The Education of Desire

When you begin reading Dante’s Inferno, you immediately encounter the protagonist, who, “midway in the journey of our life,” finds himself lost in a dark wood. It does not take long before you realize that he is lost in more ways than one: Dante the pilgrim is morally and spiritually lost. Neither does it take long to realize why Dante claims that he is midway in the journey of our life. Dante the author wants the reader to understand that the journey upon which the protagonist will embark is also somehow the journey that we must all undertake. He is lost in much the same way any of us might also be lost.

The Divine Comedy is a 700 year old work, which is quite evidently steeped in the imaginative world of medieval Europe. Indeed, it is no stretch to say that it is the single greatest achievement of the medieval imagination. But, like all great works of art, to the degree that it tells the truth about the human condition, it will continue to speak across the centuries, even if the dialect strikes our modern as rather strange.

As the story unfolds, we recognize that Dante the pilgrim, which is how the protagonist is usually distinguished from Dante the poet, is undergoing a transformation. More specifically, he is undergoing a moral education. Like the main character in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Dante’s problem, and ours, is that he “loves all the wrong things.”

It is to this essentially Augustinian understanding of the human person that I want to draw your attention. We are creatures made to love, but in our fallen state our loves are disordered and misdirected. Consequently, we are restless seekers, never satisfied because we love what we shouldn’t, we fail to love what we should, and, even when we love what we ought, we fail to love in the right measure. As he moves through hell and purgatory, Dante the pilgrim learns to see the true nature of sin stemming from misdirected and disordered love. He learns, too, how to rightly order his desires and his loves. And, as Dante the poet understood, this is what we must all learn.

It is part of the genius of Dante’s work that he manages to show how ultimately our disordered loves destroy our freedom and our happiness, not because God imposes an arbitrary punishment upon us but rather because the internal logic of our disordered loves always proves self-destructive. Dante is at pains to show how the denizens of hell have what they have always craved in this life. Their condition is a manifestation of their disordered desires. It is what they had been choosing for themselves all along, only now its destructive nature is made plain to readers by the artifice of the poet.

Consider the desire for food as an example. Food is good, and it should be enjoyed. But if we desire food inordinately, then this disordered desire for food will harm us. Notice that this is true whether one indulges in too much food or abstains from food altogether. The challenge is to love food as it ought to be loved given its natural relationship to human flourishing. Consequently, the problem of gluttony is not a problem with food—it is a problem with how we relate to food. You can, without too much difficulty, follow this same line of reasoning with many other examples: alcohol, sex, material possessions, etc. Dante artfully illustrates this pattern throughout his work.

Given this understanding of the human person, then, what the Divine Comedy illustrates in stunning and beautiful complexity is the progress of the soul from a state of loving all the wrong things and reaping the natural consequences of this misdirected love to a state of loving God perfectly and, hence, all other things rightly as well. And Dante would have us understand that this perfection of love and desire, which is ultimately a work of God’s grace, is the key to human flourishing—it is how we leave the dark wood and enter into the light of God’s glory.

Study Center Resources

For those of you in the Gainesville area, Pascal’s is now open for both online ordering and dine-in service.

If the discussion above enticed you to read Dante, our reading group enters just its fourth week this coming Wednesday. We will be covering cantos 6-9 of the Inferno. If you would like to join the group before we get any further along, please email Mike Sacasas at He will be emailing links to the Zoom meetings on Monday morning.

The Christian Study Center in Gainesville is part of a loosely affiliated network of similar centers across the country. The origins of the study center movement are the subject Charlie Cotherman new book, To Think ChristianlyA History of L'Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement (IVP, 2020). If you would like to know more about the study center movement and the part of its story that Cotherman has told, you are invited to join a virtual book launch we are co-sponsoring. It is happening next Thursday, May 28th, at 11am (EST). It will include a brief summary of the book by Cotherman, a 20-minute interview between the author and IVP’s academic editorial director, Jon Boyd, and then audience Q&A. The event is free, but registration is required. You can do so at their registration page.

Recommended Reading

— In 2016, Joseph Luzzi wrote a short essay, “How to Read Dante in the 21st Century,” commending Dante to readers of The American Scholar. We commend his essay to you (with thanks to Laura Lynch for sharing this piece):

“It’s not easy to break the code of The Divine Comedy, a work steeped in a medieval Christian vision that can cause readers like Victor Hugo to avert their eyes from its more celestial passages. But the miracle of literature is that its insights can somehow remain fresh and relevant centuries after they were written and far from where they first appeared. And that’s the miracle of Dante: somehow his writing still makes sense seven centuries after it was conceived, so long as we manage to read slowly, between, behind, and around what he called his versi strani, strange verses.”

— At Plough, Nathan Beacom discusses the novel Laurus by the Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin as a way of thinking about the experience what he calls vertical and horizontal time:

“Without this, we grow anxious. This is partly because with others, we are freed somewhat from the drag of passing time. Anxiety belongs to time: it dwells on the pain of the past, the fear of what is to come, and moments that fall away. When we are with others, we grow free from the bonds of time’s passage. In some sense this is what we are after in all our truly social activities. ‘A good time occurs,’ as the theologian Robert Farrar Capon writes, ‘precisely when we lose track of what time it is.’ Under quarantine, the anxiety of time becomes pronounced, because the flow of our normal life is interrupted, our projects and aims halted, and our uneasiness about where we are headed has the chance to show itself.”

— Below is Simone Weil as quoted by Scott Beauchamp in his worthwhile essay reflecting on reading, beauty, nature, and moral wisdom:

“As one has to learn to read, or to learn to practice a trade, so one must learn to feel in all things, first and almost solely, the obedience of the universe to God. It is truly an apprenticeship; and like every apprenticeship it calls for time and effort . . . Whoever has finished his apprenticeship recognizes things and events, everywhere and always, as vibrations of the same divine and infinitely sweet word.”