Deconstruction of Dante’s Divine Comedy
Posted on May 21st, 2015

Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

 I find no other poet whom I could apply continually, for many purposes, and with much profit”  T.S. Eliot

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri in 1320 AD. It is universally acclaimed as one of the great masterpieces in world literature. Written in the first person it discusses orthodox theology; afterlife and medieval world-view. The Divine Comedy is interwoven with a profound spirituality. The poem consists of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. These parts are based on Dante’s imaginary travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise -the three realms of the dead. But in deeper level, it represents, allegorically, the soul’s journey towards God (Sayers, 1949).

The Divine Comedy is a form of synthesis of medieval life. Dante explains that the poem is a comedy because the subject matter, at the beginning it is horrible and foul, as being Hell; but at the close it is happy, desirable, and pleasing, as being Paradise” and because the style is unstudied and lowly (Lummus, 2011). Dante wrote this vernacular poem in his last years in exile. He provides spiritual meaning to major political events of his days.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a collision between absolute faith in the judgment of God and human reason. This work is filled with biblical stories, medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas, Greek and Roman classical myths, history, and Dante’s clashes with the political elites of Italy and his bitterness with some Vatican leaders. He presented major historical figures before his time, such as Noah, Moses, Judas Iscariot, St Peters, Plato, Homer, Prophet Muhammad, Thomas Aquinas, etc.  In addition Dante used his knowledge in physics, astrology, cartography, mathematics, literary theory, history, and politics to craft this great work.

Dante was highly concerned with the political and intellectual issues of his time (Hainsworth & Robey, 2015). There are central themes such as sin, guilt, punishment, revenge, and salvation in Divine Comedy. Furthermore there is a medieval “psychoanalysis” component in his work. His poem transcends the medieval mind and becomes relevant to all ages and cultures (Chessick, 2001). Also it emulates the processes of psychotherapy in the medieval world.

According to Hatcher (1990) Dante’s autobiographical journey of self-reflection and self-realization mirrors psychoanalysis. Szajnberg (‎2010) indicates that Dante’s Comedy could be the precursors of psychoanalytic technique. Hatcher (1990) observed a resemblance between Dante’s writing and the technique of interpretation in contemporary psychoanalysis. The Divine Comedy consists of hidden meanings and insight can be obtained through interpretations.

Dante’s Divine Comedy has polysemous meanings. He discussed several elements of the science of his day (Caesar 1995).  He embodied a new model of intellectual spread between the 13th and the 14th century (Riva et al., 2015). Therefore Divine Comedy is a spiritual and mata physical testimony.

Human language is full of symbols. Jung believed that as the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason. The Renaissance also showed great interest in symbolism, although in a manner more individualistic and cultured, more profane, literary and aesthetic. Dante had fashioned his Commedia upon a basis of oriental symbols (Cirlot,J.E, 2001). Dante used inner Kabbalistic symbolism through his own story (Weor, 1996).  Dante preferred to use bodily (anatomical) and medical metaphors in this part of his work and his works should be reconsidered by historians of medicine (Riva et al., 2015).

There are a number of archetypal representations in the poem.  Divine Comedy provides a good example of the explorer archetype (Batey, 2012). Jung defined archetype as the first original model of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are merely derivative, copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are visual symbols or energetic imprints that exist in psyche. Dante used planetary symbolism to represent the multi-level nature of the medieval universe.

The archetype of the hero’s psycho-spiritual journey is well represented in Dante’s poem. The Divine Comedy itself is a form of archetype. As the poem begins the narrator is lost in the forest. Jungian symbolism regards forest as a symbol of the unconscious -metaphor for the unknown.  As described by Jung the archetypal hero represents the psyche’s quest for individuation. The archetypal hero travels through hell and heaven and finally meets the Creator. During his great journey the narrator is being transformed.

Boccassini (2014) highlighted analogies between Dante’s journey to the beyond and Jung’s process of individuation. According to Jungian psychology, individuation is the process of transforming one’s psyche by bringing the personal and collective unconscious into conscious. Individuation is a process of psychological differentiation. Individuation has a holistic healing effect on the person, both mentally and physically (Jung, 1962). Dante enters, in his journey through the spheres, the transmutative world of mandalas and gets acquainted with the prismatic complexity of their subtle meanings (Boccassini, 2014).

Dante added most of his overwhelming experiences and emotional anguish in his great work. The Commedia is in the first instance, an account of Dante’s own salvation. In midlife, he was beset by deep depression and doubt. He was a reasonably prosperous and highly esteemed Florentine citizen, ambitious and well aware of the unsurpassed gifts with which he had been blessed. And then, in a coup d’état engineered by his enemies, French forces with papal backing took over in Florence, and Dante found himself not only exiled—but condemned to death in absentia. If the Florentines caught him, he would be burned alive. At a stroke he lost everything—except for his fame, his ambition, and his talent. He had lost his way and, it may be, he lost his faith (Shutt, 2008). Dante suffered immensely under the political repression. He was the Medieval Solzhenitsyn.

Suffering is one of the major themes in the first part -Inferno in Divine Comedy.  In the Inferno Dante writes: Through me you go into a city of weeping; through me you go into eternal pain; through me you go amongst the lost people”

Dante meaningfully writes about human pain. He wrote: The more a thing is perfect, the more if feels pleasure and pain. In Dante’s Inferno a classification of pain is provided, based on the experience of sufferings. Noticeably, Dante created such a complex system centuries before the studies were released on the impact of pain and its quantitative and mostly qualitative definition. (Tonelli & Marcolongo, 2007).  Dante may have known emotional and physical aspects of pain.

Dante’s poem begins with a strange encounter. Suddenly Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood and full of fear. He was confronted by three ferocious beasts -Wolf, Lion, and Leopard which symbolize Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud. Then the spirit of Virgil (the ancient Roman poet who wrote the epic poem, Aeneid) appears and takes Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Virgil represents human reason and wisdom.

Halfway through the journey we are living

I found myself deep in a darkened forest,

For I had lost all trace of the straight path.


Ah how hard it is to tell what it was like, 

How wild the forest was, how dense and rugged! 

To think of it still fills my mind with panic.

(Inferno – Dante Alighieri)

The entire 100 cantos of Dante’s Commedia relate in memory the plot, or muthos, of one soul waking in a dark wood to recognize that he has lost the path of his life, his connection to himself and to any allegiance or presence of the divine. In short, he has stepped out of the coherent mythos that gives meaning and coherence to life (Slattery, 2008).

Dante depicts Inferno as a subterranean tunnel. The subjects in the Inferno endure melancholia with psychomotor retardation. According to Widmer (2004) Inferno has a wonderful abundance of allusions to the importance of psychomotor symptoms in describing the depressed individual. Slowed steps, garbled speech, frozen tears, these and many other images keep the physical manifestations of psychomotor suffering in the forefront of the reader’s mind. Damned souls of the Inferno seem to be also afflicted by psychiatric disorders, such as melancholia and depression (Riva et al., 2015).

Dante had a sound level of medical knowledge, probably derived by his academic studies (Riva et al., 2015). For instance Dante’s description of narcolepsy is evident. In the book, Dante complains that he is “full of sleep,” and he experiences sudden wake-dreaming transitions, short and refreshing naps, visions and hallucinations, unconscious behaviors, episodes of muscle weakness, and falls which are always triggered by strong emotions. Taken together these signs are highly reminiscent of narcolepsy, a term coined in 1880 by Gélineau to define a disease consisting of daytime irresistible sleep episodes with remarkable dream mentation, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and cataplexy (falls triggered by strong emotions). Plazzi G . (2013).

Dante describes emotional syncope or emotion-triggered cardiac asystole-inducing neurocardiogenic syncope in his writings. Syncope is a sudden and transient loss of consciousness and postural tone. In the Fifth Canto, he exquisitely describes the story of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, illicit lovers killed by Francesca’s husband, Gianciotto Malatesta. The story, dramatically told by Francesca, deeply moves the poet, who suddenly faints. In the words of Dante himself: ‘E caddi come corpo morto cade’ (And fell, even as a dead body falls). This probably is the first literary description of an emotional syncope in world literature (Bruno et al., 2014).

At the end of Dante’s journey through Hell Dante meets Satan. Satan is portrayed as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in ice at the center of Hell. In the Divine Comedy, Satan is a flat character. He is portrayed as anti-Christ and anti-Godhead. In fact, he seldom appears on stage though his presence can be felt in the entire Inferno. Dante’s Satan functions more as a sign; thus, Satan becomes the turning point in the spiritual journey of the pilgrim (Anushiravani, 1992).

Purgatorio   (“Purgatory”) is the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Purgatory is depicted as a mountain in the Southern Hemisphere. According to Catholic Church doctrine Purgatory   is an intermediate state after physical death in which those destined for heaven “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heave. In the central part of Purgatory, repentant souls are punished for and purified of their sins. Dante understands it, Purgatory is part of human geography but it’s historically inaccessible to human beings (Mazzotta , 2009). It is inhabited by those doing penance to expiate their sins on Earth.

Dante expressed empathy and understanding for a variety of unfortunates either in the Inferno or in the Purgatorio. Virgil even scolds him for his compassion, arguing that God’s justice is always correct and if God is angry at someone and punishes him or her, Dante should also be angry and not compassionate. (Chessick, 2001). Dante recounts Empathy. Empathy is the “capacity” to share and understand another’s “state of mind” or emotion (Ioannidou & Konstantikaki, 2008).    Zinn (1999) illustrated Empathy as the process of understanding a person’s subjective experience by vicariously sharing that experience while maintaining an observant stance.  According to Ghaemi (2012) Empathy is a neurobiological fact. It is remarkable that a poet of the late middle ages powerfully conversed about a neurobiological fact such as Empathy.

Dante finds forgiveness is a powerful moral. Psychologists believe that forgiveness is a pivotal process in helping clients resolve anger over betrayals, relieve depression and anxiety, and restore peace of mind. Reed and Enright (2006) found the therapeutic effects of forgiveness therapy.  In addition Enright and Fitzgibbons (2014) state that Forgiveness Therapy helps to resolve anger based negative emotions.

Adding up Dante conversed about overcoming anger in the Purgatorio. Dante tells the wrathful soul Marco Lombardo whom he meets, and who is learning to control his anger in conditions of dense and acrid smoke, that he is privileged to see God’s court “in a manner altogether wholly outside modern use” Tambling, J. (1997) Dante knew anger related destructive emotions.

Dante explores the human psyche gracefully. Dante knew human psychological tendencies and Sanity vs. Insanity. He writes……..

Madness it is to hope that human minds

can ever understand the Infinite

that comprehends Three Persons in One Being.


Be satisfied with quia unexplained,

O Human race! If you knew everything,

no need for Mary to have borne a son.”

( Purgatorio – Dante Alighieri)

Virgil leads Dante through Purgatory and to the Garden of Eden. At the Garden of Eden he meets Beatrice- Dante’s ideal woman.  Dante’s love for Beatrice was real. She represented the ideal of beauty and grace.

Beatrice introduces him to Paradiso and Dante rises into the heavens.  The Paradiso consists of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, and the Primum Mobile.  Already in the first canto of the Paradiso Dante expresses his conviction that matter may be unresponsive, deaf” to the divinely instituted forms that orders the world. In the second canto, Dante recalls how on earth we cannot see how things material can share one space” a limitation which prevents us from understanding how we will eventually become one with God (Webb, 2014).

Toward the end of paradiso, Dante experiences a vision of the Empyrean, the highest level in heaven, where among “the great patricians” of the faith, including Sts. Francis and Benedict, sits St. Augustine of Hippo. How fitting it is that Augustine is part of Dante’s final vision since Augustine’s Confessions offers meaningful insight into Dante’s depiction of the redemption of beauty (Enright, 2007).

Into the yellow of the eternal Rose
that slopes and stretches and diffuses fragrance
of praise unto the Sun of endless spring,
now Beatrice drew me as one who, though
he would speak out, is silent.

(Paradiso – Dante Alighieri)

Some critics have considered Divine Comedy as an anti Islam and homophobic sonnet. However Dante and the Divine Comedy have had a profound influence on the production of literature and the practice of literary criticism across the Western world since the moment the Comedy was first read (Lummus, 2011). This anti-establishment comedy ought to be read in its historical context.

Dante argued what is universally human and his Medieval and Renaissance writings are diverse and extensive. He intuitively grasped the philosophical and primary psychological concepts. His enduring work Divine Comedy has been a source of inspiration for generations.


  • Professor Giuseppe Plazzi – University of Bologna
  • Professor Michele A. Riva -University of Milano Bicocca, Monza, Italy
  • Leonardo Ricci Dipartimento di Fisica – Universita’ di Trento


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