Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 71(2) May 2021

Book Review

Dante’s Christian Ethics:
Purgatory and Its Moral Contexts

By George Corbett Cambridge University Press

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevasathan

Dante - Book CoverDante is probably the greatest poet of Western Civilization. His depiction of the after-life has captured the imagination of artists, writers and film­makers. But, as the author of this wonderful work argues, his main aim was to transform people’s moral lives and to reform the political order that governed them. Or, to put it very simply, Dante is for Catholics.

Attempts have been made to downplay his Catholicism. After all, did he not condemn some popes to hell? In truth, as the author so clearly demonstrates, Dante’s work is steeped in the Catholic tradition and his condemnation of some popes is a cry for moral reform in the Church. The work may be about the after-life but the journey begins in this life. In particular, the author demonstrates how his Purgatory represents a process of Christian penance, satisfaction and purification. Like many non­specialists, I stopped reading the Divine Comedy after the Inferno. Which is a pity, because the whole purpose of the Inferno is to get us to Paradiso! If only more artists and film-makers realize this: why turn a comedy into a tragedy?

In the Catholic tradition, purgatory is certainly a state in the after-life. But for Dante, it begins in this life. That is why he introduced an antechamber to purgatory, where souls who refused to do penance in this life are temporarily deprived of the healing pain of sense that is needed to get us to heaven.

Dante’s work is very much reflective of the Catholic spirituality of his age. For example, the seven terraces of purgatory are structured according to the seven capital sins.

Dante was of course heavily involved in the politics of his times. He calls for a proper separation of Church and State, so that they could get on with their separate but harmonious roles. And this is ultimately about getting souls to heaven. That is why the author is not in favour of the views expressed by some academics that Purgatory is an ethical journey guided by philosophy alone. Purgatory is a guide for sinners to get to heaven. Dante’s emphasis on the sin of pride is relevant and timely: our task in this life is to cleanse ourselves of pride through practicing the virtue of humility, the foundation of Christian spirituality. How foolish earthly pride seems in comparison to the majesty of God. At the Annunciation, we witness not only the humility of Mary but also of God become man.

But while pride is surely the worst of sins, Dante wants us to reflect on the sins of sloth and avarice as well. Sloth is also referred to as tepidity, so often caused by our excessive attachment to the things of this life that we forget about heaven and hell. Avarice is the disordered love of power and wealth. And also knowledge. Dante also reflects on parents who want to give their children as much wealth as possible. But the Christian family is presented as entirely poor, like Christ with Joseph and Mary in the stable. The love of riches leads to so many other sins: Pygmalion’s greediness for gold makes him a traitor, a thief and a parricide.

The Divine Comedy is a meditation for this life and how we should live it. Dante’s Catholic spirituality shines through in this work; as it does in the excellent commentary by Dr Corbett, a work that is certainly of use to Dante scholars. But it also stands out as a work to be read by the non-specialist. Dante comes across as truly Catholic and a reformer in the true sense of that word.