Purgatory Canto IV (Ante-Purgatory, the First-Spur: the Indolent)
Dante observes that he is so fascinated by Manfred’s tale that he loses track of time (the sun has risen fifty degrees in the sky).
He uses his distraction to refute one of Plato’s theories of the human soul; namely, that a single human being has more than one soul (a.k.a. a “plurality of souls”).
We now interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a philosophy lesson. Plato believed that each of man’s different functions—like life, intellect, sensation, movement—is controlled by a different soul.
According to Dante’s logic, if a person had several souls, he would still notice the passage of time, no matter how spellbound he might be by something else (say… Manfred), because not all of his souls are concentrating on the same thing at one time. But, because Dante doesn’t notice the passing of time, this proves that man has only soul.
Dante’s wonderful leaps of logic are cut short by a shout. The mysterious band of souls has found what Dante is seeking: a mountain path he can climb.
The path is really narrow, though. Its opening is very small.
It’s such a steep path that Dante has to fly (figuratively, not literally) up it, in Virgil’s wake.
At one point, Dante asks Virgil which way they should go, only to be warned by Virgil to shut up and keep climbing until they find someone who can give them directions. We thought Virgil knew where he was going.
They climb. And climb. And climb some more.
The mountain is so high that Dante can’t even see its top. Picture Everest’s summit lost in the clouds. Now multiply that by a thousand.
By now, Dante is exhausted. He begs Virgil to stop.
Virgil the rigorous taskmaster shows a glimmer of mercy. He orders Dante to climb up to the ridge where he’s standing and they’ll take a break together. Dante scrambles up obediently.
As they relax for a bit, Dante looks down the path they’ve just climbed and feels all warm and fuzzy with satisfaction.
But wait! There’s something wrong. The sun is on their left! The world is being turned upside down!
Not really, Virgil explains. He can basically read Dante’s mind. He explains in very complicated astrological and geographical terms something that we can explain very simply. Basically, Dante’s seeing the world from the southern hemisphere after spending his whole life seeing it from the northern hemisphere. Hence, backwards!
Dante says, “Whoa, I never thought of it like that!” But he can’t bear to be outsmarted by Virgil so he shows off his own intelligence by citing the exact distance between them and the equator. And between Jerusalem (in the northern hemisphere) and the equator.
Then he asks Virgil how much further they have to keep climbing.
Virgil comforts Dante, telling him that the climb is worst at the bottom. It’ll get better as they go on.
Soon a voice cries out, “Perhaps you will need to sit before you reach that point!”
Dante and Virgil do a double take and notice a massive boulder they haven’t seen before.
They investigate. Behind the boulder they find a little community of lounging men. The men are all worn out and lying down. It’s almost like a nude beach without all the towels and sand and sea; just the prone naked men.
One of them catches Dante’s eyes. He’s sitting up with his head down between his knees. Talk about depressed.
Dante makes fun of his laziness.
The penitent man overhears and shoots back, “Climb, then, if you’re so vigorous!”
Dante recognizes the man's voice and worry overwhelms him as he sits down by the tired fellow and looks him in the face. The indolent man keeps speaking.
Dante replies, calling him Belacqua. He smiles at Belacqua, relieved to find him here (and not in Hell), but asks him why he’s languishing here. Is he waiting for a tour guide? Or has he simply fallen into his old ways (i.e., laziness)?
Belacqua is majorly depressed. He asks Dante, "What’s the use in continuing to climb?" The guardian angel won’t let him through the gate to do his penance until he’s languished the length of his life out here in ante-Purgatory. For now, he can only hope for prayers to shorten his wait (kind of like the situation with Manfred).
Before Dante can comfort his friend, Virgil crows, “Let’s shake a leg! It’s already noon.”