Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Canto I
"Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward path has been lost.

Ah me! How hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough and stern
Which in the very though renews the fear.

So bitter it is, death is little more:
But of the good to treat, which there I found
Speak will of I of the other things I saw there
" ~

What is the Divine Comedy?

The Divine Comedy, is often regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature. It is a three parts epic poem composed by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in 1300 AD. This book has been at the top of my "to read" list for the last three years. I finally picked up a very nice edition of this book three weeks ago, and I have to say that it has been quite a journey to read through the entire "Divine Comedy". I also have to say this is probably the heaviest and most difficult book I have read up to date, but the efforts I invested was worth while. This is why I would like to share my review of this book, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who don't mind doing some thinking while reading. I won't be able to cover all the main themes and ideas in this book, but I will try to point out a few things that were memorable to me.

The Divine Comedy is a work of fiction. Where Dante, at 35 years of age found himself lost in a dark forest, where he no longer knows the straight path of his life. Dante then met up with Virgil (an ancient Roman poet), who was sent to guide Dante to find the reason for existence and discover the divine will of God. On this epic journey, Dante and Virgil traveled through hell (inferno, 34 cantos), purgatory (purgatorino, 33 cantos) and finally arriving at the paradise (paradiso, 33 cantos). Where they met and spoke with many characters from Greek and Roman mythology (such as Achilles, Orpheus, Jason, Jupiter etc..), as well as Biblical characters (Nimrod, Judas Iscariot, John, Peter etc..), and historical characters (Cleopatra, Brutus, Julius Caesar, Augustine of Hippo etc..). In the end of his journey, Dante finally gazed upon the trinity God and understood the the divine and human nature of Christ, and his soul became aligned with the love of God (this is why it is called the Divine Comedy, because at the end of Dante's journey, his status changed from being "lost in a forest dark", to "saved through the salvation in Christ").

After I read this book, I think in order to fully appreciate Dante's master piece. We have to understand this book from three different perspectives: 1) Literal interpretation of Dante's imagination about after life, 2) Social, political and historical background, and 3) Allegorical interpretation.

A deeper look at the Divine Comedy:

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), was not only a poet, but also a political thinker and a philosopher who was back stabbed by his political enemies, and was forced into exile from his home town, Florence. He began to compose The Divine Comedy in early 1300, and finished it before his death. As a devout Roman Catholic and a philosopher, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy of classes of sin (Inferno) as the backbone ideas for his works.

The true genius of his works lie not only in Dante's vivid poetic imagery, but more so in the allegorical interpretation of his works, the entire Divine Comedy is referring to a Christian's journey back to God. Inferno, can be interpreted in two ways: 1) A Christian seeing the sins in the world and its consequence, b) A fallen world that is struggling with sin. Purgatorino is allegorically resembling a Christian life, where Christians are redeemed through Christ from state of sin, as Israel was rescued by God out of Egypt (this is notable as Dante and Virgil arrived at Purgatorino on Easter Sunday). Finally Paradiso is allegorical to a Christian's understanding of the union of Christ's divine and human nature. I leave the would-be readers to discover the full content of Dante's fantastic poem. However, I would like to talk about some of my thoughts about this book.

My thoughts:

Things that are different to the Bible:

First of all, I think The Divine Comedy is one of the finest piece literature I've ever read. However, since The Divine Comedy is based on Roman Catholicism theology, as well as Aristotliean philosophy, and because I am a protestant Christian who (mostly) follows the theology of Calvinism, there are a few things I would like to point out that aren't consistent with the Bible teaching:

Regarding Inferno:

1) The Bible never mentioned that hell is divided based on level system, but it is good to remember that hell is real, and we have to repent and put our faith in Jesus.

Regarding purgatorino:

1) The Bible doesn't mention anything about Purgatory, in other words. The Bible actually doesn't say that purgatory exists. The idea of the purgatory is NOT a scriptural concept.

2) Purgatory is NOT a place where people can make absolution, then become free of sin and gain entrance to the heaven. Refer to 1), purgatory, is not a scriptural concept and is not mentioned in the Bible at all. Actually, we can not free ourselves of our sins and "work" ourselves into the kingdom of heaven, but only through what Jesus has done for us (Matthew 5:20, Ephesians 2:8-9). In order to enter the kingdom of God, the only way is to place our faith in what Jesus has done for us (John 11:25, John 14:6, Matthew 1:15..etc..).

Regarding Paradiso

1) The Bible NEVER mentioned that structure of heaven is divided according to the three theological virtues: Love, faith and hope.

Finally, while Dante's vivid descriptions of hell, purgatory and heaven are intriguing and imaganative, but these are his own visions and imaginations, and his works is after all, if I may say, fantasy fiction. So the reader should be reminded that while some of the theologies in Dante's works are Godly, but his writings should NEVER replace the Bible, which is the authentic teaching and the words of God. So in regard to theology, the Bible is always the ONLY source material for Christians.

Things I have learnt:

For those who know me personally, I have been wondering about the question of divine will and human responsibility for a long time. So many questions can arise from this topic, such as: Why is there suffering in the world if God is all loving and sovereign? Why does God's plan includes evil and suffering in this world if God has good intentions? So on and so forth. This has been a question that I cannot stop thinking about for many, many years. But I am so glad that I read The Divine Comedy, because in the last Canto in Paradiso, as I read these final verses, I understood something important for myself that I wish to share.

"But through the sight, that fortified itself
In me by looking, one appearance only
To me was ever changing as I changed.

Within the deep and luminous subsistence
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold color and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
As Iris is by Iris, and the third
Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed.

O how all speech is feeble and falls short
Of my conceit, and this to what I saw
Is such, 'tis not enough to call it little!

O Light Eterne, sole in thyself that dwellest,
SOle knowest thyself, and, known unto thyself
And knowing, lovest and smilest on thyself!

That circulation, which being thus conceived
Appeared in thee as a reflected light,
When somewhat contemplated by mine eyes,

Within itself, of its own very color
Seemed to me painted with our effigy,
Wherefore my sight was all absorbed therein.

As the geometrician, who endeavors
To square the circle, and discovers not,
By taking thought, the principle he wants,

Even such was I at the new apparition;
I wished to see how the image to the circle
Conformed itself, and how it there finds place;

But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.

Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy;
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars."

In the last moment of the Divine Comedy, Dante had a vision of the unity of time, creation, and the trinity God (three persons in one essence, described as three interlocking circles), Dante said that although he had a vision of this, but he cannot describe the truth of what he sees because he is only a human, who cannot fully comprehend the divine plan and will. But In the end, Dante is assured of one thing, and that is at the end of his journey, he has been saved through Christ, and he is not in Christ, where his desire and will is moved by the love of God.

As I read these verses, I finally understood the truth that God's divine will and plan, predestination, election and the tension with human responsibility. The answer I found for myself to this age old question is that this is not something that human beings can fully comprehend regardless of our intellectual efforts. In life, when things don't make sense, as Christians we have to trust in God and His wisdom while not neglecting our responsibility to live out a God pleasing Christian life (Colossians chapter 3). The Bible says that God is eternal, loving, all powerful, His will is mysterious and he does things according to his own purpose, and for the good of those who love Him (Roman 8:28, Ephesians 1:9, Philippians 2:13, Isiah 46:9-10, 1 John 4:8-10). So even when life gets hard, I can trust that in all of my joys and sorrows in life, because God loves me, so God's plan is to ultimately bring me back to Him through His son and through his unfathomable plan for me in this life, when at the end, I will be able to marvel at the glory of God, and I believe this will be even more glorious than Dante's description, which my feeble intellect can never hope to comprehend right now, until such time when God reveals it all to His creation.

Life on earth contains both joys and sorrows, but now I understand that all things, in joys or sorrows, are parts of God's master plan, in His good will, and good pleasure and love to fashion me to be more like Jesus through this life on earth, to bring me back to Him. I realized that God's unfathomable plan, is the ultimate "Divine Comedy" for those who love Him and have faith in Jesus


Content - The Divine Comedy truly is one of the world's greatest literature! My copy is a part of Barnes and Noble leatherbound classics, it is a beautiful book with hundreds of illustrations alongside the text. The only problem is, this translation is by Henry Wardsworth Longfellow in the 1800's, so the language used in this translation is quite funky and difficult to follow. As a result, the interpretation of Dante's works is made really difficult because the reader has to constantly interpret the text allegorically while trying to understand the funky Victorian poetic style of writing. Personally, I became very lost several times as I was reading it, and needed to continuously refer to the short captions from a different ebook version of The Divine Comedy.

To give you an example of how hard it is to interpret Dante's works, there are a few verses in Purgatorino, when Dante saw a griffin on a chariot, and the griffin got off the chariot and tied the charriot to a tree, leading to a massive bloom in space. Yes, are you wondering what in the world Dante is going on about here? The allegorical interpretation is that the griffin (half eagle half lion) represents Christ's (the 2nd Adam) divine and human nature, tie the chariot (dying on the cross) to the tree of knowledge of good and evil (the 1st Adam), the result is the redemption of man's sin (the massive bloom in space). So yea, if you decide to read this book, just be prepared to do some intense thinking. Reading The Divine Comedy is not like reading Peter Pan, so be prepared for numerous hours of headaches and confusion. All of this said, I really think The Divine Comedy is not only a great work of literature, but more importantly, despite its Catholicism theology and Greek philosophy influences, it is a great Christian fantasy literature that everyone should try to read it at least once in you life.

P.S. There are many things I did not covered in my review, because I think it is good to leave people to make discoveries on their own.