[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”047067105X” locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51P%2BHz8gfwL.jpg” width=”220″ alt=”Raymond Angelo Belliotti” ]Performed Within God’s World
A Review of
Dante’s Deadly Sins: Moral Philosophy in Hell
Raymond Angelo Belliotti
Paperback: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
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Reviewed by Myles Werntz
Dante Alligheri’s magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, has the dubious distinction of being not only one of the most theologically sophisticated works of the medieval world, but also one of the most misunderstood. Dante’s work has inspired generations of reflections on the nature of good and evil, Hell, God’s justice, and human agency, spawning both grotesque video game bastardizations and astute philosophical treatments. At first blush, the Comedy is a carnival of the grotesque, a Saw-like panoply of crime and punishment, with the author ingeniously matching the individual’s grievous sin with an equally grievous penance. But upon closer examination, a complex and intricate vision of the moral life emerges, with the reader journeying not only through the depths of the Inferno, but to the apex of Paradise.
Belliotti’s recent work takes an intriguing approach to Dante, choosing to view the Comedy not as a complex work of theology, but as vision of moral philosophy. To be sure, Dante himself had qualms about the combination of theology and politics, or put differently, the trumping of the moral life by ecclesiastical norms, having seen his own beloved Florence come under the jurisdiction of the 13th century papacy. And it is surely not without precedent in the medieval world for theologically inclined writers to undertake moral philosophy as a distinct subject. The question, however, is whether Dante can read accurately independently of these theological presuppositions without doing damage to Dante’s work.
Belliotti, for one, attempts to undertake such a project, bringing Dante into conversation with existentialist philosophy. Arguing that “philosophical understanding was his message” (17), Belliotti sees Dante’s message as one of personal and existential salvation. The work begins with an outline of the first two movements of the Comedy—the Inferno and the Purgatorio—describing the overall arch of the work. In doing this, Belliotti seeks to separate Dante’s analysis of the moral life as presented in the first two books of the work from their culmination in Paradiso, insofar as Paradiso does not directly address the issues Belliotti sees as central to moral philosophy: sin, retribution, personal responsibility, desert, and vices (17).
The subsequent chapter turns to the question of moral desert in Dante, examining how Dante’s notion of contrapasso functions to show in what ways people choose their moral fate. Illustrating this with three case studies, Belliotti pursues the intriguing question of what would cause a person to choose this fate of being divided from God, of an eternity of punishment. For Belliotti, appealing t Sartre’s teaching of humanity being condemned to freedom is instructive here, that ultimately, moral desert is a matter of human choice. The following chapter, dealing with the question of the virtuous pagans, takes this analysis further. For Belliotti, Dante’s condemnation of the virtuous pagans Virgil and Cato exposes a particular puzzle in Dante’s moral vision: that ultimately moral systems give way to divine prerogative. Though both figures offer valuable treatments of the value of political loyalty and faith, Dante cannot presume them to be worthy of beatitude without succumbing to pride, the cardinal sin. Through love, we are able to overcome the fracturing vices which diminish our personhood, and able to engage in “person-making”, the self-renewing practices which lead to wholeness (147). The conclusion draws these examinations together, calling for a full vision of human flourishing rooted in a rejection of vice and an embrace of freedom and love. This formation occurs over a long journey, as illustrated by Dante’s assent through Inferno and Purgatorio, requiring commitment in the face of radical uncertainty (170). Exercising resolve in the face of overwhelming forces opposing change—as seen in Dante’s own biography—the reader of the Comedy is exhorted to live the good life in faith and commitment to the good, existentially understood.l
In one sense, this rereading of the Comedy is interesting insofar as it draws Dante’s concerns for the good life into conversation with contemporary philosophy which finds the theological concerns of Dante either uninteresting, hegemonic, or detrimental to the pursuit of the good life. In treating the Comedy as work of moral philosophy, Belliotti is constructing an apologia of sorts, bringing what may be perceived as a curious literary and philosophical work into the modern world. This, as it stands, is an admirable aim. My concern, however, is in limiting his analysis of the moral life to the first two sections of the Comedy to the exclusion of the third (Paradiso), Dante’s analysis of the moral life is misunderstood.
For Dante, the journey from Inferno through Purgatorio is unintelligible apart from the culmination of the journey in Paradiso. In transitioning from Purgatorio to Paradiso, Dante is not abandoning his prior moral questions explored in Inferno and Purgatorio, but seeing these questions through to their culmination. Even in Paradiso, Dante still asks questions of desert and responsibility, as even in Heaven, there are levels of participation in the happiness of the afterlife which are linked to a person’s virtue and choices in life. By divorcing Heaven from the moral journey through Hell and Purgatory, Bellitolli is attempting to purchase a dialogue with contemporary philosophy, but ultimately shortchanges Dante’s logic. For Dante, if the moral life ultimately is for the sake of leading one to God, to discuss questions of moral desert, human agency, and responsibility without considering the telos of moral action—God—is nonsensical.
This is not to say that Dante cannot be drawn into conversation with existentialist philosophy, or cannot be the basis for consideration by moderns. Far from it! Rather, Dante poses a challenge from within existentialist philosophy, by offering a different account of human freedom and responsibility, and—perhaps more significantly—a much thicker account of the context of human agency. For Dante, moral choice was not exercised on a naked plane of human construction, but performed within God’s world; the separation of papal power from civic life which Belliotti takes as partial authorization for his project was not, as he supposes, a modern analogy to the separation of church and state, but was for Dante a deeply theological choice born out of convictions of how God’s world is rightly governed. By connecting moral choice with the telos of moral choice—God—Dante poses a significant challenge to existentialist philosophy’s limits, imagining human freedom as pregnant with the power of transcendence, creating an even more rich conversation than Belliotti intended. But the riches of Inferno cannot be had without their end in Paradiso, making Raymond Angelo Belliotti’s work suggestive but ultimately flawed.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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