Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 15 | Summary

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Summary

As Dante looks out at the afternoon sun, he is struck by "splendor far more bright than first there'd been." This, Virgil points out, is an angelic messenger, who has come to congratulate Dante on completing his tour of the second terrace of Purgatory. Voices sing "Beati misericordes" ("Blessed are the merciful") as Dante ascends to the next terrace. One of the scars on his forehead disappears—two down, five to go, as Virgil later notes.

Reflecting on their experiences in the terrace of the envious, Virgil describes the difference between the poverty of humans and the infinite generosity of God. The cause of envy, he intimates, is the belief that if one person has more, all the others must have less, whereas in Heaven, one person's happiness is cause for everyone's rejoicing. Dante is puzzled by this notion, but Virgil asks him to wait until he encounters Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise.

Soon after arriving on the next terrace, where anger is punished, Dante has a vision in which he experiences three classic episodes where kindness triumphed over anger. When he recovers consciousness, he finds he has been sleepwalking—or so it has appeared to Virgil. The ancient poet urges Dante to quicken his pace as a dark smoke rises up and enfolds the pair of travelers.

Analysis

The most striking part of this canto, but also the most obscure for a modern reader, is the series of three visions which Dante beholds after he arrives on the terrace of the angry. First is a paraphrase from the Gospel of Luke Chapter 2, where Mary and Joseph discover Jesus conferring with the elders in the temple. Mary gently rebukes the adolescent Jesus for wandering away from his parents. Next is a scene in which the Athenian ruler Pisistratus refuses to punish a young man who has rashly kissed his daughter in public. Finally, Dante witnesses the stoning of St. Stephen, known as the Protomartyr because he was the first to die for the Christian faith.

In the first two scenes especially, the poet's views on anger are set forth clearly. The sin of wrath, for Dante, does not consist in merely getting angry, but in letting one's anger cloud one's judgment and override one's reason. (Hence the smoke, which symbolizes spiritual blindness.) Mary is evidently upset by her son's decision to run off, but she musters the self-control to speak to Jesus sweetly and hear his side of the story. Likewise, Pisistratus probably shares his wife's displeasure at the rash young suitor's actions. He could have the young man executed if he wanted to, but he overcomes his anger and vindictiveness long enough to show mercy instead. The moral problem, as Dante will repeatedly point out in later cantos, is not that people have strong feelings, but that they give those feelings free rein. Conversely, saintliness in Dante's worldview does not equate to an absence or general lack of emotion, but it does require a mastery over emotional impulses as part of the need for control they had seen missing all throughout Inferno.
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