Study Guide

Purgatorio Pride

By Dante Alighieri


And he [Virgil] to me: “Whatever makes them suffer their
heavy torment bends them to the ground;
at first I was unsure of what they were.
But look intently there, and let your eyes
unravel what’s beneath those stones: you can
already see what penalty strikes each.” (Purg. X, 115-120)

On the first terrace, the Prideful are punished by carrying heavy stone weights on their backs that force them to “bend to the ground” in a submissive position so humiliating that Dante does not even recognize them as human at first glance.

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)

Dante chastises man for presuming to understand God’s ways enough to try to “fly” when he cannot even walk correctly (“backward steps”). Man’s pride makes humans believe they are already an “angelic butterfl[ies]” when truly “we are worms.” Although good Christians can one day hope to achieve the rank of an “angelic butterfly,” they should not delude themselves through their “sick intellects” into thinking that they are better than they are.

[Omberto Aldobrandeschi]: “And were I not impeded by the stone
that, since it has subdued my haughty neck,
compels my eyes to look below, then I
should look at this man who is still alive
and nameless, to see if I recognize
him – and to move his pity for my burden.
I was Italian, son of a great Tuscan:
my father was Guiglielmo Aldobrandesco;
I do not know if you have heard his name.
The ancient blood and splendid deeds of my
forefathers made me so presumptuous
that, without thinking on our common mother,
I scorned all men past measure, and that scorn
brought me my death – the Sienese know how,
as does each child in Campagnatico.
I am Omberto; and my arrogance
has not harmed me alone, for it has drawn
all of my kin into calamity.” (Purg. XI, 52-69)

As asserted in Inferno, sin is infective, spreading once it has captured an individual. Here, the sin of pride spreads from Omberto outward through the rest of his family, bringing “all of [his] kin into calamity.” Now, as punishment for his sin, Omberto’s “haughty neck” is so “subdued” that he cannot look up, even to see who is talking to him. This is another instance of contrapasso punishment.

[Oderisi]: O empty glory of the powers of humans!
How briefly green endures upon the peak –
unless an age of dullness follows it.
In painting Cimabue thought he held
the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim –
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.
So did one Guido, from the other, wrest
the glory of our tongue – and he perhaps
is born who will chase both out of the nest.
Worldly renown is nothing other than
a breath of wind that blows now here, now there,
and changes name when it has changed its course. (Purg. XI, 91-102)

Oderisi condemns human pride and glory as “empty” and “brief.” He compares them to foliage on a mountain: “how briefly green endures upon the peak.” He adds the example from his own life as a celebrated illuminator, in which his fame was fleeting and was soon passed on to the freshest face – Cimabue, Giotto, and now Guido.

As oxen, yoked, proceed abreast, so I
moved with that burdened soul as long as my
kind pedagogue allowed me to; but when
he said: “Leave him behind, and go ahead;
for here it’s fitting that with wings and oars
each urge his boat along with all his force,”
I drew my body up again, erect –
the stance most suitable to man – and yet
the thoughts I thought were still submissive, bent. (Purg. XII, 1-9)

As a self-proclaimed prideful sinner, Dante finds himself so sympathetic to the sufferings of the Prideful that he assumes their humble, bent-over stance. Even when Virgil orders him to stand up straight so he can speed up his pace, Dante’s “thoughts…[are] still submissive, bent,” indicating that the lesson of humility has stayed with him mentally, even if he no longer shows the physical signs of it.

[Forese]: “But tell me if the man whom I see here
is he who brought the new rhymes forth, beginning:
Ladies who have intelligence of love.’”
I answered: “I am one who, when Love breathes
in me, takes note; what he, within, dictates,
I, in that way, without, would speak and shape.”
“O brother, now I see,” he said, “the knot
that kept the Notary, Guittone, and me
short of the sweet new manner that I hear.
I clearly see how your pens follow closely
behind him who dictates, and certainly
that did not happen with our pens; and he
who sets himself to ferreting profoundly
can find no other difference between
the two styles.” (Purg. XXIV, 49-63)

This passage is designed to feed Dante’s ego. Donati Forese, a fellow poet and friend, recognizes Dante by quoting the opening line of Dante’s “Vita Nuova,” suggesting that the poem is already considered a classic, widely memorized by scholars and students alike. As if this were not self-serving enough, author-Dante has his friend admit that his own work is not as good as his own: “I clearly see how your pens follow closely behind him who dictates, and certainly that did not happen with our pens.” This unambiguously sets up Dante’s dolce stil novo style of poetry as the supreme form, not to be rivaled by anyone else.

And through the incandescent air there ran
sweet melody; at which, just indignation
made me rebuke the arrogance of Eve
because, where earth and heaven were obedient,
a solitary woman, just created,
found any veil at all beyond endurance;
if she had been devout beneath her veil,
I should have savored those ineffable
delights before, and for a longer time. (Purg. XXIX, 22-30)

In the Earthly Paradise, Dante reproaches the first woman, Eve, for scorning God’s warning and overreaching her bounds by tasting of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Dante sounds personally offended by her transgression; he is spiteful at being robbed of “savor[ing] those ineffable delights” because of her. This also establishes Dante as somewhat proud, for he assumes that he is virtuous enough to deserve to live in Eden.

[Beatrice]: “Dante, though Virgil’s leaving you, do not
yet weep…
(I’d turned around when I had heard my name –
which, of necessity, I transcribe here)…(Purg. XXX, 55-63)

After the only mention of his own name in the entire Divine Comedy, Dante hastens to apologize for naming himself. Instead of devaluing the importance of his name, however, his bashfulness only seems to heighten its importance, thereby increase Dante’s fame.

[Beatrice]: “Nevertheless, that you may feel more shame
for your mistake, and that – in time to come –
hearing the Sirens, you may be more strong,
have done with all the tears you sowed, and listen:
so shall you hear how, unto other ends,
my buried flesh should have directed you.” (Purg. XXXI, 37-48)

Beatrice has no qualms about stating outright that she is here to humiliate Dante, so that when future temptations (“Sirens”) come, he "may be more strong.” She wants him to “feel more shame” at his sins, so that he will not commit the sin of pride again.

[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)

Dante is so ashamed by Beatrice’s ruthless accusations that he compares his degraded self to a “fledgling bird” who “must meet two or three blows before he learns.” He also compares himself to a sulky child who knows he’s done wrong and who “silently…acknowledges [his] fault.” Dante’s shame is so strong here that he cannot even think of himself as a human adult, instead representing himself as an animal and a child.

[Beatrice]: “Your intellect’s asleep if it can’t see
how singular’s the cause that makes that tree
so tall and makes it grow invertedly.
And if, like waters of the Elsa, your
vain thoughts did not encrust you mind; if your
delight in them were not like Pyramus
staining the mulberry, you’d recognize
in that tree’s form and height the moral sense
God’s justice had when He forbade trespass.
But since I see your intellect is made
of stone and, petrified, grown so opaque –
the light of what I say has left you dazed –
I’d also have you bear my words within you –
if not inscribed, at least outlined – just as
the pilgrim’s staff is brought back wreathed with palm.” (Purg. XXXIII, 64-78)

In a final humiliating stab, Beatrice attributes Dante’s intellectual blindness to his pride. It’s his “asleep intellect” and “vain thoughts” that keep him from realizing why the Tree of Divine Justice is shaped so strangely. His pride so distracts him that Beatrice has to tell him the reason, but warns him to remember her words. Her reference to a “pilgrim” is a veiled reminder to Dante to be humble, for a pilgrim is by definition a subordinate to God and does not think too highly of his memory, for he always comes from his pilgrimage with a “staff […] wreathed with palm” to remind himself of where he’s been and of the lessons he’s learned.