Dante's Inferno and Saint Augustine's Confessions

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*On Divine Grace*



The point of view under which written works are imparted shape the way they are envisioned. In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, his story of conversion is written in the first-person perspective. Through this device Augustine is able to give the reader the closest experience of his long and arduous journey. Likewise Dante through his work The Inferno carries through his journey in the first-person perspective that allows his readers to experience his journey and what he encountered along with his guide in hell. Both works through their form of narrative give a vivid intimacy of what the protagonists of the works go through in order to achieve their goals. Both Augustine and Dante re-create a conversion experience and make the readers weary of sin in their lives and in the lives of those around them. Most importantly both works help in understanding the journeys of man in his search for a more spiritual connection, the errors that may be encountered and the correct path to be chosen amongst sea of misunderstanding.

Throughout most of Augustine’s work there is a feeling as if one is actively reading a prayer. Augustine’s reverence to God is so great that he is often pleading to him. His uses of Psalms are also read in first-person, which emphasize their importance to the reader. Along the beginnings of his journey Augustine “was walking through darkness…seeking for you outside myself, and I failed to find ‘the God of my heart’ (Ps. 72:26). I had come into the depth of the sea. I had no confidence and had lost hope that truth could be found” (Augustine, 90). Here Augustine confesses to being lost and not being able to find his way through his owns means. He has not searched within himself and is in a Gulf of perdition that has him very troubled. However, since he is a sage he is able to see what he should change about himself. In the course of continuous questioning he is driven to his outer pursuit of knowledge. Through his continuous efforts, discoveries and failures he is able to continue his journey without becoming deluged.

In The Inferno’s first person narrative Dante finds himself lost in his journey but he becomes aware in his darkest moments of a gleam of hope. This sight allows him the virtuosity he needed in what seemed a final effort to pull himself from perdition. After an immense confusion, he “found himself before a little hill…Its shoulders glowed already with the sweet rays…whose virtue leads men straight on every road and the shining strengthened him against the fright” (28, Dante). Dante ran into a glimpse of divine light, which allowed him so see the place where he ought to be. He felt apprehensive in his situation, which is quite natural of those that are lost in un-illuminated places. Fear the most primal instinct is effectively conquered with reason. Reasoning is the first step in defeating the powerful fight or flight instinct. This allows a being to be strongly open minded enough to gain a deeper awareness of its existence.

Augustine for a long time had been pouring to find a way to converting to the true vision of God. As he continued trying, he began to exhaust the ways to error. He had a sense of what this goal required of him. Augustine observed how he “ had gone along ‘evil ways’ (Ecclus 2:10) with a sacrilegious superstition, not indeed because he felt sure of its truth but because he preferred it to the alternatives, which he did not investigate in a devout spirit but opposed in hostility” (Augustine, 145). Augustine’s failures occurred because he had not set himself in a deeply and spiritually grounded frame. The ways in which Augustine failed where do to his ignorance. Ironically he was a highly capable rational being that was full of knowledge. Augustine was a man of high understanding and he was ready for awareness but yet due to his nature he remained afraid of it. He had not yet pursued the next step needed to achieve his goal. He was suffering because of it, but he continued to pursue the light at the end of the storm.

Along his journey through the Inferno, Dante met Ulysses and Diomede where both of them were burning as one flame. Dante being an avid sage himself was interested in learning about them. Ulysses told his story of how he ventured into the ends of the sea. Ulysses recalled how he and his men went to “experience the world beyond the sun. Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes but to press on toward manhood and recognition!…we sighted a peak…till the sea closed over us and the light was gone” (Dante, 224). Ulysses and his crew wanted to go beyond what reason in a man allows. Unlike many he went to the edge of reason and although reason is great, reason is not enough to reach the crest at the end of the sea. The reason why Ulysses’ ship floundered in the site of Purgatory is because Purgatory is the gate that one must pass through to get to Paradise. Human reason alone is not enough to get the opportunity to resolve one’s sins in Purgatory. This opportunity can be received through something much more spiritual that with the help of a guide becomes attainable.

Augustine’s conversion was a moment of great spirituality that changed him in all the ways that reason cannot change a man. After much thinking and emotional ordeal Augustine felt the need for one last drop from the vast house of knowledge that man has produced. Augustine in a much-deserved moment read “the book of the apostle…’put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Rom 13: 13-14). I neither wished nor needed to read further…all the shadows of doubt were dispelled” (Dante, 153). After this event of enlightenment in Augustine’s life he has no more need to supply his mind with reason found in the works of mortal men. Augustine is not dependent on mortal reason anymore because divine grace has reached him. Now he has achieved a chance to go through purgatory or straight to paradise itself depending on his record. Through hard work he has stepped from the edge of reason onto the spiritual stairway.

After Dante finds his guide just as he was about to sink into perdition he is told what comes after he is lead through the Inferno. The crest at the edge of reason will be within Dante’s grasp and he will be confronted with a choice to continue from that point. Virgil explained to Dante, “next you shall see upon a burning mountain souls in fire and yet content in fire…to which if it is still your wish to climb, a worthier spirit shall be sent to guide you. With her shall I leave you, for the King of Time” (Dante, 31). Once reason with the permission of Divine Grace is allowed to take Dante to the entrance to Paradise, Divine Grace manifested through Beatrice will guide Dante on his final step. Reason with proper guidance can carry a man to Divine Grace and from that point man will have the opportunity to enter Paradise.

Both of these works through their vivid first-person narratives can open one’s perspectives as to what may lead to conversion and ultimately on a path towards paradise. These thought provoking works certainly question the ability of reason itself to the point of abstraction. They are successful in getting their point across and help to clear doubts that someone in the pursuit of divine grace may have. Questions are the pathway to answers and these works provide answers through the journey of their protagonists for those that seek them.

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