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Dante in Love: A Biography
A. N. Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
400 pp., $35.00
A Prelude to Dante
After reading excerpts from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas in one of my courses, a student reflected, "I think the world would be a better place if everyone read this." For the majority of the reading public, the Summa may be a bit intense and out of reach (as it is for me most of the time). So, while I agree with my student that everyone should consider Aquinas' theses about God, human nature, and the good life, I can appreciate why Aquinas himself likened all his work to straw. Without love, the best often lack the conviction to live according to reasonable arguments or even revealed truths. We are "desiring animals," as James K. A. Smith asserts in Desiring the Kingdom, meaning "we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are." What is needed to change the world, then, is for everyone to have their will and desires turn "with the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars," as Dante phrases it in the final line of The Divine Comedy. Rather than converting minds, Dante transforms readers' passions. He embodies Aquinas' theology in an imaginative poetic journey of the afterlife, through which readers experience love.
How can love change the world? In Dante in Love, A. N. Wilson looks to the canonical poet for an answer. He asks: "[W]hat if the world of popular culture which jangles and sings in the background of our lives, in TV soaps, in films, in pop music about this experience of being in love—what if this world has something in common after all with the now all-but-lost world of a shared religious culture?" Contrasting the pop-singer definition of love with the intellectually substantive meaning assumed by Dante and Aquinas, Wilson connects Dante's political life with his poetry as well as his romantic obsessions with his devotion to God. In doing so, Wilson also reveals to us how a 14th-century poet may have something to say to those in the 21st century willing to listen.