Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 18

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.

            “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.”

            “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.

            “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.”

            “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 it for its good or bad choices?”

            “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.

            “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.”

            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.

            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.

            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.”

            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.”

            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!”

            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.”

            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.”

            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.