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The Second Level of Hell

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

As Dante makes his way through the second spur of Purgatory in canto VI of his Purgatorio, he is suddenly thronged with the souls of the dead who, recognizing him as an outsider, immediately begin demanding his prayers for their salvation. The souls which press in about him differ very little from other souls, that is, they share relatively similar sins and vices. However, the souls at this level of the Mountain repented relatively late in their life, and had their lives cut short by violence. It is in this setting, where Dante encounters many he recognizes and many who's murderers he has already met in Hell, all of whom demand his favor and his prayers, that Dante raises the question of prayer's effectiveness in gaining pardon for the dead, and it is here as well, against the backdrop of many souls who were killed in the internecine strife which tore Italy during Dante's time, that Dante delivers a moving speech against the very political struggles in which he, for a time, played a part, and which tore his homeland apart, leading so many souls to be at this level.

As Canto VI opens, Dante compares himself to a gambler who has won a big game of chance. As he says, the whole crowd surrounds the winner, and "asks to be remembered…" However, the gambler does not stop, but listens to them all, and, "when he gives them something, they desist." In this very same way, a crowd of souls surrounds Dante and begs him to pray for their swift salvation, and Dante makes promises to pray for the dead and so disperses the crowd which has amassed around him. This is a very interesting choice of a simile to illustrate Dante's position. He is, as a living being, certainly an outsider and quite different and worthy of the attention of these deceased souls. The way in which he describes a gambler's gaining money or some other prize also is quite fitting with the way he would be treated by these disembodied shades. Perhaps he has not won anything, it is true, but he has not lost what they have, that is, the gift of life. Therefore, he is worthy of their attention both as the possessor of something that is, in itself, admirable, and something which has the potential of benefiting the beggars. Just as a gambler's money is more than a beggar has, and as a gambler's money would benefit the poor losers of a game of chance, Dante's life is more than the souls in Purgatory have, and his life has the potential of being used, through prayer, to accelerate their progression through Purgatory.

Perhaps it is this sudden onslaught of requests that Dante is beset with brings forth the next episode in the Canto, or perhaps it is just something which has long bothered him. Either way, Dante questions Virgil on whether praying for all these souls would really help anything, as Virgil had written a passage in the Aeneid which seemed to deny that "prayer could bend the will of Heaven." However, Virgil explains that he wrote during a time before Jesus, who, upon dying, became a sort of pathway to God through which prayers could affect the will of the divine. It may seem odd, however, the way in which Virgil explains how this can be. As he explains it, it is the power of love which is inherent in Jesus' sacrifice which compensates for some measure of the just punishment they would otherwise receive. This seems odd, however, for it is repeatedly explained that the reason Virgil cannot gain entrance into Purgatory and Heaven is because he cannot understand the transcendent nature of love, in this case, specifically, love's power to transcend justice. Perhaps this is yet another place where Dante suggests, albeit subtly, that there is, indeed, hope for Virgil after all.

Following this, Virgil says that Dante need not take his word on such subjects, but should wait instead for "a word that she / a light between your mind a truth, will speak." That is, Beatrice, whom Dante will meet on the top of Purgatory. And so, the two continue on their way, but as they do, they see a solitary figure whom Virgil approaches and whom asks Virgil from whence he hails. When Virgil says that he had lived in Mantua, the man embraces him as a brother for the love of that city and the people of it. This event inspires the main occurrence of the Canto, that is, Dante's tirade against the discord and political strife which beset Italy.

Seeing the love and brotherhood which the mere mention of a common homeland inspired in this soul, Dante is moved to an emotional and powerful speech which draws heavily upon Roman and Christian metaphors and images to condemn the nature of the political field in Italy. He laments the lack of Italian unity, dreaming of a restored Roman Empire and faulting Italy's factionalism, both between cities and within individual cities, as the cause of many evils. Further, he says, many evils are caused by the fact that the only power which would attempt to unify Italy is wholly foreign and exploitative. Even his native Florence is not spared. Although he compliments its achievements and virtues extensively, he states that these are nothing due to the instability in the city's government. He even goes so far as to question whether Christ has turned his gaze away from Rome and Italy, once so blessed and powerful, now divided and weak.

This tirade features a sequence of amazing metaphors which go quite a distance to conveying more emotional feeling and historical and religious significance to the somewhat tedious political situation which Dante laments. Italy is, to Dante, "abject…an inn of sorrows, / a ship without a helmsman in harsh seas." While just hearing that Virgil was from Mantua was enough to inspire love in the soul in Purgatory, "…those who are alive within [Italy] now / can't live without their warring…/ Squalid Italy, / search round your shores and then look inland - see / if any part of you delight in peace." Many of these problems are, at least in Dante's mind, caused by a turn away from religious virtue and the will of Heaven. "…if you understood what God / ordained, [you] would then attend to things devout / and in your saddle surely you would allow / Caesar to sit…Come, see your Rome who, widowed and alone, / weeps bitterly; both night and day, she moans: / 'My Caesar, why are you not at my side?'" Then, referencing Virgil's Aeneid once again, and Roman history, Dante calls up the historical figure of Marcellus, the promising young statesman who tragically died too young to truly make a difference in Rome. "For all the towns of Italy are full / of tyrants, and each townsman who becomes / a partisan is soon a new Marcellus." He then praises Florence's virtue, justice, richness, and record of civil service, but then states that this is all for naught, as Florence undergoes drastic political changes almost monthly that leave the city "…like that sick woman / who finds no rest upon her feather-bed, / but, turning, tossing, tries to ease the pain". All of the turbulence in Florence, the turbulence which lost Dante his job and put a death sentence on his head, is indicative of a much deeper, much more troubling and timeless problem.

This rant against Italian politics, though at first glance seemingly tangential, serves a major purpose within Dante's entire work in the Divine Comedy. Firstly, through referencing Christ and the blessedness of Italy in former years, Dante drops the first hint of a theme expounded greatly upon in the Paradiso. That theme is the restructuring of Heaven in a Roman way. Dante's vision of Heaven as shown in the Paradiso is one which attempts to make Romanize Heaven, with Jesus as a sort of emperor. God favoring the Romans and the Italian peninsula shows that the virtues and practices of the Roman Empire are in accord with the way Heaven operates. The second purpose this rant serves is to help fulfill the mission of the Divine Comedy in general. In the Paradiso, Saint Bernard charges Dante with the mission of returning to Earth and writing all that he saw for the instruction and warning of humanity. By showing the sin which has resulted from the factionalism in Italy, and by showing the dangers of abandoning virtue and spirituality, Dante attempts to achieve this mission, at least in part.

So, Canto VI of the Purgatorio contains all of the elements characteristic of Dante's style throughout the Comedy. He encounters sinners, views himself in a unique position relating to them, interacts with and draws wisdom from Virgil and the Classical tradition, attempts to warn and educate living people, and uses beautiful extended metaphors to relate Rome to Heaven, Heaven to Rome, and both Heaven and Rome to the events on earth, all the while continuing his ascension up the steep slope of Purgatory to Paradise.


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