Dante's Quest of Liberty

DEAN STANLEY, fresh from the study of the Divine Comedy, declared, in his enthusiasm, that the Purgatorio was the most religious book he had ever read. While it lacks the dramatic force and the dark magnificence of the Inferno, and comes short of the blazing glories and the heights of vision of the Paradiso, it still touches life as we know it more intimately than either of the other portions of this strange mediæval poem. Dante here describes those things which we know in our daily lives. We are familiar with the trembling of the sea, the silent splendor of the stars, the burdensome weight of pride, the harsh irritation of envy, and the blinding smoke of wrath. The characters are neither demons nor glorified beings, but human spirits who are being made perfect through suffering. Our own experiences are here portrayed, and the resistless power of the book lies in its penetrating insight into the struggles of the soul and the forces by which it wins its liberty.

Marvelous it is how the dream of one steeped in mediæval lore has survived the lapse of centuries. The huge tomes of the master minds over which he pored with such eager interest lie neglected on the shelves, or are translated merely to interpret his weird and mystic poem ; but the weighty truths they held, sinking into the passionate heart of this incomprehensible man, and distilled in the alembic of his fiery sufferings with his own life’s blood, became instinct with an immortal youth. Carlyle calls Dante “the voice of ten silent centuries.” Those ages may have been dumb, awaiting their interpreter, but their heart was hot, passion-swept, fermenting with intense aspirations, and he who could comprehend and utter the deep things of its spirit must speak words which the world will always gladly hear. Deep ever calls to deep. Heine has said that every age is a sphinx that plunges into the abyss after it has solved its problem. Dante heard the secret of the Middle Ages from the lips of the mighty creature ere it leaped into the dark below. What he heard he told, and the secret of the life of any age is of perennial interest. Certainly, the conception of religion held in the most distinctively religious centuries in history, the centuries that projected the cathedrals and produced spiritual geniuses of unrivaled lustre and power, cannot be unattractive. The soul changes not; neither do the powers which ransom it.

The book is vital, because life is purgatorial. Dante asks a question old as the race, and deep as the human heart: How can a man be freed from his sin ? He answers it, too, in the way earnest and clear-seeing minds have often answered it. This grim and saturnine poet does not use the same terms which our modern thinkers employ, but he felt the steady pressure of the same sins, and he laid hold substantially of the same sovereign remedies. He placed more emphasis on the human side of the problem than we ; and for this reason he deserves attentive study, having set forth most powerfully some truths which our age, so eager to break with the narrowness of the past, has overlooked in its haste. We sometimes call the Middle Ages dark, but he whose spirit brooded over its tumultuous and valorous life until he became its prophet can turn rays of clearest light upon many of our unsolved enigmas.

But Dante is not merely a prophet; he is a poet. He never forgets that his duty is to charm as well as to teach. He is the supreme poet-prophet of modern times, because in his verse truth loses nothing of its austerity, and poetry nothing of its exquisite beauty. The account of his entrance into the Earthly Paradise John Ruskin affirms to be “the sweetest passage of wood description that exists in literature ; ” while Charles Eliot Norton has said that the thirtieth and thirty-first cantos are “ quite the highest expression of sentiment anywhere to be found.” Lacking the tragic power of the Inferno, this book appeals to the subtler elements of beauty with a delicacy that gives to it a perpetual fascination.

The main purpose of this book is to point out the way to achieve the primal virtue which was lost in Eden; it is to teach us how to repair the havoc wrought by sin, and to return to the estate surrendered by the Fall. The master minds of the early Church pondered much on how a man can become what Adam was, pure, happy, free ; how efface the guilt, the power, the stain of sin, and restore the individual to the Edenic liberty. They answered the problem by the doctrines of baptism, penance, and purgatory. The sin of Adam and its awful consequences rest upon each individual. This inherited guilt is atoned for by the death of Christ, and the infant or the believer becomes a partaker of the benefit of Christ’s sufferings in baptism, which washes away the stain of original sin, saves him from its consequences, and makes him a recipient of divine grace. The sins committed after baptism are expiated and purged by the sacrament of penance, the integral parts of which are confession, contrition, and satisfaction ; the form being the absolution pronounced by the priest. This “ satisfactory punishment both heals the relicts of sin and destroys the vicious habits acquired by an evil life, by contrary acts of virtue.” But life is short, and men die before the footprints of evil are rubbed out. They are not fit for heaven, they are not subjects of hell; there must, therefore, be an intermediate state, where they are cleansed from all unrighteousness. In purgatory, retributive sufferings are designed both to satisfy a violated moral order and to become remedial toward the sufferer. Yet the sinner need not bear the full recoil upon himself. The intercessory prayers and deeds of love on the part of others take the place of punishment without weakening justice, for one act of love is dearer to God than years of penalty. This purgatorial process not only completely cleanses the soul; it restores it to its normal vigor by reviving all the good which sin had weakened or defaced. Dante accepted these teachings of the Church heart and soul, and they are the architectonic principles of his wondrous poem.

Assuming the spirit in baptism has been delivered from the penalties of inherited guilt, the process by which he believed a soul is purified from personal sin by the whole purgatorial experience of life, here and hereafter, is most exquisitely put in miniature in canto ix. Following Virgil, he moves to a cliff which rises sheer before him, where in a rift, he says, “ I saw a gate, and three steps beneath for going to it, of divers colors, and a gate keeper who as yet said not a word. . . . Thither we came to the first great stair; it was of white marble, so polished and smooth that I mirrored myself in it as I appear. The second, of deeper hue than perse, was of a rough and scorched stone, cracked lengthwise and athwart. The third, which above lies massy, seemed to me of porphyry as flaming red as blood that spurts forth from a vein. Upon this the Angel of God held both his feet, seated upon the threshold that seemed to me stone of adamant. Up over the three steps my Leader drew me with good will, saying, “ Beg humbly that he undo the lock.’ Devoutly I threw myself at the holy feet; I besought for mercy’s sake that he would open for me ; but first upon my breast I struck three times. Seven P’s upon my forehead he inscribed with the point of his sword, and, ‘ See that thou wash these wounds when thou art within,’ he said.”

The three stairs are the three steps one must take in penance, namely, confession, contrition, and satisfaction. The angel is the type of the priest who administers absolution. The breast is struck three times to denote sincere repentance for sins of thought, of word, of deed. The seven P’s — Peccati — signify the seven mortal sins which must be purged away. They are not evil deeds, but the bad dispositions out of which all sin springs; for it is not what we do, but what we are, that makes us sinners in the sight of God. It is exceedingly significant that all of the P’s were incised on Dante’s forehead. He may not have been guilty of every kind of sin; but in him were the potentialities of all, and he has come to a full consciousness of them. He now passes within the gate, which is the symbol of justification, and the healing process begins. Having been justified, the evil dispositions are already overcome; but their foul records are still staining his soul, and their power is not all gone. A noble type of humanity is this sombre figure, as with the seven scars of sin on his forehead he begins to climb the rugged and toilsome mountain in quest of liberty ! The first note he hears is Te Deum Laudamus, chanted by sweet voices; for there is joy among the angels over one sinner that repenteth. The Catholic Church has enumerated seven evil dispositions which exclude God from the life, and thus deliver man unto death. They are pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Upon each of the seven ledges of the purgatorial mountain the scum of one of these mortal sins is dissolved from off the conscience, and the lustre of grace and reason is restored by enduring the sacrament of penance.

On each the soul’s confession, contrition, and absolution are either described or understood, but the satisfaction is always minutely and comprehensively delineated ; for this ever thinking artist, who never seems to have made a careless touch, has three dominant thoughts appearing in every scene he pictures on the seven ledges. The first is the effect of each mortal sin upon the soul. With rare ethical insight, and almost incredible conciseness and power, this is set forth, either in the action of the sufferer, or in the color and nature of his environment, or in his personal appearance. The second is that the debt the sinner has incurred must be paid to the last farthing. He cannot leave his prison house until, with just penalties, he has rendered complete satisfaction to a violated moral order. The third, which is most, prominent of all, impresses us with the fact that expiatory afflictions are not arbitrary or vindictive, but are adjusted to the purification of the penitent.

“ There are two things,” says Hugo of St. Victor, “ which repair the divine likeness in man,—the beholding of truth and the exercise of virtue.” Dante confirms this as his philosophy when he asserts that sins of habit are overcome by substituting virtuous habits, and sins of temperament by good thoughts, created by the ardor of love which truth rains into the soul. To be free, the sinful soul must know the truth. The proud see it bodied forth in the visible language of sculpture; the envious learn the nature of their guilt by hearing voices proclaim the worth of love and the fell results of envy ; the wrathful, in the midst of their blinding smoke, behold the truth in vision ; the slothful shout it as they run day and night. But the truth must not only be known ; it must be wrought into character and habit. The proud purge out the old leaven by continuously exercising a humble disposition ; the envious habitually speak well of others ; the slothful “ fasten upon slothfulness their teeth ” by unremitting energy. Pope Martin by “ fasting purges the eels of Bolsena and the Vernaccia wine,” while the avaricious ripen their good will by gazing constantly at the dust to which their souls had cleaved, piteously praising examples of poverty and bounty, and lamenting the evils of the accursed thirst for gold. Our Puritan Dante, Jonathan Edwards, quaintly prescribed the same medicine: “Great instances of mortification are deep wounds given to the body of sin; hard blows which make him stagger and reel. We thereby get strong ground and footing against him, he is weaker ever after, and we have easier work with him next time.” Absolution is pronounced on every ledge by the act of the angel removing a P from the poet’s forehead, while assurance is made complete by hearing the sweet words of an appropriate beatitude. From the beginning to the end of this toilsome climb divine grace has helped the weary soul over the hard places, and guided him in moments of doubt, until, at last, when all wounds are healed, the whole mountain trembles with sympathetic joy, and the enfranchised spirit, crowned and mitred over itself, roams in the ancient paradise in all “ the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

Yet even after the summit of the mountain has been reached, every wrong having been thoroughly forgiven, and the spirit cleansed of all evil dispositions, there still remains the memory, whose chambers are hung with the black pictures of guilt. Such darkness cannot enter into the celestial light. Said Macbeth to his physician : —

“ Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart ? ”

The vision of God is impossible until sin, if it is remembered at all, is remembered as belonging to a vanquished self. “Wash me throughly!” is the cry of the soul. The conscience and the memory cannot be left out. For this deep need Dante provides. When he recovers from the swoon into which he fell at the rebuke of Beatrice, Matilda draws him into the river Lethe, while sweet voices from the blessed shore sing, “ Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” When he had drunk of the strange waters all memory of his former sins was obliterated. Thus this great teacher would instruct us that a life of active virtue leads to a forgetfulness of past evil.

One more experience must be undergone before the redeemed soul is fit to wing its flight to the stars. The Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of “ reviving merit.” The good which men have done lives in them. The fair as well as the foul is written on the tablets of the mind, and what is good God never allows to be blotted out. And so into the river Eunoë, flowing from the same source as Lethe, the poet is led, and takes of that sweet draught which revives his powers, crippled by sin. “I returned from the most holy wave, renovated as new plants renewed with new foliage, pure and disposed to mount unto the stars.”

In pondering the way of life by which this passionate thirteenth-century prophet proclaims that men attain perfect liberty, one cannot but remark the stress he lays upon a principle which has well-nigh faded from the Protestant mind. It is that of expiation. Dante has elsewhere very tersely stated this satisfaction which must be rendered to the moral law: “ And to his dignity he never returns, unless, where sin makes void, he fill up for evil pleasures with just penalties.”

This stern and august conception of the retributive recoil of the moral order upon sin has grown somewhat dim in the modern religious consciousness. We emphasize the fatherhood rather than the justice of God. We make the penalties for crime corrective rather than punitive, and rightly; nevertheless, we must reinstate in our thought, in something of its former grandeur and power, the unvarying law which to the swarthy Florentine prophet works through all life : that “ where sin makes void,” man must “ fill up for evil pleasures with just penalties.” Nemesis was no idle dream of classical antiquity, and the doctrine of expiation which has loomed so large in the thought of the profoundest minds of the Church, while it may need restatement, will refuse to be so jauntily rejected as it is by much of our newer theology. Neglected in the religious teachings of the day, it is reappearing as the dominant truth in the masterpieces of fiction. But although it needs fuller recognition than it receives, there tower above it other monumental verities, whose shining glory neither Dante nor our modern novelists have beheld.

It is doubtless true that the Purgatorio is one of the most deeply religious books in the world ; yet it still comes far short of embodying the loftiest spiritual ideals. Its way to liberty is not the path pointed out by him who said, “ I am the way.” Christ laid emphasis on the intimate relationship of his disciples with himself as the power that would redeem them from sin. Their love for him and his presence in them were to free them from the power and relicts of evil. Paul faced identically the same problem that confronted our austere prophet; but his answer was far different: “ For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” He did not think of himself as creeping up some almost inaccessible height. A stupendous power of life had gotten hold of him, mastered him to his being’s core, and was working out its own purpose in him. The love of Christ constrained him, and not a desire for personal salvation. John Wesley felt he had not been converted until he had given up “ willwork ” and “ self - regeneration,” and trusted in the indwelling Christ for his sanctification. Dante is not merely the child of his time in thus seeking liberty; he is the child of his temperament. St. Francis, whom he praises so ardently in the Paradiso, was loosed from the bondage of his sin through his rapturous love of an ever present Saviour. He repented of his sins and confessed them in genuine contrition, but all thought of expiation was lost in the sea of his love. He was conscious of no long, sad years of dreary labor, in order that he might fill up the void made by evil pleasures with just penalties. His thoughts were not centred upon his own sufferings, but Christ’s, until the very print of the nails appeared upon his hands and feet. He did not set himself resolutely to break down evil habits by a toilsome building up of virtuous ones. His ceaseless activities sprang spontaneously out of his fervent love for his divine master, and this made his earthly purgatorial life exultant with a joy that is wanting in Dante’s purgatory. St. Bernard, whom Dante so reverenced as to choose him as interpreter in that supreme moment when he looked into the face of God, could not have left a sense of sweet personal communion with Christ so completely out of the Purgatorio and Paradiso. He said to the people who flocked to his cloister : “ If thou writest, nothing therein has savor to me unless I read Jesus in it. If thou discussest or conversest, nothing there is agreeable to me unless in it also Jesus resounds. Jesus is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, a song of jubilee in the heart.”

This startling omission grew partly out of the fact that Dante emphasized God’s manifestation of himself in a system of theology rather than in a saviour, — Beatrice, not Christ, was the supreme revelation of the Father, — and partly out of the vicious and artificial distinction which the schoolmen made between the moral and the religious. St. Thomas sought to draw a line between what a man can know and attain through the exercise of his own faculties and what must be disclosed to him. He recognized a gulf between the natural and the supernatural. Man’s native reason is able to show him the nature and consequences of sin, and to lead him to temporal felicity and purity of heart. But God, immortality, and high spiritual truths are beyond reason, and must be revealed. Upon this distinction are built the Purgatorio and the Paradiso ; yet it is hurtful. It is the old baneful separation of the ethical and spiritual life. Cardinal Newman has said that the atonement should not be preached to the unconverted, but that the preacher should mark out obedience to the moral law as the ordinary means of attaining to the Christian faith; that is, first moral purity, then religion. Paul’s programme was different. When he went to Corinth, he preached first of all the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection. He brought the repentant soul, not through a long process of moral purgation, but face to face with the living Christ: this infuses a new life, and calls forth an answering love. The expulsive power of this ardent affection makes a new creature, who does not set himself doggedly to break down old habits and form better ones, but, constrained by love, gives himself to grateful service. This is the way to the “ glorious liberty of the children of God ; ” and it is a diviner way than that over which this sadsouled prophet, who had not yet caught sight of the robes of Christ or seen the beautiful eyes of Beatrice, pressed his weary feet. Yet Dante’s way of life is a true way, traveled often by men in all communions, who purify their souls by the beholding of truth in the lives of others, by the constant practice of virtue, and by patiently following reason, instead of joyfully serving Christ.

Purgatory is a process rather than a place. We may deny the place, but the process is life itself, which no one can ponder deeply and describe without writing a Purgatorio. Most of the masterpieces of fiction are but a restatement of Dante’s task. Their problem is to show how sins are expiated and souls purified bypain and toil. Purgatory banished from theology has made its home in literature ; yet in this metamorphosis from a dogma of the theologian to the plot of the novelist its essential character is unchanged. The purgatorial process portrayed in literature comes much nearer the standard of the Tuscan poet than the ideals of the New Testament.

I can find no indication in Hawthorne’s life that he ever read a canto of Dante. The Scarlet Letter was written before he learned Italian, but the similarity between this powerful novel and the Purgatorio is very striking. The scene of one is in Boston, and of the other on the holy mountain ; but in both the interest centres in tracing the rugged and fiery path by which liberty from the stain and power of sin is attained. The weird and gloomy genius of the Protestant has drawn even a more terrible picture than did the Catholic of the Middle Ages. Hawthorne’s purpose was to show how Hester Prynne, who for the sin of adultery was condemned to wear the scarlet letter A exposed upon her bosom, and Arthur Dimmesdale, her unrevealed partner in guilt, purified their souls through purgatorial sufferings. So closely do the minds of these two powerful writers keep together in unfolding their common thought that sometimes almost identical forms of expression and experience are used. In one place Hawthorne employs a sentence to describe the lot of his hero that reminds us very forcibly of Dante’s famous account of his own experiences. Mr. Dimmesdale had chosen single blessedness : therefore he is compelled “ to eat his unsavory morsel always at another’s board, and endure the lifelong chill which must be his lot who seeks to warm himself only at another’s fireside.” Very similar is Dante’s statement of his own homeless condition in the well-known prophecy of Cacciaguida :

“ Thou shalt have proof how savoureth of salt
The bread of others, and how hard a road
The going down and up another’s stairs.”

(Par. xvii. 58-60. Longfellow’s trans.)

The sweetest passage in the Inferno is the poet’s recital of his meeting with Francesca da Rimini. Leigh Hunt calls it “a lily in the mouth of Tartarus.” The only consolation left to poor Francesca, as she was swept about on the never resting blast, was that from Paolo she would never be separated. Their sin had made them one forever. Hester had been carried into the same Inferno by the impetuous rush of the same passion, and while there her solace was also the same. She might have fled from the Puritan colony, and thus have escaped part of her penalty; but she refused, because “ there dwelt, there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester’s contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon.” Thus did Hester for a moment taste of the sweet comfort which was Francesca’s sole alleviation in torment, but she escaped from her own hell into purgatory because she thrust it from her, and with acquiescent mind endured her punishment.

Dante’s problem was to erase the seven P’s from his forehead; Hawthorne’s was to let the scarlet letter A burn on the breast of Hester until it purified her soul. Each shows that the way to absolution is up the three steps of contrition, confession, expiation. True contrition there was in the hearts of both Hester and the clergyman; but the latter’s life was a sickening tragedy, because he lacked the courage to confess his crime. He would have two steps rather than three by which to enter into the gate, but he learned that there can be no true contrition without a confession. “ Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom ! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am ! Had I one friend — or were it my worst enemy ! — to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me. But, now, it is all falsehood ! — all emptiness ! — all death ! ” And it is not until he makes a public confession on the scaffold that he dies in hope. In that last tragic scene he attests that God’s grace, working through the stern and indispensable trinity, confession, contrition, satisfaction, which Dante recognized, had ransomed his soul: “ God knows ; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy most of all in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! by sending yonder dark and terrible old man to keep the torture always at redheat ! By bringing me hither to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people ! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever! ” But the absorbing interest of Hawthorne’s powerful story lies in the revelation of how expiatory sufferings cleanse Hester’s soul. The shades whom Dante saw upon the mountain preferred to remain constantly in their torments, so that the sooner they might be purified. Hester abode near the scene of her guilt, that “ perchance the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saintlike, because the result of martyrdom.” These continual sufferings, at once expiatory toward the moral sense of the community and remedial to herself, finally changed the scarlet letter from a badge of shame to a symbol of purity and holiness.

We miss in Hawthorne what we missed in Dante. There is no strong sense of the forgiveness of God, no mighty and triumphant love healing the soul and urging it to joyful service. The cross is but a dim light in the background, not a living reality changing a vague hope to love. The novelist doubtless portrayed common life, but Mary Magdalene, with her loving devotion to the Christ, walked in a better way than Hester Prynne.

What is true of The Scarlet Letter is true of all the great works of modern fiction. They are Dantean rather than Christian.

There are three ineffaceable impressions made upon the mind of every earnest student of the Purgatorio. The first is the inevitable and fearful consequences of sin. In the Inferno we were appalled by a vision of sin in its essential nature. Here we behold it in its terrible effects. It is no slight thing, easily overlooked. It is a crime against God. It creates a void in the moral universe, which must be filled with just penalties. It is a blow at the divine order, and the recoil is as sure as the decrees of the Almighty. Moreover, it is an injury to the individual. No slightest evil temper can be indulged without a black registry upon the soul itself. The blow anger aims at another falls upon one’s own soul, and the lust that burns toward others kindles a fiercer fire in the sinner’s spiritual nature.

The second impression is that it is impossible to enter into life and joy until these effects are expunged. The debt must be paid in full to an outraged moral order; there can be no shuffling. It may demand the death of the Son of God, and the unspeakable sufferings of the race ; but, cost what it may in pain and tears and passionate love, the scales of God’s justice must balance. The scars also which sin has made upon the soul must all be erased, even though the price paid is a millennium of wandering upon the mount of pain.

The third impression is that while the divine love works upon a man in a thousand ways, yet human coöperation must be continuous, absorbed, energetic. The stain of sin is no trivial thing, easily wiped out by a prayer. Salvation is no ready-made article, which man has but to accept. The soul is not saved unless it keeps thinking. It drives out bad thoughts by good ones. Constant contemplation of virtue creates love for it, and hate for sin, while the new thought and the new love are converted into character by ceaseless practice.

These truths the swarthy prophet learned upon the holy mountain. In words of sweetest music and pictures of imperishable beauty he wrote them upon tables of stone, and then, with face shining from his vision, he brought them down to the people upon the plain, who feasted and danced about their golden calf.

Charles A. Dinsmore.