Musings on Dante

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In the Inferno was a complex hierarchy that devoted itself to the nature of sin. But here in the Purgatorio, Dante through the Pilgrim and Virgil considers vice and their opposing virtues. As there is a hierarchy of sinful acts, there is also a hierarchy of vices. Vices, bad habits or inclinations, are imperfections in the soul, or more accurately in the operations of the soul which result in action (or inaction).i Vices, therefore, lead to sinful acts, sinful omissions, or mitigate the good of acts, as some vices incline a soul away from its final end more than others due to their relation to charity. Accordingly, Dante depicts (to the converse of Hell it should be noted) Purgatory as a mountain, the summit of which is the earthly paradise from which one ascends into Heaven. Each level of the mountain, from the base (after the formal entry into Purgatory –Canto IX) to the ante-penultimate level (Cantos XXV-XXVII), is arranged in a hierarchy of representative capital vices and their opposing virtues from lowest (most grave) to highest (least grave). According to Thomas, a capital vice or sin is:

…that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source.’ It is not then the gravity of the vice in itself that makes it capital but rather the fact that it gives rise to many other sins.ii

In short, the vices incline men to love mutable goods instead of the true Good which is the final end.

Dante’s arrangement of the hierarchy of capital vices are generally divided into two: 1) defective love and 2) excessive love. The first part enumerated (defective love) can again be divided into two: 1) perverted or bad love and 2) insufficient love.

Let us now consider two levels of Purgatory, and for the sake of comparison to the Inferno. Let again also consider the extreme levels.

Pride by Gustav Dore

Pride by Gustav Dore

“Pride is the beginning of all sin,” (Sirach 10:15) and as such it forms the lowest level (Cantos X-XII) of Dante’s Mount Purgatory (i.e. of Purgatory proper –excluding the levels of Ante-Purgatory) placing it closest to Hell and furthest from Heaven (which is reached after attaining the top-most level). St. Thomas describes pride as primarily a turning away from God who is the final end as well as a contempt for God and His commands preferring one’s own instead.iii And as such, this shows why pride is the beginning of sin and therefore at this level as it is causative of all other sins. Dante, in accordance with Catholic doctrine illustrates the cure when the souls on this cornice move “from swollen pride to sweet humility.”iv This is also demonstrated at the Whip of Pride (Canto X) where the opposing virtue of the vice the cornice represents is displayed to “whip up” souls to emulation. And humility itself “consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.”v Lastly, as pride is the beginning of all sin, humility is the foundation of all virtues insofar as it removes obstacles to other virtues, particularly the foundational theological virtue of

Tradition holds that it was the sin of pride that ejected Satan from Heaven for he had a contempt for God’s authority. As such, the Arch-Enemy now occupies the lowest place in Hell, the farthest removed from Heaven for the damned. Likewise, the cornice of pride in Purgatory proper is the farthest away from Heaven for those saved who have need of purification before entry into Heaven. Therefore, Dante’s placement is appropriate.

Ring of Fire by Gustav Dore

Ring of Fire by Gustav Dore

Moving to the other end of the mount, we come to the seventh cornice where the lustful are expiating. As stated before, lust is, generically, an excess of love for a mutable good. Particularly, Aquinas asserts:

As stated above (148, 5; I-II, 84, 3,4), a capital vice is one that has a very desirable end, so that through desire for that end, a man proceeds to commit many sins, all of which are said to arise from that vice as from a principal vice. Now the end of lust is venereal pleasure, which is very great. Wherefore this pleasure is very desirable as regards the sensitive appetite, both on account of the intensity of the pleasure, and because such like concupiscence is connatural to man. Therefore it is evident that lust is a capital vice.vii

The desire for venereal pleasure is strong and one of the most difficult to control. Further, it is related to another natural desire of man: the propagation of the species. This desire is universal among all animate life as it is fundamental to the continued existence of the species which is a proximate end and a real good. This desire, of course, is disordered due to Ancestral Sin. Therefore, as this desire is most natural, and as the desire with the accompanying pleasure resultant from its fulfillment is most intense, it is most easy to lose control of –it can override reason. Consequently, its gravity in comparison to other vices and sins can be mitigated. But as the sins of this vice are most shameful and base because reason is subordinated to the appetite, it is still a capital sin/vice.viii Thus it forms the highest level of the expiating cornices of Purgatory just as it formed the highest punitive level of Hell.

Chastity stands in opposition to lust as displayed by the Whip of Lust in Canto XXV. For as lust is an appetite that is out of control, so it must be checked or “chastened” by reason. Hence the Common Doctor says:

Chastity takes its name from the fact that reason “chastises” concupiscence, which, like a child, needs curbing, as the Philosopher states (Ethic. iii, 12). Now the essence of human virtue consists in being something moderated by reason, as shown above (I-II, 64, 1). Therefore it is evident that chastity is a virtue.ix

The turning from the true Good to a mutable good is checked by reason (obviously endowed with grace). Again, Dante’s placement is appropriate.

Between the cornices of Pride and Lust stand the other cornices, with each representative capital vice and opposing virtue shown thereon. And we can see that from the levels of defective love, the soul ascends to the levels of excessive love as illustrated by our two examples. Here on the mount we see both vice and virtue, where redemption is. Whereas before we considered only sin, now sin and vice are considered with their opposing virtues, the acquisition of which leads one closer to Heaven, to perfection, and to one’s final end.

After moving through Purgatory and the Garden of Paradise atop the mount, the Pilgrim ascends into Heaven, this time without Virgil (natural reason), but with Beatrice (divine revelation). Let us proceed to this consideration.

iSt. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-IIae, q.71, a.5.

iiibid. II-IIae, q.153, a.4

iiiibid. q.84, a.2.

iv Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Purg., XI, 119.

vSt. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 55, ad 20.

viibid. Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q.161, a.5, ad 2.

viiibid. q.153, a.4.

viiiibid. q. 151, a.4.

ixibid. a.1.


Written by Paleo Thomist

December 6, 2010 at 8:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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