Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was an Italian poet of the Middle Ages. He was one of the great writers of the Middle Ages, and perhaps this is why he has remained relevant and important to many people to this day. Here, Nathan Barontini, a lecturer on Dante (find our more here), explains why many 20thcentury US leaders have found Dante’s works so important.
Theodore Roosevelt’s biography reads like a how-to manual for achieving great things. While he had many influences, one poet in particular fascinated him, Dante Alighieri. The sound of that name conjures up images of souls in torment, people crying in agony, and absolute horror. Roosevelt, however, didn’t read Dante as a house of horrors, but as inspiration for living the strenuous life.
Roosevelt knew Dante well enough to author an essay for Outlookmagazine entitled “Dante and the Bowery”. IN the magazine Roosevelt wrote, “Dante dealt with those tremendous qualities of the human soul.” He also included an allusion to Dante in his greatest speech, “The Man in the Arena”:
“It is not the critic that counts… the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who… if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat (emphasis added).”
Here he references the first group of souls Dante encounters - those who refused to side either with God or Satan, who refused to enter “the arena.” When Dante hears the “accents of anger, words of agony, and voices high and horse,” he, both author and protagonist of the poem, asks his guide, “what folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?” Virgil responds that these are,
the melancholy souls of those
Who lived without infamy or praise….
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.
Now neither Heaven nor Hell will accept these “timid souls” who
Have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They are envious of every other fate.
No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both distain them.
Such is the fate of the man who refuses to enter “the arena.”
Taking inspiration from Dante is not distinctive to Theodore Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt read Dante enough to mention him in his acceptance speech from the 1936 Democratic National Convention:
Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.
The list doesn’t end there.
Robert Kennedy told reporters, “President Kennedy’s favorite quote was really from Dante, ‘The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” This was a line that was adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1967 speech explaining his opposition to the Vietnam War. King also used the imagery of Dante in a 1968 speech on nuclear disarmament:
it is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament… may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
These men of action, some of the greatest in American history, when in quiet contemplation, turned to this thirteenth-century Italian poet for inspiration.
We might ask why?
The answer lies in the “immortal Dante’s” life. Dante lived in what he called the most agreeable place on earth, Florence, Italy. Florence is a city we think of as a center of art and culture. In Dante’s day all of that was in the future. His Florence was embroiled in a medieval civil war, which drenched the city’s streets in blood. This century long conflict saw many victories and reversals of fortune. One side would defeat and banish the other, only to see their enemies retake the city and be banished in turn.
Dante’s party would win the war and he would ascend to the highest political office in the city, but peace would not last. The victorious party would fracture and war among themselves. Dante was on the wrong side this time. Falsely accused of taking bribes, he was banished, under threat of being burned at the stake if he dared return.
Having served at the Battle of Campaldino, he planned with his fellow exiles to take the city by force. He soon abandoned the plan realizing they were incapable of forcing their way back into Florence. Dante became “a party of one,” determined to find another path home.
It was in these circumstances that Dante wrote the poem which would inspire generations of men committed to a life spent “in the arena.” It is infused with Dante’s conception of the active life. Throughout our journey we meet the great actors of contemporary Italian life. We watch as the leader of the losing side in the civil war, Farinata degli Uberti, looks upon even Hell with scorn. We see the emperor Manfredi still bearing the sword gash that felled him in battle as he fights his way up the mountain of Purgatory. Here chosen struggle and suffering leads to final bliss. We meet Dante’s crusader great-great grandfather in the Heaven of Mars,and a cast of great warriors, popes, and politicians.
The Strenuous Life
Dante’s treatment of these men represents his view of the “strenuous life.” A life of striving for the good, even when falling short of the ideal is certain. This is why the poem doesn’t end with the sight of Satan, of the active life gone horribly wrong, but in triumph. In one of Dante’s last visions of paradise, he sees the saved seated in a heavenly Roman arena.
Reading “The Comedy,” in a superficial way, as a tour of tortures, is a grave mistake. Like the great men of the past, we must pick up the poem as a roadmap leading us from the selva oscura(dark forest) of cowardice to the celestial paradise of those who refused to give up.
Dante said the aim of his work is to “remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and to bring them to a state of happiness.” The poem shows us the way to do this is to fight the battle of virtue. Will we fall short time and again? Dante tells us yes, we will. Is refusing this fight worthy of damnation? Dante tells us there is no worse fate.
This is why a man born over 700 years ago, more than 5,000 miles away, has inspired the great men of our past. More importantly, it is a poem that can change your life.
What do you think of Dante? Let us know below.
Nathan Barontini has dedicated years of study to European history with a special emphasis in late Medieval / early Renaissance Florence, especially the works and life of Dante Alighieri. More information can be found at his personal website, www.nathanbarontini.com, and on his blog, www.adoroergosum.blogspot.com.