Aquinas’ and Dante’s Common Ideals
Thomas Aquinas established himself as the New Aristotle of the 13th century, Dante Alighieri established himself the new Virgil. The two men made an immense impact in their respective fields (poetry and philosophy). Yet surprisingly, the two share common ideals. In each of their respective literary and philosophical views, they establish the importance of the relationship between nature and grace. In Dante’s Inferno the unique relationship of grace and nature is made apparent and reflects the writings of Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica”.
Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise exhibit and reflect St. Thomas’ understanding of the relationship of nature and grace. Dante mirrors grace through Beatrice and reflects nature in Virgil. These symbolic representations show how Aquinas views are instilled in Dante’s writing. In St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica” he bases the relationship between nature and grace on the human purpose. Since we are all rational beings with an ultimate goal of reuniting with God, Aquinas’ believes that both grace and nature will allow us to achieve the human goal.
Aquinas explains that reason and revelation parallel moral development of virtue and grace. Reason is something you can practice, much like the four cardinal virtues temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom. These three theological virtues faith, hope and love help you achieve grace. These virtues come from gift of God’s grace and perfect the natural abilities of humans to know and love. “According to Thomas natural reason can know the external world without divine illumination and can discern the structure of created things through its sciences. Reason has a legitimate domain in analyzing the human person, ethics and politics.
Thomas even extends reason’s competence to certain ‘spiritual’ truths; … he believes that reason can prove the existence of god” (Reid pg 243) In this excerpt Aquinas explains that natural reason only takes you so far in an individuals journey to God. Although he has a great respect for natural reason, Aquinas’ philosophy suggests that to achieve this unity with god in heaven, God’s grace is needed. Aquinas establishes “Thomas nevertheless insists that there are supernatural truths which transcend beyond reason that humans would not know if god had not revealed them through the sacred scriptures and the church’s eaching…However, even in these matters, reason had the capacity to clarify, but no exhaust or fully comprehend, these truths and to order them in a coherent way. ” (Reid pg. 243) Aquinas proposes that we would be nothing without grace.
To reach our ultimate salvation and reunite with God we must arrive at certain truths. His philosophy states that the human mind is weak and would only be able to arrive at some truths about God after a long time. St. Thomas Aquinas argued it is necessary for God to reveal the truths that are essential for salvation. Reid) This reoccurring trend in Aquinas’ writings connects both grace and nature, while separating him from other philosophers.
Through Aquinas’ writings Dante created his divine comedies to emulate the relationship between nature and grace presented by Aquinas. About 40 years after the birth of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in the year 1265 A. D. ( Dante 1) Throughout this famous poet’s tales, it is evident that there are underlying theme of nature and grace. The relationship between grace and nature that Dante writes about in his pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise is derived from St.
Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical views. Dante’s Inferno begins in a dark forest, a place of confusion, because he lost his way on the “true path”. Seeking an escape, Dante finds a hill where the sun glares down on him. This light seen in Dante’s Inferno symbolizes clarity as the sun represents God. After encountering three beasts and turning back to the murky forest, Dante crosses paths with the great Roman Poet, Virgil. Virgil is an aid and guide to Dante to Heaven, the ultimate Paradise. He warns Dante he must pass through Hell and Purgatory in order to reach his salvation in heaven.
Virgil is depicted as nature or human reason perfected by virtue. It is strongly emphasized that Virgil can only take Dante so far in his journey by guiding him to heaven. Much like St. Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning, nature or human reason can only bring you so far in the journey to God. As Virgil and Dante approach the mouth of Hell, Virgil preaches to Dante about a woman in Heaven who took pity upon Dante when he was lost in hell. The woman Virgil speaks of is Dante’s departed love Beatrice. After Dante hears that Beatrice is heaven he now sheds the fear of traveling through Hell and Purgatorio. But Virgil rebukes his cowardice, and relates the chain of events that led him to come to Dante.
The Virgin Mary took pity on the Pilgrim in his despair and instructed Saint Lucia to aid him. The Saint turned to Beatrice because of Dante’s great love for her, and Beatrice in turn went down to Hell, into Limbo, and asked Virgil to guide her friend until that time when she herself would become his guide. The pilgrim takes heart at Virgil’s explanation and agrees to follow him. ”(Reid pg. 9) Dante the Poet establishes Beatrice as God’s Grace, because Beatrice is able to take Dante to the next level and attain Paradise.
This is quite similar to St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation that without grace (Beatrice), nature (Virgil) can only take an individual so far on their journey. Dante strongly emphasizes the progression from Purgatory to Paradise in Canto XXX. “Through the flowers, Beatrice appears. The Pilgrim turns to Virgil to confess his overpowering emotions, only to find that Virgil has disappeared! ”(Dante pg. 363) The emergence of Beatrice and vanishing of Virgil is meant to represent the exact transitional moment between nature and grace.
Virgil has taken Dante as far as he could in his quest for paradise; at this exact point in time Beatrice’s appearance and purpose was to help Dante attain salvation. The fact that nature (Virgil) and grace (Beatrice) are so strongly correlated in Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and paradise makes it evident that Dante’s writing reflects St. Thomas Aquinas’ ideals. The relationship between nature and grace can be described as dependent. Both grace and nature are necessary to complete our cycle to God. St.
Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri clearly illustrate this unique relationship respectively in “Summa Theologica” and “Dante’s Inferno”. Dante’s writings reflect upon St. Thomas’ understanding is most thoroughly conveyed through the appearance of Beatrice and Virgil to represent grace and nature. Throughout literature and philosophy there are often disagreements amid colleagues, yet Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas both seem to agree upon the relationship between nature and grace.