Dante and Desire

By Joe Brownsberger, SM ’21. Joe is majoring in Physics & Philosophy.

We live in an age of unprecedented liberty. The sheer number of choices available to us is staggering; we desire things that people in former ages never thought of. Along with these desires comes the power to satisfy many of them. Although this represents progress in many senses, the liberty that we have inherited has also been in large part squandered. We who have been given the ability to do anything have chosen instead to indulge in the pointless, “insipid pleasures” and extravagances that even luxury-loving Hume recognizes as worthless.[1] The Enlightenment, promising “man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage,” has instead culminated in a new and more degrading serfdom, a bondage to the god of Entertainment.[2] Like the decadent imperial Rome and the corrupt medieval nobility before us, we have been given the liberty to desire anything and fulfill those desires—and we have desired wrongly.

I argue that for liberty to be justifiable, on the societal level but perhaps to a greater degree in the individual, it must be ordered towards an end, and this end must be the Good (which of course for religious people is synonymous with God). In place of our many conflicting and pointless desires that point every which way, we must strive to wrestle our often-errant will into conformity with the Good so that our desires all point in a unified, positive direction. In this way, the fulfillment of those desires also brings us closer to our goal. Desire simply as an inclination to do something is a fundamentally good thing; it is in fact the way we draw closer to God and become better people. It is only when our desires are bent and misdirected that we find ourselves dissipated and unsatisfied.

***

No one speaks of this “wrestling of the will” more beautifully or with more insight than Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. In the beginning of the poem, Dante (appearing as a character in his own work) finds himself in a dark wood, having lost the “diritta via,” the straight and right path. And as a result of his faulty inclinations towards pride, lust, and greed (symbolized by three beasts), he is unable to climb the mountain that would bring him to virtue and happiness. Instead, then, Dante turns towards the poet Virgil, who guides him through the realms of the afterlife. Circling down through the rings of Hell and circling up around the mountain of Purgatory, Dante untwists his warped will and gradually rids himself of his vices. At long last, in Canto 27 of Purgatorio, Virgil addresses Dante with the last words he will speak in the Comedy. As Dante is more eloquent than I will ever be, I encourage the reader to meditate on his words and to pay more attention to them than to the rest of this essay.

Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;

libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,

e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:

per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.

 

Do not any longer expect my words or advice; free, right, and healthy is your will, and you would be foolish not to do as it commands: over yourself I crown and mitre you.

Purg 27.139-142

In touching and beautiful verse, Dante makes clear the true essence of liberty: to be lord over oneself and to will the right. As described above, his desires no longer pull him in unproductive directions, but his desire is simply to do that which will bring him closer to God. Therefore, he is not only good but also happy, walking once again on the diritta via.

Over the next thirty-nine cantos of the Comedy, Dante grows stronger in his new, sanctified identity, gradually gaining the ability to realize the good intentions that he has been given. At last, he is able to gaze straight into the supreme Light, the Good from which all good things derive not only their goodness, but their very being. The final words of the Comedy run thus:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Here I lack the force to describe the high fantasy, but already my will and my desire was turned, like a wheel which is evenly moved, by the Love that moves the sun and other stars

Par 33.142-145

Dante here ends his magnum opus with a simile of a rotating wheel: the edges of the wheel move exactly in accordance with every other part of the whole, around the central point that itself does not move at all. In the same way Dante’s desires conform to the greater scheme of the universe, which like the wheel moves around its Unmoved Mover in perfect harmony. Dante takes his place in the order of the cosmos and is truly free.

My humble suggestion is that for us too, true liberty is achieved when our desires conform to the Divine Will, when we take our place in the order of the cosmos. Our obsequious servitude of Entertainment and other vain pursuits puts us at risk—to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine—of finding ourselves “scattered out over multiplicity” instead of self-possessed, ordered by and ordered towards “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

[1] Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[2] Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?

Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s