Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 25 | Summary

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Summary

As Dante, Virgil, and Statius make their way up to the final terrace of Purgatory, Virgil senses Dante's confusion about what he has witnessed on the sixth. "Where there's no need for nourishment," Dante wonders, "how can it be that people get so thin?" Virgil calls on Statius to help explain, and the Silver Age poet replies by describing the manner in which a child develops in the womb. The explanation is roundabout, but essentially Statius argues that the soul acquires a kind of "shadow" after death. This "shade" is the outward projection of the soul's intelligence and physical senses and has a physical appearance to match.

The travelers now arrive at the final terrace, where the lustful are punished and purified. Flames shoot out from the cliff, covering all but the outer rim of the path. Like their comrades on lower levels, these souls hasten their own purification by singing hymns and reciting examples of both lust and chastity.

Analysis

Statius's explanation of human growth and development is likely to sound a bit strange. Jay Ruud, in the Critical Companion to Dante (2008), describes his speech as "particularly difficult for modern readers because of its foundations in esoteric medieval scientific theories." Essentially Statius relies on an ancient Greek tradition in which there are three different types of soul: the vegetative, the sensitive, and the intellectual. The first two, Statius argues, are formed by the blood of the father transmitted into the mother's womb as sperm. (Sperm, in ancient and medieval medical theory, was thought to be a special kind of purified blood.) The intellectual soul—the one closest to what is usually meant by "soul" in a Christian context—is a gift from God, endowing the developing fetus with full humanity.

The upshot of Statius's answer, as translator Robin Kirkpatrick points out, is to suggest God's personal involvement in the creation of each soul and to affirm His joy in creating new conscious beings. "The Christian God," writes Kirkpatrick, according to Dante "is a God who delights in existence," and who urgently wishes to share that delight with His creatures. This concept is helpful to keep in mind in terraces five through seven, which punish overindulgence in worldly goods and not mere enjoyment of them.
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