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).

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