The greatest poets, including Homer, Virgil, and Dante, ask what happens to the human soul after death. Do the dead become mere shadows of their former selves or do they become more real?
The greatest poets have always asked the most important questions. One of the most important questions concerns the destiny of the human soul after death. What happens to us once we shuffle off this mortal coil? Those who believe that nothing happens have nothing to say, which is another way of saying that atheists do not make great poets.
Homer, the first and perhaps greatest of poets, has his hero Odysseus descend into the Underworld. He discovers, and we discover when we go with him, that the dead are mere shadows of their former selves. The underworld is the shadowland. Our world is the real world. This is where real solid souls commune in the flesh. What happens after we die is less real, as are we.
Virgil, emulating his mentor Homer, has his own hero, Aeneas, descend into the land of the dead. He discovers that the dead are judged and that the wicked suffer dreadful punishments after death, whereas the virtuous live in peace. There is still the sense, however, that the souls in the afterlife are less real than Aeneas, mere shadows in comparison.
Dante, emulating his mentor Virgil, has his own protagonist descend into the Underworld. It is, however, not as an epic hero that Dante’s protagonist takes the paths of the dead but as a miserable sinner. The fictional Dante in the story, who must be separated from his authorial namesake, begins in the Dark Wood of sin and confusion from which his own sins prevent him from escaping. He is in a midlife crisis and is in need of help. And the kind of help he needs is beyond his own power, beyond the “self-help” of the prideful Pelagian. The help he needs is supernatural assistance, which theologians call grace. It is, therefore, as an agent of grace that Virgil is sent by his heavenly superiors to assist Dante.
As Dante begins his descent into hell, we come to see him as an everyman figure. He is one of us; or, rather, he is not merely one of us: he is us. He is homo viator. He is a Man on a journey or quest to reach the goal which is the fulfilment of his purpose and being. He is who we are, or who we are called to be. As he descends through the levels of the inferno, meeting one damned soul after another, we are aware that he is more real than they are. The damned are mere shadows of the men they were called to be. They have turned their back on the real presence of reality and have become less fully real in consequence. They have abandoned hope and have become desperate shadows.
As Dante ascends Mount Purgatory, we become aware that he is in the presence of real men who are in the process of becoming more real. They are being cleansed and nourished by the spirit of penance that animates them. They are becoming stronger. More solid. They will soon become real enough and solid enough to ascend into Paradise.
As Dante ascends into Paradise, we become aware that he is now less real than the saints whom he meets. They are fully real, whereas he is a mere shadow in comparison. In order to become as real as the saints, he must become a saint himself. He must be happy to accept the spiritual help (grace) that he needs and without which he can do nothing. He must shun the shadowlands of sin and the shadow of reality it offers. He must take up his cross purgatorially, knowing that Christ will help him carry it, accepting and embracing the sufferings of life as the means of becoming more solid, more real. It is only along the path of this purgatorial via dolorosa that the gates of heaven can be reached.
In the twentieth century, the two greatest writers to follow in the fearless footsteps of Homer, Virgil, and Dante by taking the paths of the dead are C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the former in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle, and the latter in the little-known short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” In my next essay, I will follow Tolkien and Lewis as they voyage into the void and beyond on the quest to discover what happens in life after death.
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The featured image is Souls on the Banks of the Acheron (1898) by Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl (1860–1933) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.