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Christina Bui
Professor Robert E. Wood
LMC 3102
December 1, 2016
The Love and Science of The Divine Comedy

Since its conception in the 14th century, The Divine Comedy has enraptured its audiences

with Dantes elegant style, imagery, symbolism, and literary ingenuity. It sets itself apart from

other works of the time due to the nature of its content and the way in which it was written.

Instead of being written in Latin like virtually all of the other texts written during the 14th

century, The Divine Comedy was written in the vernacular, Italian, making it easily accessible to

the public. Because the public was better able to understand The Commedia than its

contemporaries, its themes and ideas were quickly diffused and maintained. As for its content,

Dante wrote the work as an epic poem and masterfully combined the elements of that genre with

Catholic theology, Classical philosophy, and mythology. Among these broad subjects, there are

two of great interest: love and science, both of which are presented in The Divine Comedy and

reflect the culture and knowledge of the Dantes time.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has about nine different definitions for love. Out of

these nine, definitions 3a and 3b come the closest to how love was portrayed in The Divine

Comedy. These definitions state that love can be a : the object of attachment, devotion, or

admiration <baseball was his first love> or b (1) : a beloved person : darling often used as

a term of endearment. Combining the two results in what is known as courtly love, the act of

devoting oneself to adoring another person. During Medieval times, courtly love was like a game

played amongst aristocrats. A married female would play the part of the beloved and a male of a

lower class would play the part of the lover. The male would write love poetry, meet secretly, and

defend her honor all the while almost never having any contact with her. Essentially, the female

would play the role of an unattainable yet intensely desired object. In the Classical world, this
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kind of love would be Eros, but with minimal physical contact. In The Divine Comedy Dante

uses courtly love as a means to depict the intensity to which a devote Catholic should feel for

God; however, he takes away the erotic and romantic charge of courtly love, while leaving the

fervency, and combines it with Agape, a Greek term for a spiritual, selfless, and unconditional

kind of love. Eros and Agape together make for the kind of love that is prominent in The


Dante makes it a point to illustrate acts which are both in accordance with the will of God

and those that are not, and acts of love are no different. Perhaps one of the most famous

examples of love gone wrong is that of Paolo and Francesca. In the Canto V of the Inferno, the

poets Dante and Virgil come across the pair of tragic lovers. Francesca tells them the reason why

the couple are damned in Hell. For when we read how her fond smile was kissed by such a

lover, he who is one with me alive and dead breathed on my lips the tremor of a kiss. (Inferno 5.

130-5). Here the lovers are eternally punished in the Circle Two of Hell for adultery since

Francesca was married to Paolos brother. Dante (the author), however, was kind enough to

distinguish this sin as a lighter offense against God due to the fact that their actions were still

centered around love. This means that their Divine Punishment is not as terrible as those of the

Lower Circles of Hell. But since their love was destructive and wrongly lustful, it is certain that

they must suffer.

The Purgatorio offers a more positive image of love. In fact, it is in this book that

Beatrice, Dantes symbol for Divine Love replaces Virgil as Dantes guide in Canto XXX. My

soulsuch years had passed since last it saw that lady and stood trembling in her presence,

stupefied by the power of holy awe (Purgatorio 30. 34-6). Beatrice the character was based

off of a real-life woman, Beatrice Portinari. Dante was enthralled by her and she served as his
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lady in their game of courtly love. In The Divine Comedy, he strips away the erotic charge of

courtly love and replaces it with holy adoration. Here is an instance where Dante combines

courtly love with agape. In his other work, La Vita Nuova, he wrote expansively on courtly love

and included sacred love poetry. He did not want to focus on the selfishness of courtly love so

he concentrated more on writing about the love that he felt itself. With the inclusion of Beatrice

in The Commedia as a symbol of Divine Love, it is evident that Dante still holds his standard of

wanting to elevate courtly love into more than just the passionate desire of two lovers; he wanted

his object of adoration to ascend to divine levels and for that object to be what allows him to

understand the divine himself.

Once Dante reaches Paradiso, he is surrounded by Divine Love. It is in this book that he

ascends through the Heavens and ultimately reaches God. Out of the three books of The

Commedia, Paradiso contains the most theology and ultimately relies on both the faith of Dante

and that of the audience to accept some of abstract concepts that are written. In fact, Canto II of

Paradiso begins with a warning from Dante, There [in the Heavens] we shall witness what we

hold in faith, not by reason but self-evident, as men perceive an axiom here on earth. (Paradiso

2. 43-5). And this is why Human Reason, Virgil, cannot guide Dante through the cosmos. It is up

to Divine Love, Beatrice, to lead his way. In this sense, faith and love are coexistent. They both

depend on each other for existence, and it is impossible to grasp both fully with reason alone. In

this way, Dantes belief aligns with that of Catholic theology as they both emphasize the

importance of faith and love in order to be a good Catholic.

In addition to featuring love, Dante also makes many references to science, namely that

of Plato and Aristotle. However, in order for these beliefs to be integrated into the strict

guidelines of Medieval Catholicism, Dante also employed the works of Thomas Aquinas. These
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works, such as Summa Theologica, attempted to rationalize theological concepts with the belief

that human reason can explain the mysteries of faith. Plato and Aristotle lived before the record

birth of Christ and, therefore, could not have known about Catholicism. It is because of this that

these philosophers are condemned to Limbo in Circle One of Hell. Although they were virtuous,

they did not devote their lives to God and had no chance at reaching Purgatory or Heaven.

One of the most prominent examples of Classical science in The Divine Comedy is found

throughout the whole poem: gravity. In Aristotelian science, it is explained that bodies will move

to their natural place. Heavy elements such as earth will sink below water. Lighter elements such

as air will float above earth. All being within this order, by the laws of its own nature is

impelled to find its proper station round its Primal Cause. (Paradiso 1. 109-11). Throughout the

whole of The Divine Comedy, Dante uses gravity as a symbol for morality. The poets journey

through the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso takes a very linear route. Dante and Virgil must

descend through the Inferno. Each circle of Hell features a punishment and a sin that is worse

than those of the one before it, the worst being at the lowest point of Hell at the earths core. It is

evident that this descent coincides with Aristotles concept of gravity. Since all bodies will move

toward their natural state, it is only logical that sinners damned in Hell will spend all of eternity

underneath the surface of the earth in their rightful circle to be punished considering the weight

of their sins. In order words, Dante implied that divine punishment is acting in accordance with

science and nature. This can also be seen in the souls of Purgatory repenting for their sins.

Although they have not yet reached the heights of Heaven, they have lessened the weight of their

sins through the process of cleansing their souls. Therefore, they are lighter than the souls

trapped in Hell, and exist in a plane that is above it on earth. As for the souls who are ascending

to Heaven, the weight of their sin is so light that they have flown up into the cosmos. The higher
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Dante ascends, the less sin there is. It is not until he reaches the highest point, God, that he

encounters no sin. Here Dante combines Classical science with Catholicism elegantly. God is the

lightest element, free of all sin and human err, so no gravity affects Him. He is ultimately

weightless, almost unreachable, and yet He still completely swallows the cosmos with His


Another point of interest is the topic of optics. Plato believed that the soul allowed us to

see due to the emission of the souls light through the eyes. This emission allowed the rays to

bounce off of objects and produce an image that the human eye can see. Dante makes many

references to it in Paradiso. Throughout the whole ascent to the highest point of Heaven, Dante is

constantly put through an onslaught of blinding light. This light, of course, represents the

goodness of the beings of that exist in Heaven, their divinity being so powerful that Dante cannot

look directly at them. In this way, Dante theologizes optics by making heavenly beings so bright

and intense that the human eye cannot withstand them unless they purify their souls and gain the

ability to look upon what is holy. As Dante and Beatrice ascend to the Seventh Sphere of

Heaven, she says to him, Were I to smileYou would be turned to ashbecause my beauty,

which as it goes higher step to step of the eternal place, burns, as you know, with ever greater

fire; and if it is not tempered in its brightening, its radiance would consume your mortal powers

as a bough is shattered by a bolt of lightning. (Paradiso 21. 4-12). In fact, Dante swoons at

almost every instance where he encounters a divine being and even goes blind in Canto XXV

after looking upon St. John the Apostle. It is the feebleness of the human spirit dragged down by

sin that makes it next to impossible to gaze at anything in Heaven. Therefore, in order for the

soul to be strong enough to endure the burning light of the divine, it must endure its allotted

suffering and allow itself to be completely consumed by light.

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The Divine Comedy is sometimes referred to as The Summa in verse and for good

reason. Dantes work was greatly influenced by that of Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican monk who

made it his lifes work to reconcile faith and reason. Aquinas himself studied Aristotle

extensively in his endeavors to make sense of the mysteries of faith. He believed in a first cause,

a source and reason for everything in existence. Ultimately, it was difficult for him to explain

every theological mystery with reason, since doing so would result in heresy; however, his

efforts impacted the way in which Catholicism was received in Medieval Europe. Concepts and

ideas were no longer blindly accepted simply on faith alone but also in conjunction with reason

and logical explanations. It became important to ask questions and ponder about faith. But at the

same time, ideas that could not have been explained through reason have been entrusted to God

with the rationality that the divine will uncover what reason cannot. In the end, religion does

require a certain degree of faith, else it would not be religion; this is a notion that echoes

throughout The Commedia. In Canto II of Paradiso, Dante warns, Those of you who in your

wish to hear these things have followed thus far in your little skiffs the wake of my great ship

that sails and sings, turn back and make your way to your own coast. (Paradiso 2. 1-4). Those

without faith should not dare venture onwards in his journey should they fail to comprehend

what he experiences due to their lack of trust in God. This warning reflects Aquinas since Dante

makes it evident that religion does follow reason to an extent, but replies completely on belief


Like all great works, The Divine Comedy serves as a testament to the culture of the time

in which it was written. The poem features many references to the theological society of

Medieval Europe. While Dante did include other topics such as courtly love and science, they

were ultimately theologized, making them in alignment with the teachings of the Catholic
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Church. By doing so, Dante makes everything he wrote lead to God. And it is because of his

masterful work that any reader of The Divine Comedy is offered a portal back into the Medieval

Era, since it has so carefully preserved and enunciated the most important aspects of the time.
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Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Divine Comedy. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.

"Aristotelian Physics." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

"Beatrice Portinari." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Kreis, Steven. "Aquinas and Dante." The History Guide. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Lahanas, Michael. "Ancient Greece: Optics." Optics and Ancient Greeks. N.p., n.d. Web. 27

Nov. 2016.

"La Vita Nuova." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

"Love." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.