fbpx

Saving Pedagogy: Dante as the Poet of Education

Dante reveals to students the essence not only of their relationship to their teachers, and ours to them, but also of our combined relationship to the reality (natural, human, and divine) studied during their liberal education. The end of a liberal education is an experience of the Love that created both the subjects of a liberal education and the human persons in need of that education, and Dante achieves that purpose. Through truth and virtue, he becomes wise, and his wisdom sets him free.

Dedicated to Eileen Gregory.

Seven hundred years ago, in 1321, Dante, having completed his Divine Comedy, died in Ravenna. He had been living there in exile from Florence. Once he died, Florentines wanted his body back; Ravenna kept it. Even today, there is in Ravenna a tomb for him, where a lamp burns with oil supplied every year by Florence.

This year, we celebrate the anniversary of his death. In large part, this means celebrating his great poem, a work I have been teaching almost every year for over twenty-five years at the University of Dallas, where all of our undergraduate students read the poem. One of the many reasons I look forward to doing so each year is that the poem is about, among so many other things, the relationship between student and teacher, including the delicate experience of the limitations of both.

Of the many forms of human association that the Western Tradition thinks of as paradigmatic—the friend, the lover, the spouse, the parent, the child, the sibling, the fellow worker, the fellow citizen—the pedagogic form (often confused with those others) is, on the one hand, seldom discussed, yet, on the other, represented throughout. Drawing on Athens and Jerusalem, we can think of Plato’s dialogues or Christianity’s Gospels. Add to that Paris and Rousseau’s Emile, and you begin to have a curriculum. The relationship between student and teacher dwells everywhere in the Western Tradition, perhaps nowhere so clearly in today’s culture as in the Harry Potter novels. (I find it interesting that an American culture that denigrates the student-teacher relationship as ruthlessly as our own misses the fact that our children long for mythic accounts of it.) After Plato and the Gospel writers but before Rousseau, in my imagined curriculum of the literature of education, I would settle Dante’s Divine Comedy—the entire poem. (Teaching the Inferno alone is such a curricular perversion I hardly know how to be tolerant: no wonder generations of college graduates think of Dante as a cruel tormentor, and Christianity as all judgment and no love.)

 

Without ever addressing the point explicitly with students, I can let Dante reveal to them the essence not only of their relationship to their teachers, and ours to them, but also of our combined relationship to the reality (natural, human, and divine) studied during their liberal education. Dante certainly imagined liberal education as constituted by the trivium and the quadrivium—the arts of word (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and those of number (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)—as propaedeutic to the study of philosophy and theology, and he imagined poetry, in a work he wrote on the Italian language, De vulgari eloquentia, to be the liberal art combining the consummate art of language and the consummate art of number: “Poetry [is] a verbal invention composed according to the rules of rhetoric and music.” For our purposes, I will hazard a tautology and say that a liberal education liberates. That is, it frees us from error into understanding of the most significant question: How should we live?

In the Divine Comedy, Dante the character receives during his journey just such a liberal education. How? It’s simple, really: Dante’s four “guides”—Virgil, Beatrice, Bernard, and Mary, who is seldom recognized as a guide—teach him. When the poem opens, Dante is, in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, a wretch “within a shadowed forest, / for [he] had lost the path that does not stray” (1.1.2-3). When it closes, his “desire and will moved already—like / a wheel revolving uniformly—by / the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (3.33.143-145). How? By means of a saving pedagogy.

For Dante to journey from the dark wood of error to the bright light of understanding, he must put himself under the instruction of teachers, each of whose gifts and limits help him free himself, by benefitting from the gifts and acknowledging the limits of each (this will be controversial when we get to Mary, I suspect); those gifts are endowed by, and limits revealed before, the full presence of divine reality. Allow me to focus especially on Dante’s introductions to, and partings from, his four teachers—the first and last day of class, so to speak.

Virgil and the Limits of the Master

Virgil arrives when Dante is confounded. He had abandoned “the true path” (1.1.12) and discovered that he could not make any progress on his own. This confoundedness is sin, and the progress, if he could make it, would be toward salvation. After a “night of sorrow” (20), he succumbs to fear and loses hope (53). It is at that very moment that Virgil arrives, though it takes some time for Dante to recognize him. When he does, he discloses unalloyed admiration for the ancient poet:

O light and honor of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now.
You are my master and my author, you—
the only one from whom my writing drew
the noble style for which I have been honored. (1.1.82-87)

Dante already knows Virgil, primarily through the Aeneid, ranking him above all other poets and imitating his noble style as he studied and loved his poem. This is our first indication that students and teachers love one another; or, better still, they love the things they make, apart and together.

Dante’s admiration for Virgil is not at all mistaken, but it is excessive. Even so, without that excessive love, he would not, perhaps could not, follow him. The master’s work must be loved, then imitated. (One might imagine that Virgil wonders if Dante trusts him, since he recounts his having received his mission from Beatrice, who received it from Lucia, who received it from Mary [1.2.43-126], but this appeal is required because Dante reveals intellectual and spiritual cowardice, and Virgil needs to buck him up.) Dante calls his admiration il grande amore, a “great love” (83). In Dante’s representation of a pedagogy that saves, the first educational motion arises during a realization of one’s own limit—one’s need for help—and is inaugurated by the arrival of a master. Yet the teacher must be loveable, and the student capable of love. Education begins in a grand love.

This grand love is sometimes mistaken for romantic love, which it is not, in great part because the central object of love is not primarily the person, but what the person has made—the achievement of Virgil’s epic poem and its noble style. Dante admires the noble—an intriguing combination of the just and the beautiful—as manifest in Virgil’s poetic style. As Virgil will himself explain to Dante, when he explains the structure of Mount Purgatory, “love is the seed in you of every virtue / and of all acts deserving punishment” (2.17.104-105). This is true of educational love, too, and Virgil will explain that one must love the right object to the right degree. (How intensely one should love knowledge—poetic or otherwise—I take to be a question explored in the Ulysses episode [1.26], an episode I will return to later.) Dante’s great love of Virgil’s poem prepares him for Virgil’s guidance as he tries to free himself from the error of ignorance and sin, the need for guidance met with a powerful desire for it from a particular teacher. Dante, then, must love before he can learn.

And he must learn before he recognizes the limits of what he is learning and from whom.

Virgil guides Dante in Inferno down the cone of damnation of the intemperate, the violent, and the fraudulent, pivoting away from damnation at the point of Satan’s body, which is at the center of the earth, then traveling up toward the other side. In Purgatorio, he guides Dante up Mount Purgatory’s “seven deadly sins” and their countervailing virtues and into Eden itself. To catalogue all of Virgil’s instruction would be to work through the first two canticles of the poem in detail, which is not possible here. Allow me to assert only that Virgil teaches Dante the moral order of the universe—as understood first through natural law in the first canticle, which Virgil comprehends quite sufficiently, then as understood through natural law informed by grace, which he does not fully comprehend—and reveals how Dante might bring himself into an accord with that order. Dante must know himself, the moral order, and how he might fashion himself to that order. Virgil teaches him many things, and learns a few things himself, but he is primarily a poet of moral philosophy.

Dante is surprised that he will need more than one teacher. Yet Virgil suggests as much when he speaks his final lines to him, indicating that Dante has learned all from him that he will:

“My son, you’ve seen the temporary fire
and the eternal fire; you have reached
the place past which my powers cannot see.
I’ve brought you here through intellect and art;
from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
you’re past the steep and the narrow paths.
Look at the sun that shines upon your brow;
look at the grasses, flowers and shrubs
born here, spontaneously of the earth.
Among them, you can rest or walk until
the coming of the glad and lovely eyes—
those eyes that, weeping, sent me to your side.
Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore
I crown and miter you lord of yourself.” (2.27.172-132, 139-142)

Virgil offers him a summary of their course of study—the temporary fire of purgatory and the eternal of inferno—and his own pedagogy—intellect and art; he indicates his next teacher, the Beatrice he narrated set him on his own journey from limbo to Dante (1.2); he posits the purpose of Dante’s education, liberty of soul; and, finally, he performs a ritual of recognition that Dante is now his own master. All of these acts are educational, and they all promise his disappearance from the scene, which nonetheless surprises the pilgrim when Beatrice actually arrives and he realizes Virgil has gone—“Virgil had deprived himself, / Virgil the gentlest father, Virgil, he / to whom I gave myself for my salvation” (2.30.49-51)—and weeps. It is interesting to note that Dante’s metaphor here of Virgil as a father invokes another model, helpful but inadequate, for the teacher: that of the parent. It is helpful, since it reveals the protection and care one receives, but it is inadequate, since it presumes a blood relation and all the bonded entanglements that come with it.

When exactly does Virgil leave, and why? He leaves just as he is being invited to continue the journey with Dante at 2.30.19. The heavenly messengers in a pageant of revelation invite him by singing “Benedictus qui venis,” a fascinating revision of Matthew 21:9, when Jesus’ followers recognize him as the messiah as he enters Jerusalem, which makes the benediction in Dante direct: “Blessed are you who come . . . .” But Virgil declines the invitation and leaves, one assumes to return to limbo. Why? Perhaps because he is limited by the very fatalism informing his great, but from a Christian point of view, singularly limited Aeneid. Virgil does not believe that he is as free as Dante to save himself with the assistance of grace. Virgil has faith, but he lacks hope for himself, so his love is limited. (In fact, Virgil’s earlier lecture on love erred in imagining that excessive love is mistaken in all circumstances, when, as we will see, a human cannot love God in excess.) Virgil leaves because he lacks the Christian virtues, especially hope, because of his attachment to pagan fatalism—that is, a fatalism escaped by Cato in Purgatorio and by Ripheus in Paradiso. He thinks he was born too early for salvation; they clearly discovered not.

What is the evidence for such a reading? Immediately after the scriptural citation revised and sung, the messengers sing from the Aeneid—“Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis” (22); “Give lilies, oh, with full hands”—an allusion to a moving moment in Book 6, when Aeneas encounters a procession of Roman dignitaries, including Augustus’s heir, Marcellus, who died young—here in Dryden’s translation:

Ah! couldst thou break thro’ fate’s severe decree,
A new Marcellus shall arise in thee!
Full canisters of fragrant lilies bring,
Mix’d with the purple roses of the spring. (6.882-885)

There is a perhaps apocryphal tale of Virgil reading Book 6 at Augustus’s court when, at this moment, all present broke down and wept. Virgil’s Aeneid, and paganism broadly, Dante suggests, are fated by their fatalism, such that even a Virgil cannot recognize the possibility of salvation. Even as they celebrate the ancient poet, they lament him: “oh.”

Virgil’s guidance has been necessary for Dante, but it is not sufficient. His guidance has profound limitations that make it both helpful, given where Dante was, but needing to be surpassed, given where he is going. Imperfect pedagogy, thank goodness, can still save, just not by itself. Students need more than one teacher because of the limits of the master.

 

Beatrice and the Salvific Distraction of Beauty

Beatrice is another teacher Dante loves, but the love becomes a problem for him in a way it was not with Virgil. If Virgil emphasizes the limits of the teacher, Beatrice emphasizes the limits of the student, as she explains rather suddenly upon their reunion in Eden. The attendant messengers are startled by her indignation at Dante’s grief upon Virgil’s parting, so she explains to them what we know from Dante’s own La vita nuova, a collection of love poems about her as his beautiful beloved: that after Beatrice’s death, Dante noticed, chose, and wrote poetry about . . . other ladies. Beatrice is none too pleased:

My countenance sustained him for a while;
showing my youthful eyes to him, I led
him with me toward the way of righteousness.
As soon as I, upon the threshold of
my second age, had changed my life, he took
himself away from me and followed after
another; when from flesh to spirit,
I had risen and my goodness and my beauty
had grown, I was less dear to him, less welcome;
he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path;
he followed counterfeits of goodness, which
will never pay in full what they have promised. (2.30.121-130)

Again, Dante confessed as much in La vita nuova: his love for her was inconstant, and not having realized that her beauty was a result of her goodness—or realizing it, but being unable to act upon that realization—he pursued beauties without goodness until reaching the untrue way—so far gone in a dark wood she had to visit Vigil to send help. He acknowledges it here, as well: “Mere appearances / turned me aside with their false loveliness, / as soon as I had lost your countenance” (31.34-36). Dante’s fall began with Beatrice’s death.

As we will see, though, even genuine love of the goodness of beauty can distract one. Who is Beatrice, why does Dante need her as a guide, and why is she, too, necessary, but not sufficient for Dante’s education? If Virgil is primarily a Roman poet, Beatrice is a Florentine girl. Yet she is more. Examining Beatrice’s “more” brings out an increasing awareness of the scandalous character of Beatrice—and of Christianity itself. One must be careful neither to ignore the presence of the Catholic Christian tradition in Dante’s poem, nor to reduce the poem to that tradition, since the West is a tradition of innovation.

For Beatrice is a revelation—not the revelation, but a revelation—and that is Dante’s great contribution to the Catholic Christian tradition. We learn this even before we’re in Paradiso in a gloriously strange moment in Eden, when Beatrice looks at the Chariot’s griffin at the center of the pageant of the Church Triumphant. The griffin is a hybrid creature—both eagle and lion—and clearly a figure for Christ, “the animal / that is, with its two natures, but one person” (2.31.80-81). Dante sees Beatrice and is overwhelmed by her beauty: “Beneath her veil, beyond the stream, she seemed / so to surpass her former self in beauty / as here on earth, she had surpassed all others” (82-84). Remembering his betrayal of her, he collapses, repents, is allowed to forget his sin, and, when looking at Beatrice looking at the griffin, sees Christ:

A thousand longings burning more than flames
compelled my eyes to watch the radiant eyes
that motionless, were still fixed on the griffin.
Just like the sun within a mirror, so
the double-natured creature gleamed within,
now showing one, and now the other guise. (118-122)

Dante sees Christ in the reflection of the image of Christ in Beatrice’s eyes. Dante is animated by a truth as old as Moses in Exodus and Semele in Euripides’ Bacchae: we cannot look on the divine directly, since to do so would be like looking directly into the sun. Without mediation, divine presence will destroy us; we can be recreated by divine presence, though, when mediated.

The consequences of this truth for faith are vast, as Beatrice will explain later in disclosing to Dante the figural quality of Dante’s journey and scripture itself (3.4.37-48). The poet describes the experience of mediated presence as a moment of Eucharist: “my soul tasted that food, which, even as / it quenches hunger spurs the appetite” (127-128). To the degree that one manifests Christ in one’s self and one’s life, one is a revelation. Dante’s apparent paganism—as one is like God, one is a god—is, in fact, deeply Christian. This is a corollary scandal to the scandal of the Incarnation itself: we are all, to a degree, incarnations. (I take this to be Dante’s point in alluding to Ovid’s tale of Glaucus’s divination in the Paradiso [3.1.64-72], a process of “transhumanization” [70].) God made us gods.

Back to Purgatorio, where the attendant spirits sing to Beatrice.

“Turn, Beatrice, o turn your holy eyes
upon your faithful one,” their song beseeched,
“who, that he might see you, has come so far.
Out of your grace, do us this grace; unveil
your lips to him, so that he may discern
the second beauty you have keep concealed.” (133-138)

Beatrice’s eyes are holy because they reflect divine holiness: her grace is the result of divine grace. Her mouth is holy because, as we will see throughout Paradiso, she will explain divine reality or introduce Dante to those who will; her mouth is holy because she speaks the Word.

Throughout the third canticle, as they ascend from earth and travel the then-known planetary and stellar regions, Beatrice explains not the natural truths known without revelation—for Virgil has already done so—but the graced ones Virgil was confused by. If Virgil’s subject is moral philosophy, hers is moral theology. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Dante is examined late in Paradiso upon not the classical virtues Virgil instructed him in—courage, prudence, temperance, and justice—but the Christian ones Beatrice reveals throughout. St. Peter examines him upon faith (3.24), St. James on hope (3.25), and St. John on love (3.26). Talk about a final exam!

Dante’s definitions of the first two theological virtues are standard: Faith is “‘the substance of the things we hope for / and is the evidence of things unseen’” (24.63-64); hope is “‘the certain expectation / of future glory” (25.67-68). By contrast, Dante responds to the third exam question on love not with a definition but with a metaphor: “The leaves enleaving all the garden of / the Everlasting Gardener, I love / according to the good he gave them” (26.64-66). Notice the superiority of metaphor to definition in understanding divine presence and the highest virtue it graces. God is the Gardener; all those revealing him are leaves in his garden; we love the garden for the Gardener, its beauty only truly beautiful when manifesting his goodness, our love only truly love when we have the Gardener in mind. All of the attendant spirits—and Beatrice herself—give him the grade of grades on his response: “[M]y lady said / with the others: ‘Holy, holy, holy!’” (68-69). Ever get a grade that good?

Here, though, we come to a problem, the limit in Dante’s saving pedagogy that is due not to the limit of the teacher but to that of the student. Dante’s difficulty persists even late in paradise: Because Beatrice is so very beautiful, he gets distracted from the origin of the beauty; he loved and loves the leaf, but he is not always mindful of the Gardener. Of course, we can chastise him for idolatry—and my students enjoy doing so—but it is worth remembering that Beatrice’s human beauty is what arouses in him the longing for the divine. Looking at her, he sees her as she sees Him.

There are innumerable moments when Beatrice has to explain the promise and the danger of her own beauty for Dante’s soul, but one is particularly helpful. When Dante is distracted by her beauty from a lecture by Cacciaguida, Dante’s ancestor, who prophesies his coming exile from his city of Florence and his poetic mission of his poetry of the Divine Comedy itself, Beatrice admonishes him: “But, conquering my will with her smile’s splendor, / she told me: ‘Turn to him and listen—for / not only in my eyes is Paradise’” (3.18.19-21). Dante had Beatrice put this very carefully: Paradise is in her eyes, but it resides not only there. She must conquer his will with her lovely smile, only to remind him of something he appears to need reminding of all the time: she partially manifests divine presence; she is not the sum of divine presence.

The relationship between Dante and Beatrice is a suggestive representation of the tendency in pedagogic relationships to confuse the teacher for the thing taught, and to allow one’s shared love of the material to be lost in the distracting presence of the one revealing the material. Guru-ism is a perversion of a truly saving pedagogy—a distortion of a legitimate attraction. Beauty is a salvific distraction, provided the beautiful one reminds us of that which truly saves.

 

Bernard and the Need for Prayer to Mary, the Bearer of the Word

Readers who don’t finish the Divine Comedy think Dante has two guides, Virgil and Beatrice. He has at least a third. When Dante encounters paradise itself in the figure of the rose of the elect, he turns to Beatrice, only to discover . . . Bernard. Realizing that she is now a distraction to Dante, Beatrice sends him Bernard of Clairvaux, as the latter explains: “‘That all your longings may be satisfied, / Beatrice urged me from my place’” (3.31.65-66, my emphasis). Virgil the poetic moral philosopher yielded to Beatrice the lovely moral theologian, and Beatrice the lovely moral theologian now yields to Bernard the saintly Cistercian Marian. It is a surprise. Indeed, one of Dante’s key effects throughout the poem is surprise. If Virgil was necessary but not sufficient because of his own limitations, and Beatrice so because of Dante’s, why is Bernard now necessary, and is he sufficient? Of course, Dante needs someone other than Beatrice. But why him? Because Bernard was a love poet too.

Bernard was a love poet, but the object of his love was God, especially as incarnate in Christ, an incarnation made possible by Mary, the true lady of the saint’s devotion. Notice that Virgil and Bernard, but not Beatrice, were poets. In the Aeneid, Virgil wrote of virtue, especially the love of family, country, and gods that fated Aeneas’s piety. In La vita nuova, Dante wrote of his love for Beatrice, a love that transformed his life. In his own work, especially De diligendo deo, Bernard wrote of the love of God, a love that transforms the world. If the first two guides instruct Dante in earthly matters and earthly matters informed by heavenly ones, respectively, then the third instructs him in heavenly matters. Yet those heavenly matters cannot be thought about in strictly spiritual terms, since the God to be loved is incarnate, and the incarnation was made possible by a human woman: Mary.

Bernard wastes no time getting to Mary. Once he assures Dante that Beatrice is in the rose of the elect and Dante prays to her to thank her for her guidance (3.31.66-93), Bernard explains that his purpose is to help fulfill Dante’s pilgrimage, so “you / may consummate your journey perfectly” (94-95). The human journey can be consummated only by the love of God, as Bernard explains in the opening of his work of that name: “I insist that there are two reasons why God should be loved for his own sake: no one can be loved more righteously and no one can be loved with greater benefit.” Like Augustine in De doctrina christiana and Bernard here, Dante thinks that only God should be loved for Himself, that all other things and people should be loved only for His sake, and that only such love for God can truly fulfill human longing. Bernard asks Dante to look at the rose:

“. . . let your sight fly round this garden;
by gazing so, your vision will be made
more ready to ascend through God’s own ray.
The Queen of Heaven, for whom I am all
aflame with love will grant us every grace:
I am her faithful Bernard.” (97-192)

Bernard refers to paradise as a “garden,” reminding us that Dante himself passed his final examination on love with a metaphor of God as Gardener. He identifies himself as the “faithful” lover of the Queen of Heaven, Mary, who, when Dante sees her, inspires Bernard to offer her a long prayer on Dante’s behalf. Bernard’s subject matter is the incarnation—not the moral philosophy of Virgil or the moral theology of Beatrice, but Christology. He encounters this not as a mere subject matter of understanding but as an experience of participation. Of course, Bernard realizes that one cannot understand and participate in Christ without Mary: “‘Look now upon the face that is most like / the face of Christ, for only through its brightness / can you prepare to see Him’” (3.32.85-87). Bernard is a necessary teacher since Dante’s limitations required an object of his love that would not distract him from the incarnate God but lead him to Him. For, as he explains to Dante, Mary is necessary for the Incarnation. Bernard points out the angel Gabriel to Dante: “‘it was he who carried / the palm below to Mary, when God’s Son / wanted to bear our flesh as his own burden’” (112-114). For God to bear humanity, Mary, a human, had to bear the Word of God.

It never fails to amaze me that the annunciation to Mary exists in only one gospel account, Luke’s (1:26-38). Matthew offers one to Joseph (1:18-5); neither Mark nor John mentions any annunciation. And it is the Lucan account Dante offers in Purgatorio on the cornice of pride when Dante looks at the image of Mary on the wall as a figure for humility (as the image of Satan will be a figure of pride). Dante thinks he can hear what he sees:

The angel who reached the earth with the decree
of that peace, which, for many years, had been
invoked with tears, the peace that opened Heaven
after long interdict, appeared before us,
his gracious action carved with such precision—
he did not seem to be a silent image.
One would have sworn that he was saying, “Ave”;
for in that scene there was the effigy
of one who turned the key that had unlocked
the highest love; and in her stance there were
impressed these words, “Ecce ancilla Dei,”
precisely like a figure stamped in wax.” (2.10.34-45)

Under the influence of Luke, Dante is reminding his audience that Mary’s voluntary assent is required for human salvation. She is no Ovidian victim of divine force. What if she had said “No”? Mary is God’s best student, so He asks her to be His mother! If you want to know how far we have come in the Paradiso from a Virgilian pedagogy, consider that Virgil tells Dante to move on: “‘Your mind must not attend to just one part.’” Virgil should have asked about her.

In a magnificent oration, Bernard prays to Mary in the final canto of the final canticle of the poem, since she is “‘the one who gave to human nature / so much nobility that its Creator / did not disdain His being made its creature’” (3.33.4-6). He asks her to intercede on Dante’s behalf “‘through grace, to grant him so much virtue / that he may lift his vision higher still—may lift it toward the ultimate salvation’” (25-27). Yet he makes a second request, “‘that after such a vision, his sentiments preserve their perseverance’”: “‘May your protection curb his mortal passions’” (35-37). After all, Dante’s pilgrimage is not over: he will return to his mortal life after the vision represented in the poem. Dante finished the poem by 1321, the year of his death, but the poem’s action takes place twenty years earlier. Bernard’s saving pedagogy is a prayer to Mary that Dante may see the truth and accordingly act with virtue. This is what constitutes human wisdom. Perhaps under the influence of Dante himself, the University of Dallas’s mission is dedicated to “the pursuit of wisdom, of truth and of virtue as the proper and primary objects of education.”

If Bernard is a necessary teacher, is he a sufficient one? No. But Mary is both necessary and sufficient, since she provides the grace that allows the ultimate beatific vision of the divine order that is the first principle of the natural, human, and divine orders. She is the first principle of the action of the Divine Comedy—the one who sends Lucia to Beatrice, and Beatrice to Virgil in Inferno; the one whose speaking image can free Dante from the artistic pride that is his primal sin in the Purgatorio; the one who, through Bernard’s petition, saves Dante by allowing him to see God in the Paradiso.

The Final Teacher—and the Final Lesson

Thus, the saving pedagogy of the Divine Comedy has a final teacher, even if she is not the final subject: Mary. Yet, interestingly, Bernard does not disappear. Instead, he is with Dante when he has his final lesson, standing silently at his side.

The final subject is total: both the natural, human world “ingathered / and bound by love into one single volume” (85-86), and the natural, human world fulfilled by the divine, especially Christ, whose figure, “our effigy,” fills one of the three circles squared in the mystery of the Trinity (131). As Dante tries to understand his relationship with Christ, the mystery of the Incarnation, he is allowed that understanding, even if he cannot relate it to his readers. He “received what it had asked,” but “[f]orce failed my high fantasy” (140-141). All he can tell us is that his “desire and will were moved already—like a wheel revolving uniformly—by / the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (143-145). The end of a liberal education is an experience of the Love that created both the subjects of a liberal education and the human persons in need of that education, and Dante achieves that purpose at the end. Through truth and virtue, he becomes wise, and his wisdom sets him free.

 

Of course, for any reader of Dante’s poem, Dante himself is the master, the one who teaches us through and about his saving pedagogy. What does one take from perhaps the greatest representation of education available in the Western tradition? In examining and understanding the truth of the natural, human, and divine orders of being, in habituating oneself to the virtues whose understanding results in, and in trying to achieve the wisdom that is, that truth and virtue, one requires the guidance of teachers, an education revealing the limits of the teacher, like Virgil; the limits of the student, like Beatrice; the limits of both, like Bernard; and the limits of all, like Mary. If a liberal education frees one to fulfill the desire for wisdom, it must overcome those limits.

And what of a Christian liberal education? Here, I think I can understand, finally, after so many years as a student of Dante, a perplexity of mine concerning Ulysses in Inferno, whose journey past the straits of Gibraltar he defends to his men thus: “‘you were not made to live your lives as brutes, / but to be followers of worth and knowledge”’ (1.26.119-120). I have been perplexed because “worth and knowledge” (virtute e canoscenza) are fundamentally the virtue and truth we say constitute the wisdom that is the end of our own education.

This perplexity points to a question at the heart of Christian liberal education: What is the relationship between the liberal arts and education we provide, informed as they are by both a study of the humanities grounded in a pre-Christian curriculum and that of mathematics and the sciences informed by a post-Christian one? Is Christian liberal education a contradiction in terms that, therefore, cannot be true? Or is it a paradox that can?

That is certainly a question beyond my understanding. Thank goodness a teacher is responsible only for asking good questions! Even so, I turn to Dante as a teacher and ask. And, having read the whole of his great poem, I realize that the limits of education revealed there—the limits of self and other during attempts to follow truth and virtue, and the consequently overwhelming difficulty of wisdom—reveal the need for teachers—authors, beloveds, and saints of our own, guides proximate to our soul. Yet even they are not enough. For Dante, the pedagogy that saves requires, as well, the bearer of the Word made flesh, Mary, and that very Word Itself, Christ as Incarnate God. Between Ulysses’ ship, destroyed before arriving at Mount Purgatory, and Dante’s own ship of poetry settled in port—momentarily, yes, but maybe eternally—is a significant difference. That difference is a love of God with, in, and through Virgil, Beatrice, Bernard, and Mary.

 

Imagine Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, where the lamp burns as you read this; imagine you and I are there. After seven hundred years, we should thank Dante, the poet of a saving pedagogy, wherever he is, for undergoing all that he did, in his pilgrimage both spiritual and poetic, to experience that difference and share it with us. And, if so inclined, we should pray for him in gratitude.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!