Catholic Thought discussion

The Divine Comedy > Purgatorio, Cantos XII thru XVII

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod

Canto XII
The pilgrims continue onward in the terrace of pride and Virgil now points out engravings in the ground as if they are walking on a series of flat tombstones. Unlike the wall reliefs at the beginning of the terrace that showed positive examples of humility, these engravings show negative examples of pride. Remember that the penitents with the huge boulders on their necks are forced to bend down with their faces up against these images. I’m sure your notes will identify each of the images, but it’s significant that Dante begins with the image of Lucifer falling from the sky, the original act of pride in the universe. Also in this section of the canto (l. 25-63) each tercet starts with a specific letter, so that an acrostic is built, spelling “UOM” (the “v” having the flexibility of “u”), which is “man” in Italian. Here Dante suggests that pride is the elemental sin within humanity, a striving to exceed God. Upon exiting the terrace, an angel calls Dante forward, and the poet approaches in humility. The angel brushes his wing across Dante’s forehead, wiping off one of the engraved Ps. With one less P, Dante feels lighter as he continues upward.

Canto XIII
The pilgrims arrive on the second terrace, that of envy. There are no images here but Dante hears voices chanting. The first are the words of the Blessed Mother at the wedding of Cana, “They have no wine.” The second says, “I am Orestes.” The third, from the Beatitudes, “Love him who has done you wrong.” We see then why there are no images but audio voices, almost as if through speakers if Dante could have imagine them, because the penitents of envy have their eyes sewn shut. They walk around huddled together, helping each other, dependent on each other, as the blind need others for assistance. Dante is taken back from the pity they instill. They hear his voice and he speaks to a woman named Sapia, ironically meaning wisdom, which she says she had not. She tells Dante how she in vengeance took great joy in watching her neighbors, some of which were her relations, at being slaughtered in a battle. She was only saved because toward the end of her life she felt compunction and then a holy man prayed for her soul. She begs Dante to restore her name with her kin when he goes back.

Canto XIV
Two unidentified penitents overhear Dante and are amazed that he is alive in full flesh. They ask him who he is and where he is from. Dante answers circuitously by stating he comes from a place in Tuscany by a river. They wonder why he doesn’t mention the river’s name and one says it is only fitting that he doesn’t since every city along the river is a place of swine and beasts. One man identifies himself as Guido del Duca, a political Ghibelline, and he identifies his companion as Rinieri de Calboli, a political Guelph, opponents in life but here aiding each other. Guido goes on to rant about the political figures and families in Tuscany, both Ghibelline and Guelph and their infighting and concludes with some positive examples. As they depart, more audio voices are heard, this time of negative examples of envy. We hear Cain’s words, Cain who was jealous of his brother Abel, and that of the mythological woman Agalauros, who was jealous of her sister’s affair with Mercury.

Canto XV
The pilgrims continue to walk up the mountain with the afternoon sun shining in their eyes when a more intense light moves toward them, an angel coming toward them. The angel invites them to enter the next stairway, this one less steep, and as they continue they hear another Beatitude sung (“Blessed are the merciful”) and another hymn. As they walk, Dante asks Virgil what the soul from the last canto meant about things that cannot be shared. And so, a discussion on the nature of envy ensues. Canto XV is the first of four cantos—right at the heart of Purgatorio, making it therefore at the center of the entire Divine Comedy—that formulates the theological vision of work. Here Virgil explains that man focuses on temporal things that are finite, and so sharing makes each portion less, and so envy is the result from lack. But if man would focus on infinite things—such as love or charity—then the more one shares, the more they increase. Virgil reveals that a second “P” has been removed from Dante’s forehead. As they continue, three scenes flash before them like movie snippets. The first of Mary speaking to Jesus after finding him at the temple; the second of the ancient Athenian Pisistratus, who forgave a young man for grasping his daughter; and the stoning of St. Stephan who forgave his killers. The pilgrims enter a thick smoke, the terrace of the wrathful.

Canto XVI
The smoky air is darker than any night that Dante has experienced. He walks as a blind man holding on to Virgil as a guide. They can hear penitent souls chanting the Agnus Dei and other hymns. A soul hears them and they can hear the soul, but they cannot see each other. Dante asks for directions and the soul says he will go with him as far as he is allowed. His name is Marco, the Lombard, and Dante asks him why the world is filled with evil that seems to be divinely fixed. Marco explains the “world is blind” when it attributes the cause of evil to the divine. Man, he explains, is given free will and from that freedom evil is chosen causing the world to go askew. Then, because men choose evil, laws and morals need to be established, and two institutions need to work in harmony to create a better world. One is the secular state to uphold earthly justice and the other the Papacy to show man the way to salvation. It is the failure of the Papacy and secular governments to rule properly in their spheres that makes the world so degenerated. Marco mentions several leaders who had the ability to bring the church/state functions into balance, especially “the good Gherardo,” who Dante does not know.

Canto XVII
The pilgrims start coming out of the fog and see that it is evening. Images of negative examples of anger are seen. They see Procne murdering her son, Haman’s anger at Mordecai from the Old Testament Book of Esther, and Amata upon Lavinia’s betrothal to Aeneas. The images are dissolved by a great flash of light, the angel again striking his face and directing the pilgrims up the stairs. They have reached the terrace of sloth and quite intentionally planned, Dante the pilgrim is overcome with great fatigue. They rest here while Virgil explains the nature of love and how it emanating from God configures the whole universe. Man is proper when he loves God and other things in proper measure. Human sin, then he explains, is an error of love in three categorical ways. The first is an error to love the proper things, either love of self (pride), love of other’s possessions (envy), or love of vengeance (wrath). These are healed in the three terraces below them that they have just passed. The second is not loving with enough zeal, sloth, the terrace they are about to enter. The third is excessive love of proper things taken out of measure, for instance earthly possessions (avarice), appetites (gluttony), and love (lust). Those will be healed in the terraces above.

message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod
Sorry for the delay again. These are the difficult cantos. The narrative is less while the theological discourse is high. I had to really sit to understand it. If you're having trouble with these cantos I understand. But they are very important. Ideally I would have included Canto XVIII with the last three cantos to form a unit that encapsulates the theological underpinnings. Unfortunately I didn't break out the divisions in these reads that way. So Canto XVIII will actually complete the unit.

message 3: by Frances (new)

Frances Richardson | 594 comments Just excellent, Manny. You not only interpret the literal meaning; you also supply the spiritual significance. I am richer for having read this. Thank you so much.

message 4: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod
Thank you Frances. You’re too kind. I just wish I could keep with the schedule. I just hope those reading along aren’t too peeved.

message 5: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1436 comments Mod
What is the significance again of the "P's" on Dante's forehead?

message 6: by Joseph (new)

Joseph | 152 comments P stands for "peccatum," the Latin word for sin. Each time one disappears, it represents him being cleansed from another type of sin.

message 7: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod
Yes, Joseph is correct. I may have said it in the previous group of cantos but I'm not sure. When Dante first enters purgatory proper he has seven P's inscribed on his forehead. The P stands for sin in Latin as Joseph says. He is cleansed of each sin as he completes each terrace, and then an angel wipes off a P.

message 8: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1436 comments Mod
Oh right! I went back to Canto IX and re-read the passage.
"With the point of his sword he traced seven P's
upon my forehead, then said: 'Once you are inside,
see that you wash away these wounds.'" 112 - 114

message 9: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod
Now that one has read a number of these cantos with the pilgrims going through the terraces of purgation, we can see several patterns. Remember these terraces are for therapeutic conditioning of the soul toward virtue, so all things work toward that end. When the pilgrims first enter the terrace, there is some form of positive proclamation presented in either an image or audio of the virtue. Usually there are several but one will always be from the life of the Blessed Virgin. The penitents on that terrace are usually singing or chanting a hymn, also selected to accentuate the virtue they need to learn. Then undoubtedly the pilgrims meet the penitents, who are undergoing some form of mortification. I think of it more as a mortification than a penance. A penance implies one is trying to make up for something in the past; a mortification I would say implies a training to correct. The penitents are usually in community, in groups helping each other. In hell, souls were either solitary or when in groups in opposition or even antagonism with each other. Souls undergoing the mortifications of these terraces usually ask for prayers. Finally as the pilgrims leave the terrace, more images or audio are proclaimed, this time an example of a negative proclamation of the sin. So the souls undergo both positive and negative reinforcement as they circle the terrace over and over. Finally when Dante leaves the terrace, an angel responsible for that particular terrace removes one of the “P’s” on his forehead. I don’t know if it’s actually said or not, but I believe all the souls have a “P’ removed when they have completed their temporal mortification, moving on to the next terrace. Time on each terrace for the penitents depends on how engrained that sin is in their being. Outside prayers seem to help along the process.

Let’s take one of the terraces and walk through these steps. Let’s look at the Terrace of Envy which starts in Canto XIII and runs midway into Canto XV.

The positive proclamations of the virtue—charity being the corresponding virtue to the sin of envy—are here in audio because the mortification for this terrace is that the souls have their eyes wired shut, and so can only hear. We hear the Blessed Mother’s appeal to Christ at the wedding at Cana, “They have no wine.” This is such a charitable appeal, putting herself in empathy with the celebrants. A lesser person, such as myself, might scoff and say, “Ha! I had plenty of wine at my wedding,” but the Blessed Mother with her Immaculate Heart feels for those in pain and perhaps more importantly tries to help remedy the situation. We see an example from classical literature—Pylades saying he is Orestes to save his friend from execution—and Christ stating the beatitude, “Love him who has done you wrong.” When Dante the character asks Virgil about these proclamations, Virgil describes them as “scourges,” and the voices act as a “cords of the scourge.” That’s a fascinating metaphor. I think it suggests mortification.

The hymn here is actually a chanted prayer, “Mary, pray for us,”/then “Michael,” “Peter,” and “All saints.” It sounds like a Litany of All Saints, or some early version of it.

The penitents in this terrace are actually the most touching to me. Having their eyes sewn shut means they can only advance as the blind—literally the blind leading the blind. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to help a blind person. My father went blind from midlife on, and I’m so sensitive to it. They need so much help in doing some of the very basic things we take for granted doing. To walk in an unfamiliar area requires so much hesitation and consternation. Each step is an unknown adventure wrought with anxiety, if not fear. To move about the terrace requires coordination between the souls. It forces them to act in charity with each other. Dante the author emphasizes this by bringing political opposites, a Ghibelline and a Guelph, together as now cooperating friends.

The negative proclamations come from Cain, who murdered his brother in jealously, and from Aglaurus, the woman in classical mythology who was jealous of her sister’s relationship with the god Mercury. Upon exiting, Dante is blinded but a light that turns out to be the angel. I think it is the light that here wipes away the “P,” a fitting means since this terrace cures souls through blindness.

message 10: by Joseph (new)

Joseph | 152 comments Slight aside, but the terrace of envy also has my favorite line in this entire mamouth poem. "Nay brother, you should ask if any of us during our pilgrim time on Earth did reside in Italy" It reminds me how short life is and that we shouldn't get bogged down in the things of this world.

message 11: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod
Joseph wrote: "Slight aside, but the terrace of envy also has my favorite line in this entire mamouth poem. "Nay brother, you should ask if any of us during our pilgrim time on Earth did reside in Italy" It remin..."
That is a cool line. Was that part of the banter between Guido and Ranieri?

message 12: by Joseph (new)

Joseph | 152 comments No, it's right before that when Dante asks "Are any of you here Italians?"

message 13: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod
Ah yes, Canto XIII, lines 94-96:

"Oh my brother, all of us are citizens
of the one true city. What you mean to say is,
'who, while still a pilgrim, lived in Italy.'"

It is a great line and it speaks to the lesson of community learned by that unnamed soul.

message 14: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1436 comments Mod
Canto XIV, 37-42

"'all flee from virtue as if it were a snake,
an enemy to all, whether some curse
is on the place or evil habits goad them on,

'and those who live in that unhappy valley
are so altered in their nature it is as though
Circe were grazing them at pasture."

These verses are as true today as they were then.

message 15: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1436 comments Mod
Canto XV, 67-75

"'That infinite and ineffable Good,
which dwells on high, speeds toward love
as a ray of sunlight to a shining body.

'It returns the love it finds in equal measure,
so that, if more of ardor is extended,
eternal Goodness will augment Its own.

'And the more souls there are who love on high,
the more there is to love, the more of loving,
for like a mirror each returns it to the other."

So beautiful!

message 16: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3916 comments Mod
Let’s ponder the theological discussions in the last three cantos and I’ll touch on the upcoming one next time. On the terrace of envy (Canto XV), we get a dissertation on how earthly things are limited and so are reduced as people share them, but divine things multiply the more one shares. Love breeds love, for instance. Virgil tries to explain it to Dante after he chastises him for thinking in a limited way:

And he to me: 'Because you still
have your mind fixed on earthly things,
you harvest darkness from the light itself.

'That infinite and ineffable Good,
which dwells on high, speeds toward love
as a ray of sunlight to a shining body.

-'It returns the love it finds in equal measure,
so that, if more of ardor is extended,
eternal Goodness will augment Its own.

'And the more souls there are who love on high,
the more there is to love, the more of loving,
for like a mirror each returns it to the other. (Purg. XV. 64-75)

The analogy is that as light through multiple mirrors augments, so does love. It is not a coincidence that so much blinding light occurs in this canto, and it is contrasted against the sewn eyes of the penitents.

In Canto XVI, the terrace of wrath, we get a dissertation on the nature of free will and how it perpetuates evil in the world. Marco the Lombard explains:

To a greater power and a better nature you, free,
are subject, and these create the mind in you
the heavens have not in their charge.

'Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.
In this I will now be your informant. (XVI. 79-84)

The next couple of tercets explain why we perceive evil to come from heaven:

'From the hand of Him who looks on it with love
before it lives, comes forth, like a little girl
who weeps one moment and as quickly laughs,

'the simple infant soul that has no knowledge
but, moved by a joyous maker,
gladly turns to what delights it.

'At first it tastes the savor of a trifling good.
It is beguiled by that and follows in pursuit
if guide or rein do not deflect its love. (XVI. 85-93)

A new soul being born in the midst of a world set in motion, does not perceive the evil that has been passed on to her day, and so identifies that evil to come from the metaphysical. But that soul too enjoys the earthly things (“the savor of a trifling good”), pursues them, and is disordered by them, and through free will passes on the evil. Notice how this part of the theology builds on the discussion of limited earthly goods from the previous canto. Marco goes on to discuss why then civil authority is needed—to curb the bad choices made by our free will.

Then coming out of the fog, which is also a symbol for the wrath that swallows up those in that vice, Virgil explains the nature of love on which the whole divine order is based on. First he explains how all things start from love:

'Neither Creator nor His creature, my dear son,
was ever without love, whether natural
or of the mind,' he began, 'and this you know. (XVII. 91-93)

So it starts with perfect love from the Creator (the natural love), and we humans take that natural love and have to filter it through our minds. I think that’s what Dante is saying, though I admit it’s rather complicated and it’s possible I distorted the meaning. But let’s go with that. Virgil continues.

'The natural is always without error,
but the other may err in its chosen goal
or through excessive or deficient vigor.

While it is directed to the primal good,
knowing moderation in its lesser goals,
it cannot be the cause of wrongful pleasure.

'But when it bends to evil, or pursues the good
with more or less concern than needed,
then the creature works against his Maker. (XVII. 94-102)

So through the mind, man can either work toward the primal good with proper love or distort that love in opposition to the Divine in several ways. Notice how here Dante is building upon the last canto’s discussion of free will. I can’t say this enough, everything in the Divine Comedy is perfectly integrated and crafted. Virgil explains then as I outlined in the summary of this canto, how this disordering can be a result of loving an improper thing, not loving enough of good things, or loving proper things in a distorted way. I think you can see that without me spelling it out.

But what’s important here is how these theological dissertations capture the nature of all that is physical and metaphysical. Dante through his Christian understanding of the world has envisioned the totality of man and the universe. Limited goods shape our earthly life; divine goods orient us toward God; free will requires curbing of our appetites through civil and theocratic authority; the use of our free will through our mental activity shapes our souls in either positive or negative ways. And the way our souls are shaped leads to the structure of our afterlife. Both purgatory and hell are shaped by the way we distort God’s natural love. The sins shape the structure of hell in a descent, and shape the structure of purgatory in an ascent. The difference is that those in hell have permanently distorted—twisted is a good way to think of it—their souls. In purgatory, through repentance the process is to return to the soul you were meant to have, to untwist it into normalcy.

The entire Divine Comedy is shaped by the theological underpinnings. I find how Dante mirrors the intellectual underpinnings of his world view into this beautifully constructed epic to be of the utmost artistry. I have said this is the greatest work in all of literature. I hope I was able here to explain why.

back to top