Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 2 – birth of the human soul

Purgatory, from the British Library Yates Collection

There’s no original sin in Dante’s account of human spirituality. The soul is born of joy and seeks to return to a state of joy.

In my first three tasting notes I’m going to skip about, dipping once only into each canticle – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Then, if you’d like more, you can come with me on a more extended tour of each of the three realms.

Right now I’m whisking you off to the mountain island of purgatory, the only land mass in the earth’s uninhabited southern hemisphere. (This is a uniquely Dantesque bit of geography and I’ll tell you more about this and other aspects of the poet’s model of the universe later. For now, take my word for it that it’s weird but wonderful!) The souls here occupy terraces, each corresponding to one of the seven sins in the Catholic hierarchy – pride, envy, wrath, and so on. They can climb the mountain by day, working off their sin as they go, but at night they must stop. The sun is the symbol of divine grace, enabling their ascent.

Marco Lombardo, by Gustave Doré

On the terrace of the wrathful we meet Marco Lombardo, a courtier. We don’t know much about him but he is thought to have resembled Dante in temperament and career. It doesn’t really matter, as for our purposes he is merely a mouthpiece. Dante asks him a burning question about the cause of human wickedness: is it in our stars, or in our selves? Marco answers:

I love this passage! Through Marco, Dante speaks to us not of original sin but of the joy that attends our release into existence. The passage nods lightly at the eternal being of the soul in the divine essence, where it is “cradled before it is”. Once it enters this world, the soul immediately begins to search for the joy it knew before it came here. It thinks to find this joy in material goods – and can’t. Yet its desire for these is no different in kind to its desire for the divine, just imperfect in knowledge, that is all.

In the Convivio (literally, the Banquet – a sort of knowledge fest that mixes prose and poetry, written in the early 1300s at the same time as the Comedy), Dante writes:

“Our soul, immediately on entering the new road of this life, never passed before, directs its eyes towards the goal of its supreme good, and therefore, whatever it sees that seems to have some good in it, believes it to be that. And because its knowledge at first is imperfect for lack both of experience and instruction, trifling good things seem good to it, and these, therefore, it first begins by desiring. Thus we see infants very greatly desiring an apple, then afterwards going on to desire a little bird, then afterwards desiring fine clothes, and then a horse, and then a mistress, and then not great riches, then great riches, then very great; and this happens because in none of these things it finds that which it is seeking, and it thinks to find it further on.”

Here as throughout his work, Dante stresses the naturalness of all desire, which forms a continuum from the superficial to the profound and is thus not our enemy but our friend in our search for the divine. In Canto 21 of the Purgatorio, he describes the soul’s desire for knowledge as la sete natural che mai non sazia, “the natural thirst that is never satisfied”. In the opening canto of the Paradiso, he makes of this thirst the motor of the soul’s swift ascent through the heavenly spheres: La concreata e perpetua sete del deïforme regno cen portava veloce quasi come ‘l ciel vedete, “the inborn and perpetual thirst for the godlike kingdom bore us away, swift, almost, as your glance to heaven”. And when Dante, perplexed, asks why he is rising, Beatrice (his first love in life and now his guide) speaks to him of the soul’s ascent being as natural as fire burning upwards. Indeed, she adds, the astonishing thing would be if, freed from earthly burdens, he were not to rise.  

Dante’s doctrine in these matters is deeply life-affirming: compassionate, comforting, humane, sublime.

Coming soon: a taste of paradise!