“Love Cautiously”: Dante’s Illustration of Natural and Elective Love

Throughout Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, the theme of love is visited often. Between the two works, it becomes clear that Dante’s notion of love is divided into two parts: Natural and Elective Love. Natural Love does not err — that is to say, it will not lead you into sin and is intertwined, if not interchangeable, with the concept of Divine Love. God is, however, a loving God and gives us the power of choice, and so we also love Electively. Elective Love leaves us free to love whatever, whomever, however we wish, and we must learn to desire worthy things if we are to live without sin. Failing to understand this, or straying from this, causes us to err. Natural Love inspires Elective Love, and if we do not learn to tend toward Natural Love, then we end up in Hell; similarly, if we learn too late, we must spend time repenting. In the second canticle of the Divine Comedy, Dante’s definition of love take the theological stance. In Purgatorio (specifically cantos 21-24), Love is described as something that ultimately comes from God. This natural love is virtuous, and by following it, we cannot sin. This notion of pure love is illustrated best in Virgil’s interaction with the shade Statius. As the pilgrim journeys further up Mount Purgatory, we reach the fifth terrace, upon which the avaricious and prodigal are seeking forgiveness. Toward the end of Canto 21, we meet Statius who has just finished his time in Purgatory. Before his death he had read Virgil, and he attributes his being saved to Virgil’s writing. When the pilgrim and his guide first come across Statius, he does not recognize Virgil, and he explains that he would gladly spend more time repenting if it meant he could have met Virgil (Purgatorio 21, 100-102) — ironic, considering that he is expressing these wishes directly to Virgil. Upon finding out that he is in the presence of Virgil, Statius bends to embrace him (Purgatorio 21, 130). Virgil rebukes him because they are shades and cannot feel. Here we see that Statius’s love for Virgil is so great, it makes him forget their emptiness (Purgatorio 21, 135). This example of natural, noble love is further explained by Virgil in Canto 22. He speaks of Natural Love, saying that, “Love, kindled by virtue, always kindles other love, as long as its flame appears externally” (Purgatorio 22, 10-12). Stating that his affection for Statius “has been greater than any ever felt for a person not seen” (Purgatorio 22, 16). This speaks to a love that is inspiring and fostered, born from virtue. It does not rely on anything other than the fact that Statius’s love for Virgil was born from good intentions and therefore grew within Virgil himself. We know that Statius’s love is noble because God allowed it to reach Virgil in Hell. This virtuous love, in conjunction with the ending of his time in Purgatory, shows us that Statius has learned to desire worthy things unlike he did in life. In life, Statius was wasteful and “loved” too much. This idea that one can love too little or too much is another way in which Elective Love can lead us astray. Another way in which this division of love is illustrated is in Dante’s encounter with Bontaguntia. While the two converse about the “Sweet New Style,” Dante tells him that he is “one who, when Love breathes within me, take note, and to that measure which he dictates within, I go signifying” (Purgatorio 24, 52-54). By this, Dante means that when love inspires him, he must make it known through poetry. Bontaguntia realizes that this is what kept him from being a poet of the new style. While Dante and his contemporaries were caused to write by Divine Love, their predecessors simply wrote about Divine Love. Further into Purgatorio, we meet the hetero- and homosexuals. Their crime in life was that they did not keep human law. The example used — Pasiphae, who fell in love with a bull and disguised herself as a cow so that the bull would run to her (Purgatorio 26, 41) — depicts how, when given in to, Elective Love, can effectively pervert Natural Love. Guinizelli explains that they are here because they followed their appetites like beasts (Purgatorio 26, 83) and gave into primal lust. This discussion of primal love in Purgatory brings up an interesting connection to the gates of Hell in Inferno. The Gates proclaim that Hell was created from “Primal Love” by Divine Power. Knowing what we now know about primal, animalistic love and its ties to Elective Love, we can assume that the denizens of Hell broke with human law completely. Out of their inability to understand love — which Dante asserts is key to keeping Elective Love on a worthy path — our poor sinners come to stay in Hell.This distinction between distorting love and misunderstanding it completely is best explained by going back and looking at Inferno. In the Inferno, the notion that we pervert love by choosing to stray is clearly defined. That is not to say that the choice is a conscious or calculated choice. By simply failing to strive to understand or to learn what they do not understand, people are making a choice. In some cases, these souls do not even know that they do not grasp a proper understanding, and this incorrect steadfastness damns them to eternity. Instead of striving for blessedness, they strive to fulfill human vices, thus turning their backs on virtue. For instance, the Gluttonous in Canto 6 loved excessively and replaced beatification with worldly good. Those guilty of sloth, the sullen in Canto 7, were guilty of loving too little. In Canto 26, the pilgrim meets Ulysses, who betrayed love by promising his crew virtue (Inferno 26, 112-120), something no voyage would achieve. Love stems from virtue, and therefore, by turning virtue into a human vice, love is perverted.The most poetic of all examples, however, is the lustful Francesca. Stuck in the “infernal whirlwind” of the third circle of Hell, she is guilty above all other for perverting love. Francesca betrayed the true Love by completely failing to understand it. In her speech to the pilgrim she explains to the pilgrim that:Love, which is swiftly kindled in the noble heart, seized this one for the lovely / person that was taken from me; and the manner still injures me. / Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in return, seized me for his / beauty so strongly that, as you see, it still does not abandon me. (Inferno 5, 11-105)Here Francesca makes the argument that love “seized” Paolo once he had seen Francesca’s fair body. She argues, further, that since Paolo loves her, she had no hope to reject his affection since Love “pardons no one.” So Francesca’s requital is no more voluntary than Paolo’s desire. The glaring “Easter egg” here is that barely anything in this speech is Francesca’s original thought. She draws upon fiction of her day, whether Lancelot du Lac, or the Dolce Stil Novo. Before realizing this, we feel terribly sympathetic for Francesca, but once it is pointed out, it is our first clue to her true sins. Her moving yet “plagiarized” speech reveals nothing of Paolo to us, not even his name. Francesca is in “love” with Paolo’s charm and beauty. Francesca “subjected her reason to [her] lust” (Inferno 5, 38) and gave up her ability to learn. By misunderstanding lust as Love, Francesca has distorted the ideal. Her second mistake lies in that she does not admit to her guilt, and instead blames the very Love (here we are to assume she means Divine Love, not Elective), which should inspire us. She believes hers was a “noble love,” something that cannot possibly be true because, if it was noble, then she would not have mistaken her lust for true Love. So why is Francesca singled out, out of all the other sufferers in this circle? After all, it is here that figures such as Cleopatra, Dido, and Semiramis are damned, guilty of far worse crimes than Francesca’s lust. Here is where the differences between Natural and Elective love become clear. Francesca expresses that love was forced upon her by the Almighty, maintaining that since she was loved, nothing would save her from returning the love, regardless of its virtuous intent. We get a sense that love is forced upon the person and based upon physical attributes. We later learn in Purgatorio from Virgil that true love has nothing to do with appearances, and that love need not be reciprocated on principle. Instead, Virgil tells us that if someone loves us virtuously, as in coming out of Natural Love, then this love will also be inspired in us. Love does not force itself upon anyone, and is not the agent at all. We, as humans, are the agents, and we can only inspire, not force, love within others. This notion further separates Natural and Elective Love, for in the case of Natural Love, love of the Almighty is a given — although not forced. The last of Virgil’s description — “as long as its flame appears externally” (Purgatorio 22, 12) — lends us some insight as to why Ulysses’ contrapasso was to be consumed in flame for a desire “which burns him inwardly” (Inferno 26, 47-8). His desires, virtuous or not, consumed him and were neither expressed nor acknowledged. As Dante, the pilgrim, “went signifying” (Purgatorio 24, 52-4), once Love inspired him, so Ulysses should have done. Perhaps then he would have understood Love’s true intentions were born from virtue instead of seeing virtue as an end to love. The sins mentioned earlier, Gluttony and Sloth, are discussed in both Canticles. The disparity lies in the soul’s ability to understand that they have strayed. In Hell, the condemned never think that their concept of love is incorrect, nor do they realize that they have strayed. They believe that what they were seeking was the true end of love, in the case of the Gluttonous, or failed to appreciate Natural Love fully, in the case of the Slothful. On Mount Purgatory, the souls realized that they had strayed and began back toward Natural Love, but their perversion of love kept them from being blessed. That is to say, they realized their errors, but were simply too late. Through these examples, Dante shows us how Natural Love, which does not err, can lead to Elective Love and sin. Natural Love, which pertains to beatification and the Almighty, is the path we are supposed to choose through Elective Love; however, since Elective Love is after all elective, this does not always happen. The greatest error one can make here, as Francesca shows us, is to completely misunderstand Love altogether, for knowledge is the way to blessedness. One perceived “plot hole” would be the idea of unrequited love. If, as Dante maintains throughout the Divine Comedy, all love must be returned in some form, then what of those spurned lovers? Here is where our sinners go astray. This assumed unreturned love is simply a person’s lack of understanding for Love’s true nature, the true nature being that Love comes from the Almighty; since even Hell is constructed from this Love, all love is returned. It is our ability to understand and discern this love, however, that is the true question. So where does our pilgrim, and perhaps our author, factor into this balancing act? Through his descriptions and musings on Beatrice, together with his inferred sympathy for both Francesca and Ulysses, we see that the pilgrim, just as Dante himself, has a hard time grasping the idea of Natural Love. At times he loved excessively, and while it distracted him, it did not cause him to stray. The pilgrim also concedes to sometimes feeling consumed inwardly, as Ulysses is in Inferno 26. By realizing these distractions and allowing Natural Love to guide your elective loves instead of hoping your elective loves will align with Natural Love, one can avoid sin in the same way that Bontaguntia realizes the poets were guided by Divine Love instead of using it as a means to an end. This lesson that it takes knowledge, will, and the desire to learn the difference between what is worthy and what is not, is what I believe Dante is ultimately trying to convey by illustrating these two forms of Love.