Because I’ve not written about Dante in a couple summers (in 2011 I was wrapping up the dissertation, and in 2012 I was wrapping up Emmanuel’s QEP), I wanted to dig back into my favorite Thomist this semester as I taught him in my Western Authors class (a course that purports to teach Continental literature from Homer to the Italian Renaissance, which is impossible in fifteen weeks, and thus gives me license to teach a selection of texts as idiosyncratic as I like). And since some of our reader/listeners wanted a chance to dig into some books together, I figured this might be as good a chance as any.
For the purposes of these posts, I’m going to be using Mark Musa’s translation of Purgatorio, available relatively inexpensively in Penguin’s Dante volume. But my observations should work well enough with other translations. So here we go!
What Purgatory Is For
What I take for granted now when I read this poem still causes my students some of the most confusion: the souls in Purgatory are happy to be there. For Dante, anyone who arrives at the shores of Purgatory no longer lives in peril. (There’s a hint of ambiguity on that score a bit later in the poem, but we’ll get there.) Unlike mundane life, in which our desires are still up for grabs and in which we can, by freely willed acts, turn those desires away from God’s goodness, Purgatory will always discipline desires for the good of the soul. That means that crime never pays in Purgatory, and for a Boethius-reader like Dante, that’s the best possible news. Instead, a perfect Deuteronomic order reigns on the mountain, a system in which every crime meets a fitting punishment, and every punishment happens to shock the soul out of its disordered desires.
How all of that leads the soul into Paradise gets explained later in the poem, so I’ll leave that discussion, for the sake of first-time readers, for later posts.
Cato of Utica
For those who are wading into Purgatory without familiarity with Inferno, three notes from that first canticle are in order:
- Suicides do not fare well in Dante’s afterlife. (They have their own section in the circle of the violent, since they were violent against themselves.)
- Those who oppose Caesar do not fare well in Dante’s afterlife. (Brutus and Cassius are, along with Judas Iscariot, at the epicenter of Inferno.)
- Non-Christians do not fare well in Dante’s afterlife. (There’s an entire circle for “virtuous pagans,” those who lived well but did not confess Christ.)
So when I, as a reader, encounter Cato of Utica, a pre-Christian Roman man who committed suicide rather than submit to the rule of Caesar, I’m understandably disturbed. And as it turns out, Dante doesn’t care. The “Just Old Man,” as the pilgrim calls him, is not there to be scrutinized but to prod the souls of the saved to rush on to their salvation and to provide a lesson to Dante (and to Virgil) about the differences between mundane desire and the desires that animate the saved.
When Virgil approaches Cato with the name of his deceased wife and with the mention of Beatrice’s errand, Cato’s response shows them a few important things about being-saved:
- The saved retain memories of those who are not, but following St. Paul’s argument in Romans, to die to the systems of sin and death means to be free of all legal obligation to those systems. Thus Cato, though he knows the name Marcia, is not swayed by Virgil’s appeal to his Limbo-stranded wife.
- Playing to conflicted desires is entirely ineffective in Purgatory. Whereas a character in a Greek tragedy (or in Inferno) might struggle between obligations to city and family or between marital affection and divine duty, in Purgatory the souls are in the process of becoming pure-hearted, which means a re-ordering of desires that eliminates such existential conflicts.
- Cato’s allegorical standing as the boundary between natural virtue and supernatural grace is ultimately more important than his historical story of despair at the loss of freedom.
Cato’s last act in the poem falls right in with this last point: as an allegorical figure, not as a Republican, he chases the souls enraptured by Casella’s love song towards the mountain.
Dante’s Parable of the Laborers
Dante’s encounters with Manfred and with Belacqua reveal something quite important about his conception of the afterlife: salvation is always free, and even a worker hired in the eleventh hour receives the fullness of redemption, but Purgatory is a place that keeps score. Those who repent at the last hour, whether because of criminal lives or because of mere procrastination, end up living out spans of years proportionate (they might be longer or shorter, but they’re always in proportion) to their delay at the outskirts of Purgatory. Perhaps this is to alleviate the resentment of those who did live the Older Son’s role in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but more likely it’s to confer the benefits of a lifetime of worship to those who forsook the same. After all, those waiting outside Purgatory seem to hear Psalms sung by those heading in, and because they’re in the company of fellow delay-souls (that’s a Finding Nemo joke), they benefit, as we existing as mundane souls benefit, from the company of fellow-sinners.
As further reading in the poem will reveal, the idea that punishment is for the benefit of the one punished runs through all of Purgatory. The classic formulation of punishment-as-benefit must have been, for Dante, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, but the idea has roots in Augustine’s Confessions and City of God and even to some extent in Plato’s Republic. Nietzsche famously attacks this doctrine in Genealogy of Morals, saying that penitentiary life fuels wrath and revenge rather than repentance, but for Dante anyway, the removal of malice from the equation (an impossibility for Fritz) means that the true justice of punishment can occur in Purgatory.
Talk with Me
I’m going to stop there, as I approach the thousand-word mark, but I would like to pose some questions to our readers for the sake of conversation:
- To what extent do you find this moral order compelling aesthetically and to what extent horrifying?
- Among the other good things Dante does for me, he makes me want to read more Roman history and oratory and philosophy. Do the thick allusions in the Comedy appeal likewise to you, or does your reaction differ?
- Students always ask me whether I “believe in” Purgatory or not. In what ways is that question relevant and in what ways wrongheaded when one takes on a poet like Dante?
- What in this poem so far makes you, O reader, think thoughts that hadn’t occurred to you before?