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I first listened to these lectures when my wife and I were pursuing our conversion to Catholicism. 14 years later I have a much better understanding of what it means to be Catholic. While much of that understanding was acquired through reading, most of it has been gained by simply living day to day in the Faith. For that reason Dante’s poem has far more to say to me now than it did way back when. And these lectures on that poem, which blew me away with the scope of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the Catholic Imagination as exemplified by Dante Alighieri, still blow me away today.
Professor Shutt is a modern academic. As such, he shuns the topics you’d expect a modern academic to shun, gliding lightly, for example, over the fact that Dante puts Mohammed in Hell, among the disseminators of discord. But Shutt wins high marks from this listener for not using a detail like that as many of his fellow academics would—as a brickbat to cudgel Dante, his poem, the Middle Ages, Catholicism and the entire enterprise of Western Civilization. As in his lectures on Medieval Literature, Shutt strives to understand and explain the work he’s dealing with on its own terms. He understands that the Middle Ages aren’t inferior because they failed to grasp the truths we take for granted now. And at times he even goes farther, suggesting (deftly) that perhaps we’d be better off if we embraced a few of the truths our ancestors took for granted.
While the Comedy, along with Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, is perhaps the greatest single written expression of Catholicism this side of Scripture, Shutt takes pains to point out that that, Catholic or not, Christian or not, even religious or not, the Divine Comedy has important things to say to you. True, his surprise that medieval confession manuals for priests contained some deep psychological insights was, for me, more than a little surprising (what does the good professor think confession is all about?) But far more often Shutt is dismantling popular misconceptions and making the case for Dante, his times and his poem.
For instance, while acknowledging that the Inferno is the most famous of the three parts of the Comedy, Shutt points out that the other two thirds of the work deal with Purgatory and Paradise—with redemption, not damnation—and that overall the poem is far more positive about the human situation than many of us suppose. And no wonder; Dante was writing in the immediate aftermath of the birth of Thomistic philosophy. It’s the sort of insight at which Professor Shutt excels, at once illuminating the poem and its cultural context and uprooting any faulty assumptions you or I may have been harboring.
Finally, there is Professor Shutt’s infectious enthusiasm. His palpable gladness at bringing out a truth or insight, his delight in the beauty of which language and thought are capable. I’ve said it before and I say it again, he’s the kind of professor I wish my kids could have—and I wish I had had.
I really enjoy the Modern Scholar series, and Dr Shutt's lectures (this and other topics) are educational and liberally sprinkled with wit. Dante's Divine Comedy comes to life as Shutt reaches into the minds of Dante and his contemporaries, tells us the story and some of what was going on at the time. Very enjoyable.