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  • Writer's pictureBeth Mortensen

Aquinas and Dante

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

This summer, the Aquinas Institute will be offering two intensive courses focusing on the contributions of two monumental authors: St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante. In honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante‘s death, Dr. Jason Baxter will be leading a multimedia, interdisciplinary exploration of Dante‘s encyclopedic epic. The undergraduate course, accredited through Wyoming Catholic College, will involve not only reading the Divine Comedy but include forays into art, music, Franciscan spirituality, medieval mysticism and lectio divina. Dr. Baxter is a world-renowned Dante expert who has appeared on EWTN and whose Beginner‘s Guide to Dante is in use at universities across North America.

St. Thomas Aquinas has been held up as a model by popes and ecumenical councils for 700 years. St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Fides et Ratio that in Thomas Aquinas‘s thinking, “the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason” (Fides et Ratio, 78). In harmony with popes from St. Pius V to St. Pius X to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, John Paul II calls St. Thomas, “a model of the right way to do theology” (Fides et Ratio, 43).

One of the most remarkable tributes to Thomas Aquinas is the nickname given to the masterpiece of the greatest medieval poet: Dante‘s Divine Comedy is often called “The Summa in Verse.”

As might be expected from a work of literature, the Divine Comedy begins from almost the opposite point of departure from Aquinas‘s Summa. The Summa starts with the consideration of the existence and attributes of the one God, then moves to the contemplation of the Trinity, creation–centering on man and his fall–and finally the Incarnation, which furnishes man‘s path for return to God. The Summa reflects the pattern of the universe, an “exitus-reditus” movement coming from and returning toward God.

The Divine Comedy, on the other hand, might be said to reflect the experience of salvation history, and indeed, the trajectory of many a conversion story.

In the Inferno, Dante begins with a pilgrim who, in mid-life, feels that he has lost his way in a dark wood. After hitting the ultimate “rock bottom” in a tour of hell, Dante‘s pilgrim (and the reader who accompanies him) gradually makes his way through purgatory before he is finally granted a vision of heaven. Like the trajectory of salvation history, Dante‘s journey involves suffering through the depths of separation from God before being able to recognize the gift extended to us in Christ. Only then can the slow climb begin that will end in the vision of glory.

Unfortunately, most readers of Dante never read the Purgatorio or the Paradiso; they venture no further with Dante‘s pilgrim than the last chapters of hell—which rather defeats the purpose of Dante‘s epic.

Admittedly, it could be argued that the poet had more experience to base his depiction of hell on. Both poet and reader are bound to have more difficulty relating to the experience of purgatory, and especially heaven—where, as Aquinas wrote in his own poetry, all images and symbols will drop away.

Dante‘s “Summa in Verse” aims to relate for the senses many of the teachings highlighted by Thomas Aquinas in the previous century. In much the way a medieval cathedral embodies and represents the truths of the faith, Dante employed history, art, and above all, poetry, to illustrate for the human imagination the realities that Aquinas had elucidated for the human mind.

As an entrance into the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Susan Waldstein will be teaching a graduate theology course this summer on the first 19 questions of the Prima Pars. This course on the existence and attributes of God will include St. Anselm‘s Proslogion before delving into Thomas Aquinas‘s most fundamental questions about who God is. The first 19 questions of the Summa Theologiae explore the mystery of what it means to be God and reveal truths that will impact every aspect of theology—and indeed, every aspect of the student‘s relationship with God. Fully confronting the reality of God‘s existence, his goodness and knowledge, and what it means that he is unchanging, among other attributes, is a process that will alter the way a student views all of reality. Dr. Waldstein, who has taught graduate theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Ave Maria University, as well as the International Theological Institute in Austria, will guide students in beginning this journey—a pilgrimage very different from Dante‘s, but just as radical in its impact on the life of the mind and heart.

The Aquinas Institute‘s two summer courses can almost be seen to be emblematic of the relationship of the liberal arts to theology. Dante employs the vast riches of human arts and humanities to initiate the training of the senses and imagination that will prepare the mind to seek first the kingdom. St. Thomas holds the First Mover and the end of existence in a fixed gaze, focusing on what precedes the created world and will remain after symbols have fallen away.

Join us to find in just three short weeks an encounter that might just change your life!

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