Perhaps the best place to begin a consideration of Purgatorio is not its beginning but its middle. In cantos 16-18, the central three of this the central canticle, we learn about love and free will, perhaps the two principles most important to an understanding of the whole of the Comedy. Because our modern novelistic tradition of structure has led us to expect our plots to be arranged climactically, we tend to find this kind of geometric construction artificial and surprising, even though the practice was fairly common in medieval literature. Dante had himself already experimented with this kind of structure in La Vita Nuova. La Chanson of Roland, to cite another well-known example, seems by our standards to drag on surprisingly beyond the hero's death; the plot has been carefully arranged, however, so that this event of central importance occurs at the very center of the poem.
The first of these three central cantos of Purgatorio, canto 16, deals with the problem of human freedom. To Dante's question of whether the world's evil is imposed by stellar influence, Marco Lombardo, one of the souls in Purgatory, responds that through right reason people can control the impulses that admittedly do originate in the stars. An individual's fate is not, therefore, determined by uncontrollable impersonal forces. Rather, the world has turned to evil through poor leadership. Souls are born as lovers of pleasure, and they will continue to cling to childish self-indulgence unless laws and leaders curb this selfishness and guide them to a higher love. People, however, see their leaders, most notably Boniface VIII, scoffing at the law and indulging themselves, and so they behave similarly.
In canto 17, Virgil asserts that all actions, the virtuous and the sinful, both those performed by the Creator and those by creatures, are motivated exclusively by love. For this to be comprehensible, we must understand that Dante considers instinct a form of love, "natural" or "animal" love, which can never be sinful. A second kind of love, however, "mind-directed" love, can fail in one of three ways and so be sinful, and in explaining this Virgil also explains the way the central portion of Purgatorio is structured around the concept of the seven deadly sins. One can go wrong by loving things one should not, (pride, envy, and anger), by loving what one should love, but with insufficient intensity (sloth) or by loving as ends in themselves (through avarice, gluttony, or lust) things that one should love only in proper relationship to primary ends. In indulging these impulses, therefore, and so committing sins, one is motivated by a species of love.
In canto 18, however, Dante pursues the relationship between free will and love one step further. If love is a powerful force innate in each individual, "what merit is there in loving good or blame in loving ill?" The answer is that "Reason must surely guard the threshold of consent," for only with full consent of the will can a soul be held guilty of sin. Traditional medieval psychology held that sin involved three steps: attraction, delectation or delight, and consent. One perceives with the senses something to which one is attracted and then forms within the mind an image of the object of attraction in which to take delight. These two actions, the attraction or perception and the taking of delight, are both instinctive, and according to Virgil, are no more culpable than honey-making in a bee; they correspond to canto 17's animal or natural love which can never be sinful. However, while love arises of necessity in everyone, reason can check its potentially damning power. At this central point in the Comedy, we learn retrospectively, by a kind of "back illumination," to use a term of John Freccero's, the principles by which the souls in Inferno willed their own damnation: their Reason did not control the threshold of assent.
Dante's geography in Purgatory is wholly his own invention, even though based broadly upon inherited Catholic tradition and dogma. The implication of such parables as the Good Shepherd and especially the Prodigal Son is that God stands ready, eager even, to accept back into His Kingdom truly repentant sinners. Even if a person led a thoroughly reprehensible life, true and sincere sorrow shortly before death, especially if motivated by love of God, would guarantee salvation. The more persistently virtuous might well grow indignant and question whether some distinction should not be made between those who worked a full day and those who entered the vineyard only at the eleventh hour, but then God's justice is beyond human understanding, and His capacity for mercy is infinite.
According to Roman Catholic tradition, Purgatory is a place of suffering that helps ensure that the late repentant do not sneak into heaven too easily. Souls are assigned there, if, through repentance before death, they escaped eternal damnation, but are not fully "purified," fully ready to enter God's presence. Protestant sects have for various reasons rejected Purgatory as one of the characteristic inventions of Popery. [Note: On the most basic level, Reformers considered Purgatory a human invention without adequate scriptural justification to command belief. Many of the passages traditionally used in support of this doctrine come from the so-called Old Testament Apocrypha, books included in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, thence translated into Latin in Jerome's Vulgate, and so accepted as canonical by the medieval church. Protestant reformers, however, rejected the canonicity of these texts, and so rejected as non-inspired much of the evidence supporting the doctrine of Purgatory.] The belief was implicated in many of the worst abuses of the late medieval church so offensive to the early Reformation. Beginning in 1300, the Commedia's fictional date, Pardoners would make Indulgences available, in effect in exchange for money. These indulgences freed souls from all or part of the time they would spend in Purgatory; the money collected by Pardoners, who always claimed to be (and sometimes were) agents of Rome, were intended to finance the church's "good works." Too often the Pardoners simply pocketed the money themselves. Whether they did or not, the implication that those with more disposable income could hasten therewith their union with God violated the tradition of apostolic poverty. The point was conceded in effect by the sixteenth century counter-reformation Council of Trent, which altogether abolished the office of Pardoner.
The second abuse, a less obviously sinister one, is based, in fact, on one of the most cherished, most orthodox, and most universally accepted of Christian beliefs, the Pauline metaphor of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. From the notion that all members of the Church who have ever lived, those on Earth, those in Purgatory, and those in Heaven, all form a single organism, the medieval church drew some characteristic conclusions. Souls in heaven can be prayed to for assistance (some groups of Protestants have considered Catholics quasi-pagan for their saints' cults), and they can in turn help souls in the other two realms. We may recall that Dante himself benefits from such intercession in cantos 1-2 of Inferno. Analogously, those on earth can offer prayers to help hasten the delivery from Purgatory of the souls who are suffering there. You will find that throughout Purgatorio souls solicit prayers from Dante and, through him, from their still living friends and relatives.
The abuse of this selfless-seeming doctrine came in the late Middle Ages with a great increase in the practice of selling Masses to deliver souls from Purgatory. Worse than this, some religious houses took to selling "Trentals," collections of thirty Masses said for a particular intention and piously believed to have great intercessory powers on behalf of the souls in Purgatory. An individual parish priest would be hard pressed to devote the time needed for so many Masses, but a religious community by division of labor, could knock off the commission in a day or two. The stipend for such services would not, of course, be negligible, but then helping religious houses pay their debts was honorable, and few would be inclined to scruple over money that would deliver ancestors from suffering to bliss. Reformers again objected that this gave the wealthy a special advantage, and again the Council of Trent abolished the practice.
Neither abuse flourished until after Dante's death. For him, rather, the doctrine of Purgatory seemed to stress the continuity of human life and spiritual growth past death, the need for total purification before entry into Heaven, and the opportunity for the living to remember in a meaningful way their dead brothers and sisters in Christ. At least these are the points emphasized in the unique structuring of his second canticle.
Dante conceived of Purgatory as a gigantic mountain in the southern hemisphere rising up at exactly the opposite side of the globe from Mt. Zion. When the fallen Satan plunged into the earth's core, the ground, in revulsion at this invasion of evil, swelled up as if trying to escape his presence. At the top of this mountain, one finds the Garden of Eden, the spot originally assigned as the primal home for the human race. Subsequent to the fall, Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, and according to Dante, wound up in the northern hemisphere. In the Christian era, souls who die reconciled to God return to Him by climbing the mountain. At the base of the mountain are two areas of Ante- Purgatory where certain souls must wait a while before beginning their climb. Most of the mountain (cantos 9-27) is taken up by seven cornices or terraces which ring the mountain, on each of which one is purged in systematic fashion of one of the seven deadly sins. At the top of the mountain, the souls, having undone the effect of original sin and so having reclaimed Adam's original nature, return to the Garden of Eden, the place God had originally intended for humanity.
There is a frequent misapprehension about Purgatory that should be mentioned. Purgatory is not, as is sometimes thought, a second chance for those neither decisively good nor bad in life. It is not a period of probation after which one might be assigned to Hell. (Thanks to the Ghost of Hamlet's father for that misunderstanding. Shakespeare, of course, shared with his fellow Elizabethans a characteristic misunderstanding of, and hostility toward, things uniquely Popish.) Rather, everyone who enters Purgatory eventually gets into Heaven; therefore, the Gate of Heaven is found not in Paradiso, but in Purgatorio, canto 9. All people are sinners deserving damnation, unless they achieve reconciliation, generally through the sacrament of penance or confession. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had insisted upon frequent auricular confession for absolution from sins, and Dante, writing in the aftermath of this council, makes of this sacrament the gateway to heaven. Without Penance, sinners go to Hell; with it, they go to Heaven. The three parts of the sacrament necessary for its validity-- contrition, confession, and satisfaction--are represented in the three steps one must mount in approaching Dante's gate (Purg. 9. 94-102).
It is clear from Dante's description of these steps that the sacrament, at its best, is no easy or automatic escape from guilt or from personal responsibility. The first step, contrition, requires self-knowledge. To feel true sorrow for past sins requires that people see their "true reflection past all seeming." The second step, the actual confession that follows contrition, is black, rough, and cracked, for the actual telling of one's sins to another is the most difficult of the steps. The third step, satisfaction, is blood red, for it is a controlled, symbolic act of punishment, an attempt at making spiritual restitution for what has been lost and at imposing a moral self-discipline to compensate for previous self-indulgence. The underlying emotion required for the whole sacrament is humility; sin, which comes from pride, can only be undone by humility.
Penance, however, which absolves sinners from guilt and so saves them from damnation, does not necessarily free them from the influence of the seven deadly sins; hence the need for Dante's Purgatory as a follow up to the three steps. The term, deadly sin, though of long standing, is actually a misnomer: no one still guilty of sin could be saved. Rather these should be called the seven capital vices or the seven roots of sinfulness. Even after the forgiveness of specific sins, one's predisposition to sin remains. Envy is not a sin, for it is an abstraction, not a specific act requiring consent of the will. Out of envy one might steal another's property or slander another's reputation; these would be sinful acts, possibly severe enough to warrant damnation if unconfessed. The deadly sins, therefore, are yet another construct of medieval psychology, this one designed to explain the presence within the individual of certain universal instincts toward evil. As instincts they are not sinful and so are insufficient to keep souls from hell, but as imperfections derived from Adam's fall, they need to be purged if one is to regain Adam's prelapsarian innocence.
If Inferno had dealt with the effects of sin, Purgatorio deals with their causes. At each of the seven terraces the souls systematically overcome one of the vices, either by practicing the opposite virtue or by symbolically suffering from the harmful effects of the vice. At each cornice, we find an appropriate prayer in addition to one of the eight beatitudes from Christ's Sermon on the Mount (nowhere more appropriate than on this Mount). In addition, each cornice provides in some ingeniously apt way examples of the harm that springs from its particular vice (called the rein or bridle of the vice) and of the good that comes from its corresponding virtue (called the whip). The terms come from horsemanship and stand as reminders of our need for guidance if we are the stay on the right path and continue to act in purposive ways.
Dante is not unique in combining the three steps of confession and the seven deadly sins. The two structural devices combine in such other famous 14th century works as Piers Plowman, Confessio Amantis, "The Parson's Tale" (with which Chaucer "knits up all the feast" in the Canterbury Tales) and in the widely known 15th century play, Everyman. The aftermath of the Fourth Lateran Council found parish priests by and large ill-equipped to guide parishioners in spiritual preparation for the sacrament of Penance. Large numbers of books, penitential in content, hortatory in tone, circulated in the subsequent years both in Latin and in the several vernaculars, that would aid both confessor and penitent in adequately "groping" a conscience before confession. By far the most popular such organizing principles were the ten commandments and the seven deadly sins. Virtually all Christians in Dante's day, therefore, were familiar with this systematization of vices, and both he and other writers adopted it easily and naturally as a structural device.
Finally, before we examine Dante's specific climb up the mountain, let us try to reconstruct a typical climb for "everysoul," as Dante apparently would have conceived of it. At death, the saved soul would go to the River Tiber (for salvation comes only through the Church of Rome) and, sometimes after an indeterminate delay, board a boat, which is then guided by an angel steersman across the ocean to the shore of Purgatory. Assuming that the soul has no reason to delay at the foot of the mountain, it would climb immediately to the Gate. Souls in Paradiso "ascend," that is, they rise effortlessly, but mountain climbing is hard work; it takes Dante a full day to climb to the Gate. (As the climb proceeds, however, the climb paradoxically becomes easier, rest harder, until at the end going uphill will be as easy as floating downstream. See Purg. 4. 91-96.)
When Dante arrives at the Gate, the angel guardian cuts seven P's into his forehead (signifying the seven deadly peccate, Italian for sins) and opens the Gate, warning him not to look back after entering. The Gate then roars to a close behind him, its sound merging with that of a full chorus singing Te Deum Laudamus. It is unclear whether the other souls are similarly marked, but apparently it is Dante alone who bears the mark of the P's. The other details of Dante's entrance into Purgatorio are probably typical for the souls as well. At each of the upcoming seven cornices, the soul performs its penance until it feels so purified of that vice that it feels ready to proceed. (As Dante reaches these levels, the angel guardian of the cornice removes one of the P's.) The length of time spent at each cornice depends entirely upon the grip the vice once held upon the souls in life; at some cornices, souls need not spend any time beyond what is required simply to pass through, since all vices do not affect all people. As Dante climbs, for example, there are hints that he will spend his longest time after death at the cornices of lust, anger, and, especially, pride, all vices that seemed particularly to affect him.
Souls may climb the mountain by day only, apparently because in doing so they "pursue" the Sun, the symbol of divine light and love on this earth; when it sets, they rest. No soul is forced against its will to remain in any of the cornices. (For saved souls to act contrary to the will of God would be unthinkable.) Each suffers voluntarily and gratefully for as long as such suffering is necessary. Once the seventh P has finally been removed, the soul must pass through a ring of fire that separates the terrace of lust from the earthly paradise. All souls, even the most saintly who need to spend no time at any of the seven areas down below, need to pass through this fire. In the earthly paradise, a procession symbolic of the books of the Bible passes before Dante. (I presume that this procession passes before all souls at this climax to the climb.) At the center of the procession in a "caroccio," a war-chariot symbolic of the Church, rides Beatrice. Does each soul have in the car a personal saint, the soul in heaven of greatest personal importance? If so, then perhaps this saint, like Beatrice, scolds the soul for former sinfulness, wringing from it for one last time tears of remorse. Afterwards, the soul crosses the River Lethe, having been cleansed through this immersion even of the memory of sinfulness. The car then undergoes a series of changes symbolic of the history of the church and the soul is bathed in the River Eunöe, reinforcing, thereby, the memory of its former virtuous deeds. Perhaps all souls, therefore, like Dante, end their stay on Mt. Purgatory with a reminder of God's revelation--both in Scripture and in ecclesiastical history--and with the memory of sin removed and the memory of virtue intensified. So prepared, absolved of actual sins and purified of deadly sins, the soul is ready for the ascent in the final canticle.
All of this may sound excessively contrived, but this canticle, by far the most human of the three, does not convey this effect to me when I read it. Only this canticle takes place on our planet, in our atmosphere, with our sun rising and setting. The souls here are capable of growth, delight, and sharing. Since they retain many of their human intellectual limitations (unlike the souls in Heaven who can all read Dante's mind), they retain their curiosity. They are fascinated by Dante's corporeality. One of them, Bonaguinta da Lucca, wants to know what makes Dante such a superior poet, and he reacts enthusiastically to Dante's response. Finally, nothing in the other canticles can compare emotionally with the moment in canto 30 of Beatrice's appearance and Virgil's disappearance.
Dorothy Sayers, again demonstrating her epigrammatic knack, says that "between the Inferno and the Purgatorio we pass from the imagery of Michelangelo to the imagery of Fra Angelico." In the first two cantos of Purgatorio we can already sense this new spirit of beauty, serenity, and gentleness. Dante climbs out of Hell to his figurative redemption at a uniquely appropriate time and season, at sunrise on Easter Sunday at the vernal equinox. (That Easter and the equinox did not actually coincide in 1300 bothers only the very literal minded.) The day, the week, the solar year, the church's liturgical calendar are all at the moment of renewal.
Shortly after their arrival on the mountain, Dante and Virgil are accosted by an old man who turns out to be Cato of Utica, an ancient Roman who, by a special privilege has been freed from Limbo to serve as porter of the mountain. This special privilege is particularly puzzling, since Cato had killed himself after unsuccessfully fighting against Caesar, and he appears in Canto 1 of Purgatorio, just one canto after we see the horrible fate of his political allies, Brutus and Cassius. One might have expected to find him in Hell and there not doing easy time in Limbo, but in the wood of suicides or in Judecca.
The solution to this mystery is at least twofold. On the one hand, Cato is a type of liberty, since he killed himself rather than succumb to imperial domination. Even though Dante is himself a supporter of the principle of Empire, Cato's instinct for liberty is exemplary, especially in Purgatory, the place that celebrates and perfects Christian liberty through humility and self-sacrifice. This liberation is possible because of Christ's sacrifice, and in Il Convivio Dante actually calls Cato a type of Christ: "And what earthly man was more worthy of signifying Christ than Cato? Surely none." The second reason for Cato's special favor is that he was a great lawgiver and this mountain is ruled by the Law of God. With his bifurcated beard and glowing face, Cato seems to many to be reminiscent of Moses, the great Biblical lawgiver--himself a figure of liberty for leading his people out of bondage and into freedom.
This motif is reinforced in the second canto with the arrival at the island of the boatload of souls who are singing the psalm "in exitu Israel de Aegyptu", the very psalm for which Dante had provided the four-fold allegorical reading in the famous letter to Can Grande. Since the historical exodus of the Jews allegorically signifies Christ's redemption, the individual's spiritual conversion, and his personal salvation, they could not be singing a more appropriate song. (For these same allegorical reasons, the psalm had been used since the sixth century in the last offices of the dying and in the liturgy of the burial of the dead, and it is still so used in the liturgies of many monastic communities.)
One of the souls on shipboard turns out to be an old musician friend of Dante's named Casella. At the poet's request he sings one of Dante's canzoni that he had set to music, thereby attracting the other souls, until Cato suddenly reappears, scolds them, and sends them scattering up the mountain like doves. This canzone, from the third tractate of Il Convivio, was addressed to Lady Philosophy and allegorically signified Dante's purely intellectual search for a solution to the human dilemma. As such, the song is at least the waste of time Cato says it is compared to the significance of the Exodus psalm with which the canto began. There has indeed been a "new Law" (nuova legge, 1. 106), one that profoundly changes aesthetic, as well as moral, values.
In canto 3, the poets come upon the first of two groups not yet inside the gate of heaven, both of whom remain for a time at the base of the mountain in Ante-Purgatory. Those in this first group are excommunicants. They had been formally declared by Papal decree to have acted in so conspicuously heinous a manner that they had placed themselves outside of the Christian community and so were to be excluded from the sacraments and other expressions of communal life. They could be reconciled to the community only by special procedures performed in addition to confession (usually involving for them some public act of humility), which procedure again required Papal authorization and acknowledgment. Many of these souls in Purgatory achieved this reconciliation and died in the state of grace, but in Dante's system are made to circle the mountain thirty years for every year of previous contumacy; for having kept God waiting, they are made to wait.
From this first meeting with a class of souls in Purgatorio, a couple of interesting points emerge. First of all, we see that Virgil is no longer the all-sufficient guide he had been in Inferno. He had already in canto 1 earned a rebuke for trying to handle Cato in the ways that had worked with Infernal souls; here in canto 3 we find him every bit as unsure as Dante about how to proceed up the mountain. The second point suggested to us is the centrality of humility on the mountain. Those souls who had obstinately remained outside of the community of Christians in life spend time in Purgatory in a sheep-like flock, in a new community of former ex-communicants. One of the things to notice throughout Purgatory is the way the communal prayer and suffering we find here contrasts with the isolation of the damned. Sin is a state of separation; grace, of integration. That the keenly perceptive description of sheep's behavior in canto 3.79 ff. is obviously drawn from life should not distract us from the gentle humor of having souls, once so "heroically " obstinate, now appear so timid, or from the gospel echoes of the Good Shepherd and his flock.
Cantos 4-8 deal with the second area of Ante-Purgatory, where we find the three groups of the Late Repentant: the Indolent, who put off their repentance through negligence, the Unshriven, who died violently and were therefore unable to confess to a priest, and the Negligent Rulers, who spent so much time attending to affairs of state that they neglected their own salvation. Throughout these cantos, the souls reiterate the request of the excommunicants that the living pray for their more rapid release from Purgatory, this implicit feeling of community contrasting markedly with the earthly political division recalled in cantos 6-7.
Among the Late Repentent Dante meets several interesting characters who contrast in telling ways with characters in Inferno. The Ghibbeline leader Bonconte da Montefeltro had died in 1289 at he battle of Campaldino (in which the young Dante had himself fought on the Guelf side). Bonconte's death contrasts sharply with that of his father, Guido, described in Inferno 27. At Guido's death, St. Francis was about to receive the soul into heaven, only to have it claimed by a devil. At Bonconte's death (and nearly simultaneous repentance) a devil was about to claim the soul only to have an angel receive it. One's salvation obviously depends upon one's own choices and not on one's family history.
Pia dei Tolomei, who speaks to Dante at the end of Purgatorio 5, recalls to one's mind Francesca da Rimini from Inferno 5. Her speech is every bit as gracious as Francesca's was, but without the undercurrent of selfishness. She asks Dante to see that she is remembered on earth, but only after he has had time to rest from his journey. A canto later, Sordello, whose imperiousness is reminiscent of Farinata's (Inf. 10), greets Virgil, his fellow Mantuan. Similarly, Farinata had greeted the bypassing Dante when he heard his fellow Tuscan's accent. While Farinata, however, had stressed his separation from others in untransformed factionalism, Sordello ends up as the tour guide to the Valley of the Negligent Princes, where factionalism no longer holds sway. All three of these characters illustrate the concept of back illumination; when we come to this point in Purgatorio, we more fully understand what we have previously read in Inferno.
In canto 9, Dante has the first of his three dreams on Purgatory. Night falls three times during his climb, and, just before each subsequent dawn, Dante has a transitional dream that looks back to the previous day's activity and ahead to that of the next day. In canto 9, Dante dreams that a gigantic eagle snatches him and swoops him off, and he awakens to find that during his sleep St. Lucy has transported him from the Valley of the Princes to the Gate of Heaven. In a very literal way the dream provides a transition, from one to another day, from one to another level of Purgatory, and from one to another physical locale.
The dream of the siren (or of Serena) in canto 19 also provides a transition, this time to the upper three terraces of Purgatory where souls do penance for their self-indulgent instincts. Dante here dreams of an old woman who seems hideously ugly, until she is converted by Dante's glance into a beautiful and seductive young woman, the same Siren who attracted Ulysses and who continues to lure other voyagers to their destruction. A heavenly lady then calls upon Virgil to do something, and he rips open the belly of the Siren, exposing the ugliness and stench below the attractive-seeming surface. The dream points, not only forward to the next three terraces, but also backward to the discussion of love and freedom in cantos 16-18. Virgil, as a figure of Reason, guards the threshold of consent and protects Dante from the deception of his senses.
Finally, in canto 27, Dante dreams of Leah and Rachel, providing thereby a transition to the earthly paradise up above. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob had been told that in exchange for seven years of work he would be given Rachel for a wife. Instead he was given her older sister, Leah, and had to work seven additional years before winning Rachel as well. In medieval scriptural exegesis, Leah and Rachel were regularly considered symbolic of the active and contemplative life, an interpretation perhaps relevant to what happens in Purgatory. Dante has labored up seven cornices expecting to find Beatrice, only to find a woman subsequently identified as Matilda. Whoever Matilda may be, she is found picking flowers, an active rather than contemplative preoccupation. As Dante makes his own transition from the corporeal climb to the ethereal ascent, the two heavenly ladies reinforce the shift.
It would not be fruitful in this essay to examine in detail each of the seven cornices that make up the longest portion of Purgatorio; however, a few general points are worth our while. First of all, the kinds of exempla chosen for the whips and bridles is carefully systematized. The first example of each whip of virtue is taken from the life of the Virgin Mary, who was believed to have been the most virtuous human who has ever lived. Other examples alternate between episodes from the Bible or from church tradition and episodes from pre-Christian Roman literature. As with his inclusion of pagans in Limbo and with his insistence that he was saved by reading Virgil, Dante again emphasizes the ability of classical literature to act as a guide to virtue.
Furthermore, the manner in which the whip and bridle are presented is ingeniously adapted to the mode of suffering which the souls endure on each terrace. The proud, while hauling enormous rocks on their backs, are bent double staring at the floor. There, sculpted into the rocky floor, are plaques, reminiscent of the kinds of funerary monuments common in medieval churches, depicting the evil effects of the vice of Pride. The envious, however, with their eyes sewn shut like those of falcons being tamed, would be unable to see anything sculpted, so that both their whip and their bridle are presented orally by disembodied voices.
At the conclusion of canto 27, just before Dante's entry into the Earthly Paradise, Virgil addresses the following words to Dante. They are destined to be the last words he speaks before his own return to Limbo, and in a sense affirm the success of his own mission: "No longer expect word or sign from me. Free, upright, and whole is your will, and it would be wrong not to act according to its pleasure; wherefore I crown and miter you over yourself."
Having freed himself from the causes of sin, and therefore, having perfected his will, Dante is finally free to do whatever he wants. The souls in Hell all sought a similar independence of will by a variety of shortcuts intended to circumvent the discipline so necessary to keep freedom from being self-destructive. Dante here is presented as having finally become a law unto himself, not by resisting the law of God, but by integrating that law into his own personality. Virgil expresses this independence in a characteristically Dantesque way. Our hero has become his own state and church, his own emperor and bishop.
Once back at the Earthly Paradise, Beatrice returns to Dante's life. The fiction would have it that he has not seen her for ten years, not since her death in 1290. The meaning of this moment, simultaneously historical and allegorical (hence, figurative), is complex. His first reaction is quasi-sexual; he first notices Virgil's disappearance after he had turned to say "I recognize the tokens of the ancient flame" (Purg. 30. 47-48). When he finds Virgil gone, he weeps only to be scolded by Beatrice in a 14th-century Italian version of the parental line, "now I'll give you something to cry about." It is his own former sinfulness he should be crying about, not Virgil's disappearance, and by the next canto he does just that, bemoaning his infidelity with the "lady at the window" after the death of Beatrice.
On the literal level, Dante has been unfaithful to Beatrice the woman in writing love poetry to this new lady at the end of the Vita Nuova, but the event has allegorical implications as well. In the Convivio, Dante had himself interpreted this other woman as Lady Philosophy who had won his heart away from the revealed truth that Beatrice in part represents. Dante's descent into hell and climb back to Eden are framed by two different allegorical depictions of the same apostasy. Dante's sudden awareness of being lost in the woods involved a recognition that philosophy alone, without divine illumination or sacred wisdom or theology (all of which Beatrice, according to some, represents), cannot answer the most basic of human questions. Now, at the end of the climb, that same episode of philosophical philandering is spoken of as a sexual affair.
In the very last canto of Purgatorio, Dante's purification is
complete. He is absolved of sin, freed from vice, and in Lethe is washed
clean of the memory of former sinfulness. When Beatrice mentions his former
estrangement and Dante claims to have no recollection of ever having been
estranged from her, Beatrice triumphantly concludes that his amnesia is
proof positive that in following his former philosophical school of thought
Dante was indeed sinful (Purg. 33. 85-102.). If it had not been
sinful, it would not have been forgotten in the waters of Lethe. The final
step is to drink from the waters of Eunoë, thereby intensifying the
memory of former virtuous acts. At this point, Dante concludes the Purgatorio:
"I came forth from the holy waves, renovated even as new trees renewed
with new foliage, pure and ready to rise to the stars."