The twenty-fifth canto of Dante’s Purgatory is one of the few instances in the entire poem where the poet presents a philosophic argument to illustrate his ideas. John D. Sinclair, a notable translator and critic of the Divine Comedy, says that in this canto Dante demonstrates “the whole argument and the subject of the Divine Comedy.” Despite the voiced opinions of some, the latter books of Dante’s poem, Purgatory and Paradise, represent the sweetness and the joy of the work as a whole.
There is a tendency amongst readers to separate the Inferno from the poem, as if the first book of the Divine Comedy represents the poem entirely or perhaps that the first book is the only one in the triptych worth reading. This knee jerk reaction has only been aided by publishers, who consistently put new single volume translations of Dante’s poem on the market, and by the curriculum of modern day educational institutions, that consistently tend to drop Purgatory and Paradise of the program of study. Dante’s poem may only be read as a whole, any other approach is a corruption of the text and the poet’s intention. The twenty-fifth canto of Purgatory may be interpreted as a philosophic demonstration of the principle of unity underlying the construction of the poem and, by implication, the corpus of the human soul.
Sinclair says that the canto examines the “relation of man’s spiritual nature to his body and its faculties.” This is not a simple question and Dante does not give us an easy answer. The philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas is on display here, but their respective ideologies are difficult to summarize. What Dante in effect achieves in the canto is a quick encapsulation of Aristotelian philosophy concerning material and spiritual generation (by way of Aquinas) through the character of Statius, who in his own words shows Dante “the things seen in the eternal life.” What we are shown through Statius’ speech approaches the ingenuity of Dante’s characterizations in the Inferno, his rendering of the tormented individuals, but surpasses them in terms of eminence. In this canto Dante shows us something that is lacking in most of the major Christian philosophers and also in the pagan poets he was so influenced by: an illustration of the eternal body as it is formed by the soul.
We have in the Odyssey and the Aeneid descents into the underworld and we are introduced to the characters inhabiting these places. The figures in these interludes are wondrous to behold, as are the ominous mythical creatures interspersed throughout the poems; however, what Dante creates in Purgatory, and later in Paradise, is just as powerful and more importantly, for those that harbor similar theological views to Dante’s and the Catholic Church, his images and characters are redeemed—that is, they present to us illustrations of the spiritual body of mankind in contrast to the pagan, monstrous figures we find in Homer and Virgil. We read of these characters in the Inferno—Geryon, the Minotaur, Briareus—all distinctly images of perversion according to Dante, demoniacal counterparts to the people we encounter in Purgatory and Paradise.
It is interesting that Christian literature, including scripture, lacks decisive illustrations of the resurrected body that Paul spoke of in Corinthians: “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” One may say in defense of the Christian corpus that illustrations of the eternal life are not possible through the agencies of mankind alone, such is the orthodox religious practice to narrow heresies and idolatry; there are exceptions to this rule, especially during the European renaissance, but there are not many during Dante’s time.
To the readers that say Purgatory is boring, or too abstract, when held in the light of Dante’s own accomplishments in the Inferno, I reserve the majority of my contempt. In his commentary on the canto, Sinclair asks, paraphrasing Dante, “What part has the soul in these cravings of the flesh and their satisfaction?” To emphasize the punishments of the flesh over the victories of the spirit would be a perverse view for Dante to initiate in the poem, but he is never guilty of this action. Every side-glance in the Inferno is meant to increase the rapidity of Dante’s advance to salvation, and when it does not, Virgil is sure to rebuke. There is a unity to the poem and every section is functional to Dante’s overall scheme to demonstrate the path that everyman must take to achieve salvation.
The twenty-fifth canto of Purgatory is crucial to the poem as a whole because Dante reveals his basic understanding of the human soul, a view that permeates the poem throughout. The first of part of Dante’s lecture on the soul, delivered through Statius, is mostly derivative from Aristotle and is not crucial to the poem as what is to follow. Sinclair says the “main outcome of the whole discourse is that the soul is no mere product or accompaniment of the body but a direct and immediate creation of God.” In Dante’s words, skipping his earlier section on the generation of the body, “as soon as the articulation/ of the brain is perfected in the embryo/the First Mover turns to it, rejoicing over such/handiwork of nature, and breathes into it a new spirit full of power.”
In plain language, the soul does come into generation directly with body, that is, it does not naturally descend from sexual procreation like the organs of the body. The creation of the soul is a separate act altogether, dynamically occurring from the creative motions of God. These descriptions are typical of medieval theology and Dante does not alter them because they explain the opening stages of mankind’s spiritual creation. Dante’s explanation of the soul as an entity that “lives and feels and itself revolves upon itself” is integral to understanding the theological framework of the poem. According to Dante, is essential for us to realize our own role in bringing about our salvation and achieving our participation in eternity, as opposed to a “mere passive participation in an impersonal universal mind…which seemed to leave the thinking soul no life and immortality of its own.”
Further on, Dante speaks about the existence of the soul after death, when “the soul is loosed from the flesh and carries with it potentially both the human and the divine faculties.” This is Dante’s chief innovation in his lecture on the soul and is also one of the most imaginative passages in the Divine Comedy. In a mystifying fashion, the soul manages to absorb elements of its material existence. Sinclair says that the soul absorbs its bodily faculties into itself and carries them with it after death. There is something so alluring about this idea that it takes away the fear people feel when contemplating the afterlife. This is Dante functioning at his highest creative level and pushing the mind past the boundaries of reason, into realms pure artistry or imagination. It is a leap of faith for Dante, and for the reader as well, because we have moved past the limit of dogma here and we are witnessing something new being born.
Dante makes the eternal tangible, in a logical and emotional sense. He declares that the soul gains greater freedom from the limitations of the body and that spiritual faculties like “memory, / intelligence and will” are allowed free rein. Dante attempts to rectify the age-old distinction between the soul and the body. He acknowledges that such a division exists, but there is more to the relationship than is traditionally held and Dante is keen on exploring such regions. He refutes the idea that the body is only a husk that contains the soul, a shell only to be put off after death.
Statius explains to Dante in the canto that the form our being takes in the afterlife “follows the spirit.” We may infer from here that the body maintains much of its appearance from its living stature: “the formative virtue radiates round about, in/form and measure as in the living members.” The relationship presented here is a difficult one, bordering on the abstract perhaps because of our own limitations in the imaginative department as readers. Dante is as lyrical and evocative as ever. There is a prosaic air about Statius’ lecture, but there is a deeper truth to his words and they are poetic, if not in delivery then in nature and subject.
For Dante, the incorruptible body is formed by our “desires and other affections.” That is like saying that one’s appearance is determined by his or her inner operations. This is a radical reversal in perspective. In eternity, our bodies are not shaped by a nature that is external to us, one that we have no part in determining. According to this change in perspective, we help to create our eternal bodies by the choices we make while in life. This teaching may sound like old hat when put into plain language, but Dante has brought something new to the concept stemming from the Gospels, about laying one’s treasure up in heaven where it will not corrode. He has expertly visualized it.
Dante says from this resource the soul may make new “organs for ever sense” according to its own nature. This is the ultimate autonomy. Nowhere else in the poem is such freedom so eloquently expressed. The trajectory of these passages for Sinclair is to “establish the supreme worth and the eternal sacredness of the soul of man.” The soul as a unity is Dante’s central motivation in the canto and his delivery is flawless. The soul is more than animal, more than the flesh, more than the sins it commits while occupying a physical state, and Dante’s poem is more than the Inferno and the ills he describes there. Purgatory and Paradise are essential states for mankind because according to Dante therein lays our final destiny. God will be waiting for us when we are “pure and ready to mount to the stars.” And so will our truest selves.