Dante Alighieri’s 14-century The Divine Comedy stands as one of the most popular epic poems ever written. Still, it has modern dimensions, in that it challenged traditional ideas.
In a new article, “The Pagan Suicides: Augustine and Inferno 13,” published in Medium Ævum Journal, Leah Schwebel, assistant professor of English, argues that Dante challenges attitudes about suicide that were advanced by the fourth-century philosopher and theologian, St. Augustine. “Dante…repudiates Augustine twice: in Inferno XIII, he refuses to punish Lucretia, Cato, and Dido for their self-violence,” writes Schwebel.
For Saint Augustine, sinners were to be placed in circles of hell according to their worst sin, but Schwebel argues that in Dante’s narrative, sinners are placed “in the circle that best characterizes them, without that circle always corresponding to their gravest sin.” Inferno uses character and plot to characterize famous pious figures and ideas in order to call them into question.
Schwebel also describes how Dante pays homage to traditional forms of Latin literature, but also how he modifies the form. “Dante appropriates the poetry of his predecessors only to loosen their grasp on their own words,” she writes.
Schwebel’s article serves to show those interested in religion and literature how, even in The Middle Ages as they do now, artists and writers questioned and challenge established ideas.