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. To use a Trinitarian analogy, 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.”
For this reason, the Comedy itself can become a selva oscura—a dark and dense wood in which we sleepily find ourselves. 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 arises—there are SO many guides offering there services. Rather than a solitary voice croaking through its hoarseness “Not a man, though once I was”, we are greeted by a cacophony of voices all brimming with vitality and assurances of their expertise. There are over 60 English translations of the Comedy in its entirety. We may easily 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.”
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.