We are today one-third of the way through our journey up the mountain, and reach what is to me one of the most moving and affecting cantos of all — a judgment that no doubt reveals something about my own particular sinful dispositions. More on that in a moment. This one-third moment is an appropriate place to reflect on the artistic genius of Dante the architect of this Gothic cathedral in verse.
Dante, like all the medieval intellectuals, believed in what you might call “number mysticism.” In the premodern metaphysical vision — a vision still embraced by philosophical Traditionalism; a very good, easily accessible presentation of this is in Prince Charles’s book Harmony — anyway, in the premodern metaphysical vision, the entire cosmos is shot through with divinely given order, and meaning. We can read the order and harmony of the world, and see in this the expression of God’s nature. This is a topic that is far too rich and complex to get into in this blog series. The important thing to know is that Dante incorporated this understanding deeply into the bones of the Commedia. Writes Prue Shaw:
Dante’s is a world where the number three seems to be a key to understanding reality in many of its fundamental aspects. The numerical pattern three-in-one is built into the very structure of things, a medieval version of what modern thinkers call a “fractal.” (Fractals are self-similar patterns: at whatever degree of magnification one uses, one sees the same pattern reappearing.) It is perhaps not surprising that Dante used the principle of three-in-one to structure his imagined world and the poem which celebrates it. What is astounding is how successfully he did so.
The Commedia as a product of human making — a man-made work of verbal art — was designed by Dante to embody the three-in-one principle. With satisfying symmetry, it does so both in its overall structure and in its individual component parts. The poem has three sections — Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso — which constitute one poem, the Commedia. The basic building black from which it is constructed is the terzina, or tercet, a single metrical unit consisting of three lines. Dante invented this metrical scheme, and by so doing made three-in-oneness a part of the very fabric of his poem.
There’s more. The tercet form Dante invented goes like this: aba bcb cdc. The entire poem is written this way; you can’t tell it in the English translations, but in the Italian original, the entire poem is linked in a chain of verse — this to express Dante’s metaphysical view that all reality is linked in a great chain of being. The pilgrim is learning how important it is to pray for the souls of the dead in Purgatory because we are all part of one community, one reality, in God. By extension, he’s learning how the human community is supposed to be united in harmony, by love, because we really are all brothers.
But there’s more to Dante’s structuring. Again, Prue Shaw:
The mirroring of patterns in the poem from overall structure to individual metrical unit goes even further. Because each line of the poem has eleven syllables, each tercet has thirty-three syllables, matching the thirty-three cantos in Purgatorio and Paradiso. Inferno has an extra canto, which functions as a preface to the whole work, making a total for the poem of one hundred cantos, the perfect number. (The perfect number is ten squared, ten itself being a perfect number, or so medieval mathematicians thought, because it is the sum of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4. So the poem is not just a verbal artifact but a mathematical one as well.
The poem is not simply a container carrying truth, but expresses that truth truth in its very form. Every verse is three lines, every line is 11 syllables, making every verse 33 syllables, and so forth. And the reality it expresses, you will have guessed, is that the entire universe is Trinitarian: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity, you will learn in Paradiso, is held together by active love: radical giving and radical receiving. When Dante says in his famous last line of the Commedia that he has seen “the love that moves the sun and all the other stars,” it’s not a metaphor. It’s real. Reality is bound together by the love of the Holy Trinity, which is its creator and sustainer. Dante believed this, and planned this great poem down to the last syllable to express that foundational truth.
Plainly, this man was one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. Keep that in mind as we walk with him in this canto on the terrace of Pride, and learned where his immense artistic talent fits within the God-given order.
This canto — one of most favorite of the entire Commedia — begins with the prideful’s highly catechetical version of the Our Father. I have misplaced my Mark Musa translation; tonight, we’ll use the Hollander version. It includes these lines, addressed in prayer to God:
‘May the peace of your kingdom come to us,
for we cannot attain it of ourselves
if it come not, for all our striving.
‘As your angels make sacrifice to you
of their free wills, singing hosanna,
so let men make an offering of theirs.
‘Give us this day the daily manna
without which he who labors to advance
goes backward through this bitter wilderness.
Let’s briefly unpack this. What do we learn here? That there is nothing we can do for ourselves without grace, the free gift of God. That our proper response to the free gift of grace is to offer our wills freely and joyfully to God in return, as do the angels. That like the Israelites transiting the desert in exodus from Egyptian slavery, only daily manna — an allegory of the Eucharist — can give us the food we need to sustain the path of repentance without falling back into our sinful ways.
The shades’ final petition is for the deliverance of the souls on earth from the Devil’s temptations. The shades say they don’t need them, as indeed they do not, as they are already safe from Hell. Notice, though, that just as the shades on the mountain, “purging away the darkness of the world,” ask for the prayers of the living, they offer their own prayers for the living. The poet closes this passage with an address to the reader, reminding him once again to help the poor souls advance through Purgatory with his prayers.
Last month, I wrote something on this blog about Pride and this canto. I would do well to quote it here:
I was talking to a college professor recently, and he said that he’s shocked and saddened by how many of his undergrads believe that their lives are going to be Great, but how utterly unrealistic their ideas about Greatness are — especially about their own capabilities. The professor said that these kids believe that the path to Greatness is clear and smooth, and that all they need to do is hold on for the thrilling ride ahead of them. The professor’s point was that our culture is doing grave harm to our children by the narrative we feed them — one that does not correspond to reality. Because of this, we have not given them the resilience they are going to need to endure when they encounter reality.
Everything reminds me of Dante these days. Yesterday, flying back from Texas, I re-read Canto XI of the Purgatorio, in which Dante meets those being purified of the sin of Pride. Oderisi, a famous artist, is one of them (the translation is Mark Musa’s):
Oh, empty glory of all human power!
How soon the green fades from the topmost bough,
unless the following season shows no growth!
Once Cimabue thought to hold the field
as painter; Giotto now is all the rage,
dimming the lustre of the other’s fame.
So, one Guido takes from the other one
poetic glory; and, already born,
perhaps, is he who’ll drive both from fame’s nest.
Your earthly fame is but a gust of wind
that blows about, shifting this way and that,
and as it changes quarter, changes name.
Were you to reach the ripe old age of death,
instead of dying prattling in your crib,
would you have more fame in a thousand years?
What are ten centuries to eternity?
Less than the blinking of an eye compared
to the turning of the slowest of the spheres.
Contrast this to the career advice Dante received earlier in Canto XV of the Inferno, from his old teacher Brunetto Latini. Brunetto knows that Dante is starting to become famous, and he encourages his star pupil to let belief in himself and his talents lead him to fame and fortune:
He said to me: “Follow your constellation
and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory…
Brunetto, of course, is in Hell. The reader observes that Brunetto, by making fame and personal glory his personal telos, has damned himself. In the Commedia, the stars symbolize God’s guiding presence. To speak of “your constellation” here is to encourage Dante to make a god of himself. In fact, Brunetto discloses that he sees in Dante’s potential for greatness a chance for his (Brunetto’s) fame to increase, as Dante’s former teacher. He masquerades as someone who is looking out for Dante’s good, but really he is thinking about himself. Among the damned, it is eternally about themselves.
The two Guidos, by the way, are Guido Guinizzelli, an Italian poet acclaimed as supreme by the public, until Guido Cavalcanti, a poet of the next generation, toppled him from his perch in the public’s estimation. Dante the poet places into Oderisi’s mouth the line, “he, perhaps, is born who will drive one and then the other from the nest” — a reference, many commenters say, to Dante’s not-so-humble view of his own talent. We know Dante suffers from Pride, because at the end of Oderisi’s tale, Dante says to him:
Your true words pierce my heart
with fit humility and ease a heavy swelling there.
Oderisi’s instruction about art and fame is meant to teach us to rightly order our talent and accomplishment in the eyes of heaven. Fame, or at least taking inordinate pride in our talent and deeds, is a phantom, and if we make its pursuit our god, as Brunetto did, we go off the right path, and may end up in Hell, or at least carrying a boulder on our backs in Purgatory.
What does God see when He looks at us and our stewardship of the gifts He has given us? Have we made good use of them? Have we used them to serve Him, and the Good, or have we used them to serve ourselves and our own egos? Or have we made our personal fame — to be the best artist, the greatest dealmaker, the top athlete, the most powerful politician — our goal? To put it another way, did we order our efforts, and put all our talents, to the service of the ultimate good, who is God, or did we arrange things to serve ourselves?
It’s harder than we think to know for sure. Everybody can look at a man like Donald Trump and know that there goes an avatar of Pride. But pride is insidious; when we look at a man like Trump, and think, “Thank you, Lord, that you haven’t made me like that short-fingered vulgarian,” are we not guilty of spiritual pride?
Or think of Mrs. Jellyby from Dickens’s Bleak House. She was so caught up in her work for the poor children in overseas lands that she neglected her own children. Her pride in her supposed charity deceived her, and caused her to deny her own little ones the charity she owed them. In a short essay reflecting on her example, the veteran peace activist Jim Forest — whose wife is reading Purgatorio along with us — writes:
While few in the peace movement so radically neglect those in their care, unfortunately I cannot think of Mrs. Jellyby merely as a gross caricature. When my wife and I talked about her recently, we could think of several people, of both sexes, resembling her in many details: people with a certain legitimate concerns and noble goals who engage themselves so fully that their fixation wrecks havoc in the lives of those around them, driving many people they intended to influence, even their own sons and daughters, in the opposite direction.
I recall one activist who wasn’t able to attend his daughter’s wedding because he felt obliged to take part in a peace demonstration that day. Another man, more gandhian than Gandhi, also springs to mind. He was left in charge of the Manhattan office of a group called the Committee for Nonviolent Action while the staff was away protesting nuclear weapons. In their absence he nearly starved the office cat to death because he was conscientiously opposed to the domestication of animals. Whatever food that highly domesticated cat found during those austere weeks, it was not from this pacifist’s ideology-governed hand.
I wonder if the Mrs. Jellybys of this world, dedicated in theory to compassion as the bearers of utopian visions, are not at a deeper level driven by rage with those around them, perhaps especially their own families? By taking up a virtuous cause, they can punish their spouses, children and relatives with a clear conscience. After all, they are doing something entirely noble, so much more important than caring for the people they live with or are related to. Their impatience and neglect or abandonment of others around them is a necessary, even God-endorsed price of serving a higher purpose.
It could afflict any of us, at any time. In fact, as I was writing this entry tonight, my two little ones went to bed, and called for me to come read to them from their nightly catechism. This afternoon I had a mono crash, and slept for hours, which made me late in writing today’s entry. I started to tell the kids that I wouldn’t be reading to them tonight, because I had work to finish. I owed it to my readers to file the daily Dante on time. This is important stuff; we’re talking about poetry, and God, and life! But then I thought: how prideful of me to think that my work is more important than reading to my children at bedtime. I repented, and went to their bedroom to read them their catechism.
If you read Brunetto Latini’s advice to Dante — “Follow your constellation, and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory… ” — it sounds like exactly the kind of thing everybody tells kids today. You are the captain of your soul; navigate by your own stars, and you will be successful. But it’s not true — and Brunetto is so blinded by his own egotism that he has not noticed that living by this lie has damned him. Dante the poet knows it’s not true either. He lived that way, and found early fame, glory, and power, but had everything taken from him in the civil war and political intrigue that sent him into exile. That terrible loss is what sent him on this journey of self-reflection, expressed in the Commedia, which he wrote in exile.
It cannot compare to Dante’s experience, but losing my sister to cancer provoked a reflection on my own sense of Pride, and where following my own constellation had led me. If you’ve read Little Way, you know that story; I won’t repeat it here. The thing is, I had not left my home and my Louisiana family selfishly. I had good reasons, and indeed I felt strongly — and still do — that I followed God’s will in doing so. Yet watching my sister, who did everything right, suffer and die as she did, made me grasp in a way I hadn’t done before how illusory our accomplishments are in the face of death. And I saw in the wake of her passing how much great good she had done for people in her own humble vocation of being a small-town schoolteacher — nobody special in the grand scheme of things, but in God’s view, maybe even a saint. My return home was a response to the revelation that week of her burial gave me about the state of my soul and what really mattered in life.
You know, if you read Little Way, that my homecoming did not turn out like I thought it would. My sister, it came out, had carried a profound grudge against me for most of her life, angry at me for leaving, and privately disdaining all the things I did and achieved while away. She never fully expressed this to me in life, though it would leak out on visits home, in spiteful barbs. But, as I learned from her oldest daughter, my niece, Ruthie spoke that way around her children, and so did my father. Hannah told me, in essence, that her mother had laid a foundation for her children not to trust or to like their uncle, who in his arrogance had turned his back on his home, because he wanted life in the city. Hannah said that she didn’t learn until she was older, and started spending more time with me, how wrong her mother had been — but her younger sisters haven’t had that experience, and so don’t know it. Hannah didn’t think they ever would allow themselves to do so.
Hannah, it turns out, was right. I thought of Ruthie reading this canto, when Dante meets the shade Omberto, working out his salvation on the terrace of Pride. He tells Dante:
‘The ancient blood and gallant deeds
done by my forebears raised such arrogance in me
that, forgetful of our common mother,
‘I held all men in such great scorn
it caused my death — how, all in Siena know,
and every child in Campagnatico.
‘I am Omberto. Pride has undone
not only me but all my kinsmen,
whom it has dragged into calamity.
Omberto Aldobrandesco was a son of a prominent Ghibelline family. He was murdered outside his castle in 1259 by his political enemies. Here in Purgatory, he blames his family’s arrogance — that is, pride in their social status — for the civil conflict that resulted in his death, and the subsequent undoing of his family. My gentle sister was a very far cry from a Tuscan warlord, but as Dante shows us by making his example of a prideful artist the relatively little-known Oderisi, all men are subject to Pride. And this, I think, was what governed my sister’s relationship to her brother. She took my having left our home for the world outside as a rejection of all that she valued most — especially devotion to family. It wounded her pride, and such was her pride on this point that she refused to talk about it with me, refused to make real peace — versus the facsimile of peace — before she died. She could not consider that she might have been wrong about me; her pride would not allow it. This is a tragic flaw within her, because she was so humble in every other way. She really was. But you know, the tragedy is not only her own. Because she took so much pride in our family, and could not humble herself to offer forgiveness or even to talk about it when I confessed my sins against her to her, on her front porch days after her 2010 diagnosis, and asked her forgiveness, she laid the groundwork for the family’s potential undoing.
Pride is a deadly sin, and not just for the prideful. And yet, the struggles I faced with this legacy since I’ve been back forced me to my knees in prayer like I’ve never done before. It forced me to humble myself as well to see a therapist. It compelled me as well to read Dante, though that happened by a happy accident. The result of it all was a profound healing of lifelong wounds within myself, having to do in part with my own disordered pride, in ways I had hidden from myself for decades. I never would have confronted this dragon had I not been surprised and humiliated at the doorstep of my own ancestral home, by an entrenched family legacy of pride. It was a severe mercy, but a mercy it was.
The final of the three (see?) penitents Dante confronts on this terrace is Provenzan Salvani, a powerful Sienese politician who was late to repent, but who finds himself on the terrace of Pride all the same, suffering for his pride over his worldly power. Dante asks Oderisi why Provenzan doesn’t remain in Antepurgatory with the other late repentant, waiting his turn to climb the mountain. Oderisi answers:
“While he was living in his greatest glory,” he said,
“he willingly sat in the marketplace
of Siena, putting aside all shame,
“and there, to redeem his friend
from the torment he endured in Charles’s prison,
he made himself tremble in every vein.”
What he means here is that proud Provenzan humbled himself before his city by begging in the town square for alms, so he could ransom a friend captured in battle by Charles of Anjou, and slated for execution if the money wasn’t paid. Imagine a confident and prideful man like Mayor Giuliani, on his knees in Times Square, begging passersby for money to buy a friend’s freedom. Provenzan was a proud man, but that one gesture of humility out of love for another won him favor with the Lord, and allowed him to advance up the mountain faster than he otherwise would have done. There is no limit to how much spiritual good humility will do us.
The final lines of the canto are an allusive prophecy Oderisi makes about Dante’s future humility, when the circumstances of his political fall reduces him to beggary. Remember, the Commedia happens over Easter weekend of the year 1300, before Dante’s exile and ruin, though Dante began writing the poem around 1307, from exile. The prophecy is Dante the poet’s way of saying to us readers that his own humiliation compelled his repentance. From that repentance, we have the Commedia. Because this Christian poet wrote the Commedia to redeem his suffering, he spoke to me in my own confusion and suffering across an ocean of time and space, and brought me hope and relief. We are all connected, we all have a common mother, though we often forget that. Humility is a healing balm, and not just for the humbled.