Having listened attentively to Virgil’s lecture on love in the previous canto, Dante asks him to define love. Virgil replies with another discourse that ends near midnight. Soon, the Pilgrims are surprised by an immense group of souls who rush past them at break-neck speed, cleansing their sin of sloth. Virgil asks for directions and one of the souls speaks briefly as he rushes by. Tired after a long day, Dante falls asleep.
Having finished his instruction, my great teacher studied my face for a moment, looking to see, I think, if I was satisfied with his explanations. I was anxious to hear more, but I kept silent, thinking to myself: “Maybe he’s getting tired of all my questions.” But, true father to me that he was, he knew what I wanted and that I was probably too shy to ask. So he began again and thus encouraged me to do the same.There is no formal preface or introduction to this canto. It simply takes up where the previous one left off, and Virgil will soon continue his discourse on love. As Dante tells us affectionately, … Continue reading
“My dear master,” I started, “your explanations were so clear that I understood everything you said. Yet there is one more thing, my dear, sweet father. You said that love is the source of all virtue and vice. So please define love now.”Note Dante’s effusive affection for Virgil here: “My dear master…my dear, sweet father.” It would seem that the more he learns about the nature of love, the more loving he becomes–which is … Continue reading
“Very well,” he happily replied. If you attend carefully to what I will tell you now, you will see the error of those blind leaders of the blind. At birth, the soul is already inclined toward love, and it moves toward anything that gives it pleasure. Based on what it sees in reality, the mind creates an image within you and directs your attention to it. And as your mind turns toward this image–this is the natural love I spoke of earlier. Now, just as flames always burn upward because it is in their nature to be one with their primal element, in the same way the loving soul moves toward the object it loves, never resting till it achieves its loved goal.Having been so affectionately recognized by his pupil, Virgil is happy to take up his lesson again, and begins by warning Dante against those whose blindness prevents them from understanding clearly … Continue reading
“Hopefully, it is now clear to you that not every love is good, as those who are blind to this truth will claim. They think this way because love always seems good. But having good wax doesn’t mean every seal impressed on it is a good one.”It’s at this point that Virgil turns toward an explanation of misdirected love. He does this by reference to, and subtly warning Dante against, Epicurean philosophy, whose followers are those blind … Continue reading
“What you have stated in answer to my question satisfies my desire to know what love is now,” I said. “But knowing this raises still other questions. If love’s source is outside of us, and the soul naturally moves toward it, how can we praise or blame the soul for its good or bad choices?”Having satisfactorily answered Dante’s question, he continues to pursue Virgil with another significant one. If the love within us comes from God, and if, because of that love within us our souls … Continue reading
“Well,” he answered, “I can explain this to you from the view of reason. But the rest has to do with faith, and you will have to wait for Beatrice to answer that. Everything that makes us unique and distinct from matter is joined together within our soul with a kind of power that cannot be seen except in how it works or in its effects. For example, green leaves are proof of life in plants. In the same way, humans don’t have direct knowledge of where their understanding of first principles comes from, nor do they know, precisely, why they are drawn toward what is good. All of this is simply innate within us–like the eagerness of bees to make honey. It makes us who we are, and is neither worthy of praise nor blame.Note that Virgil’s reference to Dante’s need to appeal to reason and faith here also points to his (Virgil’s) and Beatrice’s roles as representing Reason (philosophy) and Faith. Virgil will … Continue reading
“Together with the primal will, your in-born ability to reason should also guide your ability to consent or not. This is what determines one’s merit as they distinguish good love from bad love. The ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, explored the workings of reason and determined that we have an innate freedom to choose. And with this, they created the rule of ethics. Though various kinds of love arise within you, you have the inner power to control them. This great power within us Beatrice will call Free Will. Remember this if she should ever speak about it.”Virgil here is speaking about free will. When joined with the powers of intellect and reason it gives us the ability to choose (decide on) good or bad. On these choices us based our merit or blame. … Continue reading
By now, it was nearing midnight, and the moon shone as brightly as a polished bucket, dimming the light of the stars as it followed its course from east to west across the sky. And my noble guide, who made his birthplace most famous among its nearby Mantuan towns, now laid aside the weighty thoughts he had proposed to me. For my part, filled with such elegant answers to my questions, I, too, loosed my thoughts to wander drowsily by themselves at that late hour.The second part of this canto begins here, and if it’s close to midnight, then Dante’s questions and Virgil’s “lectures” have gone on for several hours. There are several things one can … Continue reading
However, this drowsiness of ours was suddenly interrupted by a crowd of souls who came rushing around the mountain from behind us. What came to mind were the ancient Theban bacchanalia along the banks of the Ismenus and Asopus. These souls seemed to be caught up in a similar frenzy as they rushed around the curve of that terrace, goaded on by good will and just love.It has been a long day for Dante and Virgil. Having learned much from Marco the Lombard, and later from Virgil, the Poet’s drowsiness anticipates the last experience of this day–his encounter … Continue reading
So there they were, that great crowd of racing spirits, speeding toward us. Leading them were two souls who cried out loudly. One shouted, “Mary ran quickly to the hills,” and the other cried out, “Caesar laid siege to Marseilles and then rushed on to Spain to capture Ilerda.” “Faster, ever faster!” came the cry from behind. “We cannot waste time, for time is love. May our desire for the good fill us with God’s saving grace.”These slothful souls–a great crowd of them–are actually practicing the virtue opposite to their sin by racing along the terrace with such fervor. The “Whip of Sloth” is seen in the examples … Continue reading
As they were moving past us, Virgil called out: “O eager souls, rushing now to make up for your sloth and half-hearted love of doing good, this man who is alive–I swear to you–wants to climb upward when the sun returns. Please show us the nearest way to reach the stairs.”This “half-hearted love of doing good” is a key to understanding the deeper meaning of sloth. Their speed stands in contrast to their negligent love and delay in the pursuit of virtue. These … Continue reading
And one of them cried out as he passed us: “Just follow us and you’ll find what you’re looking for. Our desire to rush onward prevents us from stopping, so pardon what may seem to be rude, but our penance here urges us onward. In Verona, I was the abbot of San Zeno during the reign of the good Barbarossa, of whom the Milanese speak ill because he destroyed their city! A man there, already close to death, will soon regret the power he had over that monastery, because he appointed his bastard son–deformed in body and in mind–as its abbot!”Recall that the movement here is counter-clockwise. Also, one notices that there is no particular prayer said by the penitent souls here as on other terraces. Probably because there’s no time to … Continue reading
That rushing soul may have said more, but I didn’t hear it–so far along were they. But I was happy to hear as much as I did. Virgil said, “Turn around now and see the last of these racing souls, cleansing the sin of sloth.”It seems a bit far-fetched that Gherardo, racing away as he was, had time to relate his information about the emperor and the abbot. But, as Dante tells us, he might not have heard everything. Is he … Continue reading
Two of them at the end, as though pushing the rest onward, shouted: “Those who crossed the Red Sea were dead before their children crossed the Jordan; those who tired of following Aeneas, ended their days without renown.”The earlier examples of the Virgil Mary and Julius Caesar comprised the “Whip of Sloth.” Now we have the “Rein of Sloth” as the Canto comes to a close. Following the pattern from previous … Continue reading
When that herd of rushing spirits was finally out of sight, one thought, and then another and another, filled my sleepy mind until I closed my eyes–letting all those thoughts turn themselves into dreams.The earlier drowsiness he experienced before seeing the slothful souls rushing past catches up with Dante and, in a kind of segue to the next canto, he lets his thoughts wander and turn themselves … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||There is no formal preface or introduction to this canto. It simply takes up where the previous one left off, and Virgil will soon continue his discourse on love. As Dante tells us affectionately, his “great teacher” (l’alto dottore in the Italian–“the lofty doctor”) stopped for a moment to peer into his face to see if his “student” had comprehended his lesson. There’s a certain comedy here as Dante, for his part, wants to hear more, but admits that he was too shy to ask. And he’s afraid that Virgil will be annoyed at his constant questioning. As it turns out, Dante is subtly reminding us of what we’ve known all along (and might have forgotten): that Virgil can read his mind. This being the case, Virgil signals that he’s open to continue and Dante begins with another question.|
|↑2||Note Dante’s effusive affection for Virgil here: “My dear master…my dear, sweet father.” It would seem that the more he learns about the nature of love, the more loving he becomes–which is really the purpose of both Purgatory and his journey through it. But he still has a significant question which implies a seeming contradiction: how is love “the source of all virtue and vice?” In other words, what, really, is the essence of love?|
|↑3||Having been so affectionately recognized by his pupil, Virgil is happy to take up his lesson again, and begins by warning Dante against those whose blindness prevents them from understanding clearly the doctrine Virgil is presenting. The reference to the blind leading the blind comes from St. Matthew’s Gospel (15:14), where Jesus warns his disciples against the teaching of the Pharisees: “They are blind guides of the blind. But if a blind person guides another blind person, both will fall into a pit.”
Virgil begins by recapping what he has already described as “natural love,” that love which draws us instinctively toward the Creator whose love created us and draws us toward himself. The soul, he tells Dante, is basically made for–inclined toward–love, and is drawn toward whatever pleases it. What it sees, the soul/mind creates an image of it and moves you toward it–the working of the imagination. This is the action of natural love in the soul. Virgil demonstrates this using the simple image of a flame, which, by its nature always burns upward.
|↑4||It’s at this point that Virgil turns toward an explanation of misdirected love. He does this by reference to, and subtly warning Dante against, Epicurean philosophy, whose followers are those blind guides he warned against above. They believe that love, as desire, is always good and should be pursued and gratified. But this is a dangerous path to follow as it can justify a love of excess instead of a love guided by free will toward temperance and moderation. Here, Virgil (Dante) is influenced by Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul) and Metaphysics as were other great Medieval thinkers. He concludes with another image involving wax and a seal impressed on it. The good wax is symbolic of our instinctive movement toward love. The stamp or “impression” represents the image our mind/imagination creates out of what it sees or is drawn to. But not every object/impression we love is good. It can also be bad.|
|↑5||Having satisfactorily answered Dante’s question, he continues to pursue Virgil with another significant one. If the love within us comes from God, and if, because of that love within us our souls seek to be reunited with the source of that love, why praise or blame the soul for its good or bad choices if we are helpless to resist the objects of its love, as though the soul has no choice? This, Charles Singleton notes in his commentary, is “the central lesson of the whole poem: all movements of the soul are to be seen as movements of love, and ‘neither Creator nor any creature…was ever without love’ (Purg 17:91f).”|
|↑6||Note that Virgil’s reference to Dante’s need to appeal to reason and faith here also points to his (Virgil’s) and Beatrice’s roles as representing Reason (philosophy) and Faith. Virgil will answer as far as reason can take him; Beatrice will complete the picture from the point of view of revelation and the Christian faith.
Our souls are distinct from matter, and the characteristics that make our souls unique join together to operate in a mysterious way, such that we cannot actually “see” them working, but we can see their effects. Thus, the example of the green leaves, and so also with workings of the soul. We don’t know precisely where our knowledge of things like truth or goodness, or even God, come from. We also don’t know exactly why we’re attracted to these things. But we are. And this is within the nature of who we are as beings. Thus, the example of the bees.
|↑7||Virgil here is speaking about free will. When joined with the powers of intellect and reason it gives us the ability to choose (decide on) good or bad. On these choices us based our merit or blame. And as he has already explained, there are various kinds of love, and it is our free will that enables us to choose the best among them. Long ago, he tells Dante, great thinkers had already worked this out and laid the foundations for ethical behavior. Finally, it’s fascinating here that Virgil (Dante) anticipates Beatrice’s explanation of free will in Canto 5:19ff of the Paradiso. Her words are remarkable: “The greatest gift that our bounteous Lord bestowed as the Creator, in creating, the gift He cherishes the most, the one most like Himself, was freedom of the will. All creatures with intelligence, and they alone, were so endowed both then and now.”
Going back to Canto 3 of the Inferno for a moment, Virgil had already reminded the Poet that the souls in hell were there because they chose to be there. They had (freely) lost the good of the intellect and were no better than animals.
|↑8||The second part of this canto begins here, and if it’s close to midnight, then Dante’s questions and Virgil’s “lectures” have gone on for several hours. There are several things one can note about the moon here. Several nights ago (Thursday, to be exact), the moon was full when Dante entered the dark wood. Now, five nights later, it is gibbous and looks like a bucket because it’s illuminated half is turned downward. Its brightness, like a polished bucket (which some commentators say is red or burnished), is probably due to its closeness to the horizon. The fact that it’s waning and, according to Dante, the slowest of the planets, also makes it a fitting image of the sloth that’s punished on this terrace. In his commentary, Mark Musa presents a clear picture of what Dante is describing in this passage:
“[The moon is] following its monthly course in the direction from West to East by the process of gradual retardation. In the complicated astronomical figure contained in this tercet we are told that the moon was in the same path of the zodiac which the sun follows when the people of Rome [looking westward] see it setting on a line between Sardinia and Corsica. According to Moore (1887, pp. 104-105) this happens in late November when the sun is in Sagittarius, and this is exactly where the moon would be on this night of April in Purgatory.”
Virgil was born in the town of Pietola, about five miles southeast of Mantua. In lavishing more praise on his illustrious mentor, who answered his questions so elegantly, Dante even mentions Virgil’s hometown as now being famous. But, at this late hour, both teacher and student are weary. Dante seems to follow his mentor in letting his mind rest and his thoughts wander. Again, Mark Musa offers some fascinating insights: “It is curious that here Virgil is given a different mythical dimension in the parallel between him and the moon: as the moon outshines the light of the stars, Virgil, it seems, takes center stage in all of his region through the name of his tiny village. That he might resemble the moon in its other particulars lends further symbolic interest to this passage.”
|↑9||It has been a long day for Dante and Virgil. Having learned much from Marco the Lombard, and later from Virgil, the Poet’s drowsiness anticipates the last experience of this day–his encounter with the souls of the slothful. As noted in the previous canto, sloth is not simply laziness, it is far more insidious. In her commentary on this canto, Dorothy Sayers is masterful as she defines this terrible sin, also known as acedia:
“It is not merely idleness of mind and laziness of body, it is that whole poisoning of the will which, beginning with indifference and an attitude of ‘I couldn’t care less,’ extends to the deliberate refusal of joy and culminates in morbid introspection and despair. One form of it which appeals very strongly to some modern minds is that acquiescence in evil and error which readily disguises itself as ‘Tolerance’; another is that refusal to be moved by the contemplation of the good and beautiful which is known as ‘Disillusionment,’ and sometimes as ‘knowledge of the world’; yet another is that withdrawal into an ‘ivory tower’ of Isolation which is the peculiar temptation of the artist and the contemplative, and is popularly called ‘Escapism.’ The penance assigned to it takes the form of the practice of the opposite virtue: an active Zeal. Note that on this Cornice alone no verbal Prayer is provided for the penitents: for them, “to labor is to pray.”
She also writes that acedia is:
“…the accomplice of the other sins, and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”
One might note here that during the Middle Ages, acedia was often written about as a sin that plagued monks. Monastic/spiritual literature of the time both notes it’s presence and offers remedies.
The frenzied racing around behind them–in the middle of the night–is totally unexpected by the two drowsy travelers who are probably sitting near the stairs looking out at the grand view before them (the sea, the Mountain, the moon, the stars). With classical references ever at his disposal, Dante’s surprise at the crazed scene they behold reminds him of what he had read (and “seen”) about the wild cult of Bacchus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Statius’ Thebaid. Thebes was the center of this cult, and ancient lurid images of the nocturnal orgiastic rituals along the banks of the rivers Ismenus and Asopus near Thebes seem to have filled Dante’s imagination as he took in this unexpected scene. And then, as though remembering where he is, he moves from a scene of riotous pagan worship to the almost mad pursuit of virtue. The whole scene here lies in stark contrast to the elegant intellectual disquisitions of the first half of this canto.
|↑10||These slothful souls–a great crowd of them–are actually practicing the virtue opposite to their sin by racing along the terrace with such fervor. The “Whip of Sloth” is seen in the examples cried out by two souls in the lead. The first is a scene from chapter 1 of St. Luke’s Gospel. When the angel Gabriel had announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus (the Annunciation), he also told her that her barren cousin, Elizabeth, was also with child. When the vision ended, Mary went to the hill country to visit her cousin (the Visitation), whose son would be John the Baptist. The second scene is from Lucan’s Pharsalia, wherein he recounts how Julius Caesar, after subduing the city of Marseilles, went on to subdue the (modern) city of Lerida. Then, as this race of souls passes by, shouts of “Faster!” can be heard from behind, along with this wonderful reminder: “We cannot waste time, for time is love.” Recall how, in the earlier part of this canto, Virgil explained to Dante how we were created by a loving Creator whose love fills us and holds us in being. Our natural inclination is to return that love to God by choosing him above all else, by works of virtue, and by using the goods of this world with moderation. These slothful souls, as noted above in the explanation of acedia, may have grasped this moral principle intellectually, but did little to put it into action. Thus, they race about in a frenzy reminding themselves of the time they wasted in loving too little.|
|↑11||This “half-hearted love of doing good” is a key to understanding the deeper meaning of sloth. Their speed stands in contrast to their negligent love and delay in the pursuit of virtue. These souls are not guilty of abandoning virtue and good works completely. But the rushing contrapasso they endure is making up for lost time while they were alive. Note also that, since it’s dark, Dante doesn’t cast a shadow and the souls Virgil addresses wouldn’t be surprised at his presence among them. And Mark Musa offers a deeper explanation for why Virgil “swears” that Dante is alive: “Although Virgil is polite, this protestation of honesty hints at one of the most common aspects of sloth – the tendency for the individual to lie to himself. The Pilgrim, he claims, in spite of being alive, intends to get an early start climbing the mountain; he no longer procrastinates.”|
|↑12||Recall that the movement here is counter-clockwise. Also, one notices that there is no particular prayer said by the penitent souls here as on other terraces. Probably because there’s no time to stop and pray, as it were. Their movement is their prayer. This reader finds it rather comical that the soul(s) here politely apologize for their seeming rudeness in not stopping to talk, yet the Abbot of San Zeno, apparently named Gherardo, has time to praise the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and bad-mouth the present Abbot of his monastery. More running seems to be in his future!
The Benedictine monastery and church of San Zeno in Verona was undoubtedly familiar to Dante who, during a good part of his exile, was the guest of the Scala family, lords of the city. The splendid church was still under construction when Dante was there. Though Shakespeare tells us that Romeo and Juliet were married by Friar Lawrence, probably in this monastery, there is a legend that the chapel in its crypt is where the wedding took place.
Gherardo, the speaker here, about whom we know very little, was apparently hospitable to the emperor Frederick, who later rewarded him by making him Abbot of San Zeno. This is most likely why he is called “the good Barbarossa.” As for the rebellious Milanese, Frederick destroyed their city in 1167, almost a hundred years before Dante was born. The “man close to death” is another reference to the Scala family–this time Alberto della Scala, who died in 1301. In 1300, when the Poem is set, he would definitely be near death. Alberto had three sons: Bartolomeo, Alboino, and Francesco (called Cangrande, who was Dante’s host). In 1292, in violation of church law, Alberto forced the appointment of his, mentally deficient, illegitimate, and physically handicapped son, Giuseppe, as Abbot of San Zeno, the deed Gherardo resents in this passage. Benvenuto da Imola writes of him in his commentary: “He was a mean man…a rapacious wolf, a violent man, roaming the outskirts of the city by night with armed companions, destroying much and filling the place with harlots.”
|↑13||It seems a bit far-fetched that Gherardo, racing away as he was, had time to relate his information about the emperor and the abbot. But, as Dante tells us, he might not have heard everything. Is he embellishing here? Perhaps. Mark Musa’s conclusion here is interesting:
“Apart from the problem of narrative realism there is something puzzling about the content of the abbot’s words. That he should take pains to apologize for his speed is slightly strange under the circumstances; but that he should be interested in telling his interlocutor of Barbarossa’s cruelty to Milan, or of the sin and forthcoming punishment of the second person mentioned, is most difficult to understand–all the more so since the abbot was so preoccupied with the performance of his duty that he paid no attention to Virgil’s astonishing announcement that his companion was a living man.”
|↑14||The earlier examples of the Virgil Mary and Julius Caesar comprised the “Whip of Sloth.” Now we have the “Rein of Sloth” as the Canto comes to a close. Following the pattern from previous terraces, the first story comes from the Old Testament, and the second from history – in this case Virgil’s Aeneid.
In the first story, to give it some context, the long journey of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land (geographically and time-wise) was punctuated by numerous infidelities and mutinies. The reference here to the death of those who crossed the Red Sea marks the place in Chapter 14 in the Book of Numbers where God finally punished the people for their constant complaints, stating that only those under 21years of age would enter the Promised Land. The rest would wander in the wilderness outside for another 40 years.
The second story comes from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 5:604-776). It bears a remarkable similarity to the story of the rebellious Israelites in the previous allusion. Several of Aeneas’ followers were dispirited by the length and hardships of their voyages and choose not to follow him from Sicily toward his destiny (and their shared glory) on the mainland. However, this story differs from the one in the Book of Numbers because Aeneas, in fact, allowed that group of laggards to stay.
|↑15||The earlier drowsiness he experienced before seeing the slothful souls rushing past catches up with Dante and, in a kind of segue to the next canto, he lets his thoughts wander and turn themselves into dreams–an accurate description, and also a wonderful turn of phrase. But, then, he is a poet. With the Poet’s thoughts merging into dreams, Robert Hollander ends his commentary here by asking: “Could he have wondered whether he was himself more like the backsliding Hebrews and Trojans than he is like Joshua or Aeneas?|