Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the eagle of Justice from Dante’s Divina Commedia, illustrated by Giovanni di Paolo (c1444-50). Courtesy the Trustees of the British Library, Yates Thompson MS 36. f162


The divine Dante

At 700, Dante’s Divine Comedy is as modern as ever – a lesson in spiritual intelligence that makes us better at being alive

by Mark Vernon + BIO

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the eagle of Justice from Dante’s Divina Commedia, illustrated by Giovanni di Paolo (c1444-50). Courtesy the Trustees of the British Library, Yates Thompson MS 36. f162

Dante Alighieri was early in recognising that our age has a problem. He was the first writer to use the word moderno, in Italian, and the difficulty he spotted with the modern mind is its limited capacity to relate to the whole of reality, particularly the spiritual aspects. This might sound surprising, given that his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is often described as one of the most brilliant creations of the medieval imagination. It is taken to be a genius expression of a discarded worldview, not the modern one, from an era in which everything was taken to be connected to the supreme reality called God. But Dante was born in a time of troubling transition. He realised that this cosmic vision was being challenged, and he didn’t seek to reject it or restore it, but to remake it.

The scale of this ambition partly explains why he wrote his three-part narrative journey – through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and paradise (Paradiso) – in Italian, for a mass audience, not just the Latin-reading literati. The Divine Comedy was an instant hit. Hundreds of early manuscripts of the work survive, and people were soon demanding public readings of it. And it has continued to excite the imaginations of more recent poets, from T S Eliot to Clive James, as well as artists from William Blake to my favourite contemporary illustrator, Monika Beisner. Dante takes you somewhere you didn’t previously know. He does that because his epic verse is a self-conscious response to a shifting consciousness with which, in many ways – particularly when it comes to meaning – we are still wrestling.

Dante’s hometown was at the epicentre of the move from the medieval to the modern. Florence was flush with new money as a result of the boom of the 13th century, fed by innovative forms of banking and commerce that seeded capitalism and revolutionised society. It was a crucible of the Renaissance, nurturing artists such as Giotto, who pioneered the painting of individuals with inner lives that we recognise as our own. Dante almost certainly knew Giotto, and he also absorbed the meaning of spiritual movements causing earthquakes across the religious landscape, from the voluntary poverty of the Franciscans, who challenged the exorbitant wealth and power of the church, to the spiritual liberty of the Beguines, a movement of many thousands of women across Europe who claimed social and religious independence so that they could focus their lives on God.

That said, it was not until Dante was halfway through his life that he realised how profoundly significant these various developments were. Born into an old Florentine family, he first became involved in the tumult of politics, which saw the balance of power swing continually between factions representing the papacy and those favouring the empire. He held a number of civic posts, at one point serving as one of the six priors who governed the city. But then, in 1301, Florence was torn apart by the squabbles and warfare, and Dante found himself on the wrong side. He was forced into exile.

Banishment seemed ruinous for the poet who had already established his name as a master of the ‘sweet new style’, because he could no longer widely mingle with native speakers of his beloved dialect. He lost his possessions and contact with his family, too, and knew the bitter pain of walking ‘the stairs of others’ homes’, as he describes the isolation that was to last the rest of his life. But the astonishing verse that he began in or after 1308, and completed the year before his death in 1321, is not only an account of collapse and recovery following a devastating midlife crisis. It is a tale of transfiguration.

The Divine Comedy can be read in numerous ways. Its 14,000 lines explore what is most wonderful and depraved about humanity. They popularised his new verse form, the terza rima, and became seminal in the making of modern Italian. They are also an exploration of the highest aspirations of love. The trembling of the vital spirit that dwells in the secret chamber of the heart, as Dante called it, shook him to the core after a youthful, chaste encounter with a young woman who was probably Beatrice ‘Bice’ di Folco Portinari, the daughter of a successful merchant. She died young at the age of 24, in 1290, but her smile left an undying impression on Dante’s soul. He felt it was a sign, and what he found when he followed its lead is fundamental.

It took him on a pilgrimage through the three domains of the afterlife, as they have been imagined by many within Christianity and other traditions such as Islam. For Dante, hell is a place and state of mind in which people are trapped. They believe they have been condemned – though, as Dante comes to see, their problem is subtler than simply finding themselves cursed by a capricious divine judge. At heart, they’ve lost their capacity to change because their mistaken and foul habits have become so ingrained.

Purgatory is a zone of change. It works not by purging what’s deemed impure but, rather, by purging whatever blocks a soul from knowing more of life, particularly as it manifests in spiritual forms. Dante depicts this second realm as a mountain that leads to freedom as the souls climb. They gain clearer desires and deeper understandings that point them in increasingly expansive directions. It makes them capable of paradise, the last and most difficult leg of the journey. To enter this realm, Dante says he and they must ‘transhumanise’. It is an example of one of his many neologisms – in this case, capturing the way in which human apprehensions must surpass everyday preoccupations and perceptions if they are to appreciate the nature of the cosmos and beyond, in all its fulness.

This brings us to the heart of why Dante still matters today. He stresses ways of knowing about life based on experiencing and undergoing, as opposed to studying or inspecting. They bring an understanding that isn’t about accumulating information and sorting data but trusting feeling and following insights. They cultivate an intuitive openness that leads to union: it is knowing in the sense that ‘Adam knew Eve’, as you can read in older translations of the Bible, which doesn’t just mean that they were acquainted with one another, but that they made love. Dante tells us that to navigate realms of space and time, and to be aware of eternal domains of existence, we must consent to, and be able to be infused by, their varying qualities. I say ‘we’ because Dante explicitly writes for us who were to come, as well as for his peers. When reading him, he urges us to follow him.

Spiritual intelligence is not about highbrow abstractions nor emotional intelligence

I am thinking here of the type of nous that fosters spiritual intelligence, partly because I am one of an interdisciplinary group, set up by the International Society for Science and Religion, seeking better to articulate this mode of knowing, and also because spiritual intelligence has already been applied to the Florentine’s work. The Dante scholar and biographer John Took uses it to express the consciousness that arises with ‘the most complete kind of self-confrontation, self-reconfiguration and self-transcendence’. In his book Why Dante Matters (2020), Took explains how Dante encourages this first-person illumination by crafting images, dialogues and stories that can provoke the emergence of otherwise unknown types of understanding. Dante knew that pictures guide, conversations catalyse and narratives think. Spiritual intelligence is not about highbrow abstractions, as if entering paradise were about becoming a good analytical philosopher; nor emotional intelligence and the capacity to learn from experience. Rather, it incorporates these elements to reveal its core perception: that becoming familiar with what Iris Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good (1970) called the ‘fabric of being’ means becoming alert to the ways in which we resonate with it.

The Divine Comedy launches with images that recognise this. (I will be quoting from two translations here: one by Mark Musa for Penguin Classics, which is more accessible; and another by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, which has more of a poetic lilt. Both translations keep the three-line grouping of Dante’s terza rima without attempting the rhyme, which is only ever partly successful in English.) Consider Dante’s waking up in a dark wood, as the poem begins. Immediately, the scene tells us something key. The air is bitter. The shadows are frightening. Dante is aware that something has gone very wrong. But his crisis is simultaneously a moment of opportunity, which we know because the moment of unravelling comes at the start of what he calls a commedia, a tale that will end in delight. The question is not whether that will happen, but how?

The opening promises an answer for those who will share the participative adventure. It insists on an active engagement on the part of the reader with what is about to unfold. It presses not just for our interest in the events to be related, but for our interior transformation as we struggle with them and, thereby, make them our own. Stay close as we navigate these domains, Dante advises, not least as becoming lost and confused is part of the trip. In that spirit, consider some of the key steps along this path as it takes us below, then up, and finally above.

Crucial issues quickly become clear in the first phase, the Inferno. It could be summarised as being exposed to false and limited ways of knowing. Take one of the most celebrated encounters Dante has, when he meets the lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca tells him how she fell for Paolo:

Love, that excuses no one loved from loving,
seized me so strongly with delight in him
that, as you see, he never leaves my side.

She is being tossed about by the winds of hell as she speaks, mirroring the storms of passion she felt in life, but her account evokes our sympathy: who has not been there, or wanted to be so joined? Why is this desire deemed bad?

The reason is that their hope never to be parted collapsed their lives into a cosmos of two. They drew together, and became each other’s obsession. Dante will himself be told later that he became obsessed with Beatrice. ‘Too fixed!’ he will hear called out to him when he was at risk of turning her into an idol. The wider suggestion is that, while falling in love brings intimations of paradise, trying desperately to sustain the excitement is ultimately imprisoning. In an age such as ours, which idealises romance, perhaps because of the fear that such intensity is the best that life might offer, it is hard to trust that there is more. It is even harder to trust that more will come with letting go.

Another facet of this clinging to life emerges as Dante and his companion, Virgil, descend into lower circles of hell. They meet souls perpetually seeking revenge for perceived wrongs and others who cannot imagine any way of living other than deceit, theft, pimping and pilfering. Dante is, in effect, in agreement with Friedrich Nietzsche, who in Ecce Homo (1888) pithily remarked that human beings become what they are. If you use others, you will, eventually, consume yourself.

However, as he and Virgil continue down, Dante starts to understand something else. A key insight comes when he reflects on the way these tragic souls experience time. They are shaped by old practices and bad habits because they have forgotten that there can be a present in which things might be different. Dante sees that these figures are destined to live lives on repeat because the past dominates their minds and stops any novelty or freshness appearing. The point is underlined when the companions reach the floor of hell. It is not fiery and hot, but frozen and cold. Everything is still, locked in ice.

In purgatory, there are no encounters that aren’t opportunities for expansion

The hold that the past has on souls starts to shift when Dante and Virgil begin the climb up Mount Purgatory. Here the individuals know something that is beyond the ken of souls in hellish states of mind: that vices need not be vises. A relative freedom is born when it is seen how it’s possible not to be bound by mistakes and flaws, hate and fear. And it is a question of this kind of knowing that is a type of seeing – the remarkable ability of the conscious mind to grasp, intuit and develop, when it has the space to do so. That brings release because the individual becomes more open to possibilities that are breathed into them by the wider currents of life, to which they had been closed off. Dante realises that the souls they meet and converse with on the mountain are growing, and they explain how they are becoming capable of appreciating more of life around and about them. They are learning to trust and discern what can be called the imagination and, with that, comes another key capacity, co-creativity.

This is living well as an art, a to and fro of making and being made. It is underlined by the artists whom Dante meets during the climb. Poets, in particular, address him, as you might expect, given that he is a poet. In purgatory, there are no encounters that aren’t opportunities for expansion. They tell him that, during their mortal lives, they often didn’t really know what they were writing about, though they felt the allure of what they were writing about, and that they are learning to close that gap now.

It is a process of embodiment that comes to a head for Dante when he meets Beatrice on purgatory’s summit – a moment that could be expected to be full of love and celebration. What unadulterated delight might he find in seeing her smile once more, now in a realm beyond death? Only, she doesn’t greet him fondly. Far from it. She lambasts him over two excruciating cantos.

Beatrice reproaches him because he had treated her like a god, longing only for her face, and not seeing that her beauty might be, for him, an awakening. Again, there is this theme of how every instant can become an invitation to step into more, if the right energy can be detected, collaborated with, and ridden. When coupled to such discernment, love is known as a spiritual path, not a romantic ideal. It is not primarily about a mutual exchange of empathy and pleasure but an increase of sight. It is not about being understood but understanding.

She longs for him to know more. If their meeting in the afterlife had been merely a reunion, he would have been lost in a dream of a past that had never existed. Instead, her steely resolve to not let that happen, though it causes distress, enables him to embrace another aspect of his transformation.

It is enabled by exercising his free will – a crucial issue that Dante discusses at some length. Spiritual intelligence understands that free will is not a naive notion of unimpeded action or unrestrained expression, but is about utilising what psychologists call intention: the ability deliberately to turn the mind’s eye towards this or that object or idea, as opposed to unthinkingly reacting to whatever insists we notice it. Realising that we can make such interior choices typically takes practice, which is why self-reflection is a focus in many spiritual exercises, such as confession and meditation. With it, Dante is ready for the transhumanising experience of paradise; but first, let us take stock.

Various features of spiritual intelligence have emerged. It sees that crises can be befriended as turning-points; that images and stories are truth-bearing; that participative knowing requires personal transformation; and that freedom is not about fewer constraints but detecting otherwise hidden horizons.

For Dante, these realisations have occurred because he confronted facets of himself when he met the souls in hell, and opened up as he shared with the souls who were embracing the purgatorial state of mind. He has seen how life’s breakdowns make for breakthroughs, and he is now ready for the third phase, transhumanising – although, immediately, he detects how this is not about moving beyond in the sense of escape, but by going still deeper into, which is why paradise is the toughest leg of the journey.

A way of grappling with what that means is to consider how Dante’s awareness of time shifts once more. That happens with another round of profound challenges to his assumptions: like purgatory but more so, paradise works by intensifying problems, not offering quick resolutions, because the aim is to comprehend, not be spoon-fed. A good case in point brings up the particularly difficult issue of suffering, and arises with the first soul he meets in the lowest heaven, Piccarda Donati.

She was the sister of one of his childhood friends, Forese Donati, and Dante is not surprised to meet her in paradise, as she was a beautiful soul on earth. However, he is surprised to meet her so soon and not in a higher heaven, nearer to God. His surprise turns to shock when Piccarda explains that she was abused during her mortal life. Another brother, Corso, who was a warmonger, forcibly removed her from the convent of the Poor Clares that she had joined, and married her off in an attempt to secure an advantageous alliance. The abduction meant that she broke her vows, which is why she appears to Dante in a lower heaven.

Dante is outraged at this news. His moral intelligence jumps to the conclusion that the injustice she suffered on earth has been repeated in heaven. She had no choice in the matter of her exit from the convent, he protests. Is she not being unfairly punished?

However, much as Beatrice had done at the top of Mount Purgatory, Piccarda is ratcheting up the tension so that Dante might see further. Descents come before ascents. More can emerge at the point that other forms of intelligence are surpassed – now, with Piccarda, Dante’s moral sensibilities in particular are engaged.

The sea can be said to be humble because of how it befriends, without reserve

She explains that her removal from the cloister revealed a truth that she might not have otherwise seen: she could let go of the future she had planned for herself and discover what she had in no way anticipated. Looking back, she no longer feels violated by the injustice and suffering of being forced, because she realises that her fate revealed the possibility of knowing a deeper, utterly resilient joy. She can welcome what occurred because, by saying ‘yes’ to events, she is made capable of including and transcending anything that might happen. She is not only free of the past and living in the present, but can appreciate life sub specie aeternitatis – from the highest, eternal perspective down.

The psychotherapist Donald Winnicott was on to the same dynamic when he remarked in 1947 that it is only after knowing the full ferocity of hate that the imperturbable nature of love can be trusted. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, such as were held in South Africa, trust it too, because they know that when darkness is exposed to the light, new options spontaneously present themselves. It can sound highly offensive to ears attuned to the damage abuse can do, and is readily misunderstood. But Piccarda is not implying that the virtuous soul must embrace suffering; she is not teaching religious masochism. Neither is she condoning abuse: her manipulative brother will be confronted by the significance of his actions, Dante learns.

Rather, Piccarda is carving out an alternative way of facing tragedy. It is not as the ancient Greeks portrayed it, awaiting a deus ex machina that puts things right. Nor is it as Nietzsche said, when he remarked that the things that don’t destroy us make us stronger. Rather, Piccarda is saying that there is a way of looking at the world that can always detect goodness, regardless of the evils that are present, and moreover can find the means consciously to align with it.

Human beings can access this mode of perception when they trust the value of virtues. These personal habits and traits, which can be embodied in institutions and societies as well, guide us towards what is good by enabling us increasingly to participate in what is good, as it is found, often surprisingly, within and around us.

To put it another way, Dante sees that virtues disclose more of reality. The virtue of humility is central in this increase, although it needs to be understood properly because it is not about self-abnegation or about putting yourself last. Rather, it is about an unbounded receptivity so as to be filled with more. One image Dante uses likens humility to the sea because the sea’s lowest place means that everything flows into it. The sea can, therefore, be said to be humble because of how it befriends, without reserve. Similarly, the properly humble person grows. They are open to all things and so know of all things, whether good or ill: because they are not attached to one thing more than another, they are connected to all things, and thereby gain ad infinitum.

This brings us to the culmination of the Divine Comedy, which comes in the final section, the Paradiso, as Dante becomes aware of the domain outside of space and time called the Empyrean. He conveys an experience of commingling with the living pulse he now knows to be the fabric of being, and freely, joyfully co-creating with everyone in it – ‘turning with the love that moves the sun and the other stars’, as the renowned last line celebrates. In another doubly lovely metaphor, given that he is an author, Dante describes his experience of this knowledge with the image of

all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered pages.

Love’s intelligence knows how and why all that exists is as many reflections of the ever-present origin and divine light. This is the understanding that your being and my being and all being is one being.

A part reflects the whole because its life can only be yet another buzzing expression of life itself

Nowadays, it would be called a non-dual experience of the basic nature of reality, as articulated in the Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, or the realisation that everything shares the divine face, as the Sufis express it. In the Christian tradition, the German theologian Meister Eckhart, a direct contemporary of Dante’s, pointed to the same perception again when he said: ‘My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.’

Dante realises that, as he becomes more fully himself, which is to penetrate the shadows and be more transparent to life’s light, he finds himself perfectly integrating with all that is around him, not by merger but by resonance and harmony. He doesn’t lose himself in others, which would offend the truth that the individual matters, as is rightly discerned by the modern mind, but instead recognises himself in God, as everyone else does. He knows the fractal consciousness of spiritual intelligence: how a part reflects the whole because its life can only be yet another buzzing expression of life itself, in a dancing, radiating unity.

The vision is tremendous and simple, and is a gloriously articulated reflection on everyday human consciousness. We are aware and can be aware of being aware. And this is Dante’s message for now: in a way, all we have to do to rediscover the essence of our intelligence, and the capacity to relate to the whole of reality – particularly in its spiritual aspects – is turn towards our felt experience, and examine what we find. There is presence and freedom, intention and imagination, truth in stories and transformations of time. To grow in this sense is to get better at being alive.

To read more about how to live, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts.