Sunday, January 21, 2007

Virgil: Dante’s Assertion of Free Will

Tams’ thoughts on free will and what motivates people to act in certain ways got me thinking about the reasons why Dante chose Virgil as his fictional mentor. Tams writes, “to choose to go to hell is simply choosing the bad road on purpose, knowing there will be consequences.” God allows us free will to choose how we will live our life and consequently, where we will spend eternity. Dante believed strongly that those in hell chose to go there, and yet, Virgil and the other “virtuous pagans” are in hell though it seems they didn’t actually choose or want to go there.
This would seem to be a flaw in Dante’s theology until we consider the historical timeline of Christianity. The inhabitants of limbo whom Dante specifically names all lived before Christ, and thus, actually didn’t have the choice to go to heaven. So, while they had the same freedom of action as those born after Christ do, they didn’t have the same range of choices insofar as they couldn’t choose to accept or deny Christ.
Dante’s choice of Virgil as a mentor and guide is a reflection of his ideas about Christianity. He shows that historically, pagan ideas and lifestyles led to the Christian religion and way of life. We can read this allegorically as Virgil (a pagan) quite literally leading Dante (a Christian). It seems that Dante had a more open-minded or accepting view of the ways in which Christians and non-Christians should interact. In his day, there were strong political laws and social mores about religion and what particular beliefs entailed, and there were serious repercussions for breaking these deeply engrained rules.
Dante’s Comedy shows how a person with reason can transcend those boundaries while still leading a Christian life and going to heaven. In fact, Dante literally does transcend the Christian/pagan, heaven/hell boundaries that no one else can. By teaming with Virgil, Dante experiences the impossible. We have to be careful when interpreting this however. Dante is not saying that every Christian should go find a non-believer and hang out in hell. The most profound things Dante learns from Virgil are how not to act or how to avoid ending up in hell. Culturally, Dante shows that we cannot and should not seclude ourselves away from any interactions with those who are not of our faith, and indeed, we can learn valuable lessons from each other while still remaining faithful to our own beliefs.
Reason plays a large role in Dante’s Comedy, and similarly, today’s American culture places a huge emphasis on reason and education. Many mentors are teachers or coaches within academic institutions. The importance of reason and intellectual thought remains a strong influence today, perhaps even stronger than in Dante’s time with the current trend to place science/intellectual discoveries at a dichotomy with religious beliefs or understandings. Many people now believe that reason hold the only truth possible, which is in stark contrast to what Dante believes.
Dante’s choice of Virgil, a pagan in hell, as his mentor underscores his belief that: 1) reason transcends all, 2) intellectual thought and Christianity go hand-in-hand, and 3) we have the free will to choose who we spend time with and what we learn from them.

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