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We read the classics because they offer us different perspectives on timeless questions. Very few people today who encounter The Divine Comedy, even Catholics, accept most of Dante’s assumptions about the universe. We have gone from the Ptolemaic universe Dante understood through the Newtonian universe that overturned the classical and medieval world views and into the Einsteinian universe of black holes and relativity. In religion, we have experienced the complete schism of a single Christian church after the Reformation into many different Christian churches, and while Western society is clearly more secular in spirit than was the Florence of Dante’s day, other non-Christian cultures seem to be returning to a religious fundamentalism not seen in the West for centuries. The confusing politics involving the petty squabbles of Guelph and Ghibelline have long since vanished and have been submerged since Dante’s day by various kinds of political systems, most of which are far worse than those he experienced. Perhaps Dante might recognize a similarity between the nascent capitalism of medieval Florence and our own contemporary multinational economic system. Both produced inordinate and unexpected quantities of wealth, although neither ever arrived at a fully equitable means of distributing it, and both economic systems have suffered periodic and frequent cyclical waves of boom and bust that sometimes threaten the lives and fortunes of those who depend on them. Dante would not have been surprised by the many religious, social, political, scientific, intellectual, or economic changes that have taken place since his times. He would only have been surprised if the characters that inhabit his Comedy seem dated, almost denizens of another planet. But, of course, Dante’s characters are all too contemporary. It would not be difficult to compile a list of our acquaintances or colleagues and to place them in the appropriate places in Hell. More difficult, perhaps, would be a similar assignment of those we know to appropriate places in Purgatory or Paradise.
What explains our contemporary fascination with Dante is his attitude toward his characters? As members of a liberal, diverse, and tolerant culture typical of twenty-first-century democracies, at least in our ideals we tend to see everything and everyone from a variety of positive perspectives. We are asked to respect those with whom we disagree. The French maxim says it all—tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner (“to understand all is to forgive all”). Dante stands entirely outside such a “civilized,” politically correct perspective. For him, understanding does not imply justification, and Dante is the most judgmental of all poets. He believes that civilization involves understanding, an act of the intellect, but for Dante understanding leads inevitably to evaluation, judgment, and the assumption of a moral position based on very simple but immutable ethical and religious precepts. No situational ethics, no “I’m OK, you’re OK,” no automatic and naive acceptances of every point of view, no matter how ill-founded. His energy derives from moral indignation—indignation about the corruption of the Church, about the corruption of Florence and most Italian or European cities, about the weakness of the Holy Roman Empire, and about the general wretched state of humanity. But his genius is based on something even more precious and more unusual—his love for truth and his ability to express it in timeless poetic form.