Jacques Maritain Center: Dante and the Blessed Virgin / by Ralph McInerny


The Seven Storey Mountain

Let us not think impiously
nor envy anyone
nor if struck in turn offend
but evil overcome with good.
Be absent from our hearts
wrath, envy and pride,
and away with avarice,
the root of every evil.
-Liturgia horarum (Liturgy of the Hours),
hebd 3, ad officium lectionis

Per una lagrimetta: Thanks to a little tear

In the second canto of the Purgatorio, the souls who disembark on the island where the great mountain rises sing from Psalm 113 (114), “When Israel went out of Egypt,” and we are of course reminded of the way in which Dante used its verses in the letter to Can Grande to illustrate the senses of Scripture. The anagogical meaning was the soul’s escape from this mortal world to paradise, and that is what we see these souls engaged upon. First they must be purged of the stain of the sins they committed, even though they have been forgiven already. In fact, delay is a note struck early in the cantica, but not so as to blur the great difference between this realm and the preceding one. Hell is the realm of despair; Purgatory is the realm of hope. The souls here are assured of their salvation and their eventual entry into glory, and they are quite willing to suffer the delays that purgation entails.

        Souls are brought by boat from Ostia, etymologically located at the mouth of the Tiber, where usually they find it difficult to book passage and have to wait. At the moment, however, things have been speeded up. This is due no doubt to the Jubilee Year, during which the pope extended certain favors to the dead.

        The continuing role of Dante’s tre donne, his three ladies, becomes apparent. When Virgil, confronting a forbidding Cato, guardian of Purgatory, explains their coming up from hell, he invokes Beatrice, the lady who came from heaven to enlist him as a guide for Dante. Cato is thereby placated. After the first night on the island, Dante finds that he has been transported by Lucy up to the Gate of Peter where Purgatory proper begins. And Mary? Her role is the most important one, and we can watch it expand as we proceed.

        There are two initial levels on the lower slopes of the island, called ante-Purgatory, where souls must wait before they can begin their purgation: the level of the excommunicated and the level of the late repentant (of which there are three kinds, the indolent, the unshriven, and the preoccupied). Among the unshriven is Buonconte, who was killed in the battle of Campaldino, a battle in which Dante himself had fought. But how can an unshriven soul end in purgatory, with the assurance of heaven to sustain his hope? Buonconte describes his final moment on earth for Dante:

Quivi perdei la vista e la parola; nel nome di Maria fini’, e quivi
caddi, e rimasa la mia carne sola.
Io dirò vero, e tu ‘l ridi tra ‘vivi:
l’angel di Dio mi prese, e quel d’inferno
gridava: “O tu del ciel, perché mi privy?
Tu te ne porti de costui l’etterno
per una lagrimetta che ‘l mi toglie.
(Purg. 5.100-107)

There I lost sight and speech just as I uttered Mary’s name, then fell, and only my flesh remained. I tell you truly and you tell it to the living, the angel of God came for me and the angel of hell complained. “O you of heaven, why do you deprive me? For just one little tear you carry off his eternal part.”

        Buonconte though unshriven, died repentant with the name of Mary on his lips. Tell my story, he urges Dante, and describe the rage of the dead who come to claim me only to find that an angel came in effect as the messenger of Mary. We are made aware of the power and efficaciouness of the Mother of God. And this raises a problem. Does her intervention make a mockery of the basic premise of the Comedy?

        The allegorical meaning of the great poem is the way in which human beings, by their free acts, justly merit punishment or reward. But Buonconte’s single tear in ictu mortis, the murmuring of Mary’s name, sweeps away a lifetime of freely chosen and awful deeds as if they had never been. Deathbed conversions seem to make the way one has lived inconsequential.

        A first response to this would be to notice that Buonconte’s case is that of most of us, not a rare exception. Sero te amavi, Augustine laments. Late have I loved thee. Every conversion must seem to come late and after deeds we would rather not remember. Of course, those deeds leave their mark on the soul. Buonconte must mount all seven levels of the mountain of Purgatory proper before his soul is fit to see God. The words Ave, Maria will be heard increasingly as the poem continues, and we may remember the second half of that prayer as it developed: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”{1} It thus becomes a prayer for a happy death. And who could not take comfort from Buonconte’s near escape from the realm of despair?

        Furthermore, late or even deathbed conversions do not negate the assumptions of the poem. Every moral decision takes place in an instant, we might say, however prolonged the reflection leading up to it. The moment of choice is a moment, after all. And in the last moments of life one is still capable of making a choice that defines the state of one’s soul. Repentance makes the one who was estranged from God by sin into God’s friend again. All that is true, but it in turn may seem to trivialize Buonconte’s story. He himself is awed by what happened, which is one reason he wants his story told. The other is because his story can be a consolation to the living.

        Beatrice may be the “open sesame” with Cato, Lucy may transport Dante in a dream to Peter’s Gate, but by Mary’s intercession, souls are saved. I don’t suggest that this is an exact division of labor. After all, Lucy is a saint, and Dante has clearly canonized Beatrice -- just as in the Circle of the Sun in the Paradiso he anticipates the canonization of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. The last two are not the most surprising additions to the calendar of the saints in that circle, and the intercession of the saints is efficacious, but, as elsewhere in the poem, these lesser intercessors are instruments of the Mother of Mercy. When Virgil tells Dante of the limitations of the human intellect in understanding the divine plan, he explains that if this were not so, if all were clear to us now, “mestier non era parturir Maria” -- it would not have been necessary for Mary to give birth (Purg. 3.39). This apparent aside draws our attention to the unique role Mary plays in our salvation. She bore the Incarnate God by whose stripes we are healed. Without the mother there would be no son, and without the son, no salvation. No other mere creature plays so essential a role in the great drama of salvation as Mary.

Philosophical Prelude to the Purgatorio

        It is helpful to pause here and reflect further on the logic that underlies the Purgatorio, guided, as was Dante, by Thomas Aquinas. Our appetites, as the word suggests, seek something. They pull us toward their objects as the end they desire, and therefore they pull us toward goods. The good is that which all things seek. This indeed is a comprehensive statement. Appetite and desire are not confined to human agents. “Water seeks its own level” would not have been a metaphor for Dante. The whole of creation and every creature in it is an expression of the goodness that is God. Creatures, we might say, have goodness in various degrees, but God is goodness. The whole of creation tends toward him as its ultimate end.

        Any action aims at some good, and a created good will always be a particular good, not, needless to say, the sum total of goodness. Water slakes thirst, bread hunger. The sense appetites thus bear on particular goods -- food, drink, the pleasure associated with the performance of natural functions. In his disquisition on love in Purgatorio 17, Virgil distinguishes importantly between natural and rational love: o naturale o d’animo (Purg. 17.93).

        “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly” -- these exemplify what is meant by natural love or desire, but “I gotta love one man till I die” does not. We do not decide to want our hunger and thirst slaked; men do not decide to be attracted to women, or women to men; it is not a decision to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Such natural desires are the infrastructure of human action. They become d’animo when a person decides how, when, and what will slake her thirst, and of course how much and how this will fit into her overall good. We get no credit or blame for natural love or desire; but as moral agents we become responsible, that is, answerable for our choices. A natural attraction is consciously pursued. A man or woman does not marry just any person who catches the wandering eye.

        Humans are layered beings, and they are not the first creatures in the cosmos. (Those are the angels.) The great universal for Dante is love. It permeates the universe because it is at its origin. Creation is the product of the divine love, and all creatures have some share in the fullness of goodness that is God. God is the love that moves the sun and other stars, and all the sublunary world as well. Creatures embody a hierarchy of loves, from the fall of the stone, to water seeking its own level, to the more complicated seeking involved in the growth and nourishing of plants. The move from the inanimate to the animate world (which is not coterminous with what Virgil calls d’animo) is the move to the moral order. The simplest of material beings have a single good that they seek; they are, in St. Thomas’s phrase, determined to one object as their good. For living things, “seeking good” becomes more complicated: a plant, for example, grows up and down and reaches out in every direction, enabling it to grow and flourish. (That is the natural habitat of the word “flourishing” -- flowering.) Seeking good is more indeterminate with plants than with rocks and water. But already it is layered. Plants, like rocks, can also be weighed, and they fall when dropped. The “desires” that plants share with lesser things are not peculiar to them, but they are there.

        If the higher, vegetative level includes lower, less complicated loves as well as what is distinctive of it, the lower level can be called natural -- and is -- by contrast with the desires of living things. But the distinctive activity of plants is natural, too, in the sense that it is not chosen. The two levels in plants are also present in the next level, that of animals. Like plants, they grow and take nourishment, but beasts have an awareness that we would not attribute to plants (except, of course, in fiction, as in the Roald Dahl story in which a man hears the screaming of the grass as it is being mowed). Pursuit of the pleasurable and voidance of harm manifests itself in increasingly complicated ways as we move up the created hierarchy. When we come to man, we are invited to see him as a microcosmos. We share desires with lower realms of being, but we are beings whose distinctive love is prompted by knowledge more comprehensive than that which guides other animals’ actions.

        We are aware of the freedom we have in our pursuit of the goods we do not choose or want, goods such as food and drink. Call these goods natural, and we grasp what Virgil means by d’animo. For the human agent, the particular ends of natural desires are brought under a comprehensive desire for the good -- for goodness itself -- and they will be compared and then chosen in the light of their relation to our overall good. The young man knocking at the brothel door is looking for God. This initially startling remark by the novelist Bruce Marshall nicely summarizes the human case.

        Our choices bear on particular objects as we relate them to goodness as such. The human pursuit of food or drink or sex -- objects our appetites do not choose to want -- is the conscious pursuit of those particular goods, and the human task is to relate the love of such things to our comprehensive good. However mistaken we may be in judging that relation, our actions are always a pursuit of things under the aegis of goodness. Particular goods are to be sought in relation to goodness as such. The pathetic boy at the brothel door mistakenly sees what he wants as related to that comprehensive good.

        Even when we correctly seek a particular good in relation to the comprehensive good, we become aware that it cannot completely assuage our desire. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Our awareness of ourselves and of the arena in which we act lifts us above the irrational animals. Each of us is a microcosm, the epitomization of the cosmos, whose distinctive capacities -- intellect and will -- enable us consciously and freely to direct our lives. The great message of the Comedy is that our free will makes us responsible for ordering our deeds to the true good. We can succeed or fail. But whether in success or failure, what draws us on is the good.

The Logic of Purgatory, Continued

        Only after passing through ante-Purgatory (the location of the ex-communicated and late repentant) and then ascending the first three levels of the mountain proper, where souls are purged of the effects of pride, envy, and anger, does Virgil explain to Dante the rationale of this graded purgation.

”Né creator né creatura mai,”
cominciò el, “figliuol, fu sanza amore,
o natural o d’animo; et tu il sai.
Lo natural è sempre sanza errore,
Ma l’altro puote errar per malo obietto
o per troppo o per poco di vigore.
Mentre ch’elli è nel primo ben diretto,
e ne’ secondi sé stesso misura,
esser non può cagion di mal diletto;
ma quando al mal si torce, o con più cura
o con men che non dee corre nel bene,
contra il fattore adovra sua fattura.
Purg. 17.91-102

Son, he began, neither creator nor creature ever was without love, either natural or of the soul, as you know. The natural is always without error, but the other can err because of a bad object, or because of too much or too little vigor. As long as the first is well directed and tends to secondary goods within measure, it cannot be cause of evil delight, but when it turns to evil or seeks the good with too much or too little care, the creature acts against its Creator.

Fault can arise, then, either from pursuing evil or by excessive or defective pursuit of the good. Virgil underscores the fact that love is the source of all action, not only virtuous action. But if this is true, and if love is of the good, how can there be bad action? The answer involves the fact that evil is always parasitic on the good.

        Among the things we are not free to love are, first, God, goodness itself; everything is love sub ratione boni. Nor can we fail to love ourselves. So what is left, to explain love twisted toward evil?

Resta, se dividendo bene stimo,
che il mal che s’ama è del prossimo; ed esso
amor nasce in tre modi in Vostro limo.
(Purg. 17.112-114)

There remains, if I have distinguished well, the evil one wishes for his neighbor, and this your clay gives birth to in three ways.

        It is in relation to our neighbor that a threefold fault can enter in. Here we are given the explanation of the first three levels proper of Purgatory and the capital sins that define them. Sometimes we want to excel and thereby wish our neighbor to be abased. Sometimes we fear to lose honor or fame by our neighbor’s ascendancy, and thus we wish him or her to fail. And sometimes this leads us to take vengeance against others whose good fortune threatens to excel our own. In short, we can be guilty of pride, envy, or anger. The perverted love involved in such sinful behavior is purged di sotto, below, that is, on the first three levels of the mountain. Moreover, if we respond with lukewarm love to the good we recognize, we are guilty of another sin, sloth or acedia. This sin defines the fourth level, which serves as a kind of divider of the mountain. Below it are sins that involve wishing our neighbor harm; sloth itself is defective love of the good; and the three upper levels are concerned with the effects of sins arising from disordered love of the good. These are covetousness, gluttony, and lust. Thus Dante has defined the capital sins in terms of the great wellspring of action, love of the good.

Ciascun confusamente un bene apprende
nel qual si queti l’animo, e desira;
per che di giugner lui ciascun contende.
(Purg. 17.127-129)

Each one of us confusedly grasps the good in which the soul can rest and desires it: thus all seek to reach that good.

Lo natural è sempre sanza errore: The natural is never wrong

We are given this map of the second kingdom, or, more precisely, a description and comparison of the seven levels or terraces of the mountain, when Dante and Virgil are moving from the third to the fourth terrace. And these terraces are divided into three groups. To repeat, the first group comprises the first three terraces; the second is a class with one member, the fourth terrace; and the third comprises the remaining three terraces. Reversing the ordering of the Inferno, where Dante descended into more and more serious sins and their punishments, the Purgatorio commences with the most serious of the capital sins. Souls then ascend to the least serious sins. One sign of this ordering is that Dante finds the ascent less fatiguing as he travels higher on the mountain. What is the basis for the three groupings?

        The fundamental principle, as we have seen is that every human act is prompted by love of the good, and defective or sinful acts are those involving a defective love of the good.

Quinci comprender puoi ch’esser convene
amor sementa in voi d’ogne virtute
e d’ogne operazion che merta pene.
(Purg. 17.103-105)
Thus you understand that love is the seed in you of every virtue As well as of every act deserving of punishment.

Performing our distinctive act well is what is meant by virtue, and performing it badly is vice.{2} Our distinctive act is freely and consciously to direct ourselves to the comprehensive good by means of the particular goods we choose.

        Does Dante think that we begin with a clear and developed notion of the comprehensive good that draws us on? Hardly. He is an Aristotelian who knows that human knowledge begins in generalities, in a confused grasp, and only gradually attains clarity. Similarly Boethius in his colloquy with Dame Philosophy is told of this implicit desire for happiness: “Whither?” I asked ‘To true happiness,’ she answered, ‘of which your mind also dreams but cannot see it or what it is because you are occupied with images.’”{3} Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics finds in our natural and irrepressible desire for happiness our ultimate end. But it remains to determine what precisely that happiness is. Our pursuit of happiness does not await that clarification of course, rather, the clarification is demanded by the given universal human desire for happiness, whatever it might be.

        To the Manichean, some things are evil in themselves and others are good in themselves, and moral good and evil simply await our choices. Dante will have none of this. Our choices are always of something good. It is when we choose a good in a disordered way, that is, not relating it to the good for which we are made, that our acts are evil. Our sense appetites simply draw us to goods -- food, drink, and sex are goods -- but because of reason and will, we are not the toys of our sense appetites. “If sex were all then every trembling hand could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished for words,” wrote Wallace Stevens.{4} We are drawn to but not compelled by sensible goods. Virgil explains the layout of Purgatory that we have been paraphrasing against this background.

        The movement of will toward our grasp of the good is natural, not free. Nor do we need instruction in order to seek our own good. Nor, says Virgil, can we creatures think ourselves sufficient unto ourselves, divorced from God. We cannot hate the source of the fact that we exist and are what we are. In that sense, love of God is natural to us. So again, how do we go wrong? If we cannot hate ourselves or God, we can still wish harm to our neighbor. When we see our neighbor’s greatness as a threat to and detraction from our own, and want to suppress him, we are guilty of pride. My excellence, my flourishing and my good are taken to be diminished by the excellence, flourishing, and good of my neighbor as subtracting from my own. In a disordered pursuit of my own good, I wish harm to my neighbor and want him brought low so that my height might thereby be increased. Pride is the source of all other moral evils. That is why it comes first and is expiated on the first terrace of Purgatory.

è chi podere, grazia, onore e fama
teme di perder perch’ altri sormonti,
onde s’attrista sì che il contrario ama;
(Purg. 17.118-120)
And there is he who fears to lose favor, honor and fame because
another surpasses him, grieves and loves the contrary.

        Envy arises out of pride. We are saddened when others rise above us in excellence, fearing that we are thereby losing our own “fame, favor and honor.” The envious brood over and are made gloomy by the success of others.

ed è chi per ingiuria par ch’aonti,
sì che si fa de la vendetta ghiotto,
e tal convien che il male altrui impronti.
(Purg. 17.121-123)

And there is he who feels himself so degraded by insult that he becomes greedy for vengeance; such a one must crave another’s harm.

Thus, in the logic of vice, pride begets envy and envy begets wrath. And so, being purged of pride, souls find the next purgation easier, and the next easier still.

        This disquisition of Virgil, remember, takes place after he has accompanied Dante up the first three levels of Purgatory, which involve triforme amor, three forms of disordered love. Thus far, it is a retrospective. In the next canto Dante begs Virgil to continue. What is this love by which you explain both virtue and vice?

        Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, in her introduction to and notes on canto 18 of the Purgatorio, stresses the peculiar personal importance of the continuing discussion for Dante. His poetic mentors, and indeed Dante as well, have described love as a fatality, as something that comes and simply overwhelms the person. The phrase “falling in love” retains something of this conception. But if love conquers all, in Ovid’s famous phrase, how can we be free? Dante is about to reject the theory of love that had animated so much of his earlier poetry. If we are helpless before the assault of love -- this was Francesca’s attempted self-exculpation in the Inferno -- how can we be praised or blamed? In reply, Virgil explains the logic further.

        The first movement of the will toward an object, like that of intellect, is natural and thus not free. The mind grasps an object, and the will desires the good. But to choose this good or that is not determined. In that respect we are free, and it is in the pursuit of particular goods that we fare well or ill morally. We are not determined to a disordered pursuit of goods, that is, a pursuit that does not relate particular goods to the ultimate good. Nor is it necessary that we pursue them in an ordered way. To choose is our essential moral task.

        Of course, there is something in the notion that we fall in love and that there are fatal, or better fateful, attractions of one person to another. Wasn’t it Pascal who said that all that was needed to alter the course of history was to add an inch to Cleopatra’s nose? Accidents of feature and gesture first attract us, and the pulse quickens. Are we helpless, then? Was it kismet that we met and kissed? Lovers love to think so. Nor is it fanciful to think that our beloved was meant for us, and vice versa. But there must be acquiescence or rejection of this passionate response. We are, with whatever difficulty, free to pursue or not to pursue. Lovers at the altar give free consent to the attractions that brought them there. Despite all the lyrics of a thousand ballads, we are not slaves of love. Human love is a free act and may be virtuous or not.

        Dante will return to the topics of love and free will in the Paradiso, when the question of predestination arises. But Virgil’s explanation here will be sufficient for us to mount the terraces of Purgatory with Dante and eventually to see how the Blessed Virgin is the exemplar of the virtues opposed to the capital sins.

Io dico d’Aristotele e di Plato; I speak of Plato and Aristotle

The role of Virgil and the fact that Cato, another pagan Roman, is the guardian of Purgatory bring back another matter that becomes clarified in this second cantica of the great poem.

he ultimate end of which men are capable, we saw that the ethical considerations that surround this topic are subsumed by the supernatural. People do not cease being human when they believe in the divine; their belief rides on and is affected by their natural activities -- and vice versa, of course. Beatrice came to Limbo to enlist the help of Virgil, and when Virgil guides Dante to the first level of the Inferno, he meets the great poets and sages of antiquity. Its occupants are good in the way humans can become good by their own efforts, by possessing the natural virtues. In canto 3 of the Purgatorio, Virgil alludes to his companions in Limbo as great souls who thirsted in vain:

e dislar vedeste sanza frutto
tai che sarebbe lor disio quetato,
Chètternalmente è dato lor per lutto:
io dico d’Aristotile e di Plato
e di molt’altri…
(Purg. 3.40-44)

You saw the fruitless desire of those who would have their desire
fulfilled but whose desire eternally laments; I speak of Aristotle and Plato and of many others.

What the pagan philosophers could not know of during their lifetimes, now, in eternity, is a source of pain. What might have been, but alas was not for them. Having mentioned them, and there are many like them, Virgil bows his head e rimase turbato, troubled.

That the good pagans are without fault is explicitly stated in his own case by Virgil in canto 7. Speaking to Sordello, he remarks, “I am Virgil, who failed to get to heaven only because I did not have the faith” (Purg. 77-8). But although Limbo is not a punishment for personal fault, it is an acknowledgment of the great divide between those who have accepted the grace of Christ and those who have not. The case of those who lived before they could have made the choice is particularly poignant. As discussed in chapter 1, because the good pagans in the afterlife become aware of their eternal separation from the supernatural order, from the vision of God that is the reward for believers, they could hardly be presented as joyful.

This points to the enormous difference between, on the one hand, morality or ethics -- and philosophical or natural accounts of how life should be led -- and, on the other hand, Christian revelation. The Inferno, it is often pointed out, seems structured on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Indeed, Virgil himself makes this clear in canto 11 of the Inferno when he explains the layout of the lower world to Dante. As they descend into ever more heinous sins, the levels are incontinence, violence, and malice. At the first level they encounter the lustful sinners, indelibly represented by Paolo and Francesca. These two are perhaps the most commented on characters in the great poem, and we may be puzzled by their attractiveness. Illicit, adulterous lovers, caught in the act, they were dispatched before they could repent and must drift through eternity in an endless embrace. As Francesca recounts, the reading of the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere first stirred their imagination and then their desire. (What we read affects our actions.) An eternal embrace might not seem much of a hell for lovers, but what they sought in one another cannot be found there. Their wills were made for God, goodness itself, who alone can assuage their desire.

        We are likely to imagine that this example of Dante’s is a little harsh. We tend to think in these days that sins of the flesh are scarcely worth calling sins. Dante would allow only that other mortal sins are worse. The lower the depth of hell, the worse the sin, and the worse the sin, the more gradations of it Dante brings to our attention.

        If the hierarchy of sins is based on Aristotle, on philosophical ethics, then the arrangement of Purgatory brings home to us the essential difference between Christianity and natural morality. At the outset of the Purgatorio, Cato is described as reflecting the light of four stars. Scholars tell us that these represent the four cardinal virtues: temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence. Later those stars will fade and three others take their place, representing the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. If Aristotle’s Ethics may be taken as a reliable indication of what unaided human reason can discover about how we should live our lives, where should one go for a sketch of Christian morality? The answer is, of course, to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.

        Jesus begins his sermon with the beatitudes. One cannot think of a more dramatic way of showing that the New Law is not the Old Law, nor is it simply a repetition of the teaching of philosophers. The beatitudes fly in the face of our natural assumptions about human life.

        There have been philosophers who reject Christ’s claim to be the Son of God, yet want to retain the “ethics of Jesus” as defensible within the limits of reason alone. Their suggestion is that the Sermon on the Mount contains only what we would naturally recognize as reasonable guidance. This seems nonsense. As a practical matter, many find belief in the Incarnation much easier than acceptance of the advice that they should love their enemy, for example. Far from being a distillation of natural moral wisdom, the Sermon on the Mount seems to stand natural wisdom on its head.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt.5:3-10 )
Centuries of Christianity have made this list familiar, and some philosophers, forgetful of the context in which the beatitudes were given us, mistakenly have thought that this sermon is just what any good philosopher could say. I challenge them to name one, I mean, one speaking purely as a philosopher. To assert that our happiness is to be found in poverty of spirit, in meekness, in mourning, and in suffering persecution is scarcely to state the self-evident. It goes against the grain of our natural being. Not only would we not have naturally hit upon these guidelines for conduct, but we cannot possibly incorporate them into our lives by our own power. For this, grace is necessary -- the abundance of God’s generosity, the gratuitousness (to be redundant) of this elevation of sinful man to an end undreamt of by philosophers and incommensurate with our human nature. O felix culpa, St. Augustine said of original sin: Oh happy fault, meaning that the remedy for the Fall was an elevation to a condition higher than that lost by Adam’s sin. Everyone in Purgatory knows that he or she got there by the grace of God and in no other way. And Mary is the mother of grace. No wonder the souls there chant “Salve, Regina” (Purg. 7.82.

St. Thomas on the Beatitudes

Like many other doctors of the Church, Thomas Aquinas commented on the chapters of Matthew that have come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. Calling it a sermon may suggest that Jesus was preaching to a large crowd, but in Matthew, according to Thomas, that was not the case. He went up onto the mountain and, when he had sat down, his disciples joined him and “opening his mouth, he taught them.” Thomas ponders the fact that Jesus sat. When he preached, he stood; this is a more intimate scene. And the sitting suggests the Lord’s humility, already embodied in the fact that He is God become man. By thus lowering himself, he becomes more accessible to us, as he cannot be in the majesty of his divinity. Jesus’s being seated reminds Thomas of the master before his class, where being seated is a matter of professorial dignity. “Quiet is needed for the study of wisdom.”{5} Jesus’s disciples came to him not only in body but in soul. “Opening his mouth” suggests to Thomas that Jesus had been silent for a long time. With Augustine, he sees this as indicating that the sermon will be both deep and long.

        A problem arises for the exegete in the fact that these chapters in Matthew have a parallel in Luke (6:20ff.), and the two passages seem to differ, not least in the fact that in Luke, Jesus is clearly speaking to a great crowd of people; and Luke’s account is much shorter than in Matthew, only part of a chapter. Thomas recalls the two solutions proposed by Augustine. The first is that these passages tell of two different occasions; Jesus first taught his disciples and then, after coming down from the mountain, found a crowd waiting and recapitulated the sermon for them. The second solution is that the mountain is question had “a level stretch” lower down, and it was to this that Jesus descended and found the crowd. Thomas prefers this second solution. When Jesus withdrew and his disciples joined him, he selected the twelve apostles from them, as Luke recounts, taught them first, then went down to teach the crowd. This accords with the end of the account in Matthew. “And it came to pass when Jesus had finished these words, that the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (Matt. 7:28-29).

        A commentary that dwells in such detail on the opening verse promises to be, and is, a lengthy one. Moreover, it is typical of the biblical exegesis with which Dante would have been familiar: close reading of the text, reference to other scriptural passage that throw light on it, and the invocation of earlier commentaries, with particular reference to the fathers of the early Church.

        Augustine wrote that the whole perfection of our life is contained in the beatitudes; thus Jesus stresses the end to which the teaching leads. That end is happiness, and, as Thomas notes, “happiness (beatitude) is what man chiefly desires.”{6} So the Lord does three things here: he sets forth the prize to be won; formulates the precepts that direct us to it; and finally tells us how we can come to observe these precepts.

        But people are not of one mind as to what happiness is, however true it is that they all desire it. Thomas lists four different understandings of the term. Some seek happiness in external goods, others seek happiness as the satisfaction of their will, in power, others seek happiness in the practice of the virtues of the active life, and finally other, like Aristotle, seek happiness in the contemplation of the divine. So which is the right view? They are all false, Thomas says, although not in the same way. Nonetheless, the Lord rejects them all.{7}

        These four candidates for the meaning of human happiness are familiar ones, and we would expect Thomas to commend the fourth, namely contemplation of the divine. This expectation is bolstered by his attributing it to Aristotle. That fourth view is as satisfying an account as we can expect from the philosopher -- and Thomas tells us that Jesus rejects it (reprobat). The rejection is to be found in the beatitudes themselves.

        The first conception of happiness, that it lies in external goods, is countered by “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The second, the imposition of one’s will on others, is countered by “Blessed are the merciful.” And because men have several appetites, each must be addressed. The irascible appetite leads to the desire for vengeance, and this is countered by “Blessed are the meek.” The concupiscible appetite aims at joy and pleasure, and this is countered by “Blessed are they who mourn.” Finally, there is the will, which is twofold in that it seeks two things: first, that it be constrained by no higher law; second that it may make subjects of others. That is, the will wants to excel and subdue, and the Lord teaches the opposite. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice” is the rejection of the first, and “Blessed are the merciful” again is the rejection of the second.

        The third conception of happiness placed it in the practice of the virtues of the active life; this is a mistake, Thomas claims, but less so than the preceding accounts, because the active life is the via ad beatitudinem. And that is why the Lord does not reject it as evil but stresses that it is a way to happiness. How so? Such a virtue as temperance has for its end the agent, the “cleansing of the heart,” since it enables him or her to conquer passions. Other virtues are aimed at other people, and end is peace: opus iustitiae est pax. That is the point of “blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

        As for the view that happiness consists in contemplation of the divine, Thomas holds that the Lord rejects it as an end that we could achieve in our earthly, temporal lives, but otherwise it is true; happiness does consist in contemplation of the most intelligible object, namely, God -- “for they shall see God.” That is the end to which all precepts point; that is the end to which we are called, and this makes the fourth account of happiness inadequate. But that account is as far as philosophy can takes us. Moral virtues such as temperance and justice have a higher telos than any mere philosopher could imagine. And this has the consequence, since such happiness is above our nature, that the acquired virtues, those of which Aristotle speaks, must be complemented by what Thomas calls the infused virtues (virtues given us by divine grace) as well as by the three theological virtues.

        Thomas underscores the novelty of this teaching by contrasting it with the Old Law, which promised happiness on this earth, in joy and song, whereas the New Law speaks of mourning as blessed. And the chief object of mourning is the death of loved ones. The mourner receives no consolation for his loss, and the Lord asks that we live our lives in mourning. If we mourn bodily death, all the more should we mourn spiritual death; it is for sin that we should mourn, and this entails making satisfaction for having committed it. The follower of Christ turns away from the pleasures recommended by the world. This Christian mourning receives consolation: spiritual and eternal goods and the love of God, rather than temporal and passing ones.

        Thomas discusses the Sermon on the Mount in great detail, but this brief paraphrase gives the flavor of his exegesis and shows how Jesus’s teaching surpasses and goes against mere philosophical teaching. It is the plain rejection of the first two views of our happiness, which locate it in pleasure and power. The third and fourth views, inadequate in themselves, are also to that degree false -- the practice of the virtues of the active life and such contemplation of the divine as the philosopher attains can never fulfill our heart’s desire. But the practice of the moral virtues is a condition for the pursuit of happiness in the sense of contemplation, and the contemplation of the philosopher is an imperfect realization of the notion of ultimate end. It is contrasted, as we have seen, with the perfect realization, and that is to see God as He is, to be joined to Him in love. It was no defect in a philosopher such as Aristotle that he did not locate happiness in the beatific vision. Nothing he could know about human nature would suggest such an incommensurable object of our desires. The Christian believer is able to see the inadequacy of contemplation in the philosophical sense, not as a philosophical inadequacy but rather as falling short of what Jesus promises: “they shall see God.” This does not render philosophical discussions pointless; far from it. But Dante, like St. Thomas, will always relate natural truths to the supernatural; only then can they be of real interest to the Christian. For the believer, the full and adequate account of human happiness is contained in the beatitudes. Anything less is -- less; and the more is a matter of grace .

St. Thomas on the Capital Sins

The seven levels of Mount Purgatory represent the seven capital sins, from the effects of which souls must be purged before they are ready to enter paradise. For each of the capital sins there is an opposite virtue, and as we ascend the mountain we find that some event in the life of the Blessed Virgin is recalled in order to illustrate each of those virtues. But first, Thomas’s account of the capital sins deserves mention.

For Thomas, to seek an end is to avoid its opposite, as the desire for food is the avoidance of or flight from hunger. All the capital sins involve a rationale for pursuit and avoidance, and the capital sins are distinguished insofar as there are distinctively different pursuits and avoidance. The good is what, by definition, attracts; thus, if the will avoids a good, this must be because of the way that good is regarded. After these prefatory remarks, in his Disputed Questions on Evil (De malo), Thomas does what we have learned to expect from him. There is a long tradition of Christian discussion of the capital sins, and he is aware of it. He is particularly indebted to the account of Gregory the Great. But Thomas further gives us what might almost be called a deduction of the capital sins.{8}

        Thomas begins by discussing the term “capital” as it is used here. There are capital offenses, of course, but capital sins are so called because they are the source of other subsidiary sins. According to Thomas, there are four ways in which a sin can give rise to other sins, and he settles on the last for his definition:

There is a fourth way in which one sin can cause another, because of its end, insofar as a man commits one sin for the sake of the end of another sin, as avarice causes fraud. In this way one sin is caused by another actually and formally, and it is because of this mode of origin that they are called capital vices. (De malo, q. 8, a. 1, c)
That a sin can be ordered to the end of another sin can arise on the side of the sinner, who may be more prone to the one end than the other. More than this is meant by a capital sin, however. When the end of one sin is related to the end of another in such a way that, by and large, the one leads to the other, the first is the capital sin. Thus the aim of fraud is deception, but fraud is aimed at monetary gain. Thus, the aim of fraud is deception, but fraud is aimed at monetary gain, the end of avarice. That is why avarice is called a capital vice or sin.

        This requires that capital sins have ends desirable in themselves, to which the ends of the other vices can be ordered. Notice, Thomas goes on, that one pursues a good and flees the opposed evil, as the glutton seeks pleasure in food and flees the distress caused by the absence of food. So it is with the other vices. Capital sins can be fittingly distinguished according to the difference of good and evil, such that wherever there is a special reason for pursuit or avoidance, there we will find a distinct capital sin. By “good” we mean that which attracts appetite, so that if appetite avoids some good, it is because of some aspect of this good.

Man has a threefold good, namely, the good of the soul, the good of the body, and the good of external things. Pride or Vainglory is ordered to the good of the soul, which is a good of which we form an image, namely, the excellence of honor and glory. As for the good of the body pertaining to the preservation of the individual, food, Gluttony is ordered to it. The corporeal good that pertains to the conservation of the species as this involves the venereal is the concern of Lust. Avarice pertains to external goods. (De malo q. 8, a. 1, c)
This gives us four capital sins. There are three more:
One retreats from the good in so far as it is an impediment to some good inordinately desired, and to such an impeding good, appetite moves in two ways, either by fleeing it or by rising in rebellion against it. Two capital sins arise from fleeing the good, depending on whether the impeding good is considered in itself or in another; in itself, as when a spiritual good impedes bodily rest or pleasure, and this is Acedia, in another, when the god of another impedes one’s own excellence, and this is Envy, which is sadness at another’s good; wrath is the rising up against the good. (Ibid.)
The capital sins are distributed by Dante on the terraces of the Purgatorio in this ascending order: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Furthermore, as we have seen, the first three form a group, as do the last three, with sloth or acedia located between the two groups. Are Thomas and Dante at odds here? One could say that Thomas provides us with a theoretical basis for the distinct capital sins, each of which gives rise to other sins (for example, the vices derived from pride), while the arrangement of the Purgatorio stresses the relations between the capital sins themselves. The root of them all is pride, which disposes to envy and anger; one is reminded of the Sartrean mot, “Hell is other people.”{9} There is no division of opinion between Thomas and Dante as to the ordering of the capital sins that we find in the Purgatorio.

Mary and the Capital Sins

After ante-Purgatory, Dante and Virgil begin their laborious climb of the mountain, a climb that will become progressively less laborious as they ascend. The strains of “Salve, Regina,” sung by the late repentant, come to them from below as they climb. Monks sang this antiphon each night after Compline as they went to their cells.

Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiae;
vita, dulcedo et spes ostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Evae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle,
Eia ergo, advocate nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos
ad nos converte.
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis, post hoc exsilium ostende.
O Clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.

Hail holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our
hope. To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do
we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary.
Now night falls and all activity on the mountain ceases, so Dante sleeps. When he awakes, in canto 9, he finds that he has been carried in his sleep up to the gate of Purgatory; three steps lead to it, representing confession, contrition, and reparation.

        The gatekeeper, reassured by the information that St. Lucy has sent them, invites Dante to climb those three steps. That done, he traces seven P’s on Dante’s forehead. The letter P is for peccatum, sin, and the seven letters stand for the seven capital sins. The steps leading to the gate are of different colors, suggestive of confession, contrition, and reparation; the gate itself is set on rock, the rock of Peter on whom Christ has built his church. It opens, providing a narrow way through, then shuts noisily behind Virgil and Dante. And then the strains of “Te Deum laudamus” (Purg. 9.141) are heard.

        Eight cantos were devoted to ante-Purgatory, nearly a fourth of the cantica. Seven levels or terraces rise before Dante, each representing a capital sin, beginning with the most serious, pride, and ending with the least serious, lust. A walkway encircles the mountain, rising as it does from level to level. Opposing each capital sin is one of the beatitudes -- Dante has need of only seven. The penitent endures a particular penalty or punishment on each level and is instructed not only by the relevant beatitude but, most importantly for our purposes, by examples of the virtue opposed to the vice being expiated. And on every level and in the first place, the example of the virtue is drawn from the life of the Blessed Virgin.

Dante may have been influenced here by the Speculum Beatae Mariae Virginis, a medieval work attributed in his time to St. Bonaventure. Lectio 15 of the Speculum discusses the thesis, “That Mary is blessed with seven virtues opposed to the capital vices.” The author is commenting on the angelic salutation, “Blessed art thou amongst women.” Virtue makes one blessed or happy, and “Mary is blessed for her humility, which is opposed to pride; for her charity, which is opposed to envy; for her meekness, which is opposed to wrath; for her promptness, which is opposed to sloth; for her liberality, which is opposed to avarice; for her sobriety, which is opposed to gluttony; and for her chastity, which is opposed to lust.”{10} Mary is thus a compendium of the Christian virtues, the highest created model.

        The similarity between Dante’s Purgatorio and this allegedly Bonaventurian work{11} is striking, but so are the differences. Dante, as we will see, always relies on the New Testament in calling attention to the appropriate virtue in the Blessed Virgin. Speculum Beatae Mariae Virginis always illustrates the virtue of May by finding it in some figure from the Old Testament who prefigures Mary. Speaking of her humility, for example, the Speculum author cites Psalm 118(119):21 and Isaiah 4 and then finds in Axa, in the book of Judges, a figure of Mary.{12} In discussing Mary’s charity, he appeals to Sarah; in discussing her promptness, which is opposed to sloth, he cites Genesis. The Speculum continues in this vein, relying on the Old Testament and the prefiguring of Mary in Old Testament women for an understanding of Mary’s virtues. It is otherwise in the Purgatorio. What is common to the two treatments is that Mary is the embodiment of the virtues opposed to the seven capital sins. The difference lies in the scriptural examples.

        Dante bases his presentation of Mary as the exemplar of each of the virtues opposed to the capital sins on the following biblical texts:

Nel ciel dell’umiltà ov’è Maria: In the heaven of humility where Mary is

Dante and his guide find themselves on a narrow pathway winding round the mountain and without a guard rail. On this first level, where the sin of pride is expiated, they immediately come upon examples of humility, the virtue opposed to pride. Engraved in stone at their feet are figures so vivid that it is as if they can be heard as well as seen. The first example of humility is Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the episode in her life chosen to convey this is the Annunciation.

        The Annunciation, that fateful moment when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted her with the salutation, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” is surely Dante’s favorite scene. He came by it honestly, so to speak, for the Annunciation was a favorite subject of artists and painters, and Dante’s theological guides -- St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas -- loved to dwell on this scene and to draw from it all they could.

        Bernard, for example, remarks on the specificity of the scene, the names and the places given. “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-28). The sixth month of what? Of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy of which we have just read in Luke. The rest of the passage imparts the full weight of history to this moment. It is God who sends his angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, who is betrothed to Joseph of the House of David. This links Mary to the whole history of Israel, the long preparation of the Jewish people for this moment when salvation is at hand. That history is present in its entirety to God. He has been guiding its temporal unfolding all along. The free acts of men and women, performed for purposes of their own and intelligible to them in the short term, become part of the divine plan to save his people. What God has planned cannot not come about, and yet he works through the free actions of men. This is a great mystery, one that has prompted the fruitful meditation of the Church fathers and theologians. Are our acts free or determined? They are free, but for all that they play a part in God’s predestined plan. From all eternity Mary was chosen for this singular role, to be the mother of the Incarnate God, but she must freely accept her role. “When she had heard him she was troubled at his word, and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Gabriel understands. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou has found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

        Again, Luke reminds us of the genealogy of Mary and of her son to be. The long history of the human race has been gathering to this moment; this simple virgin at prayer is the means God has chosen from all eternity to save His people. He will come among us as one of us, human as well as divine, and for that he needs a mother. The scene could well have been the occasion to call attention to the way in which God humbles himself in the Incarnation. Who could be more humble than Jesus, who “though he was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like unto men. And appearing in the form of man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). The mother of such a son must herself be humble. “But Mary said to the angel, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?” (Luke 1:34). Is this hesitation? Mary has to know to what she is giving her assent. She must take on her predestined role freely and consciously. To call her a virgin is not simply to note that she is intacta. According to long-standing Christian tradition, from this point on, if not before, she is a virgin by choice in order to more completely devote herself to God. Is that vow to be set aside?{13}

        “And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Mary will conceive in a miraculous way, her spouse will be the Holy Spirit, so her child will indeed be the Son of God.

        There are angels and angels. The one who has come to Mary, in Christmas tradition, is an archangel, in the highest tier of the hierarchy of angels. But even if we came down the angelic hierarchy to the least of angels, and there must be a least, we are still dealing with a creature whose natural perfection surpasses that of any human being to an unimaginable degree. An angel is a pure spirit. Its existence is not measured by time; its knowledge is infused into it, not gathered from experience. Thomas Aquinas structures the angelic hierarchy in terms of the number of ideas each angel needs in order to know what it knows. The more ideas required, the less perfect the angel and the more its knowledge approaches ours, so to speak; our ideas are formed on the basis of sense experience, wresting the natures of things from their singular circumstances. This abstracting takes time, based as it is on experience, and our thinking is sequential. Truths bring to light other truths. Call our knowledge discursive. But even the lowest angel knows with intuitive simplicity, compared to human knowledge. The gap between men and angels is all but infinite, though there is an analogy between them. And the Archangel Gabriel has been sent as a messenger to this virgin, scarcely more than a girl, inviting an assent on which the whole future of the world depends.

        With angels as well as humans, we must distinguish the natural from the supernatural order. The Annunciation is the moment when the whole natural order is stood on its head. A simple little girl is to become the Mother of God and thereby first among all creatures in the supernatural order. However more perfect than Mary Gabriel naturally is, from the supernatural point of view she will become his queen. How could artists, poets, and theologians not ponder this scene and seek to draw from it all that it contains? “But Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.’ And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38). There it is, the hinge of the history of Salvation which turns on the fiat of Mary.

        Dante, seeing that scene inscribed in stone, hears, as it were, Mary’s answer. ”Ecce ancilla Domini,” behold the handmaid of the Lord.

esser di marmot candido e addorno
d’intagli si, che non pur Policleto,
ma la natura li avrebbe scorno.
L’angel che venne in terra col decreto
de la molt’ anni lagrimata pace.

ch’aperse il ciel del suo lungo divieto,
dinanzi a noi pareva si verace
quivi intagliato in an atto soave
che non sembiava imagine che tace.
Giurato si saria ch’el dicesse ‘Ave!’;
perché iv’ era imaginata quella
ch’ad aprir l’alto amor volse la chiave;
e avea in atto impressa esta favela
‘Ecce ancilla Dei’, propriamente
come figura in cera si suggella.
(Purg. 10.31-45)

There in white marble, adorned with carvings beyond the skill not only of Polycletus but of nature too, the angel who brought to earth the decree of the peace tearfully longed for during all those years and which opened the heavens so long closed, appeared before us, so truly graven there in gracious attitude that it seemed an image that could speak. One would have sworn that he said, “Ave!” for there was imaged too she who turned the key that opened supreme love, and her whole attitude expressed these words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” as clearly as an image pressed in wax.

        In humility the soul is emptied of all desires except to serve the will of God. Before His will, one becomes as nothing. The example of Mary etched in stone is followed by two others: David dancing before the ark and the Emperor Trajan. In the example from the Old Testament, the psalmist David is Mary’s ancestor and thus the ancestor of Christ, but the other is taken from secular history. How could a pagan emperor exemplify the Christian virtue of humility that is opposed to pride? The scene depicted in stone focuses on a poor w1dow, who is humbly begging a favor from Trajan. According to a story in the Middle Ages, St. Gregory brought the dead Roman emperor back from hell and baptized him. We will meet Trajan again in the Paradiso.

        The action on this terrace has so far concentrated on humility as the remedy for pride. That remedy is given pride of place. Now, having had the opportunity to ponder the scenes etched in stone, Virgil draws Dante’s attention to an approaching throng. We are about to meet the proud who are atoning for their sin. Dante adopts an openly hortatory tone:

Non vo’ però, lettor, che tu ti smaghi
di buon proponimento per udire
come Dio vuol che il debito si paghi.
Non attender la forma del martire:
pensa la succession; pensa ch’al peggio
oltre la gran sentenza non può ire.
(Purg. 10.106-111)

Reader, I would not weaken your resolve on hearing how God wills the debt be paid; do not dwell on the form of the punishment, think of what comes next, think that at worst it cannot go on beyond the great judgment.

        Those who have been guilty of pride and vainglory atone for their sins by carrying huge boulders that all but flatten them to the ground. Once they looked with lifted chin on the world as their oyster; now they are as a pair of claws scuttling across the floor of unknown seas. Weighted down so that their gaze is on the ground.

        To impose such corporeal punishment on souls involves conceptual difficulties. How can a separated soul be oppressed by the weight of matter? Dante several times calls attention to the fact that, unlike Virgil and the others whom they meet, he alone casts a shadow and makes footprints. He is still a man, body and soul, but the souls of the departed no longer have a body. How can they be corporeally punished?

        Although the literal meaning of the passage raises such difficulties, we have no trouble with its allegorical sense. Those who have lifted themselves up high must be brought low. And the desire for lowliness is simply a full realization of the fact that God is He Who is and we are his creatures, dependent for every moment of our existence on his sustaining will; comparatively speaking, we are nothing at all. In that humble realization our elevation becomes possible. Blessed are the meek, the humble, because their reward is the incomprehensible glory of the vision of God. Domenico Bassi comments,

Humility is the emptiness the soul makes in itself and of itself, in order that God might fill it; the proud consider themselves the proprietors of everything and lack that poverty that gives the right, so to speak, to the supreme richness. That is why Saint Augustine says that Mary was pleasing to God because of her virginity, but it was because of her humility that she conceived Him: Virginitate placuit, humilitate concepit.{14}

        In the Convivio 4.5, Dante had already linked the Incarnation and the Roman Empire. The divine plan will come to fruition in the fullness of time; the world must be readied for the coming of the Son of God. That readiness on the political plane, he tells us, required that the whole earth be brought under one regime. The Rome founded after the long journey of Aeneas from Troy became the master of the known world:

E però che ne la sua venuta nel mondo, non solamente lo cielo, ma la terra convenia essere in ottima disposizione; e la ottima disposizione de la terra sia quando ella è monarchia, cioè tutta ad uno principe, come detto è di sopra; ordinato fu per lo divino provedimento quello popolo e quella cittade che ciò dovea compiere, cioè la gloriosa Roma.

But in order that at His coming into the world both heaven and earth might be in the best disposition, and the best disposition of the earth is when there is monarchy, that is everyone under one prince, as was said above; divine providence ordained that that people and that city should accomplish his, that is, glorious Rome.

Rome, David, Mary -- these three are linked by Dante as he reflects on the Annunciation.{15}

Vinum non habent: They have no wine

No images are inscribed on the livid pavement of the next terrace, where dwell the souls of the envious, for their eyes are sewn shut. The proud labored under weighty stones; the punishment of the envious is blindness. Dante and his guide climb to find seated figures. In life these souls saw the good that happened to others as a threat, and they wanted to confiscate it rather than rejoice in the happiness of others. Virgil has not been here before, of course; he is in as much need of guidance as Dante. We sense the gradual diminution of his initial role until, at the end of the ascent of the mountain, he will turn Dante over entirely to another. Virgil prays for help, and winged spirits appear. They are singing “Vinum non habent” They have no wine” (Purg. 13.29).

        The words evoke the scene of Christ’s first miracle, the wedding feast of Cana in John 2. (Like the Annunciation, this event will twice provide examples of Mary’s virtue.) The wedding feast is well under way, the guests have drunk to the happiness of the newlyweds with gusto, and the wine is running low. Mary goes to her Son and tells him. “They have no wine.” The words emerge from her compassion for the couple; the prospect of empty glasses with nothing more to fill them will be an embarrassment and take some glow from the celebration. That is the sense of her remark to Jesus. Imagine how differently those words might be spoken by another, you or I perhaps, with a little lilt in the voice, widened eyes, lifted brows, calling attention to the impending embarrassment of the hosts.

        Jesus’s response to his Mother is noteworthy, and it might seem cold. “What is that to me and thee?” And, more significantly, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2-4). Jesus has yet to manifest his divinity by performing miracles, and we are invited to think that he intended to put that off to a later day. And now his mother has come to him, and he seems indifferent to the plight of the newlyweds. Mary knows better. She instructs the servants to do what Jesus tells them. At his direction they fill huge jars with water, which, when ladled up, turns out to be not merely wine but wine far better than had been served. And we are given the prudent judgment of the steward: One doesn’t save the best wine until last but serves it first. Once the headiness of the best wine takes effect, a lesser vintage can be brought out. The miracle has reversed that order.

        The first miracle of Jesus is prompted by his mother, as if her intercession suffices for him to change his mind. His hour has come after all. What has prompted Mary is the virtue opposed to envy. The envious would have taken wicked pleasure from the prospect of a wedding feast winding down because of the embarrassing fact that there is no more wine. How amusing. How fitting that the father of the bride, up to this point the beaming master of the revels, should be brought low by such a humiliation.

        The virtuous response, in contrast, is one of sympathy, of sharing the possible pain of the givers of the feast, and of acting out of that sympathy. The good of others is to be rejoiced in; their evil is to be deplored and, if possible, alleviated. “They have no wine.” In the Paradiso (33.16-18) we are told that Mary not only responds to our pleas for help but sometimes gives her help even before it is asked. That is surely the case here. No one has brought the problem to her, but she brings herself to the problem. One of the winged spirits in the Purgatorio adds another maxim to the mix: “Love thy enemies.”

Atto dolce di madre: Sweet motherly deed

As Dante and his guide struggle through dark smoke to the third terrace of the mountain, the scene seems to be one from the Inferno. The air is acrid and gritty. Dante cannot see where they are going, and Virgil urges him to keep near lest they be separated. Dante follows as a blind man follows his guide.

        The smarting smoke that envelops them represents the way in which wrath blinds us to the good. In the Inferno (8.42) one of the wrathful had tried to upset the little boat ferrying Dante and Virgil across the Styx, and Virgil had fended him off, crying, “Get out of here to the other dogs.” The wrathful who are damned become dogs. In the Purgatorio, the effects of wrath are done away with by acquiring the meekness of the Lamb of God.

        Dante and Virgil hear around them the voices of penitents singing the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” The singing of the Agnus Dei is part of the therapy of this level; it soothes savage breasts of the effects of sins of anger during their earthly lives. The mildness of the lamb is contrasted with the unbridled passion of the wrathful. The meekness of the lamb represents the virtue opposed to wrath. John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God, and the preeminent model of what we are called to be is the Incarnate God.{16} Mothers sometimes teach their children a simple prayer: “Jesus meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto thine.”

My own mother taught it to me, and in doing this she was playing a role not unlike that of the Blessed Mother. Naturally, we resist this ideal meekness, just as we resist the call to humility. All the capital sins are children of pride, and pride is resistance to our condition as creatures. Again, we see how the model of Christian perfection flies in the face of our human, all too human, self-assertion, and indeed is the very opposite of religion within the limits of reason alone.

        Jesus, the lamb of God, presents himself as the sacrificial victim. He is the price of our salvation. Silent before unjust accusation, he willingly accepts the most ignominious of deaths in order to set us free from all the sins that chain us and separate us from the one thing needful. How does Mary exemplify meekness?

Ivi me parve in una visione
estatica di sùbito esser tratto,
e vedere in un tempio più persone;
e una donna, in su l’entrar, con atto
dolce de madre dicer: “Figliuol mio,
perché hai tu cosi verso noi fatto?
Ecco, dolente, lo tuo padre e io
ti cercavamo.”
(Purg. 15.85-92)

There I seemed caught up in an ecstatic vision and saw many people in a temple, and a woman at the door who with the sweetness of a mother said, “My Son, why have you done this to us? Behold, your father and I have sought you sorrowing.”

The loss of the child Jesus in the temple, referred to in these lines, is the third of the seven sorrows of the Blessed Virgin but the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary. The sorrow points to those dreadful three days during which Mary and Joseph sought their missing son, and the joyful mystery to the happy outcome when Jesus is discovered in the temple, astounding the elders with his interpretations of Scripture.

        In this scene, Mary seems to be scolding Jesus, just as his response seems something less than filial; he chides her for spending three long sorrowful days searching for him. We might imagine Mary as more than annoyed, as angry. Yet Dante takes her reaction here to be a revelation of her meekness, mansuetudo. The sixteenth-century theologian Cornelius of Lapide warns us against the interpretation just given.

        These words of his mother, Cornelius argues, are to be taken, not as scolding him but rather as spoken in wonder and sorrow, to explain the sorrow of his parents to him. We are meant to see in Mary’s words the veneration of the mother for such a son, namely, the God Man; thus it is likely, Cornelius reasons, that she spoke to him not publicly in the gathering of the elders but privately, either calling him from the gathering or waiting until after it had dispersed. And of course, Cornelius gives us the testimony of other scriptural exegetes to this effect.{17} He points out, moreover, that the acts of Christ are threefold: those that derive as such from his divinity, to create, preserve, and govern all things, those that derive from his humanity, such as eating and sleeping, and those that are a mixture of each, including teaching and performing miracles. Christ is subject to his parents in his purely human acts but not in the others, and that is the point of his reply to his mother.

        St. Thomas considers clemency and meekness together. He distinguishes them by explaining clemency as the leniency of a superior toward an inferior, whereas meekness can be shown by anyone to anyone. In both cases they are the opposite of anger or the irascible. Meekness governs the desire for revenge, and clemency bears on penalties to be inflicted. Thus, Thomas opposes meekness to wrathfulness and clemency to cruelty. Now if meekness is the virtuous moderation of anger, the biblical passage on Mary’s words in the temple suggest that although Mary mastered her annoyance, she nonetheless felt it. {18}

        But surely, Thomas retorts, wrath or anger is not always a vice. In the Disputed Questions on Evil he invokes St. John Chrysostom, St. Paul, Gregory the Great, and the Glossa Ordinaria (a celebrated medieval commentary on Scripture) on behalf of justified anger. Meekness and clemency are treated in his Summa theologiae as parts of temperance, which governs our natural impulse to anger. Thomas recalls the ancient quarrel between Stoics and Aristotelians, the former treating all anger as a vice, whereas the latter held that sometimes anger is good. As a passion, anger has a formal and a material aspect. The formal aspect is the desire for revenge, the appetitus vindictae. The material aspect is the bodily disturbance -- the rush of blood, the physical agitation. As a passion, anger is a sense appetite, something we experience willy-nilly in certain circumstances. But there is more in us than instinct, the mindless response to our circumstances. Our will enters in, and with it reason or intellect, and then our action -- for now, by involving reason and will, it is our action, a conscious human act and not merely an event that happens to us -- will be either good or bad.

For it is obvious that when someone seeks recompense according to the ordered requirement of justice, this is a virtue, for example, when punishment is required as correction to sin, the right order being observed, and this is to be wrathful toward sin. However, when one seeks vengeance but not in an ordered way, it is a sin, either when one seeks more than justice requires, or intends the extermination of the sinner rather than the abolition of sin. (De malo, q. 12, a. 1)

Given these distinctions, Thomas concludes that there is no difference between the Stoic and the Aristotelian, since the Stoic too must hold that there is justifiable anger. The Stoic, noting that passion often impedes reason, judges that what is material in anger, the instinctive reaction that must be directed by reason, is defective as such. In short, all anger would be a vice. But surely this is wrong.

Because man’s nature is composed of soul and body and of an intellectual and sensitive nature, it pertains to the good of man that his whole self be subject to virtue, that is, his mind, sensitive part, and body; therefore the virtue of man requires that the fitting desire for revenge be not solely in the rational soul, but also in the sensitive part and the body too, and the body is moved to serve virtue. (Ibid.)

Furthermore, the Stoic should consider that passion relates to reason diversely, sometimes antecedently, sometimes consequently. In the first sense, it sweeps reason alone, and this is scarcely virtuous, whereas in the second sense, as following on reason, passion is at the service of the rational judgment , and is virtuous. Indeed. It helps enact the judgment of reason.

        “Your father and I have sought you sorrowing.” The sorrow that Mary naturally feels at the loss of her Son is subsumed by the virtue of meekness.

Maria corse con fretta a la montagna: Mary ran with haste to the mountain

As we have seen, the sin of sloth is represented on the terrace that separates the three below it from the three above. Only one canto is devoted to the capital sin of sloth and its opposed virtue. Dante and Virgil, after a discussion of free will -- actually, the second installment of it -- come upon the penitents of this level. (The discussions of free will are undertaken lest the assumptions of the Christian vocation, and of the Comedy, be undermined.) The rushing band of souls working off the lingering stain of sloth cry out, as they approach:

Tosto fur sovr’ a noi, perché correndo
si movea tutta quella turba magna;
e due dinanzi gridavan piangendo:
“Maria corse con fretta a la montagna”;
(Purg. 18.97-100)

There soon drew near a great crowd on the run and two of them, weeping, cried out. “Mary ran with haste to the mountain.”

The reference is to the account in Luke of the angel’s visit to Mary. Part of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary was that her cousin Elizabeth was also with child, whereupon Mary set off straightway to visit her and hurried up the mountain to the city of Judea. The promptness of Mary’s act makes it a model of zeal, the virtue opposed to the vice of sloth:

Now in those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town of Juda. And she entered the house of Zachary and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe in her womb leapt. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out with a loud voice saying, “Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, the moment that the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who has believed, because the things promised her by the Lord shall be accomplished.” (Luke 1:39-45)

        We may pause a moment here to reflect, has any other part of Scripture had a more enduring and pervasive effect on the Church’s liturgy than the first chapter of Luke? The joyful mysteries of the rosary take us through it again and again. And of course the Angelus prayer recapitulates the Annunciation scene: “Angelus Domini annuntiavit Mariae; et concepit de Spiritu Sancto” (The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary and she conceived of the Holy Spirit). This is followed by an Ave Maria, then “Ecce ancilla domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” (Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word). Another Ave Maria, then “Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis” (The Word was made flesh and dwelled amongst us). Ave Maria, then “Ora pro nobis, Sancta Dei Genetrix, ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi” (Pray for us O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ).

Cornelius of Lapide, in his discussion of Luke, provides examples of what the fathers and doctors of the Church have said on the passage describing Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. “In those days” is interpreted to mean that this event took place the day after the Annunciation. And why did Mary go? Cornelius gives four reasons. First, in order that the Word conceived within her might be announced to others and his grace communicated to them; in short, she wanted Christ to begin his office of Savior, the reason for his coming, even while he was still in her womb. St. Ambrose (as cited by Cornelius) adds that she did not go out of disbelief that her aged cousin was pregnant, nor because she doubted the news the angel had given her. Second, the visit had the intention of absolving Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, of original sin. Third, the visit was to help the older woman, And,

Fourth, that she might give to all future ages a striking example of humility and charity, by which, now made Mother of God and queen of the world, she deigned to go to Elizabeth who should more properly have tended to and served her, in order that we too should follow her example and willingly visit the poor and those beneath us, in order to cheer them and brace up their souls.{19}

        St. Ambrose (as cited by Cornelius) has this to say about the phrase that Dante stresses -- she ran con fretta, with haste. A first reason for haste is lest she be outside her home too long and be delayed in public. Ambrose invokes an admonition to virgins not to dwell in the piazza or chat with others. Another and perhaps more persuasive reason is that, full of the joy of the Holy Spirit, she was prompted by it to hurry to her cousin.

        Is sloth simply laziness, tepidity, lack of promptitude? That is its obvious meaning, and the one that shines forth in canto 18, whose opposite is exemplified by the immediacy of Mary’s response to the angelic news that her cousin was with child. But that does not exhaust the meaning of this vice. Psalm 90(91) was once invoked in exploring those further meanings, and verses 3-6 could be found in the pre-Vatican II Latin breviary as follows:

        3. For he has freed me from the hunter’s snare, and from the bitter word.

        4. You will be protected by his shoulders and will hope beneath his wings.

        5. You will be protected by the shield of his truth: nor will you fear the terror of the night,

        6. or the arrow that lies in the daytime, neither the pestilence hidden in shadows nor the attack of the noonday devil (daemonio meridian).{20}

The daemonio meridian in verse 6, translated as the noonday devil, has disappeared from the current breviary and, indeed, he never made it into either the Rheims-Douay or the King James Bibles, which have “the destruction that lays waste as noonday” and “the destruction that wasteth at noonday” respectively. What was the noonday devil supposed to be? Andrew Greeley, in reviewing for the New York Times a novel of mine with that title, remarks that in the seminary they were taught that this devil is lust. There is not a perfect identification of lust with sloth, but acedia or sloth, as we shall see, is connected with sins of the flesh.

        St. Thomas describes sloth, like envy, as opposed to the joy of charity; it is opposed to the divine good, just as envy is opposed to action. The slothful are frigid, frozen in inactivity; they are those for whom all is tedium.

This kind of sadness is always an evil, sometimes just as such, sometimes because of its effect. That sadness is such evil which bears on something apparently evil but truly good, just as conversely evil delight is of the truly evil and only apparently good. Since spiritual good is the true good, sadness with respect to spiritual good is per se evil. But that sadness too which is of what is truly evil can be evil in its effect, and thus it agitates a man such that he totally withdraws from good works, hence the Apostle (2 Cor. 2:7) does not want any penitent to be absorbed by too great a sadness because of sin. Therefore, acedia as understood here signifies spiritual sadness and is twice evil, in itself and in its effect. (ST IIaIIae, q. 35, a.1)

Since any sin can be said to involve sadness about some spiritual good, according to Thomas, it may see that acedia cannot be a special vice. Nor can we simply say that such sadness comes into play because a spiritual good is difficult or entails bodily discomfort incompatible with sensual pleasure. That would be true of any carnal vice. What is necessary to understanding sloth is the recognition that there is an order of spiritual goods, with the divine good being chief among them. The special virtue of charity bears on the divine good, and charity brings with it a joy in the divine good. Thus, although any sin entails sadness with respect to a spiritual good, sadness as to the acts consequent upon charity gives rise to the special vice of acedia (ST IIaIIae, q. 35, a. 2) This justifies calling acedia a capital sin, since just as the delights of all the virtues are ordered to that of charity, similarly, sadness about the latter gives rise to other and lesser sadnesses (a.4). Thus, one who feels sadness with respect to spiritual good is led on to carnal activities: the pursuit of pleasure in the usual sense stems from fleeing the greatest spiritual good, the gaudium caritatis or joy of charity (a. 4, ad 2).

Spiritual goods, which sadden the one in the grip of acedia, are both ends and means. Flight from the end is caused by despair, whereas flight from the means to the end, insofar as they are arduous and come under counsel, is caused by pusillanimity; with respect to what pertains to common justice, it is caused by torpor about the precepts. The belligerence of those saddened by spiritual goods sometimes is directed against those who urge us to spiritual goods, and one comes to detest them, and this is properly malice. However, insofar as on one is led by sadness in face of spiritual goods to external pleasures, a daughter of acedia is “flight to the illicit” (ST IIaIIae, q. 35, a. 4, ad 3)

(These daughters of acedia also enable Thomas to accommodate remarks of Gregory the Great and Isidore about the various defects in monastic life: idleness, somnolence, curiosity, verbosity, restlessness, and instability.)

        Dante would have been aware of these refinements of the notion of sloth. Without them, we would be tempted to think of it as mere sluggishness or laziness -- on the order of “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning. O how I hate to get out of bed” in objection to those whose kinetic energy keeps them bouncing around. These further reflections are essential if we are to understand sloth as a capital sin, as in Dante, and not merely as the opposite of feverish activity.

Non erat eis locus in deversorio: There was no room in the inn

Unlike the descent through the Inferno, which was accomplished in a single day, the ascent of Mount Purgatory takes several days, and given days, several nights, nights during which Dante sleeps. All activity ceases during the night there, but only Dante is in need of sleep. This calls attention to his anomalous presence in the other world; he is a man of flesh and blood, his feet make impressions when he walks, his body casts a shadow, and with the onset of night he requires sleep. To sleep, perchance, to dream. Canto 19 of the Purgatorio opens with an account of a dream Dante had while he slept. An ugly woman appears to him, but she gradually becomes attractive and announces that she is the Siren whose seductive song has led so many mariners to their doom.

        When I was in the Marine Corps boot camp long ago, we were shown various films, some of them having to do with the perils of liberty -- in the military sense. In one of them, the actor Robert Benchley, improbably attired in uniform, enters a bar, orders a drink, and notices an ugly woman several stools away. He turns from her to his drink. He goes on drinking. When he looks at the woman after a passage of time, she is transformed, and her ugliness has given way to a seductive beauty. There is no need to dwell on the sequel and the lesson the film was meant to teach. Something like this takes place in Dante’s dream, but the seductive role is played not by alcohol but by concupiscence. A lot of space is accorded to this dream, and it can be regarded as the prelude to the three capital sins yet to be dealt with: avarice, gluttony, and lust. “Love calls us to the things of this world,” the poet Richard Wilbur wrote. Dante would doubtless want to substitute “concupiscence” for “love” in that sentence.

        Domenico Bassi connects Dante’s dream to St. Paul in Romans 13, where Paul gives expression to a thought that rules the Comedy: “Let every soul be subject to the higher authorities, for there exists no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God. Therefore he who resists the authority, resists the ordinance of God; and they that resist bring on themselves condemnation: (Rom. 13:1-2). Then, having listed some of the commandments one must observe -- Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal -- Paul likens ignoring them to living in a dream:

And this do, understanding the time, for it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we came to believe. The night is far advanced; the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Let us walk becomingly as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts. (Rom. 13:11-13)

        Preferring temporal to eternal goods might be a definition of the sins on the upper three terraces of Mount Purgatory. Material possessions, food and drink, and venereal pleasure are all good things, but they are good for us only insofar as they are integrated into our comprehensive good. When we try to make them serve as the be-all and end-all of life, when they become our gods -- St. Paul said of the glutton, “whose god is his belly” -- our actions are sinful. This is the explanation of the upper three terraces that Virgil, when he was explaining the geography of Purgatory to Dante, promised to give later.

        If we had to come up with a symbolic figure of avarice, we might think of Midas, or Dicken’s Scrooge, or the miser in Balzac’s Eugenic Grandet running his greedy fingers through his gold. Dante puts before us numerous examples including a French king and a pope, choices with obvious political ramifications. Dante lamented that popes had betrayed the Church by their avarice, yet he also laments the French king who assaulted Pope Boniface VIII at Anagni, a pope Dante excoriated as a person; but it is the papal office he defends here.

        Such figures represent the vice; Mary represents the opposite of avarice, that is, poverty. Dante has in mind Luke’s account of Christ’s birth.

Now it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken. This first census took place while Cyrinus was governor of Syria. And all were going, each to his own town, to register. And Joseph also went from Galilee out of the town of Nazareth into Judea to the town of David, which is called Bethlehem -- because he was of the house and family of David -- to register, together with Mary his espoused wife who was with child. And it came to pass while they were there, that the days for her to be delivered were fulfilled. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

Penitents invoke this scriptural passage to contrast their own sins with the poverty of the Blessed Virgin:

Noi andavam con passi lenti e scarsi,
e io attento a l’ombre, ch’i’ sentia
pietosamente piangere et lagnarsi;
e per ventura udi’ “Dolce Maria!”
dinanzi a noi chiamar cosi nel pianto
come fa donna che in parturir sia;
e seguitar: “Povera fosti tanto,
quanto veder si può per quello ospizio
dove sponesti il tuo portato santo.”
(Purg. 20.16-24)

With slow and short steps we went on, and I was intent on the shades, hearing their pitiful weeping and lamenting, when I chanced to hear one ahead of us call tearfully, “Sweet Mary!” sounding like a woman who is giving birth, and he went on. “How poor you were can be seen from that inn in which you laid down your holy burden.”

        The penitents cry out to Sweet Mary, whose poverty was manifest at the nativity when she had nowhere to lay her newborn son but in a manger. Many have seen in this passage the powerful influence on Dante of St . Francis of Assisi -- Dante himself was a member of the Franciscan Third Order, a lay order. Poverty, one of the three vows of the religious life, along with chastity and obedience, was often more honored in the breach than in the observance. The Franciscan order had lifted poverty to new heights. The voluntary turning away from possessions and from the goods of this world was the soul’s opening to the eternal.

        The contemptus mundi that had been urged upon members of religious orders, and not only on them, could be distorted into a devaluation of the created order, as if lesser goods were not goods at all. Here we find the seeming paradox of St. Francis. In embracing Lady Poverty he turned his back on lesser goods, but at the same time he became the poet of nature, expressing our kinship with every living thing. This is an ordered love of the things of this world. In Francis’s words, “Benedicite omnia opera Domini Domino” -- Blessed by the Lord are all the works of the Lord. What we call the necessities of life are just that; we cannot live without them. Food and drink may be lesser goods, but we need them to survive, just as the species needs the sexual drive to replenish itself. Franciscan poverty draws attention in a dramatic way to the fact that the pursuit of lesser goods must be ordered.

        Those doing penance for avarice on Mount Purgatory lie face down -- “My soul is prostrate in the dust” (Ps.118 [119] : 25) -- symbolizing a disordered attachment to wealth and to the things of this world. Dante understands the temptation to which those doing penance here have succumbed. He is not merely a spectator, nor are we meant to be. In other works, such as the Convivio and his letters, he confesses listening to the siren song that promised wealth, pleasures, and all the rest. Is it only because he never attained wealth that he can see how incommensurable it is to man’s desire for the good? That would be a cynical conclusion. Thomas Aquinas did hold, however, that the best argument against the belief that such goods as wealth, food, and pleasure are able to fulfill our heart’s desire is to have had them. Dante has certainly known many pleasures, and they are dust and ashes. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, to quote Ecclesiastes. And to call this thought a leitmotif of the Psalms would be an understatement: “Lo, thou has made my days but a span, and what is the length of my days, and my life is as nothing before thee; every man is but a breath. Man passes away like a mere shadow, his worrying is all in vain, he gathers up and knows not who shall reap” (Ps. 38 [39]-:67). Some vices attract an individual more than others; in contrast to other vices, Dante gave short shrift to acedia, a vice to which apparently he was never tempted.

        At this point in the cantica the Roman poet Statius appears. The five hundred years he has spent of this terrace are over. His release has been signaled by a quaking of the mountain and shouts of thanksgiving and singing of the Gloria in excelsis Deo, but he lingers to speak with these two strange pilgrims. He is, it emerges, an admirer of Virgil; his own epics were inspired by the Aeneid. All this bursts forth before Statius realizes that Dante’s guide is Virgil himself. At that, he kneels to kiss the hem of the great poet’s garment but is prevented by Virgil. We are thus given yet another indicator of why Virgil was chosen by Beatrice for the role he plays in the Comedy.

We now have three poets, Virgil, Dante and Statius, and they will soon speak with other poets, contemporaries of Dante. We shall return later to the suite of cantos called the cantos of the poets. For now we have Statius’s testimony to Virgil that the great epic poet was the cause of Statius’s conversion to Christianity. As if wishing to cover for the fact that there is not historical basis for this conversion, Dante presents Statius as a secret Christian, one who sympathized with the martyrs who were led into the Coliseum but could not bring himself to join them. Virgil’s role in his conversion is linked to Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, in which, to the early Church, the pagan poet had seemed to prophesy the coming of Christ. Thus the effect of Virgil on Statius was twofold -- thanks to Virgil, Statius has become first a poet and then a Christian. Virgil is portrayed as a guide who held a lamp behind him, lighting for others a way he did not go himself.

Why did Statius have to repent for five hundred years on the terrace of the avaricious? Virtue is a via media, flanked by opposite vices, and the vice opposite to avarice is prodigality, a mindless stewardship of worldly goods. That was Statius’s vice. Virgil tells Statius of all the great poets confined in Limbo, to which he himself must return, and the three continue together and are soon on the next terrace.

Nondum venit hora mea: My hour is not yet come

The sixth terrace is one on which sins of gluttony are repented. For Mary as an example of the opposite virtue, Dante returns once more to the account of the wedding feast at Cana found in the Gospel of John. Earlier, he had found in Mary’s behavior compassion for their hosts, who were running out of wine. Now he finds another significance in her prompting Her Son to perform his first public miracle.

        As the three poets walk, they come upon a tree with sweet-smelling fruit. It is a tree of curious shape, like an upside-down fir tree, perhaps to prevent its being climbed. As they approach, a voice warns them not to eat of this tree. We are reminded of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden, but the voice continues:

Più disse: “Più pensava Maria onde
fosser le nozze orrevoli e intere,
ch’a la sua bocca…
(Purg. 22.142-144)

Then it said, “Mary thought more that the wedding feast should be honorable and complete than of her own hunger.”

Mary’s concern is the success of the wedding celebration rather than filling her mouth. It was not a desire for more to drink that prompted her. Chiavacci Leonard finds this a somewhat forced use of the text, commenting that “the paucity of evangelical texts that speak of Mary offered little choice.”{21} One might rather say that a surprising number of texts mention Mary, but perhaps that would seem forced in its turn. Dante also might have chosen his example from the Magnificat, “the hungry he has filled with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Because of the pleasure associated with eating and drinking, whose objects are necessary if we are to live, the rational moderation of them can be difficult. One cannot swear off drinking except in the sense of drinking certain beverages or too much of a certain kind of beverage, but beverage we must have. The fact that rational control of such activities can be difficult, given their centrality in our lives, explains why sin often occurs as we engage in them.{22} Gluttony is the immoderate desire for food, not just the consumption of it. One might very well take more than one needs under the assumption that it as much as one needs, and this would not be gluttony. Imagine some new and exotic food about whose effects one is unaware, such that a little bit counts as a lot. Gluttony proper is the desire for an immoderate amount, followed for the most part by eating an immoderate amount, but the latter is consequent on the former. When it is not, as in the example suggested, there is no gluttony. Nor is there any constant objective measure of too much or too little; this varies from person to person, and each must moderate his desire according to his disposition. A fighter in training will need more food than the reporter reporting on him. Moreover, gluttony can be a venial, not a mortal sin. It is a capital sin insofar as the immoderate desire for food becomes one’s defining goal, one’s ultimate end: cuius deus venter est.

        We notice, once again, that the objects of the capital sins that are expiated on the top three levels of Purgatory bear on things -- possessions, money; food and drink, sexual activity. None of the objects is evil in itself; indeed, each in its way is necessary for human beings. Capital sins arise from the immoderate desire for these objects, elevating a particular good into the overwhelming rationale for our deeds, and the fact that such immoderate desire gives birth to other faults.

        Those doing penance for gluttony are portrayed as an anorexic band, tormented by hunger and thirst and with barely enough flesh on their bones. This suggests perhaps the vice opposed to gluttony: as prodigality relates to avarice, so we might say that dieting relates to gluttony. Dieting, that is, in the sense of a deliberate denial of food and drink related not to the first good, or rational moderation, but middle-aged muscles, and all the fads that would seem to amount to desperate efforts to drive out thoughts of ageing and mortality. The mirror on my lady’s table, called ominously a vanity, is perhaps an innocent version of this. Who has not felt a foolish pleasure in being told he looks younger than he is, as if somehow the common lot of shuffling visibly toward the end had been abrogated for us, while others, sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything, visibly age. Think of the manic joggers, the desperate devils on their treadmills, those whose glowing flesh is acquired in tanning parlors, face lifts, liposuction, and so on. Is there not excess in this? But of course, another vanity is in noticing this, possibly a version of acedia. Between the obesity consequent on gluttony and the painfully acquired svelteness that is the opposite vice resides the virtue of temperance. And here, as always, Mary is the first exemplar of the virtue.

Virum non cognosco: I know not man

And so we arrive at the seventh and last terrace, devoted to atoning for sins of lust. Before the travelers encounter any souls on this terrace, however, Dante takes up a question, the answer to which has been assumed all along. In the Inferno, in the moving encounter with Paolo and Francesca, the doomed lovers are locked in an eternal embrace. At the time Dante did not ask how souls can embrace, nor did the deeper issues of how souls can suffer the quite physical pains of hell (or purgatory) detain him. Now, before the last step of emerging from the uppermost terrace of the seven storey mountain, the question is at last posed.

        Several times along the way, mention had been made of the fact that Dante makes footprints and casts a shadow. The shades he meets do not. Are they simply separated souls? If so, what explains the seeming bodies, shapes, voices, and the rest? Is that to be taken as merely imaginary, a poetic necessity? Canto 25 gives Dante’s answer, which deserves at least brief mention. Virgil turns the question over to Statius, who provides a lengthy resumé of the Aristotelian embryology that was taken over by medievals such as St. Thomas Aquinas. In this account the embryo is not human until God breathes a soul into it. There are profound problems associated with such a theory of postponed animation, but those problems will not detain us now. What is important is that Statius, in his account of the development of the now human embryo, refers to the formation of a first spectral body before the actual, physical body is complete, as if the soul, now animating the embryo, first produces the plan of the physical body that later will form. This may seem an idle point, until we consider the state of the soul after death. And that is Dante’s problem, as it has been from the outset. He must attempt to answer such questions as: How can the souls of the departed be affected by physical punishment? How can they suffer from fire, for example? And how can they grow thin, as with the emaciated shades on the previous terrace who are expiating for gluttony? His solution is that a spectral body accompanies the soul after death. Hence the departed are visible to Dante, not merely as a poetic device but in reality. As Chiavacca Leonardi suggests, we do not find in Dante the merely separated, that is, the “form” of the body released from the body and now quite independent of it. The departed for Dante are not soul and physical body, as on earth, but soul and spectral body. (As she also points out, this is one of the most extended and self-contained theoretical passages in the entire cantica.)

        Fire did not play a central role in Dante’s depiction of the torments of the damned, nor has it figured in the purgations of the previous terraces. Now the travelers see the souls of the lustful being purged by fire. From the depths of the fire, Dante hears voices singing “Summae Deus clemetïae” (Purg. 25.121), “God of supreme clemency,” which as Dante commentators point out, is from the hymn sung at Matins on Saturdays. The chief relevance of its appearance here may perhaps be found in the third stanza:

Our reins and hearts in pity heal,
and with the chastening fires anneal;
gird thou our loins, each passion quell,
and every harmful lust expel.{23}

Dante sees spirits walking in the flames; they are singing the hymn, and when they finish they cry aloud, “Virum non cognosco,” I know not man. This of course was Mary’s reply to the angel when he told her she was to become a mother. Taken as a vow to chastity, how can what the angel tells her come about without abandoning that vow? The answer is that she will conceive in a wholly miraculous way, be at once both virgin and mother. The spirits then begin the hymn again, in lower voices. Once more, the Annunciation as recounted in Luke is invoked to show Mary as the prime example of purity.

        Dante turns now to the lustful sinners. They are of two groups, those who sinned unnaturally and those who sinned naturally; a division, that is, between homosexuality, on the one hand, and fornication and adultery, on the other.

        We live in a sensate age in which it is often said that the sense of sin has been lost. Certainly there has been an enormous change as to how, in the modern world, the pleasures of the flesh are regarded. There has always been a willingness to regard sins of the flesh as less than serious. How else explain the long puzzlement over Paolo and Francesca? Is a little hanky-panky really deserving of an eternal punishment? Dante occupies a world that will seem incredible to those for whom sex is merely an innocent conjunction, for recreation, not procreation, an end in itself. Let us state the most obvious difference between such an attitude and the one that Dante represents. The point of the division of the species into genders, male and female, is that families may be formed and children conceived, nourished, reared, and educated in everything a person needs before launching out on his or her own. Sex and procreation imply sex and marriage. Dante’s early poetry dwelled on love, but it was an asexual love and whatever else he came to find wanting in it, he would not have regarded such poetry as a celebration of illicit love, that is, physical love outside matrimony.

        Christianity has always been countercultural, however much at times this seems muted, as if some détente had been achieved between believers and the world. Believers who take seriously the Catholic Church’s reminders about the main truths of sexual morality will realize how out of step the Church and they are with the way we live now. For the Catholic doctrine on the basis of sexual morality, we can consult S. Thomas’s Disputed Questions on Evil.

        Lust, for Thomas, is the vice opposed to temperance that moderates the pleasures of touch and sex, just as gluttony is opposed to the moderation of concupiscence with respect to food and drink. Lust is primarily, then, a want of ordering, a disorder.

        This disorder may be either in the interior passions or in exterior acts that are of themselves disordered, and not disordered simply because they come from disordered passions. Thomas invokes the parallel case of greed or avarice. A man might desire in a disordered way the acquisition of money; there is nothing wrong per se with acquiring money, but the passion with which one goes about it can be disordered. How so? Because wealth is the avaricious person’s overriding objective; it is a lesser good put over the higher. Sometimes avarice not only may consist of disordered desire but may also bear on an act that is objectively disordered, such as stealing another person’s goods. Such a one is doubly at fault; both the disordered passion and the objectively disordered act are contrary to liberality and constitutive of illiberality. It can be much the same with lust.

        One might have a disordered passion and engage in an act that is of itself legitimate, such as sleeping with one’s spouse. But even the conjugal act can be vitiated by lust. The marriage licence is not a licence to licentiousness and orgy. Once this might have been difficult to acknowledge, but no one can now deny that a man can rape his wife or that a woman could force her husband against his wishes. Again, this is a doubtful fault, inner and outer. But some acts are objectively wrong and are not made wrong merely because of the disordered passion with which they are undertaken; in Thomas’s words, “as happens in every use of the genital members outside the marriage act” (De malo, q. 15). That every such act is disordered in itself is clear from the fact that every human act is disordered when it is not proportioned to its proper end. Similarly, eating that is not proportioned to bodily health, to which it is ordered as to its end, is disordered. “The end of the use of the genital members is generation and any use which is not proportioned to the generation of a child and of the upbringing due it is of itself disordered.” This is why it is disordered for an unmarried couple to engage in the sexual act, whether one or both are married to someone else or not. The reproductive system is ordered to reproducing, the sexual act is the way this is done; to engage in coition humanly is to be aware that a child may result and that one has obligations to that child which will extend over many years. Any sex act outside of marriage is objectively disordered.{24}

        At the time Thomas wrote, and before and after, it was doubtless true that many behaved in ways contrary to the truths he expounds. Sexual morality ihas doubtless always been observed more in the breach than in the observance. Our times seem different because now theories are advanced for what hitherto was recognized as wrong behavior. It is as if the other sins to which our flesh is heir were to have theoretical advocates, with the formation of communities of thieves, of murderers, or of liars, proudly proclaiming their own right to behave as they do. Because the social drive is fierce and fundamental, ordered as it is to the propagation of the species, it is subject to frequent deviant uses.

        It is not, of course, my intention here to enter further into these controversies. Suffice it to say that Dante would have accepted without demur Thomas’s position, as is evident in his treatment of adultery and homosexuality in the Inferno as well as in the penance done for sins against lust in the Purgatorio, and this despite the fact that he apparently strayed from time to time in matters of the flesh. He was more interested in repenting of his sins than seeking to justify them. When Our Lady appeared in the twentieth century at Fatima, the heart of her message was the need for purity and chastity. She was addressing our times. She would lead us out of the dark wood of our sins, much as she led Dante.

Dante and the Poets

Already in the Vita Nuova we find our author to be a highly self-conscious poet, much given to comparing his own efforts with those of others. Teodolinda Barolini{25} has tracked the way in which, in the course of his writings, Dante provides little lists giving the pecking order of contemporary poetic greatness; she even provides a helpful chart of these orderings. Poets to whom Dante at one time defers later fall back on his lists, or are even dropped altogether. Guido Cavalcanti is a dramatic example. In Dante’s Rime he occupies pride of place in a list that includes Lapo (Lippo) probably the minor poet Lippo Pasci d’Bardi), with Dante modestly coming in third. Cavalcanti retains this prominence in the Vita Nuova, but he fails to show up in similar rankings in the Convivio and Monarchia. He is reduced to tangential references in the Comedy, once in the Inferno and once in the Purgatorio. Such shifts and altered estimates can be discussed in terms of poetic craft and the “sweet new style” of which Dante finally emerges as the master. But the discussion of the poets in the Purgatorio suggests that something deeper is at work, something more essentially related to the great aim of the Comedy -- to lead us from the misery of sin to eternal bliss.

        Starting with the appearance of Statius in canto 21, we have a suite of cantos that have been called the cantos of the poets. Our original duo is now joined by Statius. Dante depicts himself as following after Virgil and Statius, listening to them discourse on poetry and learning as he listens. When Statius realized that he is confronted by the great prophecy of the Incarnation, he is as overwhelmed as Dante was at the outset of the Comedy. He details the effect that Virgil had on him and declares, in summary, “Per te poeta fui, per te Cristiano” (Purg. 22.73): “you made me both a poet and a Christian.”

        George Santayana, in his marvelous little book Three Philosophical Poets,{26} refers to Lucretius as the poet of naturalism, Goethe as the poet of romanticism, and Dante as the poet of the supernatural. Santayana groups all three together under the rubric “philosophical poets.” There is warrant for this homogenization, but in the case of Dante it is inadequate. Christianity is not a philosophy. Dante would better be called a theological poet, although his assimilation of Aristotle and others gives him claim to the title of philosophical poet as well. This brings us to a theme I touched on earlier and to which I promised to return.

        In the Republic, Plato describes an ancient quarrel between the philosopher, of which he is one, and the poet and gives the basis for the quarrel. But it will occur to any reader of Plato that his philosophical dialogues are also works of art. Indeed, when Aristotle mentions the types of poetry in his Poetics, he lists the Platonic dialogues as one of them. Elsewhere, with reference to the Platonic notion of participation, Aristotle dismisses it as a mere metaphor, and the metaphor is the mark of the poet. This is rather a criticism of transgression of genera than hostility toward poetry. The ability to see similarities in dissimilar things is the genius of the poet, and the metaphor is the vehicle of that vision. We expect Aristotle to ponder formal differences between kinds of discourse, including the nature of that nonpoetic discourse called philosophy. Aristotle’s answer is laid out for us schematically by Thomas Aquinas in the preface to his commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics{27} In developing these thoughts here, I am providing something more than deep background for understanding Dante. The aim is to become clear as to what kind of poet Dante was, in terms of the philosophical tradition in which he stood.

        The human mind forms its ideas on the basis of sense experience and then fashions affirmations and denials, which are the loci of truth -- and of its opposite, of course. Affirmations are true when they capture the way things are, and false when they fail in this. Progress occurs here, namely, discourse, the movement from one known thing to another, but discourse in the richer sense occurs when we arrive at new truths from old: that is, when we move from the fact that certain propositions are true to conclude that something else is true because of them, derivatively. This discourse, or syllogism, is the mark of our rationality. It is also a sign that while human reason is the most perfect thing in the physical cosmos, it is the lowest kind of intelligence in the universe. Despite the great gap between us and the angels, Thomas loves to speak of human reason as the bottom rung of a hierarchy that goes up through the progressively more perfect intellects of the angels to God himself. Putting human reason in its place is by no means to devalue it as such. Indeed, human rationality is the basis on which we can extrapolate to other forms of understanding that are not hampered in the ways ours is.

According to Thomas, Aristotle was the first to lay out the formal logic of the syllogism, in the Prior Analytics. There the topic is the relationship between symbols rather than what they symbolize. If A is B and B is C, then A is C. This formality of discourse proliferates into the figures and modes of syllogism. Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics turns from the symbols to the symbolized. There is a necessity of consequence in the formal syllogism, but not everything we reason about is in fact necessary. The necessary is that which cannot be otherwise, and there are interpreted symbols that yield necessary conclusions, not just the necessity of consequence.

In explicating Aristotle, Thomas has begun to lay out for us the cascading types of discourse, from necessary arguments, through probable or likely reasoning, through persuasive discourse, and then, after a treatment of how arguments go wrong (fallacies), poetic discourse. The last type, he tells us here, as he had in the Summa theologiae, is infima doctrina, “the least of doctrines” -- the bottom rung of human discourse. By the representations he or she puts before us, the poet leads our mind onward. My love is like a red red rose. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? We are a little world made cunningly.

This cascade from apodictic through probable and forensic discourse to poetic discourse may seem to us to be a great put-down of poetry. It is better to think of it as the comparative location of poetry. Anyone familiar with the Poetics will know that Aristotle is fully aware of the power and range of the poetic. The point of any hierarchy is not that anything less than the first is to be ignored, but that we not confuse the lesser with the higher. Those in the Aristotelian tradition put apodictic discourse first, but not everything lends itself to such discourse; indeed, in a sense, few things do. Most of our arguments are probable to one degree or another; most of the truths we hold are only opinions. The mark of the wise man, Aristotle noted, is to demand and expect of a subject matter only the degree of rigor it can deliver. If we demanded mathematical rigor of every argument, we would be sorely disappointed. Think of any political dispute. Think of arguments in a court room. The primacy of apodictic discourse begins to look like a reminder of how rare it is. Against this reminder, we are less likely to think that calling poetic discourse infima doctrina is a way of saying, “Away with the poet!” We need poetry just as, in general, we need art. It is worth remembering that Aristotle must have seen a lot of plays in order to write as he did of Greek tragedy.

Poetry is an imitation, Aristotle stated; art imitates nature. This is not a plea for photographic realism. The Poetics has come down to us as a fragment; it gives us an analysis of tragedy. The tragic drama is an imitation in that it puts before us characters who act in much the way that that members of the audience have acted and do or will act. But the imitation gives us a logos, a sense of wholeness, that ordinary life seldom does. In Aristotle’s pithy phrase, the plot of the drama, has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

When Thomas says that poetic discourse is infima doctrina in the Summa, it is in the context of noticing that Scripture is replete with images and similes and parables. The problem this poses is the following: if sacred doctrine is the most sublime, why does it so constantly, almost exclusively, use poetic language and metaphors? Consider that the metaphors of the poet illumine that which is less than human by attributing human attributes to it -- smiling meadows, and the like. Some metaphors go in the opposite direction, but they can be considered parasitic on the first kind. The point of scriptural metaphors, Thomas argues, is to give us forceful presentations that speak of God in human and even subhuman terms -- he is a father, he repents of creating man, he is a fire, he is a lion, and so forth. Such metaphors proportion the divine to us in a way that is far more effective than abstract characterizations of him.

It is fitting that Sacred Scripture should treat of divine and spiritual things as similar to the corporeal. God provides for things according to their natures, and it is natural to man that he should move to understanding from the sensible, since all our knowledge takes it rise from the senses. Thus it is that Sacred Scripture fittingly presents spiritual things to us by way of bodily metaphors. (ST 1a, q. 1, a.9)

Thomas adds that Scripture addresses all people, both the wise and the simple, and thus speaks of spiritual things under bodily similitudes that all can grasp and that the wise, too, need.

        He further contrasts the aim of the poet and that of Scripture. The poet makes use of representations because they are pleasing to us, generating the shock of recognition, the inner Aha! We feel at the fittingness of a metaphor. Scripture, on the other hand, uses metaphors out of necessity and usefulness. Of course, a literal understanding of Scriptural metaphors would defeat their purpose and lead to an inappropriate view of God. This is not a great danger, since everyone, wise and simple, has the hang of metaphors. The very reach of the metaphors that present God to us have a built-in caveat that we are learning what God is not rather than what he is.

        On Santayana’s account of the philosophical poet, a philosophy -- such as naturalism, romanticism, and supernaturalism -- gives us a view of the whole, and the philosopher has appropriate modes of argumentation to establish that vision. From the philosophical poet we do not expect philosophical arguments, but rather we expect the assumption of the vision that the philosopher argues for, as the background for poetic representation. Santayana makes a good case for this, and he is followed in it by his student. T. S. Eliot, in Eliot’s lectures on the metaphysical poets. One might demur, at least in part, by pointing to versified philosophical arguments in Lucretius and Dante, but by and large it seems a convincing account, with interesting implications for Dante’s claim that the Comedy is an instance of moral philosophy. More interesting still, perhaps, is to compare the poetic expression of philosophical claims in the Comedy with more prosaic expressions of them elsewhere. Examples would be a comparison of Dante’s embryology, presented by Statius, with the Aristotelian texts on which it is based, or of Dante’s acccount of spectral bodies with the texts of Thomas on which it is based.

        In the doctrinal cantos devoted to the problem of love and freedom in the Purgatorio -- there are three -- the doctrine that love is at the source of all eventually raised the question as to whether we act freely, once love has come. As we saw earlier, Dante once held this deterministic view. He now frees himself from it and has Virgil refer to the error of the blind who had posed as his guides (Purg. 18.18).

        Recall again the beginning of the Comedy, when Dante is in the dark wood, in danger of losing his soul, and the long journey before him is the path of salvation. But Dante is a poet, and his presence in that dark wood is at least in part due to his poetic activity. What he now undertakes, as pilgrim and poet, is the story of his progressive assimilation of the Christian vocation.

        The highest terrace of the upper three of the seven storey mountain concerns lust, which, like avarice and gluttony, puts a lesser good in the place of the highest good. The discussion of poetry through these terraces must accordingly bear on the way in which the poet can mistake a lesser good for the highest good. The great subject of the poetry of the other poets encountered was love, and presumably a lesser love that was treated as the dominant point of human life. It is this assumption of his own early poetry that Dante repents. Under the influence of Virgil and Statius, he now strives not only for a new poetic style but for one appropriate to singing of the love that moves the sun and other stars, and of life as the pursuit of that love. In his commentaries on the poems in the Vita Nuova he attempts to sublimate his love for Beatrice, but after her death he lived a life that was enveloped by a dark wood, in which the right path was lost. At the end of the Vita, Dante acknowledges his dissatisfaction with what he has written of Beatrice and resolves to devote himself to the study of philosophy and theology in order to write of her as no woman has ever been written of before. The Comedy is the fulfillment of that resolution. In it, Beatrice is the representative of true beatitude and Dante’s guide, at first mediated but finally direct, leading him to a happiness that can only be found in the next world. Dante became not only a philosophical poet but, far more importantly, a theological poet. The preeminence that Dante claims over poets contemporary with him is precisely that his poetry if now at the service of Love in the most exalted sense. {28}

        The writer François Mauriac, who was stung by the shocked reaction of fellow Catholics (as well as by André Gide’s jibe that he sought permission to publish so he wouldn’t have to burn his books), entertained misgivings about his novels. Would it be too much to suggest that Dante’s illusion in the Comedy to his earlier works, those that shared the outlook of his fellow poets, convey a similar judgment? In any case, Dante came to view his earlier poetic practice as harmful to the writer, as the “cantos of the poets” in the Purgatorio suggest.

        The subject of art and morality is usually discussed with reference to the effect of works of art on the reader. It is intriguing to find the artist worrying about that, but also worrying about the effect of what he has written on himself. Is it a repentant poet who is speaking to us in these cantos of the Purgatorio? Of course, it is not poetry as such that Dante abjures. He is now engaged in the kind of poetry that is both fulfilling of the writer and edifying to the reader. For dramatic contrast, all one need do is compare the Lord Byron of Don Juan with this learned, mystic, serious poet on his way to heaven, and hoping to take us with him.

Salire e le stele: To climb unto the stars

Dante, persuaded to enter the fire in which certain poets and those guilty of lust in the usual senses burn, and reassured by Virgil that beyond the fire he will be reunited with Beatrice, soon finds himself in the earthly paradise, the garden of Eden, located at the very apex of the mountain. Earlier he had dreamed of Leah and Rachel, and in the garden he is met by a mysterious woman, Matilda, who sings beautifully. She represents, it would seem, the natural happiness for which man was originally destined. All that was changed by sin, and the remedy is the redemption and promise of a happiness far above that proportioned to human nature. Hence the Augustinian description of original sin, O felix culpa, since what was lost is a nothing to which can be gained. Paradise lost is paradise regained, perhaps, but the meaning of “paradise” has changed. And then, in canto 30, a veiled Beatrice appears, and Dante turns to find that Virgil is no longer at his side.

        The garden functions as a reminder of the vast difference between the natural and the supernatural. Virgil, as the representative of the natural, gives way to Beatrice, having fulfilled the commission he had accepted from Beatrice when, prompted by St. Lucy, who was prompted in turn by Mary, she came to him in Limbo. One misses some acknowledgment here of what the great poet has done, some gesture of gratitude from Beatrice. But although Dante weeps at his disappearance, her present concern is to remind Dante of the transgressions for which his ascent of Mount Purgatory has been necessary. Earlier, Virgil gave what turns out to be his farewell address:

. . . ”Il temporal foco e l’etterno
veduto hai, figlio; e se’ venuto in parte
dov’ io per me più oltre non discern.
Tratto t’ho qui con ingegno e con arte;
lo tuo piacere omai prendi per duce;
fuor se’ de l’erte vie, fuor se’ de l’arte.
Vedi lo sol che ‘n fronte ti riluce;
vedi l’erbette, I fiori e li arbuscelli
che qui la terra sol da sé prodce.
Mentre che vegnan lieti li occhi belli
che, lagrimando, a te venir mi fenno,
seder ti puoi e puoi andar tra elli.
Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano é tuo arbitrio,
e fallo for a non are a suo senno:
per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.”
(Purg. 27.127-142)

Son, you’ve seen the temporal and eternal fire and reached the place where my discernment fails. I have led you here through wit and art. Now let pleasure be your guide, for you are past the narrow paths. See the sun that on you shines, look at the grass, the flowers, the shrubs to which earth here gives birth. Walk among them as you await those happy loving eyes that wept when she chose me for your guide. You will get no further word nor sign from me, your will is free, right, and sane, and it would be wrong to act against it. Accordingly I place the crown and miter on you.

All the capital P’s have been erased from Dante’s forehead, but his ordeal is not yet over. Beatrice confronts him with his misbehavior with the pargoletta, that slip of a girl (Purg. 31.59), who represents, it seems, more than one companion in dalliance after Beatrice’s death. And so Dante stands, head bowed like a schoolboy, being scolded by his beloved. Beatrice is no longer one mortal woman in competition with others, but the means of Dante’s salvation. To interpret her initial address to Dante as that of a woman scorned, if only posthumously, would be to miss the whole point of the Comedy. Sins are an offense against God and even when forgiven and atoned for, their memory remains. That is why Dante must be submerged in the water of Lethe by Matilda. This will be followed by a further bathing in the waters of Eunoe, which prepares him for the last leg of his journey. The blessed Virgin is not mentioned in these final cantos of the Purgatorio, but none of this would have happened without her initial compassion for the Dante who had gotten himself into that dark wood.

        Beatrice appears to be identified with Mary in the last cantos of the Purgatorio, or perhaps better, becomes an allegorical figure of Mary. Far more important, however, is the relationship between the first woman, resident of the Garden of Eden, and Mary.

Eva / Ave

There is something geographically odd about finding the Garden of Eden on top of Mount Purgatory. The explanation given is that the mountain was formed when Lucifer plunged into the earth, burrowing to its very center (the lowest circle of hell), and as he did so, pushing an equal volume of dirt out the other side, thus forming Mount Purgatory. The significance of the Garden is its role now, as Dante, his soul purged of the stain of the capital sins, comes onto the final stage of the cantica.

        The drama of the Commedia, the whole drama of human life, began in that garden where our first parents, Adam and Eve, lured by the promise that they would be as gods if they disobeyed God, were driven from the earthly paradise into an unfriendly world where they and their progeny had to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. Original sin is that great aboriginal catastrophe, as John Henry Newman called it, of which we all have some intimation in trying to understand why we and others act in the wrong and terrible ways we do.{29} Adam and Eve at their creation were untroubled by the division we are all too aware of in ourselves, with desire contesting with reason, so that we do what we should not and do not do what we should. How our first parents could have sinned, given their condition and what theologians call their preternatural gifts, is a problem which, like that of how angels could sin, we must set aside. (Beatrice, in her professorial mode, will discuss the angels, good and bad, in Paradiso 29.) If Adam and Eve had not sinned, human history would have been wholly different. We can lament that fact, but at the same time we must acknowledge with St. Augustine that the remedy for what was lost by original sin is more than compensation for it. A Savior would be sent, the very Son of God, who would reconcile the human race with the Father. Through him, we would be raised, not just to the status that was lost, but beyond it, to a supernatural life with the promise that we will see God even as we are seen.

        In the Paradiso 7, we are given the essence of the matter when Beatrice explains Justinian’s remark that the death of Christ was the vengeance of God.

Solo il peccato è quel che la disfranca,
e falla dissimile al sommo bene,
per che del lume suo poco s’imbianca;
e in sua dignità mai non rivene,
se non rìempie, dove colpa vòta,
contra mal dilettar con giuste pene.
Vostra natura, quando peccò tota
nel seme suo, da queste dignitadi,
come di paradiso, fu remota;
né ricovrar potiensi, se tu badi
ben sottilmente, per alcuna via,
sanza passer per un di questi guadi:
o che Dio solo per sua cortesia
dimesso avesse, o che l’uom per sé isso
avesse sodisfatto a sua follia.
Ficca mo l’occhio per entro l’abisso
de l’etterno consiglio, quanto puoi
al mio parlar distrettamente fisso.
Non potea l’uomo ne’termini suoi
mai sodisfar, per non potere ir giuso
con umiltate obedïendo poi,
quanto disobediendo intese ir suso;
e questa è la cagion per che l’uom fue
da poter sodisfar per sé dischiuoso.
Dunque a Dio convenia con le vie sue
riparar l’omo a sua inter vita,
dico con l’una, o ver con amendue.
Ma perche l’ovra tanto è più gradita
a l’operante, quanto più apprensenta
de la bontà del core ond’ ell’ è uscita,
la divina bontà, che ‘l mondo imprenta,
di proceder per tutte le sue vie
a rilevarvi suso, fu contenta.
Ne tra l’ultima notte e ‘l primo die
si alto o si magnifico processo,
o per l’una o per l’altra, fu o fie:
ché più largo fu Dio a dar sé stesso
per far l’uom sufficiente a rilevarsi,
che s’èlli avesse sol da sé dimesso;
e tutti li altri modi erano scarsi
a la giustizia, se ‘l Figliuol di Dio
non fosse umiliato ad incarnarsi.
(Par. 7.79-120)

In Allen Mandelbaum’s translation,

Only man’s sin annuls man’s liberty,
makes him unlike the Highest Good, so that,
in him, the brightness of Its light is dimmed:
and man cannot regain his dignity
unless, where sin left emptiness, man fills
that void with just amends for evil pleasure.
For when your nature sinned so totally
within its seed, then, from these dignities,
just as from Paradise, that nature parted;
and they could never be regained -- if you
consider carefully -- by any way
that did not pass across one of these fords:
either through nothing other than His mercy,
God had to pardon man, or of himself
man had to proffer payment for his folly.
Now fix your eyes on the profundity
of the Eternal Counsel; heed as closely
as you are able to, my reasoning.
Man, in his limits, could not recompense;
for no obedience, no humility,
he offered later could have been so deep
that it could match the heights he meant to reach
through disobedience; man lacked the power
to offer satisfaction by himself
Thus there was need for God, through His own ways,
to bring man back to life intact -- I mean
by one way or by both. But since a deed
pleases its doer more, the more it shows
the goodness of the heart from which it springs,
the Godly Goodness that imprints the world
was happy to proceed through both its ways
to raise you up again. Nor has there been,
nor will there be, between the final night
and the first day, a chain of actions so
lofty and so magnificent as He
enacted when He followed His two ways;
for God showed greater generosity
in giving His own self that man might be
able to rise, than if He simply pardoned;
for every other means fell short of justice,
except the way whereby the Son of God
humbled Himself when he became incarnate.{30}

The means chosen, the Incarnate God, requires a mother, and this puts Mary in the very center of the divine plan.

        Original sin can make it look as if God’s plan was disrupted by Adam and Eve, requiring him to rewrite the script and introduce ad hoc adjustments. It is impossible for us not to think in this way. But God’s plan did not change. From all eternity, he foresaw original sin and how he would remedy it. He created Eve to be the mother of us all, alas, a sinful mother. The Savior who would come, the God Man, would be born of a human mother, and that mother too was foreseen from all eternity. Her role as the mother of us all on the supernatural level was part of the single divine plan. In order for her to fill that role perfectly, she would be the most perfect of pure creatures, full of grace, of whom it can be truly said that she is mother of God: “Vergine madre, figlia del suo figlio” (Virgin mother, daughter of your Son [Par. 33.1]). Unless we recognize, with Dante, that Mary is the most perfect of creatures, the mother of the savior, who interceded for us with him -- as at the wedding feast of Cana; who dispenses grace surprisingly -- as with the deathbed repentant, Buonconte; who was assumed into heaven, where, body and soul, she reigns as queen -- unless these simple truths are truths for us, we will never fully appreciate Dante’s attitude toward Mary and her role in the Commedia. Mary is not merely another human being, a very holy human being; she is the mother of God, and her maternity is by no means confined to an event in a cave in Bethlehem long ago. She is the new Eve, the mother of us all. Nor may we think that this status is something we confer on her by our devotion. Her privileges come from God. Her supereminent role in the economy of salvation is part of God’s plan, not a human construct.

        The earthly paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory is portrayed in all its natural beauty, but it is empty except for the woman Matilda. Dante, seeing the setting in which an unfallen mankind had been meant to dwell, becomes indignant with Eve. Except for her sin and Adam’s, he would have known these delights long since and for a longer time. But all this will seem as nothing when Dante is taken on to the paradise of the new dispensation by Beatrice.

        The reunion of Dante and Beatrice is surprising. First of all, Dante experiences the reaction of a lover: “I felt the mighty power of old love” (Purg. 33.39). He borrows the line from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas’s backward glance as he sails away from Dido prompts him to say, “I recognize the signs of an old flame.” Beatrice’s reaction is surprisingly different. As we have seen, she scolds him, intent on eliciting his shame for his conduct after her death, his fickleness, and in any other poem, with any other couple, this might be taken to be the pique of a woman scorned. But the shame Beatrice wants Dante to feel -- she addresses him somewhat abruptly as “Dante” (Purg. 30.55) -- is for turning away from the object to which his love for her was meant to lead him. Beatrice’s attendants ask why she shames her old lover so, and she answers at length.

Alcun tempo il sostenni col mio volto:
mostrando li occhi giovanetti a lui,
meco il menava in dritta parte vòlto.
Si tosto come in su la soglia fui
di mia seconda etade e mutai vita,
questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui.
Quando di carne a spirto era salita
e bellezza e virtù cresciuta m’era,
fu’ io a lui men cara e men gradita;
e volse i passi suoi per via non vera,
imagini di ben seguendo false,
che nulla promession rendono intera.
Né l’impetrare ispirazion mi valse,
con le quali e in sogno e altrimenti
lo rivocai: si poco a lui ne calse!
(Purg. 30.121-135)

My countenance sustained him for a while;
showing my youthful eyes to him. I led
him with me toward the way of righteousness.
As soon as I, upon the threshold of
my second age, had changed my life, he took
himself away from me and followed after
another; when from flesh to spirit, I
had risen, and my goodness and my beauty
had grown, I was less dear to him, less welcome:
he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path;
he followed counterfeits of goodness, which
will never pay in full what they have promised.
Nor did the inspirations I received -
and which, in dreams and otherwise, I called
him back -- help me; he paid so little heed.
(trans. Mandelbaum){31}

        In short, we are given a reprise of the whole basis for Dante’s journey. He had sunk so low that the only means of bringing him back was to show him the horrors of hell and the pains of purgatory. In recounting how she went down to the gateway of the dead to provide Dante with the guide who has brought him at last to her, Beatrice makes no mention of her need to be prompted by St. Lucy, who had been stirred to action by the Blessed Virgin, but the reader will remember the ultimate aegis under which everything is taking place.

        Between the earthly paradise and the ascent to Paradise, history intervenes: Dante puts before us a complicated pageant, rich with allegory, summing up the history of mankind and the plight that he judges the Church to be in. Having been chided like a schoolboy and reduced to tears for his sins, Dante is ready to drink from the rivers of Lethe and Eunoe, after which “I was pure and prepared to climb unto the stars” (Purg. 33.145, trans. Mandelbaum).

{1} The second part of the angelic salutation, “Holy Mary,” and so forth, was added in 431 by Pope St. Celestine I in response to the heresy of Nestorius. Paul Claudel, Journal, vol. 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), . 497.

{2} Virtues and vices are habits, settled dispositions to act well or badly, but habits are built of singular acts, good or bad, and lead us on to others of the same kind. Whenever the “age of reason” begins -- and who does not remember his first awareness of doing wrong? -- from its dawn, we are forming by means of the ways we act what we morally are, that is, our character.

{3} Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 3.1

{4} Wallace Stevens, in section 11 of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.”

{5} Thomas, in Super Evangelium S. Matthei Lectura, ed. Raphaelis Cai, O.P. editio 5 revisa (Turin: Marietti 1951), n. 400.

{6} Ibid. n. 403

{7} Ibid., n. 404.

{8} Although the treatment of the Summa theologiae is later than that of the Disputed Questions on Evil (De malo), I am guided chiefly by the latter. The plan of the Summa dictated that discussions of the capital sins ae scattered; in the De malo we find a treatment of the capital sins as such, beginning with q. 8.

{9} In an old academic joke, a professor dies and appears before St. Peter, who checks the records, shakes his head, and tells the professor he must go to hell. Immediately the professor finds himself in a well-appointed apartment; there are his favorite books, wines, pictures, and music. Gourmet dining is always available. There is an endless supply of El Diablo cigars. The professor is puzzled. He calls St. Peter. “Has a mistake been made?” “How so?” The professor describes his sybaritic setting. “That’s right, professor.” “But how can this be hell?” A pause, and then St. Peter murmurs, “You must share the apartment with a colleague.”

{10} The full opening passage of lectio 15 of the Speculum is “Blessed are thou amongst women. Of the blessedness of our blessed Virgin let us say more, let us hear more. Happy is the blessed Mary, unhappy every damned soul, all those to whom is said, Depart from me, ye cursed, into eternal fire. Damned certainly is every vicious soul, and the virtuous Mary is blessed. Damnation comes into the world through the seven capital sins, Mary obtained blessedness through the contrary virtues. O Mary, blessed art thou amongst women. Blessed in humility as opposed to pride, in charity as opposed to envy, in meekness opposed to wrath, in steadiness opposed to sloth, liberality opposed to avarice, sobriety rather than gluttony, and chastity rather than lust” (277b-271a, Opera of Bonaventure).

{11} This marvelous work has now been ascribed to Conrad of Saxony. See Chiavacci Leonardi in her introduction to her edition of the Purgatorio, pp. xxii-xxiii.

{12} Speculum 278a.

{13} There is also a tradition holding that Mary had vowed herself to virginity before the Annunciation. If so, this raises questions about the meaning of her betrothal to Joseph. But by tradition, after the Annunciation, Joseph too having been visited by an angel, both spouses were vowed to virginity.

{14} Domenico Bassi, Il Mese di Maggio con Dante,, p. 19.

{15} See Chiavacci Leonardi in her edition of the Purgatorio, introduction to canto 10, p. 291.

{16} This priority of Christ is never to be forgotten, yet Dante puts Mary forward first when he gives examples of the virtues opposed to the capital sins. We will discuss this later. A sign of our blindness is the temptation to think of Mary as in some way the rival of Her Son. However, if Christ is our primary mediator with the Father, there are secondary mediators as well, and of these Mary is far and away the first. This is not some antic choice of Dante and the Church fathers and doctors on whom he relies, but an ineradicable feature of the providential plan of salvation.

{17} See R. P. Cornelii a Lapide. Commentaria in Quatuor Evangelia, ed. Antonius Padovani (Turin: Marietti, 1922), Tomus III, p. 201.

{18} ST IIaIIae, q. 157.

{19} Cornelii a Lapide, Commentaria in Quatuor Evangelia, Tomus III, p. 125b.

{20} In the Latin of the original,

{21} See chiavacci Leonardi in her edition of the Purgatorio, p. 661, note on line 142.

{22} According to Thomas, “Of all the passions the most difficult to regulate by reason is that of pleasure, and especially those natural pleasures constant in our lives such as the pleasures associated with food and drink without which human life is impossible, and many desert the rule of reason in their regard. When desire for such pleasure transcends the rule of reason there is the sin of gluttony, since gluttony is immoderate desire in eating” De malo q. 15, a. 1, c). One may be reminded of Dr. Johnson’s remark that, with respect to alcohol, he found abstinence easier than moderation.

{23} See Charles Singleton on this canto, in The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, text and commentary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 121 of commentary.

{24} Thomas puts the burden of this teleology on the father; the father has the primary task of educating the child and preparing it for life, and the mother’s nurturing belongs to the early years. Thomas notes that he will not take up here the question of monogamy or the length of a marriage, for a lifetime or not. He does discuss these topics elsewhere and argues that polyandry is clearly wrong: a woman who sleeps with many men will have difficulty knowing which is the father of her child. The case for monogamy is less obvious, and is grounded in the friendship that cohabitation should bring about. That would provide a reason against abandoning a wife once her fruitful years are over and turning to someone younger (or, one may add, abandoning a husband for similar incapacities). But the indissolubility of marriage has its true grounding in Scripture: whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. On these matter, see Summa theologiae Supplementum, q. 65. Questions 41 through 68, all of them taken from Thomas’s earlier commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, constitute an extensive treatment of matrimony. Question 15 of De malo presupposes this discussion and deals only with the vice of lust.

{25} See Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets, Textuality and Truth in the comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

{26} George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927). See also T. S. Eliot, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, ed. and introduced by Ronald Schuchard (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993). See too my Aquinas Lecture, given at Marquette University: Rhyme and Reason: Saint Thomas and Modes of Discourse (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1981).

{27} See Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, trans. and commentary by Richard Berquist (South Bend, Ind.: Dumb Ox books, 2007).

{28} Singleton is doubtless right that this new telos did not entail getting rid of Beatrice, however ambiguous the Convivio is when it compares itself to the Vita Nuova. In Convivio 1.1 comparing his present task with the earlier work, Dante says that now he will treat more virilmente what he had treated earlier; the Vita Nuova is fervent and passionate, the Convivio temperate and virile. He attributes this to his youth in writing the earlier work, and his maturity now. The contrast has puzzled many, among them myself. In the first chapter I advanced a fancied hypothesis for the fact that the Convivio, whose well thought-out plan is given to us early, was left unfinished. Like the Vita Nuova, it consists of both poetry and prose, the prose sections being heavy treatises that expound the literal and allegorical meaning of the odes preceding them. The reader is certainly aware that Dante has been to school in the meantime. There is no expression in the Convivio, as in the final paragraph of the Vita Nuova, of dissatisfaction with what he has done. But dropping the work is perhaps eloquent. He would go on to the Comedy, from which prose is absent.

{29} Thus, in his work Orthodoxy, Chesterton considers original sin a fact, not a dogma.

{30} The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Italian and English, trans. with introd. and commentary by Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), vol. 3, Paradiso, pp. 60, 62.


{31} Ibid., vol. 2, Purgatorio, p. 270.

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