Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dante’s Purgatorio as Spiritual Exercise (Thesis)

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a wonderful work of poetry and a reflection upon the philosophy and theology of the Church in the High Middle Ages. But, like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, often missed is its value as a spiritual exercise. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and St. Francis de Sale’s Introduction to the Devout Life, the Purgatorio especially functions as a spiritual exercise that, approached with prayer, is a great aid toward removing vices and instilling virtues so that one may more easily cooperate with the grace of God.

Exerpts from the following recognized works of spiritual meditation will be paralleled with passages from Dante’s Purgatorio in support of the thesis statement above.

Thomas Aquinas, S., & Fathers of the English Dominican Province. (2009). Summa theologica (Complete English ed.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Teresa of Ávila, S., & Dalton, J. (1852). The Interior Castle. London: T. Jones.

John of the Cross, S., Zimmermann, B., & Lewis, D. (1906). The Ascent of Mount Carmel. London: Thomas Baker.

Ignatius of Loyola, S. (1914). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (E. Mullan, Trans.). New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons.

Francis de Sales, S. (1885). An Introduction to the Devout Life. Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son.

Dante Inferno, Canto XVII: Art, Usury..and Liberal Policies

St. Thomas comments upon usury and how it is a sin against nature thus:

To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality, which is contrary to justice.
In order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption: thus we consume wine when we use it for drink, and we consume wheat when we use it for food. Wherefore in suchlike things the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing, is granted the thing itself; and for this reason, to lend things of this kind is to transfer the ownership. Accordingly if a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist, wherefore he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. In like manner he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat, and asks for double payment, viz. one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury. (STh., II-II q.78 a.1 resp.)

But for Dante, it is a sin against art, and this is something explained by Virgil to Dante in Canto XI. I, however, (and in researching it have noticed I am not alone in this) find the explanation difficult. At the risk of extending too far what Dante may have meant and, at worst, missing the point altogether, I offer here a contemporary consideration of usury as a sin against art.

To produce something is to use those things God has given us and apply our own reason and work to it, thus making something that is useful to us or to another. Most often our livelihoods are based off of this. We make something, sell it, and use the money to buy something else we need.

Now, there are a great many politicians who base their livelihood off of producing nothing, but off of taking and redistributing other people’s earnings, often by way of taxes (but in other ways as well) to give to another. They also, in their salaries, take some off the top. They therefore produce nothing; they add no art, no product. They do nothing but charge (this is their salary) to redistribute money. They thus charge for the use of money not their own, produce nothing, and yet claim to have given something and done a service.

In this way they sell something that does not exist. They sell a product to those who they deem needful, and in doing so reduce what would be helpful to those people. They tax a business to help these people, all while these people are laid off from that business since, due to being robbed (excessive taxes are hardly different than usury as a type of robbery), these businesses lay off the very employees who think they benefit from the “product” given them by the government.

St. Thomas calls something usury because it is to charge for something that does not exist separately. You cannot charge for the wine AND the “use of” the wine. It is acting as if you have two products to sell when you really only have one. It is deceit. Is this any different than to bring forth policies that pretend to create more goods but really do nothing of the kind (All the while billing the people for doing so by means of a salary and, very often, exempting oneself from the policies of practical usury you put in place)?

Dante – Inferno, Canto XI

The last three Canto’s we have been looking at the punishment of the Heretics, which, for Dante, generally means those who in some way rejected God. The materialists seem to be the most prominent of these, as we see groups such as the Epicurians among those called heretics.


The Epicurians (like the Stoics) seemed to have a materialistic worldview. But while the Stoics sought to temper their own passions (or be rid of them completely) the Epicurians wish to indulge in them. Perhaps that is why they are spoken of in more detail. The Stoics misunderstood the fact that the passions were of value to man, while the Epicurians thought they comprised the instrument by which man sought happiness.


In Canto XI, Dante seems to make his second mistake of putting a pope in Hell. This is not to say that there are not popes in hell, but that Dante seems to have a low batting average on this topic thus far. His first hellbound pope is a canonized saint, and his second (Anastasius) is the result of a historical error on which Anastasius was a denier of the true Incarnation of Christ.


After directly mentioning Aristotle and some of his works, Virgil goes on to speak of how “Violence may be offered the deity in the heart that blasphemes and refuses Him and scorns the gifts of Nature, her beauty and bounty.” This 14th century line reminds me of one similar from the 20th century, courtesy of Ettiene Gilson: “When and where piety is permitted to inundate the philosophical field, the usual outcome is that, to better extol the glory of God, pious-minded theologians proceed joyfully to annihilate God’s own creation.” In other words, one can ponder God and yet pay Him insult when we belittle His creation. We need to avoid being Stiocs (denying the goodness or at least moral neutrality of the passions), or Manicheans (denying the goodness of the material world), or even Platonists, who must deny the full reality given to the world of our sense and experience.


For those that are Catholic, our entire theology is Christocentric and therefore Incarnational. In fact, we can certainly say that, in Christ, God and Nature meet, and in fact God and Nature are Father (1st Person of the Trinity) and Mother (the Virgin Mary) of Christ.


Lastly (in reality there is, of course, so much more to reflect on here) Virgil states that “Philosophy makes plain by many reasons…to those who heed her teachings, how all of nature…springs from the Ultimate Intellect and Its art. Not only is this truth again plainly taught in places such as Blessed John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, but by the great St. Paul, saying “For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable” (Rom 1:20)

Dante Inferno Canto VII

In Canto VII we meet the Hoarders and the Wasters, the Wrathful and the Sullen. The opening commentary in our Ciardi translation says that these “souls are encumbered by dead weights and one excess serves to punish the other.

This reminds me of how often I have met those who are “so brave and bold” in all of their talk but “quite cowards” in the moment of crisis. Likewise, I have seen those who it would be hard, due to their humility, to see as bold warriors until, the moment arrived, they show great magnanimity. I say this from my experience leading soldiers in combat, and my point here is its relation to the cardinal virtues, in which a median is what is sought between extremes.

To continue with the example of fortitude, the virtuous person is neither a coward nor a purposeless daredevil. In fact, I’ve seen a few who were “brave enough” to do stupid and risky things quite often who yet failed when true courage was needed. To carry my point a little beyond the direct context of our Canto, I am of the firm belief that today we have a great shortage of real men. We have two extremes, however, in great abundance: the effeminate, emasculated and the tough guy and/or womanizer.

Few men realize that a true man should ALWAYS be a warrior and RARELY be at war (with the notable exception of the constant war we must fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil).

Virgil’s words of comfort to Dante are striking; “Do not be startled, for now power of his, however he may lord it over the damned, may hinder your descent through the abyss.” Whether inspired by these similar words or not, I instantly think of St. Paul’s comforting words; “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39)

It is the “King of Time” as Canto V had it that decrees that Dante walk this path, and this from His throne in heaven where “what is willed must be, and is not” Minos’ or Plutus’ or anyone else’s place to question. We, likewise, must trust in the Lord when Dame Fortune leads us where she will, knowing all has been decreed by God, for we know (again Paul to the Romans) that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Inferno, Canto IV: The Virtuous Pagans

“Political Science in fact makes use of other practical sciences, even legislating what is to be done and what is not to be done. Its end, therefore, embraces the ends of the other practical sciences. For these reasons, then, this end will be the good of man.” Thus says Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics.


Commenting, however, on this passage, St. Thomas says “But we should note that he says political science is the most important, not simply, but in that division of practical sciences which are concerned with human things, the ultimate end of which political science considers. The ultimate end of the whole universe is considered in theology which is the most important without qualification.”


Now, Aristotle clearly discerned that man’s highest good was to approach, as much as possible, that of being like God. The god or the gods, however, are not concerned with practical things, but rather, contemplation. God himself could be said to be “thought thinking itself.” Just as clearly, Aristotle states that the ethical sciences are practical sciences. So Aristotle has a struggle with what man’s happiness consists in. It seems man wants to know the ultimate cause, but it also seems impossible to him. Therefore, at least in his ethics and political writings, he “lowers the standard” to what man is capable of: political science as the ultimate [achievable] human good.


Of course, Aristotle could not know of grace, and so that thing which could fill the gap between man’s unlimited desire for knowledge (“all men by nature desire to know”) and it’s possibility causes him to “settle” for something less.


For Dante, that settling less seems to be Limbo. The virtuous pagans who seek the good, as best they know it, but apart from grace, simply attain a state of not being tortured, but also never truly blessed.

Aristotle knew that man seeks not only to know about things, but about their causes. When we know a cause, we seek its cause as well. We are not satisfied until we know the ultimate cause, and even this we must truly know, and not just know of its existence. To know that there is a god (and to know many things ABOUT him) can be done through reason alone. To KNOW God is only a gift of grace. The virtuous pagans sought the highest good, perhaps even in Limbo still do. But they have no hope, being without the grace that can only come through the “Mighty One who descended here among us” to attain the beatific vision. They, rather, are “spared the fire and suffering of Hell” but suffer “one affliction only: without hope [they] live on in desire.”

Dante’s Inferno, Canto I

Inferno, Canto I

I think it was Fr. John Hardon, S.J., who said “any theology that would circumvent the cross and go straight to the resurrection is of the devil.” I know, however, that it was Jesus who said to Peter “get thee behind me, Satan.”

Dante, lost in his sinful or at least concupiscent ways, sees salvation and takes off on a sprint towards it, only to find that the way for fallen man is not so straight and unhindered. Salvation is through Christ, in “Christ and Him crucified.” In the Apostle’s Creed we even profess “He descended into hell.” How is it that Dante would avoid the path of Christ, of whom Paul said that we will be glorified with Him, provided we suffer with Him?”

Dante, of course, quickly finds that this path is blocked, and another he must take. We do not fault him for his enthusiasm for Heaven, of course. He had taken in the milk, but now he needs solid food. It is time for him to grow deeper in the knowledge of truth.

His first aid to this, although he has seen the end he hopes for by a moment of the light of faith, will be reason. We do not, as Tertullian said, “believe because it is absurd,” but rather, we know that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et Ratio, John Paul II).

Therefore, much of what can be known about man’s final end, and his right path to it, can be known by reason alone. Aristotle himself seemed to realize that man’s ultimate happiness was to be found in the contemplation of God, yet without knowing of grace, the Philosopher had no way of realizing how this could take place. Virgil, “reason,” can only take one so far. After this, a new lady will be required for man to complete his journey, and this because, as Fr. Mullady, O.P. tells us in his lectures on nature and grace, “Man is called to an end by nature that he cannot attain by nature, but only by grace because of the exalted character of the end” (I plan to develop this theme in Canto IV, which speaks of the virtuous pagans in Limbo).

Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics Bk I Ch. 1

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Thus starts Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, his best known work on morals. “The good is that at which all things aim” or “good is what all desire.” Granted, Aristotle has some explaining to do, if good is what all actions are aimed towards. One would be confused, at first, in contemplating why a murderer is so obviously to Aristotle merely seeking the good.

The murderer, the thief, the prostitute,…the aspiring saint: all aim at the good. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” We cannot help but desire good. We do what we think will be for some good. We steal because we want bread or a stereo system. We pay a prostitute because we desire the pleasure of the body or companionship. We do these things for the same reason we act polite and quiet in the library or teach our kids the Ten Commandments: it seems good.

It is not the place of ethics to teach one that it is good to be good. Nature does that. The place of ethics helps establish what is truly the good. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics says little about values, because he sees ethics as a practical science that should lead to behavior in practice. Values do not accomplish this. Very few thieves think their activity is morally right, thus, they share the same values as he who does not steal.

Aristotle’s ethics aim, rather, at virtues, and these only after studying man’s ultimate end, which he rightly deems to be “happiness.” Yes, happiness is the very reason for morality.

Aristotle continues, “But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity — as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Why do I go to work? To make money. Why do I desire money? To feed myself. Why do I feed myself? To not be hungry? Why do I want to not be hungry? The list could go on. But when we ask ourselves, why we want to be happy, it is hard to say “I want to be happy so that…” To be happy is a true end. Other things are ordered to this end. Ultimately, happiness is that end that is not a means to something else. Work is a means to money. Money is a means to food, and that a means to curing hunger.

But happiness is not a means at all. Once we understand that to be happy is our goal, which goes without saying (once it is said; philosophers are those fools who say the obvious, except that most other people never think enough about the obvious), we must find out what in what consists true happiness.

Still in Book I, Aristotle will discuss happiness itself, and what it is for man. The rest of the Ethics is devoted primarily to virtues (and hardly a mention of values, for Aristotle doesn’t believe in such vague and meaningless concepts), before returning, in the final Book to  Happiness.

Happy, yes happy, would we be to return to the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who does not think ethics is about “following rules” and “learning vague values” but rather about virtuous living which is the means to happiness.

A return to the wisdom of the ancients, who knew no difference between virtue and manliness and power, would strengthen us all…and make us truly happy.

Friendship and Virtue


Today, in the Catholic Church, we celebrate Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. In today’s Office of Readings, we read from a sermon by St Gregory Nazianzen, speaking of himself and St. Basil :



We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit…

Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.



According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendship.



The first is a friendship of utility, and it is is a friendship based on the benefit two people derive from each other. As long as we are semi-sociable creatures, we form these friendships with those around us in business, for example. My company buys paper and printers from your company, and, both being decent human beings that can carry a conversation, you and I can be called friends, and we may believe we are. But once my company no longer uses your company’s services, without any animosity, our friendship seems to disappear. It was based on mutual benefit, and once that mutual benefit is gone, so, in truth, is our friendship.



The second kind of friendship is that of pleasant friendship. We may enjoy playing cards together, or going to the football game or the rock concert. We even develop a sincere care for each other’s well being, etc. But the friendship is based on pleasure and enjoyment.



Now, both these friendships are truly to be called friendship, but they are analogous to the fullness of friendship, only found in the third type: a virtuous friendship. Virtuous friends are concerned with a common goal of living the good life, and that good life consists in a good moral life of virtue. Virtuous friendships are based on a common pursuit of the good.


Human beings are persons, not things, and thus, they are ends in themselves and not means to some other end. Before he was Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla published a work called Love and Responsibility. In its opening chapter, he examined the meaning of “to use” in great depth. In fact, only in the third type of friendship, as understood above, is the friendship truly free of using the other as a means.



In a virtuous friendship, it is not the benefit or pleasure that one derives from the relationship that establishes and maintains the friendship. It is the common goal pursued, and the common goal pursued is the very purpose of human life; to know and live the good.



All ancient and medieval concepts of morality were the concepts of the happy life. To be happy meant to be virtuous. Ethics was not the science of making you gloomily fulfill your obligations and limit your freedom. Ethics, morality, was the practical science of achieving true and not false human happiness.


(It is well known that Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It needs to be well known that we are rarely very good at examining our own lives objectively. Others often know us better than we know ourselves, and friends established in virtue will help one another to truly pursue the good.)



There is no evil in having friendships of the first and second kind (beneficial and pleasurable), but ultimately, we must find true friendships based on a common pursuit of the good, the moral, the virtuous…the truly happy life.



Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, pray for us.