Sunday, January 21, 2007

Free will then and now

When I first started reading Dante, I was surprised at how tolerant he was for having a medieval religious outlook. Dante’s outlook on free will is actually very different and more accepting than what later Christian denominations believed, like the Puritans. As the Puritans and similar denominations believed in basic human depravity and predestination, they believed that anything that happened was part of a person’s destiny, decided by God, and that the person could never change. For them, sin was permanent and a sign of a permanent evil within that person, like a relationship with the Devil. Since Dante believes in free will and not predestination, he believes that sin is a choice and at any moment a person can choose either to sin or not to sin. This means that the person has that control over himself or herself and so can’t blame God or any other force for the bad choices they choose to make, like Francesca trying to blame a book for the sexual relationship between her and Paolo.

This is one idea that has continued on throughout Christianity, such as in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce where he visits Hell and Heaven in a dream. Being Anglican, there is of course no Purgatory. In C.S. Lewis’s Hell, the people go onto a bus to visit Heaven to decide if they want to stay. Of course, even after seeing the peace and contentment and equality of heaven, they decide to go back to Hell. Much like Satan in Paradise Lost, they think it is “better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” They want their pain and their focus on their own problems. This also relates back to our discussion of Francesca in class since we inferenced that she does not really think or care about Paolo at all. All she can see is her own pain and her own self, which she would most likely have had to release in order to get into Heaven.

People can, of course, create their own hell. Milton was keenly aware of this when he had Satan say, “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.” This was Dante’s belief three centuries earlier, because he puts Paolo and Francesca together forever in Hell. If they were in love, being attached forever would not be a punishment and would actually be a plus, but because of their own self-pity and self interest it contributes to their punishment. It also shows the nature of their relationship that Dante feels it is a sort of contrapasso to put them together in Hell. They must have nothing besides the sex in their relationship, which they cannot have in Hell, otherwise they would find some sort of solace in being together.

I think this works for modern times as well. People have a lot more choices to make now, at least in the United States, with regard to the people around them and the relationships they cultivate. If someone chooses a bad relationship or friendship, or chooses to stay in a hellish career, they create their own hell on earth. Therefore, only their choices can remove them from the hell they have created.

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