It was there, in the first circle of Hell, that I first understood what it meant to be a virtuous pagan. It meant to be led by the dim but true light of reason, to seek continually after the higher things, to pursue with courage and devotion a life of virtue.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Dante: On Virtuous Pagans
In my previous letter, I told you that God sent me on a fantastic journey from hell to purgatory to paradise. What I did not tell you is whom he chose to guide me from the broken gates of hell to the Garden of Eden: a pagan poet who died some twenty years before Christ was born.
In my age, just as in yours, opinions were divided on the pre-Christian poets and philosophers of Greece and Rome. Some said that a Christian could not learn anything of lasting value from such poets and philosophers; indeed, he risked being led astray by reading their work. Others preferred to put all religions, from paganism to Christianity, on the same level playing field, treating them equally as man-made cultural products.
I would suggest to you a middle way between those two extremes.
God was right to select Virgil as my guide—but only to the top of purgatory. Though Virgil lacked direct knowledge of the Old Testament and its prophecies of the Messiah, he possessed real wisdom that pointed forward to the great and final revelation of Christ and the New Testament. Nevertheless, he could not lead me into heaven itself, for such knowledge lay beyond the limits of his discernment.
No sooner did I cross the river Acheron than I came upon the first circle of hell: the eternal habitation of the virtuous pagans. There I met soldiers like Hector and Aeneas, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and poets like Homer and Horace who had led good and noble lives but who lacked the grace of Christ. In all of hell, only their circle glowed with light, though it was a light far dimmer than any seen on the earth.
Unlike the rest of the damned souls, these souls suffered no punishment or pain, but walked freely on the grass and conversed with one another. They took delight in their conversation, but it was a stoic delight that never blossomed into joy. For though they possessed wisdom, they were, one and all, bereft of hope. I heard no laughter there, only a long and heartfelt sigh that hung and resonated on the air.
Here, too, was the abode of Virgil, though he was given leave for a time to guide me through hell and purgatory.
It was there, in the first circle of hell, that I first understood what it meant to be a virtuous pagan. It meant to be led by the dim but true light of reason, to seek continually after the higher things, to pursue with courage and devotion a life of virtue. It took me some time to realize why the final home of the virtuous pagans seemed so familiar to me.
Then the truth struck me. It was because I had heard it described before in the books and poems of those very virtuous pagans who lived there.
They had called it the Elysian Fields and had imagined it as a long field of grass on which the heroes of old wandered back and forth recalling their deeds of valor and their lives of virtue. As I stood in that walled garden of earthly delights, surrounded by the flower of pagan Greece and Rome, I realized that the Father of that Christ whom they did not know had given them the very thing that they yearned for.
Know this, you who live in the twenty-first century, that our desires reach farther than our reason. Reason does provide us with light, but, like the light in the first circle of hell, its reach is limited; it cannot provide the kind of illumination that heaven affords.
Desire may, at first, be less focused and distinct than reason, but, if we follow it faithfully back to its true source, it will lead us out of the darkness and into the light.
As I followed Virgil up the circles of purgatory, I received a second insight into the nature of the virtuous pagans that I would like to share with you as well. It came to me through a Latin poet named Statius who I thought had died a pagan, but who I learned, to my great surprise, had embraced the grace of Christ during the second Roman persecution under Emperor Domitian.
Eager to know his story, I asked him how it was that he had come to the faith of Peter and Paul. In answer, he pointed to my guide! As he listened to the teachings of the Christians, he explained, he found that they lined up exactly with a poem that Virgil had written some forty years before the birth of Christ. Though Virgil did not know it, through that poem—the fourth in a series of ten eclogues—the God of the Bible had used him to prophesy the coming of the Messiah.
Sadly, though the fourth eclogue had been the door through which Statius entered the Church, the poem itself proved useless to the poet who had written it. For Statius, Virgil was like a guide who holds his lamp behind him: its yellow light illumines the way for those who follow behind him but leaves him, the light bearer, in darkness.
To be a virtuous pagan, I discovered, is to be something of a Christ figure, a bridge between darkness and light, ignorance and truth, error and the One True Way. It is to be a candle held aloft in a midnight world that has yet to know the life-giving warmth of the sun.
You who live in a skeptical age may think that what I have written is half coincidence and half superstitious nonsense. But do not give in to that cynicism that too often masquerades as wisdom. God, Psalm 19 tells us, not only speaks through the Bible, but through the glory and power of the heavens he created.
Though he spoke directly only to the Jews, he did not simply ignore the rest of humanity. He maintained a witness among the Gentiles by showing forth his majesty in nature, by declaring his holiness in and through their conscience, and by inspiring their greatest poets and prophets with glimpses of greater truths to come.
By such methods, God prepared the world for the coming of the One who would be the Savior, not only of Israel, but of the world.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Elysian Fields” by Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.