Study Guide

Purgatorio Fate and Free Will

By Dante Alighieri

Fate and Free Will

[Virgil]: “As I have told you, I was sent to him
for his deliverance; the only road
I could have taken was the road I took.
I showed him all the people of perdition;
now I intend to show to him those spirits
who, in your care, are bent on expiation.
To tell you how I led him would take long;
it is a power descending from above
that helps me guide him here, to see and hear you. (Purg. I, 61-69)

Virgil describes how his mission to guide Dante through Hell is divinely ordained and thus fated. He emphasizes, “the only road / I could have taken was the road I took”; in other words, Virgil has no choice in the matter. Looking deeper, however, you can see this entire scenario might have been avoided. Had Dante followed the virtuous path, his free will would have instinctively steered him clear of the grave sins, so God wouldn't have decided that Dante needed a tour through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

[Dante to Guido del Duca]: “to tell you who I am would be to speak
in vain – my name has not yet gained much fame.” (Purg. XIV, 20-21)

Dante, out of arrogance and his self-proclaimed superiority in his craft, claims that he is destined for fame. Remember, though, that Dante learned his poetry would become famous by the foresight of a sinner in Hell. Seen in this light, his fame is indeed fated.

[Marco Lombardo]: “If this were so, then your free will would be
destroyed, and there would be no equity
in joy for doing good, in grief for evil.
The heavens set your appetites in motion –
not all your appetites, but even if
that were the case, you have received both light
on good and evil, and free will, which though
it struggle in its first wars with the heavens,
then conquers all, if it has been well nurtured.
On greater power and a better nature
you, who are free, depend; that Force engenders
the mind in you, outside the heavens’ sway.” (Purg. XVI, 70-81)

Marco Lombardo blasts the idea that the heavens ordain each and every one of man’s actions. According to Lombardo, man does indeed have his share of free will. Heaven merely “sets your appetites in motion” and “not all your appetites.” The only thing a person can blame Heaven for is having desire. Man, however, is the one who chooses whether or not to act on those desires. He must use his mind to distinguish between good and evil.

[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.

[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.

[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.”

[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.