This essay is part of our collection on liberal education in the modern world. See the full collection here. 

Recent events at my school, Providence College, have led me to ponder the matter of “identity” and how the politics of identity bears on a Catholic liberal arts education.

One of my favorite moments in all of literature comes, as so many of them do, on the Mountain of Purgatory. Dante and Virgil and their newfound friend, the ancient Roman poet Statius, have entered the terrace where the vice of gluttony is purged away. The souls of the gluttons suffer a purifying hunger and thirst that emaciates them down to the bone, so Dante cannot recognize anyone by face. One of the souls, however, recognizes Dante, foretells some consolation he will find in the city of Lucca when he must go into exile, and asks a question that means everything to the art of poetry that he practiced on earth.

His name is Bonagiunta of Lucca, and he had criticized Dante, Dante’s elder friend Guido Cavalcanti, and their predecessor Guido Guinizelli for bringing into poetry the terms and the ideas of the schools—that is, for writing love poetry steeped in philosophy and theology. Maybe we can call Bonagiunta a flat-footed practical man of love poetry, not apt to want to soar with Dante to the heights of intellectual speculation.

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Dante’s sweet revenge upon Bonagiunta is to put him in Purgatory and to revise his opinion of Dante. Here is the exchange, beginning with Bonagiunta:

“But do I see the introducer of
the new songs, and the verses that begin,
‘Ladies who have intelligence of love’?”
Said I to him, “I’m one who takes the pen
when Love breathes wisdom into me, and go
finding the signs for what He speaks within.”

The last lines, in Italian:

              “I’ mi son un che, quando
Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
ch’ e’ ditta dentro, vo significando.”

I know of no more concise and powerful declaration of a poet’s heart and mind and aim than this one. Dante portrays himself at once in a humble and an exalted way: it is Love who breathes into him, spira, the very breath of the Holy Spirit. All that Dante does is to take note of that wisdom and to go about significando, sign-finding, submitting himself to be raised up, so that he can write the line that changed love poetry in Europe for hundreds of years. “Ladies who have intelligence of love” might also be translated as “Ladies who have the intellect for love” or “Ladies who know by insight what love is.” Dante is speaking here of the intellectus, that faculty in man that strikes to the heart of truth with an immediate vision, leaving discursive reason and empirical observation worlds and worlds behind.

Instruction in Love

I am thinking of this scene today because this instruction in love, by Love, and for love, is as far from anything that our schools now do as is the highest mountain from the bottom of the sea, or the heavens from the earth. I’ve written a great deal in favor of such an amatory education and against the crass and ultimately useless utilitarianism of such things as the Common Curse, which is like the Curse of Adam raised to the third power: In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat dust. I have wondered aloud whether the authors of that curriculum unfit for higher robots, let alone for human children, ever knew what wonder was, so intent they were to shut up in a closet all the noblest thoughts and aspirations of the human soul. They have the counting-house mind of Ebenezer Scrooge, but without the humor, and without any prospect of specters coming to haunt and save them. Poetry? Bah, humbug!

But something else is on my mind now—another good that poetry brings, another way that a truly Catholic or Christian education in the liberal arts can raise the soul to see a glimmer of what Dante wishes for us to see. I have become painfully aware of the chasm between those who love the liberal arts, what I have called the free-making arts, and those whose utilitarianism or whose inverted religion has taken the form of identity politics.

When I was young, I wanted to know Dante partly because I wanted to know everything, but mainly because I was in love with poetry and wanted to learn the craft from the masters. I was hungry, and it never occurred to me to think that the grandson of coal miners in America could not lay claim to Dante, or Shakespeare, or Caravaggio, or Aristotle, or any artist or thinker or mystical seer, just because they lived long ago, came from another part of the world, spoke a different language, and were nourished in cultures that were so distant from mine. If they wrote in a different language, I might learn that language; if they came from another part of the world, I studied its geography; if other cultures nourished them, I tried to place myself in their midst—tried to walk with Dante along the streets of Florence, that city riven with partisan passions and all too often running with blood. I did not need these works to affirm my identity. I was not even aware I had an identity, other than that I was a certain young man, American by birth, and by the grace of God Roman Catholic and a fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals.

But I have come to see that many of my students now have no such grounding, no such matter-of-course assurance of who and what they are. If the self is nourished by culture, and culture implies deep roots and carefully tended soil, what happens to the self when the topsoil is stripped bare? And stripped bare it has been. Young people have been starved of beauty: the great majority of them do not even recognize the names of the greatest of English poets, of Milton and Wordsworth and Tennyson, let alone know their songs. They have been taught almost nothing of our nearly three-thousand-year-old heritage of art, no classical or sacred music, no folk music, and no popular music older than a generation. Even many of those who regularly attend Mass on Sunday show no deep familiarity with Scripture. For those who do not darken the church doors, the gospels themselves may as well have come from another planet.

To put it another way, what happens when there no longer is a Mountain of Purgatory? What happens when there is not a path aimed toward heaven, with guides along the way who lift up your heart when they cry “Gloria in excelsis Deo”? What happens when the primacy of worship fades, and there are no more spires in your world?

The Desperate Quest to Fashion One’s Self

Then you have to fashion yourself, as the soulless critic Stephen Greenblatt would have it, and that puts you in a precarious position indeed. It is as if the solitary person had, from his own necessarily poor resources, without genuine culture, to bridge the chasm between unmeaning and meaning; and the only material he could use to build that rickety bridge was the self.

This is the source of the desperation with which so many young people, and the teachers and politicians and mass-entertainers who mislead them, hang onto some marker of identity, some sense that they exist, that they belong to a community, even if the community is abstract and notional, no more than an oval in a Venn diagram, designating the collective of people who self-identify in a certain way because of their race or their ethnicity or their sexual desires.

It is not quite accurate to call such people narcissistic. Contemporary man is too ill to be narcissistic. He is not staring in love at his own beautiful image in the pool. He is staring into the pool to find any clear image of himself at all. If you subject his beliefs to any criticism—and by “beliefs” I mean that delicate spider-web of assumptions about the world that cannot endure the slightest breeze—he does not respond with reasoned argument, but with anger and terror. It is as if you were prying his fingertips from the brink and abandoning him to the abyss. Sometimes it is diagnostic to note contemporary man’s reaction to news that should be happy, but that shakes the spider-web. Tell the feminist that her great-great-grandfather did not, after all, treat his wife like chattel, and that men and women throughout human history have had to learn to love one another just to survive, and the rice-paper walls of her ideological house begin to buckle. Outside of that house lie darkness and confusion.

What can the words of Dante and Bonagiunta mean to someone in that condition? Those words have nothing to do with race or sexual congress or imperialism or anything that the self-fashioner of our time can grab hold of. There is nothing that the identity-politician can use. The young person without a culture and without faith is stretched taut over emptiness, and he cannot turn his head toward the stars. Ladies who have intelligence of love? What does that have to do with me, when I am fighting every moment to establish who I am, in a world that is atomized and lonely?

The Secret of Human Identity

But here is the thing: we must not raise up our young people to be in that condition in the first place. The faith is not something we do, like fly-fishing or playing chess. It is meant to inform every motion of our lives. It is like a royal dye that is to penetrate to the heart of every fiber of our souls. If someone should object that this is but a far-off ideal, I reply that all of our loves are imperfect; we do not therefore cease to believe that love is essentially the total gift of self. The secret of human identity that the politicians seek in the wrong places is the secret of faith and hope and love. We do not only give ourselves away: we become ourselves by the gift. We become who we are by forgetting to think about who we are. So it is that a truly liberal education, a free-making education, is in accord with what Jesus says, that he who humbles himself shall be exalted, and with what Saint Paul says, that it is he who acts, but also not he, rather Christ in him, and with what Saint John says, that “what we will be has not yet been revealed, but we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

And now I return to that scene on the mountain. We see four poets: Dante, his humbled rival Bonagiunta, his teacher and authority Virgil, and Statius, who has said that without Virgil’s poetry to guide him, all his own work was not worth a dram: “It was my mamma and my nurse,” says he. We are standing in a history of poetry that spans the centuries. To place yourself among those men, thinking of poetry and of love, with gratitude and manly acknowledgment of one’s superior, is to be lifted beyond yourself. To fall with Statius to the feet of Virgil is to be raised up beyond the petty and transient concerns of the day. To bow your head with Dante when Beatrice finally appears on the mountaintop is to know yourself indeed, and to be capable of knowing others without subordinating them to a calculus of utility, or crumpling them into the cubbyholes of identity politics. It is to refer politics back to its worthy but subordinate place, with the outhouses. It is to stand on the far side of the chasm, advancing into the land of meaning. It is to listen to love as Dante does, and if you are not a sign-finder yourself, it is to behold the signs that others before you have found. It is to stand tall and free, and to look to the stars.