Anthony Esolen, a Competent Guide to Dante

anthony esolen divine comedy translation

Some of the most fascinating parts of the Divine Comedy are its technical discourses. In the trek through Purgatory, Dante has various characters ramble on about the freedom of the will, the topography of Purgatory, the nature of love, the formation of the soul, the history of the church, and the relationship between church and state. While some people may find these passages dull, they are very important in the grand scheme of the Comedy. They form the hypostases of Dante’s theological, philosophical, and political concerns and they support the dynamic, narrative pediment he sculpts. Within this narrative pediment is an exuberant density of allusions—imagine the Elgin Marbles as a literary and historical mashup of characters. David Bentley Hart says, “Much of the immediate poetic power of the Comedy lies in its unrelenting rapidity: the continuous stream of imagery, the compulsive movement of the narrative, and above all the unarrested coursing of the poetry itself, which perfectly unites consummate economy of language and overflowing fullness of aesthetic effect.”[1]

For this reason, the Comedy itself can become a selva oscura—a dark and dense wood we sleepily find ourselves in. It’s easy to get lost with so much going on, and so quickly. We need our own guide to help us find our way, just like Dante needed Virgil. But here another problem instantly arises—there are SO many guides offering there services. There are over 60 English translations of the Comedy in its entirety. We get lost in the woods before entering the woods themselves. I took a very scientific approach to solving this problem by reading the first canto of any translation I could find at my local Half Price Books (not quite all 60). And then I found out that David Bentley Hart highly appraised Esolen’s translation. I found out he was Italian, and a strong Catholic, and I found a copy at my local Half Price Books with which I could test the first canto. It was the one for me.

Esolen is a great guide to Dante’s journey. The Hollanders may trump him in clarity and directness (they impose upon themselves no meter constraints and don’t ever try to rhyme), but I found Esolen more poetic, interesting, and religious. Just reading each of their intros will put their characteristics in strong relief.

Here is a portion of Esolen’s translation on the freedom of the will as the source of evil in the world:

“Grant that the whole world is one bare desert stretch
despoiled of every virtue, as you say,
covered and covering with iniquity:

But pray, show me the cause of all this sin,
that I may see it and reveal it, for
some blame the stars, some fortune here below.”

He let out a deep sigh that sorrow wrung
into a groan. “My brother,” he began,
“the world is blind, and it has been your home.

You living men attribute to the sky
the causes of all things, as if they moved
ever and only by necessity.

That would destroy the freedom of your will,
nor would it then be just to deal out joy
for doing well, or woe for doing ill.

The heavens give your movements their first nudge—
not all your movements, but let’s grant that too—
still, light is given that you may freely judge

And choose the good or evil; and should free will
grow weary in the first battles with the stars,
foster it well and it will win the day.

You men lie subject to that One who made
you free, a greater force, a better nature,
who formed your minds without the planets’ aid.

Thus if this present world has gone askew,
look to yourselves, in yourselves lies the cause.
Now I shall scout the truth of this for you.”[2]

And here is his incredible comment on this passage in the intro to Purgatory.

The soul in its infancy is formally free, but because of the damage done to it and to human nature by the sin of Adam, it is prone to go astray. In the dark woods of this life wherein it does go astray, the soul is still free, in the sense that it is not compelled to do what it wills. Freely does it enslave itself to its lower, more easily compassed, often disappointing desires. Freely does it forge its own fetters and manacles. Freely does it defer until later and still later the moment when it would turn to its Good; and freely, in the end, does it make what seems its inevitable choice: to decide to remain as it is, to conclude that, in C. S. Lewis’s analogy, it would be too difficult for it and too wearisome to turn, even if that meant no more effort than it takes to brush away a fly. What breaks this dreary and inexorable self-enslavement is not an especially strong effort of the will. One cannot free oneself: Dante’s encounter with the three beasts in the dark wood shows how quickly a settled resolution will fail and fall into despair when it encounters, directly in its path, the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Grace is required, the free gift of God. It is even required, says Thomas Aquinas, to prompt the soul’s acceptance of grace; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that man can do to file the manacles off his hands, without the liberating gift of grace.

To accept one’s own helplessness, throwing oneself upon the mercy of God, is to embrace… the virtue that makes one like a child again—for we cannot become new men, Jesus suggests, until we are born again, indeed born again as children. That virtue is humility. It is a paradox that humility should be a prerequisite for our regaining our freedom.[3]




1. David Bentley Hart, Dante Decluttered
2. Anthony Esolen, Dante’s Purgatory, 16:57-84
3. Anthony Esolen, Dante’s Purgatory, p. xx

Paul’s Verdict on the Law in Galatians

ceremonial law and christian

I was recently involved in a lengthy conversation on Twitter about the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law. The conversation revolved around whether some of the dietary laws are still in force (Lev. 11). The question came up in light of James’ recommendation of Gentile partial dietary abstinence—”from things sacrificed to idols and blood and things strangled” (Acts 15:29). Paul said that Christ abolished in His flesh the law of commandments in ordinances (Eph. 2:15). This would certainly include the three main ordinances of Judaism—the Sabbath, circumcision, and the dietary regulations. All three have been abolished and fulfilled in Christ.

Let no one therefore judge you in eating and in drinking or in respect of a feast or of a new moon or of the Sabbath, which are a shadow of the things to come, but the body is of Christ. –Col. 2:16-17

A Constellation of Christ

The New Testament can be thought of as a constellation of verses. When viewed as a whole the figure that we can make out is Christ in the economy of God. This is because the Bible is a revelation of God’s operation in and on Christ to produce what He wants. Within this massive constellation are several discernible verse clusters that form asterisms of varying brightness (an asterism is a pattern of stars within a constellation, e.g. the Big Dipper in Ursa Major). One of these verse patterns is the relationship of the Christian to the Mosaic law. Although this pattern stretches across the entire New Testament sky, the densest cluster of verses in this pattern appears in the book of Galatians.

Why Paul Wrote Galatians

Paul wrote Galatians to deal with the problem of the law and liberate God’s people into the experience and enjoyment of Christ as the Spirit, through the cross, and for the new creation. The law, for religious people, is the biggest distraction from Christ (just like philosophy is for the non-religious person, hence 1 Corinthians and Colossians). Galatians is an apostolic rescue mission to save us from its bewitching power.

I just started Galatians again in my Bible reading schedule and decided to collect all the statements that Paul makes about the law. I came up with 60 instances where the observance of the law is denounced[1].

The Observance of the Law:

  1. Is part of the present evil age (1:4)
  2. Removes us from the God who has called us in grace (1:6)
  3. Is a different gospel (1:6)
  4. Troubles the believers (1:7)
  5. Perverts the gospel of Christ (1:7)
  6. Its preaching is cursed by Paul (1:8)
  7. Pales in comparison to the revelation of God’s Son (1:16)
  8. Brings people into slavery (2:4)
  9. Is against the truth of the gospel (2:5)
  10. Is opposed by Paul (2:11)
  11. Is condemned by Paul (2:11)
  12. Causes separation among the believers (2:12)
  13. Produces hypocrisy (2:13)
  14. Is to walk contrary to the straightforward way of the truth of the gospel (2:14)
  15. Adds nothing to our justification (2:16)
  16. Is to build again things the gospel has destroyed (2:18)
  17. Is something we have died to (2:19)
  18. Nullifies the grace of God (2:21)
  19. Makes Christ’s death vain (2:21)
  20. Is foolish (3:1)
  21. Is bewitching (3:1)
  22. Has nothing to do with receiving the Spirit (3:2)
  23. Is related to the flesh (3:3)
  24. Cannot perfect us (3:3)
  25. Brings people under a curse (3:10)
  26. Justifies no one (3:11)
  27. Is not related to faith (3:12)
  28. Is something Christ has redeemed us out of (3:13)
  29. Is not the means by which we inherit the blessing of Abraham (3:14)
  30. Is preceded, and therefore superceded, by the promise to Abraham (3:17)
  31. Was a temporary addition until Christ (3:19)
  32. Is unable to give life or righteousness (3:21)
  33. Is a prison (3:22)
  34. Was a temporary guard (3:23)
  35. Is a child-conductor unto Christ (3:24)
  36. Is something we are no longer under (3:25)
  37. Was a temporary provision while God’s people were children (4:3)
  38. Is to turn back to the weak and poor elementary principles of the world (4:9)
  39. Is something Paul fears (4:11)
  40. Shuts people out from the gospel (4:17)
  41. Is in the position of a concubine, not a proper wife (4:22)
  42. Produces slaves, not rightful sons (4:30)
  43. Is something to be cast out (4:30)
  44. Is an entangling yoke of slavery (5:1)
  45. Makes Christ of no profit to the believers (5:2)
  46. Makes people debtors to the whole law (5:3)
  47. Reduces people to nothing (5:4)
  48. Separates people from Christ (5:4)
  49. Causes people to fall from grace (5:4)
  50. Avails nothing (5:6)
  51. Is a hindrance to our progress, faith, and obedience (5:7)
  52. Is not a persuasion that comes from Christ (5:8)
  53. Even if practiced a little, leavens the whole church (5:9)
  54. Annuls the stumbling block of the cross (5:11)
  55. Causes the believers to bite, devour, and consume one another (5:15)
  56. Is powerless against the lust of the flesh (5:16)
  57. Produces vainglory, provoking, and envy (5:26)
  58. Is related to making a good show in the flesh (6:12)
  59. Is part of the world that has been crucified (6:14)
  60. Does not count for anything because it is related to the old creation (6:15)


1. What I have in mind here is the ceremonial law, not the moral law. Also, I’m viewing the law from its negative aspect, although I DO recognize a very positive aspect of the law as 1) God’s testimony to reveal who God is, 2) God’s living word to impart what God is, and 3) a marriage covenant to accomplish what God wants. The difference depends on whether someone approaches the law as a letter-keeper or a loving seeker of God. Although the ceremonial law is no longer in force, the moral law as a testimony of God describes (because the law is fixed and finite it can at best approximate; only the incarnate living Word of God can fully describe the living that God desires for His expression) the kind of living God wants from His people so that they can become His testimony. Romans 8:4 most clearly and succinctly shows the present relation of the Christian to the moral law. The righteous requirement of the law is still here, but it is fulfilled IN us, not BY us. When we walk in the spirit, living Christ and keeping the law become one and the same thing. This is why the apostles don’t speak in terms of keeping the law but in terms of living Christ and walking in the spirit.

A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China

rodney starksA Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China, by Rodney Stark, is a short book that combines a sweeping history of missions to China with recent, reliable statistics on its effects and implications. In 1966, Christianity in China went underground, but not into hibernation. This is the story of its rise.

Although the whole is pervaded by Rodney Stark’s sociological rigor, this book is in no way reducible to dispassionate science or mere technical research. This is the story of faith’s resilience under an aggressive, government-lead policy of persecution that resulted in the death of many million people. Under the threat of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard, whose slogans included, “Beating down foreign religion” and “Beating down Jesus following”, Christianity went underground but not into hibernation. The oft quoted maxim held true under Chairman Mao as it did under Stalin, “Religion is like a nail, the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes”. When Christianity was legalized again in 1980, the 4 million Christians who went into hiding had multiplied to 10 million. Today they number around 100 million (115). “By any standard, the recent growth of Christianity in China has been meteoric” (113). Forty new churches open every week, not counting underground house churches (2). The growth rate of Christianity since 1980 has been 7% per year. If this rate continues for 15 more years, there will be more Christians in China than in any other nation—294.6 million (114).

The recent reception of Christ by millions in one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in history—in a country with such devotion to the past, an entrenched local religion, and a historically antagonistic government—is a testimony to missionary sacrifice, the spiritual hunger of all men, and the faithfulness of God.

Below were some of the most interesting parts of this book for me.

Protestant vs Catholic Missions

Stark’s analysis of why Protestant missions were more successful in the long run than Catholic missions, despite the latter’s huge head start (1582 vs 1807) and initially greater numbers was fascinating. The foreign control of the pope, the hierarchical structure of the church, and the necessity for an ordained priest to conduct the mass all hampered the Catholic efforts and left them more exposed to persecution. Today, Catholics in China are outnumbered by Protestants by at least 10 to 1 (56).

Liberal Christianity’s Missional Failure

The reason for liberal Christianity’s failure in mission was interesting. The Social Gospel promoted by liberal theologians was more focused on bringing sanitation than salvation. However, “it soon became obvious that people will seldom face the hardships of missionary service merely to do good deeds. Without the conviction that they were bringing priceless truths to those in need, the mission spirit quickly dissipated in liberal Protestant circles” (34). The percentage of American missionaries sent by liberal denominations has declined continuously: 90% (1900), 50% (1935), 25% (1948), 4% (2015).

Vignettes of Chinese Preachers

The vignettes of key Chinese pastors and preachers was inspiring. Chapter 3 is a short catalog of China’s “cloud of witnesses”. Their stories reminded me that even with all the recent disparagement that has accompanied the unChristianizing of cultural America, we really don’t know what persecution means. We Christians in the West have prided ourselves for a long time on our theological superiority and advancement when compared to non-Western countries, but we may be far behind them in the experience of the cross that releases resurrection life into the Body of Christ (2 Cor. 4:11-12). We should be humbled in light of their perseverance and, in lowliness of mind, consider others more excellent than ourselves (Phil. 2:3).

I was very pleased to see the inclusion of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee in this chapter. To overlook their positive contribution to Christianity in China is simply biased historical scholarship. David Aikman has called Watchman Nee “certainly the most influential Chinese Christian teacher in the twentieth century.” Christianity Today honored him as one of the 100 most influential Christians of the twentieth century. Both have been recognized in the US Congressional Record for their “extraordinary impact far beyond the Chinese-speaking world.”

Debunking Marxist Theories of Religion

Chapters 4-5 debunk the Marxist theory of religion—that it is the opium of oppressed people in their material misery—with statistics showing that the more educated someone is in China, the more likely he is to be Christian and the less educated he is, the more likely he is to be Buddhist. Stark’s views on spiritual deprivation and cultural incongruity and how they are responsible for so many well educated Chinese accepting Christianity is fascinating.

Equally fascinating is Stark’s view that “social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place” (50). Stark argues that most people convert to a new religion due to social ties not attractive doctrines (49). Of course doctrines are important, they practically define a religion, but Stark argues that they function more in retaining converts and prompting them to share their faith, rather than convincing them initially. This might be a little too sociological reductive for me, but seems to me there is some truth here. Many people believe “blindly” and only later come to fully understand the tenets of the faith. In fact, this order is not only logical, it is stated in Scripture (1 Tim. 2:4). Ultimately, for “true Christianity”, people need reality and community. A change of community without reception of the divine reality may be conversion, but it’s not regeneration. This point is helpful though—barking doctrine alone usually won’t win someone for Christ. We must become their community first, or even simultaneously (and drop the barking). Jesus was the friend of sinners before He was the Savior of sinners (Matt. 11:19).

Faith’s Amazing Resilience and God’s Amazing Sovereignty

Another highlight for me was the perseverance and success of mission work in China despite huge, continual setbacks. This is a sure sign of divine sovereignty. Gamaliel’s word in the book of Acts comes to mind, “Should this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them, lest you be found to be even fighters against God” (Acts 5:38-39). History continues to prove that the gospel cannot be stamped out by the brute force of totalitarian governments. The paradox of the gospel is that a weak Jesus who can die produces a powerful message that can save, enliven, and overcome. The gospel has inherent power. Only two things in the Bible are called the power of God—one is Christ (1 Cor. 1:24), the other is the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18).

The hostile opposition to the gospel by human governments and the divine proclamation to the entire human race was recorded once and for all in Psalm 2. Go read it again next time you’re worried about geopolitical upheavals. Psalm 2 records the divine laugh at the absurdity and nothingness of human opposition. God breaks apart the ropes with which the kings of the earth bind Him. This display of divine omnipotence ends with the admonition of the gospel: serve Jehovah, kiss the Son, take refuge in Him (2:11-12). The gospel always has the last word. The combined counsel and uproar of the nations cannot thwart the gospel.

The rise of Christianity in China with all its major players is certainly God’s doing. Here is a brief timeline of the major setbacks in China, with a few other key events included:

1524: the first Catholic missionary arrives in China (Matteo Ricci)
1724: the emperor outlaws Christianity as an evil cult
1807: the first Protestant missionary arrives in China (Robert Morrison)
1814: the emperor issues an edict stating that all those spreading the gospel “shall be sentenced to death by immediate strangulation” while hearers or followers of Christianity shall be shipped to Muslim cities as slaves
1859: a treaty imposed on China by Western powers legalizes the open preaching of the gospel
1864: the Taiping Rebellion rages, resulting in 20-30 million deaths, mostly civilians, by 1871
1899: the Boxer Rebellion to rid China of all “foreign devils” begins. The Boxers murder at least 30,000 Christians
1914: World War I reduces the missionizing efforts of European countries
1919: the May Fourth Movement erupts and a new form of militant nationalism hostile to Christianity forms
1922: the Anti-Christian Federation is formed, soon renamed as the Anti-Religious Federation
1930s: the Great Depression greatly reduces the funding and support of American missions
1937: Japan invades China displacing many missionaries
1939: World War II starts. No new missionaries arrive until after the war
1945: with World War II over, the Chinese civil war resumes
1949: Communists take control of China
1950: foreign missionaries begin to be arrested and charged with spying, much church property is seized
1953: all foreign missionaries are expelled from China
1966: Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution beings, leading to aggressive persecution of Christians
1979: Christianity is legalized again


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