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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Stephen Smith Journey Through Dante’s Inferno

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HH: And it’s a special Hillsdale Dialogue edition. Yes, it’s Friday, and I usually do the Hillsdale Dialogue in just the last hour. But in a remarkable bit of non-planning that appears to be planning our discussion of Dante’s Inferno is coming up on Good Friday. And so I requested my good friends, Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, and his colleague, Dr. Stephen Smith at Hillsdale, if we might not do two hours today to make this a perfect Good Friday broadcast. And welcome to you both, gentlemen, it’s great to have you with me.

SS: Thank you, Hugh.

LA: Thank you, Hugh, good to be with you.

HH: And I want to let everyone know Dr. Smith has been here before in the Hillsdale Dialogues. He’s an associate professor of English at Hillsdale, did his undergrad work at the home of the Fighting Irish, and we love that, got his Masters and his PhD from the University of Dallas, which are almost as good as going to Notre Dame. His main areas of study are Shakespeare and Thomas More. He’s given a few courses, he’s been our guest on the Hillsdale Dialogues before, but he also gives lectures in the current Great Books course at, including week two on the Iliad, and he’s going to do the week nine lecture on Dante’s Inferno. And that’s what we’re doing today. And Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Smith, welcome. Why is this appropriate, Dr. Smith, that we do it today?

SS: Well, it’s Good Friday. And Dante’s great journey begins at dawn on Good Friday. So if you go and pick up Canto 1 of the Divine Comedy today, you can start right where Dante starts, which is on Good Friday.

HH: And see, that is, we didn’t actually plan that, but it worked out pretty doggone well. And so this will be playing on Good Fridays forever as long as the Hugh Hewitt Show is on, and that’s wonderful. It’s a somber day, it’s a serious day, it’s a day of reflection and penance in the Christian tradition. And that’s where Dante’s Inferno begins. But before we begin Dante’s Inferno, let’s begin Dante. And Larry Arnn, do you ever teach the Inferno?

LA: No, I never have.

HH: You just inflict it on people.

LA: I do. I do. And you know, Churchill liked to say if you keep a dog, you don’t have to bark yourself. And I’ve got Smith, so why would I teach Dante?

HH: Well, he sent me a note to say make sure he doesn’t call me a Dante specialist. And so you’re no Dante expert. You are a Dante lover, Professor Smith.

SS: That’s entirely correct.

HH: Okay, so let’s start as a Dante lover. That’s like me being a Cleveland Browns lover. And I could tell you lots about it.

LA: So I have to correct that, by the way. Here’s what Smith is. Smith, I’m going to give him the big head just a little bit, but really, he’s just a jerk. But he’s an expert on Shakespeare and on Thomas More, and he knows those things, really knows them. And he calls himself a lover of Dante who happens to teach it. But his courses are known all over the place about Dante. And people queue up to get in them. And he, I saw him last term walking across the quad, and how are you doing, Steve? And Steve, you won’t be able to tell it from this interview, but he’s a very pleasant guy, and he said oh, he said I’m very well. And I said why would that be? And he said well, you know, I’m teaching Dante this term. So that was last term, right, and he’s like that.

HH: Let’s hope the glow is still going. And I want the audience to understand that this is not out of order. We finished Aquinas last week after five marvelous weeks in Aquinas. And Aquinas died in 1274, and Dante was born around 1265. So we are, Dr. Smith, we’re in the right time frame.

SS: Oh, definitely. He’s born in 1265, dies in 1321, and so one author compared the Summa and the Divine Comedy, and said they were like two cathedrals to the medieval imagination and heart. So we’re dealing with the second, the Divine Comedy now.

HH: And a little bit about Dante, from Florence, an intriguer, a Machiavel before there was Machiavelli, an absolute adventurer. And where’s he buried? And give sort of a capsule of his life for the people who just know that he wrote this amazing poem.

SS: Sure. Well, Machiavelli did admire his prudence, actually. He was born in 1265, married in 1285, and there are probably two big things to know about him to read the Divine Comedy. One involves Beatrice, the young lady he fell head over heels in love with, and then Florentine politics. So first, with Beatrice, he sees her when he’s eight years old, and then again nine years later, and then she dies young. That experience, for Dante, really began, it was an experience of beauty that was very powerful, very transformative for him. So Beatrice is going to be a character in the Divine Comedy, and his love of her, and how much she struck him and moved him, is a big story from his early life. In fact, when he wrote the Vida Nuova, the new life, about his encounter with her, he ended the book promising that he would write about her in a way greater than any man has ever written about another woman.

HH: Wow. Big promise.

SS: Yeah, big promise, and then he writes the Inferno.

HH: Okay, and his other lover, you write to me, is philosophy. He fell in love with Beatrice, and he fell in love with philosophy.

LA: Oh, wait, so I’ve got to interject, Hugh.

SS: He falls in love with politics, really.

HH: Please.

LA: I want to help question Smith. Is that all right, Hugh?

HH: Please.

LA: Yeah, so first of all, he doesn’t marry this woman, but another woman.

SS: Yeah, Gemma Donati.

LA: And he did not write about that other woman.

SS: I’m afraid Gemma doesn’t get as much press as Beatrice.

LA: So my question is one of the things that poetry does is it takes particular things and turns them into abstractions. So Beatrice is not just a beautiful woman. She’s beauty. So is that what’s going on here? And does this, and if that’s what’s going on, is that a sign that Dante, a Christian man, was not unfaithful to his actual wife?

SS: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. He married, has four children, and when he goes into exile, she stays behind. Beatrice is long dead at this point, and has become, you know, quite a powerful figure in his poetic imagination. So I don’t think he’s exactly unfaithful, though you know, every so often, a student will raise his or her hand in class and say was he married?

HH: Well, I noted the way that you diplomatically put it, that the wife doesn’t get as much press as Beatrice, who may be the most famous object of a poem in history, right?

SS: Pretty much.

HH: And she doesn’t get as much press as this most famous…but that’s a different thing. I don’t think there’s infidelity involved in that recollection of his youthful smittenness.

SS: No, for him, the Beatrice encounter awakened, it was like an awakening, an experience of beauty that was very intense. And you know, Plato says when we experience beauty, it causes a little bit of suffering, but also wings to sprout in the soul. And I think that’s what happened with Dante. And when she dies young, he takes it very hard, and he actually turns to philosophy for consolation. So his second lady is actually lady philosophy. It turns out he has a lot of ladies, you know.

HH: But he also threw himself into politics big time.

SS: Yeah.

HH: And what’s interesting is if he did the big swoon for Beatrice at 18 or 19 or 20, it’s years later that he writes about her in between. And I was reading up on him. He was a cutthroat. I mean, these people played to win, and when they lost, they lost bit.

SS: Yeah, well, I think the political side is just vital. In 1300, he becomes one of the six magistrates of Florence, and he’s involved in factional clashes throughout his life. In Florence, there were two big factions – the whites and the blacks. The whites wanted Florence to retain, you know, jurisdiction, governance over itself. The blacks who were supported by Boniface VIII wanted to place all of Florence and Tuscany under papal control. So there was a strife there. So Dante’s, in 1300, at the top of the world, you know, one of the six magistrates. But just two years later, the other side takes over again, Dante is on the outs, and then is brought up on charges of embezzlement and some other things, banished from Florence, and never returns. So that exile from, say, 1302 on, it’s in that space and in that experience that he writes the Divine Comedy. And at first, it’s a very bitter experience as you can imagine being cast out of your home, never come back, and the pain of being burnt alive, burnt to death. And his first thought when he gets out is war, actually, and revenge. And then he breaks with those foes and enters into this exile during which he writes the Divine Comedy.

HH: Did his poetic talent have anything to do with his rise to political power?

SS: Well, at first, they were separate. I mean, the poetry comes from Beatrice, mainly. But then he has such keen political interest, and he cares so much about the proper governance of Florence that the poetry about Beatrice and poetry about Florence, concern for Florence, you know, joined together. So in the Divine Comedy, you have Beatrice that’s presence. She’ll be a guide of Dante eventually. And then you have a huge political theme that unfolds from beginning to end. So they come together in the Divine Comedy. But they initially start, I think, separately.

— – – – –

HH: Before we go back to the Divine Comedy, a word about Florence. Dr. Arnn, how many of the Hillsdale students spend some time abroad?

LA: I don’t know the quick answer to that question, but it’s probably 25%, something like that.

HH: And Dr. Smith, when did you first go to Florence?

SS: When I was a sophomore in college.

HH: And it’s a remarkable place. I was an older fellow. I was 45 when I got to Florence. But you just walk around, and it’s a remarkable place. I can’t imagine even 800 years ago, 700 years ago, of being exiled from it, being told you’ll never come back to Florence if that’s your home, Stephen Smith.

SS: Yeah, that’s why the poem is so bitter, and the experience is so bitter. But it’s through that bitter experience, which for Dante is real suffering, he loved that place, it’s through that that the poem, the Divine Comedy, arises. And so at the beginning of the poem, to be banished from Florence is seen as the worst thing in the world. But by the time you get to Paradiso, it becomes, you know, providential. It becomes something that actually helped Dante quite a bit, especially helped him gain perspective on himself, on the world, and on his own desires. So it’s both suffering and bitter. It’s kind of like a death. But then it becomes fruitful over time, even a grace.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, you as a young man went to London for a long period of time, and thank goodness you did, because Penny saved you.

LA: There you go.

HH: But is it important for young people to do that, to get out and leave?

LA: Yeah, and we, with one caveat, we reduce education today to a series of experiences. And we have a way of taking the thought out of it. So it’s important to read Dante with somebody who can teach you what it means and why you should love it, and then go to Florence. And so lots of our kids, I mean, it’s probably a lot more than 25% if you include the ones who go in the summer. But you know, we’ve got a packed house here. There’s a lot to accomplish, and kids don’t want to go anywhere.

HH: Yup. Yup.

LA: So it’s, but yeah, and you know, I mean, in Florence is Michelangelo’s David. Everybody listening to this program should immediately form the ambition to walk down that long hallway and look at that thing.

HH: Every year when I teach the pornography cases, I begin by asking people what is the most beautiful thing they have seen in order to juxtapose the jurisprudence. And I always say it’s the David, so you’re absolutely right.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: It is the most beautiful thing I have seen made my man. So let me ask you, Stephen Smith, when he goes off, you teach a semester on this, on one poem.

SS: Yeah, we have about 45 classes for 100 cantos. It’s the way to do it, Hugh.

HH: Explain to the audience, which includes Steelers fans, so slow down, what a canto is.

SS: Canto just means song. So the Divine Comedy is made up of a hundred cantos and 33, roughly 33, Inferno, 33, Purgatorio, 33, Paradiso. The first one has 34, so it adds up to a hundred. But a canto is maybe four pages long, five pages long, and each one of them is like its own little work of art. And one of the things that’s great about reading Dante is you can take him bit by bit, piece by piece. In fact, C.S. Lewis said the best way to experience and read Dante is with a small daily portion. So you know, a couple of cantos, a couple of cantos, a couple of cantos, and so I’ve tried to imitate that in the class. And we really take a whole semester and we putt, putt, putt through it, read it as carefully as we can, and it becomes, by the end, just a tremendous transformative reading experience.

HH: And do you read it from start to finish?

SS: Absolutely.

HH: And that was the way it was intended to be read?

SS: Yes, yes.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, among some of your colleagues, a lot of attention is paid to placement of portions of books. Does that apply to a poem as it would apply to others?

LA: Sure. This, you know, the Divine Comedy has, you know, it’s, each one is these little songs that Steve described. But also, it’s the grandest cosmic journey possible from Earth to Hell to Heaven. And so first of all, it’s a big story, and it’s an adventure. I mean, it’s a tremendous thing, you know. And if you have much education, and your readers do, including the Steelers fans, then you meet people on this journey who are tremendous human beings, and you see how they came out. So if what you’re asking me is does the structure matter, and are you asking me can you extract from it?

HH: Yeah, I’m asking you if it is one of those books that you’ve got to read start to finish, don’t go and try and learn it by going to the middle…

LA: You know, we around here, most of us have an objection to the Common Core. And our objection is that it does try to cover classic works, but every course it proscribes has got to cover start to finish, right? So you start with Plato, and you end up with whoever the latest person is. And the trouble is, then, you never get to read anything deeply.

HH: Right.

LA: And you know, a piece of advice, because life is too short for all of us, even if you work in the education world, life is too short. Pick three things. I was given this advice in my life, and it’s been very good for me. Pick three things and get to know them. Pick three books. And you know, this book has got to be on anybody’s list of candidates.

HH: It is more than a book, an epic pilgrimage, you told me, Dr. Smith. Compare it, would you, to other epics?

SS: Yeah, I mean, it comes after Virgil’s Aeneid, and Augustine’s Confessions. And the Confessions isn’t usually described as an epic.

HH: No, I was surprised by that.

SS: But there’s a big connection between the books. So the Aeneid is the story of Aeneas escaping from the fall of Troy, moving across the sea to Italy to found Rome. And so it has this sort of founding story, kind of a political meaning. And the Confessions is Augustine’s story. I think you may have discussed this with Dr. Jeff Lehman.

HH: We have, yeah.

SS: That work has been described as an inner epic, which I think is quite a good description of it. So instead of going from Troy to Rome and founding a city, in Augustine, the soul is going from restlessness to rest in God. So there’s an interior epic. And I think that Dante combines the two in the Divine Comedy. Like Augustine, it’s an autobiography, and like Virgil, it’s an epic, too. So he combines these two into an astonishing work of art.

HH: Now there have been epics since then as well…

SS: Sure.

HH: And epic poems put forward. Does anyone attempt to scale the same heights?

SS: Milton, Paradise Lost, in fact, a magnificent class would be, well, on the epic, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton. But Dante and Milton in particular would be a great pair to put together, so Paradise Lost.

HH: Have you taught that, yet?

SS: Oh, yes. I’ve taught Paradise Lost a bunch of times.

HH: But I mean together? Have you done that course?

SS: I have not.

HH: There you have it, Dr. Arnn, next semester.

LA: There you go.

HH: There you go.

LA: You know, that’s, you can’t get a lick of work out of that guy.

HH: You know, let him take, if they get summers off, they get lazy.

LA: Don’t they, though?

SS: Paradise Lost.

HH: Paradise Lost.

— – – —

HH: I go back to Professor Smith. What is this comedy thing? Divine Comedy, people are, you know, nowadays are expecting Seinfeld. What is it?

SS: Yeah, you’re not going to find a lot of whipped cream pies in the face of Dante or things like that. You know, for Dante, comedy is one of the old genres, and the essence of it is that it begins with adversity, or begins in a tempest, and ends with happiness. So the essence of a comedy is happy ending, human happiness. And he also remarks in another piece of writing that the comic hero tends to come to a happy ending through a good deal of bumblings. He’s a little different than the tragic hero.

HH: I’ve heard a lecture on comedy from Dr. David Allen White, no stranger to this show, where he says Shakespeare’s comedies are all defined by that, but also almost always include marriage. Is that the case with Dante?

SS: Well, we did talk about the Gemma Donati/Beatrice thing, and he’s already married. So there’s no marriage at the end of the Divine Comedy. But Paradiso is presented as a kind of mystical marriage between the soul and God, so yes, it does have a sort of marriage aspect to it.

HH: And divine was added later? This was news to me when you gave me the outline to work from.

SS: Yeah, it’s added, we think, by Boccaccio. He was already known as the sort of divine poet, and so they threw on divine. But the title is just The Comedy. In fact, the full title is kind of funny. It’s The Comedy of Dante Alighiery, a Florentine By Birth, Not Character.

HH: Oh, that is kind of funny. That’s very amusing, actually. So what are the circumstances of its publication? Does it appear serially, or in a single folio?

SS: Well, he wrote it in exile, and then it was released in manuscript form.

HH: So it just appeared in Florence, boom, and here is Dante’s missive to the See? What was the reaction at the time?

SS: Well you know, we mentioned his tomb at the beginning. You know, once it became clear that the Divine Comedy was a once in a millennium kind of poem, I think Florence wanted that body back, you know? They wanted to take back the exile.

LA: They liked him better dead than alive.

HH: You know, I actually think I was supposed to mention where he was buried, and I didn’t.

SS: Yeah, he’s in Ravenna, and that big tomb in the Duomo is empty, in Florence. So it has Dante on the, you know, sitting there with his head in his fists, they kind of postured a thinker, but there’s no body there.

HH: I didn’t know that, but I have to pause to tell you that when I visited Westminster Abbey, and I stood looking at the tomb of Cromwell, a little British lady walked up to me and said he’s not there. And I said what? She said they dug him up and hung him. And Larry Arnn, I didn’t know that. The English take their revenge seriously.

LA: Oh, yeah. You know, well, if you think about the English Revolution, right, it’s like some of the events in Dante’s life. One side won for a long time, and then the other side won for a while, and then the first side won again. And you know, there was bloodbaths every time.

HH: And the blacks and the whites, how long did that go on for, Stephen Smith?

SS: Well, you know, once Dante lost, he was out of the picture. But Florentine politics continued to be a kind of bloody mess for a while. Here’s what Machiavelli said about it. There resulted more murders, banishments and destruction of families than ever in any city known to history.

HH: Wow.

SS: So this is a rough place, politically.

LA: And Machiavelli is from there, right? So and see, think about this. If you compare these two parts of Dante’s life, the political part and the philosophical part, all those people that drove him out of the city and threatened his life, and ruled this incredibly important city where Machiavelli and politics were literally born, all those people are forgotten now. And it wasn’t long after he died that people gained perspective, right? And so in one of the most prominent places, in one of the most monumental cities on the face of the Earth, there’s a major tomb for Dante waiting for him sometime to show up.

HH: I don’t think the Ravenna elites are going to be in a hurry to make that happen, right?

SS: Well you know, they say the winners write history, and the losers write poetry.

LA: There you go.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Smith, it’s an autobiographical epic, Dante’s Divine Comedy. It begins with the Inferno, three parts – Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Can you get us at the beginning and tell us where we find Dante – age, place, state of mind?

SS: Well, here’s how the poem starts. Very simply, midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true. So we find him lost in a dark wood at the midpoint of his life. And you know, according to the Scripture, the span of life is 70 years. So this puts Dante lost in a dark wood in the year 1300, right before he becomes one of those magistrates of Florence, and at the age of 35. So yes, this is one of the great midlife crises in all of Western literary history.

HH: And what is the state of his soul?

SS: Well, I think he’s largely ignorant of himself. He’s lost. And he says you know, I found myself in this wood, had no idea when I left the way of truth behind. So he kind of awakens in this state, returns to himself, and has really no idea how he got into this mess. So he’s in a dangerous state, and he’s pretty much on the point of death in Canto 1 until he’s rescued.

HH: Nobody likes dark woods. I mean, they really do not like dark woods. So it’s starting off on an ominous…you read the first couple of lines. Can you give us more of the beginning, and perhaps the beginning again?

SS: Sure. Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wilderness, or dark wood, for I had wandered from the straight and true. How hard a thing it is to tell about it, that wilderness so savage, dense and harsh. Even to think of it renews my fear. It is so bitter, death is hardly more. But to reveal the good that came to me, I shall relate first the other things I saw.

HH: Now you mentioned earlier, it begins on Good Friday.

SS: Right.

HH: And so we are in a Catholic context on the most solemn day of the year, the day of the commemoration of the Crucifixion, and that, I assume, Catholicism just infuses every canto of the hundred.

SS: Yes, it does. The liturgical setting is really important. So when he wakes up in the wood, he says I just passed a night of agony alone. So it actually stretches back to Holy Thursday. There’s sort of a Canto Zero, if you will. Then Good Friday is the beginning of the poem. The Inferno is Good Friday and Holy Saturday. And when they finally get out of the Inferno and come to the shores of Mount Purgatorio. It’s pre-dawn, Easter Sunday. So that liturgical meaning is just baked into the poem, and it’s really important.

HH: And so how does he get out of the dark wood? Get us started here.

SS: Well, he comes to his senses. He sees a mountain that he would like to climb, but he can’t, because he’s blocked by three beasts. And he’s driven back to the place where the sun is silent, as he puts it. He’s about to give up all hope. He’s about to yield to despair, when of all things, the ghost of Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, appears in the wilderness to rescue him. So I always talk to students, you know, I ask them what do you think about that? And that’s okay, the ghost of Virgil showed up. But for me, it’s never ceased to be one of the strangest beginnings in any of the books I teach. I mean, the ghost of another poem, another great poet appears in the wilderness to help this guy.

LA: A pagan.

HH: There are two things here. Dr. Arnn, one, we skipped the Aeneid.

LA: Yeah, we did. We shouldn’t have done it. I was just getting ready to ask Steve to tell us what happens in the Aeneid.

HH: Yeah, because we skipped it.

SS: Well, Aeneas, who is a Trojan, escapes from the fall of Troy, and he’s given the mission to found Rome. And he does so through the journey and the adventures of the poem. And so that poem is about the founding of Rome, and what makes Rome great, and what the Roman arts are, and why Rome should rule the world. So that’s Virgil’s poem. And it’s this poet who appears in the wilderness to help Dante.

LA: And you have to say, first of all, Virgil is a pagan, let’s say before Jesus, and Virgil is the poet of Rome. He is the poet of the greatness of Rome. And Rome is, you know, one of the most, one of the greatest of all the lands. And so who walks in to help him except a pagan, the official biographer or poet of the greatness of Rome.

HH: Isn’t that risking the animosity of the local papal authorities, that you’re beginning your poem with an homage to a pagan?

SS: Well you know, it actually, sure. I mean, that’s why I ask the students about this. I mean, hey, what do you think about this? Another way to put it is, you know, what on Earth is God thinking? Why send a classical poet to help this lost Christian soul? It seems kind of unaccountable, a thing for providence to do. But really, and for Dante, there are two great sources of wisdom on the human being, and they’re classical and Biblical, broadly speaking. And he’s really interested in bringing those two together and sort of sorting out the claims about man in each. So he’s been deeply formed in the classical philosophy and poetry. He’s deeply formed in theology. And so part of the poem is going to work through the classical Biblical dialogue…

HH: Is it too obvious a comparison to note that Aquinas relied on Aristotle, and here we have a mythical Dante relying on the Roman pagan?

SS: No, I think that’s a good point. I mean, Aristotle appears in Canto 4. He’s the master of the philosophical family, the master of those who know. So Dante loved Aristotle, too. And yeah, this soul sent to help Dante…

HH: By sent, you mean commissioned?

SS: Yeah, this is what you learn next, is that first, it just seems completely unaccountable that he shows up in the middle of a dark wood. Then he says all right, Dante, let me explain why I’m here. And it turns out in Canto 2 that he was sent to help Dante by Beatrice.

HH: So his lifelong love has thrown him a rope in the form of Virgil, we’ll explain, on Good Friday in the middle of a dark wood.

— – – –

HH: I have to pause and ask, the presumption that is required of someone to begin this poem, and I’ll start this to Dr. Arnn and give it to Dr. Smith as well, where you’re comparing yourself to Virgil, it requires just a stunning self-regard, doesn’t it, Larry?

LA: Well, yes and no. It’s, in a way, it’s what all of us are called to do. If you think of that parallel we talked about before the break between Dante and Thomas Aquinas, in a way, they’re both addressing themselves to something that everyone addresses themselves to who listens to the Hillsdale Dialogue. What sense are you going to make of the world? You know, most of your listeners are Christians, and most of us here at Hillsdale College are. And so what are we Christians in this age to make of things? And to do that seriously is to take account of the best things that have been thought. And so what Dante is doing is he’s, you know, he’s got trouble in his life. He loves somebody. He lost her. She becomes, as I said before, an abstraction for him, the symbol of something we all desperately seek and need, and he finds at the end of this tremendous. But also, he’s exiled from his home, and he’s fought for his home and rules in his home. This raises questions about life. And so answer them, come to find out, the wise of every age have something to say. And so this is one of the great attempts to bring all that together.

HH: And Dr. Smith, did he write before this, were other people aware of and confirming of his talent? Or did he just set off to write the greatest epic ever?

SS: He certainly did that, but that’s a good question. You know, when you get to Canto 4, and I know I’m jumping ahead, but Dante will be numbered six among the great classical writers. And you know, that’s pretty astonishing. I always tell students, like okay, say you like novels. Imagine you come into class and say I just had a dream last night I was numbered six. There was Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Jane Austen and me.

HH: And me.

SS: And so it’s quite a claim. And we always stop at this moment and ask all right, so up to this point, Dante is the author of the Vita Nuova, a short work, an incomplete philosophical treatise called the Convivio, an incomplete treatise on the Vulgari Eloquentia, and some lyric poetry. So I mean, where’s his CV, you know, number six?

HH: And it’s internal, right?

SS: Yeah.

HH: That’s, when we come back, humility is appropriate on Good Friday, especially, and we wonder about the lack of it. But there’s also truth telling to be done.

— – – –

HH: In case you just did walk in, I’m going to ask Dr. Smith to quickly summarize where we find Dante at the beginning of the Inferno and the hundred canto structure of the three parts of the Divine Comedy.

SS: All right, so we’re dealing with one poem, the Comedy in three parts – Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, a hundred total cantos, nice digestible cantos, about four to five pages each. At the beginning, he’s lost in a dark wood, doesn’t know how he got there. He’s at the point of death, he’s yielding to despair when the ghost of Virgil appears to help him.

HH: And Virgil has been sent by Beatrice, the love of his life.

SS: That’s right. Now she sends him for an interesting reason. She tells him, Virgil, my friend, she’s been dead for a while, he is at the point of death. He needs help. Go with your ornate word. Go with your beautiful words and any skill you have to help him, and help him. So I think the reason that Virgil is sent is because Dante just loves Virgil’s poetry. And so he loves the way he speaks, loves his words, his poetry. And so part of the point at the beginning of the poem is sort of like Augustine’s Confessions, actually, you know, Heaven uses everything to reach souls. So hey, Dante loves Virgil, he’s nuts about Virgil, send Virgil.

HH: So why does he have to go down first, because obviously, you’re in a dark wood. You’d just as soon get out of the garden, right? You’d just as soon get to vacation.

SS: Yeah, well, at the beginning, he looks up and he sees that mountain, and Virgil’s first question is actually why don’t you go climb the mountain. And Dante starts to hem and haw a bit, he’s got tears on his face, and Virgil says this, looking at him. When he saw my tears, he said, you need to take another way. And so there’s something wrong with the pilgrim that requires the descent to the inferno. He can’t ascend the mountain, he can’t do what he wants to do right away. He has to go down first. Later, Virgil’s going to say this journey, the Inferno, It’s a journey of necessity, not delight for this guy. In other words, Dante needs the descent through Hell to go up.

HH: Now this is Good Friday, and the Nicene Creed says descended into Hell at the end of Crucifixion, Christ did.

SS: Right.

HH: And so is this a universal imperative in Catholicism that every single person has to do whatever this is?

SS: Well, I think if you’re in Dante’s state, which is lost in a dark wood, which is probably most folks, yeah. At the beginning of the poem, he says midway upon the journey of our life. So right from the start, he links his story to our story. And in fact, readers were actually named as characters in the Divine Comedy. So we really participate in this. We go down with him. He calls attention to it all the time. And part of the mystery of the poem is why does he need it? What kind of education does the poem provide for this guy to get him out of that initial state?

HH: Now Larry Arnn, obligatory suffering is a theme we’ve dealt with before, and we’ll deal with again and again and again. And in the 20th Century, the great expositor of that is Solzhenitsyn, who just believe in it, that it was the crucible in which everything came out of. But not everyone believes in that, right? The Epicureans didn’t.

LA: Well, you know, they were not as, they were seeking the cultivated pleasures, right? And that involved the denial of lower pleasures. And so if your soul is not in a great state, then you will suffer a while until you learn what are the right pleasures. So but you’re right. But you know, of course, it’s Biblical about suffering. Paul writes the tribulations are sent to make us better. And so this is an allegory of that kind of thing, of course. And you know, as Steve just said, this is Dante’s, and you have to think for a minute, right, because first of all, he’s lost in a dark wood, but he says right there in the beginning, in the first canto, we’re going to Heaven. And so he’s conceived this whole thing at the outset. And you know, it has these three parts. I don’t know if we’ve named what they mean, but the first part is hell, and the second part is purgatory, where you are purged of all of the sins that make you unfit for Heaven, and then the last part is paradise. And he sees the whole journey forecasted at the outset.

HH: He’s a big lover of threes…

SS: And numbers.

HH: But let’s stay, and numbers, but let’s say in the first nine circles, the Inferno. Can you give us the structure of the Inferno, Dr. Smith, so that people get in their mind what he’s doing?

SS: Sure, just one other thing. You know, Larry mentioned Purgatorio, the middle. Dante would be really happy just to leap right over from the dark wood to Paradiso. But the poem does not cooperate. He has to go down. And remember, when he first wakes up in the dark wood, he has no idea how he got there.

HH: Right.

SS: This guy’s self-knowledge is extremely limited. And part of the reason he needs to go down is to really grow in self-knowledge. He doesn’t even realize how he got onto the point of spiritual death at the beginning of the poem, and so he’s going to learn that. But about the structure, there are nine total circles. If you Google Inferno Map, you’ll find about 7,000 images of this. People love to draw maps of the Inferno. So nine circles, it gets tighter and tighter as you go down.

HH: By meaning, the circle is smaller?

SS: Yeah, yeah, it’s like a funnel or a kind of basin. Some has likened it to a toilet, but that’s another matter. It’s nine circles from top to bottom, incontinence, in general, so lust, gluttony, avarice, anger, sullenness is punished in upper Hell, and then violence and malice in lower Hell. The point there is that the worst part of Hell is where malice is found. And malice requires our higher faculties to do its thing.

HH: Now was this radical, by the way, the idea of different levels of Hell? It is commonplace in language now, but in theology, and certainly in Scripture, it’s not…there are upper rooms of Heaven. There are different, Paul went to the vision of the third Heaven, et cetera, but not really of Hell, is there?

SS: No, you’re pretty much up the creek. I mean, you know, the thing with Dante is this is a poem. I have to remind students of that. It’s model is Book Six of Virgil’s Aeneid. So in the Aeneid, Virgil’s book about the underworld, Book Six, he tells the story of an underworld that has different parts and levels. But for Christian Revelation, I mean, the bottom line is that Hell is the definitive exclusion of the soul from communion with God and others. So there’s really not any benefit to being in circle 2 or circle 8. Once you’re past the evil river and in the Inferno, you’re among the lost.

HH: Well, that’s what I was pointing to. Was that controversial, the idea that incontinence is not as bad as betrayal?

SS: No, somebody like Thomas Aquinas will make a similar distinction, and Aristotle will, too, between incontinence and other forms of vice. So you know, incontinence is when you’re ruled by passion, you’re kind of carried away by passion, like a sleeping man or a drunkard. But the malice is when you really choose to do it, you use those higher faculties, injustice is your end, and you want to harm other people.

HH: Now at the very bottom of Hell…

SS: Yeah.

HH: Tell people what’s there.

SS: Ice. So instead of a lake of fire, you find ice. And at the very bottom of the pit, up to his waist in ice, is Satan. And he has three heads. He’s chewing on three traitors. He has great bat-like wings, and his wings are ceaselessly beating in an attempt to extricate himself, an attempt to fly. And Dante adds is was by the motion of those wings that all of lower Hell is kept frozen. So he’s kind of like the air conditioning unit down there. But it’s really striking for most readers when they get there. I remember being very surprised the first time I read it that ice was at the bottom and not fire, but that’s the final image of sin in the poem, is the immobility, being stuck, being held in place by your own choices, your own desires, your own sins.

HH: And the very worst sin is betrayal.

SS: For Dante, yeah.

HH: Now to what do you attribute that, the politics of Florence? Or his understanding of Christian theology and what happened to Christ in the garden?

SS: Yes, yes, and so the ones who are being chomped on by Satan there at the bottom are those who conspired against Caesar, actually, and Judas Iscariot. So he sees the betrayal and treason, and being a traitor, as the worst evil. And the worst evil of all is to be a traitor to God.

LA: Expand on the, you just said a minute ago, Steve, the worst sins involve the higher faculties.

HH: And hold onto that through the break. The worst sins involve the higher faculties is where we will pick up when we come back.

— – – – –

HH: On this Good Friday, we’re talking about sin, we’re talking about Dante and the Inferno, and we broke off talking about how the higher faculties, in Dr. Smith’s words, lead to the worse sin in Dante, and Dr. Arnn had just asked you to unpack that.

SS: Yeah, so again, the top, the upper Hell is incontinence, you know, kind of being swept away by passion, and being carried away. But malice and fraud, and being a traitor, and things like that, they require our reason, our intellect, they require dissimulation. And Dante sees, well, he loves those higher faculties in man. And part of the poem…

LA: They’re the divine part of man.

SS: Absolutely.

LA: Yeah.

SS: And so the worst thing to do would be to put them in the service of evil.

LA: And they always, because of that, they always involve a betrayal of God, to take the gift that He gave us that places us in His image and use it for evil. That’s the worst.

HH: I’m curious. Do we know if he was a good man by an ordinary measuring stick?

SS: Well, I mean, we know that when he was banished from Florence, he really thought about some violent retribution there.

HH: Was he incontinent? Did he populate the city? Did he leave children in every port?

SS: No, he didn’t.

HH: Okay…

SS: As far as we know.

HH: Okay, as far as we know.

LA: (laughing)

HH: Now the key cantos…

SS: There was no, you know, 1-800-Who’s-Your-Daddy then.

HH: Well, it’s not Ben Franklin, right? We’re not talking about Ben Franklin, who was incontinent in many respects, but also something of a genius. You know, I’ve never asked Larry Arnn what he thinks of Ben Franklin. Some day…

LA: I have to be careful about these things. We’ve hired a young guy who’s a really great politics professor, and he’s heavily engaged in the resurrection of Ben Franklin. So, Ben Franklin was a very brilliant and very important and very beneficial rogue.

HH: Rogue, exactly. And if we find him in Hell, we’re going to find him in the first level, right?

LA: Yeah, that’s where he’ll be.

HH: All right, so let’s start with the neutrals. Now this is, is he walking along and stopping Virgil like in a zoo?

SS: Well, they’re going to go from circle to circle so that they’re going to descend down. But what happens is this. You go from the dark wood to rescue by Virgil, and you come to the gates of Hell. And the gates of Hell say, you know, through me the way into the eternal city, abandon all hope you who enter here. And right after that, you pass under the gates, and you meet the first group of souls. And those are the neutrals. And this is a fascinating group that Dante deliberately puts up front. They were, well, first, they’re humans and angels, neither for nor against God. He simply says they were for themselves. And that’s the first group you meet. And he says, actually, Heaven won’t have them, and neither will Hell. So Hell’s got some standards, you know.

HH: So are they legion? Are they everywhere?

SS: Yeah, there are a lot of souls. And they’re the lukewarm. And you know, in the 20th Century, Camus wrote The Fall, an existential novel, and he calls attention to this vestibule of the Inferno as well. And he says, you know, there are these angels who are neither for nor against, and his narrator says, we’re all on that vestibule.

HH: And are they in discomfort?

SS: Yes. That’s the first kind of punishment you get to observe. They’re being stung to motion by wasps, and they are following an empty banner, here, there, everywhere for all eternity.

HH: Oh.

SS: So you can see Dante always, this is called contrapasso, but he always suits the punishment to the sin in some sort of poetic way. And so they didn’t follow anything in life. Now they chase an empty banner. They didn’t move, now they’re stung to motion. And every circle is like this.

HH: Now I’m not going to ask for names, Dr. Arnn, but I want you to keep your faculty of mind throughout this entire reading, and the Congress of the United States.

LA: Well, we’re cultivating bees here.

HH: And any other group, we’re going to find common traits among many large gatherings of people, and there are always going to be those neutrals in the middle, right?

LA: Yeah.

HH: They’re always, I mean, every large group ever. What’s the next circle?

LA: That’s the circle of limbo, actually, where the classical writers are found. And this is where Dante gets excited to be numbered six among the poets. But most commentators point out, you know, he doesn’t see it at all, Dante. This is part of the reason why he needs to go down. He basically says you know, hot dog, I’m number six. But that’s number six among the lost poets. So it’s a ranking that he’s proud of, but he doesn’t quite see that he’s wishing himself into limbo.

HH: Does Virgil rebuke him for that?

SS: No, he does not. So like anyone in the poem, Virgil has things he sees very clearly, and blind spots. Hell is kind of united for Dante by blindness, and also by the loss of truthfulness. So you know, Virgil says at the beginning, you’re going to meet the folks who have lost the good of the intellect. And so that could be either God or truth. I’d prefer truth, because when you encounter soul after soul in this place, you encounter folks who can’t quite tell the truth about themselves, no matter how hard they try. That’s part of the challenge of the poem is listening to their stories with Dante, and trying to discern the truth.

HH: So what do the lost poets think about their own stay? I mean, are they, who are they? And what do they think of their situation?

SS: Well, you’ve got Homer and Virgil, Ovid, Lucan and Horace. And Dante is number six, because it turns out Comedy is not represented in the list, so he gets lucky. But their eyes are neither joyful nor sad. They’re just kind of slow. They have small conversations with each other. They have conversations in small groups with each other in kind of low voices. They’re experiencing, actually, something like Elysium. You know, limbo is the only part of Hell that’s actually well-lit. So they have a kind of experience of Elysium or bliss, but Virgil says, the only rub to this place is that we live forever in hope. But have no fulfillment.

HH: So it’s shuffling around.

SS: Conversation, yeah.

HH: And I’m reminded of the Great Divorce, and you mentioned earlier that C.S. Lewis loved this poem.

SS: Right.

HH: And that is not unlike that place where the bus gets off.

SS: Yeah, you know, that text is very helpful in illuminating, you know, I think it’s in Great Divorce that he mentions God’s verdict on humanity. He says, you know, at the end, there are only two kinds of souls. There are souls that say to God Your will be done, and there are souls to whom God says your will be done.

HH: Now are they uncomfortable in limbo? Or are they just shuffling around making small talk?

SS: Well, that’s a great question.

LA: What are you doing, Hugh? Are you looking around for a comfortable spot?

SS: They’ve got a condo plan.

HH: I just want to know where to land.

SS: Well, no, it’s in fact very nice. I mean, they’ve got this castle of liberal arts going on down there, and they’ve got conversation. But the line that really haunts the passage, the only sound you hear when you enter limbo is sighing. And again, what Virgil said is we have no hope, but we live in longing. We desire, but we will not have any fulfillment. So it’s not, there’s not torment like in the other circles except for eternal desire without fulfillment.

HH: But what’s interesting, there are not wasps, though.

SS: No.

HH: So they’re not as physically uncomfortable as the first circle, the neutrals, but they are not happy, obviously.

— – – – –

HH: I’m still perplexed, Dr. Stephen Smith, Dr. Larry Arnn, my guests on this Good Friday edition of the Hillsdale Dialogue, as to why it would be worse to be a neutral, more painful, than to be in the next circle, Dr. Smith, in limbo.

SS: Well, this is the thing. So the neutrals are sometimes called circle zero, because remember, Hell didn’t want them, Heaven doesn’t want them. So the first circle, the first step down in the Inferno is into limbo. So this is the way the poem’s very challenging, you know. The neutral life of eternity sounds miserable, but then you have this strange canto about limbo. Dante is honored. He’s really happy. But again, hope without any fulfillment.

HH: Well then, it begins to make sense. Because when you go from lust to gluttony to suicide, you’re now following a path.

SS: Right.

HH: And does it make sense to your students, then?

SS: Yeah, you have to do a lot of, you know, it’s a difficult poem, and so you have to take it in daily portions, as Lewis said, step by step. But one of the best ways you can read the poem, and this is to grab a line from the very end that’s really helpful, one of the souls at the end complains to Dante and says why do you mirror yourself in us, kind of like leave us alone, you bum, like what are you, some kind of tourist? But that line seems to me really helpful. Why not look at each circle as Dante encountering mirror after mirror, because I think that’s in fact what’s going on. So the first is the neutrals, then there’s the classical poets, the lustful, it goes on. It’s like he is encountering what version after version of his own desires.

HH: And Francesca is in the lust circle. What’s her story?

SS: Yeah, so she’s the famous, you know, doomed lover, a lover of Apollo, and she tells Dante the story of how they were converted to the Inferno. That canto, Canto 5, seems to have as one of its big sources Augustine’s Confessions. But leaving that aside, he, Dante, hears the story. She explains how she and this guy, they got together one day, they were alone, they suspected nothing, and they just decided to read a story of adulterous passion together. And at the end of the story, Francesca blames love, she blames beauty, and she condemns the author and the book that they were reading. And so after all this, Dante just can’t take anymore and he faints.

HH: And boy, that’s the J’accuse that everyone out there producing art, huh?

SS: Yeah, well, the line is, a pimp was that author and his book. That day, we read no more, a famous line.

HH: Circle of gluttony next.

SS: Yeah, so you go from classical poetry, Dante loves it, loved poetry, amore, Francesca, he loves that, too. Gluttony is the circle in which Florentine politics are discussed for the first time. He meets an old chum named Ciacco, whose nickname was the Hog. And instead of talking about gluttony, they actually talk about politics. And this announces the political theme in the poem about Florence. And in the course of that conversation, Dante asks him, he says you know, tell me, Ciacco, all these guys I loved from Florentine politics, where are they now? Do you know? Does Heaven sweeten them? Does Hell poison them? And Ciacco says if you want to find them, you’re going to have to go down quite a bit further here.

HH: Does at any point any of them tell him that some of them got out?

SS: What do you mean, some of them got out?

HH: Well, that the sum of his political accomplices are in Paradiso?

SS: No, he’s taking it step by step.

HH: So they never give him a sense of other than despair

SS: Yeah, see, the lost souls, they can’t see the present moment, according to Dante. The present moment, this present moment has hope, right? The present moment is lost, but they can kind of give him these prophecies, and they can also tell him certain things about the fate of souls. But in the case of these political heroes, it’s a real shock to Dante to find out that the political men he loves so much are found in the deeper pits below.

HH: Now the next circle is probably, and I turn to Dr. Arnn…

LA: I want to say something about that.

SS: Sure.

HH: Go ahead.

LA: By the way, that means that there’s a turning from those hatreds that he had before, right, that those don’t seem as important anymore, because look what happened to them, right?

HH: Yup.

SS: Yeah, he has to. The problem is Dante keeps finding circles where he’d probably be quite at home.

HH: but he’s got to stick suicide in.

SS: Yeah.

HH: And ever since reading Sound And Fury by Faulkner, I’ve always thought that Catholicism, especially, was harsh on suicides. And how does he, he has to jam it in somewhere, because it’s not the normal sin, right?

SS: Right. Well, I mean, we’re going through, we’re making a leap from gluttony to suicide. We’re going to skip over anger and a whole bunch of other things. But…

HH: Stick there, then.

SS: Sure.

HH: Wait for the pause.

— – – –

HH: We’ve got to get through five circles of Hell in eight minutes, Dr. Smith.

SS: Well, as I said, I’m hitting on my favorites now, so fasten your seat belt. I’m not going to talk about every circle, but the suicides, you know, for Dante, self-destruction freely chosen, you know, is sort of like being the god of your life, deciding the moment of your death. And Pierre della Vigna is the character he meets in the wood of the suicides. Pierre is a kind of a prime minister. He is a poet. And when he falls from power, he is tempted to despair and then kills himself in prison. So his story, Hugh, is a lot like Dante’s own story. You know, he was top dog in his political world, he was undone by the envy of his enemies, he then kills himself.

HH: But this is a warning against despair. By being where he is…

SS: Yeah.

HH: He’s telling the reader don’t do that.

SS: Well, that’s it exactly. You know, if you look back to Canto 1, remember he spent a really bad night before the poem started. That was that Holy Thursday agony in the garden night. And a number of folks have wondered was Dante somehow tempted to suicide there? Is that what was going on at the beginning of the poem? It’s sort of mysterious, you know? But Pierre is the big suicide, so a politician/poet who kills himself when he loses. So that’s a particularly important encounter for Dante.

HH: Then there is Brunetto, and I don’t get him at all.

SS: Yeah, so he is Dante’s old teacher. He was a very prominent writer, and big influence on Dante’s life. And that encounter is probably the most important in the poem so far, because it’s a teacher-student, father-son kind of moment. Dante cannot believe that Brunetto is in Hell. And he says, you know, Sir Brunetto, are you really here? And the conversation unfolds, and Dante says you know, Brunetto, if I had my will, you would not be here. If I had my will, I would undo this and get you out of here. And you know, Brunetto appreciates that, but the other thing that comes up in the Brunetto Latini scene is what this guy taught Dante. This is what’s really important. Dante says I can’t shake the image of you from my mind, Sir Brunetto, how you taught me in the world from time to time, how man makes himself eternal. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful to you. And so that line has caught the attention of most readers, like what does that mean, you taught me how man makes himself eternal? And the teacher of that wisdom, the teacher of that line, is in the Inferno.

HH: Yup.

SS: So there’s part of the problem with the pilgrim, right?

HH: Pride. Now I have to leap ahead, because I’ve got to get Arnn a question. In the next circle of Hell, we run into Odysseus, Ulysses, who is in fact the key guy in Plato’s Republic. He’s the fellow who’ll get you through the Myth of Ur. And so you’re inverting the values structure here. He’s in Hell with Dante, but he’s at the top of the food chain when it comes to wisdom with Plato.

LA: Well, he’s also one of the ones who palliates the disaster for Greece of the Trojan War. So yeah, good observation, that’s exactly what happens.

HH: So what…

SS: Well remember, at the end of the Republic, it’s because Odysseus has learned from his former sufferings, and the former experiences of his loves that the life of a private man is better than the life of a tyrant.

HH: He doesn’t get a second chance in this Hell, though, does he?

SS: No, he doesn’t, and so it’s not the same Ulysses. In fact, Ulysses’ big thing here, and like Brunetto, this is one of the real key cantos, this guy’s strongest desire is to gain experience and knowledge, and for its own sake. He says nothing, not my wife, not my father, not my son, not my home, not my native place, nothing could drive forth from me the ardor to go gain experience and to learn a virtue and vice, knowledge and evil. And so that’s his key desire. A lot of people wonder what’s the problem with that? That sounds like what Dante wants.

HH: It isn’t striving to be God, it’s the apple. It’s the same deal.

SS: Yeah.

HH: But I have to ask you about the betrayers, because people don’t believe that there is a Brother Al. It sounds like a rap song, and that here at the end of the journey to Hell, you find Brother Al.

SS: Yes, that has been a bit of a running joke in class. To give him his due, it’s Brother Alberigo. And he’s the last human character you hear from in the poem, Canto 33. And he tells Dante something pretty wild, and basically that his body is still on Earth, but his soul is in the Inferno. And Dante can’t believe, what? You know, and theologians, that’s not possible. But the point poetically is that it is possible to be already in the Inferno and still be alive on Earth. And the only other character like Brother Al in the poem is Dante, right? He’s got a body, he’s in the Inferno, he doesn’t want to be there. So that last possibility in the poem that Dante throws out there is you know, you can be alive on Earth and already be here in the Inferno among these doomed lovers.

HH: Then they see Satan.

SS: Yeah.

HH: Behold Hell.

SS: Yeah, this is kind of the, I guess it’s the last image in the poem. So Dante shows you the three-headed Satan chewing on the betrayers, bat wings, up to his waist in ice. And Virgil says, really simply, this is the last site of the poem, Behold Hell. This is it right here. The angel that was created with a beautiful face, Lucifer, who through his own freedom has become a cannibal, weeping fruitless tears, trying to fly, stuck in ice, pure tragedy.

HH: But they get out.

SS: Yeah.

HH: And next week, we get out.

SS: Yeah.

HH: And we go to the Purgatorio, and you love that.

SS: Oh, that’s my absolute favorite. You know, for listeners, everyone can get through the Inferno, but then folks tend to stop at the Inferno. But don’t you want to see the world with the lights on? You know, beauty comes back in a rush, color comes back. All your favorite words are given glorious treatment in that poem, so it’s really the most beautiful human educational informative part of the poem.

HH: Well, it’s a beautiful recommendation to be here next week when we continue the Hillsdale Dialogue on Dante. Dr. Larry Arnn, Dr. Stephen Smith, a happy Easter to you both. Thanks for spending Good Friday with us, and thanks for leading, being our guide through those circles of Hell. Go to, America, for all of the Hillsdale offerings, and for this and all the other Hillsdale Dialogues.

End of interview.


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