Study Guide

Virgil in Purgatorio

By Dante Alighieri


Virgil: Classic To The Bone

It's hard to get more classic than Virgil. This guy was the author of The Aeneid, after all. He wore some serious togas. And he (gasp!) wasn't Christian... because he lived way before Christianity existed.

You could read Virgil's adherence to Classicism as a fancy way of saying that Virgil is pagan. This is definitely one aspect of his fading presence in Purgatorio, but he’s also a paragon of the old Greco-Roman tradition of grand epic poetry, which has a whole bunch of positive implications.

A central emphasis of the ancient Greek philosophers was human reason. So far, Virgil’s line of thinking has worked really well. As we’ve seen in Inferno, his reasoning has made sense of Hell for us—namely in Canto XI, when he outlined the structure of Hell through three kinds of sin. These categories of sin come mostly from Aristotle, one of the greatest philosopher-logicians ever. A similarly Aristotelian breakdown also works in Purgatorio, with Virgil’s explanation of love in Canto XVII outlining how all the terraces of Purgatory operate around the principle of perverted or ill-measured love.

In addition, it is not too big a stretch to conjecture that Virgil’s trademark “persuasive word” is an extension of his human reason. After all, his style of teaching and talking hearkens back to Socrates’ question and answer style of learning (the so-called “Socratic method”). However, we find that Virgil runs into trouble when trying to explain how God’s natural love can also account for free will.

Because the Classical poets don’t really have an established sense of free will in their stories (the gods and three Fates often seem to control everything), he has trouble with the conception that a God could be so merciful as to allow mortals to disobey Him. Aristotelian logic doesn’t really allow for this kind of decision-making based on selfless compassion. Which is why he must temper his explanation of love and free will with the caveat that “[only] what reason can see here, I can impart; past that, for truth of faith, it’s Beatrice alone you must await.”

Virgil knows that his rigid way of thinking does not really account for the selflessness of God’s compassion. That is why as the pilgrims travel closer to God, where reason does not work (just consider Beatrice’s prophecies!) and more faith is required, we find Virgil fading more and more into the background. What was a major strength in Inferno (where compassion was almost an absolute no-no) has now become a weakness.

We see lack of faith often getting the better of Virgil here in Purgatory. He is no longer as sure of himself as he was in Hell. Instead of instinctively knowing the quickest path up the mountain, he (like Dante) must ask for directions. And when we get to the Earthly Paradise? Forget it. Virgil hasn’t a clue. At Dante’s inquiring look concerning the incredible procession, Virgil’s amazement matches Dante’s. For the first time, Virgil has not a single word of wisdom to convey. And that’s when we realize he’s outlived his use.

Virgil’s Tragic Irony

We admit it. Virgil has grown on us. It’s undeniable that he’s established a paternal relationship with Dante and that we’ve come to rely on him, just as upon Dante, for the massive amounts of information needed to navigate these divine realms. He even has (relatively) warm fuzzy moments with Dante. Remember those few passages in Inferno when he takes Dante protectively in his arms to run from the demons or to mount Geryon?

Though we kind of cast him as a pompous know-it-all in Inferno, his harshest rebukes of Dante prove essential in hardening his heart against feeling pity for the sinners. It seems that Virgil’s pride in Inferno works to counteract Dante’s hasty sympathy. Now that he no longer has that problem with Dante, his crankiness seems to have largely receded, to be replaced by a slightly annoying tendency to say, “Hurry, Dante. Hurry up!” all the time. Of course, once we’ve established Virgil as a likable character, we find that he has to go.

We’ve known from the very beginning that his paganism might be a problem. At some level, we all see the day of farewell coming. But to bring Statius into the mix, with all his maddeningly ingratiating rhetoric of oh-thank-you-Virgil-for-converting-me just twists the dagger deeper into an open wound.

It’s bad enough that Virgil must leave Dante, but now we’re told that despite Virgil’s paganism, his (pagan) Aeneid saved someone else’s soul! Talk about irony. And this someone gets to take Dante through Paradise, while Virgil treads wearily back to his place in Hell. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? We are quite distraught over it. But we’re certain that this is how we’re supposed to feel. Dante-poet is a master at pulling at our heartstrings.

Only when we’re feeling righteously indignant, as over Virgil’s eternal damnation, do we ask the tough questions. Why does Statius, with his inferior poetry and less interesting personality, get the honor of accompanying Dante to Heaven, while Virgil, who does all the work honing Dante into the perfect Christian he is today, have to sulk home to Hell? Does it mean nothing that his Aeneid marks the turning point of Statius’ life? Doesn’t Virgil get credit for that? Shouldn’t that count towards his own salvation? Can’t Dante do anything about it?

This is where the tragic part comes in. According to the system, there is no way out of Hell. Virgil makes choices, regardless of the effects his works have on his followers. Maybe we’re just softies, but we can’t get over it. Well then, let’s run with it.

What if author-Dante means this to seem exceedingly unfair? Perhaps this is his veiled way of criticizing a Christian system that doesn’t allow for virtuous people to receive the gift of Paradise simply because they haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. In all other respects, they are perfectly good human beings.

Hmm, sound familiar? Yes, this issue has come up before, in Inferno. This is the precise problem of the Virtuous pagans hanging out in Limbo.