Last night I finished reading Rod Dreher’s latest book How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem. It was an enjoyable read that started off a bit slow for me but is very much worth sticking with until the end. I’m not going to write a review because I’m not good at that sort of thing. If you enjoy the Commedia or are interested in it then you would probably enjoy this book. I had never before considered reading the Dante as a teaching lesson in the manner Dreher does. The next time I read the Divine Comedy, however, I definitely plan to do so.
When he introduced his book back in January, Dreher talked a bit about his soon-to-be published work:
How Dante is by no means a work of scholarship. It is a book that shows how the Commedia did for me exactly what Dante said he wanted it to do for his readers: delivered me from a state of misery to a state of happiness. It wasn’t an easy journey, and it wasn’t just Dante who helped me (an Orthodox priest and a Southern Baptist therapist assisted). But because it wasn’t an easy journey, it was an effective journey. A friend in Baltimore who read an advance copy over the weekend wrote to say that How Dante “cloaks the original text in more understandable modern parlance, with just enough personal application to connect the dots from Dante’s journey to yours, and then to the reader’s. I honestly don’t know how you did it.” I did it because I love this poem, and believe in its power to heal. You readers know that I am a Christian, and believe that the Commedia serves as an icon through which God reveals Himself and calls us closer. I talk about this in the book, though I don’t preach. As I said, though, you don’t have to be a Christian to be changed by Dante’s journey, and to find your way out of the dark wood with the help of my book. I tell in the book how Dante led me out of the dark wood, but do so in a way that, if I’m successful, will help all my readers — Christian and otherwise — think in a different and more positive way about their own lives. … It is a story that shows you what life-changing wisdom exists inside the Commedia, and how, if you open yourself fully to the work, it will transform your life. You will not see the world and your place in it in the same way. I know; it happened to me.
The following passage is from Dreher’s book, and one that I highlighted to share with you here.
In the middle of the entire Divine Comedy, Dante meets a man who gives him the secret of deliverance. He is Marco the Lombard, a nobleman who agrees with the pilgrim that the world is in a terrible state. Dante begs Marco to tell him why this is so, so that he can return to earth and tell all the others.
Here is Marco’s reply. For me, this discourse is the crown jewel in a poem laden with treasure:
He let out a deep sigh that sorrow wrung
into a groan. “My brother,” he began,
“the world is blind, and it has been your home.”
You living men attribute to the sky
the causes of all things, as if they moved
ever and only by necessity.
That would destroy the freedom of your will,
nor would it then be just to deal out joy
for doing well, or woe for doing ill.
The heavens give your movements their first nudge—
not all your movements, but let’s grant that too—
still, light is given that you may freely judge
And choose the good or evil; and should free will
grow weary in the first battles with the stars,
foster it well and it will win the day.
You men lie subject to that One* who made
you free, a greater force, a better nature,
who formed your minds without the planets’ aid.
Thus if this present world has gone askew,
look to yourselves, in yourselves lies the cause.
[Purgatorio XVI: 64-83]
*that One: God, who made human beings free from complete subjection to planetary and other natural influences.
In other words: You can’t change the world, but you can change the way you react to it.
You have power over the images you want to let into your mind. You control them; they do not control you. You have the freedom to choose whether or not to let those emotions in.
This passage immediately brought to my mind a famous antedote about G.K. Chesterton. His quote, along with the “You can’t change the world, but you can change the way you react to it” should be framed and mounted on my wall.
“When a newspaper posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:
G. K. Chesterton.’
I have to admit I’d never thought of reading the Commedia from the standpoint of Dante being my guide through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. I’d just sort of blindly followed along as he was led by his guides Virgil and Beatrice. It seems I really missed the boat and feel sort of silly about it. I’m looking forward to my next walk with Dante and will enter with eyes wide open this time.