“Unless you’re bitten by the fire,” the angel at the top of the mountain shouts joyfully, but Dante, understandably, balks at being called to pass through a wall of flame. Dramatically, he says “I was like a corpse put in the grave, / the words I heard so touched my heart with fear,” opposing the cold of death to the heat of purification.
This climactic scene feels like a carnival version of something from Inferno. A raging fire, an urgent voice. In Inferno, though, the voice would be a demon’s mockery, and the fire an eternal torment—we saw lots of versions of fire and burning in Inferno. In Purgatorio, we just saw fire purifying the lustful—fire, in other words, not as torment but as tool. Here at the top of the mountain it promises refinement, the final purification before ascending to Paradise.
And yet, despite everything he’s seen and experienced, the pilgrim can’t move, feels dead. Virgil’s assurances don’t help—only the thought of seeing Beatrice again.
It’s a dramatic moment, but also, for me, rather unexpected. I guess I want to see a clearer, more linear progress for the pilgrim than this. Even in his descent through Hell, there were moments that showed growth and moments that suggested the weak, old self. Here, ascending Mount Purgatory, less is required of him, but he’s still had to be prodded to move on from time to time as his desires are being ordered properly. You might expect that before he reached Heaven he’d have been sorted out pretty well.
Perhaps he has, though, at least well enough for a human. It’s for love of Beatrice, after all, that he ventures into the fire, and love has been the constant theme and goal of the whole Commedia. Virgil doesn’t blame him for fearing, and when they’re finally through, he even turns to the pilgrim and pronounces him free.
What is this love?
Dante’s love of Beatrice can be hard to process when you know that both he and she had spouses. He first met her when he was quite young and she only nine, and he fell instantly in love with her. But their lives took them along different paths, and she died young, so she probably never knew of his affection for her. In some ways, he may not have wanted her to, in life, since that would place his love in a worldly category, as if it were just or primarily sexual.
But his love belongs more to the chivalric tradition where love must be not necessarily unrequited so much as unrequitable. The idea is that it takes on a spiritual quality when the man loves the woman for her beauty and virtue and not for any sexual favors or access he might get from her.
Chivalry has its problems, especially if you’re female (though see The Faerie Queene for a Renaissance twist on the tradition in which a female knight kicks serious butt to rescue her lover). There are also plenty of stories of the knight’s love of his lady turning into something decidedly physical (Lancelot & Guinevere, Tristan & Isolde). But partly because Beatrice died early, Dante had to learn to transform his love for her into something truly transcendent, a process he narrates in The New Life. Beatrice becomes, for him, the emblem or embodiment of holy beauty, grace, and virtue. The thought of her inspires Dante to greater holiness.
Thus, when even Virgil’s arguments fail to move him through the fire, but the name of Beatrice succeeds, it shows that Dante has subjected his reason to his desire for goodness. Love of the good dominates his soul.
What is this freedom?
I’d guess most of us can get on board with this vision of love. Graham Greene uses an affair to picture a man’s love of God in The End of the Affair, and Terence Malick does something similar in To The Wonder. We’re familiar with romantic relationships figuring spiritual ones.
I think we have a harder time with how Dante pictures freedom, if only because we don’t often picture freedom very clearly. The way evangelicals talk, one gets the sense that the freedom we’d like is to have no desire to sin but also to have God more or less give us little signs all day about what we should do.
I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, how objects to Christ’s return precisely because Christ brings freedom, which, the Inquisitor insists, humans don’t want. We want, he says, the illusion of freedom, a restricted range of choices in an otherwise regimented and controlled existence.
Dante has something else in mind when Virgil pronounces the pilgrim “Lord of [him]self.”
At the mountain’s top, Virgil tells Dante that he will no longer be his guide, but he should follow his own pleasure. It’s worth quoting the end of the canto at length:
They’re in some kind of meadow not unlike what Dante saw in his dream of Leah picking flowers—itself a vision of acquiring virtue. Virgil has been beckoning, goading, cajoling, and urging Dante to keep moving this whole time. Now, at last, he says, “Do as you please. Take a walk, or chill. Whatever you want.”
More, he says Dante would “stray” were he not to follow his inclination.“Love God, then do as you please.” Esolen’s notes do a great job tying Dante’s thought to that of Thomas Aquinas, but I’m familiar with a similar idea from Augustine, who said something like, “Love God, then do as you please.” In the logic of rightly ordered desires, when you’ve subordinated your loves properly, first to God, of course, then the lesser desires will be transformed according to the image of your first love.
This is what James Smith is working with in his Cultural Liturgies project. It’s also something like C. S. Lewis has in mind in Perelandra, his sci-fi take on Eden, when Ransom finds that the planet’s fruit contents him. That is, its taste exceeds anything he’s had on Earth so much that he knows that were he on Earth he would eat to excess just to have more of the good thing. But, on Perelandra, he feels that enjoyment of the good is enough, and the desire to have more beyond what he needs begins to melt away.
When Virgil declares Dante “Lord” of himself, he isn’t, then, saying Dante can be his own light but that Dante has learned to keep God and love of God before him as a guiding light. His will, then, has been purified from sinful desires and perfected to always desire the things of God. To be “Lord of yourself” would be to become most fully human, most fully incarnating the image of God, a free being freely willing the good.
This means God won’t be telling Dante what to do all the time (like Maleldil does the Green Lady in Perelandra) but that Dante will continue to study and pursue God and then follow the inclinations he finds in his purified soul.
This kind of freedom, true freedom, takes courage and devotion. It would actually require us to be accountable to not only our actions but our desires. But it would mean living a transformed and beautiful life, too.