We are slowly, surely moving toward the exit. And as we do so, Dante the Poet and Dante the Pilgrim are of one mind: this is serious business and these are profound lessons. One of the most important lessons in this great work is that we are not alone in this journey. This is singularly true for the talented, the intelligent, the political leader and the teacher. This Canto is one of the greatest of the Commedia, inspiring countless readers through the beauty of the poetry, the power of the search for knowledge, the subtlety of the lessons. Even today, school children have memorized the argument used by Ulysses to convince his aged crew to leave home and hearth to travel yet again with him:
118 Considerate la vostra semenza:
118 '"Consider how your souls were sown:
119 fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
119 you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
120 ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.'
120 but to pursue virtue and knowledge."
And so many have assumed that this is a creed to follow: the life of pursuing virtue and knowledge at the expense of all else. Indeed, Ulysses is a figure that still resonates for many, from Tennyson to Eric Clapton and Cream. The adventure of “boldly going where no man has gone before” is behind this Canto and its enduring popularity.
And yet, and yet, it is a cautionary tale. Dante the Poet reminds us and himself that while he himself is a great poet, (and he knows it), he is also aware that this talent carries with it great responsibilities. All of the Florentines he discovered in the different circles of Hell proves to him that greatly gifted individuals can still go wrong. This is true for individuals as well as communities.
19 I grieved then and now I grieve again
20 as my thoughts turn to what I saw,
21 and more than is my way, I curb my powers
22 lest they run on where virtue fail to guide them,
23 so that, if friendly star or something better still
24 has granted me its boon, I don't misuse the gift.
You will find in your notes all the background to this great Canto that you might need to understand the story of Ulysses coming home to wife and son and aged father and, ultimately to the greater community who looked to him for support, guidance and integrity, only to leave them all behind for personal gratification and aggrandizement. This is the original ‘dead-beat-dad’ leaving behind responsibility and duty to go and discover himself yet again.
98 to gain experience of the world
99 and learn about man's vices, and his worth.
100 'And so I set forth upon the open deep…
We see here the anti-Aeneas: Ulysses flees founding of community and culture while Aeneas remains and founds Rome and ultimately, the place of the faith and salvation. It is perhaps not by accident that Dante the Poet has his protagonist yearn to search first for vices and only after that worth of ‘man.’ Ulysses belongs at the heart of this circle of False Counselors for he drags along, with his silver-tongued arguments, men who should, in fact, have stayed with their own kith and kin to create their own history and family and state. Dante the Poet realizes in fact, that he must tread wisely and carefully, for the lessons outlined so beautifully and powerfully could in fact lead many astray, just as Ulysses did with his own aged crew. I am reminded of the scripture from Luke 12:48 “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” And this demand within the context of the full journey from the Mouth of Hell to the Rose of Heaven also will require Dante the Pilgrim to do exactly what Ulysses could not do, follow others as guides and accept a great deal on faith and trust. Ulysses had to go himself, and taking others’ integrity and honor with him, destroying them all for his own self-referent agenda.