Thomas Berry and Dante's Divine Comedy

Thomas Berry and Dante's Divine Comedy

The Journey and the Vision

A Four-Part Series

Led by Andrew Levitt

Dates to be announced.

If you are interested in Thomas Berry and Dante's Divine Comedy,

please contact Center Director, Peggy Whalen-Levitt at

“We are returning to our native place after a long absence, meeting once again with our kin in the earth community...

“The world of life, of spontaneity, the world of dawn and sunset and glittering stars in the dark night heavens, the world of wind and rain, of meadow flowers and flowing streams, of hickory and oak and maple and spruce and pineland forests, the world of desert sand and prairie grasses, and within all this the eagle and the hawk, the mockingbird and the chickadee, the deer and the wolf and the bear, the coyote, the raccoon, the whale and the seal, and the salmon returning upstream to spawn – all this, the wilderness world recently rediscovered with heightened emotional sensitivity, is an experience not far from that of Dante meeting Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she descends amid a cloud of blossoms. It was a long wait for Dante, so aware of his infidelities, yet struck anew and inwardly ‘pierced,’ as when, hardly out of childhood, he had first seen Beatrice. The ‘ancient flame’ was lit again in the depths of his being. In that meeting, Dante is describing not only a personal experience, but the experience of an entire community at the moment of reconciliation with the divine after the long period of alienation and human wandering away from the true center.”

~Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth

Those who knew him well say that Thomas Berry frequently carried a copy of the Divine Comedy with him. For twenty years, he led a study group on Dante. And one student who studied with him in Assisi reports that he agreed to teach in the summer on the condition that he could teach Dante in the morning and ecology and cosmology in the afternoon.

As the above words from the opening of the first chapter of The Dream of the Earth suggest, Thomas Berry could refer to Dante's Divine Comedy for inspiration in a way similar to the way he said he would return to the image of the meadow across the creek. Yet one would seek in vain for a correspondence between Dante's cosmic perspective and the vision of the new story. As a cultural historian with a sense of the difference between Dante's time and our own, Berry recognized that we can no longer experience the relation between the human and the cosmos as Dante did.

Then why did he carry a copy of the Divine Comedy in his jacket and encourage his students in Assisi to engage Dante's work before they encountered his own? He would, of course, have known that Dante recommended his poem to his patron for its allegorical or mystical meanings as well as for its literal meaning and pleasures. He may, therefore, have been following Dante's example in recommending the Divine Comedy to his own students. But it seems likely that he would have also hoped that as students engaged Dante's work, they would begin to discern intimations of meaning in the grand vision of a unified cosmos and dream again the dream of the earth. In these sessions we will share in dialogue with Dante, Berry and each other to begin to understand how the journey of Dante's pilgrim can prepare us to engage the vision of grandeur in The New Story. And we will begin to see how Dante's work complements and completes Berry's vision.

Recommended Texts:

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi. New York, Signet Classic, 2001.

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1988.

Levitt, Andrew. All the Scattered Leaves of the Universe: Journey and Vision in Dante's Divine Comedy and the Work of Thomas Berry. The Center for Education, Imagination and the Natural World, 2015. (to purchase click here)

Suggested Readings:

Part 1: The Dream of the Earth, Chapters 1 & 5 and Inferno, Cantos I–V

Part 2: Inferno, Cantos VI–XXXIV

Part 3: Purgatorio, Cantos I–XXXIII

Part 4: Paradiso, Cantos I-XXXIII

Andrew Levitt holds a BA in English from Yale University and a PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. He trained as a mime with Marcel Marceau and with Paul J. Curtis at The American Mime Theatre. In his career life, he has worked with silence and words. He performed and taught mime professionally for over thirty years. He then helped found the high school at the Emerson Waldorf School in Chapel Hill, NC where he taught Humanities and directed theater for seven years. As Dr. Merryandrew, he currently works as a clown doctor in the Pediatric unit at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital.

Gustave Dore's illustration of the Empyrean

Paradiso, XXXI, 1, 2