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" The scope and value of the Divina Commedia " is not a
subject which interests merely the student of classic poetry^
medisBval history, or the Italian tongue. In the present, i,/^
even more than in the past, the poem holds its place, apart
from its artistic merit, as a profound and comprehensive
treatise on the principles of human conduct, and the end '^
and worth of life. Most diverse, however, are the inter-
pretations it receives. Writers, politicians, and statesmen of
the foreign " liberal " school see in its pages the first expres-
sion and the strongest defence of their theories; while, on the
other hand, theologians, religious, and bishops are among
the most strenuous defenders of its orthodoxy. At Florence,
in 1865, young Italy crowns the bust of the poet as the
herald of free thought and revolution ; at Ravenna, in 1857,
Pius IX. places a wreath on his tomb, as a witness to his
Catholic loyalty and faith. What then is the true teaching
of the Commedia, and whence arise these conflicting judg-
ments '? Dr. Hettinger seeks for a reply by a method
comparatively little used. He takes the poet's own teachers,
the Fathers and Schoolmen, as his guides, and shows, from
their writings, the source, as he thinks, of Dante's song,
and therewith its true interpretation. For this mode of
exposition Dr. Hettinger is eminently fitted. His great
work, the Apologie des Christenthums^ of which translations



are to be found in nearly every European language, has
long since secured him a position in the front rank of
Catholic theologians. At the same time he is thoroughly
conversant with the modern literature bearing on the

Of the result of his inquiry we will trace a brief outline.
The subject-matter of the poem is the redemption of sinful
man, and his ascent, by grace and repentance, from earth to
heaven. Hell puts before us the sinner obdurate and chas-
tised ; Purgatory the penitent absolved, and advancing in
virtue ; Paradise the summit gained, and the reward of those
who persevere. The idea in its development embraces the
whole circle of Catholic theology, demonstrated according to
the scholastic method of Dante's time, but expressed in form
and language solely his own. Reason and faith, freewill and
grace, the State and the Church, and their mutual relations —
the three kingdoms of nature, grace, and glory, and each in
detail — man, sinning, repentant, and triumphant — all these
fall within the range of the poet's vision. What that vision
shows he recounts and describes as it is seen. In his own
complex being, in the problems of the schools and of
theology, in the world visible and invisible, mysteries deep
and unfathomable arrest his thought; but he rejects as
puerile and unworthy any temptation to doubt; where
reason fails, he believes and adores. Nay, the very fact
that God is incomprehensible, that His decrees and works
are alike inscrutable, is to him a cause not of despondency
but of thanksgiving. He delights to prostrate himself, in
his ignorance and nothingness, before his Creator, all wise
and all perfect, and then by a single act of love to span
the infinite and be one with his God.

And in the same spirit of exultant faith he views all
things. Hell with its eternal torture, the stumbling-block
of the modern philosopher, is to him a creation, not only


of " divine power and supremest wisdom," but also ^f
*' primeval love." For by Hell, even with the rebel and the
impenitent, that order is preserved which it is the office
of love to guard, and which makes the universe resemble
God. Apart from God and His grace, natural gifts and
merits are worthless. The most eminent patriots and states-
men are for one mortal sin cast into Hell ; while by one
act of contrition, "una lagrimetta," ^ one poor tear, with
the name of Mary on the lips of the dying criminal, and
Heaven is won. That Heaven is open to all. The pagan
who has never heard of Christ, if he obey the natural law,
and place all his love in what is just and right, will receive
from God further grace, and faith sufficient for salvation.
But faith is absolutely necessary, and formal heresy and
infidelity are the worst wilful sins, and can never be
excused. They come from a desire to measure divine by
human justice ; from an obstinate and unreasonable attach-
ment to our own opinions ; a restless eagerness to shine,
love of singularity; private and warped interpretation of
Holy Writ, and carnal sins which necessarily obscure the
"light that Cometh from above."

Though the poet knows no guide but the Church and
her teachers, he by no means disparages reason, which is
of our nature "the mitre and the crown." ^ Innate and
unquenchable is man's thirst for truth, and therefore Dante
studied philosophy as the first of human sciences, and
constantly introduces philosophical arguments and dis-
cussions. He has indeed been criticised for thus encumber-
ing his theme with useless and wearisome digressions, but
the nature of his subject and the thought of his time alike
demanded the employment of such arguments ; while the
power with which he has moulded tough scholastic terms
to poetic forms, without detriment to their force, offers a
^ Purg. V. 107, loi. ^ Purg. xxvii, 142.


striking proof of his genius. But further, to our mind,
the philosophical element in the poem is most valuable for
itself. Hallam did not hesitate to say, some forty years
since, that Dr. Hampden was " the only Englishman, past
or present, who had penetrated far into the wilderness of
scholasticism." ^ This^ is so no longer. Disputants of all
schools, who profess to treat of Christian philosophy, read
and quote the Summa. Men are learning again, that what-
ever the ignorance of the mediaeval schools in physical
science, the scholastic system is unrivalled for clearness of
thought, accuracy of expression, and cogency of reasoning ;
for " that fitting and close coherence of effects and causes,
drawn up like soldiers in line of battle ; those lucid defini-
tions and distinctions, by which light is distinguished from
darkness, truth from falsehood." ^ These intellectual forces,
and this system of teaching, are seen in Dante as "marshalled
by their chief and master St. Thomas, who sat in the great
houses of human wisdom like a prince in his kingdom. "^ It
is surely then a merit in the poem that it brings us into
contact with a mind whose "matchless grasp and subtlety
of intellect seem almost without a parallel," * and with that
system of philosophy which alone seems to beget convic-
tion, and to have a close and prescriptive alliance with the
teachings of faith.

But again, man acquires information and truth through
intercourse with others. Left to himself he would make
no progress; human society is necessary for his develop-
ment, and has been so willed by God. The welfare and
stability of this society, the true principles of its laws and
government, become therefore an all important question,

^ Hallam, Literature of Europe, v. i., p, 14, ed. 1854.
^ Sixt.^V. BuUa TriunypJiantis. Leo. XIII. Encyc, August 4, 1879.
3 Ihid.

* Prof. Huxley, Fortnightly Review, p. 300, vol. ccxl., N. S.,
December, i886.


and politics fall necessarily within the scheme of the Divina
Commedia. Of all forms of government, Dante, who follows
as usual Aristotle and St. Thomas, prefers an empire;
both because the rule of one absolute monarch, with
universal authority, is best calculated to secure that stable
peace which is necessary for the wellbeing of human society,
and also because it most resembles, in its catholicity and
union, that Divine unity which marks the Creator's works,
and society thus governed becomes a likeness of Heaven.
But Dante's ideal emperor is no selfish oppressor. He is
to seek not his own but his subjects' good ; he is to rule
so that men may be free, and freedom means a state in i^
which every man can become good. Those who use their
sovereignty otherwise are tyrants, and are classed with
murderers in Hell. On the other hand, the duties of
subjects are urgently insisted on. As the authority of the
ruler is from above, the rebel who conspires against king
or country is second only in malice to the heretic who
revolts against his God; and Brutus and Cassius share
with Judas the lowest depth of the abyss.

If then in politics, philosophy, and theology, Dante is so
essentially catholic and orthodox, how is he claimed as the
advocate of scepticism and revolution ? The poet was not
a saint, but a fallible and erring man. Pride and hate
were, as he says himself, his two chief faults ; and Dr.
Hettinger has no wish to paint him aught but what he
is. His exile, together with that of other GhibeUine
chiefs ; the confiscation of his goods, and subsequent expa-
triation of his family, by Charles of Valois and his knights,
while Dante himself was absent on an embassy to Rome,
embittered him for ever against the French party in Italy,
and especially against Boniface VIII., under whose
authority the French at that time professed to act. But
to a proud nature like the poet's, personal resentment


would be but a poor excuse for the violent invectives he
employs ; and he eagerly adopted a theory of politics,
which both harmonised with his wounded feelings and
served as a vehicle for their expression. The German
emperor, whose authority he regards as of divine origin,
was then the one powerful opponent both of the French
king and of the sovereign Pontiff ; and in him Dante sees
the saviour of Italy, and in his universal empire the
salvation of mankind. He admits, indeed, the supremacy
and independence of the Church, and the necessary sub-
ordination of the temporal to the spiritual power, but
would have the Church confine her authority and dominion
to spiritual things only; and denounces the gift of Con-
stantine — by which, according to him, the Pope first became
possessed of temporalities — as the curse of the Church and
the source of its decay. It is then as a patriot and a
prophet, in defence of his country and in behalf of the
Church's purity, that Dante launches his fiercest diatribes
against Papal greed and tyranny. In fact and theory he
was, as Dr. Hettinger points out, equally at fault. The
Holy Roman Empire owed its title, not to Divine institu-
tion, but to the Pope, who alone conferred on Charle-
magne and his successors the imperial prerogatives under
certain definite obligations, which the monarch was to
perform to the Church and to his own subjects. When,
then, the Emperor oppressed alike his people and the
Church, the Pope, who had become by common consent
and the course of events the recognised arbitrator of
Christian Europe, was forced by every right to resist his
encroachments. Had he not done so, had Gregory IX. or
Innocent IV. allowed Frederic to proceed unchecked, a
despotism worse than Oriental would have enslaved Europe,
priests and people alike. But Dante lived to see his wishes
carried out. Clement Y. withdrew from Rome, and placed


the Holy See under the tutelage of France, with what
result in Dante's eyes ? Why, that the Church in her
secular aspect was robbed of her freedom, dignity, and
purity, and became like a mere state establishment, " una
puttana sciolta." 1 Dante's teaching, then, as regards the
empire was radically unsound, and as he embodied it in
the De Monarchia, that book was placed on the Index as
a work which would be dangerous in the hands of the
enemies of the Church. The event has proved the justice
of that decree. From Dante's theory, that the Church's
dominion is purely spiritual, Marsilius, Huss, and WicklifF,
with logical deduction, proclaimed her incapable of possess-
ing property, and consequently plundered her goods. But
the decree of the Holy Office, as Dr. Hettinger shows, does
not condemn the author as a teacher of heresy, nor is it
even a censure. The prohibition regards, moreover, only
the work named, and therefore, in this instance, in no way
affects the Commedia. It is well that Dr. Hettinger has
brought out this point, for in Dean Church's Essay, "^
deservedly the most widely read work on Dante in this
country, it is stated that the poet has been both claimed
and condemned as the disturber of the faith, and has had
hard measure dealt him by the Church who is so much
beholden to him. With regard to this second point, let
us first ask how Dante dealt with the Church and her
rulers ? How far were his attacks upon the Popes justi-
fied ? They might have committed simony and been cruel
tyrants. There is no guarantee in the Divine promise
against such lapses. The question is merely one of history,
not doctrine. Were they what he describes ? We will
take briefly three prominent cases.

First, Nicholas III., sumamed " II Composto " from his
habitual recollection. During the three short years of his
1 Purg. xxxii. 149. 2 p^ges 120, 122, ed. 1879.


pontificate, he compelled both the Emperor Rudolph and
Charles of Anjou to abandon their claims on the Holy See,
laboured strenuously and with success for the reunion of
the Greeks, and was the special protector of the Franciscan
order. Ambitious views for the exaltation of his family is
the only kind of reproach on his character ; yet Dante con-
demns him to Hell, on " the unproved and improbable accu-
sation of simony." ^ Secondly, St. Celestine V., "a man of
admirable simplicity, but unfitted for the affairs connected
with the government of the Church," ^ renounced the ponti-
ficate, which he felt was beyond his power. He was clearly
within his rights in so doing, and the disinterestedness of
his conduct is praised by Petrarch as the act rather of an
angel than of a man. Yet, solely for this act, Dante classes
him among the reprobates, with the sluggards and base-
minded souls. Thirdly, the chief object of his hate is
Boniface VIII., whom he anathematises no less than nine
times on charges chiefly of simony and cruelty. We have
already seen why the poet considered this Pope the author
of his life's wrongs. The history of his election, which
Dante describes as fraudulent, is simple enough. The
electing cardinals were twenty-two in number, and unani-
mously chose the most eminent and independent of their
colleagues to the vacant See. Humanly speaking, it was
against their interest to elect Boniface, for he would
inevitably come into conflict with the French monarch, to
whose party most of the College belonged ; but, as so often
happened, they chose not for their own interests, but for
that of the Church.

Again, Dante accuses him, in common with Guido da
Montefeltro, of the treacherous destruction of the fortress
of Palestrina. The story is rejected as a calumny by

^ Dr. Dollinger, History of the Church, vol. iv. 75.
^ Bulla canoniz. Sti Petri Ccelest.


Muratori and by all the most trustworthy authorities.
Guido was a celebrated general, who became a Franciscan
friar. He was therefore one of the conspicuous men of
his age, and his doings are duly noted in the contemporary
records of his Order, and of the city of Bologna ; neither
makes any allusion to his having returned to the world,
but both testify to his having lived and died a holy
religious. Dante himself, in the Convito (iv. 28), speaks of
Guido as one of those noble souls, who, when advanced in
age, put aside every worldly occupation and affection, to
enter religion. But these and other equally scandalous
charges were fully disposed of at the Council of Vienne in
131 2. Boniface died in 1303. For the eight following
years, his enemies, the Colonnas and the French kings,
had pressed for proceedings to be instituted against his
name, and thus had ample time to prepare their charges,
with proofs in support. Yet by the decree of that Council,
in the face of every hostile influence, ecclesiastical and
civil, he was duly acknowledged as Pope, and his character
cleared from the slightest imputation. He may have been
inflexible and stern, nay severe, but during his long ponti-
ficate he never took the life of a single foe, and in those
times severity was needed. Within the ranks of the clergy
were devout but eccentric enthusiasts like B. Jacopone, or
pious but simple recluses like St. Celestine, who might at
any time become the tools of a dangerous faction. With
the secular powers, especially France, his life was one long
conflict for that supreme spiritual dominion which had ever
been regarded as the Church's right.^ His own words,
when he stood as it were alone against the princes of earth,
will best explain, the motive of his conduct, and the perse-
cution which pursued him in life and death. "If all the
princes of the world were united against us, we should
^ See page 395 in the following essay.


regard them as straws, if truth were on our side, and we
were responsible for it. But were truth and justice not
with us, then indeed we should have reason for fear." ^

We think then that if reliable authorities be consulted ^
it would be found that Dante has assailed with calumnies
some of the Church's holiest rulers, and has met with
singular leniency in return. When we recall the " Index
of Prohibited Works," published by Act of Parliament in
this country from the Reformation downwards, because
they reflected on the character of the reigning sovereign,
or on their conduct with regard to religion, books which it
was made high treason to possess, we think the Holy See's
treatment of the poet is that of a wise and generous parent,
who will not allow the storm of passion in an erring child
to influence her recognition and approval of his truer and
better nature. And thus as the Divina Commedia, notwith-
standing these serious blots, remains substantially a magni-
ficent exposition of the Catholic faith, it has been studied
and extolled by theologians and popes.

There is one other character which finds a place in
every commentary on Dante, and which must not be passed
by unnoticed, the Emperor Frederic II., " Stupor mundi
et immutator mirabilis." ^ He was the centre of the
Ghibelline hopes, and the impersonation of the Ghibelline
policy carried to its logical development. His kingdom
included Burgundy, Germany, Italy, and Sicily. He had
opportunities for good, such as perhaps no monarch enjoyed.
How did he use them 1 According to Macaulay, he was
" brave, accomplished, and unfortunate — a poet in the age
of schoolmen, a philosopher in the age of monks, a states-

^ Hergenrother, v. ii. p. 143.

2 e.g., Mansi, Hefele, Dollinger, Hergenrother.

^ Sic Matthew Paris, the panegyrist of Frederic, whom he also
styles, "Principnm mundi maximus." Hist, major, ed. Pel^, Paris,
1644. Cf. Freeman, HisU Essay s, v. 1, 281.


man in the age of the Crusades." First, as regards his
fortitude, perhaps the most brilHant army ever despatched to
Palestine, to which England alone contributed 60,000 men,
was allowed by this "brave king" to sicken, disappear,
and die, till only 800 knights were left. Frederic mean-
while malingered at home, violating day by day his pledged
word to head the campaign. His philosophy, derived
from t he Arabian^ pantheistic corrupters of Aristotle, and
from the horoscopes cast for him by the wizard astrologer,
Michael Scot, consisted of a blind fatalism. Anything
new he eagerly sought — the last new receipt for a dish, the
last new book, the latest theory broached on God or the soul
— and from whatever source, Jew, Greek, Mahometan, save
only Christian. In this sense he was a promoter of learn-
ing, and " immutator mirabilis." A materialist in creed, he
made sensuality a religion, and duly organised its worship.
The high festivals were kept with all pomp *'at his refined
and enlightened court," as Dean Church even calls it. The
ministers of the new religion were the harem of Saracen
women, and troops of jugglers and clowns — its ritual, their
dances, songs, and diverse performances, conducted amid
scenes of fairy-like splendour. In the midst of these orgies,
the whole aim of which was to protest against the Christian
doctrine of self-denial, Frederic was adored on both knees
as the supreme lord of earth. His sensuality was only
equalled by his cruelty. He revenged a conspiracy in
Sicily, after the manner of his father, upon women and
children ; tortured a Franciscan friar for being the bearer
of a papal letter; and in 1241, put out the eyes of Pietro
delle Vigne, his confidential minister and "right arm."
Aji oft -convicted perjurer, he regarded deceit as a virtue,
and practised it so perfectly, that he seems to have lost
the power, not only of speaking the truth, but of discerning
it in his own mind. His statesmanship ended in the


destruction of his family, the dire confusion of all things
in Italy, and the proximate disruption of the Empire. His
last act was to put on the Cistercian habit ; but few be-
lieved in his conversion, and Dante records but the judg-
ment of his contemporaries in giving him sepulture with
the heresiarchs.^

Turning now to the artistic merit of the Commedia.
The form in which the poet casts his matter offers most
scope for the display of originality and genius. Visions
of the other world had been frequently described in prose
and verse before Dante wrote, and the same theme has
been repeatedly treated since his death. The subject,
therefore, is not new, but, as recast by Dante, is solely his
own creation. His comparisons and illustrations, especially
in the Inferno, are often of a kind distasteful to modern
fastidiousness. But his object was truth. He knew that
sin, and the flattering temptation which leads to it, how-
ever attractive or graceful the mask, are in reality hideous,
revolting, and corrupt ; and he therefore purposely selected
what was most repellant in nature as its fitting image.
And here again he but follows the example of the prophets
in Holy Scripture and the Apostles, who compare the
apostate and the sinner relapsed, to the "dog that re-
turneth to his vomit," and " the sow that is washed, to her
wallowing in the mire." ^ The characteristic excellences of
the poem have been so often pointed out, that we will only
follow our author in regard to some of the most striking.
First, though the scene lies entirely in the other world,
the reader meets, not typical forms or mythical personages,

^ Our estimate of his character is drawn from Bollinger's Church
Jlistory, vol. iv. English trans., and from Renter's Geschichte der
religiosen AufUdrang im Mittelalter, 1877, which includes the latest
researches on the subject. Renter does not betray sign of any definite
religious belief, and is an admirer on the whole of Frederic.

^ Prov. xxvi. II ; 2 Pet. ii. 22.


but human beings clothed and palpable, the poet's contem-
poraries or predecessors — his relations, friends, teachers,
favourite authors, artists, sculptors, rulers, statesmen,
warriors, priests, religious, prelates, who were known to
him personally or by repute. Even when he is forced
to employ a typical figure, as with the impersonation of
Divine Wisdom, he chooses Beatrice, the pure and gentle
maiden, his first and last earthly love, who, transformed
and idealised, still leads him by the " cords of Adam " to
God. Or when he is obliged to form a creature from his
phantasy, as with the horrible figure of Lucifer, there
appears no chimera, grotesque, and unimaginable, but a
form, half beast, half man, which though monstrous, is so
distinct and visible, that the poet seems to have felt and
grasped, as Macaulay! says, " the demon's shaggy sides."
The effect of such treatment is, of course, dramatic in the
highest degree. You are surrounded by a world, ^ot of
fiction, but of truth. "Again, his descriptions of punishment,
penance, and" reward, are not arbitrarily chosen. The
narrowing circles of Hell are drawn from the increasing
degrees of malice in the sphere of evil, and the diverse
tortures of the lost are theologically appropriate to the

Online LibraryFranz HettingerDante's Divina commedia, its scope and value → online text (page 1 of 37)