More Dante Now, Please! (Part 3): Let Beauty Begin

December 11, 2020 Updated: January 6, 2021

In our last article, we saw how the issue of human free will played out in Dante’s Hell. Essentially, Hell is a place where people get what they want, but what they want traps them in their own addictions and compulsions. They are no longer free because they have chosen— freely—to obsess about themselves and their own self-importance and so can no longer see reality for what it really is.

In fact, people in Hell deny reality. They deny responsibility for their own actions, typically blaming others; they deny the possibility of communication with others, typically talking to themselves in self-justificatory circles; and they deny creation, that is to say, their subordination to a higher power.

Talking about reality, Christian writer G.K. Chesterton observed that “facts as facts do not always create a spirit of reality, because reality is a spirit.” This “spirit” is exactly what those in Hell denied when in the flesh, since their prime concern was always their own material advantage. So, St. Augustine’s point, “A man may lose the good things of this life against his will; but if he loses the eternal blessings, he does so with his own consent,” is precisely what Dante establishes in his depiction of Hell.

But what about Purgatory? How is this different from Hell?

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Purgatory for Canto 19 of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” (Public Domain)

Una Lagrimetta: One Tear

Clearly, when we study Dante’s Purgatory, ostensibly there are similarities. First, the sins seem familiar: pride, envy, wrath, lust, and so on. Secondly, the inmates of Purgatory are all suffering too. However, the nature of the suffering is fundamentally different, and here we touch on the brilliance of Dante’s psychological perceptions.

The essential difference between the suffering in Hell and Purgatory is twofold. Those who exist in Purgatory have developed the capacity to be self-aware. Instead of denying that they have a problem, they admit they are the problem. They have fallen short; they have done wrong.

Secondly, they are now sorry for it, genuinely sorry for it. Indeed, their “wrongness” becomes a matter of intense regret, as well as of focus. In Hell, suffering is resisted, resented, and not understood at all in terms of its connection with choices made in life; in Purgatory, this is reversed.

A particularly moving example of this regret occurs in Canto 5 of “Purgatorio.” It describes the end of Buonconte da Montefeltro, a man of notorious evil. Having fought on the losing side in the battle of Campaldino, and being fatally wounded in the throat, he desperately tries to evade his enemies who pursue him through the marshes. Finally, exhausted, he falls—losing sight and speech—down in death.

canto 5 Buonconte da Montefeltro
Buonconte da Montefeltro, slain in the battle of Campaldino. Illustration, 1861, by Gustave Doré for Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” (Public Domain)

But as Montefeltro falls, he explains, “I had the grace/ To end by naming Mary as I fell” (Clive James’s version). And we know that this naming of Mary is no mere expletive, but rather a profound psychological shift. For as a devil claims his soul, which is how we know he is a man of evil, he is saved by an angel for a reason: as the devil puts it, of “una lagrimetta,” one tear.

As Montefeltro invokes the Mother of God to save him, he does so with one tear, indicating that at the moment just before his actual death he has repented. He is sorry, because he is aware of what he has done, and this becomes his salvation.

In Purgatory now, Montefeltro will suffer, but there is hope. There is no hope in Hell, but once one has become self-aware and seen oneself for what one really is, a new dynamic operates.

This new psychological and spiritual dynamic operates throughout Purgatory as each of its inhabitants come understand themselves and their faults without self-deception. In Canto 5, the effects are particularly dramatic as each of the souls whom Dante meets has died a sudden and violent death, leaving repentance to the last moment.

This last-minute repentance is itself a cause for even more hope. It means that anybody, at any point, including the very last, can turn around their own dark fate if they but turn away from their own ego-obsessive self-justification.

“The Late Repenters,” 1861, by Gustave Doré. Illustration for Canto 5 of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” (Public Domain)

Back to the Beginning

Perhaps the most glorious manifestation of what this new hope comes to mean occurs at the very end of Purgatory proper—that is, not the end of the “Purgatorio” poem, but in Canto 26 where the literal Purgatory ends.

Dante, for the remaining and last seven cantos, leaves human suffering and enters the terrestrial paradise. This is not the same as being in Heaven; instead, it takes mankind back to the place where we started—to the original Garden. All the “falling” down to Hell and all the climbing up through Purgatory only gets us back to where mankind started, where, if we had not fallen, we might have remained—blissfully innocent—forever.

“Terrestrial Paradise,” 1861, by Gustave Doré. Illustration for Canto 28 of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” (Public Domain)

In a profound sense, then, although it’s Paradise of sorts, it’s still a limitation (hence, it’s still being in Purgatory) on human nature and the human spirit. By “falling,” paradoxically, a greater destiny awaits in Heaven, which is beyond and above Purgatory.

So, to return to the point of turning away from ego-obsession, as Dante ascends the purgatorial mount, the last person who is suffering whom Dante will meet on his journey is Arnaut Daniel, the poet. This poet is famously described by Dante as (il) “miglior fabbro,” or “the better maker.” (This expression was famously used by T.S. Eliot in homage to Ezra Pound in “The Wasteland.”)

Arnaut burns in a fire that terrifies Dante. What the fire is purging is lust. This is the last obstacle before reaching the terrestrial paradise, or Garden of Eden, as it originally was before the Fall.

‘Counter to the Law of My Own Being’

But before we comment on the meeting between Dante and Arnaut and its significance, we need to consider former vicar and British Member of Parliament Christopher Bryant’s profound observation: “I came to understand that to resist God was to run counter to the law of my own being.”

This understanding is a necessary antidote to thinking about God as a merely external and punitive force. On the contrary, another reason why those in Hell are in Hell is that they have violated not just others, but also themselves. To run counter to the law of one’s own being is, ultimately, to lose one’s soul. And this Arnaut understands.

What happens is that Arnaut graciously acknowledges Dante, explains his condition, and requests Dante to recall his sufferings in due time. In this, he is effectively warning Dante to heed Dante’s own lust before it is too late. And then Arnaut immediately steps back into the purifying flames or, as some express it, the fire that refines.

The point is that Arnaut wants to go back into the flame, as painful as it is; he understands that the suffering is necessary to release him to the higher life he now craves.

In other words, he wants to suffer in order to achieve the higher purpose. We can see that this behavior is exactly the opposite of the addicts and compulsives in Hell, where addiction itself is their method to blunt suffering. They do not experience the world except on artificially determined terms.

That Arnaut’s position is psychologically, not to mention spiritually, healthy should be obvious. But lest we are in any doubt, consider Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s remark: “Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression, and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.”

This leads to psychoanalyst James Hollis’s thought: “A fundamental truth of psychology, from which our ego repeatedly flees, is that it’s most commonly through suffering that we are stretched enough to grow spiritually. The road of continuous ease results in the circular trap of addiction.”

Purgatory and the Road to Beauty

Purgatory, then, is the place where we begin to turn these addictions around and become the kind of people we were designed to be—people living according to the law of our own nature. In becoming self-aware, we are attempting to fulfill that law: to be who we really are.

And when that happens, something remarkable occurs. The suffering goes into remission and beauty appears. That is why in the West, Plotinus remarked that beauty was the first attribute of the soul; and in the East, they talk of the beauty of the essential self. The soul, in short, is always, when properly perceived, beautiful.

Epoch Times Photo
A fresco, 1749, by Simon Benedict Faistenberger, on the ceiling of St. Ulrich Church in Pillersee, Tyrol, Austria. The Virgin Mary gives a black penitence belt to St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica. At the bottom, with this belt St. Nicholas of Tolentino is freeing souls from purgatory. (Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Thus, once the purgation is completed, one is—Dante is—enabled to enter the terrestrial paradise. Here in Canto 27, within the first few lines, an “angel of joy” appears singing “Beati mundo corde” (“Blessed are the pure in heart”), which the purged now are; but, significantly, in the Mark Musa translation, “the living beauty of his voice rang clear.” Once the suffering is accomplished, we see beauty, we hear beauty, and our natural environment is beauty.

And this takes us back to the Bryant quotation, “I came to understand that to resist God was to run counter to the law of my own being,” and to one final point about freedom of the will.

Free will is not some random “do whatever you fancy, whenever you feel like it”; it is following the “law of my own being.” In order to be free, we follow a law!

Sounds highly paradoxical, but common sense informs us that it does in fact make sense. All creatures are happier when they follow the law of their own natures, which is why seeing them in zoos can be so upsetting. If so for an animal, then how much more for us who have “reason”?

As we step beyond the terrestrial paradise toward the heavenly one, what has Dante to teach us about its psychology for now? This is the topic of our fourth and final article on Dante’s ever topical masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy.”

Please also see “More Dante Now, Please! (Part 1): How Dante Provokes Thinking” and  “More Dante Please, Now! (Part 2): Let’s Hear It for Free Will!”

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.