David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide —”Canto 17: Fourth Ledge — Sloth”

Canto 17: Fourth Ledge — Sloth

  • Briefly describe the exempla (examples) of Wrath that are presented in Canto 17.

When the smoke thins out, Dante sees a few visions that are exempla (examples) of Wrath (Sinful Rage).

1) Procne, Who Killed Her Son

Procne was married to Tereus, and she bore him a son named Itys. Tereus then raped Procne’s sister, Philomela, and he cut out her tongue so that she could not tell anyone what had happened. Philomela wove a tapestry. The tapestry contained pictures that told the story of the rape. When Procne saw the tapestry and realized that her husband had raped her sister, she was so angry that she killed his and her son, cooked him, and served him to her husband. Ovid tells this story in Book 6 of his book Metamorphoses.

2) The Persian Haman, Who Planned to Slaughter Many Jews But was Himself Executed

The Persian Haman was a high official of the Persian King Ahasuerus, whom we know better as Xerxes. He was famous in ancient Greek history as well as in Old Testament history. In ancient Greek history, his father, Darius, invaded the Greek mainland, but was defeated at Marathon. (We get the name “marathon” for our long-distance race because a runner carried the news of the Greek victory all the way to Athens, dying after he delivered the news.) Xerxes also invaded the Greek mainland. He was delayed at Thermopylae, a pass in the mountains. During the Battle of Thermopylae, 300 Spartans, and 1,000 other Greeks, led by King Leonidasof Sparta, held off the vastly numerically superior Persians for a few days, giving the Greeks time to gather their forces. The Greeks defeated the Persians in such battles as the Battle of Salamisand the Battle of Plataea, thus preventing the Persians from subjugating Greece.

In the Book of Esther, we read about Haman, who decided to have all the Jews killed because Mordecai, the cousin of Esther, would not bow down to him. Haman told Xerxes that a people in his kingdom did not obey his laws, and therefore that people ought to be killed. Xerxes was agreeable.

Esther asked that the Jews, herself included, fast for three days, and then she would see the king. (She was his queen.) Xerxes was unable to sleep one night, and he ordered a book of chronicles to be read to him. The selection read told about the loyalty of Mordecai, who had prevented the assassination of King Xerxes by two eunuchs.

Esther went to King Xerxes, her husband, and asked him not to kill all the Jews. He asked who was planning to kill all the Jews. Hearing from Esther that Haman was planning to kill all the Jews, Xerxes ordered that Haman be hung. In fact, the gallows that Haman had planned to use to hang Mordecai was used to hang Haman.

3) Amata, Who Committed Suicide When Her Daughter, Lavinia, was About to Marry the Foreigner Aeneas Rather than the Italian Turnus

In Virgil’s Aeneid, we read about the death of Amata. Amata wanted her daughter to marry Turnus. However, when she heard a rumor — it turned out to be false — that Turnus had been killed in battle, she committed suicide rather than see Lavinia married to Aeneas. This story is told in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 12:

But fate and envious fortune now prepare

To plunge the Latins in the last despair.

The queen, who saw the foes invade the town,

And brands on tops of burning houses thrown,

Cast round her eyes, distracted with her fear —

No troops of Turnus in the field appear.

Once more she stares abroad, but still in vain,

And then concludes the royal youth is slain.

Mad with her anguish, impotent to bear

The mighty grief, she loathes the vital air.

She calls herself the cause of all this ill,

And owns the dire effects of her ungovern’d will;

She raves against the gods; she beats her breast;

She tears with both her hands her purple vest:

Then round a beam a running noose she tied,

And, fasten’d by the neck, obscenely died.


Translator: John Dryden

  • What is Sloth?

After seeing these exempla of Sinful Rage, Dante is blinded by an angel. This angel, who says, “Beati/ pacifici” (17.68-69), which means “Blessed are the peacemakers,” shows Dante and Virgil the way upward even before they ask. Dante and Virgil do go upward, but Dante begins to find it hard to move his feet. Why? For two reasons:

1) This is the ledge that is devoted to purging sloth or laziness, and so Dante is experiencing laziness.

2) The end of the day has arrived, and on the Mountain of Purgatory, no sinner can ascend at night.

Virgil tells Dante that this is the ledge devoted to purging sloth or laziness, aka lack of vigilance in pursuing those things that ought to be pursued.

  • What is the relationship between love and the seven capital sins, according to Virgil?

No one is allowed to climb the Mountain of Purgatory at night, and so Virgil takes the time to teach Dante about the relationship between love and the seven capital sins.

The seven capital sins are also known as the seven deadly sins and as the seven cardinal (“cardinal” means “of prime importance”) sins. They are these:

Pride, Envy, and Wrath: Love the Wrong Things

Sloth: Love the Right Things, But Not Enough

Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust: Love the Right Things Too Much

Note: The references to “Love” are explained later.

Similarly, Virgil and Dante rested in the Inferno in Canto 11, and Virgil took the opportunity to tell Dante about the geography of Hell. Here he explains the layout of Purgatory, and he explains the relations of the seven capital sins to love.

Note that Canto 17 is one of the mid-cantos of the Purgatory(the other mid-canto is Canto 16), and Virgil and Dante are at the middle terrace or level of the Mountain of Purgatory.

Here again we turn to something personal: love. To Dante, both the personal and the public (as in politics) are important.

Dante the Poet makes a distinction between animal love and rational love in Purgatory, Canto 17. Virgil says,

“Neither Creator nor a creature ever,

Son,” he began, “was destitute of love

Natural or spiritual; and thou knowest it.

The natural was ever without error;

But err the other may by evil object,

Or by too much, or by too little vigour.”

(Longfellow 17.91-96)

Natural love is simply a desire for something. (The terms “natural love” and “rational love” come from the philosopher Aristotle.) Natural love does not involve the use of reason.

Rational love involves choosing what we love. One way to look at it is rational love involves choosing what we pursue. We may choose wisely or foolishly. We may choose to pursue what we love with not enough force or with too much force or with just the right amount of force.

Because we have Free Will, we can choose what we love, and we can choose with how much force we will pursue it. It is important to choose to love the right things and to pursue them with the right amount of force.

What we choose is what we love. We can choose to love the right thing or the wrong thing.

Dante then talks about what we ought to choose to love, and about the way our choices can go wrong. Making the wrong choice or pursuing what you love with the wrong amount of force can put you in the Inferno or make you spend additional years in Purgatory, depending on whether or not you repent your sins before you die.

(If you want, you can say that the Divine Comedyis a gigantic 14,000-line love poem.)

Rational love should stay fixed on the Eternal Good:

“While it is fixed on the Eternal Good,

and observes temperance loving worldly goods,

it cannot be the cause of sinful joys;

but when it turns toward evil or pursues

some good with not enough or too much zeal —

the creature turns on his Creator then.”

(Musa 17.97-102)

We should love the Eternal Good and make that our Ultimate Concern, to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase.

However, we can choose to love the wrong thing, such as money, instead. Or we can choose to love something good, but pursue it with either too much zeal or not enough zeal.

  • Briefly describe the three divisions of Purgatory.

We can divide Purgatory into three divisions:

Pride, Envy, and Wrath: Love the Wrong Things (the first three terraces)

Sloth: Love the Right Things, But Not Enough (the middle terrace, where Dante and Virgil are now)

Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust: Love the Right Things Too Much (the top three terraces)

Purgation and purification are needed when the repentant sinner loved the wrong things or loved the right things too little or loved the right things too much.

  • What does it mean to say that the sins of pride, envy, and wrath involve loving the wrong things?

Sinners who were guilty of pride, envy, or wrath were guilty of loving the wrong things; they wished some kind of evil upon their neighbors.

If a sinner was proud, the sinner placed the sinner at the center of the universe and therefore wished for the sinner’s neighbors to be beneath the sinner.

If a sinner was envious, the sinner did not want the sinner’s neighbors to have good fortune.

If a sinner was angry, then the sinner wished to do something like punch the sinner’s neighbors in the nose.

  • What does it mean to say that sloth involves loving the right things, but not loving them enough?

If a sinner is guilty of sloth, then the sinner loves the right things, but does not love them enough. For example, the sinner may be going to Ohio University. This shows that the sinner loves education, which is a good thing. However, instead of going to classes every day, studying every evening, and handing in all papers on time, the student misses lots of classes, goes to the bars in the evening, and either does not hand in papers or hands in papers late. The student loves the right thing, but not enough.

  • What does it mean to say that avarice, gluttony, and lust involve loving the right things, but loving them too much?

Sinners who were guilty of avarice, gluttony, or lustwere guilty of loving the right things too much.

If a sinner was guilty of avarice, the sinner loved money or material things too much. The sinner either hoarded money or spent every dime the sinner could borrow in order to get more stuff. Nothing is wrong with money or material possessions provided they are used wisely, but a person can love either money or material possessions too much.

If a sinner was guilty of gluttony, then the sinner over-ate and over-drank. Of course, food and drink are good things if they are used wisely, but the sinner loved food and drink too much.

If a sinner was guilty of lust, then the sinner loved sex too much. God invented sex, and when sex is indulged in wisely and ethically, it is one of the best things on Earth, but it is possible to love sex too much.

Of course, everything that we learn here helps to explain both the Inferno and the Mountain of Purgatory.

  • Give an example of sloth from your own life.

We must devote a significant effort in pursuit of good things, without going too far in either direction. We must not love good things too much, and we must not be lukewarm in our pursuit of what is good.

Virgil tells Dante,

“If you aspire to it or grasp at it

with only lukewarm love, then on this ledge

you will be punished, once you have confessed.”

(Musa 17.130-132)

Sloth is loving something good but pursuing it with insufficient zeal.

William R. Cookand Ronald B. Herzmanuse this example: A student was in graduate school, and he was supposed to be working on writing his dissertation one day. Of course, getting a good education is something good, and one ought to pursue it with zeal. However, on a particular day the student just did not feel like writing some pages of his dissertation. Therefore, he cleaned the bathroom of his apartment instead.

It may seem like he was working hard, scrubbing away in the bathroom, but Dante would say that he was guilty of sloth because he should have been working on his dissertation instead of cleaning the bathroom.

This means that a person can be very busy and still be guilty of sloth. You can busily pursue trivialities instead of working hard on the good thing that you ought to be working hard on.

Many, many people who are very busy are guilt of sloth according to Dante’s definition of sloth.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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