David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — Canto 1: The Island of Purgatory and Cato the Guard

Canto 1: The Island of Purgatory and Cato the Guard

  • What does Dante do at the start of Canto 1 of Purgatory?

Dante is starting a new major section of The Divine ComedyPurgatory— and he invokes the Muses the way an epic poet should. Previously, in the Inferno, he described the place where sins are punished, and now, in Purgatory, he describes the place where sins are purged.

Dante invokes the Muses in general, and Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, in particular:

But let dead Poesy here rise again,

O holy Muses, since that I am yours,

And here Calliope somewhat ascend,

My song accompanying with that sound,

Of which the miserable magpies felt

The blow so great, that they despaired of pardon.

(Longfellow 1.7-12)

The reference is to a sin of old. King Pierus had nine daughters, whom he named after the nine Muses. These daughters sinned by being proud, and they challenged the Muses to a contest. Of course, they lost the contest, and as a result they were turned into magpies. This myth is significant because pride is the worst of human sins.

By the way, the time is Easter Sunday, 10 April 1300, just before dawn. Dante went into Hell on Good Friday, and he comes out of Hell on Easter Sunday. Of course, Christ died on Good Friday, and he was resurrected on Easter Sunday. During the time he was dead, he went into Limbo, and he took out the souls who did not belong there. This, of course, is known as the Harrowing of Hell. Those souls may include the soul of Cato, the guardian on the lower part of the Mountain of Purgatory. Some souls apparently began to climb the Mountain of Purgatory after the Harrowing of Hell. Some souls rescued by Jesus went to Paradise immediately, while some other souls, perhaps, started climbing the Mountain of Purgatory. Cato, of course, was put to work.

  • What is the purpose of Purgatory? Why is it so important?

In Purgatory, people get ready for Paradise. They need to be purged of sin so that they can be in the presence of God.

Truly, Purgatory is needed. The Inferno is where the sinners who did not repent go. Paradise is where sinners who have repented and have purged their sins — or been specially forgiven by God — go. Purgatory is where sinners who have repented can purge their sins.

The word “purgatory” comes from two Latin words: purusand agere. Put together, they form “to make pure.” Repented sinners need to be cleansed of their sin.

Here is an example used by Dante scholars William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzmanto explain why Purgatory is needed: Suppose I steal $100 from one of my students, and I feel guilty about it. That night, I can’t sleep, and I decide to go to my student the next morning, confess and apologize, give the $100 back, and then confess to both my priest and the police. However, even though that is my intention, when I get up the next morning and go to the student to make restitution and apologize, I am hit by a truck and killed, with the $100 in my pocket.

I sinned, but I repented my sin, so I can’t go to the Inferno. On the other hand, I did not pay the penalty for my sin and I did not make the necessary restitution of the money I had stolen, although I had intended to do so. Of course, now that I am dead, I can never do the things I intended to do on Earth. Because I am not pure, I cannot go to Heaven. I need a place where I can purge myself of the sin I committed and repented on Earth, but was unable to make atonement for.

Of course, some sins we cannot make restitution for on Earth. If I murder someone, I can repent my sin, but I cannot bring my victim back to life. I need a place in the afterlife where I can purge myself of my sin and make myself pure so that I can enter Paradise.

  • What do people get ready for in Purgatory? How do they get ready for it?

In Purgatory, people get ready for Paradise. Purgatory gets us ready to see God face to face.

Sinners need to be purged of sin so that they can be in the presence of God. By climbing up the seven terraces of Purgatory, they can get ready for it. In Purgatory, we learn not to regard ourselves as being the center of the universe.

  • Where is the island of Purgatory, according to Dante? How is the island of Purgatory organized?

The island of Purgatory is located in the Southern Hemisphere. As Dante understood the world, the Southern Hemisphere on the side of the Earth directly opposite from Jerusalem was all ocean — with the exception of the island that is the Mountain of Purgatory.

This Mountain has several parts:

1) At the bottom of the mountain is Ante-Purgatory or Pre-Purgatory. This is where souls are kept waiting before they can begin to climb the Mountain. If a soul kept God waiting by repenting at the very end of life, God will keep that soul waiting in Pre-Purgatory.

2) Purgatory itself consists of seven terraces or stories on which each of the seven deadly sins is purged. When Thomas Merton titled his spiritual autobiographyThe Seven-Storey Mountain, he had Dante’s Purgatoryin mind. (“Storey” is British English for the American English “story.”)

3) At the top of the Mountain is the Forest of Eden, aka the Earthly Paradise. Souls there drink from two rivers: One revives the memories of the good deeds one has committed, and the other takes away the sting of the bad deeds one has committed.

  • Is Purgatory a good place to be? Are the souls in Purgatory saved?

Purgatory is a place where all the souls are saved. No matter how bad the sins the soul committed, if a soul is here, that soul will go to Paradise eventually. One of the good things about Purgatory is that it is impossible to flunk it. Every soul being purged here will make it to Paradise.

We see some souls suffer as a part of the purgation process, but the souls welcome the purgation process. They know that they are getting ready for Paradise, and the suffering is well worth it.

  • Is Purgatory a place of change?

Purgatory is temporary, while the Inferno and Paradise are eternal. One day no one will be climbing up the Mountain of Purgatory because all the souls there will have been purified, and they will be in Heaven.

In addition, in Purgatory we have day and night. In the Inferno all we had was darkness, and in Paradise, all we have is light. The purging process tends to take place in daylight. An exception is the Slothful, who purge their sin both at night and during the day.

In Purgatory the souls change. They are able to purge themselves of their sins, beginning with the sin of pride. A soul at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory is much different from a soul at the bottom of the Mountain of Purgatory.

In the Inferno the souls suffer forever; in Paradise the souls are blissful forever.

Different people prefer different parts of The Divine Comedy:

1) Many students prefer the Inferno, perhaps because they are busy sinning.

2) Many prisoners preferPurgatory, perhaps because they have sinned and are purging their sin in prison. Many middle-aged people prefer Purgatory, perhaps because they have sinned and wish to purge their sins.

3) Many priests and religious people prefer Paradise, perhaps because they have sinned, have repented their sin, and are looking forward to Paradise.

  • How are Dante and the souls in Purgatory similar?

They are similar in two major ways:

1) They are growing, improving, losing their ignorance and soon to be losing their sin. The Dante who is in Purgatory is much different from the Dante who was in the dark wood of error. He has learned much from his trip through the Inferno.

2) They have a communal experience. Dante and Virgil travel together. They are not isolated. The souls in Purgatory will frequently work together. They will talk to each other. They will not be like Farinata and Cavalcante in the Inferno, who ignore each other although they will be in the same tomb forever.

  • How are Dante and the souls in Purgatory different from the souls in the Inferno?

They are different from the souls in the Inferno in two major ways:

1) They learn, and they grow. The souls in the Inferno do not learn. They do not change. Some souls still rebel against God. Some souls continue to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Some souls regret having been caught for sinning, but other than that they do not regret the sin.

2) They are communal. In the Inferno, the souls are concerned about themselves only; they are the center of the universe. Francesca and Paolo are together for eternity, but they don’t talk to each other. Farinata and Cavalcante are together for eternity, but they don’t talk to each other. Ulysses and Diomed are together for eternity, but they don’t talk to each other. Ugolino and Ruggieri are together for eternity, but they don’t talk to each other.

  • Can you understand Dante after reading only the Inferno?

The answer is a big, fat NO. The rest of The Divine Comedyholds a lot of surprises for readers. It is easy to read the Infernoand to think that you know who will end up in Hell, but you will be surprised at some of the types of people who end up in Paradise eventually or are already there — remember, all the souls we meet in Purgatory will eventually be in Paradise.

Here are a couple of examples:

1) We saw virtuous pagans in the Inferno, but we will see virtuous pagans in Paradise, also.

2) We may think that the excommunicated are kept out of Paradise, but we learn very quickly in Purgatorythat they are not.

Dorothy L. Sayers was a translator of The Divine Comedy, and she once said that trying to understand The Divine Comedyonly by reading the Infernois like trying to understand Paris after visiting only its sewer system.

  • Can every sin be forgiven, as long as a person repents?

Yes. This is one of the many things we can learn from Purgatory. Here in Purgatory, especially in the early cantos, we will see many people who we may think should be in the Inferno, based on their biographies. God is omnibenevolent, and God can forgive any sin.

In fact, if you think that God is unable to forgive your sins, you are guilty of the sin of pride. God can forgive any sin. If Adolf Hitler sincerely repented his sins, he would be either in Purgatory or in Paradise. (Of course, Hitler’s suicide — and murders! and genocide! — are problematic, as we know from Pier delle Vigne’s story. Also, I think that Hitler would spend many tens of thousands of years — or more — on the Mountain of Purgatory.)

In the Inferno, sinners refused to repent their sins. In Purgatory, sinners did repent their sins. Purgatory shows that every sin can be forgiven.

  • Do you know of anyone who is or was so proud that they think God cannot forgive their sins?

One of the great scoundrels of all times was Wilson Mizner. He really did care for money. Once, he was married to a wealthy woman, whom he was constantly asking for money. One day, at a restaurant, he was begging her for money, and she took an envelope of money from her purse and started hitting him with it. The envelope burst open, the money flew everywhere, and Wilson Mizner and the other customers in the restaurants got down on their hands and knees, grabbing the money. His wife screamed at him, “YOU CAN HAVE THE MONEY SINCE YOU’RE WILLING TO CRAWL FOR IT!” Wilson Mizner said later, “I’d picked up $4,000 before I realized I’d been insulted.”

On his deathbed, Mr. Mizner was asked to make peace with God, but he knew that he had led an evil life, so he said, “God keeps better books than that,” and died. However, Mr. Mizner may very well be a saved soul. He may not have said the words, but his actions may show that he repented his sins. He was a part-owner of the Brown Derby restaurant and held court there. He would leave home with lots of money in his pocket, and people who were down on their luck would come up to him and ask him for money, and he would give money to them. He gave away thousands of dollars before he died.

And when he died, he left everything to a woman. Everyone thought at first that she must have been his mistress, but she was a woman with whom he had a Platonic relationship — they were friends, not lovers.

  • Where do you suppose a person who is a pagan, a suicide, and an enemy of Julius Caesar would end up: the Inferno, Purgatory, or Paradise?

Most people would answer that this person would end up in the Inferno. After all, the virtuous pagan Virgil ended up in the Inferno, the suicide Pier delle Vigne ended up in the Inferno, and Brutus and Cassius (both enemies of Julius Caesar) ended up in the Inferno — in fact, Brutus and Cassius are two of the three worst human sinners of all time.

  • Who is Cato the Younger?

Cato the Younger, aka Cato the Stoic, is a person who is a pagan, a suicide, and an enemy of Julius Caesar. He committed suicide in 46 BCE, thus he was born before the time of Christ. He opposed Julius Caesar, and out of principle, he committed suicide rather than surrender to him. He believed that life would not be free under the rule of Julius Caesar, so he committed suicide.

Here are a few quotations that are attributed to Cato the Younger:

  • After I’m dead, I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.
  • An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes.
  • Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternatives.
  • The best way to keep good acts in memory is to refresh them with new.
  • The first virtue is to restrain the tongue; he approaches nearest to the gods who knows how to be silent, even though he is in the right.

 — Marcus Porcius Cato, 95-46 BC, Cato the Younger

Source: http://www.stevenredhead.com/quotes/ancient

  • What is Cato’s job in Purgatory?

Dante and Virgil see Cato, who challenges them.Cato is a guardian of Purgatory, and he thinks at first that Dante and Virgil have escaped from Hell. However, as soon as Virgil informs him that Dante is still living and that they are on a mission from God, then Cato welcomes them.

Cato is a rather stern guardian whose job is to help rather than hurt. The guards in the Inferno hurt the unrepentant sinners, but Cato’s job is to welcome and help repentant sinners. Of course, he can and must be stern. Part of his job is to make sure that the repentant sinners keep their minds focused on their job: purging their sins.

Bath Cato and Virgil are determined not to waste time. Virgil wants Dante to keep his eyes on the prize; Cato wants the sinners in Prepurgatory to also keep their eyes on the prize.

Cato’s job is basically to let people climb the Mountain of Purgatory, not to keep people away from the Mountain of Purgatory. No one leaves the Inferno except with the permission of God.

  • Will Cato be saved?

Critics disagree here. Some critics think that Cato will be saved; others think that once his job is finished here, he will return to Limbo.

Cato Will Be Saved

1) Cato’s job is not like the job of the guards in the Inferno.

2) We see in Ante-Purgatory many people whom we are surprised to see are saved. Cato is another example of these people.

3) Cato is separated from his wife. He loved her, but he does not mourn being separated from her. Perhaps that means in Heaven that we do not mourn the loss of loved ones who are in the Inferno. Such mourning would interfere with the perfect happiness that is Paradise. Cato says,

“Marcia so pleasing was unto mine eyes

While I was on the other side,” then said he,

“That every grace she wished of me I granted;

Now that she dwells beyond the evil river,

She can no longer move me, by that law

Which, when I issued forth from there, was made.”

(Longfellow 1.85-90)

Cato would have issued forth from Limbo during the Harrowing of Hell. The “law” (Musa or Longfellow, Purgatory1.89) he refers to may state that certain souls will no longer be confined to Limbo.

4) Virgil tells Cato:

“Thou know’st it; since, for her, to thee not bitter

Was death in Utica, where thou didst leave

The vesture, that will shine so, the great day.”

(Longfellow 1.73-75)

Many critics interpret that as saying that Cato will be reunited — in splendid fashion — with his body on Judgment Day, meaning that he is saved.

5) We will see other pagans in Paradise. Ripheus the Trojan was known for his justness, and he is saved. Cato the Younger was also known for his justness, and he may be saved.

6) True, Cato did commit suicide, but he committed suicide out of a love for freedom, not out of a rejection of life. Cato’s suicide is different from Pier della Vigne’s suicide.

Cato Will Not Be Saved

Some critics think that once Virgil’s job is finished, Virgil will return to the Inferno. Cato is like Virgil.

This is the reason why Cato may not be saved:

Virtuous pagans tend to end up in Limbo.

My Opinion

My opinion is that Cato will be saved. One day he will climb the Mountain of Purgatory, and he will enter Paradise. The point that convinces me is the lines about his wife. Because he is headed toward Paradise, he does not mourn being separated from her. Also, I find convincing the “law” (Purgatory1.90) he refers to — it may state that certain souls will no longer be confined to Limbo.

We can wonder about Paradise. We have loved ones, and some loved ones will not make it to Paradise. Assuming that you make it to Paradise and some of your loved ones do not, can you be perfectly happy? Perhaps. Cato loved his wife, but he does not now mourn being separated from her. Perhaps because Cato is destined for Paradise, he is unable to mourn those who end up in the Inferno, just as those who are in the Inferno are unable to repent their sins.


We are incapable of knowing everything. Some things will always remain a mystery to us. One of those things is salvation. Wherever we end up in the Afterlife, we will probably look around and say, “What is he (or she) doing here?”

Also, some people, including some Christian mystics, believe in an “upset verdict.” God is omnibenevolent, and God will not allow souls to suffer eternally in the Inferno. Eventually, there will be a second Harrowing — or better, a Hallowing — of Hell, and Hell will empty. This will be a triumph for God, Who is Omnipotent Love.

  • Why did Cato commit suicide?

Cato’s reason for suicide is different from Pier delle Vigne’s. Pier delle Vigne thought that by committing suicide, he could get people to sympathize with him.

Cato committed suicide out of his political beliefs. Julius Caesar was engaged in a political struggle — and civil war — to gain control of Rome. When it became clear that Julius Caesar would be victorious, Cato the Younger committed suicide. (He read Plato’s Phaedo, which contains arguments that human beings will have an afterlife, before he committed suicide.) He felt that life in the Roman Republic was free, and that life under Julius Caesar would not be free. Instead of living life under elected officials who changed occasionally, he would be living life under a dictator-for-life. Cato’s suicide was an act of defiance, not the rejection of life that Pier delle Vigne’s suicide was. Cato committed suicide because of his love of freedom. In contrast, Pier delle Vigne committed suicide because he rejected life.

Cato’s suicide was gruesome; it is described by Plutarch’s biography of him:

And now the birds were already beginning to sing, when he fell asleep again for a little while. And when Butas came and told him that harbours were very quiet, he ordered him to close the door, throwing himself down upon his couch as if he were going to rest there for what still remained of the night. But when Butas had gone out, Cato drew his sword from its sheath and stabbed himself below the breast. His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand, and so he did not at once dispatch himself, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a geometrical abacus that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound. Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died.

Source: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Cato_Minor*.html

From The Parallel Lives by Plutarchpublished in Vol. VIII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1919

Virgil speaks to Cato with much respect, and he has Dante kneel before Cato:

Then did my Leader lay his grasp upon me,

And with his words, and with his hands and signs,

Reverent he made in me my knees and brow;

(Longfellow 1.49-51)

Virgil speaks at length and with respect to Cato. In the Inferno, he was often curt and insulting when speaking to the sinners and guards outside of Limbo.

Note that Dante never tells us the name of Cato. Dante is writing for an educated audience, and he expects his audience to know that this is Cato because of the references to Utica and to Marcia. Utica was an ancient city in North Africa where Cato committed suicide, and Marcia was Cato’s wife.

  • What happens when Dante plucks a reed?

We will see many good things in Purgatory. The first miracle we see is that when Dante plucks a reed to use as a belt — he lost his belt when Virgil used it to signal Geryon — another reed immediately grows in its place. Purgatory is a place of fertility — things grow here. Dante’s time in Paradise begins with a miracle.

Other good things that we will see in Purgatory are these:

  • The souls are very helpful to Virgil and Dante. They willingly give directions.
  • The souls are communal. They help each other in their purgation. They are not alone, unless apparently by choice.
  • Surprises are good in Purgatory. A couple of souls are surprised — and happy — to meet Virgil.
  • Good deeds are done in Purgatory. Saint Lucia will help Dante climb the Mountain of Purgatory.
  • The prayers of good people on Earth for the dead in Purgatory are listened to and answered.
  • What are the seven deadly sins?

Pride, envy, anger, sloth, avariciousness and prodigality, gluttony, and lust. These sins are purged on these stories of the Seven-Storey Mountain:

Level 1: Pride

Level 2: Envy

Level 3: Wrath

Level 4: Sloth

Level 5: Avariciousness and Prodigality

Level 6: Gluttony

Level 7: Lust

We may have here evidence that the Slothful are punished with the Wrathful in the Inferno instead of being punished separately in the Vestibule of Hell. We see that Wrath is purged on Level 3 and Sloth is purged on Level 4. Possibly, a number of levels purge sins in the reverse order in which sins are punished in the Inferno:


PurgatoryLevel 3: Wrath is Punished

PurgatoryLevel 4: Sloth is Punished

PurgatoryLevel 5: Avariciousness/Prodigality is Punished

PurgatoryLevel 6: Gluttonyis Punished

PurgatoryLevel 7: Lust is Punished


InfernoCircle 5: Wrath is Punished

InfernoCircle 5: Sloth is Punished?

InfernoCircle 4: Avariciousness/Prodigality is Punished

InfernoCircle 3: Gluttony is Punished

InfernoCircle 2: Lust is Punished

Some controversy exists over whether Sloth is punished in Circle 5 of the Inferno. The sin punished there may be Sullenness.

Pride and Envy are purged on the first two levels of the Mountain of Purgatory. They may be regarded as the foundations of sin.

  • Which good things does Dante see at the beginning of this canto?

After coming out of the Inferno, Dante is able to see the night sky. He notices Venus, the planet of love, which is appropriate. He also notices a southern constellation that consists of four stars seen first and last by Adam and Eve. The four stars are allegorical and represent the four cardinal virtues:

  • Prudence
  • Temperance
  • Justice
  • Fortitude
  • Why are they called cardinal virtues?

Here is an explanation:

They are called cardinal (Latin: cardo, hinge) virtues because they are hinges on which all moral virtues depend. These are also called moral (Latin: mores, fixed values) because they govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to faith and reason.

Source: http://www.secondexodus.com/html/catholicdefinitions/cardinalvirtues.htm

Date Downloaded: 6 September 2010

  • Which four classes of Late Repentants will Dante see in Prepurgatory?

These are the four classes of Late Repentants whom Dante will see in Prepurgatory:

The Excommunicated

The Spiritually Lazy

Those Who Repented While Meeting Violent, Sudden Deaths

The Negligent Princes


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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