Nostra Vita – Joe Carlson
The following was my portion of a Dante panel, focusing on the Inferno, presented at the University of Dallas, March 27, 2023.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. The 13th century Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri begins the greatest poem in the history of mankind with these words: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita — In the middle of the course of our life. This opening line is rich with meaning and implications that govern the rest of the 14,232 lines that follow. It situates the poem in the striking particularity of an individual, and identifies that individual’s journey with the universal experience of mankind. It is the journey of every pilgrim in every age. It is the journey of every soul in this life, moving either toward God or away from Him, oriented around the Supreme Good, or distracted and deceived by false images of that good.
The Comedy is of course high art — in my opinion, the highest art that has been conceived by the mind of man. And yet unlike a painting or a sculpture that is meant to be admired from a distance, the Comedy is more like a roller coaster, for which Dante has just taken your ticket. And here at these opening lines, you might be looking ahead at the twists and turns of the ride, having second thoughts about whether to go or stay behind. But in this opening line, Dante is standing there, demanding that you get in, sit down, and shut up. Buckle up and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to smile for the picture.
And so as we enter into this poem, taking our first steps on the path, accompanying the pilgrim on this journey that is our life, a journey which will culminate before the face of Christ, either as Judge or Redeemer, we have to take stock of where we are, so we can keep our bearings moving forward. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. What does that mean, exactly? Hear it again with the rest of the opening tercet:
In the middle of the course of our life
I came to myself in a darkened wood
because the right direction had been lost.
There are several things we could talk about but, to my mind, the most important aspect of this opening tercet, is how Dante the poet has situated his pilgrim in a particular moment in history. Moses writes in Psalm 90 that the years of our life are three score and ten, that is 70 years. Half of 70 is 35. Dante was born in the year 1265. 35 plus 1265 is 1300. Dante has reached the middle of his three score and ten in 1300 AD. And based on other indications in this first canticle, we know that this moment, when the pilgrim comes to himself in a darkened wood, occurs just before dawn on Good Friday in that year. The question becomes, why this date? Though there is a legend that says otherwise, it is likely that Dante did not start composing his poem until somewhere between 1307 and 1310. So why did he choose this moment in time to begin his journey of redemption and hope? The symbolism of descending into Hell on Good Friday, and being raised to new life on the shores of Mount Purgatory on Easter Sunday should be fairly obvious, and so I will set that aside. What fascinates me is the choice of the year 1300. What was going on in Dante’s life during this time that would justify it being likened to a darkened wood, in which he just woke up having lost the right direction?
A common understanding is to point to his exile. As you may have heard, Dante was exiled from his beloved Florence for political reasons, unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit, and banished forever from his home and family. It was a watershed moment in his life. The whole Comedy drips with the pathos of that experience. The problem is, Dante Alighieri was not exiled until January of 1302. If we are to take seriously the placement of this pilgrim in the spring of 1300, then the exile cannot be a direct reason for him coming to himself in a darkened wood, for that event had not yet happened within the chronology of the story. The real reason, as I see it, is far more interesting.
So let’s take a step back and look for a moment at the life of Dante. He was born in 1265 into a family loyal to the Guelph party. On the surface, that meant they preferred papal authority to imperial authority. But for most of the 13th century the threat to Florentine autonomy was from overreaching emperors and not overreaching popes. And so many of the Guelphs sided with the pope simply in order to get the emperor off their back. The Ghibellines, on the other hand, were the party that sided with the emperor. Five years before his birth, the Guelphs suffered a major defeat at the battle of Monteperti, a battle that haunts the pages of the Comedy, especially the Inferno. This is the tension Dante was born into. In 1289, however, at the battle of Campaldino, the Guelphs won a decisive victory, and established a Guelph state that would last for a number of decades. Dante, at the ripe age of 24, fought in this battle, and not without some acclaim. Around six or seven years later, shortly after the publication of his Vita Nuova, he enrolled in the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries, a first step in his political career. Over the next few years we have a couple of records of his civic contributions, showing how he acted as an ambassador or delegate to various meetings and councils, speaking successfully on behalf of Florence. Then, in the late spring of 1300, he was elected to serve a two month term as one of the six priors, the highest authority in Florence.
So consider this for a moment. Between the years 1289 and 1300, Dante’s star is on the rise. He is already a moderately well known and popular poet, who then performs well in the great battle that restored Guelph dominance in Florence; he becomes an even more well known poet through the publication of his Vita Nuova; he enters into public service with diplomatic success; and then is elected to the highest office of Florence. All of this culminating in the summer of 1300.
Does this sound like a darkened wood to you? Does this sound like someone for whom the right direction has been lost? Not at all, right? This is Dante at the top of his game. He has made it, socially and politically speaking. He has the acclaim of the city, he has literary popularity and political power. He has arrived.
Now we know that in under two years this will all come crashing down around him, and he will, on the point of death, never set foot in Florence again. But in the spring of 1300, Dante has no clue any of that is going to happen. So what in the world is Dante the poet saying here, at the beginning of the Comedy? Why does he choose 1300 and not, say, 1302, after his exile had begun?
I am spending so much time on this because I really think that the answer to that question is the lens through which Dante wants us to read the entire Comedy. A few lines down from our opening tercet, the poet says this:
No words can tell how I entered that place,
I was so full of sleep at the moment
I abandoned the true way.
Hear the poet’s words: I entered that place, I was so full of sleep, I abandoned the true way. He is not blaming others for his situation. He is not looking beyond his own actions for a reason why the world seems so against him. He is not playing the victim. He understands that he has no one to blame but himself for this dark and terrifying awakening.
I believe this is the key to understanding why the year 1300 is so central, and why the pilgrim is placed in this exact moment. Based on things the poet says throughout the Comedy, and in his other works, we can easily imagine how Dante, full of ambition and self-satisfaction, full of the acclaim of his peers and townsmen, puffed with the pride of poetic and political success, could have been “so full of sleep” he did not notice he was abandoning the true way.
Could it be that these public, poetic, and political successes are the false images of the good he had foolishly oriented his life around? That these are the distractions that led him astray and lulled him asleep to his true purpose, leading him away from the right direction, and toward the darkened wood? I believe they are. Taking the Comedy as a whole, then, the poet is looking back on his life at this moment, when he is flush with popularity and worldly attainment, and realizing that his most materially successful season, was also his most spiritually bankrupt one. Assessing his life from the other side of suffering and privation, he realizes how absorbed in temporal things he had become, resulting in a complacency toward the eternal ends which ought to have been the primary considerations directing his life.
This means that Florence, not exile, is the darkened wood. Florence, not exile, is the wood he calls overwhelming, savage, and severe. Florence, and not exile, was so bitter, death is hardly more. But it is not the Florence out there. It is not the Florence of other people. He will have plenty to say about them later on. But here, at the beginning of the poem, the darkened wood is a forest entirely of his own making. It is the Florence inside, if you will, that has brought him to this desperate state. Again, Dante is not playing the victim card. He is not looking outside of himself for a reason why he is here. Which is another reason why the darkened wood does not represent exile. In that situation, he truly was a victim of injustice. But here, in the middle of the journey of our life, he himself is on the edge of damnation. And it is his own fault. The poet fully recognizes that he is to blame, he is what is wrong, he is the one who is so far gone, only a vision of Hell will wake him up to reality.
In a letter quoted by one of his earliest biographers (Bruni), Dante, looking back at his own career, says this, “All my woes and all my misfortunes had their origin and commencement with my unlucky election to the priorate.” That is the voice of hard won experience. That is the voice of one who has lived through tremendous success only to find out later that it was all a facade, and the truth was something far darker; the truth buried underneath the power and prestige was a darkened wood on the very edge of the abyss. This is why the poem starts in the spring of 1300, and not in 1302. Because Dante’s woes did not begin externally in exile; but rather with an internal orientation that centered on the wrong thing.
Put simply, outward success or material power is not an indication of a rightly ordered life. The difficult and arduous journey that lies before the pilgrim is the corrective to that way of thinking. The pilgrim had run after false images of the good, or as he confesses to Beatrice at the end of Purgatorio: “The things of the present with their false pleasures turned away my steps…” Having come to himself, having recognized how close to eternal destruction he was, he must now relearn what it means to keep the Supreme Good supreme in his understanding and in his priorities, regardless of material success or prosperity.
As you read through the whole poem, it is interesting that avarice, also referred to as cupidity or greed, is the vice Dante is constantly railing against. Avarice has completely destroyed Florence, and is the fountain of all the corruptions in the Church. But it has also become a significant problem for Dante personally. The pilgrim tries to escape the darkened wood by climbing a nearby mountain. But three beasts block his path. First a leopard, next a lion, and finally a she-wolf. And while the first two are certainly terrifying, it is the third that ultimately causes the pilgrim to turn tail and run. As Canto 20 of Purgatorio makes clear, the she-wolf symbolizes avarice. It is avarice that the pilgrim can do nothing against, that blocks him most successfully as he tries to escape. As the poet narrates his experience on the hillside, he says this:
But then a she-wolf, charged in her leanness
from a continuous craving, by whichm
any have been made to live wretchedly,
engendered in me such a heaviness
with the fear that rose at the sight of her,
I lost all hope of attaining the height.
This is the beast that finally stops the pilgrim and forces him to return to the wood, to where, as he says, the sun is silent. The leopard and the lion are fierce, but it is the she-wolf that drains him of any hope. It is against this beast in particular that the pilgrim desperately needs help. And it is here that Virgil shows up. And his assistance is specifically framed in terms of helping him get past the she-wolf, or outside of the metaphor, to get past avarice. The Roman poet asks the pilgrim why he is running back to the wood. Dante replies:
“See the beast for which I turned myself back;
deliver me from her, O famous sages
he that makes my veins and pulse to tremble.”
To which Virgil says:
“You will need to keep to another way…
if you wish to escape this savage place;
for this beast, because of which you cry out,
does not allow any to pass her way,
but so encumbers one that she kills him.
Her nature is so wicked and malign,
her craving lusts are never satisfied.
She eats, and she hungers more than before.
She weds herself to many beasts,
and still there will be more…”
As the rest of the Comedy makes clear, this is the fundamental vice that has overrun Dante’s home city, and Italy as a whole. And certainly, we can with the pilgrim, look back and condemn those Florentines, over there, the ones who would eventually exile him and say untrue things about him. They truly are guilty, and their sin needs to be condemned. But here at the very beginning of the poem, it is not their vice that traps the pilgrim in the wood, blocking him from ascending the mountain. It is his own. It is his own greed for the things of the present that have turned his feet from the right path. It is his veins and pulse that tremble before the craving lusts of avarice and greed. It is his soul that has shriveled almost to the point of being lost. It is his soul that has filled Beatrice with such sorrow, and therefore with such urgency to send him help. Which she does. The remainder of the poem, then, is the story of that salvation, the story of the pilgrim “escaping this savage place.”
But I go back to that opening line: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. In the middle of the course of our life. Remember, this is not just the pilgrim’s journey. This is our journey, as well. What he says of himself is true of us. With the poet, we were too full of sleep to notice the moment when we went astray, when we abandoned the true way. With the poet we need to turn the accusing finger at ourselves, and refuse to play the victim card, refuse to blame anyone but ourselves for our darkened woods, and learn, like Dante, to take responsibility for our own fallenness, our own need of a guide to help us “escape this savage place,” to escape the avarice and pride that keep us slaves to our own fallen desires.
Of course the pilgrim doesn’t fully realize any of this until he stands before Beatrice and gets the scolding of his life, leading to his own come-to-Jesus moment, as his heart of ice melts in repentance and true faith. But the poet is setting the stage even here, at the front end of the whole poem — he is saying, I am what is wrong with this world. My avarice, my greed, my cupidity is on me, and no one else is to blame. I am the one who fell asleep, I am the one who lost sight of the right direction, I am the one turned back at the base of the mountain of delight and joy on account of my own vicious nature. I am the one in need of grace and mercy, in need of guidance and strength that must come from outside of myself.
In this opening line, I believe Dante is calling on us to see ourselves, with the pilgrim, on the edge of the darkness of Hell, to identify our sin and all the distortions of God’s image that we have brought upon ourselves, to descend with him down to the center of Dis and recognize there the same ice that apart from the grace of Christ grips our heart, and beats it with the winds of slavery.
But this is why no one should ever read only the Inferno. The journey through the center of the earth, however disgusting and dark, is necessary — but it is not the whole journey. For this is the story of the pilgrim’s ultimate salvation and redemption. It is a journey that is constantly equipping him, preparing him, and strengthening him to stand before the beatific vision and not be utterly undone in the presence of the Triune majesty. In short, this is the story of a sinner made wholly new, wholly redeemed, wholly enveloped in the love of God.
And it is in light of this divine love that even here at the beginning of the poem, there is a glimmer of hope. Yes, we still have the terror of Hell before us, but here in the opening words we also have a foreshadow of grace:
In the middle of the course of our life,
I came to myself…
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita… mi ritrovai. Literally, I found myself here. I met myself here. In other words, I woke up. Now, how it is that I woke up, I don’t yet know at this point of the journey. But chances are good it wasn’t me that woke myself up. If I was too asleep to know how I got here, I have zero confidence in myself to suddenly be aware of my surroundings. No, this is mercy. This is grace. Something or Someone woke me up when I was least expecting it, let alone deserving it. This is the first movement in the poem, here in the first two words of the second line, of that Love that moves the sun and other stars. And so it is in hope of encountering that Love that I can take the steps set before me, follow the guides that are given me, allow myself to be drawn away from the Florence of my own avarice and greed, and brought back by grace, through faith, to my true home in the light and love of the face of Jesus Christ.
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.