Transformation and Immortality: Introducing Dante’s Divina Commedia

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider buying a copy of this issue or becoming a subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

Who wants to live for ever? And under what conditions? It is not only Freddie Mercury who asks these questions; philosophers have often asked them too. But the philosophers (at any rate) have been surprisingly vague about how to answer the second question. This vagueness matters. One obvious reason why is that it might make all the difference to our answer to the first question.

One of the most famous philosophical papers of all on immortality is Bernard Williams’ “The Makropoulos Case”. In this essay Williams argues, in brief outline, that we cannot endure infinity because we are finite. So, on the one hand, there is no one activity that could engage me for an infinite time without my becoming intolerably bored. But, on the other hand, if I am to be such that my interest can be sustained over an infinite time by an endless succession of activities, then that will, along the way, entail so great a series of changes in who I am that I will, fairly soon in this infinite succession, no longer be me.

This dilemma of Williams’ seems vulnerable on both horns. About the second horn, to begin there, there is a very simple question. Why should my ceasing to be me always be an impossibly high price to pay? Many of us, at any rate for the present, are a good deal less pleased with our selves than Bernard Williams seems to have been. Laurie Paul and others have recently written very creatively about “transformative experiences”, about changes that can happen to who we are and what we care about that entail that our future selves and our future values will be very different indeed from who we now are. Does this mean that transformative experiences (always? ever?) threaten our personal identity? That doesn’t seem obvious. It seems to depend on how our personal identity is constituted. It is certainly possible to argue that I cannot remain myself if my interests and wants change fundamentally. But other views are, as they say, available – and have been discussed in depth by, among others, Bernard Williams himself.

Even if transformative experiences do, at least sometimes, threaten to undercut (something worth calling) our personal identity, maybe there are cases where this is not so much a threat as a promise. Maybe there are cases where it’s good, perhaps even essential, to turn into someone else. Even without reaching for the perhaps over-familiar trope of caterpillar and butterfly, we might think that the normal (though not quite universal: Nicomachean Ethics 1095a6-7) progression from reckless and pettish childhood to thoughtful and balanced maturity is one obvious case of that sort of necessary change. We might think that someone who discovers that “he” is in fact a she, a trans woman, and so changes her life and her self accordingly, is on a journey that in some sense involves the undercutting of her previous identity – yet is not, just for that reason, a worthless or invalid journey. Nor is it one that will make her so different from the “he” she begins by being that “he” can have no reason now to care about the “she” she will eventually become.

More darkly, we might remember the famous words of St Paul, reflecting on his own seemingly incurable tendency to wrongdoing in Romans 7.24: “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?”

A similar, but even darker, example is suggested in one of the most heart-rending sonnets of the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree bitter would have me taste: my taste was me; bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see the lost are like this, and their scourge to be as I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

In his frantic, helpless anguish Hopkins finds it a curse to be himself. Like Hamlet, he longs to be not who he is. This longing “to be not” – though no doubt it has often led to tragically successful acts of self-harm – is not necessarily a longing “not to be”: to be nothing, to be no one. It can also be a longing to be, precisely, someone else. In poor Hopkins’ case, I suspect that meant to be someone who was not endlessly tormented, humiliated, and distracted by his own mercilessly-policed, yet ineradicable, homosexual yearnings.

This longing to be someone else is, however, not only something felt by severely repressed people. It is, Hopkins believes – and I think rightly – pretty well a human universal. As Hopkins himself says elsewhere:

Across my foundering deck shone

a beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash

fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

in a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and

this Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

is immortal diamond.

On Hopkins’ Christian view, any mortal human – especially himself, perhaps, but not only himself – is feeble, fragile, brittle, useless, pathetic, ugly, silly, contingent. Yet also, is immortal diamond. The comfort of the Resurrection of which he speaks in this hard but great poem – one of his hardest and greatest – is precisely the hope that that immortal diamond in us, already present even amid this world’s Heraclitean fire, can one day shed all the impediments of mortal trash (and tinsel) and shine out in its own right and truth. On such a view it is absolutely essential to become someone else. For, if you’ll forgive the paradox, it is only by that radical change in who we truly are that we can ever become who we truly are. “Whoever will save his life shall lose it; whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16.25).

There are lots of ways – both pre- and post-mortem – in which ceasing to be the me I currently am might be a good thing for me; Williams’ dilemma fails on its second horn because it fails to exclude these possibilities.

That is not, of course, to say that Williams’ dilemma succeeds on its first horn. It fails there too, and essentially for the same reason: for the lack of a clear sense of the available possibilities. (If you like, then, the fault is that familiar thing in contemporary philosophy: a lack of philosophical imagination.) Williams invites us to believe that no activities whatever could be so enthralling, so engaging, so delightful that we would happily engage in them for ever. As I find myself tempted to parody his argument, he invites us to believe that even the very best production of even our very favourite opera would not bear an infinite number of repeat viewings. (Notice the passive, spectatorial, and immobile nature of this conception of enjoyable activity. Notice too its essential solitariness.)

We are being drawn, then, into saying that we cannot imagine what an eternally happy life might be like. But first, that is exactly what believers in it say too: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2.9). And secondly, it is not, apparently, as if Williams has made much of an effort to imagine it, not even in the partial and often metaphorical – or frankly fictional – ways of imagining it that believers have thought are possible.

At any rate, there is no sign in his essay of one thing that making this effort might centrally involve: namely, a proper engagement with at least some of the most serious, deep, and narratively-worked-out imaginative conceptions of an eternally happy life. An engagement, for example, with Dante’s Divina Commedia; where eternal life is neither immobile (Dante hardly stops moving throughout the entire Commedia) nor solitary (Dante is never alone in the Commedia except right at the outset, and that is only because he is lost in the selva oscura).


In the Paradiso, the third and culminating cantica of the Divine Comedy, Dante most certainly offers us – in fictional and poetic form – a picture of what an eternally happy life might be; one of the most detailed and intricate visions of Heaven that has ever been offered by anyone. But that, of course, is by no means all that Dante has for us. The sheer scale of what the Divine Comedy offers is almost incomprehensible, and was unprecedented at the time. Among much else, it gives us a geography of the Christian Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (that relatively recent addition, only formally sanctioned by the Vatican in a decretal of 1272) which is more clear and specific than even St Augustine had achieved. It gives us a kind of savagely polemical satire, and a political journalism, of Florence, Italy, and the Christendom of his time that, four centuries later, Jonathan Swift might have envied. It offers an implied reading of at least four of the greatest poets of Roman antiquity (Ovid, Virgil, Lucan, Statius). It contains huge and potentially subversive theological innovations (Limbo – and the placing not only of actual popes in Hell, but also of at least two Roman pagans, Cato and Statius, outside Hell, in Purgatory – and the latter of them on his way to the Christian Heaven, too).

It also presents an entirely new poetic form, terza rima, in which each next three-line stanza (terzetta) takes up the middle rhyme of the last (ABA, BCB, CDC…). Terza rima looks at first sight like other familiar forms of mediaeval balladry: compare for instance the bunched group-rhymes of the Chanson de Roland, or the alternating quatrains of Tam Lin. But it is both more technically exacting – no wonder so many translators have shied away from the challenge of trying to reproduce it – and more formally perfect: there is no easy way to drop or substitute blocks of rhyme from the middle of the narrative, because each terzetta both depends on its predecessor and determines its successor. The overall effect is to create a forward narrative drive, and a powerful sense of inevitability and unique correctness, that is far more compelling than any previous troubadour had achieved.

Dante even gives us a new language, or at least a new dialect. No poet is more alive to the possibilities of language than Dante, or more playful with them: the Commedia gives us not only Italian (in all its dialectal variations) but Latin, Provençal, the clucking gibberish of the god of wealth, and the babble of the giants of Babel. But Dante’s home key, his Italian, is not any city’s partisan version of the language, not even Florence’s. Like Homer’s Greek, his language is customised to his poetic task: his lexis is specially-fashioned to transcend local particularities, by syncretising forms and locutions from a variety of places. That the vernacular could be noble and universal in this way – that the vulgar could be so eloquent – was a new idea in Dante’s time; we might even call it the invention of modern Italian.


Where then does Dante start his tale? He starts not in Heaven, but in Hell, and he goes from Hell to Heaven (quite literally goes: walks, though with a certain amount of flying and being carried) via Purgatory. If it is not too odd to say this of a poet who shows us, by his soaring and dazzling feats of fictional invention, the deepest depths of an imagined Hell and the ultimate heights of an imagined Heaven, Dante is a great and gritty realist. In this respect he truly bears comparison with Shakespeare, and is even perhaps the greater of the two. At all times and in all places, Dante, like Shakespeare, is equally comfortable with eloquence and vulgarity. He rubs our noses in the particularities of things: that is why no one can read Dante intelligently without getting some idea of who Schicchi and Cavalcanti and Boniface and Farinata and Buoso and Rusticucci and Camicion and Branca d’Oria and Ser Brunetto – and the rest of the wonderful, terrible crew – actually and historically were. But this nose-rubbing shows us not merely Heaven (or Hell, or Purgatory) but this world as well. As it is intended to: because this world is as much in Heaven, and in Hell, and in Purgatory, as those three worlds are also present in this. What Dante, the supposed poet of ethereal transcendence, offers us first of all is not an education in sweetness and light, but in the gritty reality and the grubby detail, farcical or scandalous or disastrous or murderous, of actual human lives.

In his otherwise wonderful book on Dante, another Williams – Charles Williams of the Inklings – keeps bringing Wordsworth into the discussion. For someone as luminously clever as Charles Williams, this is remarkably silly. It is hard really to think of a poet less like Dante, precisely because Wordsworth is all sweetness and light; and vague generality – and at his worst, glib vapidity. Dante, like Shakespeare, couldn’t be glib if he tried. Dante is more like Donne or Browning than he is like Wordsworth; perhaps he is even more like Byron than Wordsworth, at the very least in respect of pride in his own technical virtuosity and verbal pyrotechnics. He is also, most certainly, more like poor anguished Hopkins.

Similarly, the modern philosophers who are interested only in the logical viability or otherwise of what they take to be the diaphanously ethereal pleasures of heaven look glib, trite, superficial compared to Dante; because, unlike them, Dante does not only take us up to Heaven. Dante takes us, also, down to Hell; because Dante understands that Hell is part of life, and so is Purgatory.

Dante had good reasons of the autobiographical sort to understand exactly this. Remember how the Divine Comedy came into being: Dante wrote it, between 1308 and his death in 1321, as a homeless exile, a man forbid and proscribed by his mortal enemies in his own city, an involuntary celibate, condemned to instant decapitation the moment he returned to his beloved Florence and to his estranged family. “The story of the journey is, among other things, the story of becoming capable of writing the poem about the journey” (Prue Shaw, Reading Dante, p.6).

So when Dante writes – amid this unending and almost unendurable stress of anguish, fury, grievance, and resentment – of Paradise, Bernard Williams’ question, “What would have to become of me, in order for this bliss to be even possible for my self or some successor self?”, is constantly before his eyes. But for Dante when he writes of Hell, the question always before his eyes is a different one. It is “Is this justice – either for me, or for them my enemies? Should I wish this on them? What does it say about them, that they should end up thus? What does it say about me, that I should want them to?”

Yet this question that is constantly background-audible, all the way through Dante’s vision of the haggard multiplicity of Hell, is not only a Hell-question, a question about what sense can be made of ultimate, irreversible, and irreparable loss. Perhaps in fact it is not really a Hell-question at all; perhaps in the end there are no Hell-questions; perhaps in the end that is exactly the point. It is a Purgatory-question. It is a question about the purification and purgation of our desires, including, and in particular, the purgation of our anger against our enemies (however justified) and our desire for vengeance on our enemies (however richly deserved).

In Dante’s Purgatory – and in his Hell as well – we see, above all, how much our enemies can help us. Dante had the disorienting, unnerving, and bitter experience of being most thoroughly hated; of having his annihilation and the wreck of his reputation most thoroughly desired by other human beings; and of seeing that hatred made most thoroughly effectual in his exile and condemnation. Yet all that hatred came, in the end, to no more than this: to be a means of grace for Dante himself.

There is no frustration like the frustration of the hater whose hatred wishes to be Hell for me, and succeeds only in being my Purgatory. For what he sees is what the Book of Psalms could have taught him, had he listened: that all the agony and affliction that he causes me, real and searing as it may be, does not and cannot destroy me; is in the last analysis no more than my harsh training in the dispositions that I will need in Heaven. And this is what Dante believes his enemies should understand about the deep and indubitable suffering that they have caused him. At such frustrated malice we may, in the final reckoning, simply laugh; as, to take a modern parallel, Bob Dylan simply laughs at his tormentor-lover in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. This laughter of the forgiven against the unforgiving is one crucial and ultimate part of what makes the Divine Comedy a comedy.


Of the three realms that Dante and his spirit-guides traverse, it is only Purgatory that is not eternal. To be in Purgatory is to be on the way to Paradise, so one day, presumably, Purgatory will be emptied. But it is only Hell that is static and unchanging; Paradise, as Dante conceives it, is by no means static or unchanging. On the contrary, Dante’s Heaven is a place of eternal movement, the movement as of a dance into the eternally unmoved, an ever deeper dive into “il gran mar de l’essere”, the great ocean of being (Paradiso 1.113, cp. Plato Symposium 210d). There is of course stillness there, “silence in Heaven”. But it is a stillness quite compatible with motion, and indeed with commotion: with movement both happy and unhappy. As stillness must be if it is to help us. Compare the stillness that Socrates is capable of, even in the face of death-threats: it is no accident that at least four Platonic dialogues – Euthyphro, Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist – are set in the uneasy intervals in the process of Socrates’ arraignment.

Similarly Dante’s Paradise is – unchangingly – a place of infinite change; of change in who I am, among other things. Heaven for him is an infinite journeying into a stillness beyond all journeys – the stillness of God’s love.

Providence that says of all ‘Let it be so’

blazes the highest heaven to that still

in which the lower heavens whirl and go;

towards it, as towards a goal pre-willed,

we’re borne and sped by that strong bowstring’s pull

that arcs all in to where all is fulfilled.

Dante’s Heaven is a perpetual, joyous procession towards the Ultimate Unmoved that underlies and magnetically draws towards itself all motion. By contrast, Dante’s Hell is a perpetual, miserable, inward-turned immobility, a permanent and lethal stuckness; and it has nothing to undergird it but the instability of…nothingness. In Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise the characteristic movement is a spiralling upwards; in Dante’s Hell there are only circles, circles of endless and hopeless repetition that, like Sisyphus, get no one anywhere.

Dante’s Inferno is not even hot. At its lowest level, it is frozen immobility (Inferno 34.10-15):

Here all the souls—how to say this versified?—

were deep-encased beneath that crystal skin

like pale straws in puddle-ice vitrified,

frozen for ever: some lying in their sin,

some standing upright, others on their face,

others, like longbows drawn, bent round and in.

How characteristic of Dante to find the extraordinary yet utterly mundane image, for the souls in the very bottom of Hell, of gleaming yellow straws frozen into farmyard ice. How characteristic, too, that Dante sees Heaven as energy and life and abundance of free power – not Hell; and Hell as frozen glassy immobility, or a bow stuck forever in the tension of its drawing – not Heaven. In all these ways Dante’s conceptions are the exact opposite of the modern conception, on which Heaven is a rather slow revivalist rally of white-robed priggish harp-players endlessly singing Kumbaya and Shine Jesus Shine, while Hell, in AC/DC’s words, “ain’t a bad place to be”: as the cliché has it – a cliché that seems to some at least almost inexhaustibly amusing – Hell is where all the cool people are anyway. (Dante, by contrast, puts “cool people” in all three of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell.)

Above all, of course, among Dante’s inversions of modern preconceptions about Heaven and Hell, there is his conception of Satan. Everyone knows how Marlowe, Milton, and Goethe, cheered on by Blake and Shelley, make Satan a sort of prototype superhuman James Bond, a suave and charming superpower of witty cosmic insolence and seductive irony. In Dante, the devil is no gentleman; he is a shipwrecked monster, a grotesquely ugly, filthy-dirty, leathery flapping dragonish giant (or gigantesque dragon? Perhaps there is the same fluid indeterminacy about his shape as about the Wagnerian Fafnir’s and Fasolt’s). And he is not powerful or mobile or agile or vigorous. Dante’s Satan is just stuck: hopelessly stuck, for ever, in the eternal ice of the frozen lake of Cocytus in the tenth and lowest circle of Hell (Inferno 34.49-54).

Plumeless and unfeathered, naked quite

like bat-wings—these he beat and beat and beat,

so three gales rolled across that endless night

to suck that hell of all hope, all warmth, all heat.

And Satan wept. From his six eyes he wept,

dribbling tears and bloody foam on the lake’s ice-sheet.


It is entirely in line with the modern Hell-favouring temperament that people should, at least since about the time of William Blake, have found Dante’s Inferno the most accessible and congenial of the three cantiche of the Divine Comedy. As Dorothy Sayers has pointed out, it is not even surprising that for us, in a world like ours, Hell seems to come naturally, but Heaven (and even Purgatory) are an acquired taste.

Yet for my part as a translator, still far down in the final canto of the Inferno, I find myself longing, like Dante’s own characters, for escape. In fact I find myself tired – perhaps even bored – not of Heaven, but of Hell.

The reasons why have been well described by C.S. Lewis, reflecting on the success of his Screwtape Letters, in which he adopted the persona and voice of a senior devil advising a junior devil on how to tempt a human (Screwtape Proposes A Toast, p.9):

I was often asked or advised to add to the original Screwtape Letters, but for many years I felt not the least inclination to do it. Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment… though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done…

As I come to the end of translating the Inferno, I too feel smothered. I long for a world whose people are not ultimately doomed and ruined, but have some chance of redemption, of movement upwards; I long for characters who have every reason not to despair, but to hope.

Sophie Grace Chappell has been Professor of Philosophy at The Open University since 2006. Her main interests in philosophy are ethics, the philosophy of literature, the philosophy of sex and gender, ancient and mediaeval philosophy, epistemology, and philosophy of religion. Her new book, Epiphanies: an Ethics of Experience, was published in March by Oxford University Press.


Twitter: @SophieGraceCha1


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider buying a copy of this issue or becoming a subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.