Dante’s Soul-Pictures


A baptized, disciplined imagination is essential for Christian maturity. As the ‘organ of meaning,’ the imagination serves an indispensable role in apprehending the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — those transcendentals that find their fountainhead in the triune God. A Spirit-shaped imagination enables us to enjoy God more. And so, Trinitarian Hedonists cultivate holy imaginations. 

A deep conviction of the value of the imagination undergirds Bethlehem College and Seminary’s commitment to savoring the great books in light of the greatest book. After all, in the great and greatest books, we enter into conversations with the great authors. And thus, we can be shaped by their imaginations. We can be enchanted by the worlds they wield. We can walk in the shoes of the characters they unveil. We can be changed — our imaginations baptized — by the images they create. 

Arguably, the man who has most shaped and ordered the Christian imagination, after Jesus, is Dante Alighieri. His labyrinthine 14,000-line poem, The Divine Comedy, is for the imagination a playground and a schoolhouse, a cathedral and an observatory, a courtroom, and an art gallery. Dante’s Comedy springs from the leaf mold of a mind saturated in Scripture. Thus, Dante can help guide us on the path of godliness and maturity. So, journey with me for a few minutes as we follow Dante and allow him to shape and sanctify our imaginations. 

In the Inferno, Dante leads his readers into the depths of hell in order to illustrate what sin does to the soul. With a host of sinners and their punishments, Dante paints soul-pictures to make tangible the odiousness of sin. In Dante’s vision of hell, sinners embody their most cherished sins — as CS Lewis put it, the grumbler becomes a grumble — and their punishments are that sin in full bloom. Dante helps us see disordered loves in consummation. He shows us the shape of sin.  

In Canto 27, Dante presents one of his most poignant and convicting soul-pictures. In this eighth circle of hell, Dante meets the mythic character Ulysses, the mastermind of the Trojan horse. In Ulysses, Dante presents to our imaginations an incarnation of two sins that haunt the steps of anyone involved in higher education — the sins of intellectual avarice and the ill-use of words.

First, Dante paints Ulysses as a picture of a disordered desire to know. When Dante meets Ulysses, he recounts the story of his downfall. After a decade of fighting the Homeric wars, Ulysses finally returns home to his wife, son, and father. Yet, he shamelessly admits that none of these bonds of love “could drive from me the burning to go forth to gain experience of the world, and learn of every human vice, and human worth” (Inferno, 26.97–99). In essence, he lusts for the knowledge of Good and Evil. In fact, Dante wants us to make the connection between Ulysses and the sin of Eden. Burning with desire, Ulysses uses his eloquence to inflame his war-weary friends with a desire to sail to the ends of the earth and ascend the Mountain of Paradise — the holy hill crowned by Eden. However, before they can ever set foot on those hallowed slopes, a whirlwind “to please Another’s will” sinks their ship, killing the whole crew. God quelled Job’s curiosity from the whirlwind, and Dante envisions the same for Ulysses. 

Ulysses would have stormed the very gates of Eden to seize knowledge. He is a soul-picture of intellectual avarice — the sin the ancients referred to as ‘curiosity.’ Curiosity, in this sense, seeks knowledge in times, ways, or degrees outside of God’s design. The desire to know is good and godly (Psalm 25:2–3, 111:2), but the lust to know flaunts God’s boundaries. 

I find in Dante’s Ulysses a much-needed warning. Curiosity is a subtle sin for anyone involved in higher education. In our world of instant and unlimited information, this avarice may take the form of a draconic hoarding of facts and bits of data, yet never gaining wisdom. It may be the pursuit of a degree at the neglect of family. A Ulysses would get an ‘A’ in class and an ‘F’ as a father or husband. Or for me, the most dangerous form consists in pursuing knowledge in a way that ignores my creatureliness. When study trumps God’s good rhythms of rest, when the sabbath principle is sacrificed at the altar of the A, when I habitually forgo sleep because ‘this is a unique season,’ I become Ulysses, storming the very gates of Eden. 

Dante’s Ulysses also reveals how warped words wreak ruin. Ulysses’s is a master rhetorician, and his words are poison. With just nine lines of speech, Ulysses convinces his “brothers” to join him in his sin. He boasts, “I made my comrades’ appetites so keen to take the journey, by this little speech, I hardly could have held them after that” (26.121–123). With carefully wrought words, Ulysses winds them up and sends them on the “mad flight” to destruction. 

Here is where Dante’s soul-pictures can truly shape the way we envision sin. The punishment of Ulysses involves being eternally ‘stowed away’ in a tongue of fire, which is in fact the fire of his own tongue. This is the sin of evil counsel embodied. And it is fitting for at least three reasons. First, it is a kind of anti-Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Spirit rested on men like tongues of fire, freeing the tongues of men to set the world on fire with Gospel truth. Yet, Ulysses is imprisoned by his tongue. Second, as Dante knew and James tells us, the tongue is a fire, a restless inferno of unrighteousness (James 3:1–12). Third, in life, Ulysses’s tongue devoured the lives of his ‘comrades.’ Now the very flame that consumed others eternally consumes the soul that wielded it. He entrapped with words, and now he is entrapped. The arsonist burns on his own pyre.

I find this image terrifying. Even as I write these words — these carefully curated and artfully arranged words — I behold Ulysses as a blazing beacon of warning. Dante himself felt the danger of abusing language. Staring at Ulysses veiled in flame, Dante determined to “hold my genius under tighter rein lest without virtue’s guidance it run loose” (26.21–22). Dante, gifted with great linguistic ability, knew he could lead others to ruin if God did not tame his tongue. And so go I, but by the grace of God! We who love words, we who worship the Word, we who rally to the reality that ‘saying beautifully is a way of seeing Beauty,’ we who are called to preach and teach and write, we who wield words ought to have our imaginations disciplined by the soul-picture of Ulysses. May the Lord of Language edit us!

I have given you just one little snapshot of how men like Dante — saturated in Scripture and enchanted by myth — can guide us on the Christian pilgrimage by shaping our imaginations. Like Dante, they can help us enjoy God more by revealing the horror of how sin bends a soul in on itself. Or like Lewis, they can help enchant our vision of heaven, leading us further up and further in. These shepherds of the imagination help deepen our delight in God. So, friend, I will leave you with one question. Who is shepherding your imagination? 

Clint Manley, 3rd-Year Seminarian

Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that the Spirit would use the reading and studying that goes on at Bethlehem College and Seminary to shape and sanctify imaginations that are equipped to enjoy God in everything and everything in God. 
  2. Pray that the Lord would encourage the pastors who attend Serious Joy: The 35th Bethlehem Conference for Pastors.
  3. Pray for the students considering where God would have them attend school.
  4. Pray for the full funding of the Serious Joy Scholarships that support our students and their teachers.