One of the most intriguing paradoxes of Dante’s Divine Comedy is the pervasive presence of pagan classical antiquity in what was meant to be (and is) Europe’s greatest Christian poem. Dante juxtaposes and interweaves classical and Christian, from Virgil’s appearance in the poem’s first canto to the homage to Aristotle (“the love that moves the sun and the other stars”) in its last line.
English Dante scholar Kenelm Foster devoted a set of three essays to interpreting and reconciling “The Two Dantes.” Foster suggested that Dante’s “attachment to paganism was more like that which a man may feel to his youth, except that paganism was a stage in the history of Dante’s race, not of himself personally,” but he recognized the problem with this explanation. For Dante the classics are not what we would call ancient history.
There is a sense in which the pagan “object” of his attachment was not something past and done with, existing only in history or legend or works of art; rather it was a permanent part of himself, an alter ego; it was that second self which his imagination took into the Other World in the form of Virgil and which, once it had assumed this form, was allowed to take charge of, to guide and govern the Christian protagonist of the resulting poem.
Indeed, the Classical...