By Adam Thompson
In the Commedia, Dante awakens to find himself lost in a dark wood and soon discovers that the only way back to the light requires an arduous pilgrimage through the three realms of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Fortunately for Dante, the ancient Roman poet Virgil — his personal hero and model of human and artistic perfection — is summoned by saintly intercessors to befriend the forlorn poet and guide him on his quest. As the two descend into Hell and later ascend into Purgatory, Virgil schools Dante in the meaning of human freedom, eventually declaring him fit to rule himself as indicated in the quote provided above and the illustration “Virgil’s Farewell” by Salvador Dali.
The image of the teacher (Virgil) crowning and mitering the student (Dante) ruler over himself beautifully illustrates the intertwining secular and religious ends of a liberal arts education— the attainment of authentic human freedom as a habit of being that flows from a boy fulfilling the true potential of his created nature and conforming his will to God’s in loving friendship.