For Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), one of the greatest poets in history, earthly time was intimately related to Judeo-Christian eternity, the timeless abode of God. In his treatise De vulgari eloquentia (written in the early 1300s; sometimes translated as On Eloquence in the Vernacular), he argues that the first language was created by God and would be spoken today if humanity’s presumption in building the Tower of Babel had not spurred God to fracture that pure idiom into a myriad of different forms of speech. In both the Vita nuova (or New Life, early 1290s) and his Commedia (The Divine Comedy, c. 1310-1321), Dante transforms Beatrice, with whom he had fallen in love as a boy, into an agent of divine revelation. The allegory is developed systematically in the latter work, in which Beatrice assists the Dantean pilgrim in his quest for spiritual selfunderstanding and redemption. Significantly, God’s grace comes to the protagonist of the Comedy (through the mediation of Beatrice and others) before he explicitly asks for divine mercy: This aspect of the poem is a literary rendering of the orthodox Roman Catholic teaching Dante knew well. Also in accord with the church, the Italian poet believed that human past, present, and future are enfolded in eternity, over which God presides. It is no wonder, then, that Dante should have portrayed the fictional pilgrim version of himself in the Comedy as a struggling penitent for whom, nevertheless, at least the potential for salvation had already been worked out ahead of time.
Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy. Although not descended from the most important families in his city, he nevertheless took part in its political life, serving for 2 months in 1300 as one of its seven “priors.” While he was away on a diplomatic mission to Pope Boniface VIII the following year, a rival faction took control of power and, once firmly established, banished various prominent political opponents from Florence. One of these was Dante, who wrote the Divine Comedy and other works in exile. He died in 1321 in Ravenna, where his remains are still located despite repeated entreaties by the Florentine civic authorities for their return. Although as a young man Dante had married Gemma Donati and had had three sons and a daughter with her, he idealized Beatrice Portinari, whom he had known when they were both children and who died in 1290. In the Comedy, this earthly woman attains supernatural stature: She symbolizes, among other things, divine revelation and helps to convey God’s intentions for humanity to Dante directly.
Dante’s view of time was heavily indebted to traditional Christian thought. He and his contemporaries believed that God dwells in eternity and that human beings, though temporarily confined within linear time, are ordained for higher, transcendent ends. Even from across the abyss between eternity and time, God, in this view, discloses his will to human beings in history rather than remaining wholly aloof from us. To be saved, we are obliged to conform our own individual wills to the divine order, though we are ultimately free to accept or reject that saving grace, as God intended.
Nevertheless, to attribute Dante’s conception of time solely to his reading of the Bible, the church authorities, and medieval theology is to underestimate the complexity of his thought. The political observations scattered throughout the Commedia and concentrated in the Convivio (The Banquet) and the De monarchia (On Monarchy), both written probably when Dante was in his 30s, illustrate the poet’s debt to the cultural traditions of ancient Greece and Rome as well, especially the latter. Many scholars have noted his use of classical authorities, particularly Virgil. In Dante’s view, providential history as unfolded in the Bible and church tradition could turn to good account even the “pagan” past, whose philosophical and literary achievements had proved a source of discomfort for some medieval writers and thinkers before (and after) Dante’s time.
Especially vivid manifestations of his notions of time appear in Dante’s verse masterpiece, divided into the three sections or “canticles”: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso). Hell is reserved for those who, while alive, indefinitely postponed repentance in order to enjoy their dissolute lives. Despite differences in the gravity of their sins and thus the harshness of their punishments, what all of the damned share is the infinite time they have in which to suffer the consequences of their spiritual negligence. On his journey through hell with his guide, the soul of Virgil, Dante confronts sinners who are usually eager to talk to him at length and so gain some respite from their torments. When he reaches purgatory, Dante sees that souls undergoing expiation there have less time for conversation, as they are eager to end their purgation and ascend to heaven. Even so, the poet Dante’s abiding interest in literary influences allows for the occasional prolonged discussion, as when in the 22nd canto (“song” or chapter) the shades of the Roman poets Virgil and Statius talk at length about the whereabouts of other ancient writers. Digressions about poets and poetic craft are never permitted to overwhelm the larger theological import of the Divine Comedy, however: Even within those digressions, reference is often made to the specifically spiritual condition of the souls of those departed writers. In the Paradiso section of Dante’s long poem, there is neither the despair found in the Inferno nor the sense of expectation characteristic of the Purgatorio. Aided by the great mystic Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Dantean pilgrim beholds heaven, the blessed souls therein, and images of the Trinity itself. The narrator finds himself struggling to understand this vision of timelessness and to convey it to readers bound in time. Ultimately, however, he puts his faith in God’s eternal love, which, he now sees, governs the entire universe despite our inability to understand fully how he does so.
See also Christianity; Eternity; God and Time; Last Judgment; Parousia; Poetry; Time, Sacred
Alighieri, D. (1961). The divine comedy (3 vols.; J. D.
Sinclair, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Alighieri, D. (2003-2005). The divine comedy (3 vols.;
- Esolen, Trans.). New York: Modern Library.
Bergin, T. G. (Ed.). (1967). From time to eternity: Essays on Dante’s Divine Comedy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Holmes, G. (1980). Dante. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Jacoff, R. (Ed.). (1993). The Cambridge companion to
Dante. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Limentani, U. (Ed.). (1965). The mind of Dante.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Mazzotta, G. (Ed.). (1991). Critical essays on Dante. Boston: G. K. Hall.