Dante the Poet explores the origins of love and motivation of our actions even further than he did in Cantos XVI and XVII. While this level of Purgatory is to address the sin of Sloth, known in the Medieval World as “Acedia,” in point of fact, the majority of the Canto is taken up with moral and metaphysical meditations on Love and Free Will. This Canto gives us a taste of what will come in Paradiso as well, with imagery and emphases that move into intellectual and metaphysical realms.
We see modeled in the first thirteen lines how the relationship between Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil has progressed in trust and love throughout the Inferno and up to this point in the Purgatorio. It is a microcosm of trust and growth in love. Virgil goes from being “Professor” [Dottore] to being “True Father” [Padre Verace] to being “Dear Gentle Father” [Dolce Padre Caro] to being called “Master” [Maestro]. In fact, Virgil himself admits that he is nearing the end of his capacity of being able to guide Dante the Pilgrim any further since we are moving out of the realm of reason and into the world of Grace and Redemption the closer they get to the top of the seven story mountain.
73 'That noble power is called free will by Beatrice,
La nobile virtù Beatrice intende
74 and so make sure that you remember this
per lo libero arbitrio, e però guarda
75 if she should ever speak of it to you.'
che l'abbi a mente, s'a parlar ten prende."
I have to admit to being quite a bit like Dante the Pilgrim in that I need to hear deep and difficult ideas explained to me three different ways, as he asks for yet another explanation of the origins and actions of Love in the life of God’s Creation. Virgil readily agrees and proceeds to lay out yet another way to understand how Love is at the basis of every action, whether good or bad.
19 'The mind, disposed to love at its creation,
L'animo, ch'è creato ad amar presto,
20 is readily moved toward anything that pleases
ad ogne cosa è mobile che piace,
21 as soon as by that pleasure it is roused to act.
tosto che dal piacere in atto è desto.
We have within us a mind that is ready and able to receive any and all impressions from reality. Anything that is pleasurable brings forth from us a reaction, just as a signet ring leaves its impression on melted wax as a seal. However, Dante the Poet has Virgil explain that not all impressions and not all actions are moral and good. Here we return to the discussion Dante the Pilgrim had with Guido Cavalcanti and his hedonism. As an Epicurean, he believed all pleasure was good and any action justified if it brought pleasure. Wrong, says Dante the Poet through Virgil.
34 'Now you see how hidden is the truth
Or ti puote apparer quant' è nascosa
35 from those who hold that every love
la veritate a la gente ch'avvera
36 is in itself deserving praise,
ciascun amore in sé laudabil cosa;
37 'perhaps because such love seems always good.
però che forse appar la sua matera
38 But every seal is not a good one,
sempre esser buona, ma non ciascun segno
39 even if imprinted in good wax.'
è buono, ancor che buona sia la cera."
So we return also to the topic of Free Will, just as we did when Dante the Pilgrim wondered whether the stars directed our will through the “science” of Astrology. Dante the Poet yet again reminds us all that discernment, judgement and perception of our rational faculties still hold sway over our actions. Just because we have received the possibility of a pleasurable action does not mean that it is an appropriate and righteous action. “If it feels good, do it” and “how can this be wrong if it feels so right” are invalid statements.
61 'So that to this will all others may conform
Or perché a questa ogn' altra si raccoglia,
62 there is innate in you the faculty that counsels
innata v'è la virtù che consiglia,
63 and ought to guard the threshold of assent.
e de l'assenso de' tener la soglia.
64 'This is the principle in which is found
Quest' è 'l principio là onde si piglia
65 the measure of your merit, as it welcomes
ragion di meritare in voi, secondo
66 and then winnows good from guilty loves.
che buoni e rei amori accoglie e viglia.
Within the worldview of 21st century hedonism, this Canto may seem to be rather like the Puritans’ restrictions on the theater in Shakespeare’s day: anything that may seem too pleasurable surely cannot be good for your soul. In fact however, there is real trust in one’s own discernment and judgement, and these will arise out of one’s own trust in God and the Holy Spirit. One is to be guided not by knee-jerk reactions to pleasure and not by blind obedience to outward restrictions, but through inward spiritual formation and growth in discernment and holiness.
We are now presented, in a rushed and hurried format, the examples and remedies for the sin of Sloth. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, the unnamed abbot has no time to stay and chat. There are no shared hymns or chants. There is no communal prayer. The examples are given in one-liners and then the abbot fades out of the scene, still talking and running. I am reminded of the saying “God cannot drive a parked car.” These penitents are on the move, almost like the start of the Boston Marathon, jostling and crowded, eager to stay ahead.
115 'We are so filled with our desire to keep moving
Noi siam di voglia a muoverci sì pieni,
116 we cannot rest. Pardon us, then,
che restar non potem; però perdona,
117 if our just penance seems discourteous.
se villania nostra giustizia tieni.
This seems rather like Medieval ‘speed-dating.’ All is compressed and completed quickly after such a leisurely and stately dialogue about Love and Free Will. Dante the Pilgrim states that his head is swirling and little wonder with all he has pondered and witnessed. Dante the Poet gives us a marvelous introduction into the next Canto, where the dream-world will be brought front and center.
143 And I rambled so from one thought to another
e tanto d'uno in altro vaneggiai,
144 that my eyes closed in drowsy wandering
che li occhi per vaghezza ricopersi,
145 and I transformed my musings into dream.
e 'l pensamento in sogno trasmutai.