Walking with Dante: The Danger of the Lifelong Seeker
Series introduction: As a Western writer and a thinker, I’m reading through the pillars of Western thought and literature (one day, Deo volente, I’ll tackle non-Western ones). I’m currently working through The Divine Comedy: both a more literal translation on Bartleby and a poetic rendering by Clive James.
My thoughts on Hell line up with historical Christian orthodoxy – which in turn, I think pretty clearly, lines up with the Bible. While by no means do I consider the Inferno an appreciable literal picture of things, Dante’s rendering offers some really interesting food for thought, and thus far some comments on modern culture that are worth noting. “Walking with Dante” is an effort to capture and meditate on the best of those.
This post: The Danger of the Lifelong Seeker
Just inside the gates of Hell (in Canto 3), Dante meets a maelstrom of sound and fury:
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering. Various tongues,
Horrible languages, outcries of woe,
Accents of anger, voices deep and hoarse,
With hands together smote that swell’d the sounds,
Made up a tumult, that forever whirls
Round through that air with solid darkness stain’d,
Like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies.
A horde of people, goaded by wasps, sprint round and round eternally screaming and furious. When Dante asks his guide who they are, Virgil replies:
… “This miserable fate
Suffer the wretched souls of those, who lived
Without or praise or blame, with that ill band
Of angels mix’d, who nor rebellious proved,
Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves
Were only. From his bounds Heaven drove them forth
Not to impair his lustre; nor the depth
Of Hell receives them, lest the accursed tribe
Should glory thence with exultation vain.
[…] “These of death
No hope may entertain: and their blind life
So meanly passes, that all other lots
They envy. Fame of them the world hath none,
Nor suffers; Mercy and Justice scorn them both.
Speak not of them, but look, and pass them by.”
The first rank of the miserable that Dante sees are people who lived an uncommitted life. They wed themselves to no god, true or false; “But for themselves [they] were only.” They never made an existential home; and now, Virgil explains, they receive no eternal one, and “all other lots they envy.”
The convicting, the goading truth that Dante illustrates for us is that not choosing is a form of choosing. (If you live your life by progressive rock, Rush affirms this too!). Agnosticism, as Yann Martel writes in The Life of Pi, may not be a great decision; but it is a decision. And a decision with consequence.
It’s fashionable in our day to keep our existential options open, or maybe to assume that religion/philosophy is a choice as inconsequential as what football team to support. We want to keep an open mind. It’s kind of like dating around without ever marrying: we get some occasional companionship, but none of the mess of making life work with another human being.
But as Chesterton says, opening our minds should have the same point as opening our mouths: closing them again upon something solid. We leave one home, like the hermit crab, for the purpose of finding another.
This passages admonishes the one tempted to live as an existential nomad: this too will land you somewhere. And Jesus of Nazareth, whose resurrection (and therefore vindication) has a vast amount of historical evidence to commend it, promises that the great fork in the road of eternity is based on whether we’re committed existentially, body and soul, to him or not.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” – Matthew 7:21-23