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What Is the Meaning of Life?
The question never ceases to fascinate mankind. No matter how many answers are formulated, the meaning of life maintains a state of permanent elusiveness. Perhaps the quandary is mysterious because its answer is different for everyone. According to Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy, God’s very intention is that we have different strengths and, therefore, different callings or vocations. Though all souls will gravitate in one direction (toward God), they do so through different callings. As a result, the meaning of life is different for everyone. In the Commedia, Dante teaches readers how to discover their unique lives’ purposes and thus find their paths to God.
To fully demonstrate how Dante achieved this, it is important to answer several questions. First, why did Dante believe we have the ability to choose a vocation, and how did he demonstrate this belief in the Commedia? Also, how did he explain the assignment of vocations to individuals, and what did he reveal as consequences for ignoring a calling? Finally, how did Dante suggest that readers can discover their true vocations, and what did he show to be the ultimate rewards of pursuing them?
By answering these questions, one will realize just how carefully Dante orchestrated his work and also see how faith in any particular sect or religion- or even faith at all- is not necessary for understanding the wisdom behind Dante’s views.
There is little reason for each individual to have a unique purpose or meaning in life if everyone’s lives are predetermined. Dante was well aware of this but believed instead that humans have control over their destinies. This conviction is thanks to Dante’s Catholic beliefs, which adhere to the concept of Free Will.
The basic idea of Free Will is simple enough. By giving man the power to choose his own destiny, God allows souls to opt for both good and evil paths in life. Free Will is not exclusively Catholic but was strongly affirmed within Catholic doctrine by St. Augustine (Maher).
Why should God allow men to choose evil? According to Thomas Williams, “Augustine agrees that without metaphysical freedom there would be no evil, but he also thinks there would be no genuine good either. Without metaphysical freedom, the universe is just a divine puppet show” (Williams, xiii). By allowing man to choose good over evil, God allows souls to grow close to Him and Paradise by the power of their own wills- something far more significant than any guided action could be.
Dante was well-read in many ancient philosophers, including Plato, who did believe in fate and predestination. It is even possible that Dante lived for a period believing in such heresy, as might he might have suggested by describing his poetic counterpart as lost in the forest of sin and error in the beginning of the Commedia. Nevertheless, by the time he began his poem, Dante was a firm believer in Augustine’s views on Free Will. Barbara Reynolds writes that Dante’s rejection of determinism “makes one of the most positive statements of his belief in moral autonomy. Whatever the conditions into which we are born, our souls are the direct creations of God and we are responsible for our deeds” (282).
Dante emphasizes the existence of Free Will in Canto IV of Paradiso, in which Beatrice explains to Dante that people are not drawn to planets as Plato imagined but are instead superficially represented within them so that the Pilgrim may be introduced to Paradise in manageable increments. Beatrice tells Dante that the souls and their locations “vary only in the degree of their beatitude, which is determined by their own ability to absorb the infinity of God’s bliss.” (Ciardi 628). Thus, the ultimate resting place of every soul is determined by nothing save its independent will.
The Determination of Vocations
Having made clear that each soul has the power to choose its destiny, Dante proceeds to explain how vocations are determined. As Beatrice and the Pilgrim pause in the Third Sphere of Paradiso, the soul of Charles Martel explains that “the nature and character of individuals are influenced by heavenly bodies, in a way and toward an end ordained by God. God has foreseen not only what manifestations of individualist and necessary to fulfill His creation, but also the healthiest way in which individuality should be exercised” (Musa 73).
Consequently, God determines the nature of each individual, and thus his or her vocation, knowing what is best for the world. If this were not the case, Martel comments, “these heavens you now move across [would] give rise to their effect in such a way that there would not be harmony, but chaos” (8.106).
According to St. Francis and his fellow monks, even animals are given specific vocations by God. There are several situations in The Little Flowers of Saint Francis in which St. Francis and his fellows preach to animals or save them so that they might have a chance to live out their own purposes. Directly addressing a sermon to birds, St. Francis marvels at God's various gifts and warns them not to take such treasures for granted. Similarly, St. Anthony preaches to fish in the sea, expounding on God's gifts. In addition, St. Anthony details various callings fish have met, including “preserve[ing] Jonah the prophet… offer[ing] the tribute money to Christ… [and being] the food of the eternal King, Christ Jesus before the resurrection and after” (71).
Thus, for all beings, human and animal, God’s supreme knowledge and understanding allow for the creation of unique strengths, abilities, and talents that will come together on earth to provide for everything mankind could need- that is, if all creatures pursue their callings as they should.
The Consequences of Refusing a Calling
Despite God’s greater plan, not every individual follows his or her calling, and as a result, the world is not the perfect place that it could be. Dante recognized this unfortunate truth and discussed it extensively in his Commedia. Explicitly, he explains men’s reasons for not pursuing their vocations and outlines the ramifications of such failures in Paradiso. Implicitly, Dante demonstrates the results of men’s deviations from their callings in Inferno and Purgatorio. What he reveals is that a lack of will to pursue a calling draws one further and further from God.
In Paradiso, Dante reveals explicitly why men deviate from their callings. In Canto VIII, Charles Martel explains to the Pilgrim that “the reason many men have gone astray is that they have not been encouraged to follow their inherent character or nature” (Musa 68). As Mark Musa explains, “Attributes bestowed by God cannot be brought to fruition when subjected by men to unfavorable conditions. When men compel those who would naturally bear arms to be priests, and those who would be priests to be kings, they are ignoring the law of differentiation and, thus, losing the path God conceived for the individual soul” (74). Therefore, unfortunate circumstances, either due to societal restraints or just unfortunate circumstances, make it difficult to pursue one’s perfect vocation. Dante demonstrates this in Paradiso with the case of Piccarda Donati and the Empress Constance, who were both torn from their lives as nuns to fulfill familial obligations in political marriages.
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It may seem unfair that men are drawn away from their callings and therefore suffer due to worldly forces that they cannot control. Why should someone with an easy life in which he is free to explore, discover, and pursue his true vocation gain entry to Paradise when someone born into harsh conditions is prevented from following the true path and consequently slides into Purgatory or Hell?
There are three considerations that lessen this apparent discrepancy. First, one can consider Matthew 19:24: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” Dante alludes to these lines in Purgatorio and, in so doing, emphasizes his belief that one living a comfortable life will by no means find the path to Heaven an easy one. Bible verses aside, it is simple enough to understand that when one lives a comfortable life, it is easy to grow complacent and lose sight of God. Those living lives of comfort are all too easily distracted and may forget the original source of their good fortune. They may become prideful, avaricious, glutinous, or slothful, and such sins will lead to prolonged sojourning in Purgatory. Those who lack lives of freedom and privilege have one advantage in that they must fight for their callings and are less likely to be distracted by worldly vanities and indulgences.
Furthermore, while men may not be able to control the forces that stop them from pursuing their callings, they can control their reactions to said forces. Beatrice explains this in Canto IV of Paradiso by differentiating between the Absolute Will and the Conditioned Will. “The Absolute Will is incapable of willing evil. The Conditioned Will, when coerced by violence, interacts with it and consents to a lesser harm in order to escape a greater” (Ciardi 629). Essentially, Piccarda Donati and the Empress Constance were ruled by their Conditioned Wills- they made a conscious decision to leave their vocations as nuns and thus avoid negative worldly consequences. The two women could have adhered to their Absolute Wills and refused to be removed from their callings but instead demonstrated a degree of weakness by quelling to worldly threats. The point is that, while earthly consequences of fighting for one’s purpose in life at all costs can be horrible- even deadly- one does have the choice to do the right thing.
Even if one is torn from his or her calling by external forces, there is still hope for Paradise, as is seen in the case of Piccarda Donati and the Empress Constance. The two women broke their vows as nuns, but they still found perfect bliss in Heaven. The women made mistakes and may not be as close to God as other souls; nevertheless, “every soul in Heaven rejoices in the entire will of God and cannot wish for a higher place” (Ciardi 615). This being so, one cannot argue that the “system,” as it were, is unfair.
While every soul in Heaven rejoices equally in the bliss of God’s will, those who did not fully pursue their vocations are placed by Dante in the lower classes of the blessed. This is not because they are viewed as lesser beings by God; the women are in lower ranks due to their smaller degrees of beatitude. Because they deviated from their lives’ purposes, souls in lower ranks have less ability to comprehend God’s greatness, and so they simply lack the ability to be closer to Him in Heaven.
This truth is reflected not only in Paradiso but also in Purgatorio and Inferno. Hell is populated by those who rejected their callings. In Circle Two, the Pilgrim meets souls who cast away their vocations in favor of carnal love. In the Forest of the Suicides, the Pilgrim encounters souls who destroyed God’s gift of their bodies. Most importantly (at least for Dante’s political message), the Pilgrim finds the Simoniacs in Bolgia Three, who corrupted what is arguably the most important calling of all- that of a religious nature- by selling religious favors and offices. In all cases, the souls of Inferno have rejected God in the most disrespectful way possible- by defiling the strengths He gave them- and as a result, they suffer eternal damnation.
In Purgatory, souls have generally accepted their callings in life but have let petty sins draw them away from pursuing them fully. The Whips and Reins that souls experience for their sins are not punishments; they are a means of ridding the souls of worldly distractions. Souls do not wait for an external force to allow them to proceed to higher levels; they decide for themselves when they are ready to proceed and can only continue once they are capable of comprehending God on a higher level.
The gist of the Divine Comedy’s overall structure demonstrates that souls find themselves in specific locations not due to external factors, but rather internal willingness to accept God’s assignments. If one chooses not to recognize God’s supreme power and thus “runs afoul of the law of morality[, he] is not simply offending his teachers: he is violating the fundamental order of the universe, and the consequence will be tremendous moral pain” (Williams xv).
This truth may seem abstract, but it is reflected in everyday life and does not have to be viewed from a religious point of view. Should a man be engaged in a profession that he truly loves and is good at, he will likely experience feelings of bliss. Conversely, should a man find himself living a life of vice or even working in a perfectly legitimate line of work (but only doing so for the high paycheck), he will likely suffer. As a result, when people do that which they are good at, they feel good, and when humans deviate from that path, they feel bad. If one then associates feelings of bliss with closeness to God, as is done in the Commedia, it becomes clear that utilizing God’s gifts will bring one closer to God.
Finding One's Calling
If following one’s vocation will bring one close to God (or at least lead to a happy life), one might wonder how exactly one finds his or her calling. After all, callings are different for every person, and proper assignments are not conveniently etched onto every individual’s forehead. Countless people go through life without discovering their lives’ purposes. How, according to Dante, does one discover one’s vocation?
No passage in the Commedia explicitly lays out how one might find his or her vocation. The Pilgrim himself is told of his calling by none other than Saint Peter. In Canto XXVII of Paradiso, “St. Peter tells the Pilgrim that when he has returned to earth, it is his mission to tell his fellow men what he has learned” (Musa 199).
While this announcement is almost annoyingly convenient, one must not belittle the significance of visions in guiding individuals toward their callings. In Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemillianus is told by his adoptive grandfather Africanus “it will be your duty to take on the burden of the dictatorship, and restore order to the fractured state” (Cicero). Furthermore, in Augustine’s Confessions, St. Augustine, “during a severe struggle hears a voice from heaven, opens Scripture, and is converted” (Pusey 2).
Even St. Francis of Assisi received knowledge of his purpose in life through visions. “Whilst Francis was praying before an ancient crucifix … he heard a voice saying ‘Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin’” (Robinson). In addition to visions, St. Francis knew through prayer that “the Divine Majesty… had designed to stoop down to this perishing world, and, through His poor little one… had resolved to bring healing salvation to his soul and to others” (The Little Flowers of St. Francis 3).
Such divine revelation clearly indicates that a hefty dose of prayer and spirituality ought to help one discover one’s calling. Nevertheless, Dante leaves other clues for those who might not be so religiously inclined, the largest of which is revealed in Canto XVII of Paradiso, where the Pilgrim’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, consoles him in regards to his future expulsion from Florence. “You will learn how bitter as salt and stone is the bread of others” (17.68) warns Cacciaguida, but he also encourages the Pilgrim, telling him that his future work in exile will make an amazing impact: “This cry you raise shall strike as does the wind hardest at highest peaks” (17.133). The entire Canto, albeit indirectly, reveals that the Pilgrim’s expulsion from Florence will result in ultimate good and bring him closer to his career as a writer- something which, in a later canto, will be presented as his calling. What Paradiso’s Canto XVII reveals is that various events in one’s life may lead one closer to his or her purpose in life. Even unfortunate events can bring one closer to her calling.
Much can be learned from watching the Pilgrim as he gradually discovers his calling through the course of the Divine Comedy. He begins the Commedia in the dark wood of error, disoriented and lost: without a purpose or cause. Through the Inferno, he hears dark prophesies about his future- obscure warnings of suffering and betrayal that continue as he ascends Mount Purgatory. As he follows his course, the Pilgrim intends to share news of the souls with their living friends and family, but word of writing his account down does not emerge until he arrives in Paradise. It is at that point that the Pilgrim begins to see the overall purpose in his journey, and as he approaches God, he becomes more at peace with his future and given vocation. By witnessing this progression, the reader can experience something akin to his or her own journey of self-discovery. More often than not, the realization of one’s calling begins as a notion, and as life progresses, it becomes increasingly clear until one knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she is meant for a certain vocation.
Perhaps this progression for the Pilgrim is Dante’s way of reconciling with his exile from Florence. Had he not been expelled from his home, Dante might have remained in political and religious leadership and not continued to write. It is safe to say that Dante’s exile was a boon for his career as a writer, for Dante’s new dependence on patrons was supported by writing projects. All but one of Dante’s works (La Vita Nuova) were written after he left Florence. Who knows if he would have written them had his life not taken a turn for the ‘worse?’
In sum, Dante presents two means by which a man can discover his vocation: one is to spend time in prayer and contemplation, and the other is to let life take its course and learn from trial and error what works. Finding a vocation will be different for everyone, and this being so, it will always remain the most difficult hurtle to overcome. Nevertheless, as is reflected in The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, it is never too late to move in the right direction. As is seen in Chapter XXVI, St. Francis was willing to accept even terrible sinners such as robbers into his order, for he understood that no soul could rightfully be denied his calling.
The Rewards of Pursuing One’s Calling
When, though a vision, or perhaps years of trial and error, one finally does find his or her vocation, and can pursue it without restraint, one can finally reap the rewards. These rewards need not be viewed as exclusively religious in nature, and can be enjoyed in life as well as in Heaven.
The secular rewards of pursuing a vocation in line with one’s interests and abilities are obvious. Jobs that people choose are naturally more satisfying, as is reflected in a 2007 article in Time magazine, which ranked different occupations by percentage of workers who were very happy with their careers. Professions with the smallest percentages of happy workers included gas-station attendants, roofers, and amusement park attendants- all careers that people most usually select out of economic necessity, not passion or interest. Careers with the highest percentage of happy workers included clergy and firefighters, and tend to be vocations that people must purposefully seek out (On the Job). It is important to note that the most satisfying professions are by no means the most lucrative. Workers engaged in their callings are happy because they love their jobs- paychecks are marginal in importance.
Individuals engaged in their callings may be happier because they experience less cognitive dissonance. Developed by Leon Festinger, the concept of cognitive dissonance “is a psychological phenomenon which refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already know or believe, and new information and interpretation” (Anderthon ). “Two cognitions are said to be dissonant if one cognition follows from the opposite of another” (Rudolph). Consequently, if a man finds himself engaged in a job that goes against his beliefs or understandings, he is likely to experience mental discomfort.
The suffering that results from cognitive dissonance generates a significant deal of stress, which can be temporarily assuaged with alcohol or other mind-altering substances. Stress associated with cognitive dissonance may also be relieved by emotional outbreaks, stress eating, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and a variety of other ‘vices.’ With this in mind, it is very safe to assume that failure to pursue a calling will result in clinical, measurable suffering.
A lack of cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, will do wonders for one’s mental health. Without the stress of living a life misaligned with one’s beliefs, values, and principles, one has the ability to savor life and explore the deeper aspects of existence. Furthermore, an absence of cognitive dissonance removes one’s ‘need’ for many vices. If one does not have to live the life of a hypocrite, one has no need to drown one’s mental discomfort in mind-altering substances, angry outbreaks, or compulsive behaviors. Essentially, a lack of cognitive dissonance leads to a lack of vice- and therefore a propensity toward virtue.
Aristotle himself “had noted that virtuous persons are completely integrated in themselves, because they have no conflicting desires” (Selman 194), and St. Aquinas agreed, writing in Ethics book IX that good souls “tend with all their soul to one end” (Aquinas qtd. in Selman 194).
Essentially, Dante reveals to the observant reader that one must learn how to find unity and focus within himself in order to grow closer to God. He demonstrated this truth through the Pilgrim, and also by contrasting the disarray (both internal and external) of souls in Hell with the unity of souls in Heaven.
Dante the Pilgrim starts out “so drugged with sleep” that he had “wandered from the True Way” (1.11). As he progresses through Hell, he slowly learns how to identify the difference between one’s choice for punishment and bliss. In the beginning, the Pilgrim feels remorse for souls suffering eternal damnation and torment, but in time, he learns that such souls had chosen that destiny, and were so fixed in their conviction that salvation became impossible.
In Purgatory, the Pilgrim learns how to distinguish between earthly distractions and the true path by experiencing the Whips and Reins of various deadly sins. By the time he reaches earthly paradise, Dante the Pilgrim is purged of delusional attachment to petty and meaningless pleasures. Finally, in Paradise, the Pilgrim discovers his ‘straight and narrow path,’ which is revealed to him in the form of his personal calling: to write the Divine Comedy and reveal to the common man the punishments for sin and rewards for virtue.
The entire journey is about honing in one’s vision. Dante even demonstrates this allegory through the Pilgrim’s sensory experiences- peppering Inferno with a myriad of smells and sounds and slowly removing them as the cantos progress, until the Pilgrim reaches Heaven and only speaks of sight. The Divine Comedy traces a path from dissonance to consonance, distraction to focus, conflict to unity, and hatred to love. This unity leads to God, and the path one walks to get there is one’s vocation.
At the end of Paradiso, the Pilgrim finds his calling, and soon after finds himself in God’s very presence, “bring turned- instinct and intellect balanced equally as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars by the Long that moves the Sun and other stars” (33.142). The message is clear, and all the reader is left to do is heed Dante’s advice.
The Path to God
With his strong convictions regarding Free Will, the diversity of talents, and all souls’ inherent gravitation toward God, Dante Alighieri created his Divine Comedy in part to show people how to walk the straight and narrow path.
Dante employed his poem’s structure, characters, religious faith, and philosophical knowledge to show readers that they have control over their destinies. He revealed that everyone has different strengths, gave hints as to how readers might discover their own, and demonstrated the ramifications of both accepting and defiling the gifts given to humans by God. Most importantly, he revealed that through focus and determination, every soul can learn to cast aside the distractions of sin and external forces of society in favor of their one true path in life- their vocation.
Readers accompany Dante’s Pilgrim through the depths of Hell, up the slopes of Mount Purgatory, and to the very center of Heaven. In this journey, they learn how to find their life paths and discover that it ultimately leads to God. Dante’s advice is universal and applicable to people of all faiths and makes such an amazing journey even more remarkable. Strong adherence to one’s integrity as a person, and belief in one’s calling, will surely lead to bliss- perhaps not just in life but in Heaven as well.
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Ciardi, John, trans. The Divine Comedy. New York: New American Library, 2003.
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Pusey, Edward B., trans. The Confessions of St. Augustine, the Imitation of Christ. Vol. 7. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1909.
Reynolds, Barbara. Dante: the Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. Emeryville: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006.
Robinson, Paschal. "St. Francis of Assisi." New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia. 1909. Robert Appleton Company. 27 Apr. 2008 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm>.
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Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on January 11, 2012:
Thanks for the kind words, Alexander Brenner! Inferno is definitely my favorite, too, though with enough background research, even Paradiso is amazing! I think most of us favor Inferno because it's so accessible.
Alexander Brenner from Laguna Hills, California on December 30, 2011:
An in depth and extremely well informed interpretation of Dante's Paradise. I appreciate the matter of fact voice and the respect the writer shows for the reader by refusing to talk down to him or her.
As for Dante, though I must say Inferno is my favorite, I would say that you have done your homework and the works cited shows I am correct.
I look forward to reading more of your reflections on literature