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  • Donald E. Hester

Exploring Dante's Divine Comedy and Its Lessons on Politics and Public Administration

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” - Maya Angelou

Over the past few years, I have been interested in exploring some of the great works of literature. Some of them have been straightforward and easy to read and comprehend, and it is clear why they have been so influential throughout history. However, others have been challenging to understand and required significant effort to read. I often wonder if the time and struggle necessary to comprehend these works is worth the reward. Nevertheless, these difficult works appear to contain a wealth of knowledge and insight waiting to be discovered.

"In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, within a dark wood, where the straight way was lost." - Inferno, Canto I

I have always had the desire to read Dante's Divine Comedy (Commedia). (Dante, 1265-1321, Florence) However, I have attempted to start reading it on several occasions and have found it difficult to comprehend. The translation of the Italian verse into English often requires deeper study, which has made it challenging to get started. Although I am interested in learning from this classic literary work, I have been hesitant to commit the necessary time to decode its content.


Another challenge I encounter is my lack of knowledge about the places and people mentioned in the book. Without proper context, the references seem meaningless. I believe that gaining a better understanding of the characters would enhance my comprehension of the book. Nonetheless, I refuse to give up on my pursuit of understanding Dante's Divine Comedy.

The verse in this tome is not simple. To fully comprehend it, one must understand the characters, their relationships to Dante, and the context of the story. Reading Dante alone is insufficient; one must also be familiar with the history of Florence, Italy in the 1200s. Therefore, if you are not a student of medieval Florence, some background research is necessary to fully grasp this literary work.

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." - Inferno, Canto III

"The obstacle is the way." Undeterred, I decided to pursue an alternative approach and purchase The Great Courses on Dante's Divine Comedy by Ronald B. Herzman and William R. Cook. Looking back, I have no regrets with this choice. Herzman and Cook have provided valuable insights and filled in the gaps with their extensive research. Thanks to their efforts, we can now better understand the intricate details of this literary masterpiece.

Dante's Divine Comedy is a complex and multi-layered literary work, characterized by rich symbolism and vivid imagery. Its intricate details and nuances make it a rewarding read for those who invest the time and effort to delve into its depths. Although the Commedia is rooted in Dante's Christian worldview, its themes and ideas - such as love, redemption, sin, and the human condition - are universal and relevant to readers of all backgrounds and beliefs. Moreover, the characters and episodes in the poem are diverse and multifaceted, providing readers with the opportunity to identify with various perspectives and experiences depending on their own personal circumstances and spiritual journeys.

Summery for those that do not know. Dante's Divine Comedy is a narrative poem written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the early 14th century. The poem tells the story of Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, guided first by the Roman poet Virgil and then by his beloved Beatrice, as he encounters various historical, mythological, and contemporary figures along the way.

"Consider your origin; you were not born to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge." - Inferno, Canto XXV

One of the most valuable treasures I discovered in the Divine Comedy is Dante's perspective on public administration. Throughout the book, he offers insight into topics that are directly related to politics and governance. What makes his ideas particularly intriguing is their continued relevance to modern times. Despite being written in the 14th century, Dante's views on public administration and politics continue to hold significance and offer valuable lessons for contemporary society.

Dante placed many political figures, both historical and contemporary to his time, in his Divine Comedy. I find it fascinating who he placed in hell, purgatory, and heaven and why. I think this tells a lot about his views on the ethics of politics. For example, he places Pope Nicholas III in the eighth circle of hell for simony of the selling of offices and positions. We know that nepotism, the practice of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs when you have power or influence, is a form of corruption or unfairness.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I was known for his just and fair rule and Dante placed him in Paradiso. In public administration, it is important that we execute the duties of our post in a just and fair manner.

Dante placed some members of his own political party, the White Guelphs, in hell and placed some of his political rivals in Paradise. From his political party, he placed Farinata degli Uberti, Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, and Guido da Montefeltro in hell. For the opposing party, he placed Cacciaguida, Folco Portinari, and Charles Martel of Anjou in Paradise.

It's clear that he didn't support partisan politics. Blindly endorsing a political party is harmful to society. An "us vs them" mentality in politics is immature and divisive and ultimately benefits our opponents.

Dante's depiction of his own political party members in hell shows his complex and conflicted feelings towards them, as he recognized their flaws and criticized their alliances with corrupt popes and other factions. Additionally, by including political rivals in Paradise, Dante underscores his belief that just because someone disagrees with us, it doesn't necessarily make them evil. It is evident that Dante was more enlightened than many of today's politicians.

One point related to public administration in Dante's work is his view on treason or betrayal. Dante considers the betrayal of king or country as a severe offense that deserves the depths of hell in Satan's maw.

In Inferno 34, Dante and Virgil descend to the lowest level of hell, where they find Satan, a three-headed monster trapped in a frozen lake at the center of the earth. Dante places a notorious traitor from history in each of Satan's three mouths: Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, in the center; while Brutus and Cassius, known for their betrayal of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome, occupy the other two mouths. By positioning these men in the depths of hell, Dante emphasizes the magnitude of their sin and underscores his belief that they are among the most depraved individuals in history.

"O grace abounding, through which I was so worthy to behold the ultimate things!" - Paradiso, Canto XXXIII

Throughout the course, the instructors cover various recurring themes in the Divine Comedy. I am pleased that I decided to invest my time in the course. Whether you read the text before or during the course, it adds depth to the overall experience. I found myself empathizing with Dante's emotions and pondering if we could have been friends had we lived in Florence during the same time period. I find in Dante a kindred spirit.

Ronald B. Herzman and William R. Cook are both renowned Dante scholars who have written extensively on the subject. I hope you find the course as informative and enjoyable as I did!


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