We looked at green as the color of hope as well as ephemeral fame. Of course, it is also the color of envy, which in Dante’s fruitful imagination becomes purified through a metaphor of seeing.
A Way to Look at Envy
The prideful bore a burden that brought them low, and it seemed a difficult but proper penance. The envious, however, walk about with their eyes sewn shut with iron wire, an image grotesque enough that it might seem better suited to Hell than Purgatory. But we’re trusting Dante, just as Dante trusts Virgil, and seeking to humbly learn from each new vision.
In this case, Dante associates envy with a way of seeing or looking such that the contrapasso penance includes blindness. Esolen’s note helpfully explains that the Latin origin for our word envy means “to see cross-eyed or askance,” that is, to have a distorted perspective. Heaven withholds its light from these souls in Purgatory because in life they used their vision to see others as competitors or enemies, as rungs in a ladder they were climbing.
Again, practicing the method of humble application of the allegory to my own life, I realize that this penance disturbs me because I might deserve it, too. I may not be “so bad” as The Real Housewives of wherever or anyone who’s trying to “keep up” with the Kardashians,“Envy becomes possible as soon as we … want to see ourselves anywhere above anyone.” but I should not take much comfort in that. Envy becomes possible as soon as we start arranging people in a hierarchy and wanting to see ourselves anywhere above anyone.
And we do this all the time—I do this all the time, despite my principles.
As a man, I have learned to almost unconsciously size up other men in a room to establish whom I should respect, whom fear, whom despise or ignore, and it then becomes important to have the respect of the most popular or powerful man. Something similar happens with women, only the looking (let’s be honest) concerns her beauty as much as her power.
As an American in our supposedly classless society, I have learned to evaluate the people on the L or at the supermarket to determine how well they’re succeeding at achieving middle class financial stability compared with me.
Worst yet, as a Christian, I have learned horrible habits of assessing whether someone is worth sharing my faith with. It’s distressingly easy to find swine before whom to withhold my pearls.
The Finer Forms of Envy
It’s worth adding that, as I think about how envy works in my own life, it generally isn’t as simple as, “I’m bitter about that guy because he has more than me.” Sometimes it is, but usually it is much subtler. If I see a late-middle-aged guy driving a BMW back to his north shore mansion, I don’t feel much envy because I don’t see myself as very similar to him.
Envy is most insidious when we compare ourselves to people most like us. “Envy is most insidious when we compare ourselves to people most like us.”If I see someone about my age but dressing like I’d like to dress or traveling where I’d like to travel or just having his life together in a way that I do not, I am far more likely to wish him ill or to take a sick pleasure in his struggles than with the older, mansion guy.
Dante forces the envious into an exquisitely ironic position, then, of not only being unable to make those quick visual assessments but requiring other people not only to pray for them to speed them on their way, but just to help them along the road itself. There is an element of pride in envy, and they are brought low, in a sense, but in another sense they are only made to experience their common finitude and helplessness with their fellow human beings.
How appropriate, then, when in answer to Dante’s wondering if any of them is from Italy, the first soul who speaks says,
The soul isn’t quibbling; he’s reframing citizenship, probably along Augustine’s lines in City of God, in such a way as to clarify the proper relations among the souls in the afterlife. In the city of God, our true home, we are all the adopted sons and daughters of the Father, who is the one true king. There is no room for—indeed, no need for—envy of any kind (note that, in Milton’s account, it was envy of the Father’s power that caused Lucifer to make war in Heaven).
Under the Lash of Love
In an interesting way, envy is a social vice. That is, it depends upon our social relationships to get its power; it would be difficult to envy, say, a tree or a dog, except in extreme distress, perhaps. A social virtue, love, provides the correction in Purgatory. Love, properly understood, is involved in all the souls’ purification, but it features especially at the beginning of canto XIII when the voices on the wind recount the words of people who sought the good of others, from Mary to Orestes’ friend Pylades, and Christ himself. Virgil further emphasizes this in his evocative image of penance:
Hamlet tells his mother he “must be cruel, only to be kind,” meaning he intends to act in a way he knows will pain her but he hopes it will be for the good of the kingdom and his father’s memory. However many ways we can misconstrue this phrase to suit our own poor intentions, surely any penance the Lord inflicts upon a sinner’s soul must be a kindness in the guise of cruelty. But what a paradoxical punishment that stings with words of love!
We live in a shame-averse culture. Truly, humans use shame as a weapon to demean and damage others, but that should not confuse us about legitimate shame, that is, the shame we should rightly feel for doing wrong before God and before others. This shame can be pointed to by others but never laid upon us by them; it manifests naturally from the soul’s awareness of its sin before the goodness and glory of God. The souls in Purgatory truly model this proper shame, weeping for their sins under the lash of love. That is, rebuked by love, these souls have learned better than most of us may ever learn just how wonderful it is to be chastened by the God who loves us. They are being remade as souls who desire the increase of love.
The Physics of Divine Love
Dante the author doesn’t leave us to guess what an increase of love means. Dante the pilgrim cannot understand how one can enjoy more of something when there are more people present who wish to partake in it. In canto XV, Virgil counters his confusion with a strangely abstract, physical theology of love that contrasts the human tendency to think in terms of scarcity with the abundance of God:
The image is that of God as a sun of eternal light, and we are invited to be his mirrors, endlessly reflecting his light and chasing all darkness away.
Anyone who has gotten married or had a child knows that love works like this. When we set a date for our wedding, we invite all our family and friends to come and share our joy, which is not diminished but increased by the presence of more people. Strangers could walk in and wish us well and we would think it wonderful and totally in tune with the day.
Similarly, the birth of a child teaches us as parents that we have more love to give than just to one another as spouses, that our family can expand to include another—and perhaps another or several others. It is in the nature of love to grow, to expand, to seek forms of sharing itself with others—and thus, I think, acts of creation are acts of love, among other things.
God created the world in the abundance of his love—not because he lacked a proper object of love, being sufficient and complete as Father, Son, and Spirit, but, we might think, almost whimsically, in a moment of joy and ecstasy, thinking perhaps something like, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were others who could know the love we know in ourselves?”
I can’t help but wonder what it might look like in my own life to live as though this abundant love were true for even one day.
 I know I began with Merwin’s translation, and I liked how it was somewhat ponderous and serious. However, the Purgatorio is a strange enough book that I decided I wanted more notes than Merwin offered, and Esolen’s edition, translated in a very fluid style, features both footnotes and endnotes, as well as appendices, which frequently provide some cultural and interpretive help beyond just explaining historical allusions.