I used to make New Year’s Resolutions. Never really the “drink less, eat more leafy greens” kind because who would I be kidding? Instead, given my tiny, dark heart, I had more grandiose plans. I was going to be nicer. Be less impatient. Not so sarcastic. Stop teasing people. The sort of resolutions that one makes when they want the gods to laugh. And not just guffaw. But lay down on the floor and almost pee their god-pants kind-of-laugh. Once I even announced my plan to BLC, thinking this would make it harder to break, because, if nothing else, surely I can count on my stubborn unwillingness to lose face to motivate me to be more compassionate… I didn’t make it ten minutes.
On the surface, it can look like Dante’s account of how one ascends to Paradiso and all those sparkly lights is too arduous to even try – like those many New Year’s resolutions, bucket listed items, and even some days just getting out of bed. After all, journeying through Inferno seems worse than an Air Transat flight to, well, to anywhere. And then climbing Purgatory looks more like punishment than reward. Like a beginner runner taking on a marathon. Or maybe someone picking up the Divine Comedy thinking it’ll be a good beach read.
Much of Dante’s thought is based on that of Aristotle, “the Master of those who know”(Inferno, 4, 131). Inferno or Hell is expilicitly ordered (with some important adjustments) according to Aristotle’s account of our ethical failures. And even though Dante imagines Aristotle as confined to Inferno, we see glimpses of his philosophy through the entire Divine Comedy. For example, in Purgatory, the souls make their way to Paradiso by habituating themselves to the virtues that they lacked in their natural lives, something Aristotle counsels in the Ethics (1103 a33-b22). Want to be a faster runner? Run more and run faster. Want to be less impatient, practice being patient. Makes sense, right? Even in Paradiso, Aristotle’s philosophy is not lost, but rather taken up. For there God is described as “the love that moved the sun and the other stars”(Paradiso, 33, 145). And Aristotle describes the divine as being of such goodness that all of being is moved to love and seek its perfection (Metaphysics, 12, VII).
Given then that Aristotle informed so much of Dante’s thought, it seems pretty unfair that he gets stuck in Dante’s hell. Sort of ungrateful, really. But I’m guessing that Dante experienced some epic failures with respect to his New Years resolutions, regardless of how hard he trained. I will stop being so partisan, he may have declared. Stop writing love poetry to other women, he may have promised. And then ten minutes or ten years later ….
For all of his reading and thinking about Aristotle, Dante ends up lost in a dark woods, not sure how he got there nor how he might get back to where he is supposed to be. And, despite all those resolutions, Dante has to journey through Hell (and eventually Purgatory and Paradiso) before he is returned “to the place where [he] started” and knows it for the first time (TS Eliot, The Four Quartets). Aristotle, for all his logic and even common sense, seems to have missed something essential.
In the Ethics, Aristotle suggests that it is by our own efforts that we become virtuous and keep our resolutions. You just need to try harder, practice more, and you too will be brave, moderate, more loving. A better singer even. And if you have heard me try sing, let alone be moderate, you know how great a lie this is.
While Aristotle counsels that perhaps the best way to become virtuous is by enlisting the help of a friend, he is not (at least not explicitly) certain that the best of friends will be available. In a previous post, Dante Wants to Carry Your Bags, I mentioned that Dante imagines that the divine’s love is such that it seeks to overcome our deficiencies. Like a good friend, Dante suggests, divine grace assists us. Because of course it is easier to be brave when you have a friend at your side. Easier not to eat all of the donuts, when your friend is waiting to go on a run. Not sure though that Dante’s God cares how many donuts we eat or miles we run.
What we do know from the Divine Comedy is that the only difference between the individuals stuck in Hell and those who are ascending Mount Purgatory and guaranteed a seat in Paradiso is that the latter have faith in a god whose friendship is such that they are forgiven all of their faults. Doesn’t matter how many times you break that resolution – how many donuts you eat or how sarcastic you might be or even if you lose your way and wander off the right path and into darkness. This friend is waiting around for you to pick up the phone. Even better, this is the friend, who through all kinds of signs – a snowfall, a sunrise, a beautiful painting, even an epic poem, even, I think, in and through grief and pain – is constantly texting you, or, like Tim, winding his way around your legs, reminding you that he is there.
And that’s the essential difference between Aristotle and Dante that you might miss on first glance. All that Dante suggests is required for entrance to Paradiso is faith that a friend like Tim or God exists. Our individual attempts at virtue (all those New Year’s resolutions) are in a real way irrelevant with respect to divine love. God, Dante, and even, I suspect, Aristotle, understood that all humans will inevitably screw up and find themselves lost. It’s not by our magnanimous works that we make it to Paradiso. Instead, it’s an act of divine grace.
Timmy, by comparison, will never be unhappy to see you when you come to my house. Instead, he’ll be so delighted that you showed up that he’ll go into your bag and eat your lip balm. An act of our pure joy. That’s like Dante’s god. Only, I assume, he has his own lip balm. So that’s nice, particularly if you have a tiny, dark heart like my own.
Postscript: All of this is not to say that you shouldn’t still try to be a better person – to be more kind and loving. But to understand that all is not lost when you screw it up.