Divine Comedy: Theme Analysis
The Divine Comedy serves as the physical (scientific), political, and spiritual guidebook of Dante's Fourteenth Century universe. From a physical perspective, Dante attempts to literally place Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven on the map. Throughout the three poems, Dante takes great care to identify stars and astrological signs that place Hell below Jerusalem and Purgatory in the middle of the ocean below the equator. Based on their limited understanding of the globe, contemporary readers of Comedywould have believed the physical placement of these biblical realms and would have built their belief systems around such markers. Additionally, Dante outlines his understanding of the physical position of the Earth relative to the stars and the sun. In Paradiso, Dante describes the orbit of such heavenly bodies as Mars and Jupiter around the Earth, confirming and reinforcing the scientific beliefs of the period. Finally, Dante attempts to square specific physical or 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 (a question of biology), and why do people sin (a question of psychology)? In essence, Dante outlines his scientific understanding of the world.
Comedy also outlines Dante's political worldview. As a White Guelph, Dante believed that an emperor should govern affairs of the state while the pope's power should be confined to religious affairs. During his lifetime, Dante witnessed intense fighting between church leaders and various emperors who wished to govern Christiandom. These struggles divided Italy, turning neighbors against each other, and led to Dante's exile. So intertwined was Dante's life with current politics that it can be said that the turmoil between church and state truly determined the course of Dante's life. Thus, in The Divine Comedy, readers clearly recognize Dante's political beliefs as the poet rails against his enemies, who he meets in Hell, and glorifies his allies. It is clear that Dante intended to use his poems as a political platform around which to rally support from friends and from which to sound a warning to his foes especially corrupt religious leaders.
Finally, with The Divine Comedy Dante provides his readers with a spiritual map and a moral compass. Frustrated and dismayed by his own sinful ways and the growing corruption that he saw around him, Dante hoped that his visions 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. To this end, Dante made the lessons of the Bible accessible to his contemporaries by drawing a graphic yet clear picture of the punishments awaiting them in Hell and the rewards found in Heaven. Through the questions that Dante poses to his guides and the spirits that he meets, readers find answers to many of life's most difficult moral and spiritual questions. Readers, for example, learn how prayer helps to deliver sinners from Purgatory and, based on their location relative to the highest sphere of Heaven, which sins God most abhors. Readers also learn that they must not neglect their spiritual duties because even baptized and repentant Christians may spend thousands of years in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven. The Divine Comedy is "epic" because it not only tells the story of a man's journey from Hell to Heaven, it also presents an entire world order, and man's place in that order, according to one of the most brilliant and important thinkers in history.