David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 15: Third Ledge: Anger”

Canto 15: Third Ledge: Anger

  • What is the light that dazzles Dante?

The time is approximately 3 p.m. on Easter Monday.

The sun is shining, but suddenly a “light far brighter” (15.11) appears. The light is so bright that Dante has to use his hands to block the light.

The light is that of an angel, who has appeared to invite Dante and Virgil to climb higher up the mountain.

Virgil lets Dante know that the higher he goes up the mountain, the less the light will dazzle him:

“Soon will it be, that to behold these things

Shall not be grievous, but delightful to thee

As much as nature fashioned thee to feel.”

(Longfellow 15.31-33)

In addition, these stairs will be less steep than the stairs the two poets have previously climbed. The angel speaks to Dante and Virgil:

When we had reached the Angel benedight,

With joyful voice he said: “Here enter in

To stairway far less steep than are the others.”

(Longfellow 15.34-36)

By the way, “benedight” means blessed.

The angel is happy with the progress that Dante has made.

As Virgil and Dante begin to climb the stairs, they hear “Blessed are the merciful” — another of Christ’s beatitudes, and one that blesses those who are good to others and are not envious of them.

  • What are the things that exclude a common sharing?

In Canto 15, Dante asks Virgil:

“How can one good that’s shared by many souls

make all those who possess it wealthier

than if it were possessed by just a few?”

(Musa 15.61-63)

In Canto 14, Guido said,

“human race, why do you place your hopes

where partnership must always be denied.”

(Musa 14.86-87)

Material possessions are things that human beings can overvalue. When it comes to material possessions, if one person owns something, then other people do not own it.

Dante scholars William R. Cookand Ronald B. Herzmanuse this example: If I own a copy of a poem written out in full by Robert Frost, then you do not own that same handwritten copy of the poem. This material possession excludes a common sharing. Other things do not exclude a common sharing. Both you and I can memorize the same poem by Robert Frost. Here the poem is not a material thing, and so both you and I can possess the poem.

Virgil tells Dante,

“Because are thither pointed your desires

Where by companionship each share is lessened,

Envy doth ply the bellows to your sighs.

But if the love of the supernal sphere

Should upwardly direct your aspiration,

There would not be that fear within your breast;

For there, as much the more as one says ‘Our,’

So much the more of good each one possesses,

And more of charity in that cloister burns.”

(Longfellow 15.49-57)

Material possessions often lead to envy. If I have a piece of paper on which Robert Frost handwrote a poem, you and I cannot possess that paper simultaneously and you may envy me because of that possession. But if we both memorize the poem, each of us can possess it completely without taking anything away from the other person.

In Dante’s Heaven, everybody shares his or her spiritual gifts, and everybody gains because of the sharing. Sharing love can make people wealthier in a spiritual sense. Virgil tells Dante that Beatrice can provide further insight for him.

  • Briefly describe the exempla (examples) of Meekness that are presented in Canto 15.

Dante and Virgil reach the third ledge, where sinful wrath is purged.

Dante has a series of “ecstatic visions” that dramatize meekness, which is the opposite of sinful wrath. This shows that we can gain wisdom in many ways. On the first storey, people gain wisdom through the use of their sight. On the second storey, people gain wisdom through the use of their hearing. On this, the third storey, people gain wisdom through ecstatic visions. We can liken them to revelation.

These are the exempla of meekness:

1) Mother Mary and the Youthful Jesus

The youthful Jesus teaches in the temple while Mary and Joseph think he is lost. She gently asks him, “My son, / why hast Thou dealt with us this way” (Musa 15.89-90). Obviously, a parent will be anxious when the parent thinks that a child has been lost. Finding the child can be a time of great happiness that the child has been found, followed by anger that the child allowed the parent to feel such anxiety.

This is the story as told in Luke 2:40-52 (King James Version):

40:And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

41:Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.

42:And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.

43:And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.

44:But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.

45:And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.

46:And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.

47:And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

48:And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.

49:And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?

50:And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.

51:And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.

52:And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

2) The Ruler Of Athens, Pisistratus

The ruler of Athens, Pisistratus, was known for his ability to deal with angry people. His wife was upset because a young man had publically hugged their daughter, and so she wanted him killed. Pisistratus asked her, “What shall we do to those who want to harm us, if we condemn those who love us?” This anecdote is related in Facta and Dicta(Memorable Doings and Sayings) V, i, by Valerius Maximus:

When a young man fired by love for his [Pisistratus’] unmarried daughter had kissed her as she came in his way in public, his wife urged Pisistratus to have him put to death, but he answered: “If we kill those who love us, what shall we do with those who hate us?”

Source: Facta and Dicta(Memorable Doings and Sayings)V, i, by Valerius Maximus. Translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey.

3) Saint Stephen, The First Christian Martyr

Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died while praying for the forgiveness of his killers.

This is the story as told in the King James translation of Acts 7:54-60:

54:When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

55:But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,

56:And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

57:Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,

58:And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.

59:And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

60:And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

  • What happens at the end of Canto 15?

Dante and Virgil continue walking, and a thick smoke rolls toward them:

And lo! by slow degrees a smoke approached

In our direction, sombre as the night,

Nor was there place to hide one’s self therefrom.

This of our eyes and the pure air bereft us.

(Longfellow 15.142-145)

The smoke envelopes them, and Dante and Virgil can no longer see.

This is a cliffhanger. Dante’s audience will continue reading to find out the cause of the smoke.


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