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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.

Quote #7

[Beatrice] “Not only through the work of the great spheres –
which guide each seed to a determined end,
depending on what stars are its companions –
but through the bounty of the godly graces,
which shower down from clouds so high that we
cannot approach them with out vision, he,
when young, was such – potentially – that any
propensity innate in him would have
prodigiously succeeded, had he acted.
But where the soil has finer vigor, there
precisely – when untilled or badly seeded –
will that terrain grow wilder and more noxious.” (Purg. XXX, 109-120)

Beatrice describes Dante as a seed that is given every opportunity to succeed by being watered by “the godly graces.” Dante’s free will, though, leaves the environment around him “untilled or badly seeded,” so that his “terrain grows wilder and more noxious.” Beatrice compares Dante’s free will to a farmer’s tending of his lands. Because he neglects to live morally, his seeds grow wildly. Interestingly, Beatrice’s words evoke not only Dante’s moral life, but his poetic talent. He has – she suggests – the “propensity innate in him” which could have “prodigiously succeeded” had he tended it well, but because he runs astray, some of that talent goes to waste. Her goal in telling him all this is to shake Dante up and scare him back into properly tilling his own talent.

Quote #8

[Beatrice]: “He [Dante] fell so far there were no other means
to lead him to salvation, except this:
to let him see the people who were lost.
For this I visited the gateway of
the dead; to him who guided him above
my prayers were offered even as I wept.
The deep design of God would have been broken
if Lethe had been crossed and he had drunk
such waters but had not discharged the debt
of penitence that’s paid when tears are shed.” (Purg. XXX, 136-145)

Through his own bad choices, Dante “fell so far there were no other means to lead him to salvation” except to scare him straight by “let[ting] him see the people who were lost.” Thus fate, which has destined Dante to go to Heaven, intervenes upon seeing that Dante’s free will has led him astray. Virgil, then, appears as an emissary of fate, trying to correct Dante’s path so that he can fix it in accord with “the deep design of God.”

Quote #9

[Beatrice]: “The eagle that had left its plumes within
the chariot, which then became a monster
and then a prey, will not forever be
without an heir; for I can plainly see,
and thus I tell it: stars already close
at hand, which can’t be blocked or checked, will bring
a time in which, dispatched by God, a Five
Hundred and Ten and Five will slay the whore
together with that giant who sins with her.” (Purg. XXXIII, 37-45)

Beatrice prophecies that fate will rectify the Church and bring it back to God. The eagle symbolizes the Roman Empire, which is “without an heir” because Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – the last legitimate emperor – died in 1250. The chariot represents the Church, which “became a monster” when the Donation of Constantine bestowed much wealth on the Church, attracting the greedy eyes of politicians and princes. Dante equates the Donation of Constantine to the beginning of the melding of the Church and the state, which has led to disaster. The Church then becomes “a prey” because it caters to the interests of various political figures.

Dante also thinks of this state of the Church as its prostitution, with popes courting the favor of princes and so forth. Thus, the Church is the “whore.” The “giant” is the French monarchy, forever bullying the Church to do its bidding. Beatrice, however, foresees the coming of a figure, the “Five Hundred and Ten and Five” (often glossed in terms of its Roman numerals: 500 = D, 10 = X, 5 = V, forming the anagram DVX or DUX, which is the Latin word for “leader”), who will “slay the whore together with the giant who sins with her.” In other words, this enigmatic leader will purge the Church of its dealings with the secular Empire. Who this mysterious “leader” is, however, is still a topic of heated debate. Thus, author-Dante sees the current corruption of the Church as a historical anomaly, a bad choice made by religious leaders who have poorly exercised their free will. Fate, Dante claims, has a different view of the Church and will work to set it back to rights.

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