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The First Modern Poet

Today, no amount of praise for Dante seems enough.


Serious Comedy: The Philosophical and Theological Significance of Tragic and Comic Writing in the Western Tradition, Patrick Downey, Davenant Press, 470 pages.

Teaching Dante’s Inferno to high schoolers has its share of amusements. The expected outrage over Dante’s condemnation of sodomy, the bafflement over the sodomites’ proximity to the usurers (“What is that?” and then: “Why is that a sin?”), the shock at the gruesomeness, even in our desensitized age. The very concept of sin and punishment is a novelty to many. One student, after grasping what “lustful” meant, lamented “so many people are going to hell!”


The most surprising reaction I get, though, is from my more fundamentalist students. They have been to Sunday school. They know their Bible. Unlike my secular students, they are not scandalized by Catholic teaching on sodomy. They are disturbed by Dante’s creative liberties. “He doesn’t know what hell is like! How can he write this?” they protest. The whole project of The Divine Comedy strikes them as blasphemous. My attempt to convince them of the poem’s literary genius is a fruitless endeavor.

In the newly republished book Serious Comedy, philosopher Patrick Downey seems to agree with my fundamentalist students. His book is a fascinating and lengthy analysis of western philosophy through the lens of the ancient quarrel between comedy and tragedy. His analysis of Dante runs just nine pages in a 424-page book. The nine pages, though, contain a devastating critique of the Commedia. To understand his critique, we must first grasp his definition of tragedy and comedy and how the Bible functions in relation to them.

According to Downey, ancient tragedy served a political purpose. In a tragedy, the audience forgets itself, focusing on the hero’s downfall. By making the audience forget themselves, the tragic poet temporarily relieves them of the unresolvable tension that threatens to undermine the city: the conflict created by our boundless desire for finite goods. In sharing the catharsis of tragedy, the ancients concealed simmering civil conflict and cobbled together their cities. In this respect, tragedies are useful lies: hiding ourselves from ourselves so we can live with others.

Comedy, on the other hand, “winks” at the audience. The audience is always aware of the poet’s artifice. Through laughter, we join the comedic poet in acknowledging the gap between his artificial world and the truth outside the theater. Downey points out that when Plato ejects the poets from his city in The Republic, he is ejecting the tragic poets. Plato himself is a poet winking at us: his dialogues are comedies, inviting us beyond the artifice of the dialogue to the life of philosophical contemplation.

This philosophical life, though, could never be satiated. Why? First, because the knowledge gained by the philosopher is simply knowledge of his own ignorance; the whole cannot be known by a part within that whole. Second, the philosopher needs the very city that he has come to know to be founded on the lies of tragedy. Plato is the comedic poet and Socrates is his joke. “The joke of the character Socrates is that he is of no particular importance, no more than the poetic cave of Athens that he dwells in,” Downey writes, but Athens “put him to death thinking that it was important.”


The ancients were caught between the useful lies offered by tragedy and the painful truth offered by comedy. Damned either way, it seemed, until the “serious comedy” of the Bible frees us from this lose-lose reality.

On the one hand, the Bible is a comedy. The narrator reveals His presence to the audience. But that is not all. He also claims to be the author of reality, the Creator who alone creates out of nothing. The Incarnation is the climax of the comedic narrative because the poet becomes the main character, and narrative becomes history. We are now fully aware of His presence within and without the text. The biblical story and that of all of creation is His, and we are invited to join it. Accepting the invitation to live in the Bible and thus in reality constitutes our salvation.

Ancient comedy invited the reader to leave the cave of the theater and contemplate reality. The Bible now brings its readers the knowledge that can only be known through revelation because the divine poet, the maker of the whole, has revealed himself to the parts by becoming a part.

But the Bible is serious, too. Like ancient tragedy, it unifies its audience, not with lies, but with the truth of who the Biblical poet is. If ancient tragedy temporarily unified its audience through a believable artifice, the Bible now unifies its audience by providing the solution to our need for tragedy in the first place. The Biblical narrative does not hide our nature from us, but fully reveals it so that it may be healed by the divine poet himself. The ancient city, dependent on the artifice of tragedy, is transformed into an eternal kingdom, dependent on the Creator God’s “artifice”—reality itself.

Where does Dante fit into all of this? Downey argues that Dante “assimilated to himself the world-making powers of the Christian God.”

Downey draws on Thomas Aquinas’s hermeneutical distinction between the “literal” or “historical” sense of Scripture, in which words convey meaning in the ordinary sense, and the “spiritual” sense, in which “the things signified by words [in the ‘literal’/‘historical' sense]...also signify other things.” The “spiritual” sense has three layers: the "allegorical," in which the Old Law refers to the New Law; the "moral," in which the New Law refers to “what we should carry out”; and the "anagogical," in which the “things that lie ahead in eternal glory are signified.” The three spiritual senses apply exclusively to Scripture because its author is the Creator of reality, who alone has this power to match “things to things,” infusing the literal words of Scripture with spiritual meaning.

Dante reveals his “god-like aspirations" in a letter to Cangrande della Scala where he explicates the Thomistic “senses.” (But Dante calls them “in general…allegorical.”) He offers an example of an “allegorical” interpretation from Exodus and then asserts that “we must therefore consider the subject of this work [the Commedia] as literally understood, and then its subject as allegorically intended.” He wants his poem to be read “allegorically” in the same way he "allegorically” read Scripture. If Aquinas is right, though, Dante’s desire to be read allegorically is blasphemous. Only The Divine Poet may infuse a text with spiritual senses, as God did in writing the divine comedy, Scripture.

To demonstrate Dante’s hubris, Downey asks us to consider the famous inscription on the gates to hell in The Inferno. Dante, as the main character in his own poem, reads aloud the words that are supposedly written by the biblical God. Yet these words are “found nowhere in Scripture.” Dante invents words for the biblical God, who is but a supporting character to the main star, Dante himself. The only one capable of revealing God to us is God himself, but Dante’s God is an invention of Dante’s revelation. In Downey’s words, Dante gives “powers to the comic poet unheard of in the ancient world,” and paves the road for Romantic poets, who erase “the difference between their own creations and the unique claims of the biblical comedy.”

Why would Dante do this? Downey speculates that the Commedia imitates Scripture in an attempt at a new political founding for Italy. By linking his poem with the “preexisting comic structure of the Bible,” where narrator and protagonist are one in a world of his own making, Dante attempts to lend his own poem the “political power that, left to itself, his own comic poem would lack.” In other words, Dante wants his poem to accomplish what tragedy did for the pagan world.

“Dante…is trying to be the poet of Italy in the way Virgil was the poet of Rome.” But Dante cannot be a Christianized Virgil. Christianity already healed the wound for which Virgil’s poem (and all tragedy) was a bandage. Dante’s aspiration to the pagan glory of creating a national unifying artifice is for him to act as if Christianity did not exist. Precisely because Scripture is authored by the Creator, it solves the ancient political problem that made tragedy effective and necessary. Therefore, after God’s revelation is complete, any human poem either lives within the world of the Bible, as a poem within the poem of reality, or it rivals the Bible’s account of reality. Dante chooses the latter.

Today, no amount of praise for Dante seems enough. His Divine Comedy is the “greatest of all poems,” according to Anthony Esolen. He even “saved” Rod Dreher’s life. Downey, on the other hand, wishes to “shake Dante scholarship from its dogmatic slumber.” If he is correct, the great Christian poet may well represent the beginning of a very un-Christian turn in the West, one in which poets impose their own invented realities over-against the true reality revealed in Scripture.

And my fundamentalist students might be right.