante could not allow this injustice to exist without putting in his two cents’ worth of opinion. Thus he used his "Divine Comedy" to spread his thoughts to countless individuals.
Because Dante avoided a direct affront to the Catholic Church in his "Divine Comedy," he was able to disseminate a very radical political message to countless people. Though a separate church and state did not emerge until long after his death, Dante would be glad to know that his sentiments were not unique.
In the end, the virtues that result from independent religious and temporal powers have been recognized as valid, and today the most powerful countries espouse this separation. Perhaps this separation truly is superior, and it was Dante’s divine purpose to express such. In that case, let us hope he is smiling down at Earth from Heaven, satisfied to see that he was, once again, right.
Augustine, and Thomas A. Kempis. The Confessions of Saint Augustine, the Imitation of Christ. Trans. Edward B. Pusey. Ed. Charles W. Eliot. Vol. 7. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1909.
Burton, Phillip, trans. The Confessions / Augustine. New York: Alfred a. Knopf, 2001.
Ciardi, John, trans. The Divine Comedy. New York: New American Library, 2003.
Cicero. Roman Philosiphy: Cicero, the Dream of Scipio. Trans. Richard Hooker. Washington State University, 1999. World Civilizations. 17 Mar. 2008 <http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ROME/SCIPIO.HTM>.
Durling, Robert M., trans. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Ed. Ronald L. Martinez. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Musa, Mark, trans. Dante Aligheiri's Divine Comedy: Puratory, Commentary. Vol. 4. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2000.
Pusey, Edward B., trans. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Intro. Fulton J. Sheen. New York: Carlton House, 1949.
Reynolds, Barbara. Dante: the Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. Emeryville: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006.
Selman, Francis. Aquinas 101. Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 2005.
Jasmine on May 29, 2012:
The book is very interesting and I'll be happy to write a review as soon as I've read it. It's not translated in English yet (as far as I know), but considering the fact that it's a bestseller in Italy, very often compared to The da Vinci Code, and because the author discovered interesting data after doing an in-depth research on the numerology used in the Comedy, I'm sure The Secret Book of Dante will be translated in different languages one day.
Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on May 29, 2012:
Wow, what delicious disciplines! Thanks for the kind words. And that novel sounds AMAZING! I should love to read it someday. Wow!
Jasmine on May 27, 2012:
I studied English and Italian literature at university and until present day, Dante as a persona and his Divine Comedy remain the main focus of my literary interest. Your hub is a great overview of the work from a secular and political point of view. At the moment, I'm reading a novel written by Francesco Fioretti - The Secret Book of Dante - in which the author tries to prove that Dante didn't die of malaria, but that he was killed by people who didn't want him to publish the last parts of the Comedy. There are indications that Dante left a coded message in his cantos written on nine sheets of paper - theorems and complex intrigues between the lines of three parts reveal the truth so carefully hidden by the author. Can't wait to finish the read :)
Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on November 11, 2011:
Ah, the uni days. Gotta love 'em, eh wot psychicdog.net?
And thanks so much Philippinewander! I feel that Dante's work were just as revealing about Italian politics at the time as they were about the Catholic religion. Reading the Divine Comedy only made me want to visit Italy MORE!
Philippinewander on November 10, 2011:
Molto bene! Don't let the username fool you. I am second generation Italian but lived in the Philippines for five years. This was a great read.
psychicdog.net on September 06, 2011:
this is an awesome hub - reminded me of uni days - the separation of reason and faith would have been a major philosophical issue at the time...
Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on July 21, 2010:
Thank you cheaptrick! I think we all are relegated to only rudimentary understandings of Dante's work... it's so complex and expansive, not to mention bound with time-sensitive idiosyncrasies and obscure references... there's no way anyone- perhaps even Dante himself at the time of writing- can understand these works in their entirety.
But that's half the fun!
cheaptrick from the bridge of sighs on July 21, 2010:
I rated this up...I was not going to comment for fear of exposing my own rudimentary understanding of Dante's work.Being Italian born from generations of Italians however,compelled me to pay this compliment.Multi Benni,Multi multi Benni.Gracia.
Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on July 21, 2010:
Thanks so much Thoog!!!
I envy you out in Italy!! Oh, how I would love to have seen Benigni recite cantos from Dante's Inferno!! I really need to visit Italy one of these days =_=
James Nelmondo from Genova, Italy on July 21, 2010:
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. mi ritrovai per una selva oscura." What a master-piece! Living in Italy, I have had the pleasure of watching Benigni (the actor and director of "Life is Beautiful" recite entire "songs" from Dante's inferno, and I adored every minute of it.
This hub is simply inspiring in terms of presentation, writing and knowledge. It seems to me that the debates and paradoxes you present are incredibly valid today, where, given the rise of atheism and humanism, the separation of church and state is a question of utmost importance.
As you rightly claim, his radical message was ahead of its time by leaps and bounds.