Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Envy

Having left behind the terrace of the proud, the poets now reach the terrace on which the sin of envy is purged away. At first they find themselves on an empty shelf of stone, with no visible carvings of paintings adorning this level of the mountain. Virgil turns and leads them on towards the right. (In Purgatory, the poets always ascend towards the right, while in Hell they descended while turning always towards the left, in a minor piece of symbolism, recalling Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats, who are separated out onto right and left.)

As they walk along the terrace, they hear a sound:

And flying toward us we heard but did not see
Spirits calling gracious invitations
To banquet at the table of love’s feast.

The first voice that flew past cried out aloud
"They have no wine!" and it sped on by us
Off to our rear, re-echoing the words.

And before it fully faded out of hearing
Distance, another voice passed with the cry,
"I am Orestes!" and also did not pause.

"Oh," I cried, "father, what are these voices?"
And just as I asked this, listen! a third
Exclaimed, "Love those who do you injury!"

And my kind master said, "This circle scourges
The sin of envy, and for this reason
The whip is fashioned with the cords of love.
(Purg. XIII, 25-39)

On the terrace of Pride, the examples of humility and pride were shown in sculpture, here they consist of quotes from the story of the Wedding at Cana, from a myth related by Cicero in which Pylades offers himself up to be killed in place of his friend Orestes, and Christ's words in the Beatitudes. The reason that this terrace's reminders of virtue and vice are heard rather than seen quickly becomes clear:

And when we went straight forward a short space,
I heard cried out " Mary, pray for us!"
And cried out "Michael" and "Peter" and "All saints."

I do not think there walks on earth today
A man so hard of heart he’d not be stabbed
By keen compassion at what I witnessed there,

For, when I came up close enough to them
That their condition became clear to me,
Tears of deep grief drained slowly from my eyes.


An iron thread pierces and sews up
All of their eyelids, as is done to falcons
Still so wild they recoil at keeping quiet.

I thought that I did wrong to walk about
Seeing others who could not see me
And so I turned to my wise counselor.
(Purg. XIII, 49-57; 70-75)

Virgil assures him there is no wrong in asking the souls here about their suffering, and so Dante asks if any among them are Italian and can tell him about how they came to be there. A noblewoman named Sapia speaks up and tells him how, as a Florentine army went out under the leadership of a rival political faction, she prayed to God that they would suffer a defeat, and rejoiced at it when they did. Their suffering in no way advanced her cause, she rejoiced in it simply because she wished them to enjoy no good. At the end of her tale, she asks:

"But who are you who come inquiring
Of our condition, with your eyes unsewn,
So I believe, and breathing when you talk?"

"My eyes," I said, "will here be taken from me,
But not for very long, because they rarely
Committed sin by casting looks of envy.

"Far greater is the fear that keeps my soul
Suspended, of the torment there below,
For even now that burden weighs me down."
(Purg. XIII, 130-138)

We can see in his answer Dante's growing self knowledge -- he knows that he is not fully innocent of this sin, and feels hard upon him the guilt for pride which is purged on the terrace below. In closing, Dante asks Sapia if she would like him to pray for her and mention her to other still alive, both of which offers she eagerly accepts.

Two more spirits, farther up the terrace, hear their conversation, and one of them asks Dante who he is and how he comes to travel through Purgatory while still alive. These prove to be two Italian noblemen, who catalog the evils of the current leading families throughout Italy. By the end of their discussion, the two lords are so overcome with sorrow for their homeland they say they must now return to shedding tears, and the poets move on.

Advancing down the terrace, they hear boom forth from above audible reminders of two characters who represent the vice of envy: Cain who killed his brother because Abel's sacrifice was better appreciated by God, and Aglauros, who in mythology was turned to stone because she envied her sister the love of the god Mercury.

They reach the angel who guards the passage to the next terrace, and Dante is overwhelmed by the brightness of him:

"Sweet father, what is that from which I cannot
Screen my eyes in any helpful way,"
I asked, "and which seems ever to approach us?"

"Do not marvel if the host of heaven
Still dazzles you," he answered me, "this is
The messenger who invites us to ascend.

"Soon it will be no burden to behold
These things, rather you will find delight
As deep as nature destines you to feel."

When we had come up to the blessed angel,
He said with a glad voice, "Enter here
To stairs that are less steep than were the others."

We left him there and we then climbed beyond,
Until "Blessed are the merciful" rang out
In song behind us, and "Conqueror, rejoice!"
(Purg. XV, 25-39)

Dante's nature is still too dimmed by sin to look without pain upon those who are truly of God's realm. As they leave the terrace, the souls upon it all cry out a prayer, as when a soul departs any of Purgatory's terraces. Souls may suffer here, but they are a members of one Body of Christ, and rejoice in each others' spiritual progress.

As they climb to the next terrace, the poets discuss how envy has its root in excessive love of earthly goods, which by their nature are diminished by sharing. When souls turn, instead, to the true good of loving charity, the more that it is shared, the greater it is.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

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