The Divine Comedy is a comedy not merely because it has a happy ending (as distinguished from tragedy) but also because it celebrates the joy of life, even in the midst of its many tragedies. For Dante, one must never show disrespect for the Creator by failing to see the beauty and joy in life itself. In heaven, for example, Dante will dwell on the new religious orders called “mendicant”—they were considered the “clowns of God” because they had, through their poverty, freed themselves to enjoy the beauty and playfulness of creaturehood. Dante presents Francis as publicly marrying Lady Poverty. But this means that Francis marries nothing—he owns nothing and is married to nothing. But the divine irony is that he thereby achieves the freedom to love the entire world.
I can’t help but think of the way it contrasts with the Seinfeld show, which as you know was “about nothing,” yet that’s the goal of the show: nothing. An appropriate goal for a sitcom, of course, but while the show is not about anything, Francis’ marriage to the nothingness of Poverty is for the sake of the love of everything. But in order to love the world, Dante says, we must be liberated from the obsessions and attachments and sins that enslave us. One way of illustrating this basic theme of desire is to contrast Milton’s Satan and Dante’s. Milton’s Lucifer is full of hot anger; he furiously rages against God. For the Calvinist Milton, desire is hatred and a manifestation of sin. Dante’s Satan, on the other hand, is completely passive, cold, and indifferent. He lacks all desire, stuck in the frozen lake of Dis. Even his tears are frozen. He is a parody of Christ, his reverse. He is all about cold revenge and hatred, and he is completely unattractive. Milton’s Satan is at first somewhat attractive because of his passion—at least he cares about something!
The theological background here is the ancient notion that evil is a lack, a deprivation of the good. Just as blindness is a lack of sight, so evil is a lack of the good. Hatred is a lack of love; murder is a lack of respect for life. For Dante, to be sure, love and desire can go wrong in at least three ways: it can be defective (sloth), excessive (greed) or perverted (anger). Still, indifference or spiritual indolence hobbles the desire of the heart. As he climbs Mount Purgatory, the pilgrim and all those climbing the seven story mountain become lighter and movement becomes easier. The desire for God is liberated through humility and gradually the divine image in humanity restored, and more. Saint Francis’ poverty is fullness; Seinfeld’s “nothing” is…? Well, at least we should never underestimate our need to laugh at our foolish egos.
David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.