Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 18 – what is love?

The world’s greatest monument to love: the Taj Mahal. Photo by Bharadwaj13082003, Wikimedia Commons

Virgil’s great exposition on love is centrally placed in the Comedy, occupying Cantos 17 and 18 of Purgatorio. With this, Dante signals that love, and the understanding of love, are at the heart of his poetic matter. Doctrinally, the ideas Dante attributes to Virgil are standard-issue medieval philosophy, derived from the teachings of Aristotle and Aquinas. But in turning them into poetry, he infuses them with a new vigour.

Virgil first explains the universality of love and how it is the cause of all human behaviour, good and bad:

Erring love, as Virgil has explained, may be:

Perverted: that is, directed towards a wrong object

Defective, falling short of its proper expression, or

Excessive, overshooting the bounds of moderation.

These three kinds of love gone wrong are the organizing principle of purgatory. The spiritual sins of perverted love, purged on the three lower terraces, are pride, envy and wrath; the sin of defective love, purged on the fourth terrace, is sloth, which is partly of the spirit, partly of the flesh; and the sins of the flesh, purged on the three upper terraces, are those of excessive loveavarice, gluttony and lust.

At Dante’s request, Virgil goes on to talk about how love is kindled in the human mind, in lines that echo Marco Lombardo’s description of the birth of the soul (see Note 2):

No creature was ever without love. Photo by Nasrulla Adnan (Nattu) Wikimedia Commons

As Virgil speaks, we can feel him warming to his subject. Dante’s interest, like our own, surely also quickens. Desire is indeed a spiritual movement, nothing less than the soul’s response to the outpouring of love from the Prime Mover. And it is never sated until it has union with the beloved. Thus, although it may have many different objects, desire is ultimately the soul’s yearning for divine reality, the good from which all other goods derive. This yearning is as natural as the tendency of fire to rise!

Then comes the crowning moment of Virgil’s exposition. While primal or natural love in itself deserves neither blame nor praise – it is like the bees’ instinct to make honey – human beings have an added faculty that stands guard, or should stand guard, over their actions, making them subject to moral judgement:

It’s our old friend reason! Healthy love, in Dante, is, in theory at least, always reasonable. Amor che nella mente mi ragiona, begins one of his famous sonnets – “Love that reasons with me in my mind” (italics mine). Reason confers on us the ability to control our actions. Even though love itself is foreordained, happening of necessity, we have free will to decide what to do, and not do, about it:

This is a different, more mature Dante than the one we meet in the Vita Nuova, which has episodes that show him coming close to ‘losing it’ (whether through epilepsy, mystical trances or hallucinations caused by extreme emotion). Nevertheless, even at the height of his youthful infatuation with Beatrice, reason continued to hold sway: Dante is at pains to point out, in the opening section, that love never ruled him “beyond the counsel of reason”.  And this, or something similar, is true of most of the poets who come in the 400 years after Dante, including Shakespeare (whose famously anti-Romantic lovers Beatrice and Benedict quip: “Do you not love me?” “Why no; no more than reason”). It is not until the Romantic era proper that the primacy of reason will be challenged in earnest, giving place to feeling and intuition as supposedly more valid guides to human behaviour.

Healthy love is always reasonable. By Robert Cribb, 1755-1827. Wikimedia Commons

Dante thought and wrote about love incessantly throughout his creative life. He also felt love, for Beatrice, in a way that was life-changing, not just during her brief stay on earth but also permanently thereafter, since her early death first plunged him into despair, then propelled him into a new phase of learning and exploration, both of the “lady philosophy” and of other loves. These included his wife Gemma Donati, with whom he raised a family, and other women whose names are unknown to us.

When, in his poem, Dante meets Beatrice again, in the earthly paradise at the summit of the mountain, love tempered by reason will begin to evolve into love broadened and deepened through faith – for that is what Beatrice, by now, personifies and inspires. But we have some way to go yet before the poet is ready for that transformative moment. In the words of Charles Williams, “her full supernatural validity is to be kept for Dante’s purified mind.”