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Free Will in Dante’s Purgatory

Free Will in Dante's Purgatory Free Essay


People are used to think that a person is responsible for his/her actions due to the fact that he/she has free will. Imannuel Kant wonders whether the poor and unfortunate ability to commit a sin is the feature of some intermediate state between wisdom and folly. He says that the inhabitants of the lower planets are too tied to the material things and endowed with too weak spiritual powers to be responsible for their actions before a court of justice. He further argues that the matter is a real cause of sluggishness of the human spirit (Pasternack, 2012). Another thing is how to treat this: as a test of a soul by some higher power that intends to make people more spiritually strong and to help them rise to the next level of evolution, or as a punishment for retribution for the sin, committed by human first parents (Frede, 2011). Therefore, one can agree with the philosopher: humans could have been on the lowest level among all creatures if their power had not had the ability to develop. Indeed, it is very difficult to find the answer on many philosophical questions, as they are hidden from people. Nevertheless, the humanity will always try to seek the answer, whether there is fate, inexorable and unbending, or there is no fate, but only a free will, with the help of which the humans create their own destiny. In his Divine Comedy,in the second book, called Purgatory, Dante Alighieri tries to find the answer on these eternal questions. By analyzing Purgatory, this paper concentrates on the problems of fate and free will, explained in terms of love in the work of Dante. As love, inherent in human nature, can be the source of both good and evil, the free will is given to people to help them choose between sinful and righteous behavior when confronted with the fate.

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Purgatory as a Place for Healing the Soul

The human beings have always sought to realize, comprehend, and explain what seemed a transcendent and unattainable to them. The journey of Dante through the Hell and the exit to Paradise through Purgatory is a process of awakening of human consciousness. Furthermore, the man is a divine creation, closely linked to the nature and cosmos. Dante, as a man of his time, believed in the existence of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. For him, they were as real as for the modern man the Earth or the Moon. Thus, the system of those three worlds is very precise and harmonious.

According to Dante, Purgatory helps people realize their sins and repent. Here, in Purgatory, the light that heals the soul begins. When the image of hell torments was a long tradition in the medieval folklore and theology, Purgatory remained a vague idea for a long time, as it was peculiar only to the Catholic theology (Barolini, 2014). Essentially, Dante was the first, if not the only one, who gave a detailed figurative and ideological interpretation of Purgatory, which is perhaps the most poetically perfect part of The Divine Comedy. This special place has an elaborated structure, a balanced and harmonized world of images, and philosophical perspective (Alighieri, 2003). Purgatory is a philosophy of life, ethics, and history. If Paradise and Inferno are relatively stable, Purgatory, in its turn, is a permanent change in the status of souls and their moral development. In Purgatory, there is, perhaps, the most symbolic soil, from which a reality in the history of society grows (Boccassini, 2014). The sharpened historicism of Purgatory is easy to explain, as the history means for Dante the worldwide Purgatory on Earth.

In this place inhabited with disgraceful souls, Dante sees the relation of sin and punishment. The images of sinful souls become more and more humane, and even their passing from one stage to another becomes easier; the speed increases, and the load of matter decreases. Dante’s inner world changes as well: anticipating the entry into the third circle, he sees the allegorical dreams of non-wrath. In the second circle, however, he hears the voices in the air, reminiscent of the sin of envy. All this is rather in his mind and is not embodied in material tangible pictures. In other words, the moral sensitivity of Dante becomes thinner (Walls, 2011).

The fifth circle is a place, where an important meeting happens. Dante and Virgil witness the earthquake; the soul they meet explains them that the mountain is shaking when the penitent is purified from sins and starts climbing up. There is always the desire to move further, but the thirst for suffering in Purgatory replaces the craving for pleasure and hinders the soul. It appeared that the speaker is a poet Statius, who is believed to be secretly converted to Christianity and, unlike Virgil, has found the way to Heaven. Statius is one of the alter ego of the author: a poet, converted from pagan to Christian religion. In comparison with Inferno, where the souls were not subjected to changes, in Purgatory, the souls had the possibility to be transformed. In Purgatory begins the ascent to spiritual freedom and self-determination, first slowly and then faster and faster. While in Inferno the night predominates, in Purgatory, the day changes the night, as well as in real life and history (Boccassini, 2014). Dante’s consciousness also begins to change; it absorbs new knowledge, necessary for the education of his soul.

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All this description of the circles and the very existence of Purgatory between Hell and Paradise means that God has given a person the ability to think and analyze his/her behavior and actions. Basically, a human is free to choose between sin and righteousness, as Purgatory is the place for the souls who have sooner or later repented their sins and received the opportunity to reach Paradise after the stay in Purgatory. In other words, the soul has the freedom of choice, but performing certain actions in the physical world through the physical body; thus, the soul is sometimes blind and can make mistakes. People can sometimes guess what is allowed to them and what is fatally dangerous and wrong. However, an inexperienced soul is in danger of making the wrong choice, because it does not know how to live in a right way (Barolini, 2014). But in Purgatory, it has the ability to improve, heal, purify, analyze its mistakes, made on Earth, and choose the right path.

Love as the Source of Good and Evil

When Dante reaches the fourth circle of Purgatory, that is, the half way of purification, Virgil presents him the classification of sins. Here, the degree of sinfulness commensurates with good, not with evil; the love for good is an ideal, which should correspond to the activities of soul. The human beings are created by God according to His image and likeness, and if God is love in His essence, every person must be full of love. Conforming to Dante, love is natural and mental. Admittedly, nature does not make mistakes; it loves what it loves, while the spiritual can be mistaken (Simone, 2014). Love may be evil or good. Since it is impossible to wish harm to oneself, the first kind of love is limited to the evil towards others as a form of self-love at the expense of others. Contrary to that, the selfish love results in the appearance of pride, envy, and wrath, the sins that are being atoned in the first three circles of Purgatory. It is also possible to love the good but in a wrong way. If love for the true good is not strong, then this slothfulness and passivity is redeemed in the fourth circle. Moreover, the need for motion tirelessly helps the sinners to move forward. The excess of love for the true good is impossible, therefore, the excess of love for the false good is common (Simone, 2014). Hence, these sins are redeemed in the three upper circles.

Virgil answers the question, what is love as such. Love is given to the soul as its natural disposal. If the external image attracts the soul, then it penetrates into its inner world and becomes the center of attraction; in other words, it captivates the soul. Such natural captivity is called love. But at the same time, all things or beings seek their natural environment; for example, fire goes upwards. The captivated soul is attracted by the desire to be connected with the world of spirit, and it is also the manifestation of love. The opinion of those who say that love is always justified is ridiculous. Strictly speaking, the first natural inclinations are not subject to the judgements, as further preferences lie on the conscience of a person as a being with free will. Virgil’s explanation of the essence of love, tying together the threads of supreme love and free will, gives a preliminary solution to the problem, which worried the Christian thinkers during all ages. Not without reason, Dante uses scholastic terminology while speaking about love: the 13th century has accumulated considerable experience in the analysis of the philosophical passions and abilities of the soul. Further, the next steps in discovering the mysteries of love are made by Beatrice, the symbol of heavenly wisdom (Alighieri, 2003).

Therefore, Virgil expounds the doctrine of love as the source of all good and evil, and explains the gradation of circles in Purgatory in terms of love. So the first three circles mean the love to someone else’s evil, that is, pride, envy, and wrath. In the first circle, the proud people are bent under the heavy burden. In the second one, the envious ones have their eyes sewn. In the third circle the thick smoke choke the wrathful sinners . The slothful souls are in the fourth circle, which means the lack of love for the true good. In the three upper circles, the excessive love for false benefits can be seen. In the fifth circle, the covetous people are being redeemed. These sinners have their faces down, because once they were greedy, and their selfish desire for wealth did not allow them to raise the face to the sky. In the sixth circle, the gluttonous ones suffer the torments of thirst and hunger, while in the seventh one, the lustful are being purified by fire (Simone, 2014).

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Fate or Free Will

Dante receives the clarification from a Lombard Marco regarding the root cause of the sinful act: whether it is predetermined by fate, Heaven or, in the language of Dante, natural causality, the influence of the planets, or by the person and his/her free will. Marco explains that free will is the inalienable property of a person, which would have been preserved even though the human inclination had been completely dependent on nature. Otherwise, it would be impossible to distinguish between good and evil. Essentially, the cause of the depravity of morals is that the free will is not enough, as the souls need someone who can show them the right path.

Unfortunately, in the materialistic world, in which humans have to live, they have managed to develop to perfection the dialectic way of thinking. Basically for people things are either black or white, either good or evil. It is regrettable that it is not always right, because such an approach will sooner or later cause many sins and mistakes. Thus, people will forever torment themselves and suffer, because they will have to choose between two extremes. In fact, this choice is often illusory, because it is a figment of human imagination. So, everyone has his/her own fate, but in reality, it is only a starting point, which, in combination with the free will, opens the new ways and new opportunities of the soul (Frede, 2011). It is clear that free will and fate are closely intertwined, and perhaps are inconceivable without each other. However, even under the worst circumstances, people must find their right to think, analyze, act, and keep their freedom of choice.


Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a truly eternal work of art; it has been, is and will be vital as long as the mankind exists, makes the mistakes and tries to correct them, since each individual tries to find his/her own way to happiness, faced with the morals of contemporary society. All the passions of the mankind are shown in Purgatory, and all of them are true. While traveling through the mountain of Purgatory, Dante has acquired the knowledge, lost by humanity, that is, the autonomy of conscience, will, and thinking. The author shows that love is the cause of all human actions, both good and evil, depending on what kind of love a person will choose. In the circles of Purgatory, the souls are being cleansed from their sins, such as pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greediness, gluttony, and lust. Thinking about these sins, the reader understands that the free will is a very important gift from God. Hence, by making a free choice, people have the possibility to analyze and find the most right choice out of different options. Therefore, a person can determine his/her future life depending on which way and which kind of love will be chosen. Nothing is able to cancel the freedom of will, given to a human being. People must be free in their choice, thus predetermining their fate.

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