Purgatorio, Canto XIV
I began this post in the Grand Rapids airport (see above), wrote a long, involved entry on the flight, and then inadvertently lost it on the flight to Dallas. I don’t have the heart to rewrite it from scratch, or the time to do so before the Baton Rouge flight, so I’ll try to sum up.
This canto is about how private sin corrupts public morals. In it, Dante — who, by the way, gives evidence that he has learned his lesson about the dangers of Pride — meets two shades from Italy. When he tells them that he comes from the region of the river Arno, one of the shades, his eyes temporarily blinded by the wires that bind them, Guido del Duca, lets loose a prophetic denunciation of the people who dwell there today:
“all flee from virtue as if it were a snake,
an enemy to all, whether some curse
is on the place or evil habits goad them on,
“and those who live in that unhappy valley
are so altered in their nature it is as though
Circe were grazing them at pasture.”
Guido describes the towns and cities of the Arno valley as a moral wasteland, a place filled with violence and barbarism and corruption. People there are so degenerate that virtue itself appears as vice, and the people numbly accept their fate, as if wickedly enchanted. This apparent curse is a generational one; Guido remembers the noble men of the past, and contrasts them with their vicious descendants of the current day. The land is poisoned, morally speaking, such that life struggles to take hold. He indicates that at some point, family lines became polluted by vice; it’s so bad that for some, even the gift of new life is an affliction. It is better for some not to have children, Guido says.
This is because of Envy, according to him. People in the Arno valley have become gradually unable to live with each other, because they are filled with fratricidal envy. Over time, the progression of this private vice has had grave public consequences. The habitus of those people has become so corrupted that not only can they not see virtue, but virtue also appears as vice. It’s moral madness; the conditions necessary for human flourishing are extinguished. Dorothy Day, I think, once defined the good society as a society that makes it easy for people to do good. In that sense, an evil society is one that makes it easy for people to do evil. This is the world Dante, in the mouth of Guido, denounces with the ferocity of a Hebrew prophet.
I read this canto in light of several conversations I had over the past two days in Michigan, mostly among college professors. At some point, I mentioned to my new friends how my sister Ruthie taught me a lesson back in 1993, when I was helping her grade papers, and spoke scornfully of a middle-school student of hers who had gotten answers to basic questions wrong. “Let me tell you something about that boy,” she said, then explained how the kid’s mother had dropped him off at her parents’ house on Christmas Eve two years earlier, and disappeared. The kid had been an emotional wreck since then. Ruthie went through the papers from her class, telling me the personal stories of these, her students. Many of them came from shattered and dysfunctional families.
“It’s not like when you and I were in school,” Ruthie said to me, explaining that the family order that we took for granted has disappeared for many children. Today, she continued, teachers have to try to be parents and social workers, not just educators.
I heard similar things from college professors this week. I had been asking about what kind of struggles the undergraduates at this Christian university face — this, so I could make sure I tailored my talk about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming to their needs. Over and over, I heard teachers telling me that the greatest struggle their students face is not grim employment prospects, but rather dealing with the fallout from either their own broken families, or grappling with making sense of a world in which the moral and social structures that in the recent past had provided a habitus conducive to human flourishing had been deconstructed.
“I wonder how these kids are going to form stable marriages, and have families,” one concerned teacher said in my presence. “So many of them have never seen that, and don’t know what it means, and how to do it. They may not even think it’s possible.”
A culture that has lost its memory and a connection to the values that gave it shape, meaning, identity, and continuity, may be said to be in a Dark Age. This is what I kept thinking about as I listened and learned. The thing is, not once — not once — did I hear a single teacher speak ill of their students. It’s not that these kids are bad; it is, rather, that they are good, but so very, very vulnerable, through no fault of their own, at least not at this point in their lives. What I heard was the same kind of paternal and maternal concern for their welfare that I heard 20 years ago from my teacher sister: a love for these kids who were thrown into the world by adults — some related to them, some whose names they will only read about in the newspapers — without the things they need to thrive. Even many kids who come from Christian homes lack the formation in faith and morals to confront the tyranny of radical individualism and the dictatorship of relativism. They are, to a dismaying degree, captive to their own feelings and impulses. What I heard and saw in these professors from area colleges is the anxiety of caring adults who know the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional needs of these young men and women are so great, and their time with these students so short.
As I write now, reflecting on all this, the sense I have is that these teachers are seeing the collateral damage on a generation of young Americans who have lived through a catastrophe, one that has been obscured in part by the nation’s material wealth, and in part by a cultural ideology of freedom defined as satisfying the autonomous Self and its desires. We Americans have lived with this ideology for so long that it has become part of the air we breathe. It is as if a curse is upon this place.
Another teacher and I talked about how so many people today — not just students — who struggle the most with circumstances have no faith in their own moral agency. We spoke of people we know who fall from one crisis into the next, and have no apparent understanding of how they created their own mess through their own free but foolish choices. They behave as if these things were simply a matter of fate, that they had no way to prevent them, or to turn their lives around. They have little sense that things could be otherwise for them if they took personal responsibility. They behave, frankly, like bewitched cattle.
In Canto XIV, anguished Guido wonders how it will be possible for the people of the Arno region to produce virtuous men like past nobles whom he names. “O people of Romagna, how you’ve turned to bastards!” he says, the implication of which is that vice has so corrupted society that it is incapable of producing the kind of people who can govern themselves and the community capably, so that they create conditions favorable for the flourishing of future generations. Guido again:
Bagnacavallo does well to breed no more,
Castrocaro poorly and Conio worse,
obstinate in breeding such degenerate counts.
Fathers hand on misery to sons, who hand on worse to their own offspring, such that even the gift of life itself becomes a curse. This is how a community, this is how a habitus, which ought to be a source of human flourishing, becomes corrupted. This is the unhappy valley we have made for ourselves and our children. At a group dinner the other night, we talked of Ross Douthat’s observation that the libertarian moral values and ideals endorsed by many of the wealthy in America, who have the social capital and self-discipline to handle their freedom relatively well, have been absolutely devastating for the working and lower classes. These professors are seeing it in some of their students, and wonder, as I do too, how we can protect the tradition of the virtues, and the capacity for moral understanding among our children, in this unhappy valley in which we all live today. This is what I mean by the Benedict Option. Working this out is, I think, the greatest challenge facing cultural conservatives today. One Christian professor with whom I spoke agreed with me that even many well-meaning Christian parents haven’t the faintest idea about the powerful cultural forces — in morals, in technology, in the market, in religion — lined up against them, their families, and their children. And so they do nothing.
This is how a habitus declines toward a culture of death. This is how our families fall apart over the generations. It doesn’t begin with Envy alone, but it does begin with sins — Lust, Pride, Wrath, and so on — that people do not confront when they emerge within their own hearts, and that therefore corrupt their own moral vision. If enough people do this, private sin has public consequences. People become blinded by their appetites, such that they can no longer observe their own condition, and even see virtue as their enemy.
When we sin today, when we accommodate it in our own hearts, or in our own communities, we risk afflicting our own descendants with the consequences of our vice, down the generations. What a terrible responsibility! But it is an unavoidable one. If you read Inferno, you know that Hell is full of individuals, all of them desperately and damnably alone, blaming others for their damnation. Purgatory, by contrast, is a place where people re-learn the habits of social solidarity, by purging themselves of the sinful inclinations that caused them to help tear the bonds of family and community asunder. It’s not that they learn that being thoughtful about others is a nice idea; it’s that they see that we are all unavoidably connected, and implicated in each other’s fates — unto eternity. Just as the flap of a butterfly’s wing in your backyard may result in a hurricane in China, so too could sins you and I think of as relatively minor today have devastating consequences for our descendants, and/or for others who share our community, our habitus.
Think of it this way. If in pursuit of greedy ends, you, an industrialist, poison the soil of the land in your region, with no heed to the future, and if your employees go along with it because of a lack of foresight, or whatever reason, in the generations to come we may see birth defects, or ruined groundwater, or other devastating outcomes. It’s the same with the moral ecology.
Another example: Consider what the sin of slavery did to the black community in America, and, to be honest, to whites as well — the effects of which we still live with today, 150 years after slavery ended. It’s not Jefferson Davis’s fault that the black family has collapsed, and the terrible repercussions of that in terms of crime, violence, and generational poverty. But he’s not without blame. (Nor, it should be said, will it do for black people living in misery in inner cities to blame everything bad that’s happened on them on somebody else; that is the strategy of the damned.)
The lesson you learn over and over in the Commedia is that we are all responsible for ourselves, but because we are all connected, we are also all responsible, in some sense, for each other. And that responsibility extends across time, to generations yet to come. Right stewardship requires moral vigilance, and constant repentance.
This is not just about other people. It’s about me. When Lent started, I heard myself in a conversation with a friend complaining about how poorly instructed young people are today in the basics of the faith. It struck me that as much as I talk about that, and as aware as I am of the problem, I do a pretty poor job on that front of living up to my responsibility as the spiritual head of my family. The sin of Sloth! I’ve started doing nightly sessions with my kids. I don’t want to be the father who watches his children as teenagers or young adults putting the faith aside because they didn’t know anything about it. Similarly, I can’t be the kind of Christian father who, by my actions, or lack of action, telegraphs to my kids that Christianity is a veneer for hypocrisy. We cannot guarantee that our children will hold on to the faith, but we can almost certainly better the odds. If you want your grandchildren to be practicing Christians (or Jews, or Muslims, etc.), then there’s something you can do about it in your own family. It starts inside your own heart.
Anyway, as I said above, our present condition doesn’t spring solely from Envy, as it does in this canto, but insofar as Envy plays a role, Guido, in his penitential lamentation, gives a hint:
O race of men, why do you set your hearts
on things that of necessity cannot be shared?
Virgil will explain the meaning of this in the next canto. We leave this canto with Virgil’s gorgeous metaphor, in which he sums up the tragedy of humankind, so given over to Envy, to looking upon the state of others with eyes of vice, that the falcon cannot see the divine falconer:
“But you mortals take the bait, so that the hook
of your old adversary draws you to him,
and then of little use is curb or lure.
The heavens call to you and wheel about you,
revealing their eternal splendors,
but your eyes are fixed upon the earth.
For that, He, seeing all, does smite you.”
As we soar overhead in our lives, we keep our eyes on the things of this world, not the lure and the curb of Heaven (“lure” = the splendor of virtue and the life possible for one who lives by it; “curb” = the wretchedness of vice, and the destruction that will come to one who chooses it). The divine Falconer calls to us, in our God-given freedom, to look up to him, to the stars above — in the Commedia, the stars are a symbol of God’s guiding presence — and rise upward. Instead, we have our eyes trained on the ground, where our “old adversary,” the Devil, appeals to our instincts to set the hook in us — through which he drags us down into his trap. Notice the contrast between the way the Devil draws us — by a hook that he uses to drag us down — and the way God draws us: not by hooking us and dragging us to Himself, but by urging us to choose the upward path of our own free will. God “smites” humans, not for the fun of it, but by giving them what they choose.
One last thing: Don’t we expect a falcon to keep his eyes on the ground, hunting for food? Yes — but this, I think, is the point of Dante using this image in Purgatory. The experience of Purgatory is meant to be ascetic; that is, the penitent are supposed to be laboring to overcome their mortal hunger — their hunger for esteem, for power, for food, for sex, and so forth — so that they can be filled with the Holy Spirit and be perfected. It is not that having a good name, or being accomplished, or achieving the responsibilities of power, or eating or having sex — it is not that any of these are bad in themselves. Rather, it is that loving them in a disordered way bring us to ruin, both individually and collectively. Only by keeping our eyes on the stars can we partake of the gifts God has given us in the right manner, and share those gifts in common, for the good of all. Man does not live by bread alone, we have been reliably informed.