It is dusk on the second day, and as Dante and Virgil emerge from the cloud of smoke, Dante experiences three visions of rage and wrath. Soon the angel of peace appears and shows them the stairs to the next level. At the top of the stairs, and since they cannot travel when it is night, Virgil spends the time explaining to Dante the nature of love.
If you’ve ever been caught in a dense mountain fog that left you virtually blind as a mole; and if you recall how that fog gradually fades and the sun begins to shine dimly, you will have a sense of what it was like when I emerged from that terrible smoke. So, walking alongside my Virgil, we came forth from that darkness as the sun began to set, and the day was already turning into night on the shore far below us.This canto is exactly in the middle of the Purgatorio, and thus in the middle of the entire Poem. Dante begins with a common experience that readers can relate to, emerging from a dense fog into the … Continue reading
O power of imagination that causes us sometimes to lose awareness of what goes on around us, though there be a thousand trumpets blaring! If the senses are silent, what sets you into motion? Perhaps a light from Heaven sent down by God.Along with his sight, Dante suggests that his imagination was also impaired as he walked through the blinding smoke in the previous canto. In moments, the light of the sun (God) will re-energize his … Continue reading
Nevertheless, a scene of wanton atrocity came alive in my imagination as I witnessed Procne commit the outrage that transformed her into a nightingale. So powerfully was I drawn into this scene that nothing outside could have drawn me back from it!This and the next two ecstatic scenes of wrath are “waking” visions, not dreams, and they form the “bridle” of wrath. Recall that on entering this terrace of wrath Dante had three ecstatic … Continue reading
Wide open now, my mind was ablaze in high fantasy as I beheld the crucified Haman, whose sneering face was filled with rage as he died. There looking on were King Ahasuerus, his queen, Esther, and the good Mordecai.This “high fantasy” (Dante will use this phrase again at the very end of the Paradiso) is, according to the Poet, nothing less than the raining down of inspiration from heaven, making him, … Continue reading
Then, like a bubble bursting, this tableau disappeared, only to be replaced by a scene of utter grief. The young Lavinia wept bitterly over the body of her dead mother: “O queen,” she cried, “how could you let your rage destroy you? You may have thought to kill yourself rather than lose me. But now you have lost me, my mother, and it is I who mourn your death.”The image of the bubble–one bursting and another replacing it–is an image of the working of the imagination. An image comes to us and soon another takes its place. In this case, we have the third … Continue reading
As closed eyes struck by light will open quickly–our sleep disturbed now, though it may linger before we are fully awake, so this state of fantasy left me as a new light, more brilliant than anything on earth, appeared in front of me. As I struggled to gather all my senses, a voice spoke, saying: “This is the place to climb.”
Thinking clearly now, I had a powerful desire to see the one to whom that beautiful voice belonged, and I will hold on to that hope till my desire is fulfilled. But before that Heavenly light, I was overwhelmed, like one looking into the sun.The “new light” that breaks in on and scatters Dante’s ecstatic visions is the Angel of Mercy, who shows the travelers where they can climb to the next terrace. But with his imagination cleared … Continue reading
It was Virgil who spoke now: “This divine spirit, hidden within his heavenly brilliance, directs us toward the stairs without our even asking,” he said. “He reminds us that we would be guilty, seeing someone in need, but waiting for them to ask us to help them. But, recalling that we cannot climb upward after dark, let our feet listen to his call and climb as far as we can while there is still some light.”Here, Virgil states a virtuous principle that Dante had already written about in his Convivio (Bk. 1, ch.8): seeing someone in need, we shouldn’t wait to be asked to help them. The Angel of Mercy … Continue reading
Having said this, we went to the stairs and began to climb. No sooner had I reached the first step than I felt the air move before my face, as though I had been fanned by that angel’s wing. Again, such wonderful words were heard: “Beati pacifici, who are free from the sin of wrath.”Having followed the angel’s direction, Dante and Virgil begin to climb the stairs to the next terrace. As soon as Dante’s foot touches the steps, the Angel of Mercy’s wing brushes the third P … Continue reading
As the last rays of the sun were overcome by the fast-approaching night, stars appeared here and there in the heavens high above us. “Why is it that I have become so weak?” I said to myself as the strength in my legs gave way to fatigue. And no sooner had we reached the top of those stairs than we lost all power to continue on our way. Our boat had run ashore!John Ciardi remarks here: “To read Dante is to educate the eye.” Though the sun has not set completely, the two travelers are so high up the mountain that they can already see stars as the … Continue reading
I stood there in that silent darkness, listening to hear what might be heard on this fourth terrace of the mountain. Hearing nothing, I turned to Virgil and asked: “My sweet father, though we have stopped now, don’t stop talking to me, but tell me what sin is cleansed away on this level?”Earlier, Dante was enamored by the angel’s voice, hoping to hear it again. But hearing nothing on this terrace, he affectionately asks Virgil a natural question: “What sin is punished on this … Continue reading
He replied, “The love for what is good, but falls short of it, is strengthened in this place. The idle oar is now pulled with force. Pay attention, now, and this delay will be profitable for you.Similar to Canto 11 in the Inferno, where Virgil described the structure of Hell for Dante, he will now give the Poet a (somewhat philosophical) description of how Purgatory is structured in the … Continue reading
“Neither God nor his creatures are without love. And as you know, there are two kinds of love: the one natural, and the other rational. Natural love–the love of God–is always without fault. But rational love can go astray either by choosing the wrong thing, or by choosing the good with insufficient intention, or choosing it with too much zeal. As long as this good focuses on God and on the things of this world with temperance, it will not go astray. But when it turns away from God or pursues the good with too little or too much strength, then creatures work against their Creator.Virgil’s terminology might sound a bit stilted to the modern reader, but, as the symbol for Reason, he strives to make his exposition as clear as possible. The seven terraces on the Mountain of … Continue reading
“Thus, love is the seed within you from which every virtue grows, but directed toward the wrong ends it can also be the seed of deeds deserving of punishment. Now, love will never wish evil on the one loving; and since no creature can think of himself as completely separate and apart from God, no creature can hate God either.Here, Virgil offers a brief summary of what he has been saying: All of us are endowed with natural love–the love of God, which we reciprocate. All virtues grow out of this love. But endowed with … Continue reading
“So, it would seem, from these arguments, that a man’s misdirected love is focused on his neighbor. And this misguided love can be seen in three ways. First is the one who, exalting himself, scorns his neighbor and takes pleasure in his downfall. Second, there is the man who fears he will lose honor or power or fame if his neighbor should succeed, so he wishes for his fall. Third is the man who is offended in some way and angrily seeks to injure his neighbor in revenge. These three forms of misdirected love are punished on the terraces below us.Again, Virgil summarizes briefly: misdirected love is aimed in various ways at our neighbor, not at God. His three examples of misdirected love point to the first three terraces of the Mountain: … Continue reading
“The other kind of love pursues its goal with varying degrees of excess. In one way or another, everyone desires the good, hoping to be at peace within themselves by possessing that good. But if one’s desire is weak or lukewarm, then they are punished and cleansed on this terrace.Virgil here summarizes the nature of rational love and makes it clear that everyone desires the good, realizing/hoping that it brings them peace, depending on the quality and direction of that love. … Continue reading
“Finally, there is another good that does not bring one true happiness, because its source is not from God, from whom all good things come. You will soon understand, without further explanation from me, how the excessive pursuit of this good follows three paths, and is purged on the next three terraces.”Virgil ends his lecture–and this canto–by referring subtly to the sins purged on the next three terraces: Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. The so-called “good” sought excessively in the pursuit … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||This canto is exactly in the middle of the Purgatorio, and thus in the middle of the entire Poem. Dante begins with a common experience that readers can relate to, emerging from a dense fog into the sunlight. In his time, it was believed by many that moles’ eyes were completely sealed, while others correctly (Dante included) believed they were covered by an opaque membrane through which they could see a kind of foggy light such as he describes here. Of course, one can also read these lines symbolically. The sin of wrath virtually blinds a person as did the smoke in the previous canto. The sunlight (God) brings one back from sin to spiritual clear-sightedness. In a sense, Dante is inviting the reader to join him in this. At the same time, he is walking unaided, and it’s fascinating to see how, emerging from the blindness caused by the smoke (remember that he had to hang on to Virgil in the previous canto), he experiences a kind of “dawn” as the sun gradually emerges, though it’s actually sunset on his second day (Easter Monday) on the Mountain. He and Virgil are actually high enough up the Mountain to notice that it’s already getting dark down along the shore.|
|↑2||Along with his sight, Dante suggests that his imagination was also impaired as he walked through the blinding smoke in the previous canto. In moments, the light of the sun (God) will re-energize his clouded imagination with a series of vivid ecstatic scenes of wrath as a kind of residue-reminder of the sin punished on this terrace. What sets his imagination in motion? He suggests a light from the heavens; perhaps inspiration; or even (and most likely, according to some commentators) the movement of God’s grace (will) upon us. Charles Singleton, in his commentary, offers a fascinating possibility: “In this case the imagination is stolen by God, and no sense experience is necessary for the formation of the Poet’s visions.”
Commenting on Aristotle’s De somno et vigilia (On Sleep and Wakefulness) 3:1.8-9, St. Albert the Great writes: “The celestial forms directed at us, when touching our bodies, move them with great strength and impress their powers, though they are not perceived because of the tumult of outward distractions; when the soul is separated from the senses, in whatever way, then the motions are perceived…The imaginative soul, which the movements of these forms reach in this way, receives them according to the mode of its own possible movement, that is, the forms of the imagination.”
At the same time, this short apostrophe to imagination clearly shows how Dante understands the dynamics of reading. An artistic text, like the Commedia, is intended to draw us in with its power to invoke (even provoke?) our imagination to “see” what is not really there, but becomes real all the same. We can get so lost in a text that we willingly pull up our anchor in reality and move into the world of the text. The text produces images which the imagination processes into a kind of alternative reality we inhabit while reading. And, to a certain extent, the memory holds a shadow or portion of this experience that we can actually revisit in our minds. Reader-response scholars speak of a merging of the horizon of the text with our own such that a new world is created. Call to mind the experience of Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5 of the Inferno. Reading the book about Lancelot and Guinevere, they actually became the two lovers they were reading about. For the moment, their adultery became sanctified because it was already enshrined in the literature of the past as a great (albeit dangerous) love affair. Ruefully, Francesca tells Dante that the book they read was actually a “pimp” that led them into sin. “To the moment of one line alone we yielded…,” she tells him–and lost their souls! Dante soon faints. Is he overcome by the emotion Francesca’s story evokes? Definitely yes. But is he also overcome by the realization of the power of his words as a poet? Definitely yes! The two lovers read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere and lost their souls. Dante, on the other hand, is going in the opposite direction with his Comedy–creating it as an aid to salvation.
|↑3||This and the next two ecstatic scenes of wrath are “waking” visions, not dreams, and they form the “bridle” of wrath. Recall that on entering this terrace of wrath Dante had three ecstatic visions of meekness–quite the opposite of what he will encounter here at this end of the terrace.
This first scene comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and was noted earlier in Canto 9, a bit more sympathetically. Procne and Philomela were the daughters of Pandion, the king of Athens. Procne was married to Tereus, the king of Thrace. After several years, Procne wanted to see her sister, so Tereus journeyed to Athens to bring her to Thrace. However, he was smitten with her beauty, and on the way, he raped her and cut out her tongue so she could never tell what happened to her. He then hid her and reported to Procne that her sister was dead. Philomela, meanwhile, wove a tapestry depicting the heinous crime and had an old woman deliver it to her sister. When Procne saw the tapestry, she asked the woman to take her to Philomela so that she could rescue her. Returning home, and in revenge against her husband, Procne killed her son, Itys, by stabbing him in the heart and Philomela slit his throat. They cooked him, and served him to, Tereus. This infanticide and cannibalism is “the outrage” he speaks of and the focus of the wrath for which Dante accuses her. When the meal was over, Philomela appeared with the head of Itys and threw it on the table at Tereus. Realizing what they had done to him, he chased after them with an axe to kill them both. But as they ran, the women were turned into birds by the gods: Procne into a nightingale, and Philomela into a swallow. Later, apparently, Tereus was turned into a hawk. The savage horror of this vision of wrath engulfs Dante so completely that he cannot break away from it. Ovid’s detail is even more gruesome. In his commentary here, Robert Hollander notes that this is not simply a scene of intemperate anger, but a premeditated act. Wrath, he notes, will later in this canto be defined as “involving the hardened will in a desire for revenge.” What we have, in the Italian, is a vendetta.
Finally, it’s odd that Dante (contrary to Ovid) turns Procne into a nightingale and Philomela into a swallow. Mark Musa is the only commentator I have found who notes this (without comment). There are variations on the story, but that Philomela becomes the nightingale with its mournful song seems the most appropriate. Interestingly enough, though, it is only the male nightingale that sings. The female is mute. All swallows are mute.
|↑4||This “high fantasy” (Dante will use this phrase again at the very end of the Paradiso) is, according to the Poet, nothing less than the raining down of inspiration from heaven, making him, according to Robert Hollander, a “God-inspired poet.”
This second ecstatic vision comes from chapters 3-7 of the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. In summary, King Ahasuerus of Persia named Haman as his prime minister. Haman, filled with pride, demanded that those beneath him in rank should bow down to him–including the good man Mordecai. When Mordecai refused, the enraged Haman took revenge by persuading Ahasuerus to decree that Mordecai and all Jews living in his kingdom be executed. Queen Esther, Mordecai’s cousin and ward, was also a Jew, but had hidden this from her husband. In desperation for her people, she revealed her identity to her husband, but also the evil plot of his prime minister, Haman. The king was outraged and ordered that Haman be hanged on the same gibbet he had constructed for the execution of Mordecai. Dante’s noting that Haman was crucified stems from a mis-translation of the word for gibbet in the Latin Vulgate Bible. Some translations say that he was impaled on a pole.
|↑5||The image of the bubble–one bursting and another replacing it–is an image of the working of the imagination. An image comes to us and soon another takes its place. In this case, we have the third ecstatic vision–this time a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid. Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus and his wife, Amata, was courted by Turnus, leader of the Rutuli. But after an omen/vision, Latinus promised her in marriage to Aeneas, Turnus’ mortal enemy. Amata opposed the marriage to Aeneas and wanted her daughter to marry Turnus (whom Aeneas eventually kills). Later, hearing a false report that Turnus had already been killed, Amata, in a despairing rage, hanged herself. Acts of rage often have unexpected consequences as we read when Lavinia mourns the loss of her mother. Amata killed herself so as not to lose her daughter. Instead, she herself is both dead and has lost her daughter.
Commenting on this scene, Mark Musa notes: “That Amata could be presented along with the vicious figures of Procne and Haman is surely due to Dante’s admiration for Aeneas and to Dante’s association of the Trojans with the Romans in carrying out God’s will. God Himself had planned that Aeneas should found Rome in Latium, which would become the site of the Church. (Thus, Amata’s wrath against Aeneas was an example of sacrilegious wrath.)”
|↑6||The “new light” that breaks in on and scatters Dante’s ecstatic visions is the Angel of Mercy, who shows the travelers where they can climb to the next terrace. But with his imagination cleared of the visions he had, the Poet is once again blinded by a light more powerful than the sun, and enamored by the angel’s voice, Dante longs to hear it again. The back-and-forth movement from blindness to sight is an interesting literary device, giving the reader a sense of the Poet’s constant yearning for the fullness of the divine light–which he will finally experience at the end of the Paradiso. The higher he climbs, the closer he gets to that One Light.
In the previous canto, Dante was blinded by the thick smoke. Coming out of the smoke, his sight returns, only to be “blinded” again by the ecstatic visions. Then the Angel of Mercy appears and “wakes” him from the visions with his blinding brilliance. And it’s sunset with the ensuing darkness fast approaching them.
|↑7||Here, Virgil states a virtuous principle that Dante had already written about in his Convivio (Bk. 1, ch.8): seeing someone in need, we shouldn’t wait to be asked to help them. The Angel of Mercy had done just this by showing them the way up to the next terrace. Dante is thinking of Seneca’s statement in his De beneficiis 2:5: “To be slow to wish to give is not to wish it…he who delays is unwilling.” Taking this further, Charles Singleton notes Seneca’s statement in his Moral Essays: v. 3: “The man who receives a benefit because he asked for it, does not get it for nothing, since in truth, as our forefathers, those most venerable men, discerned, no other thing costs so dear as the one that entreaty buys.” And commenting on this further, Mark Musa notes: “Not coming forth to supply a need of one’s fellows recalls the nature of caritas in Cantos 13 and 14; it is not exactly a sin, like envy, but predisposes one to doing wrong. Dante felt so strongly about such holding back that the circle of the Indecisive in Hell [Canto 3] swarms with tormented souls (although in context here, Virgil’s observation anticipates the sin of sloth encountered in the next canto).”
Finally, Virgil reminds Dante of one of the “rules” of the Mountain, that they cannot climb upward after dark. He urges haste so they can at least reach the next terrace, which haste the angel had also urged upon them by showing them the way up without his being asked. This haste will be countered on the next terrace by the sin of sloth that is punished there. Dante also has in mind here Jesus’ urging in the Gospel of John (12:35f): “Yet a little while the light [Christ] is among you. Walk while you have the light, that the darkness may not overtake you.”
|↑8||Having followed the angel’s direction, Dante and Virgil begin to climb the stairs to the next terrace. As soon as Dante’s foot touches the steps, the Angel of Mercy’s wing brushes the third P from his forehead. As he does so, the angel quotes a part of the seventh Beatitude from the Gospel of Matthew (5:9): “Blessed are the peacemakers,” with his own context-appropriate ending (Dante’s gloss on the text): “…who are free from the sin of wrath.” Robert Hollander offers an important qualification here: the angel quotes the Beatitude, “yet does so in such a way as to indicate tacitly the distinction between ‘good’ anger (righteous indignation) and the ‘bad’ form of wrath that is fueled by desire for personal revenge.” The Gospel (John 2:13ff) offers us an example of Jesus’ righteous indignation when he drove the money-changers from the Temple.|
|↑9||John Ciardi remarks here: “To read Dante is to educate the eye.” Though the sun has not set completely, the two travelers are so high up the mountain that they can already see stars as the darkness races up behind them. Then, we are immediately reminded again of the “rule” against climbing upward in the dark as Dante feels himself becoming weaker. As the two reach the top of the stairs, the darkness catches up with them and they find themselves powerless to move. Welcome to the Terrace of Sloth! The spiritual significance of their situation should not be lost on us: in the light of the Sun (God’s Light) the soul can make progress in virtue and toward salvation. But the darkness (a symbol of sin or acedia) works against our progress because we cannot see the right way to proceed.
The image of the ship is one used here and there throughout the Commedia. It represents the Poem itself that carries us on the journey (voyage) to salvation. Here, he’s not so much suggesting that the ship arrived smoothly in port, but rather more negatively–that it suddenly ran aground, that it was forcibly stopped. The soul, on its journey (voyage) to God, hopes for smooth sailing. But it can also find itself caught in a storm (an image of sin) or worse, as in the case of Ulysses in Canto 26 of the Inferno–utterly destroyed! On the other hand, Dante also wants us to literally understand here that they simply arrived on the fourth Terrace at nightfall and could not continue without the light of the sun.
|↑10||Earlier, Dante was enamored by the angel’s voice, hoping to hear it again. But hearing nothing on this terrace, he affectionately asks Virgil a natural question: “What sin is punished on this terrace?” Virgil will speak for the rest of this canto.|
|↑11||Similar to Canto 11 in the Inferno, where Virgil described the structure of Hell for Dante, he will now give the Poet a (somewhat philosophical) description of how Purgatory is structured in the context of Love, and how all the sins punished here, in one form or another, stem from the wrong use of love. Recalling that this canto stands at the exact center of both the Purgatorio and the entire Commedia, the significance of the following lesson on love at the very center of the Poem should not be lost upon the reader.
Virgil begins his “lecture” by answering Dante’s question in the simplest way. This is a place (Purgatory in general) where souls who desire to do good, but fall short of that goal, are strengthened. The journey to God is like a sea voyage, and the ship image returns as he adds that this terrace is a place where the “oars” of the slothful are (must be) pulled with force (thus the strengthening) in order to get back on the course toward salvation. His request that Dante pay careful attention is aimed at the reader as well. What we and the Poet learn now will be valuable as we proceed through the rest of the Poem.
|↑12||Virgil’s terminology might sound a bit stilted to the modern reader, but, as the symbol for Reason, he strives to make his exposition as clear as possible. The seven terraces on the Mountain of Purgatory correspond to the seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. This fourth terrace corresponds to the sin of Sloth, and it’s important to understand that the sloth Dante (Virgil) refers to here is not what we usually think of as laziness or indolence. Rather, this kind of sloth is spiritual, a torpor or lethargy in the soul that, while it loves the good, it lacks the strength or willpower to actively pursue it. Oftentimes, this condition is referred to as acedia (from the Latin and Greek, meaning “not caring.”)
So, Virgil reminds Dante that all of creation stems from, and is an outpouring of, God’s love which fills all created things (humans, animals, plants, and inanimate things). But, there are two kinds of love: natural love and rational love. Natural love is the simplest to understand: because all created things stem from the love of God, and because God doesn’t create anything bad or evil, the reciprocal love of God is instinctive in them. Rational love, however, sometimes referred to as mental or elective love, pertains only to humans and involves the will which, because it is free, may choose the good or the bad. And here is where the various kinds of sins then come into the picture. This rational love goes astray in three ways: first, when we choose the wrong thing thinking it is good (leading to sins of Pride, Envy, and Wrath); second, by choosing the good, but pursuing it without much vigor or energy (leading to the sin of Sloth); and third, by choosing the good, but with too much drive and energy (leading to the sins of Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust).
And so, he concludes, as long as we choose the ultimate Good, which is God, or the temporal goods of this world in moderation, we aren’t deviating from the path that leads to salvation. But, when God or the ultimate Good is not in the picture and we pursue goals that we think are good with too much drive and energy, then we’re in trouble. Obviously, it is not possible to love God to excess, but it is possible to love secondary things excessively.
|↑13||Here, Virgil offers a brief summary of what he has been saying: All of us are endowed with natural love–the love of God, which we reciprocate. All virtues grow out of this love. But endowed with free will, we can choose the good or misdirect our love toward something that is less. The point of Purgatory is to refine the soul and purge it of the residue of our bad choices. Hell, as we have seen throughout the Inferno, is filled with souls who chose to go there of their own accord. Tragically, there is no hope for them. Charles Singleton notes here that: “Any appearance of hatred against God or the self is one of the delusions of Hell.” And he quotes Charles Williams in The Figure of Beatrice, p.163, who writes about Canto 3 of the Inferno: “It is the rational choice of which Virgil is speaking, and in Hell the rational choice no longer exists; there are ‘the people who have lost the good of the intellect.’”
Furthermore, Virgil (Dante) tends to use the Scholastic framework of Thomas Aquinas here. Because we are innately good (loved into being by God) it’s impossible to wish evil on ourselves. John Ciardi notes here that every act has good in it: “Even suicide is an act motivated by self-love, the suicide believing he does himself more good in escaping life than enduring it.” On the other side of the coin, we might hate God’s commandments, for example, but it is equally impossible to hate God himself because our very existence is “authored” by him. We are made to love God, made to love (our) being.
Dante himself writes about this in his Convivio (III,2):
|↑14||Again, Virgil summarizes briefly: misdirected love is aimed in various ways at our neighbor, not at God. His three examples of misdirected love point to the first three terraces of the Mountain: Pride, then Envy, and then Wrath. Here, Mark Musa makes an interesting point about Pride and Envy: “In both cases it is the wish for misfortune against one’s neighbors that is the sin rather than active deed against them, emphasizing once again that sins purged in this realm are those of omission or habits of mind that cause the soul to lose its way.” Later, he will claim that the same is case for Wrath, where the sinner “acts out in his mind a vendetta against those who injure him…the proud person ‘sees’ and ‘longs’; the envious person ‘fears’ and ‘wishes’; the angry man ‘flares up’ and ‘thinks’.”
Note: the exact middle of the Comedy–the midpoint of our journey/voyage–happens as Virgil describes Envy. The Poem is 14,233 lines long, and there seems to be no particular significance that this sin is spoken of at line 7,116.
|↑15||Virgil here summarizes the nature of rational love and makes it clear that everyone desires the good, realizing/hoping that it brings them peace, depending on the quality and direction of that love. Love that aims specifically at God is always good. And the same can be said, in a kind of secondary way, when one desires in a temperate way the goods of this world. Love goes astray when its goal is something evil or when it approaches its goal in a disordered way–too excessively or too weakly. This leads Virgil, finally, to answer the question Dante asked when they first arrived at this fourth terrace: “What sin is cleansed away on this level?”|
|↑16||Virgil ends his lecture–and this canto–by referring subtly to the sins purged on the next three terraces: Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. The so-called “good” sought excessively in the pursuit of these sins does not, in fact, bring one happiness. This, he concludes, Dante will discover for himself as they continue their ascent.
By this time, the reader may well have in mind a question relating to the knowledge Virgil displayed in answering Dante’s question. Mark Musa takes up this question near the end of his commentary on this canto:
“The question has arisen why Virgil is so familiar with the purgatorial system on the mountain. How could he have learned about the traditional theological order of the seven deadly sins? It is true that while traveling through Hell he witnessed the Harrowing of Hell (Inferno XII, 27-39) and learned the significance of the birth of Christ. He also spoke with Beatrice, who may have instructed him. But in structuring worldly experience according to the Christian concept of God as Love, he is reasoning also from Greek philosophical principles (found in Hesiod, Parmenides, Empedocles, Plato, and Aristotle) about the creation and governing of the world, systems founded on wisdom and united by love. Germane to these philosophies is the idea that love is both a link and a deficiency, a need or imperfection temporarily remedied by humanity’s living together in harmony.”
Sin, of course, is the disruption of this harmony.