Dante on Leadership

Every year the Arts and Ideas program at Lewis University presents a series on a given theme. This year it’s Leadership. Professors from many departments will speak about Leadership as it relates to their disciplines. Being the Director of Music Ensembles, I might have chosen to discourse on the leadership role of a choir director or orchestra conductor, but I am more intrigued by the question of leadership in the works of Dante Alighieri.

Dante was an early fourteenth century poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, an epic work in Italian that ranks as one of the great works of world literature. Writing in his own Tuscan dialect, rather than in Latin, Dante established Italian as a major literary language and furnished a model for all subsequent writers in the vernacular. His Commedia has been translated into every European language, and there are numerous English translations available, several made by Americans.[1]

While one might argue that Dante offered intellectual leadership, he was not a leader of men in a military or political way. It is true that he fought in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289, but not as a general; and he held the office of Prior in Florence in 1300, but this was a minor office with a term of only two months. Dante was never a governor or gonfaloniere di giustizia. He was a political philosopher, as Barbara Reynolds points out in her biography Dante: the Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man.[2] After his exile from Florence Dante composed a treatise called Monarchia, in which he argued that the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII of Luxembourg, ought to wrest political authority from the Pope of Rome and govern Europe as a secular ruler, imposing peace upon the warring factions of Italy.

In the Divine Comedy, however, Dante does not lead but is led. His journey through the three realms of the afterlife has shaped our images of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise more than any other work of literature. But Dante needed a guide, a leader. He had two, one of them a woman.

Inferno opens with Dante lost in a dark wood, having wandered off the straight and narrow. Unable to climb the hill of light[3] he is in despair, his path blocked by three wild beasts, a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. Just as he loses all hope, he sees another man, whom he begs to help him out of his predicament. That man is none other than Virgil, the great Roman poet who composed the Aeneid, no longer a living man but a shade. Once Dante has recognized Virgil, he credits him with having been the greatest poet ever, his idol and his inspiration, and Virgil agrees to show him another path to wisdom and virtue if he will follow. Virgil leads Dante through the gate of Hell where the ominous text is written, Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

What is Virgil doing there in the dark wood? As a pagan he dwells in Limbo along with other righteous men who lived before Christ. Virgil tells Dante how he was visited by a young woman who descended from Heaven to beg him to save her childhood friend, Dante. Beatrice and Dante had grown up together in Florence and had met at a party when they were nine years old. Smitten with her, he carried a torch for her until her death at age twenty-four. They had married other people, but his adoration of her never flagged. She now resides in the Celestial Rose, where she became aware of Dante’s transgressions. Encouraged by St. Lucy and the Queen of Heaven, Beatrice came to Virgil to enjoin him to rescue Dante from perdition.

Virgil will lead Dante through Inferno and Purgatory to the Terrestrial Paradise, once the Garden of Eden, where man fell from grace, now the goal of those who have purged their sins. Virgil cannot go beyond this point, so Beatrice takes over as Dante’s guide, leading him through the nine heavens: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the Starry Sphere, and the Crystalline Sphere, all of which revolve around the Earth. Above these lies the Empyrean, where Christ and the Saints inhabit the Celestial Rose.

Dante introduces his guides in the first two cantos of Inferno. Virgil he calls tu duca, tu segnore e tu maestro (my leader, my lord and my master) and later mi guida (my guide) and mio padre (my father).[4] Virgil does take a paternal approach, encouraging Dante when he hesitates and becomes frightened, warning him of pitfalls. There are a few rebukes along the way, and Dante suffers from them, but Virgil most often treats his charge with patience and kindness.

Beatrice, whom we encounter in the second canto, though Dante has to wait to see her until he has climbed the mountain of Purgatory, is more severe with Dante. At their first meeting she calls him by name (the only time his name appears in the Commedia) and then reproaches him so roundly that the angels who overhear her express sympathy for him.[5] He compares her words to a sword. But she gradually softens her tone in Paradiso, where we find her questioning him like a stern schoolmistress, then comforting him like a mother:

Oppresso di stupore, a la mia guida
mi volsi, come parvol che ricorre
sempre colà dove più si confida;

e quella, come madre che soccorre
sùbito al figlio palido e anelo
con la sua voce, che ‘l suol ben disporre,

mi disse: «Non sai tu che tu se’ in cielo?
e non sai tu che ‘l cielo è tutto santo,
e ciò che ci si fa vien da buon zelo? [6]

Overcome with astonishment, I turned to my guide as a child turns to her whom he always trusts; and she, as a mother who soon comforts her pale and needy child with her voice, to which he has become accustomed, said to me: “Don’t you know that you are in heaven? And don’t you know that heaven is all holy, and what is done here is done with great zeal?”

Besides Virgil and Beatrice, there are three ancillary guides in the Commedia: Statius, Matilda, and St. Bernard. In canto 21 of Purgatorio, Dante and Virgil are joined by the Roman poet Statius, author of the Thebaid, who has just completed his penance for the sin of avarice/prodigality. Statius, also an ardent admirer of Virgil, accompanies the two poets through the remaining upper terraces and undergoes a sort of baptism with Dante in the river Lethe, which causes them to forget all their expiated sins. Memories of good things are restored by immersion in the river Eunoe (Dante’s invention).

Dante is conducted through Lethe, where he is forced to swallow some water, by a beautiful young woman named Matilde. This character, another invention of Dante’s, “acts as [his] guide through the Terrestrial Paradise, when Virgil is no longer competent to fill the office, and Beatrice has not yet appeared.”[7]

Perhaps the most fantastic scenes of leadership in the Commedia are the two in Inferno where Dante is most imaginative: the ride on the chimera Geryon and the climb out of Hell on Satan’s hairy legs. Geryon is a composite monster who flies up from Malebolge to give Dante and Virgil a ride to the eighth circle of Hell, where the fraudulent are punished. To protect Dante from the scorpion tail, Virgil seats Dante in front of him, and they descend in wide circles over a cascading waterfall. Having discharged his passengers, the monster vanishes.

The climax of Inferno is, of course, their encounter with Satan, formerly Lucifer, who was cast into the abyss after leading a rebellion in Heaven. Now as hideous as he once was beautiful, the gigantic devil is encased in ice up to his chest. In each of his three mouths he chews one of the ultimate traitors: Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius. Virgil leads Dante to a hole in the ice where they descend by clutching the shaggy fur of the devil’s legs, climbing down until they reach his thighs, and then turning upside down as if to reverse their direction. At first Dante thinks they are going to climb back up into Hell, but Virgil explains that they have reached the center of the earth and are going to climb out head-first through a tunnel that will emerge on the surface of the southern hemisphere. Here they see the stars again for the first time since they entered Hell, and thus ends the first canticle. In the second canticle they commence their climb through the seven levels of Purgatory,[8] finally to reach the Terrestrial Paradise, the summit of the mountain where the Garden of Eden once existed.

The ascent to Paradise involves no climbing. After Beatrice has guided Dante through the nine spheres of Paradiso she takes her seat in the Celestial Rose, near the Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary. At this point Saint Bernard becomes Dante’s leader. In answer to Bernard’s fervent prayer to the Blessed Virgin, Dante undergoes a divine vision culminating in that of the Holy Trinity. Robert Hollander maintains that, despite the relatively short shrift he receives, Bernard is perhaps the most important of Dante’s guides.[9]

Leadership brings risk, and there is at least one instance of failed leadership in Inferno. Virgil fails to gain admittance to the city of Dis and an angel has to be called to open the door. In canto eight the wayfarer and his guide come to the river Styx, over which they must be ferried by Phlegyas. In the distance they can see the iron walls of the fortress of lower Hell. When they reach the shore they find many demons barring their way. Leaving Dante behind, Virgil steps forward to negotiate entrance to the city of Dis, but the demons are intransigent, proposing to take Virgil captive and leave Dante without his guide. When Virgil returns to his charge, they are menaced by three furies (Erinyes) who threaten to bring their sister Medusa to turn the pilgrim to stone. Dante is nearly petrified with terror, but Virgil turns him around and covers his eyes. Presently the angel arrives, rebukes the demons, and opens the door with his little wand. This grim episode presents Virgil’s greatest frustration and Dante’s greatest terror. Had he seen the Medusa or been left to wander through Hell without his guide, he would not have returned to earth to write his Comedy.

That leads us to a final question. How does Dante return to earth? We don’t know. Neither the mechanics nor the logistics are explained. It is a mystery, like Dante’s vision of the Incarnation. His final words in Paradiso are:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.

Already were all my will and my desires

turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by

The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.[10]

Love, then, is the prime mover. Love is the essence of leadership. Dante’s guides exhibit and foster faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is Love.[11]


[1] Dante also wrote a treatise called De vulgari eloquentia. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Singleton, John Ciardi, Allen Mandelbaum, Robert Hollander, Anthony Esolen, and several others have translated the Commedia. All these are available in inexpensive bilingual editions with notes.

[2] Barbara Reynolds, Dante: the Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006.

[3] “Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or who can stand in his holy place? He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain.” Psalm 24, 3; New American Bible.

[4] Dante addresses Virgil in several ways, though never by his name. There are 89 occurrences of the word duca, 16 of guida, 111 of maestro, 60 of padre (though not all refer to Virgil), and about 30 of segnor/segnore (but not all refer to Virgil). See Terrill Shepard Soules’s Online concordance to Dante’s Divine Comedy http://tsoules.com/dante/Concordance/default.htm

[5] Purgatorio 30: 82-84

[6] Purgatorio 22:1-12. My translation follows.

[7] Paget Toynbee, Concise Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante, Oxford University Press, 1914. p. 365.

[8] The seven terraces of Purgatory correspond to the seven cardinal sins: Pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. These are arranged in order of their gravity, with pride being the most offensive. Canticles are the three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. The cantos are the chapters of the canticles. There are 100 cantos in the Commedia.

[9] Robert Hollander, Dante: A Life in Works, Yale University Press, 2001, p. 127.

[10] Paradise 33: 142-145, translated by Anthony Esolen (Modern Library, 2007).

[11] St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 13.

About Dr. Lawrence Sisk

Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis University

One thought on “Dante on Leadership

  1. July 8, 2019 at 2:48 am

    Great information. I should read Dante’s book. Your inscription makes me interest with Dante.

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