Four Reasons to Read Dante in 2023
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It’s a new year. You are looking back at the number of books you read during the past twelve months and perhaps sighing. You therefore look ahead and resolve to read more. But where do you begin? Allow me to give you four reasons why you should place Dante’s Comedy at the top of your 2023 to-read pile.
Poetry teaches, shapes, edifies, and enriches us not by giving us a lecture, but by inviting us into an experience. Poetry surrounds us and ushers us into an imaginative landscape where we meet timeless truths in beautiful language. And the humility required to enter that landscape, one we don’t fully understand, teaches a better lesson: it fills our hearts with wonder. That wonder in turn gives us the right lens with which to see the world around us. This world is itself a poem, spoken in meter and rhyme by the Master Poet. If we are to begin to comprehend the beauty and wonder of the created landscapes around us, let alone the majesty of the Creator Himself, our eyes and ears must be attuned to the cadences of verse. For in poetry we touch the taproot of all living things. And, outside of Scripture, nowhere is that more clearly and deeply experienced than in Dante’s Comedy. It is one of the most beautiful and skillfully written poems of all time.
A note on poetic beauty. We all have plenty of intellectual imports: podcasts, news feeds, talk shows, blogs, substacks… the list goes on. And all those things are important for shaping our understanding. But how are those things shaping your affections? Our loves and loyalties are shaped less by information and more by beauty. When we are struck by beauty, be it a great work of art, a sunset, a stretch of open country, or a piece of music, our hearts are drawn toward something, toward the good and the true. This is what beauty does. But beauty is not just whatever is aesthetically pleasing. It is that which resonates deeply with the structure of creation, for creation reflects the beauty and majesty of God, the only standard of all that is truly beautiful. The Comedy is one such masterpiece of beauty and truth, resonating deeply with the true story of this world. Read rightly, with patience and humility, it draws our hearts that much closer to the beauty and wonder of God, the Love who moves the sun and the other stars.
Another reason to add the Comedy to your nightstand this coming year is the very reason, perhaps, it has never made it there before: it is positively medieval. Yes, that is true. There is no one more medieval than Dante. But instead of pushing you away, it should be a reason to give him a go. We are surrounded on all sides by one way of seeing the world, as fish are surrounded by water. Dante offers a completely different way. Even if his way is wrong, stepping out of our modern and postmodern world, even for a moment, is incredibly healthy and refreshing. It keeps the “clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” as C.S. Lewis put it. Furthermore, it urges us to consider, what if I am the one who is wrong? What if the past is right after all? Reading Dante will force you to confront your own assumptions, biases, and convictions — not to tear them down, but to hone them and give them a surer footing by means of honest and humble reflection. The Comedy will take you clean out of your relatively small world, and give you eyes to see that world afresh.
Lastly, Dante’s Comedy is just plain wise. Beautiful, yes. Wonder-inducing, yes. One heck of a ride, yes. But it is also full of wisdom concerning who we are as bearers of God’s image, the nature of our choices and consequences of our actions, and the world as the stage for God’s gratuitous love. We all need potent reminders of the ugly destructiveness of sin. We all need deep encouragement in our war against the flesh. We all need a rich, Christ-centered understanding of the cosmos. Wisdom is not simply applied knowledge. Wisdom is bowing before the Lord our God with reverence and awe in everything we think and do. The Comedy is the story of a pilgrim and his journey to just such an end. It is a story that reorients us around the true center, the true governing principle of all things. With the pilgrim we too journey toward the majesty and all-consuming love of Jesus. And standing with the pilgrim in that final place of hope we find that in His will, in the will of our gracious God and savior, is our only peace.
Lewis once wrote: “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing… if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.” This is eminently true. So as you consider what volumes to take off your bookshelf and finally crack open, consider Dante. It is not for no reason that the Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of art of all time. This year, find out for yourself why that is true.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Joe Carlson (MA Humanities) lives in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. He received his BA from New St Andrews College, and his MA from the University of Dallas, where he is currently completing his doctoral studies. His thesis explored and unpacked a specifically doxological pedagogy, based on Dante’s educational projects. He has managed a chain of coffee shops, published (micro) epic poetry, co-pastored a church, helped create and staff a university campus ministry, written for the Salvo Magazine blog, and taught many different kinds of classes over the years. It was a passion for the medieval cosmology enjoyed by C.S. Lewis that eventually brought him back to an ever deepening love for the Divine Comedy.