What is The Divine Comedy about? It is the rarest sort of book which is about absolutely everything. Every year when I start on the Comedy, I ask my students, “What do you want this book to teach you?” and they begin naming their several interests. Politics. Predestination. Piety. Free will. Determinism. They go on and on and when they finish, I tell them, “The Comedy has something to say about all of those things.” The Comedy is a book bounded only by the reader’s desire for truth and thus it occupies a place on the very highest tier of the Canon next to just a few others: the Republic, the City of God, the Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. There are too many great books to read them all in just one lifetime, but no classical education is complete without a reading of the Comedy.
A man may read and reread the Comedy two dozen times over the course of his life and gain something new with each encounter, although the Comedy is also the sort of book wherein the first-time reader really benefits from having a guide—not only someone to explain the difficult passages and elucidate the most important themes, but someone to spur readers on to finishing the work. In the pages of the Comedy, Dante himself warns readers that it is dangerous to give up reading before reaching the end.
While the Comedy can be read on many levels, my own interpretation of the book is born of teaching it a dozen times to teenagers—to young Christians who have just taken possession of their own souls, just begun to long for autonomy, and just begun to worry what sort of adults they will become. A good deal of the Devil’s work is prefaced with two very simple, straightforward lies: “No one will know,” and, “It will be worth it.” When teaching the Comedy, I am interested primarily in Dante’s spiritual maturation, in his growing realization that sin is not the sort of thing anyone “gets away with,” and that only virtue is worth suffering for.
This January, I will begin teaching a twelve-week online course which covers the whole of the Comedy. The Divine Comedy for Beginners is available from GibbsClassical.com to students age 15 and up. College students and adults are more than welcome to take the class, as well. The Divine Comedy for Beginners is being offered on two levels: Student ($265) and Auditor ($215). For more information, head over to GibbsClassical.com.