Pride Before the Fall
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before the fall” (Proverbs 16: 18 )
When Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, a poem transcribing an arduous journey from the depths of Hell to the heights of Heaven, he was in the midst of an exile from his beloved Florence. One imagines a poet and political thinker that had fallen into a pit of despair, as he had “found [himself] in a dark wilderness, for [he] had wandered from the straight and true” (Inferno I, 2-3). Dante was, after all, one of the greatest examples of Medieval education, synthesizing the influence of the Catholic Church and the philosophies of the ancient world. In the great poet, one finds the rhetorics of St. Augustine, the philosophical minds of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the poetry of Virgil. Yet, it was the pride that Dante obtained from this great education that led to his banishment. He was condemned, not because the city refused to let him return, but because he would not pay the fine that was imposed on him.
To confront this pride, Dante must, with the assistance of his guide, Virgil, descend into the very bowels of Hell. It is no coincidence that Virgil represents the epitome of man’s knowledge on Earth. Together, the pair pass through Limbo, the circle of Hell that holds all those virtuous souls that lacked knowledge of Christ’s salvific nature. Eventually, after climbing down through circles containing a plethora of popes and heretics alike, Dante and Virgil find Satan himself, that being that once imagined himself supplanting his creator, embodying the essence of pride. Satan, in Dante’s telling, is reduced to a dumb animal, stripped of all true power. Such is the fate of hubris.
For Dante, to finally enter Heaven via Purgatory, it is necessary to venture through Hell. He must see with his own eyes what pride brings: death, destruction, and despair. It is only when Dante reaches Beatrice, the woman he once loved and lusted for, that he begins to truly understand the importance of his journey:
Beatrice, at last, sees how Dante’s sins and passions have begun to order themselves. In the light of God, Dante sees reason. Having been burned free of his pride, his lust, and his temporal by the straining journey from Hell to Heaven, Dante can begin to right himself. The Divine Comedy is called such not because it is funny, but because its ending is happy. Dante sees, finally, God in three persons, which allows him to fully align his own soul and will with God:
This final passage is the true lesson Dante wishes to relate to all readers. Pride, that evil which begets ever greater sins, must be subjected to Divine reason. In the place of humanity’s vain hubris, one must adopt love and faith, as it is “the substance of the things we hope for
and is the evidence of things not seen” (Par. XXIV, 64-65).