The Means of the End: Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Challenge of Christian Classical Education

This week I attended a conference on Christianity and the Liberal Arts, which focussed on the questions related to faith and the academy, servile arts and liberal arts, use and enjoyment, knowledge as an end and knowledge as a means, and in what ways can classical education be distinctly Christian. Of particular interest was a paper given by a Catholic who rejected teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy in schools because he claimed that it was not Christian, but rather that Dante is a pagan humanist in Christian clothing trying to subvert Scripture and build, in idolatrous fashion, his own contra cosmos. I’d like to explore not simply why I think his assertions are wrong, but how it relates to the purpose of the Christian liberal arts. 

The conclusion that the speaker came to was that Dante was trying to create a parallel and competing vision of the cosmos contra God’s cosmos. In this Straussian reading, Dante’s hidden motivation was to create a humanist vision of ascension that sees the liberal arts as the means to reach perfection as man, as Adam, culminating in the final scene in Purgatorio where Dante is crowned a “new Adam.” From this reading the conclusion could be that Christian classical education can become an education of man, rather than a divine education, one that simply wants to use the pagan liberal arts to perfect man as a man, rather than in the image of Christ. This can be seen by the means Dante uses to ascend toward Paradise, means built on classical learning, the guidance of Virgil in Inferno, and the four cardinal virtues represented by Cato in Purgatorio. By means of pagan humane letters, Dante ascends to his goal as a perfect man.

This claim introduces a key tension in the project of the Christian liberal arts that is worth reckoning with. The project of Christian humanism, for many people, seems like a project inherently fraught with contradictions, for the humanities and liberal arts were in the Greco-Roman world about perfecting man into the image of man, whereas the Christian aim is to perfect man in the image of Christ. The early church fathers–particularly Turtullian, Augustine, and even Jerome–wrestled with the question of whether an education project built upon pagan, humanist principles ran counter to the Christian project of sanctification and love of God. And herein lies the rub, for when we talk about Christian education we must talk about ends. 

The Christian liberal arts must be defined first and foremost by its ends, and these ends then direct the means. Often, Christian classical schools will begin with questions about books–which of the “classics” to read–thinking that picking the right books and reading the right authors will lead to proper education. But the early Christians insisted that the first question must be “what is the end to which we are aiming?” And if the end is the perfection of man in the image of God, then the question must be whether the humanist project is a proper means to that end. 

These are valuable questions, and the tension should be felt by everyone in Christian classical education. But even though these questions began with critique of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I think Dante’s project is actually an example of Christian humanism done well. Taking a broad strokes look at the Comedy, one notices not merely the humanist means Dante describes, but first and foremost the beginning and end. At the beginning of the Comedy, Dante awakes in a dark wood–the wood of spiritual acedia–and leaving the wood he sees the light that represents the Divine atop a mountain–which is a symbol of Purgatory. That light becomes his end, his aim, and he runs up the mount for the sake of beholding the Divine. But he cannot ascend and he cannot reach the Divine because his sins and his lack of self-governance stand in his way–represented in the leopard, she-wolf, and lion. Thus, in order to reach the proper end–which is the beatific vision and becoming re-formed in the divine image–Dante must undergo a process of education through the means first of the liberal arts and humane letters, leading to self-governance and the cardinal virtues, and then to the three theological virtues of Paradiso

Having gone through these means, using the best wisdom and learning of the pagan tradition along with the trials of sanctification, Dante is then equipped to embrace true faith, hope, and love in the Paradiso. It is key that Dante insists his faith is not informed merely by philosophy, but through divine revelation and divine illumination (24.130-141), for the humanist project can only take him part of the way. It is Beatrice–divine loe–not Virgil or Cato who guides Dante through heaven. And, because Dante’s end is not conflated with the means to that end, the poem finishes with the beatific vision that transforms Dante not into the image of Adam, but the image of Christ the God-man (33.100-145). And through this, we are given a vision for the proper beginning and end of classical humanist learning–one that begins with the proper desire for God, and through the means of pagan and religious wisdom along with faith, hope, and love ending in becoming like God as we see him face to face (1 John 3:2). 

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