Dante and Milton

I imagine it being late in the afternoon or early evening as Dante the Pilgrim finds himself where he does not want to be, "I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true." The path ahead is blocked by a beast and he has nowhere to go but to descend into the Inferno with Virgil as his guide. But how has he gotten here and by what deception has the devil lured him away from "the straight and true"? Dante the Poet wastes no time in answering this query, "I was so full of sleep just at the point when I first left the way of truth behind." He finds himself here because he was full of sleep. Here we have the first of two ways that we as Christians are led astray. We were asleep. "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour". In The Inferno the devil remains incased in ice in the deepest level of hell, he hasn't need to prowl, for Dante, he only needed to let him sleep. Sleep and be ignorant of the path he walked along. A good many have been not so much "lead" astray as they have been sleep-walking along, unaware that they walk down the road "where all the prodigals have walked" (Lauren Daigle). Dante has no choice but to descend into Hell and it is a good thing he does, nothing else could wake him up from his sleep. Many who sleep are allowed a trial to wake them up for as C.S. Lewis said "pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf [and sleeping] world" [addition mine].

Eve had suggested that her and her partner split up. They could accomplish much more separately, and wasn't it their mandate to tend the garden? Surely a more productive work is more pleasing to God than work done in community? So Milton in Paradise Lost describes her going off alone and she is confronted not by a devil encased in ice as Dante was but by a crafty serpent, "Look on mee, mee who have touch'd and tasted, yet both live, and life more perfect have attained then Fate Meante mee, by ventring higher then my Lot. Shall that be shut to Man, which to the Beast is open? or will God incense his ire for such a petty Trespass, and not praise rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain of death denounc't, whatever thing Death be, deterred not from achieving what might leade to happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil…" Eve is not asleep, far from it, she is awake and reasoning. The devil comes to her with skilled argument. She is the Christian who must be convinced. Her morals are good but her conviction is weak. First he asks her to compare herself to him. "Look on mee…" he is not dead but is a beast with a wisdom to share, and wisdom because of the fruit. Second he asks her to think on what is fair, "Shall that be shut to Man, which to the Beast is open?". Why should she not have what another lesser being has, the serpent knows well that, "knowledge puffs up…". Next he asks her to question God's righteous judgement of sin, "or will God incense his ire for such a petty Trespass?" This is especially prevalent today among those who forget we serve a God of judgement as well as a God of love. Finally he minimizes risk, "the pain of death denounc't, whatever thing Death be…". What is death? You have no need to fear death, in fact, we don't even know what it really is. The serpent knows death and that it comes as a consequence of disobedience but this knowledge he will keep from Eve; it will be her undoing.

And so Dante the Poet and Milton have presented two ways in which the Christian can be led astray. One by sleep to which we cry "Wake up, O sleeper, rise up from the dead" and the other by deception and rationality to which Christ has taught us to respond, "Get behind me Satan." May we continue to stay alert, "for you do not know when the master of the house will come…". And may we reject the wisdom of this world for "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise."

Illustrations by Gustave Doré and Anna Lee Merritt.


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