by Dante Alighieri
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Both Dante’s and Marco Lombardo’s conceptions of the soul often come packaged with loads of child imagery. Let’s talk about the soul first. Marco Lombardo describes the human soul as:
like a child who weeps and laughs in sport;
that soul is simple, unaware; but since
a joyful Maker gave it motion, it
turns willingly to things that bring delight.
At first it savors trivial goods; these would
beguile the soul, and it runs after them,
unless there’s guide or rein to rule its love. (Purg. XVI, 86-93)
Apparently, the soul’s childishness comes from the fact that it is “simple, unaware,” and, most of all, innocent. The reason it “savors trivial goods” is that it doesn’t know any better. It sees pretty things and is attracted to them, whether or not they’re morally good.
Another important aspect of the childlike soul is its joy. It “laughs in sport” and “turns willingly to things that bring delight.” The child’s natural happiness is attributed to its “joyful Maker.” The message is that God is essentially one who takes pleasure in His creations and loves delightful things, thus passing on these qualities to man.
The downside to all this innocence and joy is that the poor soul is just a little dull; it is not quick to learn to distinguish between things that are physically delightful (like a pretty flame or sweetmeats) and things that are morally beneficial (like prayer). Being naïve, it must learn to recognize such things. That’s why the soul – just like a child – needs a “guide or rein to rule its love,” so that it doesn’t get burnt by the beguiling fire or get a cavity from eating too many sweets.
All right, now for Dante. What does it mean when Dante is associated with child imagery? Well, he is a soul – just one that’s still wrapped up in a body. So there are times when the child imagery refers to Dante’s naïveté; he’s a mere human still learning about the virtuous life. Sometimes, though, this imagery takes on a distinctly more negative spin:
As children, when ashamed, will stand, their eyes
upon the ground – they listen, silently,
acknowledging their fault repentantly –
so did I stand…(Purg. XXXI, 64-67)
When Beatrice accuses Dante of certain sins, he hangs his head like an ashamed child. He knows he’s wrong because he “silently acknowledge[s] his fault,” but he sulks over it. Like children, in order to learn a lesson, human souls need to be openly accused of their sins and then forced to confess. This shows their immaturity, their unwillingness to admit to their faults, and a need for an authority figure to spur them (sometimes harshly) into action. Of course, all of this is designed for the good of the child-soul. It will result in a rapid spiritual maturation.