by Dante Alighieri
Purgatorio Fate and Free Will Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto, Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.
[Virgil]: “My son, there’s no Creator and no creature
who ever was without love – natural
or mental; and you know that,” he began.
“The natural is always without error,
but mental love may choose an evil object
or err through too much or too little vigor.
As long as it’s directed toward the First Good
and tends toward secondary goods with measure,
it cannot be the cause of evil pleasure;
but when it twists toward evil, or attends
to good with more or less care than it should,
those whom He made have worked against their Maker.
From this you see that – of necessity –
love is the seed in you of every virtue
and of all acts deserving punishment.” (Purg. XVII, 91-105)
Love is given as the motive force for all of man’s actions. It controls both man’s fated life and his free will. The primary love is natural. This is the fated part of man’s life, for “natural love is always without error.” Natural love is every person's inherent love for God, their creator. Because everyone is born with this love, no one can be praised or blamed for an attraction to God. The mental love, however, is based on free will. Man, through his thoughts, can choose whatever secondary objects (after God) he is attracted to. Here, one can err by “choos[ing] an evil object or err through too much or too little vigor.” This is where a person decides his own destiny. If he chooses to love evil or unworthy objects, or loves certain objects in unjust measure (“too much or too little”), he condemns himself to Hell.
[Virgil]: “And thus man does not know the source of his
intelligence of primal notions and
his tending toward desire’s primal objects:
both are in you just as in bees there is
the honey-making urge; such primal will
deserves no praise, and it deserves no blame.
Now, that all other longings may conform
to this first will, there is in you, inborn,
the power that counsels, keepers of the threshold
of your assent: this is the principle
on which your merit may be judged, for it
garners and winnows good and evil longings…
Even if we allow necessity
as source for every love that flames in you,
the power to curb that love is still your own.” (Purg. XVIII, 55-72)
Interestingly, man is blind to his "natural love." It is so ingrained in him and he’s so attracted to things of beauty (made by God) that he does not realize how much he loves God. Virgil reinforces the idea that this natural love (simply because it is natural) “deserves no praise, and it deserves no blame.” He spins mental love, however, in a different manner. He calls it “the power that counsels, keepers of the threshold of your assent.” In other words, mental love is one’s conscience, the force in a person that distinguishes good from evil. This desire can be judged because it is “the principle” and “the power to curb” that one chooses to exercise, or not.
“If you observe the signs the angel traced
upon this man,” my teacher said, “you’ll see
plainly – he’s meant to reign with all the righteous;
but since she who spins night and day had not
yet spun the spool that Clotho sets upon
the distaff and adjusts for everyone,
his soul, the sister of your soul and mine,
in its ascent, could not – alone – have climbed
here, for it does not see the way we see.
Therefore, I was brought forth from Hell’s broad jaws
to guide him in his going; I shall lead
him just as far as where I teach can reach.” (Purg. XXI, 22-33)
Virgil tells Statius that Dante is destined for Heaven (“he’s meant to reign with all the righteous”); however, because of his sin in Florence, he “does not see the way we see.” Thus, Virgil has been “brought forth from Hell’s broad jaws to guide him in his going”; in other words, Virgil’s task is to remedy Dante’s sight so that he can recognize good from evil and then act accordingly. Here we get the tension between fate and free will. From his birth, Dante was destined for Heaven, but his free will gets him in trouble and God has to intervene, bringing in Virgil to guide Dante back to his true path. The image of fate here is represented in the mythological spinners – Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos – who, respectively, spin the threads of men’s lives, hold the spool, and cut the thread. That Lachesis has not yet fully “spun the spool” of Dante’s life means that Dante can still choose virtue over vice; all is not yet lost.