A Map of Dante’s Purgatorio in Three Touchstones

In the first part of this essay, I provided the rationale and method of offering a series of “touchstones” by way of which we might “map” the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy. My chief aim is to speak of a very small number of parts of the poem that seem to have an overwhelming importance in our understanding of the whole. In this second part, I shall consider just three moments from the Purgatorio and suggest how they form an interpretation of the poem in total.

Purgatorio I: Pilgrimage as Refinement of the Intellect

As the second canticle begins, Virgil and Dante emerge upon the shores of an island, from whose shores rise up the great mountain of Purgatory. At the peak of that mountain, as they shall discover, lies the Garden of Eden from which all living men are exiled.

The two pilgrims meet Cato, guardian of those shores, and though they may well have been surprised to see the great pagan suicide here rather than in hell, it is he who, on seeing them, asks, “The laws of the abyss—have they been broken?”[1] But those laws have not been broken; they are rather being fulfilled, as Virgil and Dante follow in the steps of those souls who are making their final pilgrimage from exile in the Egypt of this world to the true Israel, the promised land of the Kingdom of God.[2]

Some of those souls arrive on short and, seeing that Dante has a body and so casts a shadow, they “stared hard at my face, just as if they had forgotten to proceed to their perfection.”[3] And indeed they do forget. One soul Dante recognizes as his friend Casella approaches them. Dante asks him to sing. Casella begins “sweetly” to sing “Love that discourses to me in my mind,” one of Dante’s own philosophical love poems, one of the three canzone that appear in the Convivio, Dante’s most ambitious foray into philosophy.[4] Everyone present becomes enchanted.

Then Cato enters again, rebuking everyone, “What have we here, you laggard spirits? / What negligence, what lingering is this?”[5] They all scatter and resume their journey. At the beginning of the next canto, we find Virgil smiting under the reproof.[6] The time has now passed for the philosophy of love. The canzone of the Convivio is philosophical, earth-bound, perhaps even erroneous. The Comedy is a poem, the true poem, of the theology of love. Worldly learning, once appropriate, now distracts the mind from its true goal and salvation.[7] Intellect is called not merely to go beyond the depths of sin, but to go beyond philosophy, to find its fulfillment on a higher plane. Although we have passed beyond hell with its frequent shock to Dante’s senses, the poem will remain one that involves correcting and refining the intellect and will to make them worthy of the vision of God. Even in the Paradiso, in Heaven itself, Dante’s mind will be gently “corrected,” as it is brought from baffled wonder to a fullness of knowledge. Here, the shame of Virgil confirms that hard lessons have still to be learned.

Purgatorio II: Icon of Faith

Dante the poet most closely follows Virgil the poet in the Inferno. Virgil not only remains Dante’s guide as they ascend through Purgatory (a place Virgil has never seen or written about before), but the echoes of Virgil’s poetry become more profound. This is because Dante draws upon but transforms certain features of his beloved ancestor in the craft and clarifies the meaning of his poem by echoing Virgil but also distinguishing himself from him.

In the opening of Aeneid VI, the Sibyl finds Aeneas looking at relief sculptures in a temple that had been constructed by Dedalus after the death of his son Icarus. With a certain license, Virgil tells us that the grieving Dedalus had tried and failed to carve the image of his lost son (we are asked to perceive the invisible: an image never made of one unmade). The Sibyl rebukes Aeneas for looking at graven images when the depths of reality itself await him and are about to be made visible, as he journeys with her into Hades. As Dante moves toward the mountain of Purgatory, he similarly admonishes us: “Here, reader, let your eyes look sharp at truth, / for now the veil has grown so very thin.” With Dante, and like Aeneas before him, we are moving beyond imitation and appearance to the vision of reality itself.

What this entails is depicted for us in an image that, in a paradox akin to the unmade image of Icarus, Dante hears of but never sees. To make sense of this, we have to refer once more back to the Aeneid. The most celebrated passage in all of Virgil’s poem occurs at the end of Book II, the fall of Troy. As Aeneas reluctantly flees the city that he would rather defend to the death, thereby making himself immortal in martial glory, he makes his exit in a most particular way. He raises onto his shoulder the feeble body of his father Anchises. Anchises himself holds the idols of the household gods, their divine fathers. At Aeneas’s side, holding his hand, walks his son Ascanius. This is the very image of the Roman idea of pietas: to bear on one’s shoulders the three fathers of family, country, and divinity; to carry them through the fire of the present and into the future, for the sake of those future generations represented by the son.

At the beginning of Purgatorio Canto 9, Dante is sleeping and has a dream of Zeus as an eagle carrying Ganymede up to heaven. When he wakes, he discovers that he has himself been carried higher—not to heaven, but nearer to it, up the slope of the mountain of Purgatory. Virgil tells him what he has missed: while Dante slept, Saint Lucy (who was first mentioned back in Inferno 2), came to them. She bore the unconscious Dante in her arms and carried him up the slope, Virgil following behind. Virgil’s tableau had been one of piety; this unseen tableau is one of faith. Faith, as Thomas Aquinas notes, is a kind of hearing, so Dante only hears of the tableau; he does not see the truth unveiled.

What an icon of the whole of the second canticle of the poem! Virgil, representative of classical art, reason, and philosophy can still journey with Dante but he can no longer lead him; he must follow. Human nature no longer suffices. Rather, supernatural grace must descend and carry the impotent nature of Dante upward; the infused virtue of faith, which enters not by the senses but by way of infused grace alone, must therefore act while Dante himself is senseless. Lucy carrying Dante with Virgil following thus repeats but transforms Virgil’s image of Aeneas carrying his father while his son follows. Natural piety is interiorly transformed to the supernatural virtue of faith.

As if to clarify how inadequate natural reason will be, from this point forward, the pilgrims are made to climb three steps: one reflective and white, one of crumbling rock, and one “flaming red as blood.”[8] Any interpretation of the stairs must be allegorical. That is to say, it requires a supernatural leap from the literal meaning to a spiritual, revealed one. They represent: self-reflection; recognition of one’s soul as broken by sin; and acknowledgment of the need for penance. Virgil’s natural reason cannot know this, though it may follow along; only the faith of Saint Lucy can reveal it.

Purgatorio III: The Order of Love

The central cantos of the Purgatorio, 16-18, mark also the center of the entire Comedy. At that center we learn that this poem, about the refinement of intellect and will to make them suitable for the vision of God, is above all an attempt to describe reality as created by God who is Love Itself, who causes all things to be through his essential act of love, and who summons all things to return to him as the proper end of all our loves.

In Canto 16, we learn of the soul’s origin from the hand of God. It enters into the world “simple,” that is to say, in the natural movement of love that seeks after its own good, but untutored where to find it. If left undisciplined, the soul simply falls in love with the savor of any and all “trivial goods.”[9] Spiritual and temporal rulers must curb and shape the soul by means of example and law.

In Canto 17, we learn the ontological pattern to which the soul must be made to conform by way of an objective image of perverted or sinful love. That image is the mountain of Purgatory itself. Virgil tells Dante that all creatures whatsoever love. Merely material things are driven by a natural love; human beings and angels move according to intellectual love. Natural love always moves toward its proper end, but intellectual love can err. It can take perverse ends for its good, and fall into the sins of pride, envy, and wrath; it can fail to love genuine good with sufficient ardor, and fall into the sin of sloth; or it can love finite goods in excess and commit the sins of avarice, gluttony, and lust.

Love, says Virgil, “is the seed in you of every virtue / and of all acts deserving punishment.”[10] The significance of Virgil’s account of love, which owes much to the classical tradition as well as Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, becomes clearer if we contrast it with modern theories of the will. A modern libertarian view of the human person claims that we are free insofar as we can choose what will be our good: what we shall love as our good, or whether we shall love at all, is up to us. A modern determinist view of the person observes that human beings do not really work that way. Desire moves us more than we are responsible for moving it; we generally cannot choose what we love, and indeed it seems our desires are determined for us. Virgil’s doctrine passes between both as between Scylla and Carybdis.

We are indeed born into the world already loving. We are like a bow with its arrow drawn back and aimed—an image repeated in the poem to describe the orientation of the human will to the good. The arrow is aimed at the good, which is God himself. But we may sin, we may miss the mark, whether by diverting the arrow from its proper orientation or by drawing back too far or by letting the string fire when too slack. Only within the context of our origin in loving and the determined telos, or proper end, of that love is there room for human freedom. Our freedom lies not in choosing our end, but in choosing how well to aim at it. Thus, in Canto 18, we learn that simply loving in itself is no virtue; it is only in loving our proper end that we may be virtuous. The study of our proper end and the means to it is what, Virgil tells us, the ancients gave us as the science of ethics.[11]

Dante’s poem is, in this sense, an ethical poem. It has as its subject training the soul, through the refinement of the intellect, to make properly the act of will that is love. It is also a philosophical or metaphysical poem, insofar as it does not just discuss how we should direct our love, but explains who we are essentially as loving beings. And it is above all a theological poem, for it reveals what Virgil and the Aristotle of the Ethics and Metaphysics could not fully know: the revelation of the God who is love and who in his love “moves the sun and the other stars.”[12] The fullness of that revelation awaits the words of the one who first sent Virgil to rescue Dante from the dark wood: the figure of Dante’s earliest muse, the figure who has been to him “lady philosophy” herself, but who must now become something far greater, the figure of supernatural faith and faith’s theological knowledge: the figure of Beatrice.


In the Purgatorio, Dante continues to refine his intellect so as to conform his mind to the creative intellect of God. Virgil, as a representative of poetry but also of classical philosophical reason, has been his adequate guide up to now. But, in this second canticle of the poem, the refinement of the intellect continues even as we begin to see the limits of reason and move beyond them. Virgil feels shame in his idling in the poetry of mere philosophy, when they are already on the shores of a land that leads to the realms of faith. Virgil follows behind when Saint Lucy, a figure of supernatural grace and faith alike, carries the limp and senseless Dante up the mountain—something Dante would in some sense be powerless to achieve with only Virgil for companion. Virgil, borrowing extensively from the classical ethics of Aristotle, recites at the very center of the epic as a whole, an account of love that is, as it were, a map of the poem in little. To learn the truth about love is the central aim of the poem, and Virgil, in his limited way, is able to teach Dante that truth. As he does so, he acknowledges that another will instruct Dante more fully. Reason leads the intellect toward truth, it homes in on the nature of love, which is the fundamental ordering principle of all reality, but reason also foresees its own limitations and prepares Dante to move beyond them under the guidance of Beatrice, the figure of supernatural faith.


[1] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 1.46.

[2] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 2.46.

[3] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 2.74-75.

[4] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 2.113, 112.

[5] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 2.120-121.

[6] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 3.7.

[7] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 8.19-20.

[8] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 9.101.

[9] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 16.91.

[10] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 17.103-104.

[11] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio 18.69.

[12] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, 33.145.