In my last post, I looked at how Dante uses the weaknesses and failures of Virgil as a character in the Divine Comedy to illustrate the impossibility of true strength or beauty without Christ. Dante’s treatment of Virgil as a literary influence also stresses this point. In fact, the whole trajectory of Dante’s journey undermines Virgil’s influence. Dante’s obedience to Virgil in itself is a sign that his project is dramatically different from Virgil’s. When Virgil urges Dante onwards to Hell, Dante is struck with self-doubt; he protests that he is not “[Virgil’s] own Aeneas” who braved the road to the underworld, but merely himself, weak and unfit (2.31-33). And Dante speaks truly: as a hero, he is cast in a very different mold than Aeneas. Aeneas is completely independent. Aeneas himself demands to be let down into Hell to see his father (Aeneid 6.98); he himself plucks the golden bough (Aeneid 6.183); he himself speaks to the dead spirits by the bank of the Acheron without outside prompting (Aeneid 337). Although the prophetess guides Aeneas through the underworld, she does not control his journey, and he does not treat her as more than the ‘native guide’. It is true that Aeneas prays for the help of the gods to bring him safe to Latium (Aeneid 6.42), and that they come to him to give him guidance (Aeneid 4.259). However, the guidance they give him is advice (or admonishment) only, not physical help; and the help that Aeneas asks of them is premised on his offer of temples and festal days once he has a home (Aeneid 6.42). Even in his reliance on the gods Aeneas keeps the initiative partly on his side. He is an equal partner in a reciprocal commercial transaction.
Dante, on the other hand, is completely dependent on forces outside himself. Dante is lost in the woods until Virgil comes to rescue him, unable to find the way to the underworld or even guess at how to escape from the forest (2.54). Virgil tells Dante when he can talk to spirits and when not, and Dante obeys him (5.77). In fact, Dante declares that Virgil will be “my lord, my leader, and my true guide” (2.140). The addition of obedience to the list of heroic virtues is necessitated by the different ideal of heroic victory in the Christian world. The Christian hero’s adventures are less physical (at his journey’s end, will he conquer the kingdom?) than moral (at his journey’s end, will he be a wiser and more virtuous person?). He must allow himself to be changed by his journey, instead of expecting that he will change the world around him—and this means submitting himself, in obedience, to powers higher than himself. In the Commedia, this reliance is not seen in any way as a weakness. Even as Dante unfavorably compares himself to Aeneas, he also compares himself to St. Paul, a worthier candidate to brave the underworld and see paradise (2.32). However, even as he declares that he is not St. Paul, his insistence on his own unfitness for the task makes him very like St. Paul indeed. It was St. Paul who proclaimed, “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle…but by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). This is to be Dante’s model: heroism, not through self-sufficiency or intrinsic worth, but through God’s grace. Aeneas was a great Roman hero, but the ideal he represents is not the ideal of the Christian. Even as Dante defers to Virgil, he shows himself to be a new kind of hero, ultimately greater than anyone Virgil could have imagined.
In the end, although Dante can emulate Virgil’s style and give him some measure of praise, his status as a specifically Christian poet means that he must dramatically repudiate Virgil’s fundamental picture of the world. The pagan heroes can be praised, but they still reside on the outskirts of Hell, and can hope for nothing more. Their time has passed, and the new order of Christendom has created a new vision of heroism and a new kind of heroic journey to take their place.