Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 18 | Summary



In the previous canto Virgil has just explained that all sin stems from a failure of love: loving the wrong things, not loving enough, or loving too much. Dante now replies by asking what "love" is anyway. Virgil describes love as a natural inclination to seek out good things, though he admits this inclination is not always perfectly followed. The soul, he says, is like a piece of wax used to seal a letter: the wax itself is of good quality, but the impression left by the seal may still be flawed. If love is natural, Dante retorts, then doesn't this absolve people of any blame (or praise) for their actions? No, says Virgil: love may be innate, but human beings have reason and free will, giving them control over (and responsibility for) their inclinations.

It is now nearly midnight. Dante's contemplation of Virgil's words is interrupted by a crowd of souls rushing around the terrace, reciting proverbial examples of timely haste. Mary, one soul says, "hastened up to Juda's hill"—that is, she hurried to tell her cousin Elizabeth the good news of the Annunciation. Caesar, another soul reminds the listeners, wasted no time in prosecuting the Roman Civil War, and his victories left him the effective sole ruler of Rome. Virgil asks these fast-moving penitents to guide him to the next terrace of the mountain, and they bring him along to a gap in the cliff. Tired and bewildered, Dante closes his eyes and falls into another dream.


In attempting to sketch out the extent and nature of free will, Virgil takes up an eternal problem considered by poets and philosophers since at least the time of Aristotle. His views on the issue are perhaps unsatisfying to a modern reader, who is likely to be more skeptical about the limits of free will than was Dante's medieval audience. Dante himself, however, finds Virgil's arguments convincing, claiming the Roman poet's speech has "answered all [my] questions." Nonetheless, he hints that certain aspects of free will are a mystery, impossible to grasp without divine help. For this piece of the puzzle Virgil refers Dante to Beatrice, who "understands [the] freedom of the will" better than himself.

Like the penitents on other terraces, the slothful encourage each other with examples of both their sin (sloth) and its corresponding virtue (zeal or haste). The virtuous episodes, mentioned above, come from the Bible and from history. At the end of the canto another pair of examples is used to illustrate two different varieties of sloth and the harm each can cause. The Israelites' wandering in the desert is attributed, by Dante, to their undue slowness in carrying out God's commands. Possibly less familiar is the example from the Aeneid: "Those who couldn't bear until the end / the labors that Anchises' son endured, / submitted to a life where honor lacked." This passage refers to an act of mutiny undertaken by those who, after wandering with Aeneas for a year, wished to settle down. They got their wish but were deprived of the ultimate honor of helping to establish Rome.
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