“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started out with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet which fails so regularly, as love.“ - Erich Fromm
As we already know, “Commedia” recounts the spiritual journey of Dante Alighieri’s alter ego, a pilgrim, through three regions of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His goal was to reach spiritual maturity and a fuller understanding of God’s love.
In his central canticle, Purgatorio, Dante shows what happens when one finally turns away from the different vices. We know that Dante’s “Purgatory” was his own construction; it was not as his own church depicted it. Official doctrine, as it pertained to repentant sinners, provided for a realm of fiery torment, closer in most respects to his Inferno than to his Purgatorio.
On Dante’s terraced mountain, each level was designed to purge a specific mortal (remade venial by repentance) sin. The purging was done sin by sin, to cleanse the soul of all its various vices, thereby freeing it to advance.
Love is central to the entire process.
Love is the ONLY salvation: saving Grace.
Man embraces Love, but often perverts it, misuses it, misunderstands it.
Here on the fourth terrace of Purgatory, that of “Slothful Love,” we discover a rather strange twist to the apparent scheme of things.
“The soul, being created prone to Love,
is drawn at once to all that pleases it,
as soon as pleasure summons it to move.
From that which really is, your apprehension
extracts a form which unfolds within you;
that form thereby attracts the mind’s attention,
Then if the mind, so drawn, is drawn to it,
that summoning force is Love; and thus within you,
through pleasure, a new natural bond is knit”
– Purg, XVIII Ciardi, 16-270
Love: embraced, refused, abused, twisted, ignored
is the driving force of the entire “Commedia,” Love, acting through “Free Will,” is the source both, of all human good, and all human evil (Purg XVII: 103-105).
It is the prime mover throughout the canticle, and especially within the eighteenth canto.
As the canto opens, we are on the fourth terrace.
It is a terrace that we definitely would recognize in our present, post-modern, jaded age. This is the “Terrace of the Repentant Indolent.”
The sin here is SLOTH, which Dante defines as a total lack of sufficient love.
Venial sloth is not simple “laziness,” but rather something very close to an omnipresent “sin” of our own day, BOREDOM.!!!
Even those who love only themselves, at least
love something. But, the slothful do not even
love themselves. They readily sink into self-
destructive inactivity. Nor do these laggards
love anything or anyone outside themselves.
The tepid are bored with the world.
To Dante, Sloth is the counterpoint vice to the virtue of decisiveness and zeal, and especially zealous love.
To turn toward a thing, to move toward it, to desire it, is Love
(Purg. XVIII: 26),
while to simply fail to try to do anything is Sloth.
The Slothful Souls run about the mountain senselessly, reciting tales of success (Mary; Caesar) and failures (including the Israelites in the desert and Aeneas’ followers in Sicily) in the past. Where previously, on the lower terraces, we had seen distorted love, love of the wrong object, in this case the very presence of Love is simply too weak.
We know by now that, for Dante, one’s relationship to Love is the source of all good and evil. He views each of the seven (deadly and venial) sins is a result of some problem with Love.
We should note his list of seven virtues varies from other traditional lists:
He combines the four cardinal virtues of the classical pagan world — Wisdom, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, with the three New Testament virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. He holds that Christians overcome their tendency toward each of these sins by learning to ‘love correctly.’
One of the problems in any translation is achieving precise meaning. A major problem for an English translation is that the word love can refer to such a wide variety of feelings, states and attitudes. It can run the gamut from passionate desire, to intimacy, to romantic love, to erotic love, to familial love, to the platonic love of friendship, to devotional religious love.
To Dante, “God is love” (e.g. Agape, as found in the canonical gospels), a concept central to many western religions. Christian Love is, in fact, one aspect of, and conduit to, God Himself. But, further, Dante constantly uses the word Amore (Romantic Love) and his beloved Beatrice, as representatives of “The Divine.” He seems to meld the concepts. His “Love” is similar to that of his beloved Provencal troubadours, and sometimes still is found in Western culture of the present day.
I venture so far as to wonder whether or not Dante would have a problem with Paul Stokey’s “The Wedding Song:”
He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts.
Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part.
The union of your spirits here has caused Him to remain
for whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name
there is love. Oh, there is love.
* * * * * * * * *
“There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail.”
– Erich Fromm
– Erich Fromm
On the Third Terrace, Dante learned that man was born with both knowledge of good and evil, and a “free wanting” (Purg. XVI: 76).
Therein lies both the road to damnation and salvation.
If Earth’s evils had their source in Heaven, then:
“Free Will would be
destroyed, and there would be no justice
in giving bliss for virtue, pain for evil”
– (Purg XVI: 70-72)
Because, “Love, acting through free will, is the source both of all human good and all human evil . (Purg XVII: 103-105).
The cause of evil on Earth, therefore, comes not from Heaven, but from man. The very concept of “Free Will,” the ability to choose to sin or not to sin, was central to medieval Catholicism.
Virtue becomes a matter of self-control.
Love takes hostages
And gives them pain
Gives someone the power
To hurt you again and again
Oh, but they don’t care
“Love is Hard,”
– James Morrison