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Hope in Dante's Divine Comedy - Part Three

Paradise: Hope Triumphant

By Joseph Gascoigne

"From many stars this light comes to me."

Throughout this three-part series, we have conceptualized hope as a belief that things can and will get better. In the context of Dante's theology, the ultimate end-point of this process of improvement was salvation and entry to Heaven. After all, things cannot get any better than paradise. The object of Dante's hope is Heaven - that is the end towards which we should all aspire and the motive behind our action and our faith. We see this throughout the Divine Comedy. In Inferno we see how those condemned to Hell suffer eternally in the absence of hope, knowing they will never find salvation. In Purgatorio we meet those whose whole existence is predicated on hope, as the souls of the penitent climb Mount Purgatory on their road to purification. In Paradiso, Dante brings us right to that place of ultimate hope - Heaven itself - the place for which all the characters we have met along the way have been yearning, some with hope, others without.

But this is Dante, and even at the moment of greatest achievement, having entered the Gates of Heaven, the pilgrim's work is not over. Neither narrator nor reader may rest upon their laurels once within Heaven, but must continue a journey of spiritual and theological improvement. This is significant, because it conveys Dante's assertion that it is not enough for hopes to simply be attained, they must be understood - intellectually and spiritually.

There is something very meditative and self-reflective in this notion. So often individuals have hopes, dreams, and desires, but they do not think critically about these; rarely do we stop and reflect deeply on why we have the hopes we do, we merely race towards them as quickly as we can and revel once they are achieved. But Dante surprises us, once again, by denying us this cathartic revelry and instead taking us on a further educational journey. This is an echo of his meeting with Beatrice at the summit of Purgatory - we expect joy and a romantic running into each other's arms, but instead we receive a scolding and a lesson from il divino's muse. So too when we get to Heaven, we are given a lesson and invited to think critically about ourselves and our experiences.

The main lesson on hope comes in Canto XXV, courtesy of St James. In the preceding Canto, St Peter tested Dante on his understanding of Faith while in Canto XXVI St John will examine Dante on the concept of charity, or love. Together, these three Cantos constitute a treatise on the sacred virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love, as Dante understood them. 

James's lesson on hope begins with three questions posed to the poet: what is hope; how much hope does Dante have; and how does he come to have hope? Beatrice, now Dante's guide through Heaven, answers the middle question for him. She does so to save Dante from boasting, because, as Beatrice claims,  '"The Militant Church has no son with more Hope"' than Dante (Paradiso, Canto XXV). For Dante to make such a claim, though honest, would be indicative of pride. To save Dante's blushes, his guide answers this question for him, then steps back to let Dante provide answers to St James's other questions.

In giving his opinion on what hope is, Dante provides a textbook response: '"Hope," I said, "is a certain expectation of future glory"' (Paradiso, Canto XXV). This conforms to the general and future-looking definition of hope that has run throughout this series; it is an expectation that things can and will get better. But Dante complicates his response with the use of the word 'glory'. What exactly does 'glory' mean here? Glory is not a vague and nebulous future state or feeling. It is not the nameless and formless 'thing' that we talk about when we say "'things' will get better”. In the Christian context of Dante's writing and the supremely religious setting of Canto XXV, the word 'glory' is surely used for its religious and divine connotations. Glory, as Dante uses the word, refers to the salvation of the soul through God's love and the triumph over death which it implies. This then is the 'future glory' towards which Dante's hope is focussed. Salvation is the ultimate 'better' which we reference when we say that hope is a belief that 'things will get better'.

If Dante sees salvation as the object of hope, what then does he see as the source or maybe the nature of hope? Dante's answer is that hope '"is the product of divine grace and merit we earned."' (Paradiso, Canto XXV). There are two important ideas conveyed in this simple sentence. The first is that hope is a product of divine grace. This is a hugely important notion, particularly for Christians of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when Dante lived and wrote. The idea of hope as a product of divine grace means it is given freely and naturally by God to all; it is innately part of us, inbuilt into our nature through Creation. Hope cannot be alienated from us except through our own sin which separates us from God and perverts his Creation. So Dante sees hope, in part, as being an innate part of the human experience, endowed to us by God.

But in the same sentence Dante says hope is simultaneously a product of merit that we have earned. This seems to contradict or at least stand separately from the notion of hope as an aspect of Divine Grace. If hope is innately part of us then how can it be earned? And if hope can be earned then does that mean it is not already part of us? These questions reflect the theological debates that were raging at the time of Dante's life about the broader notions of Grace and Salvation and what role merit, actions, and earning salvation had to play.

For Dante, the most influential school of thought would have been that built on the theology of Peter Lombard (c.1096-1160). Lombard's magnum opus, Four Books of Sentences, was a compilation of Bible passages, treatise, and dialogues from Church Fathers and contemporary theologians. Originally written around 1150, Sentences became popular in the early 1200s and quickly became the definitive word on Christian dogma, second only to the Bible. For Dante, Sentences would have been an authoritative text to which he would have turned for theological insight and wisdom and it is from here that Dante draws a definition of hope.

St James's third question motivates an even more complicated and personal answer from Dante. When asked where his private hope comes from, Dante says he does not have one source of hope but that it comes to him 'from many stars,' (Paradiso, Canto XXV). The poet then goes onto elucidate two key sources of hope. As always with Dante, these two examples are chosen for very good theological reasons.

Dante's first source of hope is the Psalms of David - referred to by Dante as 'the greatest singer of the greatest lord.' (Paradiso, Canto XXV). In particular, Dante paraphrases Psalm 9:10: 'And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee.' (Psalm 9:10, King James Bible). Dante goes on to say to St James, 'And who does not know that, if they share my faith.' (Paradiso, Canto XXV). By this, Dante is saying that he, as do all Christians, has faith in God and by virtue of that is granted hope. This means that Dante receives one part of his hope purely through his faith in God. This echoes the earlier assertion that hope is the product of grace and is something innate and automatic - it is, to paraphrase a theological concept, hope by faith alone.

However, Dante goes on to point to the second source of his personal hope. With trademark sycophancy, he credits this to St James himself, saying to him, "You then fed me, as he [David] did feed, in your epistle,"' (Paradiso, Canto XXV). Here Dante says that he gained as much hope from James's epistle as he did from David's Psalms. The epistle of James is widely noted for its advocacy of good works as an essential part of justification. James proposes that in order to achieve salvation, people need to actually do good things and be practically virtuous; it is not enough to simply have faith, as the contrasting epistle of Paul teaches and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The notion of physical and practical deeds, or works, complements the physicality of Dante's theology and the material aspects of his attitude towards sin and repentance. In terms of hope, Dante suggests that through his assertion that good deeds are necessary to attain salvation, James teaches that salvation is accessible to all who are willing to undertake virtuous actions. This is something in which contemporaries could find hope, Dante seems to imply, as each good deed brings us closer to God.

By identifying two sources of hope - faith in God and trust in good deeds - Dante complements his earlier-defined double nature of hope - '"the product of divine grace and merit we earned."' (Paradiso, Canto XXV). The first part - a product of divine grace - is bestowed automatically and is inherent in knowledge of and faith in god; this is the lesson Dante draws from the Psalms. The second part - the merits we earned - relates to the good deeds championed by St James. So Dante asserts that hope is something that is both innate and something towards which we can work; something bestowed by grace and something earned through virtuous deeds.

Despite (here some might say 'because of') its lofty, theological, sacred, and Christian themes, I have always that the Divine Comedy is a profoundly human poem. There is something inordinately personal, instinctive, almost 'earthy' about the ideas, psychological conflicts, and internal arguments with which it engages. And its discussion on hope is no different. I am not surprised to recognise many overlaps between Dante's conceptualisation of hope and many of the discussions and debates I have been part of or have watched over the last year. What stands out is the idea of hope's double nature. That is, the notion that hope is at once very grand and very small, something divine and something quintessentially human.

This theme has recurred throughout many of these talk pieces and discussions had elsewhere as part of the Horizons of Hope Project. It has been noted, for instance, that grand and sweeping hopes cannot always be maintained by themselves. Instead, they need to be supported from time to time by evidence and experiences which affirm the realisability of the hope.

For example, a person might have hope in a better future where all people are treated equally, regardless of sex, colour, sexuality, ability, or nationality. But this is a very great hope and takes a lot of belief to maintain. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this hope might actually be a little naive, particularly when taking into account regressive political movements across the world today. So in order to maintain this grand hope, a person will need to complement their belief in a better future with real-world experiences that suggest this grand hope is realistic and realizable. For instance, they will look at small, incremental improvements in gender equality in the UK or improved LGTB+ rights in South Africa as evidence that their hope is realistic. Improvements like these are the ‘many stars’ that Dante said were the source of his hope. In my mind, they act as buttresses or pillars supporting the lofty road of hope. This is the double nature of hope Dante captures so well; the divine and grand along with the human and small. Both are necessary to create and maintain hope.

It is unsurprising the Divine Comedy handles the notion of hope in such a thoughtful and deeply-considered manner. Even after seven hundred years, the Divine Comedy remains the paramount discourse on what it means to be human and what place mankind has in Creation. So of course, hope is a central theme of the poem. Hope is a fundamental part of human nature, pervasive throughout our culture and endemic to our daily thought. Hope is also an essential mechanism through which humans deal with the world and our reality, both collectively and as individuals. That the Divine Comedy is a poem about humanity necessarily, therefore, means that the Divine Comedy is a poem about hope.