Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 22 | Summary

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Summary

Dante ascends from the terrace of the avaricious (number five of seven) and the corresponding scar is wiped away from his forehead. As usual, the angel pronounces a blessing from the Beatitudes: "Beati sunt qui ... sitiunt" ("Blessed are they who thirst [for justice]"). Virgil, out of respect for his fellow poet Statius, asks how the latter could have been caught up in the sin of greed.

Statius explains that he was a spendthrift, not a miser, but both sins are punished in the same fashion in Purgatory. He then credits Virgil with having converted him, through his poetry, to Christianity, thereby allowing him a chance to reach Heaven. Statius, however, kept his faith hidden, thus earning himself a long stay on terrace four, where the slothful are punished. Finally, Statius asks about the fate and whereabouts of numerous Greek and Roman poets. Virgil tells him they are all, like himself, safely in Limbo.

Dante, meanwhile, is transfixed by the sights of the sixth terrace, where clear streams run and lush fruit trees grow in an upside-down pyramid shape. A voice calls out from one such tree, reciting examples of holy men and women who embodied the virtue of temperance. These figures, including the prophet Daniel and John the Baptist, were not ruled by their hunger, but ignored it in pursuit of higher things.

Analysis

Statius's Christianity is, as far as anyone has been able to tell, a Dantean invention. The surviving descriptions of Statius's life make no mention of the fact, and his own writings are firmly entrenched in the polytheistic culture of Greece and Rome. Nor was there, by Dante's time, any longstanding tradition of treating Statius as a secret Christian: "the puzzlement of Dante's near-contemporaries," writes Professor of Classics and Ancient History Peter Heslin in 2015, "suggests that Statius' Christianity was news to them, too." In his essay "Statius in Dante's Commedia," Heslin proposes some "crypto-Christian" themes in Statius's epics which might have led Dante to Christianize the poet. Ultimately, however, he describes Statius's secret Christianity as "a rational falsehood which," in Dante's universe, "is spiritually true."

Somewhat less confusing is Statius's claim to have been converted by reading the works of Virgil. Statius quotes a passage from Virgil's Aeneid which has sometimes been seen as prophesying the coming of Christ: "The years begin anew, / justice returns, so, too, Man's earliest time. / A new race, born of Heaven, now descends." Traditionally, however, attempts to position Virgil as a proto-Christian prophet have focused on his Fourth Eclogue (poem that contains dialogue among shepherds), which explicitly foretells the coming of a divine child. The concept of a miraculous birth is hardly unique to Christianity—Greek and Roman myth are full of similar stories. Nonetheless, some details of Virgil's prediction have captured the imagination of Christian commentators from the early 4th century onward.
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