Just like any other religion, Christianity had a period when it was to pave its way through the doubt and rejection of the people in order to gradually win more and more followers. The intent to move on from one religion and set of beliefs to another always comes along with a long soul and self-searching process. In their works, Dante Alighieri and Saint Augustine provide descriptions of their metaphorical journeys towards God and Christian faith. Both descriptions demonstrate the doubts Dante and Augustine went through, the lessons they learned, and the conclusions they made. The spiritual journeys depicted in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Augustine’s “Confessions” are rather similar.
They both start with the authors finding themselves at the very bottom of their paths, being lost and desire to learn about the life, find answers to their questions about life, its meaning, and how the world generally works. This is the very beginning of their spiritual journeys. This is the stage where both Dante and Augustine start applying critical thinking to learn about sin. The journeys unravel as both authors learn about righteousness and wrongdoing, virtues, and vices. The final stages of both journeys demonstrate Dante’s and Augustine’s ascent towards the divine, acceptance of the faith. This paper is focused on the comparison of the spiritual journeys the authors undertake in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Augustine’s “Confessions”, in the paper the paths of the writers are viewed as divided into stages – the first stage signifies being lost and in need of guidance, the second stage is moving through the obstacles towards God, and the final stage depicts the acceptance of the divine.
At the very beginning of his individual spiritual journey towards God, Dante starts with being lost. His “Inferno” begins with the words “In the midway of this our mortal life, / I found me in a gloomy wood, astray/ Gone from the path direct” (Hell, Canto 1). The “gloomy wood” is metaphoric, it symbolizes the dark times for the author’s personal life, his frustration, not knowing where to go, and his need for help. Soon, Dante gets what he is looking for – a wise guide, portrayed by Virgil, a classical poet from Ancient Rome. Virgil is there to take Dante through Hell and teach him about sin and what happens to those who were not true to Christian values during their lifetime.
Augustine’s work, called “Confessions,” begins with numerous questions the author asks himself and God. All of them are directed towards the search of God within the author himself and within all things around. Augustine demonstrates his inclination for rhetoric, asking himself if God is everywhere, and if he is in hell, and how can he be in hell if his place is in heaven. Augustine shows his strong desire to have God enter him, bringing love, joy, and peace. Augustine asks, “wert Thou not in me; or, rather, unless I were in Thee, of whom are all things, by whom are all things, in whom are all things?” (Book 1). These lines demonstrate the highest degree of the author’s frustration and his utter willingness to understand life and the world around, the meaning and nature of things. In “Confessions,” Augustine shows his desire to find the meaning of faith before accepting it, and for that, he needs to take a journey from sin to the divine.
The analysis of the initial stages of the self-searching paths of Dante and Augustine makes the similarities very clear. First of all, both of the authors start at the very bottom, lost and confused. Dante’s dark forest and Augustine’s “region of unlikeness” (Book 7) seem to be the same symbol of absolute bottom and frustration, the point zero of the two journeys (Prodan 17). Secondly, both writers are in need of wise guidance and find it in Virgil, among other things, but they both realize that what Virgil can provide is imperfect. Thirdly, they move through sin towards God, so, basically, the direction is exactly the same. Besides, both authors admit that before their spiritual journeys towards God began, they realized that the previous paths they had taken were wrong and led them to confusion and failure (Freccero 5).
The differences are in the ways both authors present their journeys. For Dante, it is a symbolic journey happening in his dream where he travels to hell, purgatory, and heaven. For Augustine, it is a true story of his life, the description of the actual way he traveled from living in sin and having lots of questions to finding the answers in becoming a devoted Christian. Another distinct difference is in the way sins are described in “Divine Comedy” and “Confessions.” Dante presents sins in a systematized manner, in his “Inferno,” the sins are divided into categories and arranged based on the circles of hell. The sinners he encounters during his journey are historical persons and characters. In “Confessions,” Augustine speaks about the sins of his own, the description is deep and filled with meaning as the author explains how hard it was for him to turn away from the path of sin and overcome all the temptations.
In the description of his path towards the realization that he should devote himself to Christian faith, Augustine speaks about all of his sins, which are plentiful. Evaluating every single concept from the point of view of Christianity, Augustine comes to the conclusion that all of them were filled with sin. A good example of such evaluation is Augustine’s discussion of his love for education, “I sinned, then, when as a boy I preferred those empty to those more profitable studies” (Book 1). Augustine mentions that wanting to study was a sign of his vanity and sees his attachment towards Virgil’s “Aeneid” as a huge mistake. He is embarrassed because he “wept for Dido slain” (Book 1), as he realizes that what he should have wept for was his own soul and salvation, not the death of a fictional character.
Traveling through hell and purgatory, Dante is in a constant state of shock from the horrors he gets to witness. Dante also learns a lesson about attachments and the pleasures of the flesh, seeing the sufferings of “with Epicurus, all his followers,/ Who with the body make the spirit die” (Hell, Canto 10). Yet, the source of all his lessons is his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, who answers Dante’s questions and explains the sins and punishments for them at each circle of hell they visit.
Obviously, both of the pilgrims suffer during their journeys, they experience emotional and physical challenges, but they remain strong coping with their difficulties as if those are trials. Both of the searchers have a goal. Yet, while Dante’s goal is rather clear – he ascends to heaven moving out of darkness through hell and purgatory, the journey of Augustine is much more confusing. As a true believer, Augustine is desperate to devote himself to something, he pursues education, then becomes a follower of Manichean cult, then comes back to sciences. Augustine does not quite know what he is searching for. Besides, Dante is an observer in his journey, while Augustine is an active participator and a decision-maker.
Interestingly, both of the pilgrims are under a strong influence of Virgil – in Dante’s journey Virgil acts as a guide through hell and purgatory, and in Augustine’s search “Aeneid” is constantly referred to as the initial source of the author’s values and beliefs (Barolsky 112). At the same time, regardless of their strong fondness of Virgil and his works, both of the authors agree that Virgil as a pagan should be treated as a sinner and cannot go to heaven for worshiping “wrong” gods. Dante’s guide cannot lead him to Paradise because, due to his sins, he is placed in purgatory. Besides, Dante, Virgil is a representation of human reason, and as such, he cannot comprehend the greatness of heaven.
At the final stage of his journey, Dante arrives to Paradise to meet his beloved Beatrice, who teaches him another lesson: “Among themselves all things/ Have order; and from hence the form, which makes/ The universe resemble God” (Paradise, Canto 1). Beatrice introduces Dante to Paradise, defeats his doubts, and tells him to direct his path to God. Dante’s journey ends as he is filled with ultimate love, light, and grace.
The lengthy search of Augustine, which lasted for about 33 years, is over when the author accepts Christ. Augustine writes that his search continued “until I embraced that Mediator betwixt God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (Book 7). The writer even realized the root of his restlessness for this whole time – he was not humble enough to recognize the humble Lord, so he had to undergo all the trials, temptations, and disappointments which never brought satisfaction to him to finally humble down and find his right path (Nino 97).
The two journeys end in a similar way by Dante and Augustine centering in Christianity and devoting themselves to the faith. To come to such an ending, Dante had to witness a demonstration of God’s kingdom, and the way afterlife was arranged, and Augustine had to undertake a more empirical journey of trying a number of different paths before he came across the right one.
The similarities between the journeys of Dante in “Divine Comedy” and Augustine in “Confessions” are obvious, yet they only refer to the form of their searches and the sequence of major events. Basically, both seekers start at the same point of total confusion and begin to move upwards through the understanding of sin, which is a temptation. Dante learns his lesson observing sinners, while Augustine acquires knowledge by means of analysis of his past. Technically, Dante’s journey is much shorter than that of Augustine, but both of them eventually come to the same conclusion and decide to embrace Christian faith.
Alighieri, Dante. Divine Comedy. n. d. Web.
Augustine. Confessions. n. d. Web.
Barolsky, Paul. Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and Its Maker. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Print.
Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008. Print.
Nino, Andres G. “Spiritual Exercises in Augustine’s Confessions.” Journal of Religion and Health. 47 (2008): 88-102. Print.
Prodan, Sarah Rolfe. Michelangelo’s Christian Mysticism: Spirituality, Poetry and Art in Sixteenth-Century Italy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.