(notes to help you with your understanding and – more importantly – your project) The Divine Comedy was written as a physical (scientific), political, and spiritual guidebook for Dante’s 14th world. Dante is careful in his identification of the stars and astrological signs which determine and support his reasons for placing Hell below Jerusalem. Based on the limited understanding of geography at the time, readers would have believed the physical placement of these biblical realms and would have built their belief system around it.
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Dante attempts to answer specific physical (scientific) questions with spiritual beliefs. For example, Dante addresses such questions as: What happens to the body and the soul of a person after death? If God created all people, why are people physically different? Why do people sin? In essence, Dante outlines his scientific and spiritual understanding of the world. The Divine Comedy also outlines Dante’s political worldview. Dante believed in the separation of power: an emperor should govern affairs of the state while the pope should govern religious affairs.
Dante witnessed intense fighting between church leaders and various emperors who wished to govern Christiandom. These struggles divided Italy, turning neighbors against each other. Ultimately, this uprising led to Dante’s exile. Dante was so wrapped up in political affairs, that this turmoil determined the course of Dante’s life. Readers are able to recognize Dante’s political beliefs as he rails against his enemies, whom he encounters in Hell, and glorifies his allies.
It is clear that Dante intended his poem as a political platform. It serves as a warning to his enemies, especially corrupt religious leaders. Dante also uses The Divine Comedy as a spiritual map and moral compass, not only for others, but also for himself. He was frustrated and dismayed by his own sinful ways and the growing corruption he saw around him. He hoped that his vision of Heaven and Hell would prompt readers to return to a righteous path just as Beatrice had hoped that Dante’s journey would deliver him from sin.
Dante made the lessons of the Bible accessible to readers by drawing a graphic, yet clear, picture of the punishments waiting for them in Hell and the rewards found in Heaven. Through the questions Dante asks his guides and the spirits he meets, readers find answers to many of life’s most difficult moral and spiritual questions. The Divine Comedy is considered an epic not only because it tells the story of a journey, but also because it presents a world order and man’s place in that order.