anger and free will
Over the past couple of cantos we’ve been going from blinding angelic light, to inner sight, to - now - complete darkness.
Canto 16 opens with a description of thick dark smoke. Darker even than the ones we saw in hell, according to Dante, and so dense that it seems to weave a coarse fabric that itches the eyes. Because of it, Dante is forced to close his eyes and, with a hand on Virgil’s shoulder, he slowly makes his way through the third terrace, careful not no get cut off from his guide.
We are on the third terrace, where the penitents purge the sin of anger.
Since Dante can’t see anything, the canto’s imagery revolves entirely around hearing, starting with the words “Agnus Dei”, which he hears coming from a multitude of voices that all sing them in unison.
A voice nearby breaks off from the song and addresses Dante directly to ask, as many others have before, who this seemingly alive person is. Dante indulges the voice’s curiosity and after introducing himself asks the spirit if he would do the same, while also walking to the next staircase, such that the sound of his voice can guide them through the dark.
The penitent is Marco Lombardo, whom Dante scholars have identified as a minor nobleman from Venice or the nearby regions. We don’t know the story of the sin that landed him in this area of purgatory. But, as many commentators have noted, the circumstances of Marco’s life are irrelevant to Dante because he pretty much uses the man as a stand-in for himself/ mouthpiece of his own political views.
Yes, that’s right, this is a political canto. Well, politico-ethical-theological (excuse my clunky terminology. We don’t all have Dante’s gift for brevity).
The canto revolves around the idea of free will and how it functions in relation to predestination and divine intervention.
According to Marco, humans place far too much importance on “the stars” (by which he intends not astrology but divine will). And far too many take it a step further and use predestination as an excuse for their wrongdoing, acting as if they had no free will.
But we do.
‘The stars initiate your vital moves’, he says, but
‘You have a mind that planets cannot rule or start concern’.
The question of free will and its relationship to sin is one of Dante’s greatest preoccupations. It’s present at the very beginning of the Commedia, when Dante finds himself lost in a dark forest, having lost the right - meaning reasoned or wise - path. And in fact, it’s not a coincidence that the topic comes up here at a time when the poet is “in the dark”.
Darkness here symbolizes the absence of reason. The penitents of the third terrace are expiating the sin of anger, which for Dante is a loss of control over one’s ability to think straight and see things for what they really are. At a linguistic level, in Italian, we say that you are so angry you “see black” (the English equivalent is “seeing red”). So the contrapasso here is that those who have “seen black” due to their anger in life, shall literally see black in death until they’ve made up for their mistake.
But the inability to see, as we already saw last week, is an opportunity to reach a clearer, inner vision. And this is definitely the case for Marco, who goes on an impassioned diatribe against the state of modern Italy.
The country needs a king, a pastor, to show people the right path since left to their own devices - their own free will - they seem to make all the wrong choices.
But ever since that land bathed by the rivers Po and Adige (meaning northern Italy), turned against Federico II - you’ll remember him from Inferno as Dante’s favourite candidate for Emperor - the country has essentially gone to shit. Anyone who would blush in speaking to a virtuous man can walk through that land in the safe knowledge that they will not blush once, he says.
This is because the two suns - Church and State - that used to illuminate the right path, have become one in the hands of the greedy Pope (another one of Dante’s political views which you will remember from Inferno).
There remain only three virtuous men in the whole country: Currado da Palazzo, Gherardo da Camino, and Guido da Castello. The first two both happened to have belonged to Dante’s political party, while the third was named “the honest Lombard” by the French for his honesty in dealing with French travelers who passed through Lombardy. Needless to say that although all these men are remembered as generally upstanding members of society, they also happened to have held political views that significantly overlapped with Dante’s.
But this last name Dante says he has not heard of, which Marco takes as a sign of just how corrupt modern society is. The separate threads of sight and sound come together here: Dante’s world is one where the names of virtuous men fall on deaf ears and where anger has blinded men pushing them further away from the narrow path.
Speaking of paths, as Marco admonishes Dante for not recognising the name of one of the last few great men, they’ve also arrived at the foot of the next staircase, where the light of an angel awaits.