Canto 15 Can we make ourselves eternal?

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In this canto, Dante encounters his former teacher Brunetto Latini. In the touching conversation between former teacher and former student, Dante recalls “…It was you who showed the way man makes himself eternal…” There is great irony in this statement. Dante’s teacher does live eternally, but in hell. It is hard to tell whether Dante places him there for his teaching of hubris or for his homosexuality (the major encoded theme of this canto). For the sake of  conversation, I suggest we go down the hubris track.

The biblical allusions involved in human beings attempting to make themselves eternal go all the way back to the Tower of Babel and to the Garden of Eden in the first chapters of Genesis. The human endeavor to make ourselves eternal always ends badly. This tragic impulse brought about the Fall. It also brought about divine wrath which destroyed the first ziggurut and the confusion of languages (or the condemnation to perpetual misunderstanding). With a little help from John Calvin and Karl Barth, we can even say that all “religion” – inasmuch as it is a thoroughly human attempt to make ourselves eternal – can be accounted for in relation to the tragic impulse to stave off the inevitability of death.

Why stop with “religion”? It does not take much analytical insight to see that much of what we occupy ourselves with in culture involves the attempt to make ourselves eternal. I would certainly include acquiring wealth and expensive symbols (cars, homes, clothing, jewelry, exclusive memberships, and the like) in the category of attempting to make ourselves eternal. Certainly, the twin American obsessions with youth and sexual gratification begin to make sense as tragic grasps at eternal life. After a while, it becomes easier to list the aspects of life and culture that are not about the quixotic quest to make ourselves eternal. Even the key strategy for a certain American political party revolves around the twin strategy of activating the fear of death and then promising a perpetual extension of life if elected (Oh, yes. I just went there).

My vocation has taken me into the realm of higher education. The quest to make oneself eternal through scholarship (especially publication) is alive and well in academia. We academics want to make a name for ourselves. We want to make a difference through our publications and our teaching. We are not immune from the same sin as Dante’s teacher: attempting to make ourselves eternal through our scholarly endeavors.

Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Dante. He would teach us that there is something higher and more reliable than attempting to make ourselves eternal. He seems to say to us that we cannot save ourselves. The attempt to do so may well be the height of selfishness or self-assertion. Instead, we are called to let God save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only the free gift of God on Good Friday and Easter can make us eternal. The truth of our existence is that we cannot save ourselves nor can we make ourselves eternal; salvation and eternal life comes to us as a gift  from Another. Once we see the truth about misguided attempts at auto-salvation and have ears to hear the Good News of the Gospel that comes to us from outside (extra nos), we can begin to reorder our lives according to the gracious and life-giving will of God. We can cease to live tragically for ourselves and begin to live creatively for God and others.

Dante’s encounter with his former teacher seems to be a perfect Lenten moment. It brings into bold relief the sad irony involved in our multifaceted attempts to save ourselves and it points us to the higher truth of the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, whose body was broken and whose blood was spilled for us and for our salvation.

About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary View all posts by gmikoski

6 responses to “Canto 15 Can we make ourselves eternal?

  • Bob Sinner

    Dear John:

    Thank you so much for this insight. In my past readings and thoughts on this canto, I always focused upon various aspects of Dante’s encounter with Brunetto Latini as dealing specifically with sodomy in one form or another (figurative; literal, etc.).

    I never before considered the hubris aspect or “the search to make oneself eternal.” That is very thought provoking, especially since I am a (retired) teacher.

    Early in my career, I pursued my PhD, and thought to make ‘a name’ for myself (I don’t know if I actually considered immortality at the time, but it is possible) through writing and publishing. As the prospects of that phase of my thinking dwindled, I turned with great enthusiasm to my new “mission” to impart knowledge and instill wonder and the desire to learn in others. This became such a passion, that when I eventually “sold out” to administration (college counseling, admissions director, deanships), I always insisted upon the contingency that I be allowed to continue to teach (high school classes at that point). Soon I decided to add teaching colleagues as well (e.g. pedagogy, ethics & character), through professional development in-service and conferences.

    As I look back at it all now, there certainly were definitely moments of satisfaction, as students came back to visit after graduating, and colleagues contacted me for help and conversation. But, I now realize, I was seeking ‘to extend my life and reputation,’ if not entirely ‘immortalize it,’ through these actions.

    I received some gratification, but it fell far short of what I expected. I chose the wrong route to immortality. I feel I did accomplish good things, but often for the wrong or mixed reasons. Perhaps I was being ‘ Brunetto Latini,’ and a good disciple, such as Dante could see that and have warned me. That reading of the canto is very helpful to me.

    As to the more traditional readings, I must note that sodomy WAS considered a major sin by the medieval Church (as well as the present RC), and it was a very problematic one for them since it was so widely practiced [shades of the pope’s present woes concerning the parish priest scandals, so recently in the news in both and Germany (even concerning his own brother). So, while your insights here were eye opening and personally of tremendous value, John, I do not disregard the traditional readings entirely.

    Thank you again. Agape, Bob

  • Anne

    What a wonderful change in looking at this Canto! I too in the scientific field find myself reflecting on the fact that since I am published, I have ‘immortalized’ myself, and find some source of comfort in that. Pretty misplaced, knowing that science is ever changing and ever growing, will anyone bother reading my papers in the future? Still, the dissemination of knowledge to peers and students alike gives us that feeling of “extending my life and reputation” that Bob mentions above. I have to say that I get that same feeling from having children – isn’t that one of the ways that we try and become immortal, that by spreading our genes into future generations, a little bit of us will live forever!!
    Having said that, I bow to the last part of your (Gordon’s) thoughts on this Canto, which is the Lenten moments, and find myself pondering the one phrase that really caught me (in a very Lectio Divino kind of way) “we can cease to live tragically for ourselves and begin to live creatively for God and others”. Words to meditate on and live by, and another reason to give thanks for our salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus.

  • jeffvamos

    Behind in my Dante – I had wanted to offer a quick comment yesterday, and alas – my day job got in the way.

    Perhaps that’s an interesting way to think about what you’ve said, Gordon. Our day job – the thing we put so much of our life-energy into, upon which, when our actions are laid bare, we hope to lay the weight of immortality.

    I guess I also can’t stop thinking about John’s earlier comment about putting ourselves in front of the camera; about Dante being in front of the camera – because this is an issue for Dante himself (here and as we shall see). His “immortality project” through poetry, through fame. Isn’t that what HE’S doing here? Dante WAS in a way a rock star in his age. And he’s using his talent (art, which bends nature to one’s own desiring) to make himself famous. What up with that?

    I think that what comes later (the monster of fraud) also has something to do with this. He has to ride it without getting stung. Perhaps that’s the challenge of any artist, teacher, person who wishes to make a mark on the world. Why are we doing it? Are we doing it to make a name for ourselves? Or is it part of some greater system of meaning and values of which we are part? Is it a gift that God has given us to contribute in the Great Drama of salvation?

    Reminds me of Gil Bailie’s question about the gospel and that “stumbling block” upon which we often trip: are we living in the melodrama, or the REAL drama? That is a question I often ponder in church life – where so much of our life energy is not spent on the “great drama” of the gospel (the thing we’re supposed to bear witness to); but rather on the little melodrama’s that suck so much of our life’s energy.

    Lastly – a few other thoughts from the grab bag on this Canto. There are several echoes here we might bring to light. Perhaps famous among them is T. S. Eliot’s tribute to Dante in his own magmum opus, Four Quartets. Little Gidding II has this specific homage to Dante, and has so many echoes of this and the preceding Canto – check it out (the reference is, again, in II):

    I’m also reminded of Tennyson’s wonderful poem, Ullyses (which might also be read in light of Canto 26):

    In all this – one theme also comes to light for me: how the shades in this part of hell cannot rest. Those burnt on the sterile plain are forever brushing away the flames (is that what Eliot is citing in his poem too?); the sodomites are forever cruising, looking to scratch a sexual itch, never at rest and traveling in circles (this of course not specific to homosexuality). What would happen if they stopped – a Ulysses contented to stay at home, not so tied into his “reputation” and fame; a shade able to stay in the fire, and allow it to CHANGE them with the pentecostal fire? Were they able to do that, they may have found themselves not in hell, but in the place where Dante’s going….

  • thedanteaficionado

    What a great resource this is…I often wondered if anyone had organized The Divine Comedy into a format for spiritual reflection. I have recently just started my own Dante related blog, some I’m looking for others in the “Dante community” to dialogue and/or collaborate with.

    Here’s me response to this specific post: although I believe that at his heart Dante was Christ focused and understood grace, isn’t he too guilty of trying to immortalize himself through his works? In The Purgatorio he admits that pride is his sin, and knows that he shall have to be cleansed there among his fellow sinners after he dies. Dante is my earthly hero (Christ is the far superior, heavenly hero), but he is a flawed man like any of us. I think he had trouble in trusting on God’s timing. As shown through his political expressions, especially De Monarchia, he envisioned the Kingdom of God as a sort of revival of the Roman Empire that could happen temporally… wasn’t that the same mistake the apostles made in their assumption of what sort of king Christ would be? And Dante was also impatient for recognition, seeking it in the eyes of men while yet living, instead of waiting to hear Christ say “well done my good and faithful servant” at his death. That is not to say that his works are not glorifying to God, I think they are very much so, and I believe God used him. But perhaps his motives were much like the rest of ours: sometimes good, sometimes bad. That is why we all need grace to prevail!

  • The ghost of poetry past: Little Gidding 2 | Four Quartets for Lent

    […] is the delusion to which Dante is subject, and Dante’s words point to the sin, and the great temptation: “You taught me how man makes himself immortal” (Inferno XV.85) This is all about old […]

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