Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 21 – master of himself

Reason can only take you so far. At the summit of purgatory Virgil reaches the limits of his knowledge. His task done, he crowns Dante master of himself, ushers him into the earthly paradise, watches in silence for a while, then turns for home in limbo.

The last barrier: purification by fire. Souls in Purgatory on the wall of the Church of Ánimas in Santiago de Compostela, licensed under Creative Commons

The wall of fire that purges the soul of lust is the final barrier before the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise that was lost at the fall of man. Dante is terrified to enter it – an indirect admission of his failings in this area! Virgil reminds him that the wall is the only thing that stands between him and reunion with Beatrice. At this thought he agrees to undergo this final torment and, agony though it is, Virgil manages to talk him through it.

On emerging the poets start to climb the final staircase, but must stop for the night. Dante sees the stars di lor solere e più chiare e maggiori, “bigger and brighter than usual”, one of those touches of realism that make his other worlds so convincing. In this case it adds a note of excitement: we are higher than mortal man can ever go and are about to enter a new realm.

In the morning sunshine the poets resume the climb and reach the summit plateau. Virgil turns to Dante and says these final words to him:

Virgil points out to Dante the beauty of the earthly paradise and bids him rest from his labours there until Beatrice comes. It’s like being invited on a summer picnic after exams – a moment of relaxation in the sun, on the green grass, among the trees and flowers.

A definition of paradise, given early in the Comedy, is così colà dove si puota ciò che si vuole, “there, where one can do what one wants to do.” This is so, not in a selfish (boyish) way, but in the (manly) sense that the will is cured of wanting to do the wrong thing and is aligned with the divine ability to act. Some translations have “where will and power are one”. See here for some entertaining modern memes on this famous Dantesque definition.

This is the point to which Dante, under the tuition of reason, has come. He can relax, safe in the knowledge that he can want only what is right, because his will is free, upright and sane. He no longer needs the pricks of conscience and the corrections of an external moral guide. Virgil’s parting words, in a moment of solemn ritual, acknowledge him as king and high priest over himself. This is the goal of all spiritual teachings: self-mastery.

The Garden of Eden by Izaak van Oosten (1655-1661)

Virgil and Dante have come a long way together. Touched with a note of sadness, this tender farewell from master to pupil, or perhaps we should say from father to son, marks the limits of reason for the mediaeval Christian mind. Dante must now graduate to the tuition of faith and the deeper insights of mysticism.

Genius line:
Non aspettar mio dir più nè mio cenno. We are going to miss Virgil! Throughout our journey thus far he has been like a parent, alternatively instructing, admonishing and encouraging as he nurtured us through our growing pains.