Law, Love, and Wrath in Dante’s Purgatorio Canto XVI

Arguably the center of the Divine Comedy, Canto XVI of the Purgatorio contains intriguing textual features which convey the themes of the work in memorable detail. This paper exposits the textual features of the Canto as a starting point for further inquiry and appreciation of Dante’s literary artistry.

Structure of Purgatorio Canto XVI

Unlike most Cantos in the Comedy, there is no real “action” in this one. It takes place on the Third Terrace of Purgatory amidst a dark smoke, “rough-textured stuff” even thicker than “Darkness of Hell and of a night deprived of every planet” (1-2).:”(Unless otherwise noted, all parenthetical line numbers will be from Purgatorio Canto XVI.)”: The bulk of the Canto features a discourse on law and free will, which involves the characters not moving, but standing still and hearing. However, the main action of the Comedy, ascent, brackets this passivity: Canto XV describes ascent from the Second Terrace to the Third, while Canto XVII shows ascent from the Third to the Fourth. We may begin to understand the significance of the stillness by noting that the Canto has the following basic chiastic structure:

A: sight obscured; ears attentive (1-9)
B: hearing links characters (10-141)
A’: sight restored; deaf ear turned (142-145)

At A and A’ the Canto talks about sight both in terms of things which promote it and things which obscure it. Canto XVII explains that wrath is a blinding force, and in Dante’s “fantasy” of wrathful individuals he describes wrath as making us “notice nothing although a thousand trumpets sound around us” (XVII.14-15). Then we learn that only “light – more powerful than light we are accustomed to” can shatter the illusion of wrath and help us ascend to that which wrath perverts, Love (XVII.40-48).

Like the other six Deadly Sins, wrath is a form of disordered love for things which are themselves good. Canto XVII reveals that the disorder focuses on a sense of false righteousness, producing anger at perceived slights. Procne is “prepared to go to any lengths of crime” to gain revenge on her husband. The true righteousness of a defrauded wife becomes false righteous in her wrathful wish to send Tereus’ guilty soul flying by poking a thousand holes in his body (Metamorphoses 6.412-674). Haman, driven by false love for honor and slighted “righteousness” when Mordecai will not bow before him, wrathfully attempts to kill an entire race (Esther 3-8). Amata, loving her daughter Lavinia to such excess that she perceives the denial of her motherly wishes as destroying her honor, wrathfully commits suicide (Aeneid XII.796-819).

I submit that Purgatorio Canto XVI does not involve movement because wrath always promotes rash movement, which then facilitates other sins. Wrath’s antithesis, peace, requires stillness and contemplation – which helps to explain why one thing the wrathful in Purgatory chant is the Seventh Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” or, blessed are “those who are free of evil anger” (XVII.69). This theme is memorably arranged in the chiastic structure. Sight, the very sense which is blinded by wrath and then, with unmerited grace restored by the light of God, brackets a long period of passive hearing, which, in this context, promotes peaceful contemplation of truth.

The Place of Purgatorio Canto XVI in the Comedy

It may be asked why of all the sins and vices Dante could have chosen, why is it wrath which occupies the central place in the Comedy? Here again I see a chiastic structure. The Augustinian theme of ascent from false loves to True Love provides the main action of the Comedy, and though one could see either Purgatorio Canto XVI or XVII as the work’s numerical center, I argue the former because it marks the halfway point of the ascent. Having begun in a dark forest and descending / ascending through various deeds of darkness, at Purgatorio XVI the reverse side of the chiasm begins to travel headlong toward its culmination in the Eternal Light (Paradiso XXXIII).

Since Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise theologically concern the righteousness of God in both punishment and redemption, Dante’s choice to make the Comedy center on wrath is all the more interesting. We could argue from Scripture that wrath is the sin which most severely strikes at the righteousness of God. Anger is so related to other sins that whoever is angry with his brother is liable to be judged by God (Matt. 5:22). Men are exhorted not to let the sun go down on anger (Eph. 4:26). Anger prevents forgiveness, prevents men from emulating God’s attitude toward them in Christ (Eph. 4:31). Wrath belongs to man’s earthly nature, which itself brings the wrath of God (Col. 3:5-7), and “[a]nger does not bring about the righteous life which God desires” (James 1:20). Conversely, the example of Christ in Matthew 3:7 and John 2:13-17 imply that only a perfectly righteous person can give vent to wrath without sin. Wrath is tied to God’s day of judgment, (Romans 2:5), and vengeance, that which wrath seeks, belongs only to God (Romans 12:19).:”(Here compare Paradiso XVIII.118-123, where smoke from the falsely righteous Rome obscures the light of Jupiter, and brings about the wrath of God.)”:

But what of Dante’s Aristotelianism? In the Inferno we saw “those whom anger has defeated,” tormented by immersion in blackened mud and condemned to tear at each other piecemeal with their teeth (VII.109-126). Aristotle defined anger as “an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns ones friends…It must always be attended by…the expectation of revenge” (Rhetoric II.2). Elsewhere he remarked that “sulky people” are “hard to appease, and retain their anger long…[if they are not relieved] they retain their burden” (Nicomachean Ethics IV.5). In this light, Dante describes the wrathful in Hell as “sullen” and “bitter” (Inferno VII.121-124).:”(This is a good description of Filipino Argenti, who had been “presumptuous” (perhaps meaning falsely righteous) while in the world, and “so his shade down here is hot with fury” [Inferno VIII.46-48].)”: Significantly, while the souls in Dante’s Purgatory move toward forgiveness as the antidote to their wrath, Aristotle knows nothing of forgiveness, speaking instead, somewhat neutrally, of achieving “calmness” (Rhetoric III.3).

In these ways, it appears that Purgatorio Canto XVI is not just the numerical center of the Divine Comedy, but also the thematic center, for in its treatment of wrath, it vividly highlights the difference between the best which the natural man can do and the best which man can only obtain by supernatural condescension of redemption.

The Chiastic Structure of Purgatorio Canto XVI

I would like now to return to and expand the chiastic structure of Purgatorio Canto XVI and comment on how it makes clearer the meaning of the trilogy of Cantos XV-XVII. First let us see the chiasm in a fuller form than given above:

A: sight is gone (1-6)
B: the world is blind (64-66)
C: a discourse on the law of the heavens and free will (70-93)
C’: the need for law to curb free will’s childish love (71-105)
B’: the world’s path is eclipsed (106-141)
A’: sight is returning (142-144)

Point A of the chiasm ties us to the end of Canto XV, where Dante says that unavoidable “smoke black as night…deprived us of pure air and sight (142-145). As they move through “the bitter, filthy air” (XVI.13), it becomes clear to Dante and Virgil that sight is of no avail on this Terrace of Purgatory. Thus, Marco Lombardo proposes that “hearing will serve instead to keep us linked” (XVI.36).

Because the world is blind, Point B of the chiasm will show us that hearing will explain the world’s darkness (“it cloaks – and is cloaked by – perversity,” XVI.60) and show the way back to the light. Interestingly, the smoke on this Terrace does not appear to be just a typical contrapasso punishment for the wrath of the sinners there. Rather, it illustrates the blindness of the whole world in its false righteousness. To understand why the world is blind, we must remember that Dante is a follower of the old Christian tradition of dualism set into motion by Pope Gelasius in the year of grace 494 in his letter Duo sunt to the Emperor Anastasius.:”(On Gelasius and Duo sunt, see R.A. Markus, “The Latin Fathers”, in The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c. 350-c. 1450, ed. J.H. Burns [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988], pg. 102.)”: In this light, Dante has Lombardo claim that the papacy, by joining the sword and the shepherd’s crook, has caused the two paths of the world and God to be eclipsed (103-114). The import of this language should not be understated: Dante deliberately writes that “Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns” (106-107, emphasis mine). This refers to the papal monarchist doctrine that the Church was like the Sun and the Empire like the Moon: the latter had no light (or, no authority) save what it received from the former.:”(On the Sun-Moon picture of authority during the Middle Ages, see Walter Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages [New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1953], pp. 198-283.)”: Dante has nothing but scorn for this, and cites Aristotle against the papalists: “They adopt false premises and use invalid syllogisms.”:”(Dante: Monarchy, trans. and ed. Prue Shaw [Cambridge University Press, 9th printing, 2006], pp. 69-72. The quote from Aristotle’s Physics 1.3 is on pg. 69.)”: Then says Lombardo, “Misrule, you see, has caused the world to be malevolent (103-104), for these two powers, when confounded, “must of necessity result in evil, because, so joined, one need not fear the other” (110-112).

The chiasm has now brought us to its center point, C: the attribution of evil and disorder in the world to “misrule.” Here we find Lombardo’s discourse on the law of the heavens and man’s free will (70-93). Men err in assigning every cause to heaven, “as if it were the necessary source of every motion” (68-69).:”(Dante repeats this point in connection with man’s need for two guides, Pope and Emperor, in Monarchy III.xvi [ibid., pp. 92-93].)”: The heavens may indeed “set your appetites in motion,” but “On a greater power and a better nature you, who are free, depend” (73-79). Free will by itself is “like a child…simple and unaware,” and “turns willingly to things that bring delight” (87-90). Or, as Aquinas, with whom Dante was surely familiar, puts it, “Our will is not the cause of the goodness of the things we love but is moved by them as by its object…”:”(Summa Theologiae Q. 20, a. 2, in St. Thomas on Politics and Ethics, trans. and ed. Paul E. Sigmund [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988], pg. 33.)”:

A parallel expository point is made at C’. Being at first like a child, free will cannot tell the difference between true and false loves. It needs a “guide or rein to rule its love” (92), for as we will shortly hear, “love is the seed in you of every virtue and of all acts deserving punishment” (XVII.104-105). The character of the law which Dante imagines guiding free will is, no doubt, what Aquinas describes as “a [rational] rule or measure of action by which one is led to action or restrained from action.”:”(Summa Theologiae, Q. 90, in ibid., pg. 44.)”: The basic point seems to be that in order for man’s redemption to occur, the two forces of law and love must work together, must balance each other. Love without law is unrestrained, raw, abusive passion, while law without love is unrestrained, raw, abusive power.:”(It may be possible here to argue that the chiasm is also moving us from one law to another: the law of sin and death to the law of love, but I lack the space to pursue this suggestion.)”:

As the chiasm winds down, we reach B’, which returns us to the theme of the world being blind and its path being eclipsed. Here the observation that secular and spiritual Rome have been deleteriously intermingled, provides a nice real world parallel to the metaphysical point about law and love. Once lit by Rome’s “two suns,” the Church and the Empire, the world has since fallen into the darkness caused by turning the “second sun,” the Empire, into a mere reflective “Moon.” Thus, “sword has joined the shepherd’s crook” (109-110), and as a result, “the Church of Rome confounds two powers in itself; into the filth, it falls and fouls itself and its new burden” (127-129). Here disordered love is guided by disordered law, and the result is the blinding smoke of a “misrule” that makes the world evil.

At A’ we reach the conclusion of the chiasm, that (by grace) sight is returning (142-144). This makes sense, since Canto XVI marks not just the numerical but the thematic center point of the ascent toward the Empyrean. From this point on, the light toward which Dante is traveling can only increase, and in so doing, increasingly dispel whatever darkness remains in his perceptions. Hearing gives way to restored sight, as Dante himself notes in the next Canto: “my imagination fell away as soon as light – more powerful than light we are accustomed to – beat on my eye.” (XVII.43-45). Free will, purged of the blinding false righteousness of wrath and guided by the more clearly seen law of love from above, now proceeds upward to true righteousness, true love, and true beauty.


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