Dante and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition on Faith and Reason

The topic of the relatedness between reason and faith is important. As people leave the faith in high numbers, one of the reasons given is that faith and reason — more specifically, scientific reason — are viewed as incompatible. The Catholic faith, in other words, is viewed as irrational and anti-science.

This is certainly a pastoral concern for priests, teachers, and catechists. Before this issue can be addressed on a practical level, it is essential that Church leaders have a firm grasp of what the Catholic intellectual tradition says. Many of our own people believe that their faith is incompatible with reason, but this does not need to be the case. To help in this regard, I will describe what the Catholic intellectual tradition teaches and draw from the imaginative illustration provided by Dante, the Catholic Church’s greatest poet.

Dante on Reason and Faith

Dante presents a Thomistic view of the relatedness between reason and faith through Virgil and Beatrice, his two guides in the Divine Comedy. As a symbol of reason and classical wisdom, the Roman poet Virgil guides Dante in the Inferno and Purgatorio. The Roman poet leads Dante down into Hell and up the Mountain of Purgatory — to the highest point that unaided natural reason can reach. Then, as a symbol of faith, Beatrice guides Dante in the Paradiso. Beatrice is not only the woman Dante loved in real life, but also a symbol of Christian revelation. Dante ascends with Beatrice through the heavens, and at the end of the Paradiso he sees God in the Beatific Vision. The work of Virgil and that of Beatrice are not at odds with each other. Instead, they are complementary in Dante’s journey to God.

In other words, one of the most significant takeaways that a reader of the Divine Comedy may have is the profoundly Thomistic view on the relatedness between reason and faith put forward by the poet. In the pages of the Divine Comedy, Virgil represents the importance of reason in leading Dante to God. At the same time, furthermore, he represents the limitations of reason in pursuing such an endeavor alone. Virgil, as a symbol of reason, can lead Dante to higher truths, but he is unable without assistance to lead Dante to the highest truths. This is the unique work of Beatrice, a symbol of revelation.

Virgil recognizes the need for Beatrice, or revelation, toward which he has been leading Dante. Virgil says this outright when he tells Dante that “I can explain to you/ as much as reason sees; for the rest, wait/ for Beatrice — it is the work for faith.”1 This in no way undervalues the profound importance of reason in the life of Dante the Christian. The poet indeed has at least as deep a respect for philosophical reasoning as did Thomas Aquinas. In fact, the importance of reason in leading Dante to God is expressed in Canto 22 of the Purgatorio. Referencing Virgil, Dante writes:

It was you who directed me

to drink Parnassus’ waters — it was you

whose radiance revealed the way to God.

 

You were the lonely traveler in the dark

who holds his lamp behind him, shedding light

not for himself but to make others wise.2

That Dante conveys a Thomistic view on the relatedness between reason and faith is also a point made by the late Ralph McInerny. In particular, McInerny notes that Virgil serves as a preparation for Beatrice in the same way that classical philosophy served as a preparation for Christianity. Classical philosophy was, in the timeless words of the Church Fathers, a preparatio evangelica, “performing a role analogous to that of the Old Law preparing the way for the New.”3 In a similar way, Virgil prepares the way for Dante’s reception of Christian revelation. It is no surprise that Dante admiringly writes of Virgil that “through you I was a poet, through you, a Christian.”4

Unlike in the modern world, where reason and faith are assumed to be bitter rivals, the medieval world from which Dante came did not make this assumption. The medievals knew that just as grace perfects nature, faith also perfects reason. However, at the same time, faith does not destroy the reason that it perfects. Reflecting this Thomistic view, the work of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy perfects the work of Virgil. The two guides are not rivaling, but instead they are harmonious co-workers in leading Dante to God. Bainard Cowan puts it concisely when he writes, “Virgil functions as reason leading to revelation and the idea of nature being completed but not abolished by grace.”5 Reason is not rejected in the transition from Virgil to Beatrice, but is instead perfected and brought to fulfillment.

Dante and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

Dante gives an imaginative illustration of what the Catholic intellectual tradition has long said on the relatedness between reason and faith. From the time of St. Augustine in the fourth century to St. Anselm in the twelfth century, the harmony between reason and faith was being developed. Yet it was St. Thomas Aquinas, the renowned student of Abelard, who holds a privileged place in this development, since he more than anyone else explained how the two are harmonious.

In particular, St. Thomas Aquinas describes two categories of truths of faith, the preambles and mysteries, which Dante acknowledges in Virgil and Beatrice. The first category are the preambles of faith, the truths of faith revealed by God and knowable by the natural light of human reason. For example, it was shown by the pagan philosophers that God is pure actuality, the condition for the possibility of change in the world. When God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, “I am who am,” He revealed a preamble knowable by unaided human reason, that God is ipsum esse subsistens, the sheer act of “to be” itself.6

The second category is the mysteries of faith — the truths of faith revealed by God that cannot be known by reason alone. For instance, we cannot know by unaided reason that God is one in three persons. Although human reason can arrive at certain truths of faith, such as that God exists, there are certain truths that are knowable only by faith.

Through Virgil and Beatrice, Dante’s poem distinguishes between the preambles and mysteries of faith. On top of that, he also distinguishes between the preambles and mysteries of faith in Canto 24 of the Paradiso when examined by St. Peter. Dante says the following when St. Peter tests him on the nature of faith:

I tell you: I believe in one, sole God

eternal Who, unmoved, moves all the heavens

that spin in His love and in His desire;

 

and of such faith as mine I have the proofs

not only of physics and metaphysics,

but of that truth which rains down from this realm

 

through Moses, through the Prophets, through the Psalms,

and through the Gospel and through you who wrote

once kindled by the Holy Spirit’s tongue;

 

and I believe in three eternal Beings,

an Essence that is One as well as Three

where is and are describe it equally.7

Citing these lines, Ralph McInerny infers that the poet Dante understood God to be the Prime Mover, a belief which the Catholic, Thomistic intellectual tradition holds can be supported by philosophical proofs. It is likely that Dante is here referring to the “five proofs” for God’s existence put forward by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica.8 Yet for Dante, like Aquinas, God is more than a Prime Mover. Again, citing these lines, McInerny infers that Dante also believes in the mysteries of faith — those truths of the faith which cannot be demonstrated by reason alone. In particular, Dante here states that he believes in a Trinity of three co-equal and co-eternal Persons. God is both One in essence as well as Three Persons.9 Such a view does not contradict what we know about God by unaided reason, but it does certainly transcend it.

Dante’s Divine Comedy reflects what the Catholic intellectual tradition has long held: that a conflict between reason and faith, between Virgil and Beatrice, is impossible. As a created faculty, human reason is oriented toward the truth and is able to arrive at a certain knowledge of objective reality, the source of which is God, the Truth Itself. A conflict between reason and faith, according to this view, is impossible because it would imply a contradiction within God himself. If a truth of reason and a truth of faith contradict — that is, if what we know by reason and what we know by faith cannot be reconciled — then this implies a conflict with God himself, who is the source of all truth.

The transition from unaided reason to faith is therefore not an irrational one. To ascent to faith does not mean, in other words, that a Catholic must put his or her reason aside. The act of faith is instead supra-rational, inviting reason to ponder truths beyond its full comprehension. The act of faith, then, is not at all unreasonable or without evidence. It is instead a logical ascent to the truths that God himself has revealed but which rational demonstration can only partly achieve. As Richard Grigg writes in The Sacred Heart University Review, explaining what the Catholic intellectual tradition maintains about the reasonableness of faith:

According to the classic Catholic position articulated by Vatican I, Christian faith ought not be conceived as a blind leap. Rather, reason provides the basis for the act of faith. After all, there are many possible objects of faith. How do I know in which to put my trust? Through reason, is the Thomistic, Catholic answer. Once reason has provided the avenue to faith, faith will provide access to truths inaccessible to reason by itself. But faith can never be divorced from reason or, even less, played off against it. For reason, when properly employed, can never contradict what God makes evident to faith.10

To be sure, the synthesis between reason and faith was challenged in the fourteenth century after the rise of nominalism. It was then especially contested from the seventeenth century onward, especially in the secularism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, Catholic thinkers have insisted, despite challenges, that reason and faith are harmonious. The mutual harmony between reason and faith was affirmed in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, again by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, and again at the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic intellectual tradition holds that faith is neither a blind “leap” nor an irrational jump in the darkness. Kierkegaard’s presentation of “blind faith” might have an appeal to some, but it does not find a place within the mainstream of Catholic thought.

Even in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the Church still maintains that reason and faith are harmonious. Released on September 14, 1998, the relationship between reason and faith was the main theme of John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” opens the encyclical, “and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”11 The theme of reason and faith was also important during Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Regensburg Lecture, delivered on September 12, 2006, was intended to be a discussion on the relationship between reason and faith. The proper relationship between the two, says Pope Benedict XVI, is the Logos, which means both word and reason.12

Ultimately, Dante suggests in the Divine Comedy that a unity of reason and faith is needed for man to journey to the highest truths. Virgil is not enough, suggests Dante, yet he is necessary for us to get to Beatrice. Reason can only get us so far, but at the same time, faith alone is blind and incomplete without reason. It is only the harmony between reason and faith that, in the words of John Paul II, raises man to “contemplation of truth.” Indeed, the Catholic intellectual tradition maintains that faith does not involve ignoring reason but instead letting reason go to its absolute limits, just as Virgil went to his limits at the top of Purgatory. That way, armed with a reasonable faith, we can ascend through the heavens.

Conclusion

This article does not attempt to provide practical considerations for teaching the compatibility of reason and faith. I will leave this to others who have more pastoral and teaching experience than myself. Of course, this issue has important practical consequences in the life of the Church — in Catholic education, catechesis, homilies, and engagement with the culture. As such, it needs to be dealt with on a concrete and sometimes case-by-case basis. But it is good to remember that practice flows from theory. Therefore, perhaps it would do us good to continue considering what the Catholic and Thomistic intellectual tradition teaches on the compatibility between reason and faith. If we can convey this through our parish catechesis and Catholic education, then good practice can follow.

  1. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio, trans. Mark Musa (repr: New York: Penguin Books, 1971), XVIII 46–48.
  2. Dante, Purgatorio, XXII 64–69.
  3. Ralph McInerny, Characters in Search of Their Author: The Gifford Lectures Glasgow 1999–2000 (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 57–58.
  4. Dante, Purgatorio, XXII 73.
  5. Bainard Cowan, “Reason and Revelation in Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Ramify (5.2) 2016, 86.
  6. For more, see Summa Theologica, Q. 8. Article 1. For a lengthier discussion on Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between the mysteries and preambles of faith, see Ralph McInerny, Characters in Search of Their Author, 111–114. Also see Ralph McInerny, Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 3–38.
  7. Dante, Paradiso XXIV 130–141.
  8. Ralph McInerny, Dante and the Blessed Virgin Mary (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 112.
  9. McInerny, Dante and the Blessed Virgin Mary, 112–113.
  10. Richard Grigg, “What is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition?” Sacred Heart University Review 13, no. 1 (Fall 1992/Spring 1993): 38.
  11. John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio.” The Holy See, 14 Sept. 1998. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html.
  12. Benedict XVI, “General Audience on Wednesday November 21, 2012.”  http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20121121.html.
Darrell Falconburg About Darrell Falconburg

Mr. Darrell Falconburg teaches the integrated humanities for the Chesterton Academy of St. John Paul II, a classical Catholic high school for Northern Colorado. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Humanities from the Great Books Honors College at Faulkner University. He received an M.A. in Philosophy from Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary and a B.A. in History from the College of Idaho.

Comments

  1. Avatar Fr. Jason Signalness says:

    I’m currently reading the Divine Comedy with two of my parishioners. It’s a challenging but rewarding read. I’ve been constantly commenting on Dante’s repeated expression of the importance of both faith and reason, of their cooperation in the pursuit of the highest Truth. Just last night we were discussing Peter’s interrogation of Dante in the Paradise, and this morning I received this article from HPR in my inbox quoting the exact passages we discussed. I enjoyed the commentary. Thank you!

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