How to Scare the Hell Out of Yourself

Insights from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy

Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash

I’m on vacation with my family in Telluride, Colorado. For those of you who know me well, I love the mountains. It’s as if they call me; the trees, lakes, and high mountain peaks soothe my soul. It’s also a time to read a great book.

I will share what I learn as I read Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Early into this timeless body of profound work, I’m learning that even though I have failed forward, there is much awaiting all of us when we return to the place from where we came: Heaven or Hell, and many places in between.

The Art of Waking Up

It’s as if Dante wrote this incredible body of work to help humanity wake up. If you had asked me five, ten, or twenty years ago about this book, I’d have thought you were crazy to think that I was even close to being ready to sit, be still, read, and understand what Dante intended to teach us. As I turn every page, I think, “Holy Cow. I have more work to do as a humble human fumbling through life because the way Dante describes the lower realms, it’s scary as Hell.”

I am not a literary scholar by any means. But from what I can tell so far, Dante was brilliant, and he suffered dearly. He had to find a way to transcend his suffering, an aspect of life we all endure. It seems that the purpose of suffering is to help us become better human beings. However, when we look around, I’m pretty sure we can do much better.

If you suffer, welcome to humanity. Instead of wallowing in pain, use it to learn the lessons. We’re here to learn the virtues and avoid the passions that take us to Heaven or Hell on Earth and that of the afterlife. My logic is if we came from the light, and we are made of light, it seems reasonable to think we will return to the light at some level.

Earth, to me, has become the ultimate training ground for letting go of my youthful fears, lust, envy, drunken gluttony, the pursuit of wealth and the material, to know the virtues instead of passions. Now, let me share what little I’ve learned about Dante and reading his incredible book, timeless wisdom for all.

Dante and His Life

Dante Alighieri, born in Florence, Italy, in 1265, led a life marked by his extraordinary contributions to literature, philosophy, and theology. His seminal work, “The Divine Comedy,” composed between 1308 and 1321, remains a testament to his deep insights and talents. This epic poem takes us on an allegorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, mirroring his exploration of metaphysical realms and human psychology.

Dante’s unique blend of Christian theology and classical influences not only reflects his devotion to seeking universal truths but also resonates with your passion for world religion and philosophy. His ability to unravel complex ideas through vibrant imagery and narrative can make us more aware. Just as he illuminated intricate subjects, he offers both entertainment and education as you delve into topics of human transformation.

Dante’s life came to a close in 1321, but his legacy endures as an inspiration for writers, essayists, and seekers of wisdom. By delving into his works, you can tap into the essence of his literary mastery and continue your mission of helping others rise above suffering and embrace joy.

The Descent into Hell: Facing Your Fears

Dante’s concept of Hell, known as Inferno in Italian, is composed of nine distinct circles. Each circle is a domain of suffering and torment, reserved for different types of sinners, increasing in severity as one descends into the bowels of Hell.

Dante, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, embarks on this journey to witness the eternal punishments meted out for various transgressions. From the liminal “Limbo,” where virtuous pagans reside, to the frozen core where Lucifer is trapped, each circle represents a specific sin and a corresponding punishment that is both poetic and just according to the ethos of the Divine Justice Dante seeks to elucidate.

The journey begins with the first circle, Limbo, which is followed by Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and finally, Treachery. Each of these circles subdivides further to administer more specific punishments for nuanced categories of sin. For example, the circle for Violence is divided into three rings: Violence against Others, Violence against Self, and Violence against God/Nature/Art.

Dante’s descent into Hell can be seen as a metaphorical confrontation with our own fears and moral failings. The Inferno is filled with sinners suffering poetic justice for their earthly transgressions, and each circle of Hell illuminates a different facet of human weakness.

Dante isn’t just creating a cautionary tale of damnation; he’s revealing the myriad ways we create hellish experiences for ourselves here on Earth. Psychological research substantiates this interpretation by showing that avoiding our fears can lead to emotional stagnation (Sutton, Robert. “Escaping the Emotional Quick Sand,” Psychology Today).

The message is clear: only by facing our fears can we hope to transcend them.

The Ascent Through Purgatory: The Power of Transformation

Purgatory, often overlooked in favor of the more dramatic Inferno, is arguably the most relevant section for anyone interested in personal growth. Here, Dante portrays souls willingly undergoing suffering to purify themselves.

It’s a stark reminder that transformation often requires discomfort and work, a truth echoed in modern psychological theories like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) (Hofmann et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses,” Cognitive Therapy and Research).

Purgatory offers a roadmap for self-betterment, demonstrating the necessary steps and internal shifts for meaningful change.

Paradise: Attaining a State of Joy

The ultimate destination in Dante’s journey is Paradise, a realm of indescribable beauty and joy. It serves as the poetic apex of what we’re all striving for – a life free from suffering, filled with joy.

While complete freedom from suffering may be unattainable, Dante illustrates that a life oriented toward higher principles and virtues is within reach, a view aligned with several world religions and philosophies from Stoicism to Buddhism (Hadot, Pierre. “The Inner Citadel,” Harvard University Press).

A Powerful, Profound Body of Work

As it relates to the art of human transformation, Dante’s The Divine Comedy offers a timeless blueprint. It encourages us to confront our deepest fears, work towards self-improvement, and aim for a life of moral and spiritual fulfillment.

Whether you’re a believer in Dante’s religious doctrine or a skeptic looking for secular wisdom, The Divine Comedy provides profound insights into the human condition, making it both terrifying and enlightening – a journey worth embarking upon.

Enjoy the ride when you’re ready to read The Divine Comedy.

Clifford Jones - The Art of Human Transformation

I write about and coach successful professionals in the art of human transformation because when we find clarity, meaning, and purpose we live a wealthy life.