Good Desire and Bad Desire
In Canto 18 Virgil continues his explanation of desire and its connection to divine justice and love. The nature of human beings is to desire, Virgil begins, but in many cases something about that desire is contrary to the proper nature of the desire. The paradox of human will is that, on the good side, our desires, properly ordered, are of a higher order of good than the desires of fire to rise, of stones to sink, and of plants to grow. On the bad side, because our desires are contingent on our wills and acts moreso than those of flames and stones and plants, we have the capacity to warp our own desires, turning them bad in the ways that Virgil described in Canto 17.
Thus Dante’s Virgil explains, in terms at once concise and compelling, just what it means to be a rational animal: because our desires, unlike those of other animals, take their shape not only from instinct but also from the disciplines and bad habits of the courses of our lives, human beings alone among the animals have the capacity truly to enjoy the presence of God, but we also have need (where other animals have no need) to have our desires disciplined, either by the influence of kings and teachers while we live; or by Purgatory afterwards.
As I’ve said before, whether one “believes in Purgatory” or not, Dante’s vision has an undeniable beauty to it. Purgatory is necessary because of the particular brokenness of human nature, and the particular brokenness of human nature happens because of the unique goodness of humanity. Placed next to dualistic philosophies, which relativize our bodily existence to the point where they have nothing to do with our souls; and materialistic philosophies, in which the soul is some epiphenomenon of brain chemistry, or even a lie that’s mapped onto the flat assertion of biological change, there’s a richness to a Christian-humanist philosophy like Dante’s that makes the moral existence of humanity not only intelligible but beautiful.
Sloth, Avarice, and Gluttony
Purgatory continues to be a place where desires get disciplined and educated in the fourth, fifth, and sixth terraces, each terrace’s mode of storytelling and bodily punishment fitting the particular nature of each deadly vice:
- The slothful must tell their own stories (since they must cultivate a sufficiently intense desire for God, it makes some sense to jump start it by making them tell their own stories), and they spend their time in Purgatory running from here to there, not waiting around for something to impress them before they move. The stories have to do with those who did not desire good things (the most amusing being the Hebrews after the Exodus, who took forty years to get to the promised land) and those who sought out good news with great vigor (most notably Mary, who went immediately to Elizabeth to share news of their miraculous pregnancies).
- The avaricious must share their stories with each other (since they lived as people who would not share), and their stories are about both generosity and voluntary poverty on the good side, and their vice-stories have to do both with hoarding and with reckless spending.
- The gluttonous hear their stories issuing forth from food they’re not allowed to eat, and their stories have to do with those who denied themselves and those who destroyed themselves with indulgence, both of food and of wine.
I won’t go into detail here, certainly to avoid becoming a study site for those who don’t actually read their assignments in college but even more because, as perhaps the chief architectural poem in the medieval tradition, the Commedia sets up structures that allow a careful reader simply to note the stories and disciplines present and move on. Once Virgil has explained how everything fits together, there’s no need to repeat the connections between the media and the stories and the souls educated by both. Instead, Virgil and Dante and other characters can devote the space remaining in the poem to other matters, like how long people spend in Purgatory.
Out of Purgatory
The first time I ever read the whole Commedia (I read Inferno a couple times before then), this is what surprised me most about Dante’s vision, and in the ensuing years, it’s become easily the most intellectually satisfying part of Purgatory. George Bernard Shaw picked this up, and C.S. Lewis followed Shaw, and I can only tip my hat to those two twentieth-century masters for their good taste.
Before they exit the terrace of the Avaricious, Dante and Virgil encounter a mysterious figure, a shade who later identifies himself as Statius, the Silver-Age Roman poet. As they converse, Dante and Virgil come to realize that Statius, after a long spell among the Prideful and then five hundred years among the Spendthrifts (a division of the Avaricious), Statius has risen and will be departing Purgatory for Paradise. When Virgil asks about the Purgatory-shaking celebration that happened just before he started his new climb, Statius explains the logic that governs one’s stay on the Mount:
Up here the mountain trembles when some soul
feels itself pure enough to stand erect
or start at once to climb–then, comes the shout.
The will to rise, alone, proves purity:
once freed, it takes possession of the soul
and wills the soul to change its company.
I willed to climb before, but teh desire
High Justice set against it, inspired it
to wish to suffer–as once it wished to sin.
And I, who for five hundred years and more,
have lain here in my pain, felt only now
will free to raise me to a higher sill. (Purgatory 21.58-69)
Had I read that passage as a younger man, I would have balked: who, I would have asked, would really desire to be punished more than he desired to rise to Heaven? As the years have passed the spiritual truth here has become more apparent: the lives that we lead here on earth, both the parts that we choose and the parts to which we’re victims, leaves us deeply wounded, and Dante’s vision of reality includes a God gracious enough to heal those wounds rather than pretending they don’t matter. If Purgatory were mere “jail time,” enforced at the behest of the grand Magistrate in the sky, I would probably reject Dante’s vision out of hand (as, for instance, I reject most sixteenth-century preaching on Purgatory that I’ve read). But since Dante’s vision is rooted not in punishment but in the sort of love that only the Almighty can exercise, it remains a genuinely compelling vision, and I’ll say here what I say when I teach this poem to evangelical undergraduates: if Purgatory is what Dante says it is, I don’t reckon I’d mind going.
I’m not sure whether I’ll do one more post to finish out the series or whether I’ll split the last nine Cantos into two posts, but either way I should have the last posts on the poem up soon.