. John Tallmadge | Exploring Nature, Culture, and the Human Journey
Life is our dictionary.  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pilgrim’s Path Workshops on Spiritual Classics

Dante and the Modern Mind

Recently offered at:  Union Institute, Cincinnati OH (5-day seminar/retreat),  Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church,  Cincinnati OH (10-week class)

Convenors:         Joseph Meeker, Ph.D., John Tallmadge, Ph.D.

Some 700 years ago, Dante Alighieri envisioned the cosmos as a whole system and left a comprehensive account called simply the La Commedia (“The Comedy”).  Since then, total views capable of integrating scientific knowledge,  personal experience, psychological understanding, and spiritual insight have been hard to  find in our culture. Like the thirteenth century, ours is a period in search of integrated perspectives linking persons, the Earth, and the cosmos.  To guide our search, we can learn from Dante, the last successful practitioner of the art of cosmic integration.

Dante’s great poem, known in English as the Divine Comedy, describes an epic journey through the three realms of the Christian afterlife.  It provides a model for personal growth that connects the individual not only with his or her own historical moment, but also with world history and the very structure of the universe.  The Comedy is also a study of the many states of the human soul and psyche.  Hell has to do with the ways in which people cause pain and limitations for themselves.  Purgatory is about the therapeutic process of recovery from suffering and the acquisition of broader understanding.  Paradise is Dante’s account of the nature of joy as it grows from a clear vision of the whole and of one’s role within it.  The overall pattern, in Dante’s words, is the growth of the soul “from misery toward felicity.” 

Our seminar will seek to follow that path. We shall consider the meaning of “comedy” as a cosmic phenomenon in Dante’s world and in our own.  We shall explore his notions of evil and his idea of therapy as they relate to our own understanding of addiction.  As Dante’s time looked to theology for a model of the universe, so our time tends to look to science.  We will examine contemporary cosmic stories as presented by such disciplines as quantum physics, evolutionary theory, ecology, systems theory, psychology, and anthropology.  Our purpose will be to consider the ingredients necessary for a modern cosmic story that addresses our own experiences of wholeness and integrity.

After an overview and introduction to Dante’s life and art on the first day, the seminar will devote three complete days to reading the Comedy.  Mornings and afternoons will be spent on interpretation of the poem, and evenings will be spent considering its implications for modern thought.  Learning strategies will include presentations by the convenors, group discussions, and experiential exercises, as well as other activities that may be improvised as the seminar unfolds.  Videotapes on modern cosmic perspectives will be available.  Our interdisciplinary approach will include literature, philosophy, psychology, mythology, and a dash each of contemporary cosmic and ecological sciences. Participants will emerge from the seminar with a good working knowledge of Dante and an introduction to some other exciting new trends in cosmological thinking and storytelling.






  • Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy.  Translated by Allen Mandelbaum.   (Berkeley CA:  University of California Press, 1980).  Paperbound edition from Bantam Books, 3 vols.; hardcover edition from Everyman’s Library, 1 vol.
  • Auerbach, Erich, “Farinata and Cavalcante,” in Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in  Western Literature, tr. Willard Trask.  Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Freccero, John.  Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. ed. Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge MA:       Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Meeker, Joseph.  The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic.  3rd edition.  Tucson AZ:  University of Arizona Press, 1997.
  • Swimme, Brian, and Thomas Berry.  The Universe Story.  San Francisco CA: Harper,       Collins, 1992.
  • Wertheim, Margaret.  The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace:  A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. New York NY:  W.W. Norton, 2000