Assessing the Pilgrim’s Guides in Dante’s The Divine Comedy

November 9, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Guardians of the Universe

Dante’s great epic poem is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature and is seen as one of the very greatest works of world literature, largely because Dante has deftly incorporated some of the most astonishing intricate and alarming tortures anyone has ever constructed in fiction. This complete book is an analysis of the many prominent figures from Dante’s time and antiquity. Some of these he respected and idolized like Homer, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. Some who were honorable and virtuous, like the great Julius Caesar and Saladin. Then there are some whom he despised and abhorred, such as Alexander the Great and Emperor Frederick II. In this work, there are four main characters: Dante, the Pilgrim, and the guardians Virgil, Beatrice, and St. Bernard.

The first book of the Divine Comedy, Inferno, begins in the pits of hell. Where Dante suddenly, wakes from his sleep and discovers himself in a dull, barely lit, valley. As he is slowly walking, trying to find his way out, a ferocious leopard, a brutal lion, and a ravenous she-wolf attack him in a vicious and cruel manner. As an image of the soul, the pilgrim finds himself faced with the chief vices – concupiscence the leopard, wrath the lion, and fraud the ravening wolf – which plague all men, good and evil; all his good resolutions to give up sin and return to God’s love yields to ingrained bad habit. Virgil slowly approaches the scene, the best voice of human knowledge and reason, and offers to be Dante’s guide. Having always harbored a deep respect for this epic poet, symbol of the ideal in both political and spiritual realms, the pilgrim can only gratefully and respectfully accept this aid. Virgil advises Dante that he should renounce those sins which attack him, and advance to Purgatory, where Virgil will at last consign his guidance to another more fit to show Dante the glories of heaven. Virgil embodies reason and wisdom, making him an excellent guardian. As their heroic odyssey continues, Virgil’s behavior towards Dante adjusts, depending on the situation. Virgil is notably defensive over Dante, though he does rebuke Dante, sometimes gently and other times harshly, for his great compassion towards certain of the damned souls whom they meet along the way, pointing out that these souls are here only through their own sins, and are being justly punished by Him whom they have grievously offended, and that their trials are the construction of a larger intention, governed by Almighty God, Himself.

When Dante finds that Virgil is no longer with him, Beatrice appears as Dante’s guide through the terrestrial paradise. It in fact transpires that Beatrice is the reason for Dante’s journey through these eternal valleys. They had known and loved each other in her lifetime, but now that she had ascended to heavenly bliss, she endeavored to bring him through the this terrible inferno, purgatory, and paradise, in order that he may change his sinful ways, and live a good and holy life, so that he may spend eternity in abiding happiness. Beatrice is a mirror upon which divine love is reflected and therefore provides a bond to redemption. She is a compelling character and a woman of force, who descends into hell to summon Virgil for Dante’s aid and to train him to assist the pilgrim on this, his supernatural journey. Her affection not only rescues the pilgrim from the Dark Road of sin, but also animates him to pass over the purifying flames of Mount Purgatory into the harmonious joy of paradise. She is an exacting teacher, and continually admonishes and chides Dante for his less than righteous conduct and demeanor.

In order that a more worthy guide should take him through the celestial halls and spheres, Beatrice hands the position of guardian to the pilgrim to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He was the founding abbot of Clairvaux Abbey in Burgundy, and one of the most commanding Church leaders in the first half of the twelfth century as well as one of the greatest spiritual masters of all times and the most powerful propagator of the Cistercian reform. St. Bernard’s mission is to slowly, but surely prepare Dante’s eyes for the vision of God; He intends to do this by looking at the saints, and eventually he will be prepared for the ultimate flight to God. The saint declares that Our Lady will allow for this herself, since she will refuse nothing to him, her faithful servitor, St. Bernard. He at once directs Dante’s eyes upward to gaze on the Queen of heaven. Dante gazes ardently at his radiant and beautiful queen and Bernard joining him increases the pilgrim’s silent devotion with his own passion.

As chosen guardians of Dante, it was Virgil, Beatrice, and St. Bernard’s duty to ultimately share the Beatific Vision with him. To help him see that his sins would only lead him to eternal shame, misery, hatred and anger, while simply following God’s commandments would bring him nothing but everlasting bliss joy and peace. They try to illustrate to him that it is through no fault of God that souls are damned, but through their own laziness, lack of zeal and self-love. Dante has seen the error in his ways after these great guardians have shown him the three different “worlds”. Under Virgil’s guidance, Dante learns to crush his human pity towards the sinners in the inferno, and begins to understand why God punished them so. Under Beatrice he learns to subdue passionate feelings, and his less than chivalrous actions. Under St. Bernard he learns that the only way to the heart of God is through Mary. These important lessons will be his guide once he returns to earth to continue his life’s journey. This experience, of course, changes his life and his philosophy of the afterlife. The different spheres which he experiences, the different circles of hell, the many important figures which he meets, all this together, will make him a new man, once he returns to earth.


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