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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Purg. 9-18)

Now that we have reached the middle of the Purgatorio and, therefore, the middle of the Commedia as a whole, I can't help but marvel again at how miraculous this poem is. It would be one thing to spin the story Dante spins, another to blend theology and philosophy and political history with narrative the way he does, yet another to mix without confusion and without syncretism the sacred and profane, the Christian and the pagan, as he mixes them, and still yet another to maintain a rhyme scheme and structure of the poem. Yet he does all this at the same time. I fear, of course, that I'm simply enthusing here, but I can't help but think such enthusiasm is the only proper response. And I also fear that Dante would only appreciate my enthusiasm if it led to repentance and prayer, to rightly ordered loves. As I read these last few days, I couldn't help thinking: only Dante can make James Joyce look sloppy.

Dante reminds us that order is necessary for delight. The more we recognize how deeply ordered the Commedia is, the more we enjoy it. I can't help but think that Robert Hollander has not wasted a minute of his scholarly life by working on Dante the way he has. Hollander makes explicit what Dante leaves implicit. The scholar uncovers the poet's order. I want to explore that order a bit here because reading the Purgatorio right after reading the Inferno has helped me notice things I hadn't noticed before. Most importantly, I've come to realize that the order of the Commedia has a moral as well as an aesthetic goal.

For starters, let's stick with the punishments that the shades suffer in Purgatory. As Dante and Virgil climb the mountain, the sins the penitents committed become increasingly less severe. Thus pride is worse than envy, which is worse than wrath, which is worse than sloth. The punishments are less severe as well. The proud, who in their earthly lives held their heads high and never deigned to look down to the level of others, must spend the time until the Day of Judgment with their books stooped looking down. The envious, who constantly gazed on others and wished bad for them, must await the Day of Judgment with their eyes sown shut. The wrathful, whose anger separated themselves from others, must pray unceasingly in community. And my favorite is the slothful who, because of their laziness in life, continually run on their level of the mountain! The point of all of these, of course, is to correct the behavior of the penitents. The shades in Hell continue in their sins because they did not accept God's love. The shades in Purgatory repent from their sins because they did accept God's love.

Dante too has changed. As when he was in Hell, Dante ever so slightly undergoes the punishments that the shades in Purgatory suffer. For example, he must bend over to talk to the proud. He promises to join his prayer with the prayers for the wrathful. Dante's literal sympathy with the shades in Hell and Purgatory underscore, I think, the idea that he is less interested in keeping score with his political friends and enemies than he is with learning from them so that he can transform himself. And he seems to be just as worried about us, his readers.

His concern for his readers shows itself in part in the Scholastic discussions of love in Cantos 17 and 18. Hollander notes that these discussions come at the numerical center of the entire Commedia, which clearly wasn't an accident. Virgil tells Dante, "Neither Creator nor His creature, my dear son, / was ever without love, whether naturalor of the mind, he began and this you know. / The natural is always without error, / but the other may err in its chosen goal / or through excessive or deficient vigor. / But when it bends to evil, or pursues the good / With more or less concern than needed, / Then the creature works again his Maker" (Purg. 17:91-102). Human beings don't choose whether or not they love, but they do choose what and how they love. We are at fault when we love with excessive or deficient vigor as well as when we err in what we love. Yet Virgil also notes, "The mind, disposed to love at its creation, / is readily moved toward anything that pleases / as soon as by that pleasure it is roused to act" (Purg. 18:19-21). Given that all human beings love, and given that the mind is readily moved toward anything that pleases it, the pressing issue for Dante is to offer a poem that directs his readers pleasures. And such direction can only occur as any athlete or musician or monk can tell you through an intense, structured training.

In other words, the miraculous order of Dante's poem aims to help his readers see what is worth choosing. (In this way, Dante's aims are the aims of all education worth the name.) There are countless precedents for such structure in the ancient world and in the history of Christian theology. One only need think of Bonaventure's Itinerarium or Thomas's two Summae. Thus, Dante passes along a venerable tradition in the Commedia, but in his hands the tradition takes a supremely beautiful form. The moral end of the form only heightens the aesthetic beauty. Today we separate the moral from the aesthetic. Dante would not have done that. I think Dante has convinced me we're wrong.

Helen asked in a comment on a previous post if there are any records of people changing their lives because of reading the Commedia. If there aren't (and I'm certain there are), it wasn't for a lack of trying on Dante's part. He, like Virgil and like Beatrice, can only offer instruction as lovely and lovingly as possible. 

[For part one of our discussion of the Purgatorio see here, with links to discussion of the Inferno.]  

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The more I read the Divine Comedy, especially this Purgatory section, the more astounded I am at the amount of knowledge that Dante has about ancient mythological characters, Church liturgy, scripture, and theology, as well as contemporary political intrigues and persons. Although he was exceptionally literate, I would assume that with the scarcity of books during his time that he held all this knowledge in his head. Hes a Medieval Wikipedia!When Dante arrives at St. Peters Gate in Canto IX an angel with two keys from St. Peter opens the gate. Dante says that the angel was told by St. Peter to err on the side of leniency. A consoling and understandable comment coming from the first pope who denied Christ three times and repented.The sin in each level of Purgatory is paired with an opposing virtue that must be developed. The objective in Purgatory is not only to be purged of the sin but also to become aware of and skilled in a virtue, e.g., humility and gentleness as opposed to pride and wrath. I find it interesting that the virtue to be cultivated in opposition to envy is not contentedness, which is what I would have thought. Rather the virtue is generosity of spirit toward others. In addition to being an awesome poet, Dante shows himself to be an excellent teacher when he uses positive pedagogy by integrating an appropriate Beatitude into each of the levels. Indeed, he tells us that how blessed it is to be on the path to holiness.In Canto XVI Mark the Lombard excoriates the papacy for usurping the functions of the emperor and thus becoming corrupted by the dual office. Is Dante promoting separation of Church and State in the Middle Ages?

You're right, Helen. Dante did not believe the Pope should wield temporal power. He was not alone in the 14th Century in thinking so, and there was a long line of political and ecclesial thinking that agreed with him.

Last week I read an article on Paradise Regained (by an eminent Miltonist, who I'm sure knows his Dante) that declared that Milton is literature's best poet-theologian. At the time I laughed, but I've been thinking about that statement as I caught up with our reading in the Purgatorio. I do think Milton is a more *original* theologian than Dante, probably because he so freely dismisses everything that doesn't make sense to him or that doesn't align extremely closely with his reading of the Bible. But Dante's patient explications and exemplaria are equally as impressive--and I have to admit that I find the theology in Dante's poetry more useful and more moving. Maybe that's because he's working within my own faith tradition, or maybe it's a function of his particular narrative project (unlike Milton, he doesn't make God a character, so he avoids some of those pitfalls), but Dante's treatment of free will and the problem of evil, in Canto 16 and elsewhere, though essentially the same as Milton's, is just so much warmer. There's an emphasis on divine love, and the human desire for God and to know the good, that's ultimately more true to my understanding both of human nature (e.g., not purely rational!) and of humankind's relationship to God than Milton's version. Really, in so many ways, Purgatorio answers many of the things that I found troubling about the Inferno--both theologically and artistically.I also continue to be interested in the changing relationship between Dante and Virgil. While the Purgatorio is certainly a much more joyful poem than the Inferno, their relationship, or Virgil's stature and status, is at least a partial exception.

Flavia, you certainly know Milton _much_, _much_ better than I do, but I think you've hit on an important theological issue in your comment. Today we tend to think (especially if we're academics!) that originality ought to be praised. Indeed, no one writes an article or a monograph unless that person has something original to say. I think Dante would argue strenuously that nothing in the Commedia was theologically novel. Now his presentation is novel, and it's clear that he thinks he's as good a poet as the greats who came before him. (I think it's clear that he thinks he's _better_ than the ones who came before him, especially Virgil, but that's a debatable point.)I wonder if in Milton it's actually the opposite. For Milton, Shakespeare is the great one. And Paradise Lost is, in one way, Milton's way of avoiding Shakespeare by focusing on the Bible. But Milton is much less afraid of being theologically novel.There's a monograph here somewhere. Perhaps even -- dare I say it -- an original one. But I'm sure it's already been written.

Scott, I think you're right about the premium we place on originality--and this actually intersects with some of what you had to say in your original post, about Dante's artistry. Maybe the toughest thing to explain to students of earlier literature is that originality, for its own sake, just wasn't anything the culture valued (indeed, to call something an "innovation" was to condemn it rather strongly!). This isn't to say that new works and approaches weren't celebrated or commended, but they had to be framed as a continuation, or perfection, or rediscovery, of the old.In this, actually, Milton was in much the same position (or much the same bind) as Dante: he absolutely believed that everything he believed was what Jesus taught, what the early Church practiced, and what God intended--and whenever he does something bold and new (artistically or politically), he claims it's actually a recovery of something done by the Greeks and/or the ancient Israelites. The difference is that--although he too is ferociously learned and deeply versed in all the writings of the ancients--he has no interest in tradition for tradition's sake, and the idea of submitting his reason to any person or any institution is totally repugnant to him.As you say, we probably have an easier time relating to that kind of rational individualism than to one of thoughtful, educated, reasoned submission to an existing theological or ecclesiastical model. But what I'm loving about Dante is the way he illustrates both how pleasurable it is not to fully know or understand certain mysteries--and how much scope there is for exploration and creativity even within the theological system he inherits.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.