Dante's Divine Comedy

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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
    Heretics
    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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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 112-page printed course guidebook
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Your professors

William R. Cook Ronald B. Herzman

Professor 1 of 2

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo

Professor 2 of 2

Ronald B. Herzman, 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...
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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...
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Reviews

Dante's Divine Comedy is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 89.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Still a great course I bought this to replace a CD version that I gave away a while back because Dante's Divine Comedy is a piece of work that bears revisiting. The instructors are as wonderful as ever, but I must say the visual aspects of the DVD version are underwhelming. I would have been just as happy with the earlier and less expensive audio only version.
Date published: 2019-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course - My Personal favorite I have purchased many of your courses and have been pleased with all of them. I am less than 1/3 of the way through this one and it is probably my favorite.
Date published: 2019-05-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A disappointing course I own more than 200 Great Courses and have enjoyed most of them. I can't say the same for this one. I thoroughly disliked the colloquial style of the lectures on what is a great classical masterwork. I think the professors failed to convey the human pathos of Inferno, trivializing many of the great figures (especially Francesca, Farinata, and Ulysses) in it. The professors did better in their lectures on Paradise, where they managed to convey reasonably well the very complex and sometimes arcane concepts of the poem, but on the whole the best I can say for the course is that it spurred me to go back to the poem and form my own understanding of it.
Date published: 2019-05-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The dynamic duo do Dante! The divine comedy could not be better taught than by these two professors. I had read the Inferno in High school and took a course on Dante in College. This was by far the BEST presentation I've ever seen. And I will take their advice and read it again for my betterment. Thanks great courses for putting this course together. I only wish they would add a discussion about the river Styx crossing!
Date published: 2019-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I am trying to read a number of books - in chronological order. Dante’s “The Divine Comedy “ is the second one. I find the semi archaic language is hard for me to follow. I listened to an audio and am now reading the book. I do a chapter in the great courses prior to reading the chapter(s) it covers. I find the great course on Dante a big help. It covers many different aspects of Dante’s world that make it easier to understand.
Date published: 2019-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very enlightening I bought the 3 volume Anthony Esolen translation a couple years ago but had not read it. Decided 2019 was the year. Bought this course to lead me through. I have finished lecture 6. Very helpful and insightful. I highly recommend this course to anyone interested in Dante and his insights, which are very deep indeed!
Date published: 2019-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and informative Bought the course to help me understand the references Dante made to various people and events of his times in preparation for better appreciation of the Commedia. The professors do a great and thorough job of that (with enthusiasm!).
Date published: 2018-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A perfect companion of the Divine Comedy Great lecture. Both professors have such great enthusiasm for the book and the material in and around the Divine Comedy that they really draw in your interest. The is perhaps one of the best courses. Already listened through about 3 times. They will really make you understand and appreciate Dante and the Divine Comedy so much more and I have taken college classes on this book and they were nowhere near as well done.
Date published: 2018-11-30
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