Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 17 | Summary

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Summary

The setting sun "feebly" shines through the haze; by the time Dante emerges from the smoke, it has already set. Dante now has a vision in which he beholds three stories of excess anger. The first, the story of Philomel, comes from Greek myth: an Athenian princess is raped and mutilated by her lustful brother-in-law, and her sister (his wife) butchers her own child as a result. The second scene comes from the biblical Book of Esther, in which the corrupt vizier Haman is executed for trying to turn the Persians against the Jews. The final vignette depicts Lavinia, a princess of Latium whose mother kills herself out of spite upon learning of her daughter's betrothal to Aeneas.

Coming back to himself, Dante hears a voice guiding him to the upward path. As he ascends, he feels wings brushing near his face and the words "Beati pacifici" ("Blessed are the peaceful") being uttered. Next comes the terrace of the slothful, who, as Virgil explains, love what is good, but fail to love it with sufficient ardor. Virgil offers a quick recap of the previous three terraces, all of which—pride, envy, and wrath—represent forms of misdirected love. Sloth, in contrast, is a sin of insufficient love, and the remaining three terraces (as yet unnamed) will represent excessive love of earthly goods.

Analysis

All three of the episodes in Dante's vision deal not just with anger, but specifically with the desire for vengeance. Procne, Philomel's sister, kills her own son to get revenge on her husband Tereus, who later unwittingly eats pieces of his dead child's flesh. Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, has a long-held grudge against the Jews because his ancestors were defeated by the Israelites. This anger is warped into a genocidal hatred, which ends only with Haman's death. Amata, the suicidal queen and mother in the third episode, is also exacting a kind of revenge on her daughter, whose choice of marriage she condemns.

Virgil's brief guide to Mount Purgatory is, moreover, not just a map but a hierarchy. Those who love earthly life too much—the lustful, gluttonous, and greedy—are located closer to the top of the mountain, placing them farther from Hell and closer to Heaven. Those who are motivated by hatred occupy the lower terraces. In this light it is perhaps easier to understand why Dante includes the Philomel episode here rather than saving it for a later canto. Tereus's crimes of lust, however horrible, are in Dante's reckoning less wicked than Procne's spiteful slaughter of her child. This is not, however, to suggest that every misdeed in Purgatory can be strictly assigned to a single capital sin: many of the individual sins would be hard to categorize without the context provided by Purgatory's cleanly separated layers.

Such apparent inconsistencies are a byproduct of Dante's highly individual approach to his subject. He wrote about theology, not as a clergyman like Thomas Aquinas, but as a thinker trying to square his personal sense of justice with his Catholic beliefs. He was not, in other words, following a "map" of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as laid out by a previous writer. Nor did he use a strict and inflexible system in deciding which souls went where. Instead, like the Renaissance humanists who would follow his example, Dante finds room for his personal experiences and judgments within existing religious traditions.

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