Study Guide

Purgatorio Faith

By Dante Alighieri


I started: “O my light, it seems to me
that in one passage you deny expressly
that prayer can bend the rule of Heaven, yet
these people pray precisely for that end.
Is their hope, therefore, only emptiness
or have I not read clearly what you said?”
And he to me: “My text is plain enough,
and yet their hope is not delusive if
one scrutinizes it with sober wit;
the peak of justice is not lowered when
the fire of love accomplishes in one
instant the expiation owed by all
who dwell here; for where I asserted this –
that prayers could not mend their fault – I spoke
of prayers without a passageway to God.” (Purg. VI, 28-42)

Dante thinks Virgil contradicts himself by claiming that prayer can benefit living souls, but saying the opposite in his Aeneid. However, Virgil defends the truth of his statements by qualifying his Aeneid statement with the fact that those who pray in the Aeneid are pagan and thus their prayers are “without a passageway to God.” This all-important “passageway” is faith. Those with faith, it is implied, can use “prayers” to “mend their fault.”

“I am Virgil, and I am deprived of Heaven
for no fault other than my lack of faith.” (Purg. VII, 7-8)

Virgil’s only real sin, the only reason he is in Hell, is his lack of faith. This hardly seems fair, since Virgil was born before the time of Jesus, and thus could never have heard of Christianity. Nevertheless, faith in Jesus is a prerequisite for Dante’s Heaven, so Virgil’s lack of faith keeps him forever from the ultimate paradise.

Upon my forehead, he traced seven P’s
with his sword’s point and said: “When you have entered
within, take case to wash away these wounds.” (Purg. IX, 112-114)

Each of the seven P’s represents “peccatum,” the Italian word for “sin” but which can also mean “wound.” The number seven signifies that Dante will have to pass through all seven terraces of Purgatory, to battle each of the seven capital vices, to reach Heaven. In order to “wash away these wounds,” Dante must have faith in God that He will provide Dante with the willpower to work through the pain of penance, no matter how agonizing it becomes.

[The Prideful]: “Try not our strength, so easily subdued,
against the ancient foe, but set it free
from him who goads it to perversity.
This last request we now address to You,
dear Lord, not for ourselves – who have no need –
but for the ones whom we have left behind.” (Purg. XI, 19-24)

Dante seems to see prayer as one of the ultimate demonstrations of faith. Here, the Prideful beg God to give them the strength to resist “the ancient foe” (Satan). However, their faith and compassion are displayed most boldly in the last three lines, where they request this not for themselves but for “the ones whom [they] have left behind” – their loved ones still living on earth who still have time to change their sinful ways and be guaranteed a place in Heaven.

[Statius]: “I had sufficient fame beyond,” that spirit
replied; “I bore the name that lasts the longest
and honors most – but faith was not yet mine.
So gentle was the spirit of my verse
that Rome drew me, son of Toulouse, to her
and there my brow deserved a crown of myrtle.
On earth my name is still remembered – Statius:
I sang of Thebes and then of great Achilles;
I fell along the way of that last labor.
The sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor,
were from the holy fire – the same that gave
more than a thousand poets light and flame.
I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote
verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse;
my work, without it, would not weight an ounce.
And to have lived on earth when Virgil lived –
for that I would extend by one more year
the time I owe before my exile’s end.” (Purg. XXI, 85-102)

Statius, originally a pagan, found his faith in God through Virgil’s Aeneid. This is heavily ironic for Virgil: he is a pagan and condemned to Hell for it, but his works have the power to inspire faith and to convert others. Statius seems sympathetic to this fact, even though he does not yet know that he is speaking to Virgil; he shows this by claiming “I would extend by one more year the time I owe before my exile’s end.” If only he could have lived on earth when Virgil did. Ostensibly, he would have tried to convert Virgil to Christianity had he lived in the same period, thereby saving Virgil from damnation.

“Now, when you sang the savage wars of those
twin sorrows of Jocasta,” said the singer
of the bucolic poems [Virgil], “it does not seem –
from those notes struck by you and Clio there –
that you had yet turned faithful to the faith
without which righteous works do not suffice.
If that is so, then what sun or what candles
drew you from darkness so that, in their wake,
you set your sails behind the fisherman?”
And he [Statius] to him: “You were the first to send me
to drink within Parnassus’ caves and you,
the first who, after God, enlightened me.
You did as he who goes by night and carries
the lamp behind him – he is of no help
to his own self but teaches those who follow –
when you declared: ‘The ages are renewed;
justice and man’s first time on earth return;
from Heaven a new progeny descends.’
Through you I was a poet and, through you,
a Christian…” (Purg. XXII, 55-72)

Statius highlights Virgil’s tragic situation. Statius puts Virgil on a level almost akin to that of God (“You were the first […] after God, who enlightened me.”) He says, “You did as he who goes by night and carries the lamp behind him – he is of no help to his own self but teaches those who follow.” However, it is hard to ascribe such a generous description to Virgil because, if he has performed this sort of selfless leadership at all, he’s done it unintentionally and certainly without the goal of converting his readers to Christianity. Thus, it is heavily ironic that Statius reads the birth of Christ into a passage that is probably just a flattering referral to the birth of renowned Roman consul Gaius Asinius Pollio.

And he [Forese] to me: “It is my Nella who,
with her abundant tears, has guided me
to drink the sweet wormwood of torments: she
with sighs and prayers devout has set me free
of that slope where one waits and has freed me
from circles underneath this circle. She –
my gentle widow, whom I loved most dearly –
was all the more beloved and prized by God
as she is more alone in her good works.” (Purg. XXIII, 85-93)

Here, Donati Forese praises the steady faith of his widow Nella, who prays selflessly for her deceased husband, speeding him on his way to Paradise. Her prayers are especially pious because “she is more alone in her good works.” With these altruistic words she earns the love of God.

[Virgil]: “But that your will to know may be appeased,
here’s Statius, and I call on him and ask
that he now be the healer of your doubts.”
“If I explain eternal ways to him,”
Statius replied, “while you are present here,
let my excuse be: “I cannot refuse you.” (Purg. XXV, 28-33)

This is one of the first times Virgil concedes his authority as a mentor to the Christian Statius, in an acknowledgement of his inferior status as a pagan. This is supposed to prepare Dante for Virgil’s eventual departure in Canto XXX and for the entrance of the heavenly Beatrice as his replacement.

…My gentle escorts turned to me
and Virgil said: “My son, though there may be
suffering here, there is no death. Remember,
remember! If I guided you to safety
even upon the back of Geryon,
then now, closer to God, what shall I do?
Be sure: although you were to spend a full
one thousand years within this fire’s center,
your head would not be balder by one hair.
And if you think I am deceiving you,
draw closer to the flames, let your own hands
try out, within the fire, you clothing’s hem –
put down, by now put down, your every fear;
turn toward the fire, and enter, confident!”
But I was stubborn, set against my conscience.
When he saw me still halting, obstinate,
he said, somewhat perplexed: “Now see, son: this
wall stands between you and your Beatrice.” (Purg. XXVII, 19-36)

When Dante balks at the final passage through fire on the seventh terrace, Virgil reminds him of a previous episode in Hell when Dante also hesitated, but the loyal Virgil persevered and delivered him safely, as promised. Virgil’s words seem to suggest that after the terrifying ride on the monster Geryon’s back, this trial fire should be nothing. He tries to inspire Dante to have faith in him, but it doesn’t work. Indeed, Dante does not yet have simple faith, forcing Virgil to turn to luring him across with the thought of his childhood sweetheart, Beatrice, who awaits him on the other side. Virgil’s crafty words illustrate the concept of mental love beguiling an innocent childlike soul.

[Virgil]: “My son, you’ve seen the temporary fire
and the eternal fire; you have reached
the place past which my powers cannot see.
I’ve brought you here through intellect and art;
from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
you’re past the steep and past the narrow paths.
Look at the sun that shines upon your brow;
look at the grasses, flowers, and the shrubs
born here, spontaneously, of the earth.
Among them, you can rest or walk until
the coming of the glad and lovely eyes –
those eyes that, weeping, sent me to your side.
Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole – to act
against that will would be to err: therefore
I crown and miter you over yourself.” (Purg. XXVII, 127-142)

Here, Virgil essentially announces that Dante’s mental love is now all faith; it has been redirected into the true path that will lead to God. Thus, Dante can “let [his] pleasure be [his] guide” because Dante correctly equates pleasure with God. Thus, he no longer has need of Virgil as his guide “through intellect and art,” for he has found faith.