David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 6: Prepurgatory — Sordello”

Canto 6: Prepurgatory — Sordello

  • Often we will see linkage in The Divine Comedy. For example, Inferno6 and Purgatory6 are both about politics (as isParadise6).

We will see a broadening of perspective as we go from the Inferno to Purgatory to Paradise, and in Paradise we see the big picture:

Canto 6 (the gluttons) in the Infernois about politics in Florence.

Canto 6 in Purgatoryis about politics in Italy.

Canto 6 in Paradiseis about politics in the Roman and the Holy Roman Empire.

Dante criticizes corruption. In each of the above cantos, he criticizes corruption in the area under discussion.

Note that we go from the smaller picture to the larger picture as we go from the Inferno(Florence) to Purgatory(Italy) to Paradise(the Roman and the Holy Roman Empire).

  • Does prayer affect the will of Heaven?

We pray for the dead, so we must think it has an effect.

When Dante asks whether prayer affects the will of Heaven, Virgil tells him to ask Beatrice when he sees her later. (When Dante hears the name Beatrice, he is energized and ready to climb higher. He is eager to see Beatrice again.)

Virgil also says that the prayers of the pure of heart are heard in Heaven. The prayers of evil people are not heard in Heaven.

Dante asks about prayer because of a passage in Virgil’s Aeneid6.373-376, in which Palinurus wishes to be ferried across the River Styx although his body has not been buried. Mark Musa translates the Sibyl’s response to Palinurus’ request (63):

Whence, Palinurus, this wild longing of yours?

Shall you, unburied, view the Stygian waters and

The Furies’ stern river, and unbidden, draw near the bank?

Stop dreaming that heaven’s decrees may be turned aside by prayer.

The prayers of pagans are unanswered because pagans do not worship God correctly. Therefore, what Virgil wrote in the Aeneidis correct, but it does not apply to the prayers of sincere Christians.

Virgil also refers to the omnibenevolence of God — to God’s love:

“High justice would in no way be abased

if ardent love should cancel instantly

the debt these penitents must satisfy,”

(Musa 6.37-39)

On the Day of Judgment, any soul who is climbing the Mountain of Purgatory will instantly go to Paradise, even if under normal circumstances the soul would spend hundreds of years climbing the Seven-Storey Mountain.

This can give hope to the rest of us. God’s love may be so great that God saves even the sinners in the Inferno. This would certainly be a triumph for Love. Some people believe in Hell, but because they also believe in God’s Love, they believe that Hell is either empty or will be empty one day.

By the way, Father Bob Perella once said, “Since I believe in the Bible, I’m sure there’s a Hell. But I believe in God’s mercy — and therefore I’m sure it’s empty.” (Source: Joey Adams, The God Bit, p. 253.)

  • Compare and contrast how Sordello and Virgil, who are from the same city, interact with the way that Dante and Farinata, who are from the same city, interacted in Inferno10.

Virgil asks a soul for help — he is confident of receiving help. That is one difference between the Inferno and Purgatory. The souls in Purgatory are eager to help. The souls in deep Hell are not eager to help. The souls who are willing to tell their stories to Dante often want to gain something by it — to spin their stories to cast the blame somewhere else (Francesca da Rimini) or to have continued Earthly fame (Brunetto Latini).

Farinata and Dante immediately began to talk about what separated them: family and politics. They began to try to score points off each other. Farinata pointed out that he had scattered Dante’s party twice, and Dante pointed out that his party had returned to Florence but that Farinata’s family had not. Farinata then revealed that the future held troubled times for Dante.

Sordello happens to be from Mantua, which is where Virgil is from. When Sordello learns this, he reacts in an interesting way:

But of our native land and of our life

It questioned us; and the sweet Guide began:

“Mantua,” — and the shade, all in itself recluse,

Rose tow’rds him from the place where first it was,

Saying: “O Mantuan, I am Sordello

Of thine own land!” and one embraced the other.

(Longfellow 6.70-75)

Sordello and Virgil have a birthplace in common, and they like each other because of it. (Later, we will see in Heaven that Earthly citizenship is not important. What is important is being in Paradise.) At this point, Sordello does not know that he is embracing a great Roman poet.

Another difference between the Inferno and Purgatory is the lack of factionalism, which we saw a lot of inInferno6 (Ciacco talks about factionalism in Florence) and Inferno10 (Farinata). Neither Sordello nor Virgil are trying to one-up each other or trying to score points against each other.

  • How does Dante the Poet criticize the corruption and evil in Italy?

We see Dante the Poet doing a lot of criticism from this point. He heavily criticizes factionalism, which exists throughout Italy, not just in Florence. Many warriors are in Italy, and they are killing other Italians. Two targets of Dante’s criticism are the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope.

Dante points out the importance of Roman law, which is one of the wonders of the world. Unfortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor is in Germany rather than Italy, so no one is around to enforce the Roman law. Why isn’t the Holy Roman Emperor around? In part, because the Pope doesn’t want him around. We read:

What boots it, that for thee Justinian

The bridle mend, if empty be the saddle?

Withouten this the shame would be the less.

(Longfellow 6.88-90)

We will also see a further linkage with Canto 6 of Paradise, in which we meet Justinian, who codified the law. The point of the above passage is that Justinian codified the law, but that no one is now in Italy to enforce it.

Here is more criticism of factionalism in Dante the Poet’s apostrophe:

Come and behold Montecchi and Cappelletti,

Monaldi and Fillippeschi, careless man!

Those sad already, and these doubt-depressed!

(Longfellow 6.106-108)

The Cappelletti and the Montecchi families are better known to modern readers as the Capulets and the Montagues, which is how they appear in William Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet.

  • What is the importance of law in a society?

Law is enormously important in society.It lets people know what they can and cannot do legally. If the laws were not written down, we would find it difficult to know when we were breaking the law. (The Magna Carta is important in part because in it the laws are written down.) In addition, if laws were constantly changing and not stable, we would run into difficulties. Dante writes:

that by the time November is half done

the laws spun in October are in shreds.

How often within memory have you changed

coinage and customs, laws and offices,

and members of your body politic!

(Musa 6.142-147)

Florence and other places are chaotic because of constantly changing laws. When the Ghibellines kick out the Guelfs, they make new laws. When the Guelfs kick out the Ghibellines, they make new laws. With political power changing hands so quickly and so often, it is very difficult to make plans.

In order for people to respect law, it has to stay law for a while. If it changes frequently, people won’t know what is legal and what is illegal.

In the United States, we haveex post factolaws. If I do something that is legal today and it becomes illegal tomorrow, I can’t be charged with it because it wasn’t illegal when I did it. For example, when I was age 18, people could drink legally in Florida at age 18. Later, the law was changed, but I could not be charged with underage consumption because when I drank alcohol in Florida at age 18, it was legal to drink alcohol in Florida at age 18.

In Florence in Dante’s day, that wasn’t the case. You could be held liable for what you did yesterday, even if it was legal to do that yesterday. In such a society, you can have a lot of stagnation and a lot of chaos.

Dante the Poet says this about extreme factionalism in Florence:

And if thou mind thee well, and see the light,

Thou shalt behold thyself like a sick woman,

Who cannot find repose upon her down,

But by her tossing wardeth off her pain.

(Longfellow 6.148-151)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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