David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 10: First Ledge — Pride”

Canto 10: First Ledge — Pride

  • Nearly a third of the way through the Purgatory, Dante and Virgil reach Purgatory Proper.

Obviously, we spent a lot of time in Prepurgatory because Dante felt that there was much to learn there.

The main point: Dante does not want for us to wait before repenting and before beginning the process of purging our sin.

From this point we enter Purgatory Proper, which has seven storeys or ledges. Each storey or ledge is devoted to purging a particular sin, beginning with pride, the foundation of the other sins.

  • What is pride, and why is it a sin?

Good factionalism and bad factionalism exist. People of good will can disagree about politics, poetry, music, and other things. Bad factionalism results in such things as warfare and innocent people being hurt.

Good pride and bad pride exist. I want students to work hard on their papers and to take pride in their work. But bad pride can be destructive to oneself — look at everyone in the Inferno — as well as to other people.

Pride is putting yourself at the center of the universe. You regard yourself as being more important than anyone else.

Pride is the foundation of the other deadly sins. We can see how it works with thievery. Say that someone smashes in your car windshield in order to steal a couple of music CDs. Getting the windshield replaced may cost $500; the CDs may cost $20. The thief is so proud that he or she values $20 for him- or herself more than $520 for you ($500 for replacing the windshield, and $20 for replacing the CDs).

Let’s look at pride and other sins:

1) Pride.

I am the center of the universe, and I am better than other people. Quite simply, I am more important than other people.

2) Envy.

I am the center of the universe, so I ought to have it all, and if you have something I want, I envy you.

3) Wrath.

Because I am the center of the universe, everything ought to go my way, and when it does not, I get angry.

4) Sloth.

I am the center of the universe, so I don’t have to work at something. Either other people can do my work for me, or they can give me credit for work I have not done because if I had done the work, I would have done it excellently.

5) Avariciousness and Prodigality.

I am the center of the universe, so I deserve to have what I want. If I want money, I get money and never spend it, or if I want the things that money can buy, then I spend every dime I can make or borrow to get what I want. Either way, I deserve to have what I want.

6) Gluttony.

I am the center of the universe, so I deserve these two extra pieces of pie every night. This is my reward to myself for being so fabulous.

7) Lust.

I am the center of the universe, so my needs take precedence over the needs of everyone else. If I want to get laid, it’s OK if I lie to get someone in the sack and never call in the days and weeks afterward. My sexual pleasure is more important than the hurt of someone who realizes that he or she has been used.

  • Dante and Virgil see realistic sculptures carved into the mountain. What kind of stories do the sculptures illustrate, and who is the Sculptor? What is the didactic (educational) purpose of the sculptures?

Carved in the mountain are exempla (examples) of the virtue that is opposed to pride: humility. As we will see, each ledge of the mountain will be devoted to purging one sin, and each ledge will have positive exempla of a virtue as well as negative exempla of the sin being purged on that ledge:

            Level 1: Pride is the sin: Humility is the virtue.

            Level 2: Envy is the sin: Generosity is the virtue.

            Level 3: Wrath is the sin: Meekness is the virtue.

            Level 4: Sloth is the sin: Zeal is the virtue.

            Level 5: Avaricious and Wasteful are the sins: Detachment from Riches is the virtue.

            Level 6: Gluttony is the sin: Abstinence is the virtue.

            Level 7: Lust is the sin: Chastity is the virtue.

Note that we have art — and lots of it — in Purgatory.

Note that lots of education takes place in Purgatory. Someone may want to say that the repentant sinners are being punished for their sins, but it would be better to say that they are being purged of their sins. Although we will see some souls suffer in Purgatory, the purpose of the suffering is to educate the souls and to purge the souls of sin. The souls benefit from their suffering, and they expect to benefit from their suffering. The souls want to be in Purgatory. They are confident that God will keep His promises and they will reach Paradise.

God is the sculptor; God created the art on the Mountain of Purgatory. Previously we saw that God is an architect — when he built the Entrance to the Inferno. Now we see that God is a great sculptor, too.

At the end of the third exemplum (Trajan and the poor widow), we find out definitively who created the sculpture:

He who on no new thing has ever looked

Was the creator of this visible language,

Novel to us, for here it is not found.

(Longfellow 10.94-96)

We can see two major points:

1) Good art can lead to education.

2) To understand something, look at examples of it. We may add that one should look also at examples of its opposite. For example, to understand courage, look at examples of courage and at examples of cowardice. This helps to illustrate the need for telling stories to children (and adults, perhaps by way of literature), and the need for good role models, and the need for the ability to identify bad role models.

  • From which three sources do the stories that illustrate humility come from?

The positive exempla will always consist of an example from Mary, the mother of Christ; other exempla may come from the Old Testament and from pagan literature and ancient history and mythology.

  • What are the three exempla of humility?

The three positive exempla of humility — which are carved on the side of the mountain — are the Annunciation to Mary (in which an angel told Mary that she would bear Christ), King David dancing before the ark of the covenant, and the Roman Emperor Trajan. In his Inferno, Dante made good use of classical mythology and literature, and he does that here in his Purgatory.

  1. Mary and the Annunciation

When the angel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah, Mary could have understandably been proud. Instead, she gave all glory to God and called herself a servant (handmaid) of God.

We read about the Annunciation in Luke 1:26-38 (King James Version):

26:And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,

27:To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

28:And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

29:And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

30:And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

31:And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.

32:He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

33:And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

34:Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

35:And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

36:And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

37:For with God nothing shall be impossible.

38:And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

  1. King David Dances as the Ark of the Covenant is Brought to Jerusalem

King David shows humility by dancing before the ark, in contrast to his first wife, Michal, who dislikes her husband’s act of humility and is therefore made infertile by God.

We read in II Samuel 6 (King James Version):

14:And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.

15:So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

16:And as the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal Saul’s daughter looked through a window, and saw king David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.


20:Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, How glorious was the king of Israel to day, who uncovered himself to day in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself!

21:And David said unto Michal, It was before the LORD, which chose me before thy father, and before all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the LORD, over Israel: therefore will I play before the LORD.

22:And I will yet be more vile than thus, and will be base in mine own sight: and of the maidservants which thou hast spoken of, of them shall I be had in honour.

23:Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.

  1. The Emperor Trajan Accedes to the Request of a Poor Widow

On his way to fight a battle, Trajan speaks to a poor widow who wishes him to give her justice for her son who has been killed. Trajan hesitates, but he does as the poor widow wishes.

We will see Trajan again later — he will be a pagan in Paradise.

This is a brief account of the story of Trajan by Alfred J. Church in his Roman Life and Story:

“Gregory,” says his biographer, John the Deacon, “walking through the Forum of Trajan, a place which that Prince had adorned with very noble buildings, recollected how this Trajan had, by his just dealing, comforted the soul of a certain widow. As he was hastening with all speed to the war — so the story runs — a widow cried out to him with tears, ‘My innocent son has been murdered, and that since you came to be Emperor. I beseech you, seeing that you cannot bring him to life, to avenge his death.’ ‘I will do so to the utmost,’ said he, ‘if I return safe from the war.’ ‘But,’ said the widow, ‘if you should fall in battle who will do me justice?’ He answered, ‘My successor.’ Said the widow, ‘what will it profit thee if another do this good deed?’ ‘Verily nothing,’ he answered. ‘Then,’ said she, ‘is it not better for thee, thyself, to do me justice and gain thy reward, therefore, than to pass this on to another?’ Thereupon Trajan dismounted; nor did he depart till he had tried the cause of the widow, and done full justice therein. Gregory, therefore, remembering how righteous this said Trajan had been, came to the great Church of St. Peter, and there wept so sore for the errors of this most merciful prince that, on the following night, there came to him this answer: ‘Thou hast been heard for Trajan, but take care that thou pray not for any other pagan soul.’”

The good John is somewhat troubled in mind by this story. Did not Gregory himself say that the children of God may not pray for unbelievers and wicked men that have departed this life? His doubts drive him into sophistry. Gregory, he says, did not pray but wept only, and we know that God hears the unspoken desire of his servants. Nor is it said that Trajan’s soul was removed to Paradise. That, he thinks, would be incredible. It may have remained in hell, but so as not to feel the torments thereof. So far John the Deacon. Dante is not so disturbed by the story. He boldly places the Emperor in the sixth heaven among the spirits of the just made perfect.

Source: <http://tinyurl.com/ln5sb2e&gt;

Date downloaded: 1 August 2013

  • Why is the story of the Annunciation especially important?

Mary will always be an exemplum of the virtue on each of the seven stories on the Mountain. Here she is an excellent example of humility. It seems to me that if you were told that you would give birth to the Messiah, then you might be very proud of that. Mary responds with humility and gives God all the glory.

  • How realistic is the sculpture?

We read:

The Angel, who came down to earth with tidings

Of peace, that had been wept for many a year,

And opened Heaven from its long interdict,

In front of us appeared so truthfully

There sculptured in a gracious attitude,

He did not seem an image that is silent.

One would have sworn that he was saying, “Ave;”

(Longfellow 10.34-40)

What does the angel say to Mary? Apparently, the angel says, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” It is interesting how realistic the sculpture is. Dante thinks that he hears the word “Ave” although he knows that the word is merely carved into the rock. God is quite a good sculptor indeed. By the way, the Latin word “Ave” means “Hail.”

The next sculpture depicts the ark of the covenant, seven choirs, and some censers filled with incense:

There sculptured in the self-same marble were

The cart and oxen, drawing the holy ark,

Wherefore one dreads an office not appointed.

People appeared in front, and all of them

In seven choirs divided, of two senses

Made one say “No,” the other, “Yes, they sing.”

(Longfellow 10.54-60)

The sculpture is so realistic that Dante thinks that he may hear singing and that he may smell incense.

In addition, in the story of King Trajan, Dante seems to hear a long conversation between the widow woman and the king.

  • Why is the story of King David especially important for Dante?

What is King David especially noted for? Probably these things:

1) He is a great politician: a King.

2) He is a great poet: the author of the Psalms.

3) He is a great sinner who was saved by God.

4) He is a very talented man, just like Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro. Fortunately, David repented.

Here is some background information on David and Bathsheba. From a rooftop, David saw a woman bathing, and he desired her. Because he was King, he was able to sleep with her, although she was married — her husband (Uriah the Hittite) was away on a military mission. She got pregnant with King David’s child. David sent for her husband so that he (her husband) could have sex with Bathsheba and so think the child was his, but her husband did not want to have sex while people were dying in war. (David, by the way, should have been fighting, not committing adultery.) Therefore, King David ordered that Bathsheba’s husband be put in the front lines where he would probably be killed, and he was killed. (Other people were killed with Uriah. Apparently, bad battle tactics were needed to get Uriah killed, and other innocent men died with him.) David then made Bathsheba one of his wives. This story does have a happy ending, as David repents his sin, is forgiven, and is now in Paradise.

Dante is very much like David in being a great poet and a politician. Of course, both of them are highly intelligent people. Dante has sinned, although we don’t know the exact nature of his sin, and he can learn a lot from David. He needs to learn to be humble: to give credit to God and not to himself.

  • What does King Trajan do in the third exemplum of humility?

Of course, he accedes to the request of a poor widow. King Trajan’s agenda was to ride out with his army, but instead he helps the poor widow first. At first, King Trajan wanted her to wait for justice in the murder of her son until he came back from a military campaign, but she asked him, “What if you don’t came back?” He agreed to help her find justice for her son’s death.

This story appears in John the Deacon’s Sancti Gregorii Magni Vitae, a 9th-century biography of Saint Gregory the Great:

And here we narrate somewhat of the tears of Roman Saint Gregory restoring the soul of the Emperor Trajan and baptizing it, which is marvelous to say and hear. … Now one day when he was going through Trajan’s Forum … he thought about the work of mercy the pagan had performed, which seemed to him more Christian than pagan. For as he was leading his army forth to fight against the enemy, he was softened by the voice of a widow pleading for mercy, halting the Emperor of the whole world. For she said, ‘Lord Trajan, here are men who have killed my son, who will not render me justice’. He replied, ‘When I return, speak to me, and I will render justice to you’. And she, ‘Lord, and if you do not return, there is none to help me’. Then he acquiesced to the judgement, and from the midst of the bronze armour put together the money that was owed. Thus, St Gregory concluded, he who had not known the passage, Judge the orphan and defend the widow and come and reason together, said the Lord (Isaiah 1.16-17), had done it. And weeping, he entered St Peter’s …

Source: <http://www.umilta.net/gregory.html>.

Date Downloaded: 10 February 2009

Trajan’s good deed is so important that Saint Gregory prayed that Trajan be brought back to life so that he could convert and become a Christian. This happened, and we will see Trajan in Paradise.

  • How is Dante’s Divine Comedysimilar in purpose to the sculpture illustrating humility?

In the sculpture, we see visible speech:

1) the angel seems to speak to Mary,

2) the choirs seem to sing before the ark of the covenant, and

3) King Trajan and the poor widow seem to have a long conversation.

Another kind of visible speech is poetry. Poetry with its rhyme and meter is often designed to be read or recited aloud. By putting poetry into a book, we are making speech visible.

We also see a didactic purpose in both the sculpture and in The Divine Comedy. Dante wants us to learn from reading The Divine Comedy. Dante and the maker of the sculpture are trying to bring about moral improvement.

By traveling throughout the afterlife, Dante of course is learning. He knows that he has great talents — the question that he must find the answer to is what purpose should he put his great talents.

  • Which purgationis designed to drive away pride? Why is this fitting?

Once through the Gates of Purgatory, the souls arrive at the first ledge, which is devoted to purging those who were guilty of pride. In the 21st century, we often think of pride as something positive. Proper pride is, but the sin of pride is thinking of yourself as the center of the universe and the most important thing in the universe. Being forced to carry huge stones on their back purges the proud here on the first story of Purgatory Proper. This is an appropriate purgation because the heavy stones force the sinners to bow and assume a humble position.

Farinata in the Inferno is of course proud. He stands up straight like a statue; he is not bent over like these saved souls are.

The stones the souls are carrying are huge; however, they will gain from all of their hard effort. They will be purged of their sin.

The stones are not of equal weight. The prouder a sinner was, the heavier the stone is. We read that the souls slowly make their way, “unequally tormented by their loads” (Musa, Purgatory11.28).

  • These souls are compared to art: They resemble a corbel. What is a corbel? What do these souls have in common with art?

Corbels are little sculptures of little people. They sometimes appear to be holding up a roof or other heavy weight such as a column.

Stone is what much sculpture is made of. Sculptors shape stone works of art. We sinners need to allow God to shape us into works of art.

We read:

Sometimes one sees a corbel, holding the weight

of roof or ceiling, carved in human shape

with chest pressed tightly down against its knees,

so that this unreality gives real

anguish to one who sees it — this is how

these souls appeared, and how they made me feel.

(Musa 10.130-135)

Just before this, Dante makes an apostrophe to haughty Christians, warning them not to be proud:

Why floats aloft your spirit high in air?

Like are ye unto insects undeveloped,

Even as the worm in whom formation fails!

(Longfellow 10.124-126)

  • An Example of Pride

Sometimes people die of hunger; sometimes this happens because of pride. In Vilna in the 19th century, a rich man became poor. Because of his pride he kept up appearances, and he did not ask for help, and so he died because of lack of food. The townspeople were ashamed that anyone could die in their midst in this way, but Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) told them, “That man did not die of starvation, but of excessive pride. Had he been willing to ask others for help and admit to his situation, he would not have died of hunger.”(Source: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin,Jewish Wisdom, p. 13.)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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