Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Theology and Literature

Is Dante’s Inferno a great book? Well, the Great Books Foundation certainly thinks so. Otherwise, they would not have included it in their program. The author, Dante Alighieri, was a gifted writer and in this book he embraced a large literary theme: the struggle between good and evil and the inability of man to avoid sin. The problem is that Dante’s story, which is basically a journey into the heart of darkness, is burdened with a flawed theology which seeks to impose its message on the reader. And what is this message? That every human being is born into sin, and without the intervention of the Catholic Church, and the mercy of God, every individual will surely end up in Hell, where he belongs. Thus, human existence is merely a prelude to the day of Judgment when we all will be held accountable for every sin and every moral transgression committed on earth. Thus, the punishment we receive in hell is but a reflection of our own moral corruption, if not in the eyes of men, then certainly in the eyes of God. The theology of Dante is conservative and judgmental because it is inspired by an institution which believes it has the power and the authority to speak for God. To accompany Dante on this journey is to follow him into the nightmare of a deranged institution, like Galileo being shown the instruments of torture, or Primo Levi in Auschwitz. For according to this theology, it is only through fear and shame that men learn obedience to the Church. Because there is only one true church and that is the church of St. Peter; all other churches and all other beliefs are manifestations of sin and pretenders to the throne of Christ.

 This is the theology and dogma upon which Dante’s Inferno is constructed. As a work of literature, it is quite impressive. Although the recitation of tortures inflicted upon the damned becomes a little tedious along the way. Once you have described in detail the pain and suffering inflicted on the numerous lost souls inhabiting one level of hell, do we really need the testimony of all the other condemned prisoners, whose destiny is to be  punished for all eternity?  Does it not seem a little redundant?  To me, every punishment described in the lower circles of hell is, fundamentally, a repetition of the agonies of the first. Even if the particular method of torture varies from one sinner to the next, does it really matter if one is boiled alive, torn apart, drowned, stabbed or crushed?

 Dante’s Inferno is a literary chamber of horrors, and we (the reader) are meant to be a witness to the suffering of all these condemned sinners.  Thus, Dante’s hell is a kind of school of instruction for the rest of us. We are meant to learn obedience (or submission) to the will of the Church by the example of those already in hell.. The Inferno is something like the experience of a public execution. It’s meant to demonstrate the power and authority of the clerical institution (or deity) which rules over us.  In that sense, the Inferno functions as a kind of preview of coming attractions. Either behave yourself and follow the rules of the Church elders, or be prepared to suffer the consequences of your disobedience.  It makes you wonder if the Inferno is really about the struggle between good and evil, or is it a political treatise, like Orwell’s 1984, about what happens to individual freedom when power becomes concentrated into the hands of a few, elite individuals.


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