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Brian Williams in Purgatory

What would Dante say to us gawkers watching the travails of the NBC News anchor?

Saw this tweet over the weekend:

True. Mind you, I’m glad that Brian Williams’s deception came out, because this kind of thing is serious in a journalist, particularly one of his standing and responsibility. Still, it’s discomfiting to watch him being torn apart publicly and gleefully. I’m sure I feel that way because he has always seemed like a nice guy, not an arrogant jerk who deserves his comeuppance.

The tweet got me to thinking about Dante’s sojourn in Purgatory, on the Terrace of Envy (where the repentant Envious are purged of their tendency to envy others). In Purgatorio, everyone suffering on the holy mountain is saved from Hell by the mercy of God and their own humble willingness to ask for it. But because their lives were far from saintly, they must first endure a period of enforced ascesis on the mountain, to purify their souls and make them strong enough to bear the glory of God in Paradise.

As in Dante’s Inferno, the punishment — or, to be theologically precise about Purgatorio, the ascetic exercise — fits the crime, or fault. The pilgrim Dante and his guide Virgil come upon the Envious, perched on a narrow ledge, clinging to each other against the mountain’s sheer face. Before you read this, understand that in medieval thought, Envy was not so much wanting what others have, but wanting them not to have it — and, by implication, delighting in their being deprived of it:

I do not think there is a man on earth

with heart so hard that it would not be pierced

with pity if he was what I saw then:


when I had come up close enough to see

the nature of the penance they endured,

the sight squeezed bitter tears out of my eyes.


Their cloaks seemed to be made of coarsest cloth,

and one’s head on another’s shoulder lay,

the inner cliff supporting all of them.


They brought to mind blind beggars at church doors

during Indulgences begging their bread:

the one leaning his head upon the next


to stir up pity in their fellow man,

not only by the sound of begging cries,

but by the looks that plead no less than words.


Just as the blind cannot enjoy the sun,

so, to the shades I saw before me here,

the light of Heaven denies its radiance:


the eyelids of these shades had been sewn shut

with iron threads, like falcons newly caught,

whose eyes we stitch to tame their restlessness.


[Purgatorio XIII: 52-72; trans. Mark Musa]

The shades cheeks “were wet with tears that seeped out through the horrid seams.” One of them is Sapià, of Siena:

“Though named Sapià, sapient I was not:

I always reveled in another’s grief,

enjoying that more than my own welfare.”

[lines 109-111]

The Envious could not stand to look on the good fortune of others without feeling Envy, so their eyes have been sewn shut, preventing them from seeing at all. Blind,  they are condemned to sit and wait on the side of a mountain; the only way they can save themselves from falling off is to cling to each other — reversing the alienation from others that their Envy effected in the mortal life. They depend on the kindness of strangers to survive, in the same way that beggars outside the church doors do.

This scene on the side of the holy mountain is a powerful symbol of what Envy (in the sense of taking pleasure in the travails of others) does to our souls, and to society. It is certainly the case that Brian Williams must be held accountable for what he did, but there is grave danger to ourselves in taking unseemly pleasure in his downfall.

Given my own weakness of character, this is a lesson that I have to learn over and over and over. It’s easier to accept when the suffering person is a nice guy, but not so easy when the suffering person is unlikable.

By the way, I expect to be able to release this week the publication date of my book How Dante Can Save Your Life. Stay tuned.