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Reflections on Dante’s “Purgatory”

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.

I am voyaging into Purgatory with two of the finest groups of students I have ever known. Several questions drive us forward. What can be done with the two eagles? How can church and state exist together? How can we see the things as the really are? For Dante, fundamentally the answer must be love. But that is trite, almost no answer. Yet. Yet. A simple word like love sends us questing in one direction. How different our journey if we believed that the fundamental answers were found in fear! The harmony of church and state will come in love: love of mother church and the fatherland. This is so old fashioned, but it still resonates. Men are meant to live in families. Perhaps the image of the mother and father is best.But the East, Byzantium, has but one eagle. One eagle with two heads. Is this solution better? It did not seem so to Dante, who had learned to despise the East. Florence had not know the Empire at her best. However, a two headed eagle seems a monster to me. The image of a family seems better than one body with two heads.On the other hand, no Holy Roman Emporer was ever half the legend as the eternal Constantine Palaiologos defending the great city, the last Christian against the Turkish hordes. No Western Kaiser died with his family nearly so well as the last Orthodox tsar, Nicholas II. Does the Western image produce better cities, but less noble men and rulers? These are hard questions for which Dante is the best guide. We shall have to wait until Paradise (hopefully the book and not the place itself) for the answers.

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