Scattered thoughts on Homer, Virgil, and Dante

    Partially inspired by William James Tychonievich's post "Dante in the wood", I have been listening to works by these three authors over the past few months: Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Dante's Divine Comedy.  

    In a sense, these authors are successors to each other; though separated by centuries.  And I think this was conscious on their part.  For instance, the Aeneid can be thought of as the Illiad and the Odyssey all in one, except the part describing a voyage is first and part describing a war is second, reversing Homer.  And of course, Dante has Virgil guide him through Hell and Purgatory.  

    All three address the afterlife in some way.  When Odysseus goes to the underworld, he sees that except for the shades in torment, such as Tantalus, most of the people lead a shadowy, ghostly existence without being aware of much.  Only Tiresias among all the shades retains his wits.  However, at the end of the poem when the suitors descend to the underworld, they are greeted by the other shades and speak to them.  In any case, it was envisioned that existence would be much diminished.  

    I found it particularly striking that even the women who had children by the gods are down there in the underworld while the gods are up on Olympus.  We only here of three people who escape: Hercules who became a god himself and Menelaus and (presumably) Helen who will go to the Elysian fields.

    Virgil's depiction of the gods is more self-consciously poetical than Homer's, to the extent that I do not think he believed in them in a mythological way as Homer did.  I think the section of the Aeneid, when Aeneas goes to the underworld represents something close to Virgil's true religious beliefs.  He extends Homer's vision by separating the underworld into a section for the egregious wrongdoers, the city of Dis, and one for the righteous dead, the Elysian fields.  Furthermore, some souls undergo purgation for the wrongdoing they have done in life and then are reborn on Earth.

    For Dante, nearly the entire poem concerns the afterlife.  One thing I noticed about Dante is that while his poem is entirely in agreement with certain beliefs, such as that pagans cannot go to Heaven, he includes certain things in his poem that are somewhat of a different character.  For instance, even though Virgil is condemned to Limbo for eternity, he is allowed to accompany Dante all the way through Purgatory, even briefly to the Earthly Paradise at the top.  Also, the pagan Cato of Utica is the doorkeeper of Purgatory and so will be saved at some point.  

    This relates to something that Bruce Charlton has written about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in that their publicly professed beliefs were circumsribed within certain limits, but in their stories, they explore ideas that go somewhat beyond those.  

    In any case, thinking through these three poems and how each expands on the others, adding more to the understanding of what happens after death, even Dante, with is extraordinary accomplishment is missing something.  In particular, he is missing the importance of freedom.  

    Here is what I mean by that.  Mortal life is brief in the grand scheme of things.  And during the course of this life, we have the opportunity to learn and the freedom to choose.  And it goes beyond those two words, those are two particular qualities, but there is a paricular character to life on Earth that is believed to be absent afterwards, although it is not easy to capture fully in words.

    This is expressed in various ways, such as the idea that the angels were given a brief stretch of time after their creation, when they could choose for or against God but after choosing, they were locked into their choice after that.  And there is a similar idea for human beings, that humans beings can choose Heaven or Hell but after that, there's no more room for choices.  And the way this seems to be understood is not that choice is taken away by some external means, but that there simply is no more need for it.  

    But need we think this?  It is true that in our experience of Earthly life, freedom and sin go hand in hand.  But is it possible both to make a permanent committment to God at death and in doing so moving to a state where sin is impossible, and moving forward towards more freedom?  

    One could interpret the story of the Garden of Eden as saying that Adam and Eve had a short period of time to exercise freedom and then once that decision was made there was no more room.  But the story doesn't actually say that explicitly.  It is certainly a valid interpretaion, but it is not the only one.  Another possibility is that in making a decision, Adam and Eve could have lived a type of life which is very difficult to imagine but not thereby impossible: a life both without sin and with freedom.   

     Someone who could write that kind of story, would indeed be Dante's successor.  


  1. I find that the whole matter of freedom is something that I cannot assume is being used in a consistent (or coherent) way nowadays - mostly because the ruling metaphysical assumptions have no place for freedom: it simply does not exist, by assumption.

    In trying to sort this (and other) matters for myself, I was eventually led to the idea that all Beings are free - and the degrees of freedom come from the degrees of self-awareness, consciousness - knowing that they know. All beings have this to some extent, but some more than others (trees more than mountains, adults more than children, for example).

    Another explanatory variable I have considered is the relative speed of time between different Beings - or the same being in different phases of existence or transformations - such as the difference between dreaming sleep and waking, or probably mortal life and post-mortal life.

    1. "In trying to sort this (and other) matters for myself, I was eventually led to the idea that all Beings are free - and the degrees of freedom come from the degrees of self-awareness, consciousness - knowing that they know. All beings have this to some extent, but some more than others (trees more than mountains, adults more than children, for example)."

      This is a good observation. And in addition to degree of consciousness, we can also consider the quality of consciousness. The expression of freedom by beings with a very different mode of consciousness from ours such as trees would not necessarily be recognizable to humans.


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