Part of Dante’s heroism in the “Divine Comedy” is his enduring pursuit of knowledge—he is full of wonder and longing for the truth. These qualities also make him an exemplary student.
I have the great blessing of teaching at a tiny school in Wyoming that is truly devoted to liberal education. But for a few years, I taught composition at a community college in Dallas. One day in class, I asked my students why they were pursuing an education. “To get a good job,” they answered. When asked why they wanted a job they explained that they wanted to make money and when asked why they wanted to make money, they explained that money was necessary to stay alive. These students, many of them bright and ambitious, had spent years in a classroom, taking notes and turning in assignments, simply to stay alive. Now, I do not share this story to condemn either my students or community college, but to show the paltriness, the utterly unheroic goals of modern education. My students were not incapable of an education directed at more than mere survival; they had simply not been presented with a vision of the heroism of the student—a vision that Dante gives us in his Commedia.
“I pray you gentle father dear, / to teach me what love is,” Dante asks Virgil as they pause in their climb up Mt. Purgatory. Dante, “goaded by new thirst,” wants to know the truth about love. He thirsts for knowledge. According to Dennis Quinn, “no other epic hero is as hungry for knowledge as is Dante in his own poem.” And, Dr. Quinn adds, “It is as much the hunger that he celebrates . . . as it is the knowledge.” Dante’s continual thirst and hunger for knowledge make him an exemplary student whose desire to learn endures from hell to heaven. In this article, I hope to do three things. I would like to consider the particular qualities of Dante’s thirst. At the same time, I hope to show that careful reflection on Dante as a student can become an opportunity for encouraging students to reflect on what they themselves are doing and why they are doing it. The ultimate goal in both purposes is to cast the student as an epic hero in search of truth—a goal that is far nobler than simply staying alive.
Dante’s Stellar Attentiveness
To begin, let us attend to the nature of Dante’s studiousness. One of the qualities of Dante’s thirst for knowledge is attentiveness. As Dr. Quinn writes, “He is ‘all eyes,’ one whose senses and intelligence are alert for the significant particular.” After waking up in the dark woods at the beginning of Inferno, one of the first things Dante does is look: “I looked on high and saw its [the hill’s] shoulders clothed / already by the rays of that same planet / which serves to lead men straight along all roads.” It is important that what he sees here, in addition to the hill, is the sun, or more precisely the rays of the sun on the hill. In medieval cosmology, the sun is the planet associated with wisdom; in Dante’s paradise, it is the place where philosophers and theologians dwell. Dante comes out of darkness and sees the sun that leads men straight. Or more precisely, he sees the sun-clothed hill; Dante, having just emerged from the dark woods, is certainly not ready to gaze upon the sun in all its splendor. At the beginning of the Commedia our hero is certainly not ready, spiritually or intellectually, for Beatrice’s abstract theology (most of his readers aren’t either). Before his stellar vision is perfected, he must gaze at a great many more things, both terrible and beautiful. So many things that I cannot hope even to begin to address all of them; thus for reasons of economy, I am going to limit my reflections primarily to Dante’s stellar attentiveness (I use star as Dante does, to refer to the stars and the planets).
For most of Inferno, Dante cannot attend to the stars as he travels through the starless pit of hell. He has to gaze on a world without the stars in order to journey to them, or as he puts it, “to set forth the good I found / I will recount the other things I saw.” He proceeds to do so for some 30 cantos, gazing through the haziness of hell at souls in torment. While this infernal gazing reveals God’s justice and man’s error to Dante, it is done for the sake of gazing at the good. Gazing at evil is not an end in itself. When Dante and Virgil emerge from the pit “to see again the stars,” the reader experiences profound relief and liberation; finally, after all the horror of hell, Dante rises up to attend to the stars, those unblemished and unchanging bodies of beauty, which John Senior interprets as “the reasons for things.” Inferno ends, as it began, with a moment of stellar sight, though now Dante, who has stayed alive in the face of evil, is ready not only to gaze at but to begin his ascent to “the reasons for things.”
In Purgatorio, Dante attends to stars that have been denied to human sight since the fall: “fixing my attention / on the other pole, I saw four stars / not seen but by those first on earth / The very sky seemed to rejoice / in their bright glittering.” Dante, ever attentive, now beholds a moment of Edenic cosmology. These four stars are often read as signifying the cardinal virtues; such an interpretation is fitting for Purgatorio, in which Dante undergoes an education in vice and virtue. Having seen the horror of souls enslaved to vice, he is now ready to see how virtue can liberate the soul. As he ascends, the boundaries of what he can attend to expand. His sight is growing more capacious, a result of practicing the habit of attentiveness.
As Dante moves ever closer to God, both physically and spiritually, his attentiveness continues to strengthen, enabling him to behold the highest objects. Whereas at the beginning of Inferno, he can only look at the sun obscured by a hill, at the beginning of Paradiso, Dante turns his eyes directly towards it (he sees Beatrice look and then he himself looks): “so her [Beatrice’s] gaze, pouring through my eyes / on my imagination, made itself my own, and I, / against our practice, set my eyes upon the sun.” In this moment, he is able to make Beatrice’s gaze his own; her attentiveness becomes his attentiveness. We see here that attentiveness is a communal act—the pupil partakes in the attentiveness of the teacher. The whole of Paradiso is this kind of training in vision, in sun-gazing, you might say, as Dante becomes more and more able to behold the sun and, by extension, the true nature of the cosmos.
Dante’s Attentive Wonder
This Dantesque-attentiveness is essential for students. They must be trained to attend to the terrible and the beautiful, to the big picture and to the small details. Dr. Quinn observes that “wonder is the chief inciter of attention.” Wonder, that passion which is a species of fear, namely the fear of ignorance that awakens desire for contemplation, is also an attitude of receptiveness towards the beauty and mystery of existence. Teachers and students alike must inculcate wonder in order to attend. The Commedia provides an exceptional model of the way in which wonder incites attention, as Dante, frequently “[o]vercome by wonder” demonstrates both the passion and the intellectual habit.
In any course that concerns itself with texts, students must learn to attend to the details of that text—to slow down and look carefully. They must become, like Dante, all eyes. The more they look, the sharper their sight becomes, the more they are able to see. Wonder, as Dr. Quinn observes, incites this kind of attention; the realization of ignorance, the desire to know, and the receptiveness to beauty and mystery inspire students to pay attention. The teacher, like Virgil and Beatrice, shows them their ignorance and then encourages them to look. Now, this is not always terribly sublime or glamorous. There is the slow work of having them read out loud, outline what they have read, and focus on individual passages and the tedious labor of forced or banal interpretations. Acquiring and refining a new habit is always awkward. Dante himself shows us this awkwardness; he is often looking in the wrong direction or with too much or too little intensity.
While the teacher has a duty to inspire the wonder that leads to attention, the student must also be open and receptive; they must participate in their own training in attention. Although Dante relies heavily on both Virgil and Beatrice, he also has within his own soul a deep capacity to wonder and the subsequent desire to attend.
Dante’s Wondering Questions & the Triumph of the Student
That wondering attentiveness expresses itself in speech through questions. Dante is all eyes and all questions. How can I go on this journey? What is the right path? What is love? In Paradiso, he wants to know about spots on the moon and if those in the moon desire to be higher up in heaven, “where you might see still more.” This lunar question leads Beatrice to chide his materialistic understanding of the stars and offer, instead, a spiritual explanation. Dante’s questions show how wonder animates him; he, in response to the mystery of what he sees, recognizes his own ignorance, fears it, and desires to know more. Attention gives birth to speech.
In the final canto of Paradiso, Dante reveals the goal of all this attending and questioning. One of the final images of the poem is Dante beholding the scattered pieces of the universe as one. It is his ultimate triumph as a student: “I saw—ingathered / and bound by love into one single volume— / what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered: / substances, accidents, and dispositions.” This is a moment in which attention is full apprehension. Dante doesn’t need a teacher to direct his attention to a particular detail because he is attending to the whole. He doesn’t need to ask questions because all is explained. Nothing is left out. The disparate universe has become a single book, able to be read at a glance. This vision is the goal of attentiveness, of wonder, of questioning—the apprehension of truth, whole and united.
In Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains the medieval distinction between ratio and intellectus. He writes, “Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding.” Intellectus, in contrast, is an act of intellectual vision “to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye.” Intellectus is not active intellectual effort “but passive, or better, receptive—a receptively operating power of the intellect.” In a moment of intellectus, the beholder receives, as a gift, a vision of truth; Dante’s vision of the universe as a single volume is a moment of intellectus. This vision has been preceded by St. Bernard’s prayer to Mary at the end of Paradiso:
by your grace . . . grant such power
that by lifting up his [Dante’s] eyes,
he may rise higher toward his ultimate salvation.
And I, who never burned for my own seeing,
more than now I burn for his.
After this prayer, Bernard signals Dante to look up, “but of my own accord / I was already doing what he wished.” Dante looks into the light emanating from God and beholds his vision. He does not stop to define terms or craft a syllogism or ask a question (he doesn’t even need to be told to look); instead, he orients his gaze to “the Goodness that is infinite,” “the eternal Light” and then beholds the single volume. This beholding of the whole is, I contend, the goal of the student. To see truth not simply in one text or one discipline, but as a united whole.
Pieper muses that while ratio might be necessary to prepare the soul for intellectus it is not the cause of intellectus; he writes, “such highest realizations of knowing [intellectus] would be preceded by an exceptional effort of thought [ratio], and perhaps must be so prepared . . . but in any case, the effort would not be the cause but rather a necessary condition for it.” There has been ratio, human discursive effort, all throughout the poem. Dante has attended and questioned, he has been given and has himself given definitions and arguments; he has even undergone an oral examination—an experience that should resonate with every student—in which he is asked by his examiners, St. Peter, St. James, and St. John no less, to define faith, hope, and love. But here at the end in the Celestial Rose, Dante simply receives. His intellectual effort throughout the Commedia, his ratio, has prepared him for this moment, but it has not caused it. His vision has been a gift of divine grace.
In the classroom, during a typical semester, even in the whole of most of our lives, such vision is impossible. However, there are moments of illumination, of intellectus, when students have a clarifying insight that allows them to unite previously disparate observations (indeed, I think this is one argument for final exams: they encourage students to attempt to unite disparate observations of the semester into something of a single volume). I say attempt to unite, but so often the uniting seems to happen of its own accord, as a kind of gift. I think even those who don’t believe in a divine gift-giver can recognize the giftedness of moments of intellectus, which come to us so immediately and so gratuitously. Through Dante’s vision, we can show students how they, in less dramatic and cosmic fashion to be sure, have similar moments and are striving for the same goal. Students must be both active and receptive; they must exercise ratio, but they must be open to intellectus when it comes. The former makes the latter possible; Dante would not have been able to receive this vision of the whole had his sight not been trained throughout the whole poem, beginning with his first glance at the sun in Inferno. But the moment of apprehension is itself a gift.
The Commedia is an epic, with an epic hero; part of Dante’s heroism is his enduring pursuit of knowledge—he is full of wonder and longing for the truth. He shows us the nobility of the student. He even shows us the triumph of the student who, after the effort of ratio, receives truth as a gift, in a moment of intellectus. We should call students’ attention to the heroic nobility of their vocation. They are not just trying to pass the class (often their most immediate goal) or leverage their education into a career (often their more long-term goal) or just trying to stay alive (often their real but unstated goal). They are attempting, for a few years, to devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and to obtaining what John Henry Newman calls, “a habit of mind.” Such habit of mind attends to the world and asks questions about it, seeking truth, not as disparate pieces, but as a single volume. Like the pursuit of glory, so cherished by heroes like Achilleus and Hektor, the pursuit of truth is worthy of a hero. Students should be awakened to the heroism of their calling, and Dante can inspire such an awakening. He can help them, not stay alive, but “rise up to the stars.”
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Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated and edited by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2000.
———. Paradiso. Translated and edited by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2007.
———. Purgatorio. Translated and edited by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2003
Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. Edited by Martin J. Svaglic. University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.
Pieper, Josef. Leisure, The Basis of Culture. Translated by Gerald Malsbary. St. Augustine’s Press, 1998.
Quinn, Dennis. Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder. University Press of America, 2002.
Senior, John. “The Seven-Storied Tower.” The Integration of Knowledge: Discourses on Education. Edited by Dennis B. Quinn. IHP, 1979.
 Purgatorio 18.13-14.
 Dennis Quinn, Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002): 147.
 Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2000): 1.16-18.
 Ibid., 1.8-9.
 Ibid., 34.139.
 John Senior, “The Seven-Storied Tower,” in The Integration of Knowledge: Discourses on Education, ed. Dennis B. Quinn (Lawrence, KS: Integrated Humanities Program, 1979): 7.
 Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, trans. by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2003): 1.22-26.
 Ibid., 1.52-53.
 Quinn, Iris Exiled, 146.
 Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2007): 22.1.
 Ibid., 3.66.
 Ibid., 33. 85-88.
 Josef Pieper, Leisure, The Basis of Culture, trans. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998): 11.
 Ibid., 11-12.
 Dante, Paradiso, 33.25-27.
 Ibid., 33.50-51.
 Ibid., 33.81, 83.
 Pieper, Leisure, 18-19.
 John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986): 76.
 Dante, Purgatorio, 33.145.
The featured image is “Dante in Hell” (1835) by Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.