To begin our discussion of Purgatorio, I will introduce the theology of Purgatory. Read The Undivine Comedy, p. 34 and the notes that go with it, which will start you thinking about Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Purgatory (English translation, U. of Chicago Press, 1984). The key point: purgatory as a concept was, in Dante’s time, of much more recent vintage than hell or paradise, both of which have ancient origins. Vis-à-vis the relatively uncodified second realm, Dante enjoyed an ideological freedom that offered him virtual carte blanche for his inventive and creative genius.
The pilgrim and his guide emerge from the long climb through the earth and Dante is greeted by “the gentle hue of oriental sapphire”: “Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro” (Purg. 1.13). The beautiful blue sky and the lilt of the verse tell us that everything has changed. We are on the shore of Mount Purgatory, in the uninhabited southern hemisphere. Though we do not yet know that the Garden of Eden is located at the top of this mountain, when Dante looks up he sees stars not seen since Adam and Eve (the “first people” of Purg. 1.24):
I’ mi volsi a man destra, e puosi mente a l’altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle non viste mai fuor ch’a la prima gente. Goder pareva ’l ciel di lor fiammelle: oh settentrional vedovo sito, poi che privato se’ di mirar quelle! (Purg. 1.22-27)
Then I turned to the right, setting my mind upon the other pole, and saw four stars not seen before except by the first people. Heaven appeared to revel in their flames: o northern hemisphere, because you were denied that sight, you are a widower!
Perhaps there is one other, besides Adam and Eve, who briefly and illicitly glimpsed the stars of the “other pole.” The phrase “altro polo” appears twice in Purgatorio 1: above in Purg. 1.23 and again in Purg. 1.29, where Dante specifies that “he turns a little toward the other pole” (“un poco me volgendo a l’altro polo”). These references to the “altro polo” echo Inferno 26.127, where we learn that Ulysses’ voyage took him to where all the stars of the “other pole” are visible. At the end of Purgatorio 1 there is a confirming allusion to Ulysses. The deserted shore (“lito diserto” [Purg. 1.130]) of purgatory has “never yet seen its waters coursed by any man who journeyed back again”: “mai non vide navicar sue acque / omo, che di tornar sia poscia esperto” (Purg. 1.131-32). The souls who come here licitly will arrive by a different route; only Dante has ever been privileged to arrive on (and therefore “see”) this shore.
The Ulyssean echo in “altro polo”, and the reminder of the Greek hero’s unsanctioned quest beyond the pillars of Hercules, prepare us for the spirited challenge that is now issued to Dante and Virgilio by the bearded sage who is the guardian of purgatory. The patriarch (see the description of the “veglio” in Purg. 1.31-33) focuses on the presumed violation of their arrival. He assumes that they are escaped prisoners, damned folk who have come to this place in defiance of the “laws” of hell:
«Chi siete voi che contro al cieco fiume fuggita avete la pregione etterna?», diss’el, movendo quelle oneste piume. «Chi v’ha guidati, o che vi fu lucerna, uscendo fuor de la profonda notte che sempre nera fa la valle inferna? Son le leggi d’abisso così rotte? o è mutato in ciel novo consiglio, che, dannati, venite a le mie grotte?». (Purg. 1.40-48)
“Who are you—who, against the hidden river, were able to escape the eternal prison?” he said, moving those venerable plumes. “Who was your guide? What served you both as lantern when, from the deep night that will always keep the hellish valley dark, you were set free? The laws of the abyss—have they been broken? Or has a new, a changed decree in Heaven let you, though damned, approach my rocky slopes?”
Virgilio’s reply begins “Da me non venni” (I do not come through my own self [Purg. 1.52]) and continues by explaining the various features of this journey: that it was willed by a lady on high; that she contacted him, Virgilio, as a teacher; that Dante is alive. Most important of all Virgilio says that this is a quest for freedom:
Or ti piaccia gradir la sua venuta: libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara, come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta. (Purg. 1.70-72)
Now may it please you to approve his coming; he goes in search of liberty—so precious, as he who gives his life for it must know.
How does Virgilio know that the person to whom he speaks gave his life for liberty? Apparently those in Limbo know that one who was once one of their own—Cato of Utica, a Roman and a pagan—is now the saved guardian of purgatory.
The shocker of this canto is the identity of the guardian of purgatory. And the shock waves of this discovery persist long beyond Purgatorio 1, for the implications of the saved figure of Cato for how we construe Dante’s relationship with classical antiquity are huge: the presence of Cato here means that pagans can, exceptionally, be saved, a finding that has enormous and discomforting repercussions with respect to our friend Virgilio.
Cato, a Roman patriot, killed himself rather than allow himself to be subjected to Caesar. Dante has therefore a more liberal construction of suicide than we might have expected; he does not view self-sacrifice for the cause of political liberty as a form of wanton self-destruction.
In his address to Cato, Virgilio conflates the two quests for freedom: the political quest for which Cato sacrificed his life, and the moral quest pursued by Dante.
But the moral and the political do not truly diverge, as all readers of Dante know. And so Cato of Utica’s decision to give up his life rather than to live un-free is a decision that resonates with the quest of the second realm, where souls work to become free of the vices that blind us morally and therefore also politically.