Purgatorio Essay

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Purgatorio

Perhaps the best place to begin a consideration of Purgatorio is not its beginning but its middle. In cantos 16-18, the central three of this the central canticle, we learn about love and free will, perhaps the two principles most important to an understanding of the whole of the Comedy. Because our modern novelistic tradition of structure has led us to expect our plots to be arranged climactically, we tend to find this kind of geometric construction artificial and surprising, even though the practice was fairly common in medieval literature. Dante had himself already experimented with this kind of structure in La Vita Nuova. La Chanson of Roland, to cite another well-known example, seems by our standards to drag on
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For this to be comprehensible, we must understand that Dante considers instinct a form of love, "natural" or "animal" love, which can never be sinful. A second kind of love, however, "mind-directed" love, can fail in one of three ways and so be sinful, and in explaining this Virgil also explains the way the central portion of Purgatorio is structured around the concept of the seven deadly sins. One can go wrong by loving things one should not, (pride, envy, and anger), by loving what one should love, but with insufficient intensity (sloth) or by loving as ends in themselves things that one should love only in proper relationship to primary ends. In indulging these impulses, therefore, and so committing sins, one is motivated by a species of love.
In canto 18, however, Dante pursues the relationship between free will and love one step further. If love is a powerful force innate in each individual, "what merit is there in loving good or blame in loving ill?" The answer is that "Reason must surely guard the threshold of consent," for only with full consent of the will can a soul be held guilty of sin. Traditional medieval psychology held that sin involved three steps: attraction, delectation or delight, and consent. One perceives with the senses something to which one is attracted and then forms within the mind an image of the object of attraction in which to take delight. These two actions, the attraction or perception and the taking of