Purgatory and Identity Politics

Does Dante really speak to identity politics? Anthony Esolen shares some excellent insights drawn from his long experience with college students on Love, Liberal Education, and the Secret of Human Identity. As one who seriously desires to help my students know their true identity, and to nourish them on beauty—not starve them of it—I found this both an encouragement and a call to persevere.

When I was young, I wanted to know Dante partly because I wanted to know everything, but mainly because I was in love with poetry and wanted to learn the craft from the masters. I was hungry, and it never occurred to me to think that the grandson of coal miners in America could not lay claim to Dante, or Shakespeare, or Caravaggio, or Aristotle, or any artist or thinker or mystical seer, just because they lived long ago, came from another part of the world, spoke a different language, and were nourished in cultures that were so distant from mine. If they wrote in a different language, I might learn that language; if they came from another part of the world, I studied its geography; if other cultures nourished them, I tried to place myself in their midst—tried to walk with Dante along the streets of Florence, that city riven with partisan passions and all too often running with blood. I did not need these works to affirm my identity. I was not even aware I had an identity, other than that I was a certain young man, American by birth, and by the grace of God Roman Catholic and a fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals.

But I have come to see that many of my students now have no such grounding, no such matter-of-course assurance of who and what they are. If the self is nourished by culture, and culture implies deep roots and carefully tended soil, what happens to the self when the topsoil is stripped bare? And stripped bare it has been. Young people have been starved of beauty: the great majority of them do not even recognize the names of the greatest of English poets, of Milton and Wordsworth and Tennyson, let alone know their songs. They have been taught almost nothing of our nearly three-thousand-year-old heritage of art, no classical or sacred music, no folk music, and no popular music older than a generation. Even many of those who regularly attend Mass on Sunday show no deep familiarity with Scripture. For those who do not darken the church doors, the gospels themselves may as well have come from another planet.

Read the entire article at The Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse

Italien Humanists by Giorgio Vassari, 1544

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