The two people who help Dante the most out of the situation are Virgil, who was a Roman poet and historian of ancient Rome. He lived in the time before the birth of Christ, during the time of the Emperor Augustus. Virgil, in a sense, represents reason. Roman philosophers taught us that we can come to know the truth about the world, come to know the truth about man, by using reason, and so in a sense, Virgil assists Dante to use reason to overcome his passions.
But also, as Christians, we know we need grace. It’s not enough that natural philosphers gave us an understanding of human nature—which is why, by the way, Dante puts Virgil, Aristotle and Plato in limbo rather than in hell proper, because since they lived in an age before they could get baptized, Dante believed they couldn’t get into heaven. On the other hand, because they came to know Truth, and Truth is Christ, they really shouldn’t be punished.
The point is, in order for Dante to get to heaven, he’s going to need another guide, and that’s Beatrice. She represents grace. Now Beatrice was a real person. Dante met her when he was about nine years old, and she was nine years old, and he fell madly in love with her. But unfortunately, because of their families, they were both entered into arranged marriages with other people, which is problematic for Dante because he’s still in love with her even though she’s married to another man, and he went so far as to write poetry for her, flattering her—sort of courtly love poetry, which circulated, so Beatrice knew about it. It was funny because when they attended Mass at the cathedral, he would sit in a spot where he could see Beatrice, but since he didn’t want to tarnish her reputation he started looking at a woman sitting right next to her, making people think he was interested in this woman. He lavished so much attention on her that Beatrice actually became jealous.
So you could see how this could lead to immorality easily, could lead to adultery. In fact, Dante, when he goes through hell, encounters two adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca. Paolo was Francesca’s brother-in-law, and Paolo and Francesca were caught by Francesca’s husband in flagrante. Why were they love-making? Because they had read about the love of Lancelot and Guenivere. And Dante the character in the poem, hearing this from her lips, faints, swoons. Why does he swoon? Because he himself is guilty of this kind of behavior, or the temptation to this kind of behavior, and also because he’s been writing poetry which is kind of like the Lancelot and Guenivere poetry.
Dante wanted to show through poetry the same kind of truths that Aquinas shows through philosophy and theology, because traditionally, God is the Good, with a capital G, the Beautiful, with a capital B—the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The true and the good makes more sense in regards to philosophy and theology arriving at them, but Dante also wanted to show that God is the Beautiful. So through beautiful words and images and even by examining human nature, human life, even cupidity, Dante wanted to show through his poems that he could show the same ultimate truths about God that maybe a person can’t get otherwise. Maybe the ordinary person wouldn’t pick up the Summa. But a person could pick up this poetry of Dante and immediately connect with it. We want to find people where they’re at, with the Gospel. I think Dante is a good model to hold up because he speaks about human love, human affection, and yet he doesn’t compromise on the fact that there’s hellfire to pay if we don’t repent of our sins, if we don’t make use of grace.