Politics, Art, and Love: A Lesson from Dante

 
 

Valentine’s Day is usually associated with romance, but love matters in politics, too. In working to change our culture, we must remember that our opponents, like our allies, are human beings whose individual conversions can only be wrought through a combination of love, truth, and free will.

The culture war is nothing new. For decades, social conservatives have been responding to the sexual revolution, with its push for commitment- and consequence-free sex, unfettered access to abortion, and the redefinition of marriage. Happily, there’s been increasing pushback to the cultural narrative of the joys of hook-ups, birth control, and abortion. My generation is increasingly identifying as pro-life, and student groups like the Love and Fidelity Network are fighting for a positive alternative to the dissatisfaction and pain that come from denying the truth about humans and how we love.

But on other fronts, things don’t look so good. I need only log into Facebook to see the overwhelming support among my fellow millennials for the redefinition of marriage and the eradication of “homophobia.”

Now, I’m very lucky—I get to work with scholars who are making a rational, philosophically sophisticated argument in defense of marriage. They do an excellent job demonstrating that affirming marriage as the union of sexually complementary spouses, of man and woman, isn’t based on hatred or ignorance.

One scholar, Sherif Girgis, wrote eloquently here at Public Discourse last week on the place of philosophy in public debate. I agree with Girgis that, in addition to moral philosophers, social conservatives need more artists, musicians, and culture-makers who can give universal moral norms incarnate, particular forms that engage the heart as well as the mind. I only wish there were a pro-marriage song gaining as much traction as Macklemore’s anthem of unquestioning acceptance or Ingrid Michaelson’s new gender-bending music video.

Artistic expression of the truths of human nature is important because art engages the human person in a holistic way. By contrast, I often get frustrated with the aggressive, divisive approaches that certain pro-lifers and marriage advocates take toward those who disagree with them. Even though they get many key points right, such arguments are often based on faulty premises of their own. Most importantly, they fail to appreciate the role that love plays in intellectual conversions.

Let’s look at an example. At the March for Life this year, controversial internet personality Michael Voris took it upon himself to survey members of the crowd in order to assess their positions on the use of birth control and the morality of homosexual relationships. He uploaded the results to YouTube as videos titled “Pro-Life Birth Control” and “Gay & Pro-Life,” lamenting the fact that one third of marchers said that birth control might sometimes be acceptable and 20 percent said that it was okay for two men to be in a romantic relationship.

Other authors have already addressed some of the specific methodological problems with Voris’s needlessly divisive approach. What most strikes me about these videos, though, is how radically flawed the underlying assumption about the nature of conversion is. Whose heart or mind does Voris think he is going to change?

Focusing only on large-scale statistical measures of political convictions (or unscientific polls like Voris’s) can obscure the fact that, when it comes down to the essentials, what you’re really dealing with is individual human beings, with their own intellectual backgrounds, emotional attachments, personal histories, and—most importantly—souls.

Coming to comprehend truth intellectually takes time and effort. But even once that comprehension has been established, other barriers to acceptance often remain. Mustering the strength to make concrete, repeated, public choices to live in accordance with the truths one has accepted—especially truths as countercultural as opposing birth control or gay marriage—takes even more time.

A teacher of mine used to speak of the two intertwined conversions narrated by St. Augustine: the conversion of the intellect and the conversion of the will. This twofold conversion process is deeply personal, but it also takes place within community, gaining momentum through relationships that challenge, inspire, and support a person along the way. And all of this is both motivated and enabled by love—love of truth, yes, but also the love of persons for each other.

Dante’s Divine Comedy provides an exceptionally rich illustration of this process of gradual conversion through truth and love. Throughout the course of the Divine Comedy, as Dante narrates his journey through hell, and purgatory, and into the upper realms of heaven, he is steadily journeying toward a mystical encounter with God in the beatific vision. But in order to reach this union with God, Dante must first discover the nature of love. This discovery initially occurs on the level of reason and will. In the Inferno, Dante encounters the faulty understandings of love that lead to damnation, with all their devilishly appropriate gore. Hell, Dante tells us, is for those who have “lost the good of the intellect.” Although, as Aristotle would say, happiness is what all human action aims toward, these souls misunderstood what love really is, chasing after false, sinful conceptions of happiness. In the Purgatorio, Dante must reject all such falsehoods, training his will and desires to be in conformity with his new understanding of love’s right ordering.

The figure of Virgil is essential to Dante’s progress; he leads the pilgrim through both the Inferno and the Purgatorio, keeping him from losing his way and explaining to him, among many other things, the origin of the seven deadly sins. Pride, envy, and wrath, he explains, are rooted in perverted love; sloth in defective love; and avarice, gluttony, and lust in excessive love of earthly goods.

Virgil’s patient, rational explanations of the human intellect and soul could serve as a helpful corrective to many contemporary debates. In Canto XVII of the Purgatorio, Virgil deftly describes an error that is at the heart of the push to normalize homosexuality.

My son, there’s no Creator and no creature
who ever was without love—natural
or mental; and you know that,” he began
 
The natural is always without error,
but mental love may choose an evil object
or err through too much or too little vigor.
 
As long as it’s directed toward the First Good
and tends toward secondary goods with measure,
it cannot be the cause of evil pleasure;
 
but when it twists toward evil, or attends
to good with more or less care than it should,
those whom He made have worked against their Maker.
 
From this you see that—of necessity—
love is the seed in you of every virtue
and of all acts deserving punishment.
 

Contrary to Macklemore’s repeated assertions, Virgil makes it clear that it’s not all the “same love.” Love is the essential driving force behind human action, but there are good, properly ordered forms of love, and there are distorted ones. Emotion alone is not sufficient; love ought to embody truth and be lived out through conscious acts of the will.

Intriguingly, although Virgil leads Dante up to the top of the mountain of Purgatory, he knows that his guidance will be insufficient for Dante to reach salvation. Virgil admits, “What reason can see here, / I can impart; past that, for truth of faith / it’s Beatrice alone you must await.” According to the astute Dorothy Sayers, “Virgil is the best of which Humanity is capable, apart from the revelation and special grace of Christ.” Still, “the whole theme of the Divine Comedy is that Virgil is fundamental, indispensable, and yet of himself inadequate.”

Dante needed to acquire the rational understanding of love imparted by Virgil and learn to conform his will to reason. But there is something much more mysterious going on over the course of his journey: Dante is also learning the art of love. As the poem demonstrates, this is an art that requires a community. Dante can’t learn the right way to love alone, or all at once. He must begin by loving the people and things whose beauty he can apprehend, because, although desire for God is the source of all attraction to beauty, God’s unmediated goodness and glory would overwhelm Dante’s senses if he attempted to behold them too soon.

The Paradiso is overflowing with sublime imagery of light. In fact, one of Beatrice’s most important roles is to act as a reflector of God’s light, dimming it down enough so that Dante isn’t blinded by its intensity. Gradually, in his journey through the Paradiso, Dante’s sight is conditioned and his ability to love expanded until he is finally able to gaze upon and participate in the indescribable mystery of God’s eternal love. It is only when the entire communion of saints turns to Mary and pleads for Dante, that his “sight, becoming pure / [is] able to penetrate the ray of Light more deeply – that Light, sublime, which in Itself is true.” With the aid of their prayers and the intercession of Mary, he finally reaches the goal of all humanity: contemplation of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Just like Dante, every person has the capacity to open himself to truths that are bigger than our minds can initially fathom. We can often lose sight of the fact that the answers to political questions on abortion or marriage, for example, are based on understandings of the nature of human life and love that are just too big and too profound for us to grasp all at once. The process of changing someone’s mind on such questions will probably be slow, but it can be helped along by relationships that, in love, persistently ask others to reconsider the philosophical foundations of their beliefs.

In fighting to change our culture, we must remember that our opponents, like our allies and ourselves, are human beings whose individual conversions can only be wrought through a mysterious combination of love, truth, and free will.

Serena Sigillito is Managing Editor of Public Discourse. She holds a BA in English from the University of Dallas and an MA from the Catholic University of America.

 

 

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