Book Review: Paradise by Dante Alighieri

Many modern readers of the Divine Comedy arrive at the false conclusion that the Paradiso is the book of the Divine Comedyinto which Dante put the least effort and for which he had the least passion. It is common in literature courses today to read only the Inferno and ignore the Purgatorio and the Paradisoaltogether. It has commonly been described as too medieval, too pious, and not of the same quality as the other two books. To the modern reader, it appears especially weak when compared with the Inferno.

Ultimately, however, all of this entirely misses the point of Dante’s Divine Comedy, namely that he saw the entire drama of the cosmos as a comedy, a story with a happy ending. In the case of the cosmic drama, the story has not only a happy ending, but one of immeasurable joy and glory. In this sense, without theParadiso the Inferno is a tour through nihilism and thePurgatorio nothing more than an updated version of the myth of Sisyphus, and, contrary to Camus’s absurd contention, Sisyphus is indeed not happy. The Paradiso completes theDivine Comedy and is, in fact, the most essential of the three books.

The Paradiso is only frequently seen as “too medieval” because modern man has forgotten the source and center of his own being is a Being. In the Paradiso Dante at least departs from the existential human condition and travels toward the meaning and fulfillment of human existence in the Trinitarian God who is Love. This completion of Dante’s journey allows him at last to find the answers to his many questions about life, justice, reason, and faith. The modern mind might rebel against this finality, against wisdom itself, but it is nonetheless the destination for which he was created, and Dante knows this. Perhaps it is this which makes the modern mind so uncomfortable with the Paradiso.

This translation and commentary are the best available in the English language. Anthony Esolen, a Catholic himself, takes Dante quite seriously and allows Dante to speak freely and fully, without contradicting, interrupting, or undermining him. The notes throughout the length of the entire book provide a depth of insight I have not yet seen in any commentary on theParadiso. The introduction is also a valuable gateway into understanding Dante, the story of the Divine Comedy, and the mind of the man of faith.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a guide through everything that matters told in the form of an enthralling story wrapped up in moving poetry. I recommend this book to everyone who can read and everyone who can’t.

Review: Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature by Anthony Esolen

Anyone who has had even casual contact with literary theory as it exists today has seen at least a bit of the nonsense that gets passed off as credible thought these days. There are the feminist critiques of Dante, the Marxist critiques of Chaucer, and even the idea that William Shakespeare might have been an agnostic. In other words, there is the rampant and unapologetic lack of ability to understand and appreciate the great literature of Christendom, of Western Civilization, (our civilization) on its own terms.

Anthony Esolen offers an excellent starting part from which to embark on the struggle to restore Western literature — and Western civilization more generally — to its proper, Christian context. It is time we let Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Spencer, and the rest finally begin to speak for themselves again and be understood on their own terms rather than through the lens of postmodern despair and decay. Theirs was, after all, a more vibrant, playful, creative, and lively time. Perhaps if we allow their words to be heard and understood clearly and so allow their spirit to enter us, perhaps — just perhaps — we might imbibe some of their power and rejuvenate ourselves.

Esolen begins us down their path through this book, a series of meditations on the ironies of the Christian faith and how these ironies have been presented and celebrated in Christian literature throughout our history as a distinct culture. Along the way, Esolen offers excellent insight into what separates the time of Christianity from those times which preceded in the classical world and those which are attempting to usurp it in the modern. He offers a wealth of insight into the heart of the Christian faith itself, highlighting its ironies and its wonders.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in literature and in the revivifying of Western civilization.

Man is close to God

Man knows a trace of the love that moves God, or that is God’s movement within himself: as he moves not from need, but from superabundance, from generosity, one might even say from playfulness. Man will cherish animals from which he derives nothing of use; he will potter about a flower garden for delight in the flowers; his heart will soar at the strains of music; he cheers at the sight of a big and boisterous family. Unlike every other creature on earth, man needs what he does not need, and loves where he does not lack — and he feels that he loves more fully from his plenty and strength, from his fascination with life, and from his will-to-beauty, than from his sense of incompleteness and insufficiency. In those high-hearted moments, man is close to God.

Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith, pp. 305-6

New to the world

I do not deny the rapes, murders, and slaughters that can be laid to the charge of people professing to be Christians. But the world has always known rapes, murders, and slaughters. The Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, the starving of the Ukraine, the genocidal wars of the Turks in Armenia — these evils are not new. But a Father Damien of Molokai, a Belgian priest who connives for the opportunity to minister among lepers in Hawaii, in a place so ridden with disease and crime and the immorality of the hopeless that no sensible person would want to go near; a David Livingstone, making his way to the heart of the Congo, alone, to bring the natives the word of God; a Mother Teresa, loving and tending the destitute of Calcutta, even the pariahs whom a good Hindu of higher caste was forbidden to touch — these are new to the world.

Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith, p. 253

The fullness of time

For all that Shakespeare distanced himself from the bombast and tomfoolery of the mystery plays [of the Middle Ages], he inherited a great deal from them, too. His dramaturgy springs from the same conviction, often too deep to be expressed in words, that what happens now is related to what has happened and what will happen, that time curls back upon itself, revisits itself, includes the eternal in the passing hour. He too believed in “the fullness of time.” That was no belief in some contrived happy ending for the universe, as if God could make everything better by pasting a smile upon the end of time. It was rather the belief that the kingdom of God is at hand, among us and within us, the same kingdom that will be revealed in its fullness at the end of time. Judgment and grace and redemption are all in act now, as they were in the beginning when Adam sinned.

Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith, p. 115

Christianity and the critics

Many people who teach and write about European literature do not understand the heart of Christianity. That is a problem — as great as if one attempted to discuss the poetry of Islam, without knowing what it was like, from the heart, to be a Muslim. It is compounded by the pervasiveness of Christian images and ideas in our culture. They give one a self-deceptive ease in talking about Christianity. Then, when the faith proves more subtle than one’s caricature, that same overfamiliarity tempts one to patter about “contradictions” and “tensions.” The critic sees hole where there are but spaces in a most intricate lacework. 

Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith, p. ii