Virtuous Pagans – Dante’s Inferno – Canto Four

Explore Dante's Inferno as a fantastic interactive visualization / Boing  Boing

After I finished Paradise Lost, it seemed something opened up inside of me.

There was this extraordinary desire to experience the world from the ways the classic writers had. And suddenly the idea of using religion as the starting point did not seem so bad.

In fact, it seemed poignant.

I will not be the first person to say that the religion of language is still the best way to discuss the bigger questions. Ones of mortality, of meaninglessness, and suffering.

In a Louisiana Channel interview with Michel Houellebecq, he gave these lines: “religion remains the only thing able to produce a discourse that has some meaning.” And I agree with those words.

But because of the beauty of Milton’s lines, I suddenly had a hunger for the old words. If one knows my reading habits, this is surprising. Most of my reading is very modern, both in fiction and otherwise. This came from a fierce rejection of the heightened stance people seem to take on writers and intellectuals of antiquity. Especially in public schools, there seems to be the notion that once a person has died, suddenly their opinions become more correct or profound, as if they can comment on their works from beyond the grave. To me this was incredibly naive, and possibly false. For the ancients like Ovid, or Homer, what did they know about the relative safety of modernity? What did they know of a half-century without a major conflict in the known world? War in those days seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule. The decisions of polytheistic gods were made purely out of joy or rage, much like humans, and to be bestowed success in ancient history, to be allowed to be happy, was as Darrin M. McMahon wrote in his survey on the history of happiness, to be totally based on luck.

But now I sort of understand a little more the predicament of being human. And though the wrapping around existence has been far prettier, sugar coated, dotted with less random deaths, the truth is that our lives are the same. We live longer, and we have more knowledge than any king could ever claim, but we still die.

Perhaps my realizing this is due to the coronavirus pandemic. The death toll is far lower, and will continue to be far lower than the Spanish Flu, or the Black Death, because our behavior is able to quickly adapt to new information. But our rise in medical expertise will also help circumvent pointless death and suffering. No, simply the fact that the news features an illness at all as the key feature of the morning briefing makes clear to me that we are not out of the “dark wood” of humanity yet, not by a long shot. Yes, we have decoupled our reliance on the Earth for resources, and yes we have been to the moon and back. But our moral questions are here to stay.

So I am reading the classics, works from hundreds of years ago, because I need a poetry wholly other from our vernacular. I may be weary of the sameness of all language, the verisimilitude of the words as they drift from news to crime fiction to literary essay. All of it lacks the weight, the heft, of something unquestionably Other.

In this context, I’d like to investigate the notion of “virtuous pagans” in Canto four of Inferno by Dante.

I have always liked the word “pagan,” if only for its kink. When I was younger, I liked the sort of Earthy fun that the word provided, though I did not really understand the definition of the term. It just sounded sexy. Taking a quick look, I realize that the term first and foremost means to be “religious in a way other than the main world religions.” The word derives from the the Latin “paganus,” meaning “villager” or “rustic”, as well as “pagan” in the Christian Latin which means “heathen.”

One can imagine the pagan to be a person who is here to visit, but in the grand scheme of things is one who does not belong, and will therefore eventually leave.

The term has seen a decline in use since its inception, it looks like, though we can assume back in the days of Dante Alighieri, it was very much an obvious word. Back then it must have had distincly negative connotations.

In Canto four, the “virtuous pagans” are the ones who existed in between Abraham and the arrival of Christ in corporeal form, yet their works and the way in which they have been remembered have elevated them to be closest to heaven’s gates

“He blessed all these and other paragons.
And I would have you know that till that day
no souls were saved. They were the earliest ones.”

I said: “O you who honor science and art,
who are those men who even in this place possess such honor that sets them apart?”
and he: “Their fame, which time does not erase,
still resounding in your world this very day,
allows them to advance through heaven’s grace.”

And who are these? Homer, Ovid, and Lucan. These are writers. We writers like to stick together, and Dante, so distraught at the idea that these obvious influencers of a craft he views (as I do) to be one of the most sacred, decides to perform an Apology. He elevates them as high as he can, though they lived without God’s grace and Christ’s redemption, because of their ability to be remembered through the gift of poetry.

If a pagan is one who is able to think past the conventional notions of belief, thought, and practice, then please consider me a pagan. It is not enough in life to be categorized, and despite the fact that here even those we cannot place in one still get a word for them, I am satisfied. Mark Twain referenced the idea of the noncanonical in his words on education: “All schools, all colleges, have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal valuable knowledge.”

We must work to uncover both.

And if we claim that the definition of virtue is the act of mining the past and putting it into poetry or prose, then I would very much like to work towards the concept of virtuosity. Dante does what I do now, which is search deeply into the past. “I do not know what history is,” Marilynne Robinson says, “but I know that it is important.”

We are all pagans in a sense. For the atheists, this is obvious, but so too are the believers. Much of the Christianity we practice today bears little resemblance to the one Jesus practiced. Not only do we continue to fail on the whole notion of rich people and camels and the eye of a needle, the transgressive ideals were smoothed over with Constantine’s adoption of the religion anyway. This hedging of bets exists for all that we believe, for too much time has passed without some diffusion.

But what I am talking here is far deeper. It is the language that is viewed as pagan just as much as belief.

I have become disillusioned by just the canonical use of the words I have been given. There must be another language, and there is. Pagan language is now what Milton is in the retrospective lens. The Dantes, the Shakespeares, Solomon’s Book of Ecclesiastes. And as we wait (or reject) the idea of the coming of Christ, it is our hope that our language will be the very thing that future generations take up as alterity.

There are other ways to live life. The old words show you how.

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