orioThe Divine Comedy (The Inferno and Purgatorio, in this matter) without Virgil would be like coffee without cream. Without Virgil, Dante would never have completed his journey. Without reason, Dante would never have the courage to go through his redemption.
We meet Virgil in the Inferno just when Dante begins to lose all hope in going through that shadowed forest. Beatrice has appointed him to guide our hero through hell and then through Purgatory. Himself being in Limbo, Virgil knew the nooks and crannies of hell. His knowledge would then profit Dante in his perilous journey.
On the allegorical level, however, Virgil represents reason. Dante, on the other hand, is the personification of every man. Every human person is a sinner. In order to obtain forgiveness and salvation, every person needs reason to acknowledge the nature of sin, and how it goes against Gods love and His divine plan for everyone. As we all learned in our very extensive theology classes, the way to salvation is through reason enlightened by faith. Beatrice, whom we meet in Purgatorio, embodies faith.
The role of Virgil in both books is not always the same. The character of Virgil in the Inferno is more confident and reassured than he was in Purgatorio, wherein he is often insecure and uncertain.
The Divine Comedy could be read from many different angles. One could take in everything at face value, judging the book as just another piece of fine poetry. On the other hand, there is more to what the lines actually say. Underneath the story, one finds a richness of symbolism and metaphors which reflects each and everyones spiritual lives. This paper is divided into four parts. The first part is the literal sense of the Inferno, the second, the allegorical, the third is the literal meaning of the Purgatorio, and finally followed by its allegorical sense.
Virgil in the Inferno is the head honcho. He knows where to go, who to talk to, and what to do. His confidence is something to be admired.
As Virgil and Dante embark on their journeys in Canto I of the Inferno, Virgil is cool, calm, and collected. When he sees Dante, he immediately takes charge:
I think it best for you
to follow me, and I shall guide you, taking
you from this place through an eternal place
(Inf. I, 112-114)
In their journey, the duo meets with the souls who are forever being punished for their sins. Virgil often addresses them rudely, sometimes with open hostility: Then he stretched both his hands out toward the boat,/ at which my master quickly shoved him back,/ saying : Be off there with the other dogs! (Inf. VII, 40-42)
His hostility is not spared even toward the guardians of hell. In Canto III, we meet the demon Charon. He is a fearsome creature, with eyes like embers. (Inf. III, 109) Everyone is scared of him. Everyone, that is, except Virgil. After shouting to the shades and our heroes about losing all hope, and making the shades lose their color and gnash their teeth in fear, Virgil immediately snaps: Charon dont torment yourself (Inf., III, 94). The same is true when they meet Cereberus, Plutus, the boatman Phlegyas, Minos, the Centaurs, and so on. In Canto VII, Virgil reassures his charge that no one could possibly harm him and reprimands Plutus. In the following Canto, we could picture Virgils ingratiating little smirk as he tells off Phlegyas: O Phlegyas, Phlegyas, such a shout is useless/ this time, my master said; were yours no longer than it will take to cross the muddy sluice. (Inf., VIII, 19-21). Virgil is never afraid in the Inferno. He approaches everything and everyone with confidence, his head held high, his patrician nose turned up.
In the Inferno, Dante puts Virgil on a pedestal. He almost always refers to his guide as my master. Virgil, on the other hand, guides him every step of the way. He tells Dante where to go, how to talk to the shades, and what to ask of them. In Canto X, for example, as they approach the tombs of the Epicureans, fearful Dante instinctively clings to Virgil: But he told me: Turn around! What are you doing?/ Thats Farinata who has risen there-/ you will see all of him from the waist up. (Inf., X, 37-39)
Dante always turns to Virgil whenever he is scared or uncertain. He is like a child, who would be lost without his mother:
O my dear guide, who more than seven times
has given back to me my confidence
and snatched me from deep danger that had menaced,
do not desert me when Im so undone;
and if they will not let us pass beyond,
let us retrace our steps together, quickly.
(Inf., VIII, 97-102)
Virgil always reassures Dante that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. After all, the all-knowing Virgil is there to enlighten Dante and to fend off anyone or anything who intends to make game of Dante.
Virgil is present all throughout the Inferno. He has ready explanations for everything. He is never hesitant. Probably the only time that Virgil loses confidence is when they encounter thousands of fallen angels blocking the gate of Dis. But even at the face of adversary, Virgil is confident of Divine help:
You though I am vexed
must not be daunted; I shall win this contest,
whoever tries within- to block our way.
This insolence of theirs is nothing new;
they used it once before and a gate
less secret it is still without its bolt
the place where you made out the fatal text;
and now, already well within that gate,
across the circles and alone- descends
the one who will unlock this realm for us.
(Inf. VIII, 121-130)
Another example is when the demons of the Malebranche were hot in pursuit of Dante and Virgil. Virgil immediately snatches up Dante and makes a run for it. He did not face the demons to scornfully rebuke them. Although they were busy escaping the fearsome demons, Virgil was not afraid:
as did my master race down that embankment
while bearing me with him upon his chest,
just like a son, and not like a companion.
His feet had scarcely reached the bed that lies
Along the deep below, that those ten demons
were on the edge above us; but there was
nothing to fear; for that High Providence
that willed them ministers of the fifth ditch,
denies to all of them the power to leave it.
(Inf., XXIII, 49-57)
Basically, what the preceding paragraphs have been rambling on about was that Virgil in the Inferno was intrepid, dauntless, bold, daring, and cocky. He can be likened to that of a strutting peacock. He is like the brick house that the big bad wolf never did blow down.
Allegorically though, let us remember once again that Virgil represents reason. Dante, being in hell, represents every man as being in a state of sin. To overcome this state, man needs reason. We need reason to understand, first of all, the nature of sin. To attain salvation, man must have perfect contrition. By going through the Inferno, with the help of reason, man comes upon the understanding of the ugliness of sin, and how it offends God, who is all-good and deserving of all love. Reason assists man in coming to terms with the logic behind the punishments in hell, that it is only Just because it goes against Gods, love. These realizations thus make man to firmly resolve never to sin again. This resolution, however, would be impossible without the help of grace.
Reason, just like Virgil, sometimes falters during the trials and tribulations of mans earthly journey. This is why grace (or the heavenly messenger in Canto IX, for example) is needed to triumph over sin.
Back on the literal level now, we can see Virgil in Purgatorio beginning to weaken. He is not treading on familiar territory, so he must be extra careful of what he says and does.
Already in Canto I, we see a huge difference in Virgil. The ferocious tiger that we met in the Inferno has turned into a timid pussycat! In this Canto, Dante and Virgil come upon Cato, the custodian of Mt. Purgatory. We can see their reaction to this in Dantes words: My guide took hold of me decisively;/ he made my knees and brow show reverence. (Purg. I, 49-51) This is such a huge difference from what Virgil did to Charon in the Inferno! Bowing and kneeling to show reverence! There must be something wrong here! But there is no mistake. This is really Virgil were talking about. In a long discourse (32 lines to be exact), Virgil acknowledges the superiority of Cato, seeks for his approval, resorts to flattery, and even goes as far as to make a compromise just to get permission to enter Purgatory. In this moment of weakness, Virgil must have forgotten that his journey has already been mandated by the heavens. All other encounters with the guardians and angels in Purgatory, however, are fundamentally the same.
Virgil in Purgatorio is not the contemptuous soul that he was in the Inferno. In this book, he always addresses the souls with utmost respect. He even asks directions from the souls. Notice in the following lines how Virgil speaks to the souls:
O chosen souls, you who have ended well,
Virgil began, by virtue of that peace
which I believe awaits you all, please tell
us where the slope inclines and can be climbed;
(Purg., III, 73-76)
We could also deduce from these lines that there is a hint of jealousy in Virgils part. Though these souls were being punished, Virgil thought that they ended well because they were slowly but surely on their way to perfection. Virgil, on the other hand, is stuck in Limbo forever.
In Canto VII, we see more evidence of Virgils lack of knowledge as Sordello temporarily takes up his post as guide: as far as I may go, Ill be your guide. (Purg.,VII, 42) In fact, several other souls, angels, or guardians served as the duos guide in Purgatorio. There was Manfred in Canto III, the souls in Canto V, Sordello in Cantos VI and VIII, the Guardian Angel in Canto IX, and Statius in Canto XXI.
Virgil is not the all-knowing guru that he once was in the Inferno. He does not always have the answers for everything. In Canto XXV, he even had to refer Dante to Statius: But that your will to know may be appeased,/ heres Statius, and I call on him and ask/ that he now be the healer of your doubts. (Purg., XXV, 28-30)
Additionally, Virgil is not really well acquainted with the nitty-gritty of Purgatory:
Now who knows where, along this mountainside,
my master, halting, asked, one finds a rise
where even he who has no wings can climb?
While he, his eyes upon the ground, consulted
his mind, considering what road to take,
(Purg., III, 52-56)
Further, Virgil does not rebuke Dante as often as he did in the Inferno. They are, in a sense, almost like equals here. Sometimes, it seems as if both of them are undergoing purification. There is a nice scene in Canto IV, wherein they just had a hard climb to the First Spur: There we sat down together, facing east,/ in the direction from which we had come:/ What joy to look back at a path weve climbed! (Purg., IV, 52-54) Now isnt that cute? It would seem here that they are much like best friends, or father and son. There is no formality or tension as they sit together and look back at the path they had just climbed. Another bonding moment between the two is in Canto XII, where Dante just had one of the Ps erased from his forehead:
With my right hands outstretched fingers, I
found just six of the letters once inscribed
by him who holds the keys, upon my forehead;
and as he watched me do this, my guide smiled.
(Purg., XII, 133-136)
We also see relatively less of Virgil in Purgatorio that in the Inferno. Sometimes, he lets Dante perceive for himself the events in Purgatorio. He does not always have a ready explanation for everything:
And he to me: Whatever makes them suffer
their heavy torment bends them to the ground;
at first I was unsure of what they were.
But look intently there, and let your eyes
unravel whats beneath those stones: You can
already see what penalty strikes each.
(Purg., X, 115-120)
This is probably because Virgil knows that he has to leave Dante toward the end of Purgatorio. Dante eventually has to learn to see and understand for himself. He cannot always be dependent on Virgil for everything.
Virgil finally acknowledges his limits. In Canto XVIII, he says: What reason can see here,/ I can impart; past that, for truth of faith, its Beatrice alone you must await. (Purg., XVIII, 46-48)
Virgil does leave Dante as we can see in Canto XXVII:
My son, youve seen the temporary fire
and the eternal fire; you have reached
the place past which my powers cannot see.
Ive brought you here through intellect and art;
From now on, let pleasure be your guide;
(Purg., XXVII, 127-131)
Because of Virgils limitations, he cannot be the perfect guide for Dante as they near the earthly paradise. During the journey through Purgatorio, he has to refer to other souls. Now, Virgil has to turn Dante over to Beatrice. Virgil cannot possibly fathom, much less explain to Dante, everything in the earthly paradise since he is a pagan.
But then, Virgils inadequacy is not absolute. He still explains about Purgatorio although not as often as he did in the Inferno. He is still a source of comfort for Dante: Dont be afraid, as long as Im your guide. (Purg., XX, 135) We also find Virgil giving discourses on love, responsibility, sharing, and about the terraces of Purgatory. In Canto XXVII, Virgil was the one who convinces Dante to go through the flames that guarded the entrance of the earthly paradise:
And if you think I am deceiving you,
draw closer to the flames, let your own hands
try out, within the fire, your clothings hem-
put down, by now put down, your every fear;
turn toward the fire, and enter, confident!
(Purg., XXVII, 28-32)
This then leads us to the deeper allegorical sense. Having understood the nature of sin in the Inferno, Dante as every man is now remorseful and repentant. In Purgatory, he has to go through the stages of purgation. If the Inferno was a metaphor for the examination of conscience, Purgatorio stands for the stages of repentance, confession, and resolving never to sin again.
Virgil, or reason, is a limitation of mans imperfection. Human reason alone cannot reach the ultimate and supernatural end of man. We see this between the lines of Virgil: Foolish is he who hopes our intellect/ can reach the end of that unending road (Purg., III, 43-35)
We often see Virgil expressly lower himself when he encounters the souls and other entities in Purgatorio. He makes an effort to show respect and reverence toward these beings. This could mean the virtue of humility. To truly repent, one must be able to acknowledge the gravity of ones sins. Humility makes man see the effects of sin on his soul, on God, and on society.
Virgil asks for help from the other souls because one should not always be dependent on oneself. Conversion cannot be possible without the help of spiritual guides, or priests, for example, and other people who have converted (the souls). The path of conversion is not always well lighted. Man needs to stop and ask for directions or support in his journey.
Other beings functioned as guides because reason does not always have the answer for everything. Man should not therefore be entirely dependent on reason. Faith is needed to convert. Without faith, man is easily distracted from the one true path. He would never be able to discern the supernatural truths of faith.
This does not mean, however, that reason is useless. Virgil is still present in Purgatorio because mans reason supports his faith. Blind faith would be just as dangerous as blind reason. There should be reason but enlightened by faith. Reason equips man with the knowledge of the natural law. Love, freewill, responsibility, and prayer are facilitated by reason. These virtues and actions would not amount to anything without reason.
We might say that the Inferno and the Purgatorio are veritable theology lessons. Both teaches the reader the requirements of a life of grace. In order to attain salvation and reach the earthly paradise, we must be cleansed of our sins. Cleansing makes it imperative for us to be truly contrite. We must sincerely be remorseful for our sins, not because we fear the punishments, but because we have offended God, who is all-Good. Once cleansed, we must lead a life of grace. Reason enlightened by faith is a primary factor in this life of grace. Living in the footsteps of Christ requires the use of reason to discern the good from evil. It requires faith to light up the path where Christ has walked. Only when we are furnished with the right use of reason and faith are we ready to (like Dante), climb onto the stars.