Purgatory Canto XVII (Third Terrace: the Wrathful, Fourth Terrace: the Slothful)
Dante puts readers into his own shoes. Remember that time when you were trapped on a misty mountain and couldn’t see anything and the sunlight was just able to make its way through the thick fog… yes, he says, that’s what it felt like for me. But, what about those of us who don’t go getting ourselves lost on mountains… what then, Dante?
When at last Dante and Virgil can see the sky again, they realize the sun is about to set. So we go from darkness into more darkness.
Dante follows Virgil’s trusty footsteps out of the cloud of smoke.
Dante then has one of his weird moments in which he randomly starts spouting rhetoric about some subject. This time, it’s fantasy. He speculates that fantasy is made possible by human contemplation of an external object. Having established this, he then asks how fantasy works in the absence of an external object to contemplate?
He proceeds to answer his own question. When there’s no object to contemplate, fantasy is directed by the light from the heavens (like stars) or is directed by God’s will itself.
Dante now proceeds to have a fantasy—specifically, about an example of wrath. After all, you’ll remember that we are on the Terrace of the Wrathful.
First up is the image of Procne, who was turned into a nightingale for her sin of wrath. The back-story is that Procne’s sister, Philomela, was a great beauty, so gorgeous that she inspired the lust of her own brother-in-law, Tereus.
The rest is pretty much your standard Greek tragedy: boy sees girl; boy wants girl; boy rapes girl; boy cuts out girl’s tongue so she can’t tell; girl goes to her sister with magical powers; girl magically conveys what happened; girl and sister take their revenge by murdering the rapist’s son and serving him on a silver platter to his father, who—when he finds out what has happened, tries to have girl and sister murdered. While they’re running, they’re all magically changed into birds.
Anyway, Procne disappears from Dante’s inner sight, only to be replaced by another image of wrath: the crucified body of Haman. He’s surrounded by King Ahasuerus, Esther, and Mordecai.
In the Bible, Haman is the counselor for King Ahasuerus of Persia. When Mordecai, a Jew, refuses to bow down to him, Haman tries to have all the Jews killed. Esther, the King’s wife, comes to the rescue and Haman is hanged for his crime on the same gallows he has prepared for Mordecai.
Then this image bursts like a bubble and another replaces it. A beautiful girl cries and laments for her dead mother, who has committed suicide. The girl is Lavinia and the unnamed mother is Amata from Virgil’s Aeneid. According to Virgil, when Queen Amata sees her city of Latinum attacked by Aeneas’ forces, she assumes that Lavinia’s suitor, Turnus, has been killed by Aeneas. She hangs herself in rage.
Just when we’re getting lost in the sea of mythological names, Dante’s visions stop. Of course, they must stop poetically; so, Dante analogizes the ceasing of his visions to waking up. When the sunlight beats upon one’s closed eyes, they draw the sleeper into wakefulness. In just this way, Dante comes back to his senses when a peculiarly bright light shines on him.
He looks around wildly for the source of light, but hears only a voice that says, “Here one can ascend.”
The voice is so gorgeous that it makes Dante desire to see its source. But then the sun metaphor continues, thwarting his plans. When the sun shines too brightly, Dante says, one cannot look at it. This source of light is, like the sun, simply too bright.
Virgil intervenes. He explains to Dante that this is a divine messenger (an angel), who has kindly offered to lead them to the fourth terrace. Virgil urges Dante to follow him quickly before night falls.
Led by the angel, they climb a stairway. Just as Dante puts his foot on the first step, the angel’s wing flaps, there’s a wind against Dante’s face, and a voice cries out “Beati pacifici, those free of evil anger!”
Night has fallen rather abruptly. They’ve only made it to the top of the stairs.
Dante feels his strength melt away and his legs stop of their own accord. He describes their halting at the top of the stairs as a ship which has just touched the shore.
Dante perks his ears, straining in the darkness to hear what this new terrace will bring.
Then he decides it’d be much easier to ask Virgil. He asks what vice is punished here.
Virgil answers that “the love of good that is too tepidly pursued is mended.” That’s a fancy way of saying “the Slothful.”
But now Virgil is in full lecture mode, ordering Dante to pay attention since they’re stuck here for the night; Dante might as well learn something while they’re resting.
He begins talking about love. No, he’s not confessing his eternal devotion to Dante. Instead, he talks about love from a theological standpoint.
All creatures created by God (meaning, of course, simply “all creatures”) are capable of love. There are two types of love: natural and mental.
Natural love, Virgil claims, is infallible, but mental love can choose to love the wrong thing or err in loving too much or too little. If mental love is directed toward God first and foremost, it will not succumb to evil. However, if it turns toward evil or does not love God above all other things, then it is turning against its Maker.
So, the big message, Virgil says, is that love is the sole motivation of every action, whether it promotes virtue or vice. Hmm, this could be a really important concept worth bookmarking.
By Virgil’s logic, entities cannot hate themselves because love is always concerned with the well being of the lover. Similarly, since no being creates itself, it cannot be separated from God; thus, it cannot hate God.
Virgil concludes that “ill love,” then, can only mean faulty love for one’s neighbor. This type of love consists of three categories: 1) pride (when someone wishes that his neighbor might fall so that he—by contrast—will look better), 2) envy (when someone wishes for his neighbor’s misfortune when his neighbor is better than he), and 3) wrath (when someone seeks to harm his neighbor for some perceived injury). These types of ill love are the terraces of Mount Purgatory that Dante has already passed.
Virgil talks about “love that seeks the good distortedly.” Those who love distortedly do indeed love God the best, but do not act enough upon their love to attain it. This fourth terrace punishes those who have been lax.
Other distorted loves target secondary goods (not God) as objects of primary love and thus love them too much.
Virgil, sly fellow that he is, does not tell Dante how distorted love manifests itself in humans. He reveals only that in the three terraces to come, distorted love is punished.
Dante will have to discover those vices on his own.