At mid-afternoon of their second day on the Mountain, Dante and Virgil encounter another angel who shows them the stairs to the third terrace. On their way up, Dante wants to know more about the nature of envy and Virgil explains how love increases as it is given away, while envy grasps and holds a thing tightly. When they reach the third terrace, Dante falls into a trance in which he has three unsettling visions. After Virgil explains their purpose, the two pilgrims are engulfed in a cloud of thick smoke as the sun sets.
It was now about three o’clock in the afternoon on the Mountain and midnight in Italy. The mid-afternoon sun shone full on our faces now, for we had walked so far along on that terrace that we were now facing due west. But suddenly, a light far brighter than the sun nearly blinded me and, stunned by this, I was forced to look down, using my hands as a visor to shield me from the intensity of it. A beam of light reflects back off of water or a mirror in the same angle as its source, forming an opposite angle of the same size. And so that intense light hit my eyes as it reflected off the surface in front of me and that is what made me turn away so quickly.Dante enjoys “teasing” his readers, as he has and will on other occasions, with his astronomical acumen in this opening passage. Basically, if it is three hours before sunset at six PM here in … Continue reading
“What is this, dear father,” I asked Virgil. “I’m engulfed in this light and I can’t shield myself from it. It seems to be moving closer to us.”
“Don’t be surprised if the sight of heavenly beings like this can still dazzle you. This angel is summoning us to ascend to the next terrace. Soon, you will not be blinded by such splendid creatures. Rather, the sight of them will fill you with joy beyond telling.”Dante’s affection for Virgil is wonderfully apparent here as they prepare to leave the Terrace of Envy, and Virgil’s reply is both calming and empowering him for what is to come in his travels. … Continue reading
As we stood there before that shining angel, he cried out in a joyful voice: “Come this way, now. The stairs here are far less steep than those below.” And as we began to ascend, we heard Beati misericordes being sung, and then “Rejoice, you who conquer!”The angel’s joy now erases any sense of consternation at his appearance and, incidentally, he (very subtly) erases another P from Dante’s forehead. The pilgrims climb to the singing of the fifth … Continue reading
While Virgil and I were climbing those new stairs, and I was hoping to learn new things from everything he said, I turned and asked: “Master, the one from Romagna down below, what did he mean when he said that we desire what we cannot have?”This is the first of the three central cantos of the entire Comedy, and Dante’s question, which seems to harken back to the Terrace of Envy, is actually quite significant because it opens up one of … Continue reading
“Because he’s down there paying the price for his envy,” he answered, “he condemns that sin in others, hoping that they won’t have to bear the same punishment.Guido’s apostrophe against human envy in the previous canto fit naturally into the context of his longer tirade against the corruption of the leaders of his day. Only now, perhaps, do we come to … Continue reading But this is the point he was making: in your envy, you men go to any length to attain the goods of this world, which lessen the more they’re shared, and envy makes you sigh because of this diminishment. However, if you had a desire for the things of Heaven, then you would focus on attaining them, and you wouldn’t worry about sharing or losing them. You see, in Heaven the more people speak of ‘ours’ instead of ‘mine,’ the more they possess, and the more love there is as a result.”The defense against envy is a simple change of pronouns. But it’s more than that. What’s happening here is that this is really Dante’s first lesson in how to understand the workings of heaven. … Continue reading
“Now you’ve made me hungry to learn even more,” I told him. “Here’s another question: how does it happen that one thing, shared by many, makes all of them wealthier than if it were possessed by only a few?”This is a good question, but it also shows that the earthly pilgrim still has much to learn – the reader as well.
He replied: “The problem is that you focus only on the things of this world, and so you remain in darkness. In Heaven, however, the true and infinite Good rushes instantly, like a ray of light, to love wherever it finds it. And however much love it finds, it gives back. The more love we have, the more we receive. The more there are in Heaven who love, the more there are worth loving. Love keeps growing and each soul in love mirrors it to all the rest. Now, if this explanation still doesn’t make sense, when you see Beatrice, she’ll make everything perfectly clear to you. So, make every effort you can to erase the remaining “P’s” through your suffering here, so that they, too, will disappear without a trace as the first two did.”Note how Virgil immediately frames Dante’s problem in terms of light and darkness. Striving to see what’s at issue here from an earthly/mortal perspective is virtually impossible, he tells Dante. … Continue reading
As eager as I was to say “I’ve learned enough for now,” I held my tongue because we had just now reached the third terrace. But no sooner did I step foot onto that level than I seemed to be transported in an ecstatic vision. I was in a temple filled with people, and there was a mother whispering gently to her son: “Why have you treated us this way? In sorrow your father and I have been searching for you.” The vision left me as quickly as it had come upon me, and there was silence.We have come to expect some unusual and meaningful event each time we move upward, and Dante does not disappoint. We will soon learn that the Third Terrace is where the sin of wrath is punished and … Continue reading
Then I had another vision: I saw a woman weeping in grief and anger. I heard her say: “If you are lord of this city, which is a source of great learning and wisdom, but whose naming has caused contention among the gods, then, I tell you, O Pisistratus, punish the man who dared to embrace your daughter!” But he was not provoked. Instead, he was calm, and replied gently to his angry wife: “Imagine what we might do to those who wish to harm us if, as you suggest, we condemned those who love us.”The second vision is drawn from ancient history with two sources joined together into this one vision. The reference to the city of great learning and wisdom comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses … Continue reading
After this, I saw a great mob, stoning a young man to death, screaming with hate: “Kill him! Kill him!” With the weight of death upon him, he slowly sank to the ground. His eyes fixed on Heaven, he died forgiving his persecutors in a last act of compassion for all of them.This final ecstatic vision is of the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The long and dramatic story is found in the Acts of the Apostles (6:8-7:60 ). Stephen, a brilliant and … Continue reading
As I slowly returned to my own consciousness, I realized that what I had seen in visions was the truth, but in a different form. Virgil had a look of distress as he watched me trying to recover my senses, and said: “What’s the matter with you? For half a league now you’ve been walking unsteady, like someone drunk or half-asleep.”
“Oh, my dear father,” I replied, “let me tell you what I saw as I stumbled along.”
And he said: “Remember that I already know your thoughts. Though you were to wear a hundred masks, you could not hide even your most secret thought from me. What you saw in those visions were meant to teach you to open your heart to the waters of God’s peace, which pour out eternally from that Fountain on high. I didn’t ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ as though I were one without inner knowledge that would last beyond death. No. I asked that question in order to make you fully awake. Set aside any laziness now and put your powers to their best use.”It’s difficult to know exactly how long Dante’s visions lasted – remembering that each one followed the other immediately. The word “league” here is a vague standard of measurement … Continue reading
As the sun began to set, we walked into that shining brilliance, looking ahead to see as far as we could. As we did so, however, a cloud of smoke formed slowly in our path. Soon enough we were completely engulfed in it – as black as night – and we were unable to escape it. Not only that, we were now deprived of our sight and the clean air.With the discussion about Dante’s ecstatic visions now complete, the Pilgrims resume their walk around the third terrace at about 6pm. A good amount of time has passed (and distance) since the … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Dante enjoys “teasing” his readers, as he has and will on other occasions, with his astronomical acumen in this opening passage. Basically, if it is three hours before sunset at six PM here in Purgatory, it is 3 AM in Jerusalem. And in Italy (Florence) it is three hours earlier, making it midnight there. In “liturgical time,” it is coming on the late afternoon prayer time called Vespers. The Poet’s “playing” with time here also includes light and darkness, themes that will weave through this and the next canto.
With the mid-afternoon sun now directly in front of the pilgrims, and aligned with their westward movement, Dante tells us that he was blinded by an even brighter light that he had to shield his eyes from. The source of this light is, of course, the Angel of Meekness and Generosity. But instead of first questioning what this new light is, Dante, who seems to have forgotten about the angel guardians of each terrace, “blinds” us momentarily from the answer with a diversion about the property of reflected light, which only explains why he shielded his eyes. The sun, we already know, is always a symbol of God and Divine Light. Interestingly, while Dante tells us that the angel’s brightness is greater than that of the sun, this is due, most likely, to the suddenness and unexpected appearance of the angel, and the fact that the angel and the sun are coming at them from the same direction. However, we don’t yet know that this new light is an angel, and this gives the opening of the canto a sense of mystery. At the same time, we need to be reminded that we are leaving the envious sinners and, as Ciardi notes here: “Allegorically, this process of reflection may best be taken for the perfection of outgoing love, which the Angel, as the true opposite of the Envious, represents.” We will soon see that this “outpouring of love” is the energy that fuels this canto. Furthermore, as we will learn toward the end of the Paradiso, all the angels look perpetually into the face of God and thus reflect the effulgence of that divine Love into the universe. Dante is not yet ready to share the fullness of their vision.
|↑2||Dante’s affection for Virgil is wonderfully apparent here as they prepare to leave the Terrace of Envy, and Virgil’s reply is both calming and empowering him for what is to come in his travels. In a sense, the bright angel’s appearance is an invitation to even greater surprises. And in addition to the climb becoming easier as they move upward, so, too, will Dante’s eyes become accustomed to the angels’ reflection of God-Love.|
|↑3||The angel’s joy now erases any sense of consternation at his appearance and, incidentally, he (very subtly) erases another P from Dante’s forehead. The pilgrims climb to the singing of the fifth Beatitude from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Since the climbers haven’t yet reached the next terrace, we can presume that the Gospel verse is being sung by the envious sinners as part of their “rein,” mercy and compassion being the opposite of envy. At the same time, “Rejoice, you who conquer!” is most likely spoken to Dante by the angel as he removes the P from his forehead. Jesus ends his sermon with the words: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). Interestingly, this exclamation is also similar to the hymn that Dante hears coming from the great cross of lights in the Paradiso (14:125) when he meets his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida: “Arise and conquer!”|
|↑4||This is the first of the three central cantos of the entire Comedy, and Dante’s question, which seems to harken back to the Terrace of Envy, is actually quite significant because it opens up one of the Poem’s central themes: the relation between earthly and heavenly things. He and Virgil are now alone and Dante takes advantage of the moment to unpack the meaning of Guido Del Duca’s statement in the previous canto: “O human race! Why do you go to such lengths to get what you cannot have?” Virgil’s answer, simple as it seems, will be echoed several more times in the Poem.|
|↑5||Guido’s apostrophe against human envy in the previous canto fit naturally into the context of his longer tirade against the corruption of the leaders of his day. Only now, perhaps, do we come to realize that it’s a part of his own purgation to warn others against his sin – not only his fellow sinners but even more the living who hear or read Dante’s Poem. The evidence of charity in Guido’s statement leads to the heavenly charity Virgil will now explain.|
|↑6||The defense against envy is a simple change of pronouns. But it’s more than that. What’s happening here is that this is really Dante’s first lesson in how to understand the workings of heaven. By the time he/we move a few cantos into the Paradiso, it will be clear that earthly ways of thinking – including some cherished laws of physics – no longer work there. Here on earth, Virgil tells Dante, there is a limited supply of “things.” Whatever is possessed by others means there’s less for me. Even when we share, what we share is less than the whole. Furthermore, those who spend their lives in pursuit of material gain (which is limited) also live in fear that others will get what I want, and when they get it I lament. This is where Envy enters the heart and begins to poison it. On the other hand, Virgil says, if we focused our energies on the things above we would quickly discover that there’s an endless supply, and sharing them actually increases the supply! Earlier, in his Convivio (III,xv), Dante wrote: “The Saints are free from envy of one another, because each has attained the limit of their desire.”|
|↑7||This is a good question, but it also shows that the earthly pilgrim still has much to learn – the reader as well.|
|↑8||Note how Virgil immediately frames Dante’s problem in terms of light and darkness. Striving to see what’s at issue here from an earthly/mortal perspective is virtually impossible, he tells Dante. The heart of the matter is Truth and Goodness, translated or understood as Love and Light. Note how the Poet is subtly taking us back to the opening of the canto and Dante’s optic digression about the reflection of light. That was leading us here. Envy can be described in one way as a lack of love. What Virgil wants Dante to learn is that Love is the substance of Paradise. Love is like light, love is God’s Light. There it rushes eternally to wherever love is found and not only amplifies it but reflects it everywhere. Heaven is an infinitely boundless universe wherein all the saints reflect this great Love, each to their own capacity, but as they do so their own capacity to love increases. This shared love, this “ours” love sets off an infinite chain reaction, as it were. “The more love we have, the more we receive. The more there are in Heaven who love, the more there are worth loving. Love keeps growing and each soul in love mirrors it to all the rest.” One can almost hear Virgil quoting his older contemporary, Cicero: “How long will your mind be fixed on the ground? Do you not see what temple you have entered?” (The Dream of Scipio, 9).
Perhaps the question still remains about the “economy of virtue” which, in a challenging way, involves the discipline (but also the reward) of changing our pronouns. There isn’t a specific virtue named “sharing,” but the obvious spiritual message here is that the more we humans engage in that action, the more we – and, hopefully, those we share with – grow in all the virtues, particularly the virtue of charity/love, the greatest of them all.
In the end, Virgil leaves it to Beatrice to instruct Dante, as she will in the Paradiso. In the meantime, he urges Dante, concentrate on the work at hand and make the most of the experience.
A digression… I enjoy demonstrating all of this in class by first making as perfect a $10 bill as a computer and printer will produce. In class I open my wallet and take the fake bill out and wave it around. I then ask students to confirm that it’s a $10 bill, which they (generally) do. I then tear it in half (to some gasps) and give one half to a nearby student (who figures out that it’s a fake). “Will a bank replace that half with a whole bill?” I ask. “It’s ify. But let’s assume here that your half is worth $5 and mine is also worth $5. We shared the bill, but each half is less than the whole bill. And if we keep tearing the halves in half, each part is worth even less. But,” I explain, “if we follow Virgil’s line of thinking, in heaven every part of that $10 bill is still worth $10, and the more we tear it up the more tens we end up with!” They get the point. Heavenly economy is radically different from the earthly version.
|↑9||We have come to expect some unusual and meaningful event each time we move upward, and Dante does not disappoint. We will soon learn that the Third Terrace is where the sin of wrath is punished and purged. But Dante has no time to tell us about this place because he immediately has an ecstatic vision, the first of three that follow in quick succession. This is the “whip” of wrath, designed to provide positive examples for the angry sinners on this terrace. Unlike the art on the Terrace of Pride, and the flying voices on the Terrace of Envy, here we have three distinct visions that Dante sees in his mind.
As we’ve become accustomed, a scene from the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is always first. This one is taken from the Gospel of Luke (2:41-52). Jesus, now 12 years old, and his family had gone down to Jerusalem from Nazareth for the feast of the Passover. On the way home, his parents missed him, but figured he was with friends somewhere else in the caravan. After three days, they realized this wasn’t the case and went back to Jerusalem. There they found him in the Temple amid the teachers, talking about points of the law. Apparently, he had stayed behind. With every right to be angry with her errant son, Mary takes the high road. An example of meekness to the sinners on this terrace.
|↑10||The second vision is drawn from ancient history with two sources joined together into this one vision. The reference to the city of great learning and wisdom comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VI,70ff) where we read of the contest between Athena and Neptune to name the city of Athens. Interestingly enough, this naming contest is actually part of a larger story that we encountered back in canto 12 with Arachne challenging Minerva/Athena to a weaving contest. Arachne depicted the dalliances of the gods with mortal women (which offended Minerva), while Minerva depicted the gods in their glory – herself and Neptune included.
The rest of the vision comes from the 1st century Memorable Acts and Deeds by Valerius Maximus:
Read broadly, one can hear echoes of the Great Commandment and Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.
|↑11||This final ecstatic vision is of the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The long and dramatic story is found in the Acts of the Apostles (6:8-7:60 ). Stephen, a brilliant and articulate follower of Jesus, is arrested for heresy and brought for trial before the Jewish high court. After a long narrative in which he recounts the stiff-necked history of Israel’s many infidelities in their relationship with Yahweh, he ultimately blames his accusers of murdering Christ. The story comes to an amazing conclusion in this way:|
“‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.’ When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’; and when he said this, he fell asleep.”
Note how Stephen’s compassionate dying words are similar to Jesus’ as he was being crucified: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Dante actually heightens the violence of the drama by inserting the words, “Kill him! Kill him!” which are not in the biblical story. But in St. John’s account of the Passion (19:6), the mob does cry out: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Note also that Hollander, in his commentary here, points out a progression among the three visions that exemplify meekness, “from a beloved son, to a relative stranger, to one’s enemies.” There’s something here for every angry sinner, as it were.
|↑12||It’s difficult to know exactly how long Dante’s visions lasted – remembering that each one followed the other immediately. The word “league” here is a vague standard of measurement because it’s hard to know exactly how long a league was in Italy at the time. By some estimates it was about 3 miles, so Dante’s visions might have lasted during a mile and a half as they walked along the Terrace. But the vagueness of the measurement adds to the mystery of the visions themselves which, Dante assures us, were real – only in a different form. It would seem from the context that the two pilgrims stopped for a moment after the third vision ended because as he comes to his senses, Dante sees Virgil staring at him with concern. The pilgrim wants to explain to his mentor what he was experiencing, but Virgil tells him that’s not necessary since he can read Dante’s thoughts. Here, commentators have much to say about Virgil’s spiritual powers.
The narrative that follows here is fascinating (and a bit awkward) because we “participated” in Dante’s visions while he experienced and described them in his ecstatic state. Coming to his senses and seeing Virgil’s troubled look, he offers to re-tell the visions in his normal state of consciousness. Virgil reminds him (and the reader) that he can read his thoughts, so a re-telling isn’t necessary. But did Virgil actually see the visions Dante saw? Nevertheless, we shouldn’t take this hurrying-along as a discounting of the significance of the visions. They were real and they were true, Dante tells us. Earlier, Virgil told Dante to focus on the things of heaven. This Dante seems to have been open to and, no doubt, as Musa remarks here, “…something of the divine has visited him.”
What Virgil (actually Dante) seems more interested in doing, however, is giving a moral commentary on the visions, and he sets out to do that. This seems fitting since he is, after all, Dante’s guide. What’s fascinating is Virgil’s “reason” for asking Dante what was wrong with him. Frankly, this seems both negative and a bit lame. It sounds like the excuse that goes this way: “I just wanted to see what you’d do.” In actuality, Virgil says he simply wanted to make sure Dante was fully awake.
In the mean time, though, Virgil offers a brief lesson that is rather beautiful to consider: “Open yourself to the waters of God’s peace that flow from Him eternally in heaven.” One can’t help but hear the echoes of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman: “He who drinks of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst forever; but the water that I will give him shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting” (John 4:14). Water imagery plays throughout the Poem. In Hell there were the various rivers to be crossed. Here, the Mountain is surrounded by water, and water will appear several more times in this Canticle. Most extraordinarily, and Virgil’s holy thought may be hinting at it, toward the end of the Paradiso (canto 30), Dante and Beatrice will come to a river of light. She will direct him to drink from it. And when he does, his vision is changed such that he can see the entirety of the celestial court! It is a moment not to be missed. No wonder Virgil urges him to resume the journey.
|↑13||With the discussion about Dante’s ecstatic visions now complete, the Pilgrims resume their walk around the third terrace at about 6pm. A good amount of time has passed (and distance) since the beginning of this canto, and the fact that Dante and Virgil are still walking directly into the setting sun suggests that this terrace (and the others, for that matter) is quite large around. Dante makes a point of telling us that, in spite of the brilliant sunshine, they strove to see as far ahead as they could, and then immediately contrasts this with the mysterious black smoke that slowly envelops them. The canto/contrast ends with the two of them blinded and gasping.|