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Dante's Divine Comedy

Dante's Divine Comedy

Taught By Multiple Professors

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Dante's Divine Comedy

Dante's Divine Comedy

Taught By Multiple Professors
Course No.  287
Course No.  287
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Two gifted teachers share the fruit of two lifetimes' worth of historical and literary expertise in this introduction to one of the greatest works ever written. One of the most profound and satisfying of all poems, the Divine Comedy (or Commedia) of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) is a book for life.

In a brilliantly constructed narrative of his imaginary guided pilgrimage through the three realms of the Christian afterlife—hell, purgatory, and heaven—Dante accomplished a literary task of astonishing complexity.

  • He created an unforgettable gallery of characters.
  • He poetically explored a host of concerns both universal and particular, timely and timeless.
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Two gifted teachers share the fruit of two lifetimes' worth of historical and literary expertise in this introduction to one of the greatest works ever written. One of the most profound and satisfying of all poems, the Divine Comedy (or Commedia) of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) is a book for life.

In a brilliantly constructed narrative of his imaginary guided pilgrimage through the three realms of the Christian afterlife—hell, purgatory, and heaven—Dante accomplished a literary task of astonishing complexity.

  • He created an unforgettable gallery of characters.
  • He poetically explored a host of concerns both universal and particular, timely and timeless.
  • He tapped the combined riches of the biblical and classical traditions in a synthesis that forever placed Western writers in his debt as they tried to build on his foundation.

James Joyce might have been speaking for those writers when he exclaimed, "Dante is my spiritual food!"

Geographer of the Cosmos, Student of the Soul

The full achievement of the Commedia, however, goes far beyond anything merely "literary."

Dante is a geographer of the cosmos and a student of the soul. His range spans not only the heights of heaven and the depths of hell but also the recesses of the human heart.

As Dante the pilgrim makes his journey, Dante the poet dramatizes and asks us to reflect on fundamental questions:

  • What is the quality of our moral actions?
  • How does spiritual transformation come about?
  • What is the nature of good and evil, virtue and vice, sin and sanctity?
  • Why is the world so full of strife?
  • How do we go on when we lose things we love, as Dante—through exile—lost his native Florence?
  • What role do reading and writing play in human life?

In the seven centuries since the Commedia was written, not one of these questions has lost its force.

Moreover, Dante addresses them in a demanding and innovative Italian verse form called terza rima. His complex arrangement of materials makes the Commedia one of the great virtuoso pieces of world literature.

Poet as Pilgrim, Pilgrim as Poet

Set at Eastertide in the year 1300, the poem begins with Dante, in the middle of his life, feeling trapped in a "dark wood" of error.

Lost and failing, he is rescued by the great Roman poet Virgil and can find his way again only by means of an extraordinary voyage.

He must pass down through the nine rings of hell, up the seven levels of purgatory to the earthly paradise, and up higher still through the nine spheres of heaven to the empyrean realm where God dwells in glory.

Along the way, Dante changes guides. Virgil gives way to Beatrice, a young woman about whom Dante wrote in his early love poetry and who becomes his guide through most of the spheres of paradise.

And Beatrice, in turn, gives way to Bernard of Clairvaux, a Christian mystic who is Dante's guide for the final cantos—the poem's major divisions—of the Paradiso.

Because Dante frames many of his concerns in terms of contemporary personalities and issues, and because so much of the poem consists of direct encounters between Dante and inhabitants of the afterlife, the lectures focus on providing essential background for and analysis of these encounters.

"We, Like All of You, Are Pilgrims Here"

Dante constructed the Commedia in three parts, and each part conveys an essential element of his message:

  • In the Inferno, the poet describes the pilgrim's encounters with an eye toward deepening our insight into the nature of evil and moral choice. You see Dante meeting sinners drawn from each of the categories of sin he describes, ending with a vision of Satan frozen at the bottom of hell.

  • In Purgatorio, the poet dramatizes the nature and purpose of moral conversion as repentant sinners arduously prepare themselves for the vision of God in heaven, strengthening their wills in virtue and against the seven deadly sins. Community and its great sustainers, art and ritual, become prominent themes as souls strive toward full redemption.

  • In Paradiso, Dante has memorable encounters with great Christian thinkers in the Circle of the Sun and with his own heroic ancestor in the Circle of Mars.

In the final cantos, Dante moves beyond the bounds of space and time and the power of language.

At last, he is granted a mystical, ineffable vision of God. The moment brings to full circle the journey that began when "the Love that moves the stars," mediated by prayer, first sent Virgil to help a troubled pilgrim who found himself lost along the way of life.

Your Guides on Dante's Journey

Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman are recipients of the Medieval Academy of America's first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in Teaching Medieval Studies.

The skills that earned that award are clearly reflected in these lectures, which provide a rich context against which to appreciate Dante's writing.

You will learn:

  • Invaluable background information on Dante's life and times
  • Why Dante wrote the Commedia
  • How to approach the various English editions available.

As Professors Cook and Herzman guide you along the journey portrayed in the Commedia, you will learn how each part of the poem is connected to what has come before. You will see Dante "raising the stakes" as each of the questions with which he begins the poem are posed at ever deeper levels of development as the journey continues.

By the time your own journey through these lectures is completed, you will learn why Dante's pilgrimage is an exceedingly enriching experience for anyone who chooses to accompany him.

And you will understand why the Commedia is not a puzzle to be solved or a book to be read and put aside. It is a mystery whose beauty and power can be enjoyed for the rest of your life.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Reading the Poem—Issues and Editions
    This lecture introduces the entire course by outlining the nature of Dante's achievement in the La Divina Commedia, discussing the available translations, and providing an overview of Dante's life. x
  • 2
    A Poet and His City—Dante's Florence
    Dante puts heavy demands on modern readers; he himself was deeply involved in political issues that need to be retrieved from the past. This lecture will emphasize those political events in Dante's time that have the most direct impact on the poem. x
  • 3
    Literary Antecedents, I
    Dante goes to many literary sources—but above all to the Bible and Virgil's Aeneid—to tap their energy and bring them into dialogue with his own concerns, thus universalizing his poem without giving up its particularity. x
  • 4
    Literary Antecedents, II
    In addition to the Bible and The Aeneid, Dante is in serious conversation with his own earlier poetic, political, and philosophical writings as well as with Augustine's great spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, which provides a model of first-person narrative and much more. x
  • 5
    “Abandon Every Hope, All You Who Enter”
    In Canto 3, Dante passes through the famous gates of hell, on which this legend appears. In Dante's vision, hell is the place where sinners exist as if nothing stood between them and their evil desires. What is the "geography"—both physical and moral—of damnation? x
  • 6
    The Never-Ending Storm
    The nature of incontinence—the sin of subjecting reason to desire—is the theme of Inferno 5. Here, the pilgrim has a sustained discourse with the famous Francesca da Rimini. This is the first sustained encounter that Dante has with anyone besides Virgil. What clues do we find here about the nature of hell and its denizens? x
  • 7
    Dante's Inferno deals with sins of wrong belief, as well as wrong action. In this lecture, we analyze Canto 10, where sinners are punished for heresy. According to Christian doctrine, heresy is the sin of wrong belief. But Dante's analysis goes much deeper than any textbook definition. x
  • 8
    The Seventh Circle—The Violent
    Next in gravity after sins of incontinence come sins of violence. How does Dante the poet understand and classify such sins? How does this ring of the Inferno teach Dante the pilgrim about the evil of violence and the temptations to commit it that he may encounter? x
  • 9
    The Sin of Simony
    The third and last major category of sin in Dante's Inferno is fraud. Among the defrauders who are being punished are those, including popes, who have bought and sold sacred church offices, thereby abusing sacred things for material gain. Why is this passage especially important in the structure of the Inferno? What does it tell us about where the pilgrim now stands on his journey to wisdom? x
  • 10
    The False Counselors
    Why does Dante the poet locate the ancient epic hero Ulysses in this part of hell? And how does the contemporary figure of Guido da Montefeltro reveal another side to that perversion of the intellect known as "false counsel"? x
  • 11
    The Ultimate Evil
    The ninth circle of the Inferno deals with the worst defrauders of all—those who have betrayed people to whom they owed a special trust. How does Dante the poet figure the terrible nature of terminal evil? x
  • 12
    The Seven-Story Mountain
    Dante developed the modern imagery of purgatory, as well as the idea of it as a place of spiritual growth that prepares souls to see God. We discuss the structure of purgatory, a mountain with seven terraced stories in which all of the seven tendencies toward sin—called the seven deadly sins—are successively purged. Why is purgatory the part of the afterlife that most resembles life on Earth? x
  • 13
    Purgatory's Waiting Room
    Until we pass through the gates of Purgatorio in Canto 9, we are still in antepurgatory, where those who were slow to repent on Earth must spend time before the actual process of purification begins. In this lecture, you meet some of the most intriguing figures Dante encounters in this place of preparation. x
  • 14
    The Sin of Pride
    The most serious and universal of the deadly sins is pride, and it is the first that must be purged. The souls on the terrace of the proud learn from both positive and negative examples of pride and its opposite, the virtue of humility. Classical and biblical cases are placed side by side as parts of a profound Dantean meditation on the power of art to shape the soul. x
  • 15
    The Vision to Freedom
    At the exact structural center of the Commedia are three cantos that deal with one of its most important issues, the nature of free will, and hence of love. Listen in and learn from a three-way discussion among Dante, Marco Lombardo, and Virgil. x
  • 16
    Homage to Virgil
    Near the top of the seven-story mountain, Dante and Virgil meet the Roman poet Statius. Although he too has been guided in a sense by Virgil, Statius does not at first realize to whom he is speaking. What makes this episode, which comes just before Virgil must leave the poem, such a poignant comment on poets and the meaning of what they do? x
  • 17
    Dante's New Guide
    The last five cantos of the Purgatorio bring together the personal and the political, the particular and the universal, and the personal and the theological, in a way that reveals much about the nature of the entire Commedia. Purgatory ends with the pilgrim, now guided by Beatrice, cleansed and ready to ascend to the stars. x
  • 18
    Ascending the Spheres
    How are Dante's encounters with the souls of the saved in heaven different from his previous encounters in hell and purgatory? What clues about the meaning of the entire poem may we draw from the light imagery, which now becomes so prominent? x
  • 19
    An Emperor Speaks
    Paradiso 6 is the only canto that has but one speaker, the Roman emperor Justinian. His fascinating discourse on law and the virtues of the true ruler continues the discussion of politics begun in Inferno 6 and extended in Purgatorio 6. x
  • 20
    The Circle of the Sun—Saints and Sages
    In a canto that celebrates the virtue of wisdom, Dante meets great figures in the Christian intellectual and theological tradition. Yet his deepest lesson may come from reflecting on the life of the decidedly unlearned St. Francis of Assisi. Wisdom includes intellectualism and scholarship, but hardly stops there. x
  • 21
    A Mission Revealed—Encounter with an Ancestor
    The sphere of Mars is the heavenly seat of the courageous. Not least among these is Dante's own ancestor, the Crusader Cacciaguida, whom the pilgrim meets and talks with. How is this soldier and martyr a model for his poetic descendant? x
  • 22
    Can a Pagan Be Saved?
    Cantos 19 and 20 of Paradiso sing of the circle of good rulers in Jupiter, where the defining virtue is justice. Here Dante revisits the question of the salvation of non-Christians (first introduced in the uppermost ring of Inferno), and entertains some intriguing possibilities for salvation. x
  • 23
    Faith, Hope, Love, and the Mystic Empyrean
    What are the final lessons that Beatrice must teach the pilgrim before his culminating vision of God can be granted? Why is the saintly mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, who takes over here, such an appropriate third and final companion for this journey? x
  • 24
    "In My End Is My Beginning"
    As the poem opened, divine love was turning Dante's fear and confusion into a pilgrimage—a journey with a goal. Even as Dante suggests (he cannot directly describe) his vision of "the love that moves the stars," he is preparing us for a return to the world of space and time. As part of this "return," we reflect briefly on why Dante is someone with whom we should all spend time. x

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2 Professors
William R. Cook Ronald B. Herzman
William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.
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Ronald B. Herzman, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo

Dr. Ronald B. Herzman is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1969. He graduated with honors from Manhattan College and earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Delaware. Dr. Herzman's teaching interests include Dante, Chaucer, Francis of Assisi, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Arthurian literature. He has written many articles and book chapters and is the coauthor of The Apocalyptic Imagination in Medieval Literature and coeditor of Four Romances of England. Professor Herzman received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1976, and in 1991, Manhattan College awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Professor Herzman and Professor William R. Cook have been collaborating intensively since 1973, when they team-taught a course at SUNY-Geneseo called The Age of Chaucer. Subsequent courses included The Age of Dante and The Age of Francis of Assisi. Both prolific writers in their own right, together they have published The Medieval World View with the Oxford University Press, currently in its second edition. In 2003, Professors Cook and Herzman were presented with the Medieval Academy of America's first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in Teaching Medieval Studies.

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Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 67 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Superb Tour From Hell to Heaven I give this course a wholehearted 5 stars on every point. However, what I like about this course may not please you. The Divine Comedy is an extremely challenging piece of great literature to get through without a guide. That very well might be the first point that Dante makes by assigning Virgil as our docent. The course will provide enough background to help get you through the poem. The first time I attempted to read it I immediately got lost in all the characters. How am I supposed to know all of these people and how their personalities led them to this particular circle of hell? That's where this course comes in. The two presenters explain the background needed to proceed. They give these explanations in a very entertaining way without detracting or demeaning the work. I really despise a course which is dense with silly jokes. Jokes detract from the work under study. That's one thing I love about this course. There are a few points of levity but none which detract from Dante's masterpiece. The course does not dumb down the content either. This isn't the "Cliff Notes" version. Expect to struggle. Expect to work. It has taken me months to get through the course and the poem. I had to repeat many of the lectures and re-read many parts of The Divine Comedy. If you like real study, you will love this course. You'll finish up in heaven. What could be better?! If you just want a synopsis without having to actually read The Divine Comedy, this probably isn't for you. The Divine Comedy is in the category of a book like Ulysses or To the Lighthouse. It's a studious read. It is well worth your time, however. Make the effort and reap the rewards. This is a great course from The Great Courses! March 16, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Two Profs Dissect Dante in Depth This may be the most unique offering of The Great Courses. The creative structure of this 12-hour program is that of a pair of university professors in dialogue about Dante's "The Divine Comedy." The presentations are unscripted and include focused discussion of all three parts of the poem. One of the professors (William R. Cook) teaches history while the other (Ronald B. Herzman) is a specialist in literature. However, both are extremely knowledgeable about Dante's world, the content of the poem, and the myriad allusions in the text. Based on these programs alone, it would be nearly impossible to identify which is the historian and which is the professor of literature. The presentations are brisk and lively with each of the speakers playing off one another in smooth transitions. The Cook-Herzman team has had extensive experience in teaching Dante (a) at the university level, (b) in the Attica maximum security penitentiary, and (c) to a group of monks. One of the fascinating revelations was how the young university students preferred reading "Inferno"; the prison inmates preferred "Purgatorio"; and the trappist monks preferred "Paradiso." But what about Dante's original readers in the Middle Ages? One of the strengths of this series is the detail provided by the speakers about the poem in the context of the early fourteenth century. The medieval readers or listening audience would have immediately grasped Dante's overall concept of a spiritual journey. The original readers would have embraced the totality of the mystical experience, as opposed to any single portion of the poem. The video version of this course is highly recommended for the onscreen notations of the passages read aloud from the text of "The Divine Comedy." There are also helpful charts displayed on the screen, which represent the three unique geographical regions of the afterlife, as described by Dante: the cone (Inferno), the mountain (Puragorio), and the nine concentric heavenly spheres (Paradiso). One of the lessons conveyed in these programs is the far-reaching impact of Dante on readers of all ages and all faiths. That truth alone underscores why Dante's "Commedia" was almost immediately renamed "Divina Commedia" and why, seven centuries later, it still may provide important guideposts in our lives. March 11, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Divine "Happy Ending" I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of content in this course, and as Professors Cook and Herzman say, "One you have read the Divine Comedy, it's time to read the Divine Comedy". I can see myself returning to this course many times and I expect that I will find something new each time and my understanding of this wonderful classic will only grow over time. In Dante's time "comedy" meant "happy ending" and this is the story of Dante's not so direct path and journey from the dark wilderness, to hell, to purgatory, and then to paradise (heaven). There is a lot of the poem "The Journey to Ithaca" (Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)) here, that is, it's the journey that is important, not the destination; but with The Divine Comedy, the destination (heaven) is as important as the journey. My friends think The Divine Comedy is only about The Inferno, but there is so much more to the Comedy, and my only regret with the poem is that Beatrice doesn't accompany Dante on the very final stages of the journey. However, she is in heaven, and so to is Dante after his long journey, is it is a happy ending in that sense. This is a timeless guide for anyone seeking enlightenment and a path to heaven and to God. December 19, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Key to a Masterpiece AUDIO: CDs This is another fine TC course, one which makes a masterpiece of literature accessible and understandable to a modern audience. I was a bit curious about how well this would be handled by two people, and found it works extremely well. Professors Cook’s and Herzman’s presentation styles and arrangement complement each other, deepening understanding of the subject rather than confusing the listener. I was drawn to this course partly by my very positive experience with Professor Cook in his TC course ‘Tocqueville and the American Experiment’. The primary reason for taking this course, however, was the high praise for Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ in Professor John M. Bowers’ TC course, ‘The Western Literary Canon in Context’, describing it as “…the greatest single literary masterpiece in the Western literary canon”. I have been dipping into the ‘Divine Comedy’ cantos over many years in my 1960s John Ciardi translation, but was discouraged from a full reading by Ciardi’s sometimes ponderous presentation, and intimidated by his dense footnoting that implied the need for in depth background knowledge to understand the poem. Professors Cook and Herzman have not only given me a good understanding of the ‘Divine Comedy’, but they have also pointed me to an excellent recent translation, that by Mark Musa (available in the Penguin Classics paperback). Even if you do not plan to read the full 14,000 line poem, this course will perfectly suit anyone’s need to become familiar with this masterpiece. I had no idea, for example, about how the individuals, themes, and conditions in the three parts, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, so well related to each other and revealed deeper meanings, or how reading Dante can go beyond a purely Christian perspective to explore psychological depths, as the poem’s “…central metaphor of a journey from bondage to freedom …can mean so much to so many people” (Course Guidebook, Page 83). Everything you need to understand the ‘Divine Comedy’ is here, beginning with details about Dante’s life and the many influences on the poem, from the Bible and Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ to a number of Christian and pagan authors. Professors Cook and Herzman also provide the necessary background on 13th and 14th Century Italian politics and figures, the Papacy, ancient Greek and Roman history and culture, and much more in easy to follow and well-integrated explanations. This not to say, however, that they go through the poem canto by canto. Rather, Professors Cook and Herzman treat “representative” cantos to explain major issues and themes revealing structure and development of the entire poem. It bears mentioning that much of the ‘Divine Comedy’s’ richness is missed by modern readers, drawn as we are by the Inferno, neglecting the Purgatory and Paradise (likened by Dorothy Sayers to visiting Paris and limiting oneself to its sewers). One gets the sense that Professors Cook and Herzman really know their Dante and how to best convey the ‘Divine Comedy’s’ rich content. They refer several times to their experiences teaching it to not only undergraduates, but also to maximum security prison inmates (who, interestingly enough, find much more of interest in the poem’s Purgatory than Inferno). Also noteworthy is the fine course guide for this course, with good lecture summaries, diagrams, timelines, and an excellent annotated bibliography. I was so impressed with this course that I am now looking forward to reading the Musa translation of the ‘Divine Comedy’ and to listening to Professor Cook and Herzman in their TC course on Saint Augustine’s ‘Confessions’. Very highly recommended! November 10, 2014
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