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

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Sloth

As the poets reach the next terrace of Mt. Purgatory, the sun sets, and so the poets have to stop where they are for the night. No movement goes on in Purgatory under cover of dark. Dante suggests they talk while they pass the night so that their delay may not be spend unprofitably, and so Virgil embarks on a meditation on the nature of love and how it may be wrong in object or in degree.

We never wish ill upon ourselves, he argues, and so when we sin we either desire an evil upon someone else, or we love secondary goods out of proper proportion. The three terraces below serve to purge Pride, Envy and Wrath, which Virgil defines as three different forms of wishing ill upon one's neighbor:

"There is the man who through his neighbor’s fall
Hopes to advance, and only for this reason
He longs to see him cast down from his greatness,

"There is the man who dreads the loss of power,
Favor, fame, and honor at another’s rise,
And pines so at it that he wants him ruined;

"And there is the man who grows so resentful
For injury, he’s greedy for revenge,
An such a man must seek another’s harm.
(Purg. XVII, 115-123)

The next three groups of penitents, Virgil explains, purge from themselves a love that is rightly directed, but not proportionate. This terrace is where sloth is purged, a lack of zeal in love.

Dante wants to continue their conversation on love and will, and so Virgil continues with a discussion of the levels of natural appetite and the human person's unique power over desire through free will. Then the moon rises, throwing light across the terrace, and a few moments later they hear the sound of a great crowd running towards them and calling out encouragement to each other as they run.

How soon they were upon us — since that whole
Huge company was moving at a run,
And two of them up front cried out in tears:

"Mary ran with haste to the hill country!
And Caesar to subdue Lerida thrust
First at Marseilles and then sped on to Spain!"

"Faster! faster! let no time be lost
Through little love," the rest who followed cried,
"So zeal for good may make grace green again."
(Purg. XVIII, 97-105)

While on previous terraces the examples of virtue contrary to the vice being purged have been passively seen or heard, those overcoming the vice of sloth call out their examples themselves as they run around the mountain. And perhaps in keeping with their newly-learned urgency, they have two examples of zeal rather than three.

Virgil calls out to the running souls asking for directions, and they exhort the poets to follow them, but say they cannot stop to talk. One penitent calls out his name to Dante as he passes: he was an Italian abbot and provided his monastery with more momentum than leadership. The crowd ofpenitents is now moving off into the distance, but the poets hear them call out their two examples of sloth: the Israelites who, having been delivered from Egypt, fell away from God while wandering in the desert, and the companions of Aeneas who, having reached Sicily with him in his wanderings, refused to go any farther.

The sound of the running penitents then dies off into the distance, and the poets are left alone for the remainder of the night. Dante falls asleep, and while sleeping has a dream. She is cross-eyed and crooked-legged, pale, sickly and stooped. But as Dante looks at her, she rapidly becomes beautiful, and then begins to sing. She is, she sings, the Siren, whose song has led many a traveller from his planned course.

Another lady then appears, a beautiful and saintly one who appears by Dante's side and demands that he turn his gaze from the Siren. She tears at the Siren's dress, and beneath the shining exterior which Dante's gaze has allowed the Siren to build, a repulsive creature is exposed who smells so badly that Dante awakens suddenly from his sleep.

Virgil has been trying to wake him for some minutes, and now that Dante is awake, the poets quickly reach the angel who guards the pass to the next terrace. Another "p" is wiped from Dante's forhead, and they move upwards. However, Virgil sees that Dante remains troubled by his dream:

"What’s wrong, that you keep gazing on the ground?"
My guide began to say to me, just when
We had both climbed a bit above the angel.

And I: "A strange new vision makes me trudge on
With such mistrust: it bends me inwardly
So that I cannot stop from thinking of it."

"You have beheld," he said, "that ancient witch
For whom alone those now above us weep:
You saw how man sets himself free from her.

"That is enough! now beat your heels on earth
And turn your eyes up to the lure spun from
The mighty spheres by the eternal King."
(Purg. XIX, 52-63)

The Siren, thus, is the symbol of those secondary goods which grow under our desire to appear to be great goods unto themselves, and thus turn us away from seeking the true goods. And on these next terraces, Dante will encounter sins which result from excessive love of lesser goods.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by AllenMandelbaum

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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