Dante, Grief, Meaning, and Why Philosophy Belongs to Those Who Live It.


I write frequently about the use of ancient philosophy as a practical guideline for living.  Because of my interest in this I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the current state of philosophy, and the humanities in general, these last few years.  It’s no great insight on my part to observe that most academic philosophy shows little interest in how the discipline may be used to live one’s life.  There are notable exceptions like Pierre Hadot and others but one encounters disappointingly little.  In fact,  there seems to be some animosity (or just simple sneering) at the suggestion that  “old dead men” can offer anything usable today for conducting a good, worthy life.  You can see it in pieces like this and this.  Arguments are made for the continued relevance (and therefore funding) of classics for intellectual development.  But the idea that classical philosophy might still be a living tradition is often dismissed.

Countering this, some amongst the scientism crowd insist that philosophy, literature, art and spirituality have nothing valid to tell us about life and humanity.  Only the scientific method can be the arbiter of truth.  If you spend any time reading debates in places like The Stone column of the NY Times there is heated disagreement over the value and future of the humanities.  Humanities don’t seem to be winning the argument given university cutbacks.  That may account for the defensiveness of some classics scholars when others make use of philosophy without seeking their seal of approval.

I am genuinely glad to see science give us new ways to consider these topics.  I am enthused and fascinated by developments in disciplines like physics and cognitive neuroscience.  Certainly these insights can and should shape how we view the human mind, cosmology, metaphysics, etc.  While I have been very influenced by Greco-Roman Stoicism it would be difficult to claim we should adhere to Stoic physics.  The problem comes with a blanket dismissal of what philosophy, art, spirituality can give us now that science will answer all mysteries.  It is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater (not to mention it smacks of hubris).

These issues came to mind when I encountered this essay.  The author is a professor of Italian at Bard College who specializes in the study of Dante.  In the article he writes about the unexpected and early death of his pregnant wife.  It is a moving meditation on what a work like The Inferno can give to us in our darkest nights of the soul.  His grief led him to look afresh at material he’d studied and taught.  Now it gave him more than intellectual satisfaction.  It helped to guide him through his own struggles with loss, mortality and meaning.

“I still lived and worked and socialized in the same places and with the same people after my wife’s death as before. And yet I felt that her death exiled me from what had been my life. Dante’s words gave me the language to understand my own profound sense of displacement. More important, it transformed this anguished state into a beautiful image.

After Katherine died, I obsessed for the first time over whether we have a soul, a part of us that outlives our body. The miracle of “The Divine Comedy” is not that it answers this question, but that it inspires us to explore it, with lungo studio e grande amore, long study and great love.”

In the face of such a passage it would be difficult to argue that Dante, as an “old dead guy”, had nothing to offer.  It would be reductionist to brush off the author’s inspiration as a mere cognitive strategy for reducing his pain.  It would be just plain lame to quibble over the real meanings of Dante as expressed through the deconstructionist work of So-and-so.  Work by academic philosophy and scientists can broaden our understanding of our minds, our lives and our world (the old and the new).  For that they have my admiration and gratitude.  But they cannot determine where and how I will find meaning.  Nor can they know how the ideas and images of philosophy, literature and art will guide me to a flourishing life.  For each of us, the knowledge we gain and the understandings we reach are our own regardless of the mechanics by which we attain them.  The Telos, the end goal, is for us alone to determine.  Philosophy belongs to those that use it.  That requires no justification.  As Dante said, just long study and great love.

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