In typical fashion, Dante begins this canto with a simile. He claims that this mysterious smoke is darker and rougher than the darkness of Hell or a moonless night. Creepy.
In fact, it’s so bad that Dante is forced to close his eyes.
Virgil, in an uncharacteristically helpful mood, moves closer to Dante to lend him a helping hand. Literally.
Again, Dante compares himself to a blind man seeking the assistance of a guide to protect him. Virgil, a willing accomplice, urges Dante not to lose him in the smoke.
Suddenly, countless voices compete for dominance in the smoke. Luckily for Dante, all they’re doing is praying and singing the hymn “Agnus Dei.”
Because they’re singing in unison, Dante gets the impression that each singer is in perfect harmony with the others, and not just vocally. They genuinely like each other (unlike the contestants on American Idol).
Dante takes a wild guess that these people are spirits.
Virgil applauds him for his brilliance, but then one-ups him. In addition to knowing that they’re souls, Virgil also knows that the singers are the Wrathful, trying to purge away their… well… wrath.
Right on cue, a ghostly voice calls out to Dante. It asks the identity of this guy “whose body pierces through our smoke” and “who speaks of us exactly like a man who uses months to measure time.” You guessed it, said speaker is intrigued by Dante’s alive-ness.
Virgil advises Dante to answer and then ask for directions.
Dante answers the Wrathful penitent in a grandiose style, but what he really says is “cool, you’re a penitent” and “follow me.” That doesn't really sound like what Virgil said to do.
The penitent agrees to follow Dante as far as he’s “allowed.” In case Dante feels worried about losing him in the smoke, the soul comforts our poet, saying that they can keep track of each other through their sense of hearing. Very resourceful.
It's now Dante's turn to speak. He acknowledges that he’s alive and has been permitted access not only to Purgatory, but also to Hell. He then puts his privileged status on the offensive, charging the soul to reveal his life story and then direct them to the path… because God gives him the right.
Appropriately intimidated, the soul tells Dante that he’s a Lombard and that his name is Marco. He claims that he lived in a time when men had better moral values than they do now.
Then he proceeds to answer Dante’s other request. He tells the two visitors to go keep going straight and they’ll reach the top of the mountain.
As an afterthought, Marco begs Dante to pray for him.
Dante agrees, but has a question still unanswered. Marco’s speech has reminded Dante of a conversation he had with Guido del Duca. In support of Marco’s words, Dante agrees that the world is now full of sin, but he wants to know why. Is man’s wickedness caused by heaven or earth? Dante begs Marco to answer him so that he can spread the word.
Like a professor harried by a bothersome student, Marco sighs. His wise words are dismissive of Dante. He tells the eager pupil that “the world is blind, and you come from the world.” In other words, Dante can’t possibly understand.
He continues anyway. Mortals, Marco lectures, believe that Heaven controls and preordains everything. Interestingly, he puts it in physical terms, saying that people believe Heaven is “the necessary source of every motion.”
This, of course, is wrong, because then there would be no free will. Marco goes on to explain that if there were no free will, the punishment system (Hell, Purgatory, etc.) would break down, because then man could neither be blamed for his sins nor rewarded for his virtue.
Marco argues that Heaven “set[s] your appetites in motion.” In plain English, all Heaven does is awaken your desires. Some of them. But not all.
Here is where free will comes in. Marco claims that a greater power than Heaven created man’s mind. This power, of course, is God, who made man in such a way that he not be completely ruled by the heavens; he can choose how to behave.
Thus, if—as Marco has claimed—the world is a worse place than it once was, man has only himself to blame, not God.
The lecture continues. The soul, Marco argues, was created by God. He made the soul a simple thing, like a playing child who is unaware of his maker. The only thing the child cares about is pleasing himself.
This childlike soul thing, though, does necessarily know what’s good for it. It pursues “trivial goods” that may or may not promote virtue. Because of this, men need some force to restrain their desires or guide them in a better direction. This force is political: men need laws to restrain them and a ruler to direct them to the only true city—the city of God.
Here’s where things get tricky. Marco proceeds to lambaste the political rulers of the day, but he does it in a confusing way. He accuses the “shepherd” (who is supposed to enforce the laws on his herd) of “chew[ing] the cud” while he “does not have cleft hooves.”
Translation: The shepherd is Dante's favorite villain of all time, Pope Boniface VIII. That the Pope “chews the cud” means he thinks about and reads the Scriptures, but his lack of “cleft hooves” means he does not recognize the need for separation of church and state in a political leader.
Marco goes on to blame this shepherd for setting a bad example for his flock. People now, he claims, follow only their greed, thanks to their bad role model. Marco blames men’s degeneracy on “misrule,” not on the heavens, which men have claimed as the source of their depravity.
In his tirade, Marco laments that Rome, which “made the world good” by separating and limiting the powers of church and state, now joins the two separate forces under one ruler (yes, our lovely Boniface). Now that “the sword has joined the shepherd’s crook,” neither church nor state balances out the other and they no longer have to fear one another.
Marco asserts that the old is morally superior to the new.
He cites the example of the country of Lombardy, which once had “valor and courtesy,” but now houses people “ashamed of talking with the righteous.”
He names three old men who are moral exemplars: Currado da Palazzo, Gherardo, and Guido da Castel.
Marco’s conclusion? The Roman Church has now mixed up two powers which should be separate, and because of this dilution, the entire society sinks into degeneracy.
Dante wisely humbles himself before Marco, complimenting his impressive reasoning power.
But, of course, he has a question. Dante asks who Gherardo is, seemingly too good for this modern age.
Marco’s mouth drops wide open when he hears that Dante doesn’t know who Gherardo is, especially since Dante is Tuscan.
Marco says Gherardo was also known as “Gaia’s father,” and then decides the conversation is over. That was abrupt.
He tells Dante that the smoke is starting to clear up and sunlight is coming through; this is his sign to leave—before the angel arrives.
Marco skedaddles, leaving Dante and Virgil alone again.