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Dante’s Purgatorio: The Climb Begins

I wish a blessed Ash Wednesday to my Western Christian readers. Welcome to Lent. We will be spending the next 33 days working our way through the Purgatorio, the second book in Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. We will take one canto per day. Unless otherwise specified, I will be using Mark Musa’s translation (though the […]


I wish a blessed Ash Wednesday to my Western Christian readers. Welcome to Lent. We will be spending the next 33 days working our way through the Purgatorio, the second book in Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. We will take one canto per day. Unless otherwise specified, I will be using Mark Musa’s translation (though the photo above is of my copy of the Hollander translation). I encourage you readers to comment, but I discourage those who are not reading along from engaging in the discussion — this, simply because I don’t want the discussion to go off-track. (By the way, in these first days, I will be repeating some detailed commentary I made on an earlier post.)

I warn you in advance that my commentary will not be particularly well organized, but rather digressive. Think of this as us sitting around a table in a coffeeshop, just talking.

We start our journey with Dante and Virgil, having just exited Hell, making their way toward the mountain of Purgatory. The mountain is an island; the Pilgrim and his Master approach on a “little bark.” The boat-on-the-sea imagery is important here. It recalls Canto XXVI of the Inferno, when Ulysses and his men tried to row their way to the mountain, but were drowned in a tempest. Why did Dante and Virgil make it, but Ulysses fail? Pride. Ulysses wanted to approach the mountain to see what he could see, out of boundless curiosity. He tried to storm Purgatory — but as we shall see, no one can approach the mountain unless they are in a state of humility.

For the pilgrim making his way through the Divine Comedy, the question of how to see the past becomes a striking theme early in the Purgatorio. Dante, the poet, shows us that there is, and must be, a definite break with the past in the new life in Purgatory. What was done in your past must stay there; repentance requires the purification of memory. The penitent on the mountain of Purgatory have the power to look back, but they are gravely warned that they must not, or the way forward will be closed to them.

Consider the first person they meet in Purgatory: Cato the Younger. Virgil asks his favor by dropping the name of his (Cato’s) wife, who dwells with Virgil in Limbo. Cato replies that there was nothing he wouldn’t have done for his wife in their mortal lives, but here in the afterlife, she is cut off from him, and cannot have any effect on him.

They arrive on Purgatory’s shore — Ante-Purgatory, this region is called — and Dante is comforted to see four stars in the heavens above. These are an allegory of the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.

An old man, the guardian of the mountain, wants to know who they are and where they come from. Once placed in Hell, therefore signifying the death of the soul (because it permanently loses contact with God), no one escapes. Virgil tells him who they are and what their mission is. This old man is Cato the Younger, a pagan Roman and statesman who lived before Christ.

Wait — what is a virtuous pagan doing in Purgatory? In Inferno, we saw that God prepared a pleasant place in Hell for virtuous pagans. They are not punished there as others in Hell are; the only thing they are deprived of is eternal bliss in the presence of God. But here we have Cato the Younger, a noble Roman Republican, guarding the entrance to Purgatory. How does that work? Moreover, Cato the Younger (his grandfather was Cato the Elder) committed suicide. There is a place in Inferno for suicides; how can one find himself outside of Hell, stationed here at the base of Mount Purgatory, overseeing the arrival of newcomers?

This is an important clue to Dante’s spiritual vision. Cato the Younger was known as a brave and principled statesman, one who refused to participate in the rampant corruption of the dying Republican order. He stood firm for what was right — even though it led him to fight Julius Caesar’s ultimately successful attempt to overthrown the Republic and proclaim himself dictator. Seeing himself defeated, rather than live to collaborate in any way with Caesar, Cato the Younger chose death by his own hand.

This is interesting in part because we have just come from the final canto in Inferno, which shows Lucifer gnawing on the bodies of the three men Dante considered history’s greatest traitors: Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus Christ, and the two chief betrayers of Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus. Wait — what could Dante the poet mean by that? He has Caesar’s betrayers in the deepest pit of Hell, but has a man who killed himself rather than collaborate with Caesar’s accession to power escaping Hell, and dwelling permanently (it appears) at the base of Mount Purgatory. Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

Yes, apparently — but only apparently. For one, Dante’s spiritual vision was also a political one — and he saw Rome as part of the divine plan for governing the City of Man. Cato the Younger, in this sense, was a martyr; as Dante saw it, though he lived before Christ, he died for the sake of God’s plan. Secondly, Dante the poet demonizes Cassius and Brutus as “treacherous to their masters,” as was Judas. In 14th century Italy, the greatest political problem was that there was no stable government, no good order. Dante’s beloved Florence had nearly destroyed itself from factionalism — from everyone pursuing their private interests instead of the common good. Anarchy is worse even than bad government. Dante the poet longed for a monarch to unify Italy and pacify it.

In the final days of the Roman Republic, Cato the Younger had fought for truth and justice, and lived with utmost integrity, despite the rot all around him. He served the Republic. It’s important to remember that Julius Caesar, his great enemy, was not the rightful ruler of Rome when Cato stood against him, but rather an opportunist who took advantage of the weakness and disorder among the Republic’s leaders. Years later, when Cassius and Brutus betrayed Julius Caesar unto death, they rebelled against the man who was their Master. Right or wrong, by then, a new constitutional order had been established, and Cassius and Brutus owed Caesar their allegiance.

Dante’s placing Cato the Younger here and not in Hell seems to indicate the complexity of the poet’s moral vision. Julius Caesar was the kind of figure for which Dante the poet longed: a strong monarch who would put down factionalism and restore order, which is a prerequisite for genuine freedom (remember, the Commedia is in part a poem about the transition from slavery to liberty). He hails Cato, however, as a virtuous man — one of the best pagan statesmen who ever lived — who fought the good fight for liberty, and died as liberty’s martyr. If I’m reading Dante correctly, Cato is a tragic figure — but God, in His mercy and justice, honored Cato’s integrity by sparing him Hell. Cato stood against Caesar not because he was defending his private interests, but because he was standing for righteousness, and defending his doomed Master, the Republic, for pure and noble reasons. That is worth honoring, in Dante.

Here is the moment when Dante first sees Cato, “an ancient man, alone, whose face commanded all the reverence that any son could offer to his sire.” More:

The rays of light from those four sacred stars

struck with such radiance upon his face,

it was as if the sun were shining there.

Here is our key clue. In the Commedia, the Sun is a symbol of God. Cato, as a pagan, could not look upon the light of God more directly. But in his devotion to supreme virtue, as he understood it, a dimmer version of the light of God is reflected on and in Cato’s countenance. From a Christian point of view, Cato did not know God — again, he died before Christ’s advent — but he went as far as a statesman could in standing for Godly virtue, even giving his life rather than consent to make peace with what he regarded as evil, and to thereby betray his Master, the Republic. In other words, Cato was not holy, but he was just — and as such, has been granted a reprieve by God.

In the Commedia, the laws of the Cosmos are pretty strict. Nobody is going to be sprung from Hell; their fate is decided. Is there anything else that made Cato the Younger special? Yes, in fact: the way he treated Marcia, his second wife. In an extraordinary arrangement, Cato agreed to divorce her to let her marry his friend Hortensius, whose wife had died without bearing him an heir. Later, after Hortensius died, Marcia asked Cato to take her back, so that she could die as the wife of Cato. He accepted her — a symbol of his merciful nature. (We need not dwell on the cruelty, to our eyes, of his treating her like property in the first place; this was how it was in Ancient Rome.) This is not explicit in Dante, but it could be that Cato’s showing Marcia mercy in that way prefigures the mercy of God, in taking us back and making us his own, even when we have strayed. Any penitent who has made it to the base of Mount Purgatory has arrived there solely by the mercy of God, and their own willingness to appeal to it. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. The Dante translator John Ciardi observes, of Cato:

He has accomplished everything but the purifying total surrender of his will to God. As such he serves as an apt transitional symbol, being the highest run on the ladder of natural virtue, but the lowest on the ladder of those godly virtues to which Purgatory is the ascent. Above all, the fact that he took Marcia back to his love makes him an especially apt symbol of God’s forgiveness in allowing the strayed soul to return to him through Purgatory.

And yet, when Virgil brings up Marcia, who dwells with him in Limbo, in his appeal to Cato’s sympathy, Cato cuts him off. He says there was nothing he wouldn’t have done for Marcia in their mortal life, but in the afterlife, they live under a different constitution, so to speak. Cato’s rightful Master is God — and if God has decreed that there is a final and unbridgeable separation between the Damned and those who are saved, or are to be saved, then that cannot be questioned. The allegorical point here is that as much as we loved the Damned in life, we may not do that here. God is the lawgiver, which includes the new law of Mercy. If He has decided that Marcia does not merit eternal life in Paradise, or even Ante-Purgatory, then it is a form of disordered Love to doubt Him, or to allow ourselves to doubt His love by trying to subject it to human categories. In Paradiso, St. Thomas Aquinas instructs Dante not to be quick to judge others in life, because only God knows the full truth about them. The situation between Cato and Marcia is one aspect of this. God has judged her, and denied her Paradise (though Limbo is a pretty great place).

Remember, we are now in a realm outside of Time, in the realm of infinity, versus the finitude of temporality. To think that we know better than God, and that we love more purely than God, is not only impious, it denies reality. This is a mystery beyond comprehension by pure reason; the pilgrim has to keep learning over the course of his journey that it is a fundamental error to think that everything can be explained and fully understood. At the end of Canto I, the pilgrim must pluck a reed from the base of the mountain, and wear it as he proceeds upward. This is a sign of his Humility, without which he cannot hope to rid himself of the tendency to sin, and the blindness that is its root.

One more aspect of this canto. Virgil says to Cato, of the Pilgrim:

May it please you to welcome him — he goes

in search of freedom, and how dear that is,

the man who gives up life for it well knows.

This is something to keep firmly in mind throughout this journey: that the entire Commedia is a narrative of the journey from slavery to freedom, from death to life.

Notice too, towards the end, how Cato tells Virgil to pluck a reed from the base of the mountain’s shore, and wear it around his waist:

No other plant producing leaves or stalk

that hardens could survive in such a place —

only the reeds that yield to buffeting.

This is a fascinating passage, knowing that the reed represents Humility. Consider Matthew 12:20, which is a quotation of the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 42:3:

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.

One with a proud, rigid character would break and die. Only the reed, which has the flexibility to withstand buffeting, can survive the buffeting of justice. Similarly, only one whose character has taken on the garment of Humility can endure the purification of the mountain, and obtain the just victory. We will not be broken or snuffed out by Christ if we show humility. What an apt message with which to begin our Lenten journey!

I leave you today with this deeply moving passage from the end of Canto I. If you have seen the movie Gravity, I want you to consider the final scene as you read this passage from Purgatorio, in which the Pilgrim and the Master are on the beach at the mountain’s base:

We made our way along that lonely plain

like men who seek the right path they have lost,

counting each step a loss till it is found.


When we had reached a place where the cool shade

allowed the dew to linger on the slope,

resisting a while longer the sun’s rays,


my master placed both of his widespread hands

gently upon the tender grass, and I,

who understood what his intention was,


offered my tear-stained face to him, and he

made my face clean, restoring its true color,

once buried underneath the dirt of Hell.

It’s an allegorical baptism, marking the Pilgrim’s rescue from Hell and symbolic resurrection from the land of the Dead. Virgil then plucks the reed of Humility from the shore, girds Dante with it, and off they go.



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