This past spring, an editor at ISI’s Intercollegiate Review wrote to ask, “What lessons from Dante do you wish you had known when you were around 19 or 20? While this is obviously very personal, I’m thinking less of your own experience per se, but universally what Dante can teach people not midway upon the journey of life, but at the starting point; not lost in a dark wood, but facing the path ahead with optimism.”
I responded with this essay, which has just been published. I focused on three lessons from Inferno, because “Inferno is the book most relevant to young adults, most of whom will not have yet made the errors of passion that landed the middle-aged Dante in the dark wood.” Here’s an excerpt:
Believe in yourself. Many graduates hear some version of that advice in their commencement address. It’s as common as dirt and shapes virtually the entire Disney film catalogue. The pilgrim Dante hears it as well, deep in the heart of Hell, from his beloved teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini, thrilled to see his pupil passing through.
Brunetto suffers in the circle of the Sodomites, though Dante never mentions his old master’s sexual activity. Theirs is a tender meeting, with Brunetto full of praise for Dante’s work. “Follow your constellation,” the old man says, “and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory.”
It is terrific flattery, and it comes from a Florentine who was greatly admired in his day as a writer, scholar, and civic leader. Addressing Brunetto with great respect and affection, Dante says, “You taught me how man makes himself eternal.”
It’s enough to make the reader forget that Brunetto is damned. If Dante isn’t talking about sexual immorality, why is Brunetto in Hell? It becomes clearer later in Purgatorio, when Dante meets other Italian artists and learns that art pursued for the sake of personal glory, as distinct from the service of God or some other high cause, is in vain. Brunetto is a vain man, a writer who thought the way to pursue immortality was to serve his own cause in his work—and a spiritually blind teacher who sees Dante’s fame as bringing glory to himself.
How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, the fortune, and the glory they will receive from professional accomplishment but rather of the good they can do for others and, if they are religious, the glory they can bring to God through their service? Dante Alighieri’s early verse was good, but he would today be as forgotten as Brunetto Latini if he had not written the Commedia, which he composed for transcendent ends. Few if any of us will accomplish a feat like that, but what good we may do in this world, and what glory may remain after we leave it, will come only if we serve something greater than ourselves.
One reader of this essay wrote to say that Brunetto was, in fact, in the Circle of the Sodomites for sodomy. Yes, I think that is true. But it’s fascinating that in writing about his literary version’s meeting with Brunetto, sex never comes up. We are meant, I think, to see that Brunetto’s sodomy is a misuse of his generative powers — “violence against nature,” Dante calls it — and that this misuse has a parallel in how Brunetto has misused his generative powers as a writer and artist. Brunetto counsels Dante to serve himself and his own desires, and to dedicate his writing to achieving personal fame. As we learn later, in Purgatorio, this is the road to spiritual death. God — that is, broadly speaking, transcendent values — is the only proper end to which artists should dedicate their creations. This is not at all to say that they should only write religious works, but rather to say that to create only for the sake of magnifying your own fame is a sterile act. What’s interesting about how Dante (the poet) handles this issue is that sodomy was apparently not a temptation he faced, but his mentor Brunetto attempted to seduce him into a kind of artistic sodomy.
Read the entire essay. I advise Millennials to learn from Francesca da Rimini and Ulysses.
If you have read Dante, what is the most useful advice for 19 and 20 year olds from the Commedia? Explain yourself.