More Dante Now, Please! (Part 4): The Road of Repentance

January 7, 2021 Updated: January 8, 2021

This is the fourth and final article in this particular Dante series. We remember that we read Dante because he addresses the big questions of truth and reality, and we saw how in Hell the issue of free will is of paramount importance. Subsequently, we discovered that although Purgatory and Hell seem similar in that they are both places of suffering, they differ fundamentally. In the former, there is hope and ultimately beauty, whereas in the latter, there is only despair and profound ugliness. These differences reflect the choices that individuals make in their lifetimes, and these choices are themselves all part of a psychological mind-set or disposition.

But what of Heaven, the third and final stage of Dante’s upward ascent toward God? Is that some boring place where we are destined to sit around listlessly singing hymns? How is it different from the other two psychological and spiritual places?

First, of course, we see that Heaven is a place where there is no pain or suffering, no psychological angst or guilt, and none of the three major psychological problems humans experience of blame, projection, and denial. It’s Paradise, in fact!

Yet the peculiar factor in all this is that all the people in Heaven are sinners just like everybody else in Purgatory and in Hell. How can that be? And perhaps even more trenchantly for the modern mind: How can that be fair or seen as equal treatment?

Venus Ruling

Heaven, in fact, is full of great sinners! An example that especially illustrates this point can be found in Canto 9. As Dante ascends the levels of Heaven, the occupants are at first grouped according to their ruling planet: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, and so on. Each planet deals with a certain disposition.

Canto 8
On Venus, Dante learns that sin is not as important as understanding the divine order. Canto 8, as illustrated by Gustave Doré. (Public Domain)

Unsurprisingly, Venus is where we find individuals preoccupied in their earthly life with passion, sex, and love; and here we meet a noblewoman, Cunizza da Romano.

What is surprising is that Cunizza first married a Guelph leader for political advantage. Then she had the poet Sordello as a lover for several years, and then later had a love affair with the knight Enrico da Bovio. Following Enrico’s death, Cunizza married (at her brother’s command) Count Aimerio. Then if that were not enough “love,” it is believed that she married a nobleman from Verona, and on his death, married her brother Ezzelino’s astrologer from Padua! The point is, she certainly had—for the time and her station—an exceptional love life.

We might recall at this point arguably the most famous canto in all of the “Divine Comedy,” that of  the love affair between Paolo and Francesca, in Canto 5 of Hell. This canto is justly famous for many reasons, but not least is the fact that Dante himself faints with pity at the end of the scene. (Virgil upbraids him about this in the next canto because such a response to the sufferings of Francesca suggests, albeit obliquely, that God has got his judgment wrong in this case.)

How can it be that Francesca is in Hell for one affair or transgression only, whereas Cunizza is in Heaven despite having had many lovers? To give just one answer is, possibly, to oversimplify the situation, but it has to do with the fact that, as Dante scholar Guy Raffa puts it (citing ancient sources), “Cunizza knew love during each stage of her life.”

As Cunizza herself says (in Mark Musa’s translation), facing Dante, “But gladly I myself forgive in me/ what caused my fate.” Notice those critical words there: “Gladly I myself forgive in me.” There is in them what we would nowadays call self-acceptance. She had no wrong intentions, although her passions may have been excessive. For example, there is something of the true medieval concept of chivalry and gallantry in the occupations of two of her lovers: Sordello was a troubadour poet, and Enrico da Bovio, with whom Cunizza traveled widely, was a knight.

In short, she was led from one love to another, but always in the spirit of love itself. It was likely more spiritual or more in accordance with the mores of her time to have entered a nunnery and renounced the flesh altogether, but that—under the sway, as it were, of Venus, her guiding planetary influence—wasn’t her way. She was destined to enjoy the flesh fully—“gladly” as she says—even though there may have been excess in it.

Canto 9
Cunizza da Romano in an illustration of Dante’s “Paradise,” Canto 9, by John Flaxman. (Public Domain)

As a short sidebar, it is worth commenting here that we are not to understand this position as being Dante’s endorsing astrology as we understand it now: that is, as predicting the future in some Christmas cracker kind of way. Rather, the ancients understood that there was a profound connection between what was below (the Earth) and what was above (the heavens and the stars): One mirrored the other, and not least in our understanding of who we are.

Dante himself proudly mentions that he was born under the Gemini star sign, and regards this as significant as to the kind of person he is. In this sense, then, we can interpret the planetary signs as being analogous to personality types. If Myers-Briggs delineates 16 types of personality, well, with astrology we have 12.

Again, to be clear, these are not fixed determinations but rather predispositions to certain traits. Free will is always operative, and humans are always responsible for their actions and choices.

Entering Life via the Narrow Gate

But to return to Cunizza, she has done that very difficult thing, which is to enter life via the narrow gate, for the broad gate through which most people go leads to not-life, or more dramatically, to destruction. Her path reflects what former vicar and British Member of Parliament Christopher Bryant talks about when he says, “One of the rewards of the journey will be that of becoming more and more completely what one essentially is.” If we put this in modern, Jungian terms, what it means is accepting the shadow side of one’s personality. It is the integration of the whole self or soul.

To unpack this a little, Freud referred to a dark side of the ego, or alter ego, which he called the id. This is equivalent to Jung’s idea of the shadow: complexes, disordered tendencies, repressed energies that we do not like or even accept or acknowledge in ourselves. On the contrary, this shadow exposes the ideal self-image, the one we like to present to the world, as false: We are not just this nice person, this successful professional, or this I-have-it-all on Instagram personality.

No, within us there is something deeply disruptive and disturbing, and it is better, so our ego continually reasons, if other people don’t see it. Eventually, of course, if we repress the shadow long enough, we begin to believe it isn’t there. At that point, the only inkling of its existence left to us will be through our dreams, often nightmares.

Writer Thomas Moore observed, “When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning.” In other words, in Christian terms, this leads to sin. We fail to take responsibility for our own soul, and this leads to its own loss.

In Heaven, the reverse occurs. Here, the soul is not neglected but cherished and loved through the conscious process of integration. John Monbourquette, the Canadian psychologist, expressed it this way: “Jung considered the reintegration of the shadow to be the ultimate moral challenge. This work consists of recognizing our shadow, accepting it as part of ourselves and reintegrating it into the whole personality. Those persons who can welcome and embrace their shadow become whole and unique individuals.” Furthermore, he adds, “This process brings to mind the Taoist vision of the real: the universe results from the constant and invisible harmonizing of its fundamental polarity, the yin-yang.”

Accepting Our Paths Graciously

This, then, is not just a Christian understanding, although Dante explicitly links it to Christian revelation, but the process of becoming who one truly is runs through all wisdom literature. Monbourquette says, “The mystics [called it] the night of faith; the myths of Osiris and of Dionysus described it through images of dismemberment of the person … More familiar to some is Christianity’s comparison of it to the death of the old person and to a crucifixion.”

It’s remarkable that science, through Jung, some 600 or so years later, discovers what Dante reveals in his poem. And we need to grasp just how comprehensive that vision of human nature and its frailties is. There are nine levels of heaven before we reach the Heaven of heavens at level ten, or what is called the Empyrean. At each level, the astrological order is followed. So first, at the Moon, we find the sinners who broke their vows (the inconstant moon of popular romantic songs!), sometimes unintentionally, but nevertheless they were at fault.

Paradiso2
Canto 2 explores redeemed sinners under the sway of the Moon. (Public Domain)

Then at volatile Mercury, we find the swift seekers after fame and glory. Venus we’ve met—the excess of passion or love. After Venus, the Sun, and as is appropriate with its association with light, we find the wise spirits, among them the wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon. But as we know (1 Kings 11:4), he was a deep sinner too.

From the Sun we move to Mars, the warlike planet. It is worth commenting here how all-embracing the scope of the sins are: Venus for love, and Mars for war—opposite tendencies yet both leading to sin as well as redemption. Here Dante meets his own great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, an old warrior who died fighting in the Second Crusade.

Canto 16, of Paradise
Dante meets his own great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, an old warrior who died fighting in the Second Crusade. “Divine Comedy,” by Dante Alighieri. L. Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1868. (Public Domain)

Jupiter holds the spirits of those rulers and kings who led the world. But above them, at Saturn, are the contemplatives—those who devoted their lives to asceticism and devotion to God.

Beyond Saturn, we reach the Fixed Stars where we find Adam and the three major Apostles; it need hardly be noted that Adam was a sinner, or that the apostle Peter was, given all his gaffes recorded in the Gospels. And so on, to the final vision.

In short, we have the whole array of failed human beings, who sinned some way or other according to their predilections, but who became self-aware, acknowledged their faults, and repented. British writer Alan W. Watts expressed this in a very stark way: “The choice is between paranoia, being beside yourself, and metanoia, being with yourself—ordinarily translated as repentance.”

Paradise_empyrean
Canto 31 from Dante’s “Paradise.” (Public Domain)

Finally, then, poet and translator A.S. Kline comments, “Free will is misused in Hell, re-aligned in Purgatory, and correctly applied to earthly and heavenly existence in Paradise.” In Dante’s final stanza, this becomes: “But already my desire and my will/ Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,/ By the love which moves the sun and the other stars” (C.H. Sisson translation). At this moment, what we really want and what we really decide to do coincide; there is no more frustration as we fail to live up to our highest ideals. Instead, we have—helped through reading Dante’s poem, reenacting his journey to Paradise—begun to understand what is truly involved.

Please also see “More Dante Now, Please! (Part 1): How Dante Provokes Thinking,” “More Dante Now, Please! (Part 2): Let’s Hear It for Free Will!” and “More Dante Now, Please! (Part 3): Let Beauty Begin.” 

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 15 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education. As a poet, he has performed for The Society of Classical Poets’ symposium at New York’s Princeton Club in June 2019. His most recent collection, “HellWard,” follows Dante’s journey and is available on Amazon.com