One of the oldest and most unsettled theological debates is the existence of evil and sin. Throughout the monotheistic centuries, religionists have delved deeply into this convoluted problem. How can evil exist in a world that is wholly informed by God, the ultimate Good? What could ever lure man, bestowed with divine qualities, to sin to the incredible extent human history has witnessed? Through the insightful poetic journey into the Christian afterlife and the allegorical meaning it encompasses, Dante, in his Divine Comedy, tackles and resolves with a forceful conclusion this problem of sin.
He utilizes the threefold structural division of Mount Purgatory, and its allegorical symbols described therein to reveal his insightful conception of love and freewill, as he exposes the roots of not only good deeds, but sin as well. Through his carefully organized arrangement of the afterlife, Dante brings to light the significance of the halfway point of cantos XVII and XVIII of Purgatory. By placing Virgil’s discourse on love and freewill at the midpoint of his own ascent up Mount Purgatory, Dante exposes the concept of freewill in the universe, as he is necessarily positioned at the centre between the Inferno and Paradise.
Immediately, Dante opens his Divine Comedy with carefully chosen words to indicate something special regarding his future journey. “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone” (Inferno I, 1-3). Dante finds himself in a moment of crisis as, at the midpoint of his life, he is now venturing on a journey which will undoubtedly include both good aspects, and it’s opposite. He faces the moment in which one must choose the good and reject its alternative.
Interestingly, it is exactly half way along Dante’s ascent up Mount Purgatory that he turns to Virgil, who is asked to explain the nature of Purgatory. It is here, in Canto XVII, that Virgil delivers his first major discourse on Love. In a universe in which God is Love, Virgil begins, “never, my son, was yet Creator, no, nor creature, without love” (Purgatory XVII, 91-92). It is the one basic element of Love, according to Dante, which guides all governing principles in the universe.
Virgil, as well, makes a clear distinction between “natural love” (Purgatory XVII, 93) and “rational love” (Purgatory XVII, 93), stating that Love, though inherent in the mortal creature, may be either free of error, natural, or that which can err, rational. Natural love is what causes human beings to love, as loving, therefore, simply occurs naturally. However, it is how we choose to love, through rational love, that makes our loving either noble or ignoble. “When to the great prime goods it makes full claim, or to the lesser goods in measure due, no sin can come of its delight in them” (Purgatory XVII, 97-100).
When Love is focused properly towards God, no more righteous an act can exist. However, when Love is either misdirected, excessive or non-existent one is stationed on Mount Purgatory, and the ascent is impeded. Dante’s division of Mount Purgatory into three categories of sin, as explicated by Virgil’s discourse on love, explains how the Seven Capital Sins are, in fact, rooted in love. In Lower Purgatory, Dante insists the Cardinal Sins of Pride, Envy and Wrath are merely caused by love guided “by faulty aim” (Purgatory XVII, 95).
Love becomes deformed in the sinner’s mind as he seeks to advance his own ends by hurting or impeding his competitor neighbour. Thus, the proud, envious or wrathful sinner becomes motivated by the love of his neighbour’s harm. It is through Dante’s group of the traditional vices that their inter-relationship is exposed. This notion is further elucidated by the purgative punishments implemented at the Cornice of the Proud in which it is clearly aimed to redirect the sinner’s love.
Dante’s description of the scene reveals his particular sorrow: “As for a corbel, holding on its back ceiling or roof, one sometimes sees a figure cramped knees to chest, so that real twinges rack… they were cramped more or less as more or less upon their backs they bore; even he who showed most patience in duress seeming to say with tears: ‘I can no more'” (Purgatory X, 130-139). The proud sinners are forced to walk under the weight of heavy stones and gaze at historical examples of humility sculpted in the rock. At this cornice, the sin of pride is purged by a forced submission to the opposite virtue.
This method adopts the Aristotelian notion of habituating virtue and forms the pattern of purgation Dante follows throughout Purgatory, as penitence is forced by either suffering the effects of the sin, practicing its opposing virtue, or both. In order to further examine the implications of Middle Purgatory, as it represents the centre and crux of Dante’s assertions on love and freewill, it is necessary to first consider Upper Purgatory. In this third category, the sins of Covetousness, Gluttony and Lust are shown as consequences of excessive love.
Dante’s dream of the Siren before ascending these cornices indicates the character of these sins. In the dream, Dante perceives the “ancient witch” (Purgatory XIX, 58) as beautiful, though she is far from it according to common sight. His perverted gaze is like that of the covetous, gluttonous, and lustful who desire mundane things simply because of their distorted imagination in which narcissism is prevalent. The covetous, for example, sought to acquire great wealth in life because of the attached power that could satisfy the burning impulses of their egoism.
On the Fifth Cornice, they are seen “weeping, their faces turned towards the ground” (Purgatory XIX, 72), focused upon the earth in which they invested too much in life. However, it is in the purging symbol of lust, the Wall of Fire, that the significance of love as the underlying of all human action is most explicitly portrayed. The physical purgative function of the fire is to burn off distorted aims of the soul, leaving it bare, exposing its true essence of love. Indeed, “the good that remains is the good that lay always at the heart of the sin” (Sayers, p. 76).
It is even more telling, though, that every soul, regardless of the specific penitence it seeks on Mount Purgatory, must be purged of the sin of lust before ascending the Pass into the Earthly Paradise. This is necessary because “allegorically, since every sin is a sin of love, the purgation of love itself is a part of every man’s penitence” (Sayers, p. 285). At the midpoint of Dante’s ascent up Mount Purgatory, both him and Virgil pause as the Law of the Mountain prevents further progress.
It is here, under the veil of the moon, in which all divine light is lost, that Virgil lays out his principles on love and, correspondingly, on freewill and determinism. As the sun has set, the freewill to choose one’s path up the mountain is gone. Virgil is the voice of reason that guides one’s ascent and therefore, during nightfall, since all forms of divine inspiration are lost, it is a perfect opportunity for him to impart with Dante his own knowledge of the universe.
Virgil explains that there exists only one principle in the universe, Love, and similarly one goal, to do the will of God. Evil exists, he continues, as an attempt to reject that which God wills. He furthers this explanation and describes how the primary drives, that which tends towards the Good, are innate and free of choice and therefore, free of praise or blame, but there is a specific virtue of freewill that allows choice and judgment. Virgil, however, can only say what is apparent to reason, as the rest must remain for Beatrice as a question of faith.
This same desire to unite opposites, the good with evil, is also found in Dante’s many similar dichotomies within The Divine Comedy. Life and death are two sides of the individual, the living and the deceased; likewise the spirit and flesh are two sides of the individual, the interior soul and the exterior body. Only at the centre of Dante’s ascent can this harmonious positioning be made clear as, placed in a focal point where both Hell and Paradise seem equally apart from himself, the concept of freewill can be comprehended.
Thus Virgil here demonstrates how the will must be directed towards the Good, despite the equal feasibility of choosing evil. Just as Purgatory is found midway between Hell and Paradise, so is the slothful represented as the midway point of Purgatory Proper. Each midpoint relates back to the central moment of Christian experience, the moment of choice between an improper and proper expression of love. Dante neatly contrasts his intellectual eagerness to understand the universe with the sloth that is purged in Middle Purgatory.
Rational love in the mind should see the good and desire it, but if it fails to pursue it with all the power of its freewill then inadequate love is purged on this fourth and middle terrace, that of the Sloth. Dante’s approach to this medieval notion of love and freewill, sprung from his intellectual inheritance from Plato and Aristotle. He weaves together vivid poetic symbols, heavily charged allegorical hints and structural implications to advance a scholarly argument about the nature of good and evil.
In this way, the full weight of his idea that love is actually the seed of all sin is most convincingly conveyed. Dante necessarily gives his discourse on love and freewill at the very center of his Divine Comedy to illustrate the importance of the midway point of his own spiritual ascent. Dante focuses on the importance of this pivotal moment early on, when he presents the “midway” as the first word in the work, clearly illustrating its significance.
Dante’s elaborate sketch of the climb from the depths of the Inferno to the Earthly Paradise is really an inner spiritual journey devoted to exposing his own sins and discovering the underlying layer of pure love that is found within his own heart. When Dante does finally pass through the fire and enters the Earthly Paradise he recognizes it as a return to the starting point of the Christian quest, and not his final destination, as it is only then that he understands love’s true purpose.