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Finally finishing his little lecture from Canto XVII, Virgil watches Dante to make sure he’s gotten everything.
Dante perhaps still has more questions but remains silent, thinking he’s already annoyed his guide by asking too many.
You’ll remember, though, that Virgil is good at reading Dante's mind. So he tells Dante to quit being so nice and to just go for what he wants.
So Dante asks the million-dollar question, one that all of us have stayed up at night pondering: What is this love which Virgil claims causes all good and evil?
Taskmaster Virgil orders Dante: “direct your intellect’s sharps eyes toward me.” In other words, “Pay attention!” Then he launches into a second lecture.
The soul, which he's already established is made by God to love, is drawn to anything pleasurable. For Virgil, this means anything beautiful.
When we see something we like, our minds conjure up an image of that thing in an idealized form, so that what we’re seeing and lusting after is not really the real thing in the material world, but some too-good-to-be-true illusion. When our soul has “turned towards it” and does so frequently, it’s called love.
Just when we’re beginning to actually understand what Virgil’s saying, he goes into metaphorical mode. He compares man’s longing for said beautiful object to the natural propensity of fire to reach towards the sky, where the ethereal fire burns.
Note: This is one of those weird medieval things. At that time, common belief held that all of the elements—water, air, earth, and fire—have both earthly forms and higher, heavenly forms. So even beyond heaven, there’s a ring of ethereal fire surrounding us and this is Virgil’s explanation for why when fires burn, their flame-tips reach upwards. The flames are just trying to get back to their purest form in the sky.
Now, Virgil continues, there are some folks out there who say that all love is good. But, Virgil says, that’s simply a load of bull because although God’s love is holy and perfect, man’s love is not always the mirror image of God’s.
All good, right? Of course not… Dante, being Dante, sees a problem. He’s satisfied now with the definition of love, but if—as Virgil says—love is the only force that drives man to act (and God makes it that way), how can it be said that man has free will? How can he be rewarded or punished for his actions if God controls them all through love? Good question.
Of course, Virgil has an answer ready. But for the first time, we see a glimmer of doubt in him. He replies to Dante’s question, but first gives a caveat: he [Virgil] will answer only so far as reason can apply, but to get past the utter implausibility of these words and learn faith, Dante should trust to Beatrice.
Back to Virgil: He starts off on the seemingly unrelated tangent that one cannot see love, but can only know of its presence through one’s actions. Strange idea? Virgil apparently thinks it needs some explaining, so he compares it to a tree. Nobody would know trees were alive except that they sprout leaves and flowers periodically.
In this same way, human beings are completely unaware that love is their innermost, motivating desire. So this Love that God puts in us is pre-ordained and we can’t do anything about it. Thus, man cannot be praised or blamed for that part of him.
There is, however, another part of man that judges and distinguishes between right and wrong, and this is the part of man that can be praised or blamed for his actions, because it’s his free will.
So, even though one’s love may make him desire a million things at once, one still has the power to restrain those desires by exercising free will.
This ability to control one’s desires, Virgil says, is what Beatrice means by free will.
With that, the lecture ends. Good timing, because now the moon has risen so high that its light makes the stars dim. In other words, it’s late.
Dante’s all happy, having absorbed his daily quota of knowledge from Virgil. He is about to fall asleep on his lovely ledge of rock, when a partying crowd interrupts him.
Okay, we admit it’s not actually a party, but a group of penitents singing counterexamples of sloth. Which is probably as close to a party as you’re going to get in Purgatory.
Two of the penitents run ahead of their main posse, babbling. The words are about Mary rushing to a mountain and Caesar rushing back and forth across the Continent to make war.
The rest of the penitents rushes after the first two, shouting stuff about making haste because there is so little time. They want to work so hard! They want to be so productive!
Virgil tries to calm them down by assuring them that Dante—still a living man—will pray for them, if they’ll just do a small favor and show them the way up the mountain.
One nice guy answers, telling Virgil and Dante to follow, saying not to be offended by their hurry: it’s their punishment for being lazy on earth.
The nice man keeps on talking at 80 mph. He tells them he was the abbot of St. Zeno in Verona.
This triggers a cascade of memories and prophecies which he, of course, cannot keep to himself. So he tells Dante and Virgil all about the future of St. Zeno. Right now, it’s under the rule of a man “with one foot in the grave, who soon will weep over that monastery.” Why? Well, this man has stupidly handed down the abbacy to the worst possible candidate: his illegitimate son. (For the record, the father is Alberto della Scala and his son is Giuseppe.)
This is all that Dante’s able to hear from the abbot, because at this point the rush of the crowd has carried him far away.
Virgil turns his attention to the last two members of that crowd, who are still within earshot.
As they run away, Dante hears the Slothful penitents giving two last examples of lazy people who have been punished. They chatter on about the Israelites who refused to follow Moses to the Promised Land; they were left to die in the desert. The Trojans who pled exhaustion to get out of following Aeneas to Italy died also cowardly deaths.
As these words of wisdom fade away, Dante has a host of new thoughts, which float randomly from one to the other. In other words, he’s having some crazy dreams.