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AQ Lecture Series: Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Human Will

Story by Tom Doetsch, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Energy Enhancement

Anthony Esolen, Professor of Renaissance English Literature at Providence College, translated Dante’s Divine Comedy for Modern Library. He gave a lecture on The Divine Comedy and human will on November 10 in the Performing Arts Center.

The Comedy is set up in three separate sections, all of which take place in different realms: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante travels with his guide Virgil through Inferno and Purgatorio, and then Beatrice shows him through Paradiso. Esolen sets up his argument by saying the entire poem is about freedom, and how the bonds of love, justice, and, desire either hinder or help humanity to achieve freedom.

“Humans possess freedom of will,” Esolen said, and it is this freedom of will that imprisons the souls of Hell.

He explains that the souls in Hell have chosen to fixate on one evil they devoted their earthly life to and thus freely chose that evil for the rest of eternity. Virgil and Dante travel through all the circles of Hell until they reach the center, where Satan is. Dante describes Satan as having three heads and in each one he is chewing the greatest traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. His torso is frozen in ice, but he can move his wings and the incredible gales he produces freeze the four rivers of Hell, which gather at this one point. Satan entraps himself in his own ice. His own freedom is that which imprisons him.

“Purgatory is the realm where you are set free,” Esolen said.

Similar to the circles of Hell, the rings of Purgatory are designed to cleanse away each of the seven deadly sins, and since pride is the biggest it is the first to be washed away. Dante and Virgil run into a soul named Kato, who immediately recognizes Virgil, but Virgil takes some time to remember him. Esolen talks about how Kato is an allegory for Purgatory because even though he rises up against Julius Caesar and takes his own life when his army is defeated, he takes the blame for all of Rome’s wrongdoings. In doing so Kato becomes more Christ-like by taking on the sins of others and atoning for them.

Esolen paraphrases Dante when he describes how hot the purifying fires of purgatory are: “To cool myself I would’ve gone through boiling glass.”

Soon enough they reach the top of Purgatory and Virgil and Dante have to part ways, because Virgil can not enter Heaven. Dante travels with Beatrice throughout Heaven. Dante meets St. Thomas Aquinas and he tells him about freedom, Esolen paraphrases saying, “Like a river isn’t determined to go into the sea but is freed in doing so you have been freed through this journey.”

Choosing the will of God over the self will is true freedom. At the end of the lecture, Esolen says, “the equivalent of freedom is the essence of love.”

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