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Dante for Millennials

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 [1], 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. [1]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.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Dante for Millennials"

#1 Comment By D. Stephen Voss On September 1, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

“How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking…of the good they can do for others…?”

Ugh. If I had $10 for every student I advised who said (s)he primarily cared about the good to be done for others, I could have retired from teaching/advising young people a long time ago. They’re all taught they’re supposed to want this. The outcome tends not to be so great — helping others rarely lives up to the storybook (or news feature) version — and so far as I can tell the ones who wanted to go on and be competent professionals ended up contributing to the world as much as the proto-altruists.

#2 Comment By James C On September 1, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

Now that is a big question that demands a not-so-quick answer. I shall give it some thought.

In the meantime, though, the comment section of this post makes me think of one lesson for 19-year-old writers: use less italics for emphasis. Words are better.

Hint hint.

#3 Comment By Steve L On September 1, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

My advice:

It matters what you think. And it matters what you do. Don’t fool yourself into thinking sin is okay. You are 20. You will sin. Just don’t tell yourself, “This isn’t a sin” or “This is minor.” As much as possible, be honest with yourself and try to repent, go to confession. You will save yourself time, money, and heartache.

#4 Comment By Carlo On September 1, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

“How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking…of the good they can do for others”

That’s bit counterproductive, inasmuch as we tend to come up with some image of ourself as do gooders and we usually fail, ending up in cynicism.

Young people should be offered ideals, and a sense that they live for something greater than themselves. But concretely what I wish for my children is that at least the do something WELL, something well-done ad maiorem Dei gloriam. Doing good for others will be a consequence.

#5 Comment By Bernie On September 2, 2014 @ 1:53 am

The *Commedia* is a timeless guide to the Good Life, a reflection on how to live in such a way that we maximize our purpose and joy. It examines what brings us happiness and the barriers to wholeness in our life. It is an adventurous journey from the dark wood of our life to a place of complete fulfillment, and it’s told through the matchless beauty of a famed fourteenth century Italian poem.

This comprehensive reflection is based unabashedly on the poet Dante’s orthodox Christianity, and is seriously counter-cultural to what we’re taught. It is a detailed exploration of Dante’s belief as to the chief obstacle to the Good Life – sin. What is it and what are its consequences for us and others? It examines the difficulty in recognizing sin and overcoming it. It is without peer in its beauty as it describes why we should do so and the resulting glory and joy.

The *Commedia* poses a direct challenge to our culture’s two major questions:

How should we live?

It’s our choice to make.

#6 Comment By k On September 2, 2014 @ 4:03 am

I’ve so rarely seen people of any age who focus on what good they can do for others in the world, for the glory of God, or for what they may leave behind, untainted by the same ego as people who are upfront at least about the acknowledgement, fame, or success they seek. Dante is an orgy of self absorption, because what work men do can be otherwise?

#7 Comment By Dan Berger On September 2, 2014 @ 7:58 am

What Mr. Voss and Carlo said.

I think you have missed the mark there. What is being taught by the contrast you cite is the importance of doing things for their own sake, rather than in order to bring glory on yourself.

#8 Comment By T.S.Gay On September 2, 2014 @ 8:06 am

I know how much you can read Chesterton….but here goes anyway. You have to have enough belief in yourself to have some adventures, and enough doubt to enjoy them. I acknowledge that today people have an abundant faith in themselves, and a huge doubt about God. Chesterton was not of that school.

#9 Comment By Anne On September 2, 2014 @ 8:33 am

Self-interest is an ultimately depressing principle for making any decision in life; I don’t know why anybody ever thought it wise to advise young people to base their entire life’s work on self-aggrandisement.

Of course, I doubt most people think “Follow your dreams(bliss, heart, etc.)“ means that exactly. What they mean is “Do what your natural inclination and unique abilities incline you to want to do, no matter the roadblocks.“ For those who believe in God, that would mean doing what God wants you to do. Needless to say, no moral person would interpret “no matter the roadblocks“ to mean it’s OK to run others down on the way or to do anything you want, no matter who gets hurt, as long as you’re happy.

No Disney movie counsels truly selfish behavior;what Disney deals in is hope, which is important too. If you try to keep young people properly attuned from a Christian point of view by emphasizing their duty to consciously put others first when making the decision about a vocation, you really don’t help a lot. That’s one decision that requires thinking about yourself a lot in order to discern what God may have equipped you to do well. And not every choice is going to appear especially other-oriented or helpful to society at large. In any case, always focusing on duty — or for that matter, avoiding sin — is disheartening at a time in life when many, if not most, young people are already plagued with a certain amount of fear and self-doubt. Hope is what they need.

#10 Comment By lawguy On September 2, 2014 @ 8:34 am

What stood out the most for me when I read Purgatorio (which impressed itself much more upon me than Inferno) was the difficulty of repentance: “Più non si va, se pria non morde, anime sante.” While it’s easy to see that sin has its own rewards, it’s not obvious- especially for the 20 year I was- that turning away from sin can be so painful. Of course, Danté also provides the vital reassurances needed to go on: “Figliuol mio, qui può esser tormento, ma non morte.” It is hard for me to overstate the benefits that reading Dante, at that moment in my life, gave me.

Problem and solution, the complete work and the comprehensive universe.

#11 Comment By stef On September 2, 2014 @ 9:55 am

Millenials love Dante, by and large. Many high schools around here do a Dante project, where the kids read Inferno, then write their own 10 page or so version. (Not to brag, but my son wrote Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore having to duke it out in some kind of hellish arena.)

It’s not going to convince them that having sex while engaged, or gay marriage are wrong, though.

#12 Comment By Darth Thulhu On September 2, 2014 @ 11:37 am

Still mulling over the larger query (“what would you recommend about Dante to 20 year olds?”) … but I can leap onto the Disney analysis.

The generationally-recent “good” Disney films (not Pixar: specifically Disney) that stand the test of time as classics peddle both hope and an awareness of Wrong Behavior on the part of heroes. They’re to a-religious to use a term like “sin”, but the first act almost always includes spoiled brat self-absorbtion, and nothing but bad things flow from that.

To pick a high arc of quality: the Beast in Beauty and the Beast is a morally hideous freak who is (deservedly) cursed to reflect his inward rot on the outside; Aladdin reflexively pursues wishes undergirded by deceit to “protect” himself from judgment, but that only ends in tears; and Simba is the prideful pampered princeling beyond compare, whose willful blindness and obliviousness to others are crucial parts of his father getting murdered and his kingdom falling apart.

All of these people turn it around by Act III, of course … but the key point is that Disney wasn’t shy about letting them luxuriate in Sinful Behavior, sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind they richly deserved.

“Sin” and “repentance” and “atonement” are words too fraught for a Disney film to ever utter, but actions speak louder than words, and all three of these classics model the reality of these concepts in the deeds of the characters.

#13 Comment By Carlo On September 2, 2014 @ 12:08 pm


“It’s not going to convince them that having sex while engaged, or gay marriage are wrong, though.”

But perhaps they will learn to desire something better and greater for themselves than the things you mention.

The identification of Christian morality with a list of “wrongs” is one of the most successful tricks that the devil has pulled on Western culture in the last few centuries.

#14 Comment By Mark Brown On September 2, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

If I was talking Dante with millenials, I’d turn to the ideas behind The Purgatorio. That generation reduces all morality to a deficient understanding of love. They have love, hence it is not an inferno situation, but their love is just so often perverted or misdirected. First so often simply due to pride, “History is bending in our direction” or “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”. That is pride which leads to untold Towers of Babel. The pilgrim learn that “blessed are the poor in Spirit”, and that poverty of spirit is often expressed first in submission to revealed (or natural) law instead of our proudly assert law.

The extra-credit realization is that in obedience you find the easy yoke. It is the proud who carry the boulders. We must be humble enough to learn love rightly.

#15 Comment By The Lost Dutchman On September 2, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

(Not to brag, but my son wrote Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore having to duke it out in some kind of hellish arena.)

They were fighting over the last donut, weren’t they?

#16 Comment By J On September 2, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

“And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You’re not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.” – A. J. Heschel, 1972

#17 Comment By Anne On September 3, 2014 @ 11:03 am

Millenials love Dante only to the extent that, especially the artistic types, like to envision dark scenes, whether they be with demons, aliens,vampires, zombies, monsters or just mutilated half-dead humans. I think it has something to do with the trends in gaming, but I find most “art show“ by teenagers and 20-somethings often literally hard to stomach these days.