The Architecture of Purgatory

This section of Cantos begins to reveal connections between the terraces, both in terms of the media through which the tragic and exemplary stories come to the saved and in terms of the discipline of desire that happens along the way.

  • To envy another human being means to look on that person’s fortune, good or bad, and fall victim to one’s own disordered desires.  So in Purgatory, the envious no longer face that temptation, instead hearing together those stories (and thus picturing by means of their own faculties of imagination) the stories that shape the soul, and their eyes are forced shut so that they must feel their neighbors’ presence rather than beholding them in abstraction.
  • To fall victim to consuming wrath means to live inside the network of your own tightening muscles, boiling blood, and furrowed brow, and so Purgatory educates the wrathful with ecstatic visions, stories which necessarily take the soul out of its own narrowing world.  The thick smoke on the terrace means that the sinners do not have the capacity to make an intentional rush at the neighbor and must actually listen to what other people say.

In all three of the lowest terraces, since the vices involve bad will towards the neighbor, the discipline involves something that restrains the shade in the presence of the neighbor.  The reasons for that kind of discipline don’t get stated directly until Virgil speaks his discourse on the nature of sin (that’ll be the next post), but hints already appear in Canto 16, when Marco the Lombard teaches the Pilgrim about free will:

Men, therefore, needed the restraint of laws,

needed a ruler able to at least

discern the towers of the True city. True,

the laws are there, but who enforces them?

No one.  The shepherd who is leading you

can chew the cud but lacks the cloven hoof. (16.94-99)

Following Plato’s lead in the Republic, Dante names the role of the ruler as restrainer, an agent that allows the citizen “to discern” what is good and what is harmful by means of habituation and training should they lack the natural ability to do the same.  That focus also informs the grand discussion, in Canto 16, about why the Pope should forsake temporal power for the sake of the world.  If the Pope, who should be exercising the moral authority that can even call the powerful to account, is instead acting himself as a petty warlord, then the moral force of the Bishop of Rome diminishes to the point that the world can go badly and leave the blame rightly at the feet of its rulers.

These parts of the Purgatory do some good for me, especially since I’ve not written about Dante in a while: they remind me that his imperialism, like just about everything else in his system, is worked our philosophically before I ever get there.  His advocacy for a renewed Roman Empire, one which wields the sword to restrain rather than to plunder, flows from deliberation, not merely preference.  As one of his readers, I’m perfectly free to take issue with his arguments, but Dante’s challenge is always to articulate those arguments, not merely to render political difference a matter of consumer choice.

The Discourse on Sin

The best part of Canto 17, though, comes after the explanations of Envy’s workings, when Dante and Virgil wait for the sun to rise.  In those moments when they cannot rise, the great Roman poet explains to Dante the divisions between the terraces of Purgatory and by extension the reasons for each sinner’s particular fate there.  Love is at the root of all things in the divine economy, and Purgatory is no exception.  The divisions among the saved are based on the ways that they miss the mark of perfect love:

  • Some love glory at the expense of the neighbor’s dignity (Pride)
  • Some love relative goodness and rejoice at the neighbor’s relatively bad fortune (Envy)
  • Some love their own honor and lash out at the neighbors who wrong them (Wrath)

Those are the vices of ill-will, the ones turned against a neighbor and thus the most severely disciplined.  Beyond their circle, Virgil notes, there will be some whose desire for God does not spur them to following Jesus:

  • Some love inadequately and need spurred to greater desire (Sloth)

Virgil does not spell out the last three, but given what he does tell Dante, they’re not hard to deduce at this point:

  • Some love wealth and material goods in ways that harm the soul (Avarice)
  • Some love food and drink in ways that harm the soul (Gluttony)
  • Some love sex in ways that harm the soul (Lust)

Because the expansion on these ideas happens in Canto 18, I’m going to cut this post short, especially given that our Facebook readers just got a mess of posts dumped at their feet, but I will note, for those reading along, that our next post will deal with Cantos 18-21.

2 thoughts on “Purgatory 2013: Free Will and Wrath (Cantos 14-17)”
  1. Nathan,
    I wanted to let you know I am still reading and have completed this last set of Canto’s.  I don’t have much to say, but I have found that reading the Canto’s outloud to my wife has helped me read them much quicker and increased my retention.
    I hope that I’m not the only person reading along with you in this.  If there’s somewhere else I should be commenting please direct me there.
    Kindest Regards,

    1. BrandenGerbracht No, Branden, I’ve just fallen behind with my posts.  I’m hoping to have the next one written some time this afternoon, though.

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