Cantos XVII and XVIII
double the fun!!!
The second part of canto 17 is taken up entirely by Virgil’s meditation on love as the root of both virtue and sin, how they relate to free will, and to the structure of purgatory. The explanation also takes up most of canto 18, so I decided, in the name of clarity, to do both of them together this week. So here we go!
In the opening to canto 17, Dante continues his running play on light and dark, outer sight and inner vision. As the sun goes down on Mount Purgatory, Dante’s mind is taken over by imagination and he sees three examples of punished anger. The first one is Procne and Philomel who we know from canto 9 where we learned that they were turned into birds after Philomel killed her children and fed them to her husband because he raped Procne.
The second example is the crucifixion of Haman, minister of the king of Persia, who ordered all the Jews of Persia to be murdered because Mortdecai (his wife’s father) refused to bow to him.
Lastly, Amata, queen of Latium, killed herself out of spite when she found out that her daughter Lavinia was promised to Aeneas, who had previously fought against Latium.
Dante’s “sleep” is shattered by a voice that calls out to the pilgrims, guiding them to the staircase to the 4th terrace. He can’t see what it is and is confused as to why this voice would gratuitously offer advice.
But Virgil explains that it’s a divine spirit and, as such, it offers the information needed to the poets before they have to ask, which is the real definition of “caritas” mentioned in the previous canto.
As they walk past the angel it says “beati pacifici - of violent wrath they’re free” to signify that Dante and now conquered anger and it brushes the poet’s forehead with its wing (it’s implied that this is done to delete another P from his forehead).
But by the time this is done daylight has fully disappeared and the poets are now forced to stop their journey until it returns.
While they wait for the night to pass Dante asks Virgil to tell him about the new terrace they are in, saying that since their bodies have to sit still, they might as well keep their intellects busy.
Virgil obliges, but instead of simply saying “this is the 4th terrace where souls purge the sin of sloth”, he gives us a full-on theology lesson.
He says that this is the place where people whose love of good “fell short of what it ought to be” get purged. By this, he means that the people here didn’t interest themselves in anything in particular (you will remember the slothful of hell who were running around in Ante-Inferno chased by bees and flies).
You might think that not caring about anything - good or bad - or being passive about one’s life is different from not loving anything. And you would be right.
So why does Virgil define the slothful as people whose love of good “fell short of what it ought to be”?
Sensing that this might be somewhat cryptic for Dante (and us), Virgil decides to start from the beginning. He explains that all humans are born equipped with two types of love: love of mind and natural love. Natural love is that which they inherited from God and it can never lead them astray. The other, however, the so-called “mind-love” can attach itself to the wrong thing and therefore give rise to sin.
Mind-love becomes sinful when it attaches itself to ill rather than good and, Virgil explains, since humans can’t love their own harm, it follows that their mind-love attaches itself to the ill of their neighbours.
This gives rise to the three sins we’ve seen thus far: pride, when we want to assert ourselves over our neighbour, envy, when we desire our neighbour’s downfall and wrath, when we want to seek revenge on our neighbour.
Another way that love can lead to sin, Virgil says, is through the love of things that in themselves cannot lead to the peace that we all so crave, in other words, material things. The sins rising from love’s attachment to these things are avarice, gluttony, and lust and we will encounter them in the last three terraces.
It is not at all coincidental that Virgil should give this explanation on the fourth terrace, which is exactly in the middle of Mount Purgatory as well as the terrace where the sin purged resulted from a complete absence of love.
The fourth terrace is then a sort of turning point. We saw in Inferno that up to circle 6 we had carnal sins, which were considered less serious because they reflected human weakness rather than maliciousness, whereas from the 7th circle on the sinners had committed premeditated sins.
Here Dante turns the order on its head: the malicious sins are at the bottom of the mountain and the sins that represent a weakness of the flesh are at the top.
When Virgil is done with his explanation, Dante observes that if natural love and mind-love are innate, then surely humans are not to be held responsible for their virtues or their sins.
Virgil (presumably tired of Dante’s questions) says that he can only explain the dynamics between free will and human’s innate propensity to love in logical terms. He adds that Dante will have to wait until he meets Beatrice for a comprehensive explanation. As we’ve already seen, Virgil is not privy to the mysteries of faith, so he can only move within the limits of reason, which is why Dante’s bigger theological questions aren’t fully tackled until Paradise.
Virgil does however say a bit more about free will. He says that the urge to love, whether it be right or wrong things, exists in humans like the urge to make honey in bees. But humans also have the capacity to distinguish between the quality of the things that they gravitate towards. We all have the “power to rein love back”.
Dante seems content with this reply and as he sits down to ruminate over Virgil’s words, a running crowd of souls appears. They run as fast as the Thebans ran in their ecstatic dances of worship to the god Bacchus. As they approach the poets, two of them shout words of encouragement to the others trying to spur them on in their chase. These are the slothful and as you might have guessed, they have to run without respite in death to purge the sin of inactivity in life.
The encouragements they shout to the crowd are examples of action and urgency: the first one is a reference to the Virgin Mary, who upon finding out she was carrying the son of God ran to tell her cousin Elisabeth about her pregnancy; the second is about an episode in Julius Caesar’s De Bello Civili, where he quickly organised the siege of Massilia.
Virgil addresses the group and asks them to speak to Dante about their plight and maybe also show them the way to the next staircase. Since they cannot stop, one of them quickly shouts a few sentences as he goes. His name is Gerard and he says he was an abbot at the powerful abbey of San Zeno. We don’t really know if this guy actually existed or if Dante just placed him here as an excuse to criticise the passivity of the Church. Either way, here he is.
The canto ends with Dante thinking about all he has seen and heard and as he does so, falling asleep.