Seven hundred years after his death, updating Dante’s Divine Comedy continues to be an enjoyable pastime. What, for example, would Minos, the mythological judge in Inferno, make of Boris Johnson? Snake-tailed and scowling, Minos sits at the mouth of hell, assessing sinners before sending them to their appropriate location in the nine circles of torment. Popes, emperors and Dante’s personal enemies are all blown downwards to their just deserts by a bitterly cold wind.
For Mr Johnson, the upper circles, where sins of passion and unrestrained appetite are punished, might seem a natural home. Alternatively, remembering the notorious ‘‘£350m for the NHS” Brexit pledge, the eighth circle – where falsifiers and promoters of schism languish – could be a good fit.
The artistic aspirations of the Divine Comedy were, of course, more profound than a mere settling of scores with people Dante didn’t like. His great work, completed in 1320, helped structure the theological imagination of the Catholic world. But as this year’s anniversary celebrations begin, it is the poet’s reflections on politics that strike a particular chord. He was as preoccupied with the consequences of factionalism and tribalism as we are.
The explanation for that lies in Dante’s own turbulent biography. Prominent in the ferocious power struggles of medieval Florence, he at various points took up arms, held high office, was double-crossed by Pope Boniface VIII and subsequently died in exile. Writing the Divine Comedy, the author deals ruthlessly with those who engineered and profited from the poet’s banishment. Boniface’s card is marked in Canto XIX of Inferno. Filippo Argenti, a political rival, is placed in the fifth circle of hell, reserved for the wrathful, where he bites lumps out of himself for all eternity.
But as Dante is guided by Virgil towards heaven, he learns how politics should be done differently on earth. The Roman poet embodies the four cardinal virtues of the ancient world: prudence, courage, justice and moderation. In Paradiso, Saint Thomas Aquinas emphasises the need for moral and intellectual humility. Fallible human beings, he tells Dante, should never become “too sure of themselves”. In Canto XVIII, we learn that the souls of just rulers dwell in the temperate sphere of Jupiter, well away from the extremes of fiery Mars and cold Saturn. Saint Thomas acidly sums up heaven’s view of opinionated blowhards at the end of Canto XIII: “Let not every Bertha and Martin think/ Because they see one a thief, another respectable,/ That they see how they are in the eyes of God;/ For one may rise, and the other one may fall.”
In our own age of divisive culture wars, this celestial wisdom, dutifully written down and delivered to the world by Dante, could be very usefully deployed. In recent years, hectoring Berthas and Martins have dominated far too much of the political stage. If we could channel some of the pacific spirit of Dante’s Paradiso into our everyday lives, it would be a fitting anniversary tribute to Europe’s greatest poet.