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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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Dante wrote the Divine Comedy while he was in exile. He
finished the first part, the Inferno, in 1314 and the final cantos
of the Paradiso in 1320. The title of the entire work is The
Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by Citizenship, Not by

Dante was a man who lived, who saw political and artistic
success, and who was in love. He was also a man who was
defeated, who felt the danger and humiliation of exile, and
who was no stranger to the cruelty and treachery possible in
people. Dante felt that he was the victim of a grave injustice.
He also suffered serious self-doubts-natural for a man in exile
and eternally dependent. Remembering all this about Dante,
we can see his work as the sum of all these experiences and
his answers to the basic human questions: What is man? Why
does he act as he does? What is Good and what is Evil? When
it so often looks like "Good guys finish last," why should
anyone be good?

You are probably saying, "So what?" at this point. But trying
to understand a work of literature is often a lot like trying to
understand other people. You have to figure out where they
are coming from and what makes them tick. Dante comes
from a medieval Roman Catholic background, and that is
extremely important for the Divine Comedy.

What if a reader is not a Catholic or a Christian? What about a
20th-century reader who doesn't know medieval history? Can
that person still understand the poem, or will the religious and
medieval aspects get in the way? Obviously, we can't promise
there will never be a problem, but the work has been read all
over the world for centuries.

After all, when you read science fiction, you accept that
certain aliens may have certain amazing powers, or that a
particular planet has different scientific laws than we have on
earth. Science fiction authors use those unusual, supernatural
possibilities as elements of their plots. So, too, Dante uses the
concepts and symbols accepted in his age and his religion as
elements around which to structure his story. You don't have
to believe they are true in order to appreciate how they work
in the poem. Let's examine some of the concepts Dante
inherited from 14th-century Italy's way of thinking.

One feature of Dante's vision of the universe is the concept of
polarities: two extreme opposites, between which people were
pulled. To Dante, many aspects of his world were polar in

1. There was a power struggle between the Church and State,
represented by the Pope and the German emperor.

2. There was a struggle for intellectual authority between
theology (the study of religion and the Bible) and philosophy
(which included science and mathematics). Dante himself was
a heavy borrower from both sides and quoted such diverse
sources as the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, or the
Christian thinkers St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

3. Man was considered to fall halfway between the animals
and the angels, and was therefore torn between the brutish and
the angelic sides of his nature.

4. Dante also felt that writing should reflect a balance
between the ideas and the realities of a man's life, so we see
him moving between two different aesthetic approaches in his
poetry: personal realism and symbolism in allegory. Dante
also challenged the accepted practice, which was to write
about ideas in Latin and more mundane matters in the
vernacular language (for him, Italian). He wrote the Comedy
in Italian.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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