Distraction and the Afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy

April 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

“Blessed are those in whom grace shines so copiously that love of food does not arouse excessive appetite, but lets them hunger after righteousness” (2.23.150-154). On the sixth terrace of Purgatory, a tree speaks these words, communicating a broader theme of The Divine Comedy, that our attention should be consumed by a desire for God instead of worldly pleasures and distractions. Through each canticle, there is evidence that salvation is more about effort to obey God and less about success in doing so. In the Inferno are souls who busied themselves in life with the distractions of earthly existence, spending no effort on trying to live for God. They are left to their distractions for all of eternity, or at least for as long as they choose to continue pursuing them. In Purgatory, souls who made some effort to live by God’s will are given haven from distractions, so that they may focus solely on God and reaching Paradise. The differentiating quality between the souls in Inferno and those in Purgatory is a willingness to struggle and make the effort to live for God, regardless of failure. In Paradise, souls who successfully struggled to live virtuously are positioned so they are eternally focused on God, enjoying the beatific vision. For their dedication in life to the goal of doing God’s will, they may spend eternity with their wills as one with God’s. Though under normal circumstances, Purgatory and Paradise are free from distractions so souls can focus fully on God, the process can apparently still be interrupted. In Purgatory, souls often stopped or even forgot what they were doing upon seeing Dante and Virgil:”So all the happy souls of these Redeemed/stared at my face, forgetting, as it were,/the way to go to make their beauty whole” (2.2.73-75). In Paradise, Beatrice is a distraction to Dante on his journey from the Garden of Eden (2.30.31) to the Mystic Rose, where he sees God and has his revelatory vision (3.30.148). She is leading Dante toward God, however, so the distraction she creates for Dante is less damaging than Dante’s presence is to those souls in Purgatory who forget that they should be working eagerly to get to Paradise. This conception of God’s mercy as rewarding effort and focus is demonstrated in each canticle of the Divine Comedy. The story of St. Francis, told by St. Thomas in Canto 11 of Paradise, suggests a pious way of life that makes one’s struggle to stay focused on God easier: “In plain words/take Francis, now, and Poverty to be/the lovers in the story I have told./ Their sweet accord, their faces spread with bliss,/the love, the mystery, their tender looks/gave rise in others’ hearts to holy thoughts” (3.11.73-78). Francis, by marrying Poverty, gave up the pleasures and distractions of worldly goods. This lifestyle of self-imposed privation made focusing his life on God simpler. For choosing a distraction-free lifestyle, St. Francis is found among the wise on the Sun. In Purgatory, tempting, fruit-laden trees shout exempla of temperance and gluttony at the starving sinners who run endlessly around the terrace. The shouts from the two trees and the tantalizing fruit they display are not a pain to the souls, as Forese Donati corrects himself (2.23.71-72), but they are a solace (2.23.72). The contrapasso of these sinners is to “make [themselves] pure thirsting and hungering” (2.23.63), since in life they distracted themselves from God’s will with excess. As St. Thomas says, such privation “[gives] rise… to holy thoughts” (3.11.78). In the third circle of Inferno, where gluttons are punished, “Thick hail and dirty water, mixed with snow come down in torrents through the murky air” (1.6.10-11) and Cerberus “rips the spirits, flays and mangles them” (1.6.12-18). Ciacco, whose name fittingly means ‘pig’ or ‘filthy’ (1.6.52), is one of the souls who, as long as he is in the Inferno, will be allowed to wallow, literally, in the sin with which he occupied his life. In Limbo, the souls don’t actively suffer, but they exist, “[living] on in desire” (1.4.42). In life, they didn’t know Christ, and so they could not live a life for God. As the Infernal sinners are left to their life’s distractions, the virtuous pagans in Limbo, too, are left to their life’s work, in the “splendid castle” (1.4.106) which celebrates human reason and accomplishment unaided by God. There is an inferred possibility of upward mobility if a soul forsakes whatever distractions kept him from Purgatory or Paradise. This exception might even apply to souls of virtuous pagans in Limbo like Virgil. As Dante and the paradisial party prepare to enter Paradise, Virgil seems to be extended an invitation as well. The angels were “all shouting: Benedictus qui venis! then,/tossing a rain of flowers in the air,/Manibus, o, date lilia plenis!” (2.30.19-21). The first shout, “Blessed is he who cometh,” is a bible verse, followed by a line from Virgil meaning “Give us lilies with full hands.” The angels appear to be equating Virgil’s work with the Bible, but despite this high praise, he is sadly not able to forsake his Roman mindset and fatalistic confidence that he is forever relegated to Limbo. Virgil disappears to spend eternity with his fellow pagan poets (2.30.22-89). The souls in Limbo and the Inferno, including Virgil, do not see beyond their own circumstances, but Dante, from the time he enters the Inferno, is different. Where Virgil simply observes the entire journey to Paradise, Dante experiences it. Virgil dutifully leads Dante on the journey, but along the way, Dante is constantly looking above and ahead. As Virgil and Dante emerge from the Inferno, they “came out to see once more the stars” (1.34.139). At the end of Purgatory, when Dante emerges “from those holiest waters” (2.33.142), he is “eager to rise, now ready for the stars” (2.33.145). Paradise ends with a reference to God as “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (3.33.145). This theme of watching the stars and of focusing on what is beyond our immediate lives is captured by Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Throughout his journey, Dante is looking up at the stars. This focus and devotion to his pilgrimage are perhaps the reasons he is allowed to see Paradise. Regardless of why Dante is shown Heaven, though, his experiences seem to illustrate that God uses a more merciful principal to locate souls’ appropriate places in the afterlife than a surface reading of Inferno and Purgatory might suggest. Effort, attention, and love, it seems, are all God requires to be given a place in Purgatory, from which to purge oneself of sin. With the knowledge that even from the gutter, looking at the stars is enough, the message of The Divine Comedy is one of warning, but also of hope.

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