Dante And David Brooks
At The Atlantic, Uri Friedman has a conversation with David Brooks about the qualities found in people who live deep, happy lives. Brooks says there are five basic ones: Love, Suffering, Internal Struggle, Obedience, and Acceptance. Here’s an example:
3. Internal struggle
“Here, I don’t mean the struggle involved in winning a championship, starting a company, or making a lot of money,” Brooks cautioned. Those who have depth are “aware that while they have great strength, great dignity, they also have great weakness. And they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves.” Consider Dwight Eisenhower, who constantly tangled with his bad temper. “Internal struggles are the logic by which we build character,” Brooks said.
You really need to read the whole thing. It’s short, but what follows here will only really make sense if you’ve read the Atlantic piece.
Me being me, and having been profoundly helped and changed by reading The Divine Comedy, I couldn’t help but see Dante in Brooks’s list. In Brooks’s view, the Love that counts is “transformational” and directed to something outside of oneself. Dante sees divine Love as the basis of all reality, and all human Love qualified by how perfectly it conforms to God’s love, and His will. Dante, of course, was a Roman Catholic, and that tradition revealed the nature of God and His love to the believer. The broad point to take here is that in Dante, the opposite of the Love that perfects and purifies is self-love. Those who dwell in Hell are those who chose love of Self over love of God, or anything outside of serving themselves.
On Suffering, Brooks observes that “we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” No one likes to suffer, but everyone suffers. It reminds us how little we are able to control in our own lives. That is the human condition. What we can control is how we respond to the suffering that life brings us. For me, that was the great and healing insight Dante gave me. Nobody gets out of this life without suffering, but if we receive it as an opportunity to grow in compassion, selflessness, and indeed in holiness, we may in a sense triumph over it.
The Internal Struggle, as you can read above, is not about overcoming the world, but about overcoming ourselves. This is what the entire Commedia concerns. Dante’s pilgrimage in the poem is a journey to the depths of himself. It is a journey of self-understanding, which includes coming to terms with what he must do to overcome the brokenness within himself that led him to such misery and confusion. This is why someone who is not a Christian, or who has no religious beliefs at all, can nevertheless profit immensely from reading Dante. The poet was a deeply committed Catholic, but his insights are universal. To preoccupy yourself with the Self is to live in Hell. But without confronting your inner demons, you will forever be on the run from your true Self, and the possibility of transformation.
Obedience is a highly suspect concept in our individualistic, anti-authority age, but Brooks says it’s necessary to live a happy life. You have to submit yourself to some code or authority higher than the self, and stay true to it. This has never been easy, but may never have been more difficult than it is today, in what Charles Taylor called “a secular age” — meaning a time in which everything is questionable. About halfway through the Inferno, Dante encounters his old mentor, Brunetto Latini, who is thrilled to see him and to hear about his worldly success. Brunetto advises his charge to keep navigating by his own stars, and to seek fame. Brunetto’s advice is straight out of a contemporary self-help book. But Brunetto is in Hell.
The pilgrim Dante learns later that following one’s own constellation, and working to achieve worldly recognition, is all in vain. Do it for God, or at least for Truth. There are paths of wisdom that have been walked for thousands of years by wise men and women. Seek those out; they have stood the test of time. Dante, obviously, would see no true path except the Christian one. Where Brooks meets Dante, though, is in the idea that one should commit oneself to a tradition or way of life that directs one’s understanding and actions, and binds one to a code of conduct that doesn’t depend on one’s internal state or passions. This is how you find stability.
Finally, Acceptance, which for Brooks amounts to the ability to receive grace and in gratitude to affirm life’s goodness. This is one of the great lessons the pilgrim Dante learns in Paradiso. He has suffered the pain of exile, disgrace, and poverty, and cannot understand why God allowed this to happen to him. In Heaven, he learns that accepting things as part of the divine plan, even if we cannot hope to understand it, is necessary to a good life. As the nun Piccardà tells Dante, “In His will is our peace.” It is vain to expect justice in our earthly lives, but if we bear injustice in love, and trust in the God who is Love, we will find inner peace. This is very hard to do — this I know very well — but necessary.
Uri Friedman says that Brooks’s advice “inverts the reigning culture of self-help in this country.” True — and even more true for Dante’s vision, which expresses these moral principles and maps out the hard road from misery to joy in some of the most sublime verse ever written.