Aquinas and Dante: Perfecting Human Reason

Last Updated: 02 Aug 2020
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Julia Caldwell Professor Albrecht Development of Western Civilization 2, February, 2013 Aquinas and Dante: Perfecting Human Reason Aquinas and Dante: Perfecting Human Reason Despite the fact that Dante’s reader doesn’t encounter St. Thomas Aquinas within the Comedia until Paradise, the beliefs and teachings of Aquinas are woven throughout the entirety of the famous poem. St. Thomas Aquinas’s cosmology and theology are used as the foundation for Dante’s Comedia, and for this reason it is no surprise that the experiences of the Pilgrim symbolically reflect many of Aquinas’s teachings.

The Pilgrim’s experiences on his journey through the afterlife reflect what Aquinas called the, “two-fold truth concerning the divine being, one to which the inquiry of reason can reach, the other which surpasses the whole ability of human reason” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Handout I, 4). Dante also illustrates Aquinas’s conclusion that man’s reason tends toward the source of ultimate true while mans will tends toward the ultimate good. The reader is able to see how Dante’s will and reason search for, and ultimately attain, fulfillment in the vision of the Divine Essence.

Both Aquinas and Dante emphasize the necessary union between human reason and divine faith as a means of attaining this fulfillment. As the instiller of these inclinations, only God Himself can satisfy them. Aquinas demonstrates this idea through his explanation of the natural and the divine law as they pertain to the Eternal law. Dante demonstrates this idea through the Pilgrim’s interactions with his guides and the culmination of his ascension in Paradise. Just as with body and soul, matter and form, there is a harmonious relationship between reason and faith; yet the agents within these partnerships are not equal.

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Both Dante and Aquinas acknowledge that human reason can assist the individual in understanding God and coinciding one’s will with His will, but they both conclude that this secular-based reasoning is subjugated by and therefore must be perfected by theology. In Dante’s Virgil the reader finds human reason personified. Being the shade of a renowned and wise philosopher, Virgil is a perfect candidate to guide the Pilgrim through hell and purgatory. In his own lifetime Virgil lived as a pious man and therefore attained the imperfect Earthly happiness that can be acquired through natural powers.

However, as Aquinas states, “every knowledge that is according to the mode of created substance, falls short of the vision of the Divine Essence,” therefore Virgil is unable to reach fulfillment since he cannot ascend to Paradise (Summa Theologiae, Handout II, 12). Instead, like many of his pagan contemporaries, Virgil is doomed to spend eternity in the underworld’s Limbo. He will forever yearn to know the ultimate happiness and the ultimate truth that are only found in God. As Virgil puts it himself, “In this alone we suffer: cut off from hope, we live in desire” (Inferno, 20).

Dante provides Virgil as a means of illustrating the incompleteness of human reason, whereby observing Aquinas’s warning. When describing the home of philosophers within Limbo Dante writes, “we reached a place spread out and luminous” (Inferno 22). It is fitting that this realm be characterized by light because as Aquinas states, “[natural reason] is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light” (Summa Theologiae, Handout II, 13). The knowledge possessed by the philosophers comes from God Himself, or the Eternal Law.

Having never embraced the faith of God through the implementation of the theological virtues, however, Virgil is an imperfect soul. Much like Virgil, human reason is guided by the light of the Eternal Law, but is unperfected without the divine law. It is this very imperfection of Virgil’s nature that makes him the perfect guide for the initial stages of Dante’s journey. In Virgil Dante finds a guide capable of explaining and illuminating the conceptual and rational worlds of Hell and Purgatory, but also in Virgil Dante is able to see the limits of human reason without the theological virtues.

With Virgil as his guide, the Pilgrim is “guided by the light of natural reason” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Handout I, 2). Along his journey, however, Virgil comes to realize that his wise guide is not all-powerful. When the pair arrives at the gates of Dis in Canto 8, the Furies slam the gates of the city shut despite Virgil’s pleas. It is only when a holy messenger from Paradise arrives that the Furies surrender to God’s will and allow Dante and Virgil to enter. Taking this event metaphorically, reason is unable to go on further without grace. As the pair travel within the realm of Purgatory it becomes clear that Dante’s uestions are becoming more of a challenge for Virgil. When Virgil is trying to explain why his shade casts no shadow, his reasoning can only goes as far as to say that his condition is, “willed by that Power which wills its secret not to be revealed” (Purgatory 207). Dante goes on to describe Virgil’s countenance as having “anguished thoughts” (Purgatory 207). Virgil’s struggle to explain the dynamics of the afterlife as the pair comes closer to Paradise reflects Aquinas’s conclusion that “[the] human intellect is not able to reach a comprehension of the divine substance through its natural power” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Handout I, 3).

Furthermore this instance exemplifies Aquinas’s conclusion that human reason is able to recognize effects but is unable to explain the Ultimate Cause of these effects without faith (Summa Contra Gentiles, Handout I, 9). Virgil can see that he has no shadow, but he cannot explain the source of the original cause. Since Virgil never believed in the faith of the divine mysteries while he was still on Earth, his intellect is unable to grasp an understanding of God’s will. In conclusion, because Virgil doesn’t use faith to perfect his reason, his own will can never be aligned with the will of his Creator.

Virgil specifically alludes to the fault in his faith when he distinguishes between pagan and Christian prayer. He admits that his own prayers, along with the prayers of all pagans, “had no access to God” (Purgatory, 225). Unlike pagan prayers, which according to Virgil in the Aeneid are powerless in a universe predestined by the Fates, Christian prayers are an embodiment of human participation with the true divine. By taking part in prayer, the individual takes part in the theological virtues that “are infused by God alone” and “direct us aright to God” (Summa Theologiae, Handout II, 11).

It is only through the participation in these theological virtues that an individual can be guided toward God Himself. These virtues are the perfecting agents by which the human will and intellect are pushed toward their “last act” (Summa Theologiae, Handout II, 8). This last act is the attainment of happiness in the vision of the Divine Essence. Rather than try to explain concepts beyond what his reason can grapple with, Virgil asks his pupil to wait for Beatrice to answer his questions on this subject: “Do not try to resolve so deep a doubt; wait until she shall make it clearer—she, he light between truth and intelligence” (Purgatory 225). In this statement Virgil admits that Beatrice, as “the light”, is more capable of illuminating matters of the divine than the poet. Once the pair reaches the top of mount Purgatory, Virgil tells his young friend, “you’ve reached the place where my discernment now has reached its end” (Purgatory 351). Virgil has taken the Pilgrim as far as reason can dictate; now Dante requires a guide of theological proportions to guide him in a realm where reason is blinded.

When Dante reaches the top of Mount Purgatory, he has been cleansed of every perversion of the will. The feelings of admiration he felt for Virgil have been replaced by the intense love he feels for his new guide, Beatrice. He now desires conceptual knowledge less and instead begins to explore understanding through his senses. This tradeoff is necessary in this new realm where observations may not be fitting to human concepts. This necessity is made clear when Beatrice beings to explain to Dante the divinely ordained distribution of power amongst the stars (Paradise Canto I).

Before she lays out the complicated plan she warns Dante, “even when the senses guide, reason’s wingp can sometimes be short” (Paradise 399). This is a reminder to Dante that his experiences in Paradise will not be as easily digested and picked apart as his experiences in Hell and Purgatory. In the former realms, human reason could essentially provide explanations without needing the aid of theology. This is also a cue to Dante’s readers that they are not mentally capable of understanding the phenomena he is about to experience, so they must rely on faith.

In a larger context, humanity must rely on its faith in God to have any earthly understanding of what heaven is. Donning red, white, and green, Beatrice symbolically represents the theological virtues, including faith. Dante initially relies on the eyes of Beatrice to reflect the heavenly bodies, since the brightness of Paradise overwhelms his eyes (Paradise 393). This can be metaphorically applied to the idea that humans must rely on the assistance of God, through belief and participation in the theological virtues, to begin to understand God’s mysteries.

In the same way Dante initially owes his sight of Paradise to the eyes of Beatrice, humanity owes perfection of its reason to the theological virtues. As Aquinas chimes, “the theological virtues direct man to supernatural happiness” (Summa Theologiae, Handout II, 11). Through keeping faith in the mysteries while on Earth, a soul will be ready to behold them in the afterlife. In this way, both Dante and Aquinas emphasize how important it is for Christians to believe in the mysteries of the divine even when they transcend human reason.

Even having beheld the beauty of the Divine himself, Dante is unable to relate the experience in words to his readers. Though he has seen the mysteries of God with his own eyes, the Divine Essence’s unparalleled nature transcends human explanation and human understanding. In this way Dante illustrates Aquinas’s conclusion that while on Earth we must rely on what we believe not what we actually see and understand. Aquinas says, “although human reason cannot grasp fully the truths that are yet above it…if it somehow holds these truths by faith, it acquires great perfection for itself” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Handout I, 6).

In this way Aquinas clarifies the relationship between faith and reason. Without faith, reason remains unperfected and vulnerable to falsehoods. With faith, however, reason aligns itself with truth and thus aligns itself with the will of God. Individuals who perfect reason with faith are guided along the path towards salvation, just as Dante experiences. Following this path, one is able to arrive at the end toward which all humanity tends, prepared and deserving of the vision of the Divine Essence. It is only at this moment that the individual achieves the desires of both reason and will: truth and happiness.

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Aquinas and Dante: Perfecting Human Reason. (2016, Nov 08). Retrieved from

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