Purgatorio 18 is a very important canto, particularly to those readers who cherish Dante’s origins as a lyric poet, which Dante-poet here evokes in loving detail.
Reiterating the lesson learned in the previous canto, whereby love is the root cause of all human behavior, of our “operare” both good and evil, Dante-pilgrim asks Virgilio to explain love:
Però ti prego, dolce padre caro, che mi dimostri amore, a cui reduce ogne buono operare e ’l suo contraro. (Purg. 18.13-15)
Therefore, I pray you, gentle father dear, to teach me what love is: you have reduced to love both each good and its opposite.
The question is “che mi dimostri amore”—teach me what love is—and there is no better primer on this subject of love than the one provided by the great tradition of the courtly love lyric, a tradition that is seriously explored in the Commedia, and particularly in Purgatorio. The classical Roman Virgilio therefore offers an explanation of love that is rooted in the vernacular lyric tradition that began with the Occitan poets in the South of France and moved to Italy via the Sicilian poets in the court of Frederic II. This is a tradition that we first encounter in this commentary in glossing Inferno 2 and Inferno 5.
Virgilio explains as follows. The soul is created quick to love (“creato ad amar presto” ) and is susceptible to those pleasing things (“piacere” ) that awaken the capacity to love in it, moving the soul from potency to act (“atto” ). Activated, the soul responds to and “is mobile with respect to” (“è mobile a” ) everything that pleases it (“ogne cosa . . . che piace” ):
L’animo, ch’è creato ad amar presto, ad ogne cosa è mobile che piace, tosto che dal piacere in atto è desto. (Purg. 18.19-21)
The soul, which is created quick to love, responds to everything that pleases, just as soon as beauty wakens it to act.
In the next step of the process of “falling in love,” our cognitive ability (“apprensiva” ) takes an image (“intenzione” ) from a true being in the external world (“esser verace” ) and unfolds that image within the soul (“dentro a voi la spiega” ). In other words, we “take a picture” of an object of desire and then post that image on an internal memory board, recreating the object of desire internally:
Vostra apprensiva da esser verace tragge intenzione, e dentro a voi la spiega, sì che l’animo ad essa volger face; (Purg. 18.22-24)
Your apprehension draws an image from a real object and expands upon that object until soul has turned toward it;
If the soul, once turned toward that internal image (“sì che l’animo ad essa volger face” ), should incline toward it, then that inclination (“quel piegare” ) is love:
e se, rivolto, inver’ di lei si piega, quel piegare è amor, quell’è natura che per piacer di novo in voi si lega. (Purg. 18.25-27)
and if, so turned, the soul tends steadfastly, then that propensity is love—it’s nature that joins the soul in you, anew, through beauty.
The soul, having in this manner been seized by love (“preso” in Purg. 18.31 is a quintessentially lyric word, used in Dante’s sonnet Ciascun’alma presa e gentil core and by Francesca, echoing the lyric, in Inferno 5), now enters on a quest. It “moves into longing, / a motion of the spirit” (“entra in disire, / ch’è moto spiritale” [Purg. 18.31-32]) and never rests until the beloved object makes it happy:
così l’animo preso entra in disire, ch’è moto spiritale, e mai non posa fin che la cosa amata il fa gioire. (Purg. 18.31-33)
so does the soul, when seized, move into longing, a motion of the spirit, never resting till the beloved thing has made it joyous.
This definition of desire as spiritual motion, as that which moves us along the path of our life (the “cammin di nostra vita” in the first verse of the Commedia), is the bedrock of the analysis of The Undivine Comedy, as you can see from the opening section of Chapter 2, culminating on page 26.
But the pilgrim has a rejoinder for his guide. Primed by the lesson he learned from Marco Lombardo on the freedom of the will, he sees a pitfall in the description of the soul in motion, pursuing the beloved object until it gives it joy. How then, the pilgrim wants to know, if love is a response to something offered from outside us, can there be merit in choosing a good or bad object of desire (Purg. 18.43-45)? Here we see the lyric tradition collide with ethics: what happens if we incline in love toward something bad? Are we justified in saying that love forced us (as Francesca says)? Or do we still have a choice?
The collision that Dante dramatizes in Purgatorio 18 is one that he lived over the course of his youth as a poet, as he worked out the ethical implications inherent in the courtly love lyric. The story of how he moved from the answer that he gives to Dante da Maiano in the early 1280s, when he says that there is no way to oppose love, to the poet who can dramatize the problem itself in Purgatorio 18 is the story I tell in my commentary to his lyric poetry. This is not an issue that Dante ethicizes only now, in the Commedia, for the first time. Rather, Dante here dramatizes the process of bringing an ethically-attuned philosophical mind into confrontation with the lyric tradition, an experience at the heart of his own intellectual formation.
The pilgrim’s question leads to a discussion of free will (see Marco Lombardo’s discourse in Purgatorio 16). Virgilio uses the beautiful metaphor of reason as that which guards the threshold of assent:
Or perché a questa ogn’altra si raccoglia, innata v’è la virtù che consiglia, e de l’assenso de’ tener la soglia. (Purg. 18.61-63)
Now, that all other longings may conform to this first will, there is in you, inborn, the power that counsels, keeper of the threshold of your assent.
As in the sonnet Per quella via che la Bellezza corre (circa 1292), reason metaphorically stands guard at the doorway of the mansion of the soul and prevents evil desire from entering. It follows that if evil desire should cross the threshold and gain entry, our free will has failed to deploy our reason to combat it.
This passage also leads to one of Virgilio’s confessions of his limitations as guide, and to his conjuring of Beatrice as the one who can better answer Dante’s query:
La nobile virtù Beatrice intende per lo libero arbitrio, e però guarda che l’abbi a mente, s’a parlar ten prende. (Purg. 18.73-75)
This noble power is what Beatrice means by free will; therefore, remember it, if she should ever speak of it to you.
The latter half of Purgatorio 18 is devoted to the accidiosi, those whose sin is accidia: a kind of moral sloth, despair, lack of commitment to the good. Remarkably, Dante compresses the whole fourth terrace into half a canto. (The baseline measure for a terrace is provided by the first terrace, pride, which takes up three canti: Purgatorio 10-12.) The compressed narrative is a textual analogue to the “holy haste” that motivates the souls on this terrace. They are so busy running that they cannot stop to talk to Dante. The souls call out the examples of zeal and of its opposite, moral torpor, as they run by. The result is that there are no encounters with souls, no conversations that require textual expenditure, and the poet “runs through” the terrace of sloth.