Study Guide

Purgatorio Education

By Dante Alighieri


[Virgil to Dante]: “Foolish is he who hopes our intellect
can reach the end of that unending road
only one Substance in three Persons follows.
Confine yourselves, o humans, to the quia;
had you been able to see all, there would
have been no need for Mary to give birth.
You saw the fruitless longing of those men
who would – if reason could – have been content,
those whose desire eternally laments:
I speak of Aristotle and of Plato –
and many others.” (Purg. III, 34-44)

Virgil reiterates that man cannot hope to fully understand God’s universe. His admonition for man to “confine [himself]…to the quia” (which is Latin for “what”) should remind us of Ulysses in Inferno, Canto XXVI, who sets sail as an old man, trying to “gain experience of the world / and of the vices and worth of men.” Because Ulysses tried to reach beyond the scope of men, God punishes him by condemning him to eternal damnation. Here, Virgil warns Dante of doing the same, but instead of comparing him to Ulysses, he compares Dante to “Aristotle and [...] Plato,” both confined to Limbo for trying to reach beyond the bounds of human reason.

Even as sheep that move, first one, then two,
then three, out of the fold – the others also
stand, eyes and muzzles lowered, timidly;
and what the first sheep does, the others do,
and if it halts, they huddle close behind,
simple and quiet and not knowing why…(Purg. III, 79-84)

It makes sense that the Excommunicates should be described as sheep in Purgatory. Because they were too rebellious in life – to the point of getting exiled by the Pope – here they pay for their crimes by taking the opposite role: being exceedingly meek. Here, it seems they do not think for themselves; instead of questioning things (as they did in life), they obediently follow the example of their leader.

[Virgil]: “Come, follow me, and let these people talk:
stand like a sturdy tower that does not shake
its summit though the winds may blast; always
the man in whom thought thrusts ahead of thought
allows the goal he’s set to move far off –
the force of one thought saps the other’s force.” (Purg. V, 13-18)

Virgil imparts a very relevant lesson to Dante. He urges his pupil to be firm in his resolution and to focus so that he does not become distracted from his ultimate goal. In his case, that means Dante should stop his ears to the gossip of others.

O Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched,
whose intellects are sick and cannot see,
who place our confidence in backward steps,
do you not know that we are worms and born
to form the angelic butterfly that soars,
without defenses, to confront His judgment?
Why does your mind presume to flight when you
are still like the imperfect grub, the worm
before it has attained its final form? (Purg. X, 121-129)

In scolding the Prideful, Dante gives us a metaphor for education. Man’s mind is “sick and cannot see” the way that God’s universe works. Nevertheless, proud men have pretenses to understanding and thus try to excel in the world, “presum[ing] to flight” like an “angelic butterfly” when they truly are still “imperfect grub[s],” not yet endowed with the knowledge (or wings, to continue the metaphor) needed to succeed. In other words, man should accept that he is an immature being with much to learn and should submit to God’s teachings.

I opened – wider than before – my eyes;
I looked ahead of me, and I saw shades
with cloaks that shared their color with the rocks. (Purg. XIII, 46-48)

One of the most important ways of learning is to open one’s eyes and really observe one’s surroundings. Here, Dante shows he is slowly learning by “open[ing] – wider than before –[his] eyes.” He sees that the rock wall in front of him is not simply a rock wall. The cloaks of the Envious bear the same color as the dark rock and are camouflaged in it. Mandelbaum tells us that “the ‘livid’ blue-black color of its ‘raw rock’ suggests the bruised hearts of those who have been wounded by the sight of the good fortune of others.” In other words, the environment of the penitents reflects their sin; Dante, in opening his eyes, becomes aware of this.

[Statius]: “…Know then that I was far
from avarice – it was my lack of measure
thousands of months have punished. And if I
had not corrected my assessment by
my understanding what your [Virgil’s] verses meant
when you, as if enraged by human nature,
exclaimed: ‘Why cannot you, o holy hunger
for gold, restrain the appetite of mortals?’ –
I’d now, while rolling weights, know sorry jousts.” (Purg. XXII, 34-42)

This passage emphasizes the didactic importance of poetry. Statius, a former pagan, converted to Christianity because he was so moved by Virgil’s verses. He therefore implies that man should indeed look to the words of poets as sources of knowledge.

Those two [Virgil and Statius] were in the lead; I walked alone,
behind them, listening to their colloquy,
which taught me much concerning poetry.” (Purg. XXII, 127-129)

Here, Dante follows his two idols and soaks up their words concerning their (and his) craft. Again, listening to one’s elders, especially those known for their art, is exemplified as a method of learning.

And as the fledgling stork will lift its wing
because it wants to fly, but dares not try
to leave the nest, and lets its wing drop back,
so I, with my desire to question kindled
then spent, arrived as far as making ready
to speak. But my dear father, though our steps
were hurrying, did not stop talking, for
he said: “The iron of the arrow’s touched
the longbow; let the shaft of speech fly off.”
Then I had the confidence enough to open
my mouth and ask him: “How can one grow lean
where there is never need for nourishment?” (Purg. XXV, 10-21)

Dante compares his hesitancy to impinge on his teacher to a “fledgling stork [who]…wants to fly, but dares not leave the nest." However, Virgil encourages him to ask questions. Thus communication between teacher and student is presented as an essential part of learning. It is not surprising that Dante so espouses the Socratic method, for in medieval Europe it served as one of the standard learning tools and enjoyed widespread use at the university level.

[Beatrice]: “…The fledgling bird
must meet two or three blows before he learns,
but any full-fledged bird is proof against
the net that has been spread or arrow, aimed.”
As children, when ashamed, will stand, their eyes
upon the ground – they listen, silently,
acknowledging their fault repentantly –
so did I stand…(Purg. XXXI, 60-67)

Shame, Beatrice implies, is useful in teaching lessons to children (or to unrepentant Christians), even though it is inherently painful and humiliating. The comparison of Dante to a child with his “eyes upon the ground” should remind readers of Marco Lombardo’s comparison of the desiring soul to a child – one who means well, but who simply cannot yet distinguish between good and evil.

As soon as I, responding to my duty,
had joined her [Beatrice], she said: “Brother, why not try,
since now you’re at my side, to query me?”
Like those who, speaking to superiors
too reverently do not speak distinctly,
not drawing their clear voice up to their teeth –
so did I speak with sound too incomplete
when I began: “Lady, you know my need
to know, and know how it can be appeased.” (Purg. XXXIII, 22-30)

Beatrice, like Virgil, encourages Dante to ask questions of her and to take advantage of her superior knowledge. That Beatrice knows the extent of Dante’s curiosity suggests that good teachers can anticipate the needs of their students.

[Dante to Beatrice]: “But why does your desired word ascend
so high above my understanding that
the more I try, the more am I denied?”
“That you may recognize,” she said, “the school
that you have followed and may see if what
it taught can comprehend what I have said –
and see that, as the earth is distant from
the highest and the swiftest of the heavens,
so distant is your way from the divine.” (Purg. XXXIII, 82-90)

Beatrice reinforces the message that Virgil imparted to Dante earlier: God’s knowledge is not for man to understand, no matter how hard he strives towards it. However, if man behaves as a good Christian and earns entry into Heaven, then – as a pure soul and no longer just human – he may have hope of learning God’s ways.

[Beatrice]: “But from now on the words I speak will be
naked; that is appropriate if they
would be laid bare before your still-crude sight.” (Purg. XXXIII, 100-102)

Beatrice, after spewing many confusing and convoluted words to Dante in the form of prophecies, finally promises that her words will be “naked,” so that Dante with his “still-crude sight” can comprehend them. Here, author-Dante suggests that good teachers should attempt to make their subject as clear as possible for their students to understand.

From that most holy wave I now returned
to Beatrice; remade, as new trees are
renewed when they bring forth new boughs, I was
pure and prepared to climb unto the stars. (Purg. XXXIII, 142-145)

Dante’s education is complete. After his horrific lessons in Hell and his penance in Purgatory, the waters of the Lethe river wash his mind completely clean by the and he is ready for Heaven. The mundane message to take away seems to be that a good education can, after long, hard hours, provide a student access to places previously locked to him.