How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem.
by Rod Dreher.
Regan Arts, 2015.
Hardcover, 300 pages. $30.

This is a book written in a surge of enthusiasm—in both the original and the modern sense of the word—and it has the virtues and defects of most such works. It is full of energy and contains a wealth of genuine insights, but is also rough around the edges, sometimes repetitious, and less rigorous than it might have been had it been allowed to ripen a bit longer.

Dreher begins his book describing his own family dynamic: in particular, his awkward position as the lone intellectual in a clan of down-to-earth country folk in rural Louisiana. They loved sports, while he preferred books. They loved hunting, but the sight of a dying baby squirrel he had shot made Dreher distraught, leading his father to call him a “sissy.”

Dreher emotionally left his family at that time. He gradually removed himself physically as well, first to boarding school, then to LSU, and then to jobs in Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia. When his sister Ruthie was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and then died (events that were the subject of his book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming) he reconnected with his Louisiana roots. He moved his family back home, thinking that they would be embraced into the sort of close-knit, extended family he remembered from his childhood. The shattering of that hope, and Dreher’s subsequent debilitating illness, set the stage for his encounter with Dante.

He picked up the Divine Comedy by chance in a bookstore, and immediately recognized that Dante was describing a mid-life crisis like his own, one of a man “trapped in a thicket of fear and confusion.” Although nota poetry fan, he can only resist buying a copy of the work for a week, after which it becomes a near obsession for him.

Dreher proceeds to dance between sections dealing with his own life (featuring his therapist, his Eastern Orthodox priest, and his family), description and analysis of Dante’s great poem, and little boxes of self-help tips. The latter snippets always seemed fine to me in and of themselves, but I did wonder if they might not have been better woven directly into the other sections, as they tend to break the narrative flow.

The passages on Dante and the passages on Dreher’s life might themselves have seemed disjointed except for the author’s skill at showing how Dante’s mythological poetry contains parallels to Dreher’s quotidian struggles. (The structure is reminiscent of Joyce’s similar effort in Ulysses, which illustrated how events in the everyday lives of his Dublin characters resembled those in Homer’s great epic, but in Dreher the parallels are made far more explicit.)

Dreher divides his book, quite reasonably, into three sections paralleling those of Dante’s work: “Inferno, or, why you are broken,” “Purgatorio, or, how to be healed,” and “Paradiso, or, the way things ought to be.” His major breakthrough seems to come in Hell, when he realizes that, like the Florentine aristocrat Farinata, his family has created idols of their family life and their immediate society. Once he identifies the problem here, he is on his way to recovering a proper relationship to his family and hometown:

Once Dante unmasked this [family worship] within me, I saw that I too had made false idols of family and place. It’s not that loving family and loving place are bad, but that they are only good relative to the ultimate good, which is unity with God. We were all professed Christians, but it sometimes seemed that the family’s real religion was ancestor worship. (p. 125)

In Purgatorio, Dreher offers his analysis of liberation from the prison of sin, including interesting descriptions of his Orthodox religious practice, such as his priest’s assigning him, for the rest of his life, a daily repeating of the very simple Jesus prayer five hundred times, an exercise that takes roughly an hour. He also describes the meditative approach of Eastern Orthodoxy: “The secret is not to engage in direct combat with bad thoughts but rather to keep the mind focused on God and the good.” And in the brief section on Paradiso, he declares that heaven is “not a place but a state of being: to reach God is to be completely absorbed into him, which is theosis.” But theosis is very much an Eastern Orthodox idea: was Dante more Eastern than Catholic, or is Dreher reading his own religious views into the Florentine? The question is not raised in this book, although it might have been beneficial if it had been.

Dreher’s book offers both much sound spiritual advice and a good introduction to the Divine Comedy. But as noted, the book might have improved with some aging. For instance, Dreher claims: “To be a heretic in Dante’s era was to disbelieve in Catholic orthodoxy. Today, a broader, more secular definition is to believe that partial are whole truths.” This passage is strange: firstly, Dreher’s definition of heresy in Dante’s time is off for several reasons—for instance, a Jew or Muslim who disbelieved in Catholic orthodoxy was not a heretic, nor was a Christian who was simply misinformed. But those are minor points compared to the fact that his secular definition just doesn’t seem that close to a modern equivalent of the medieval one: certainly, to believe that a partial truth is the whole truth is an error, but not every error is a heresy, and not every heresy involves mistaking partial truths for whole truths.

Dante was a Christian, and so is Dreher. As the latter writes, “For Christians like Dante … and me, that higher power has a name,Jesus Christ … and no one can reach unity with God … except through him.” But if this is what Dreher believes, then why bother with the periodic nods in the book towards Taoism (alone mentioned among non-Christian religions) and modern psychological findings?

Consider the following passage from the Bhagavad Gita, to which Keshav Srinivasan brought to my attention in connection with this review: “Of that Brahman which is immortal, imperishable, and eternal, and which is the foundation of the only true happiness in the world, I [God] am the source.” This seems to capture the essence of what Dreher discovers about happiness in his Dante odyssey. If, in fact, it does, then how did the Hindu author of this book know this centuries before Christ’s birth, if the only way to know it is through Christ? Or perhaps the passage misses something important in Dante and Christianity, but if so, Dreher never tells us what that something is. My point here is not to argue the relative merits of the propositions “there are many paths to God” versus “Christianity is a unique revelation,” but to note that Dreher often seems to waver indecisively between delivering a specifically Christian or a more broadly spiritual message.

He also claims that Dante’s language is “straightforward” and that “no English translation … can match the Italian,” but given that he has only read Dante in translation, how does he know those things? In other cases, the “facts” presented are just plain wrong—the sack of Constantinople, which occurred in 1204, certainly was not “laying the groundwork” for the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, which occurred 150 years earlier. And surely some irrelevancies could have been trimmed out: do we readers really care that the chicken “in red wine vinegar sauce” that Dreher cooked for his wife and their friends was “prepared from a recipe in a French cookbook”?

But these complaints are just nitpicks: Dreher seems to have gained genuine spiritual insights from his reading of Dante, and this reviewer is reluctant to chastise him for trying to convey those insights to others as swiftly as possible. Certainly the problems I mention should not discourage anyone from picking up this very engaging and enlightening book, which isalmost certain to repay the time one spends reading it.  

Gene Callahan is a Lecturer in Computer Science and Economics at St. Joseph’s College and a Research Fellow at the Collingwood and British Idealism Centre at Cardiff University, Wales. He is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America.