Dante’s Divine Comedy is not so much meant to be a reflection of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as such but is meant to be a good and entertaining story that, by poetic device, reflects the entire moral order as understood by Thomistic philosophical and theological principles. This is achieved in a three-fold way reflected through the three respective parts that make up the Comedy. First, Dante takes his Pilgrim (the veritable Everyman) with Virgil (natural reason unaided by grace) through the Inferno (hell) wherein we are shown the gravity and nature of sin with ranking commensurate with Thomistic principles. Then we travel with the Pilgrim and Virgil through the Purgatorio wherein we are presented a consideration of the virtues through looking at their respective opposing vices, the capital sins; Purgatory, where nature and grace meet, and thus so does the moral philosophy and moral theology of St. Thomas. Lastly, Dante leads us through the Paradiso -Heaven- which admits of no imperfection, and is therefore the appropriate place to consider the infused virtues, the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. By the end, we have traversed the moral order, from a consideration of sin (and virtue apart from grace) through sin conquered and virtue acquired through effort and grace, to virtue infused by grace apart from the efforts of man.
Moral actions are those human actions emanating from the will.(1) As such they are judged as good or evil to the extent those actions have fullness of being.(2) But though actions are separable from the ends in the abstract, they are inseparable from the ends in re, for one of the ways “goodness” can be predicated of an action is to the extent “it has goodness from its end, to which it is compared as to the cause of its goodness.”(3) Natural reason, as attested to by Plato and Aristotle, and grace-endowed reason culminating in faith, as attested to by St. Thomas Aquinas and all the Fathers of the Church and Divine Revelation, note that God is the Good, for not only does He have fullness of being, but is being itself. (Exodus 3:14) Thus, God who is Being itself and therefore Goodness itself, must be the ultimate end of human action. Actions are good and therefore moral to the extent they can be compared to the cause of its goodness. Conversely, actions are immoral to the extent they are removed from the end and cause. Thus immoral actions (or inactions) can be defined as a word, deed, or desire, contrary to the eternal law.(4)
Virtues are habits of moral action, vices are habits of immoral or vicious actions. A habit is “a disposition whereby that which is disposed is disposed well or ill.”(5) Therefore virtue more distinctly defined is: a power of a thing is that which makes its work good; or: virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us.(6) Furthermore, both Aristotle (7) and St. Thomas assert that virtue is a mean between excess and defect, Aquinas allowing for the fact that there is no excess in the exercise of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.(8)
Charity or love (of God) is the highest virtue, for “charity is the mother and the root of all the virtues, inasmuch as it is the form of them all.”(9) As it is the form, it is the virtue that therefore acts as the standard, the measure, of the other virtues. Thus the goodness or wickedness of acts are to be measured against this infused theological virtue as it acts as the form of the others.
Dante moves through the three parts of the Divine Comedy with this understanding of the moral order and constructs his poem accordingly. Let us examine each of the three parts to see this.
In general, Dante’s Inferno is divided between the Upper Hell of six circles (Cantos III-XI) and the Lower Hell of three circles (Cantos XII-XXXIV). Excluding the circle of Limbo for the unbaptized (Canto IV), Upper Hell contains those damned who are punished according to sins of appetite or incontinence. Lower Hell is again generally divided between those who committed violent or bestial acts (Cantos XII-XVII) and those who committed acts of fraudulence or treachery (Cantos XVIII-XXXIV).
As stated before, charity is the mother of all virtues insofar as it is the form of them. St. Thomas spends much time on this point and concludes:
In morals the form of an act is taken chiefly from the end. The reason of this is that the principal of moral acts is the will, whose object and form, so to speak, are the end. Now the form of an act always follows from a form of the agent. Consequently, in morals, that which gives an act its order to the end, must needs give the act its form. Now it is evident, in accordance with what has been said, that it is charity which directs the acts of all other virtues to the last end, and which, consequently, also gives the form to all other acts of virtue: and it is precisely in this sense that charity is called the form of the virtues, for these are called virtues in relation to “informed” acts.(10)
As charity directs all other virtues to the last end, and as the last end is God who is the Good, Dante’s ordering of Hell becomes clear. The highest levels in which sinners are punished the least (by relative comparison) are for those who least deviated from charity and consequently the last end, while the lower levels of Hell are for those who deviated from charity the most. Let us consider the two extremities of Hell to illustrate this.
In the second circle (Canto V) we have the souls of the carnal who “betrayed reason to their appetite”(11) by an excess of sexual passion. This sin is natural, as Ciardi notes, and most akin to love proper, so it is the least punished.(12) Yet it still deviates from the order of charity and one’s final end, hence its punishment. But since, by relative comparison to the likes of Anger/Wrath (Canto VIII) or Heresy (Canto XI), it deviates less from the end than graver sins which divert the soul farther away from charity it is punished with less severity.
Moving to the extremity of Hell, we come to the ninth level known as Cocytus (Cantos XXXI-XXXIV). Paying particular attention to the last Canto of this part, we find in the center of Cocytus the triple-faced Satan forever chewing on three sinners: Brutus and Cassius (inserted feet-first in the side mouths), and Judas Iscariot (inserted head-first in the central mouth). Brutus and Cassius betrayed Julius Caesar, the father of Imperial Rome if not considered the first Roman emperor himself. Judas Iscariot, of course, betrayed Jesus Christ, the New Adam who is the father of redeemed man and who is the Incarnate God. We have represented here four individuals: Brutus and Cassius betrayed the head of the civil/political order, Judas betrayed the Incarnate Head of the universal order, and Satan rebelled against God by likening himself unto Him. All went against the highest good of their order: Brutus and Cassius against the highest in the material/natural order, Judas and Satan against the Divine order. Further, they did so not with appetite but with the reason, the highest faculty, moving the will. Therefore their deviation from charity was the greatest and farthest removed from the final end particularly since their action went directly against their final end by attacking the Good itself. Hence, they are most severely punished.
Using these two instances as examples of the extremities, in between these Cantos (V & XXXIV), Dante orders the levels of Hell by gradation from the highest levels which deviate the least from charity (as given by the example of the carnal) to the greatest deviation from charity (as given by the example of Cocytus) and thus graduated deviation from the final end. Herein Dante illustrates the true nature of sin: a departure from charity, the form of all virtues, by which one is estranged from their final end, God, and thereby damn themselves.
Let us now proceed to Dante’s consideration of virtue through the lens of the the capital sins in the Purgatorio.
In the Inferno was a complex hierarchy that devoted itself to the nature of sin. But here in the Purgatorio, Dante through the Pilgrim and Virgil considers vice and their opposing virtues. As there is a hierarchy of sinful acts, there is also a hierarchy of vices. Vices, bad habits or inclinations, are imperfections in the soul, or more accurately in the operations of the soul which result in action (or inaction).(13) Vices, therefore, lead to sinful acts, sinful omissions, or mitigate the good of acts, as some vices incline a soul away from its final end more than others due to their relation to charity. Accordingly, Dante depicts (to the converse of Hell it should be noted) Purgatory as a mountain, the summit of which is the earthly paradise from which one ascends into Heaven. Each level of the mountain, from the base (after the formal entry into Purgatory –Canto IX) to the ante-penultimate level (Cantos XXV-XXVII), is arranged in a hierarchy of representative capital vices and their opposing virtues from lowest (most grave) to highest (least grave). According to Thomas, a capital vice or sin is:
“that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source.’ It is not then the gravity of the vice in itself that makes it capital but rather the fact that it gives rise to many other sins.”(14)
In short, the vices incline men to love mutable goods instead of the true Good which is the final end.
Dante’s arrangement of the hierarchy of capital vices are generally divided into two: 1) defective love and 2) excessive love. The first part enumerated (defective love) can again be divided into two: 1) perverted or bad love and 2) insufficient love.
Let us now consider two levels of Purgatory, and for the sake of comparison to the Inferno. Let again also consider the extreme levels.
“Pride is the beginning of all sin,” (Sirach 10:15) and as such it forms the lowest level (Cantos X-XII) of Dante’s Mount Purgatory (i.e. of Purgatory proper –excluding the levels of Ante-Purgatory) placing it closest to Hell and furthest from Heaven (which is reached after attaining the top-most level). St. Thomas describes pride as primarily a turning away from God who is the final end as well as a contempt for God and His commands preferring one’s own instead.(15) And as such, this shows why pride is the beginning of sin and therefore at this level as it is causative of all other sins. Dante, in accordance with Catholic doctrine illustrates the cure when the souls on this cornice move “from swollen pride to sweet humility.”(16) This is also demonstrated at the Whip of Pride (Canto X) where the opposing virtue of the vice the cornice represents is displayed to “whip up” souls to emulation. And humility itself “consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.”(17) Lastly, as pride is the beginning of all sin, humility is the foundation of all virtues insofar as it removes obstacles to other virtues, particularly the foundational theological virtue of faith”.(18)
Tradition holds that it was the sin of pride that ejected Satan from Heaven for he had a contempt for God’s authority. As such, the Arch-Enemy now occupies the lowest place in Hell, the farthest removed from Heaven for the damned. Likewise, the cornice of pride in Purgatory proper is the farthest away from Heaven for those saved who have need of purification before entry into Heaven. Therefore, Dante’s placement is appropriate.
Moving to the other end of the mount, we come to the seventh cornice where the lustful are expiating. As stated before, lust is, generically, an excess of love for a mutable good. Particularly, Aquinas asserts:
As stated above (148, 5; I-II, 84, 3,4), a capital vice is one that has a very desirable end, so that through desire for that end, a man proceeds to commit many sins, all of which are said to arise from that vice as from a principle vice. Now the end of lust is venereal pleasure, which is very great. Wherefore this pleasure is very desirable as regards the sensitive appetite, both on account of the intensity of the pleasure, and because such like concupiscence is connatural to man. Therefore it is evident that lust is a capital vice.(19)
The desire for venereal pleasure is strong and one of the most difficult to control. Further, it is related to another natural desire of man: the propagation of the species. This desire is universal among all animate life as it is fundamental to the continued existence of the species which is a proximate end and a real good. This desire, of course, is disordered due to Ancestral Sin. Therefore, as this desire is most natural, and as the desire with the accompanying pleasure resultant from its fulfillment is most intense, it is most easy to lose control of –it can override reason. Consequently, its gravity in comparison to other vices and sins can be mitigated. But as the sins of this vice are most shameful and base because reason is subordinated to the appetite, it is still a capital sin/vice.viii Thus it forms the highest level of the expiating cornices of Purgatory just as it formed the highest punitive level of Hell.
Chastity stands in opposition to lust as displayed by the Whip of Lust in Canto XXV. For as lust is an appetite that is out of control, so it must be checked or “chastened” by reason. Hence the Common Doctor says:
Chastity takes its name from the fact that reason “chastises” concupiscence, which, like a child, needs curbing, as the Philosopher states (Ethic. iii, 12). Now the essence of human virtue consists in being something moderated by reason, as shown above (I-II, 64, 1). Therefore it is evident that chastity is a virtue.(20)
The turning from the true Good to a mutable good is checked by reason (obviously endowed with grace). Again, Dante’s placement is appropriate.
Between the cornices of Pride and Lust stand the other cornices, with each representative capital vice and opposing virtue shown thereon. And we can see that from the levels of defective love, the soul ascends to the levels of excessive love as illustrated by our two examples. Here on the mount we see both vice and virtue, where redemption is. Whereas before we considered only sin, now sin and vice are considered with their opposing virtues, the acquisition of which leads one closer to Heaven, to perfection, and to one’s final end.
After moving through Purgatory and the Garden of Paradise atop the mount, the Pilgrim ascends into Heaven, this time without Virgil (natural reason), but with Beatrice (divine revelation). Let us proceed to this consideration.
The Paradiso is the most complex of the three parts of the Divine Comedy. Much more than morality is treated herein. In can be said that this part is a poetic treatment of dogmatic and systematic theology. But our concern will be morality; and here will be represented the infused virtues: the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. Dante’s treatment in this part is not as cleanly divided as in the Purgatorio, but his order is rational and consistent with Aquinas and the teachings of the Church.
The Paradiso is represented by the celestial spheres. In general there are nine spheres (Cantos II-XXIX) before one reaches the Empyrean (Cantos XXX-XXXIII). The First Sphere is that of the Moon and the Inconstant is represented therein (Cantos II-IV). The Second is Mercury for the Ambitious (Cantos V-VII). The Third is Venus obviously for the Lovers (Cantos VIII-IX). The Fourth is the Sun appropriately for the Wise (Cantos IX-XIV). The Fifth is Mars for the Warriors of the Faith (Cantos XIV-XVIII). The Sixth is Jupiter for Just Rulers (Cantos XVIII-XX). The Seventh is Saturn for contemplative(Cantos XXI-XXII). The Eighth is the Fixed Stars for the Theological Virtues (Cantos XXII-XXVII). The Ninth is the Primum Mobile (Cantos (XXVII-XXIX). Then there is the Empyrean, the abode of God.
Returning to the infused virtues, the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J. summed up St. Thomas’ treatment of them quite succinctly. He says of these virtues:
They are directly produced by God in the operative faculties of a man, and differ mainly from the acquired because they do not imply the human effort which determines the faculty to a particular kind of activity, namely facility induced by repetition. God Himself pours in  the infused virtues, not by compulsion or overriding the free will of man, but without dependence on us, which Augustine says, “are produced in us by God without our assistance.” They are supernatural gifts, freely conferred through the merits of Christ, and raise the activity of those who possess them to the divine level in the same way that sanctifying grace elevates their nature to a share in the life of God. They are supernatural precisely because they transcend the natural capacities of mind and will either to acquire or operate.(21)
The infused moral virtues, the cardinal virtues less prudence, are treated in the First through Third Spheres. In these spheres, the cardinal virtues less prudence are treated through there represented lack: inconstancy–fortitude, ambition–justice, lovers–temperance. Prudence is not treated here for it is the governing virtue of the infused moral virtues. As it is a governing virtue, the lack of any of the other virtues shows a lack of that which was necessary to regulate them: prudence.
The Paradiso then pivots as if on a hinge at the Fourth Sphere with a general treatment of the cardinal virtues without deficiency by treating of the wise which represents prudence itself. This makes sense, for as prudence regulates the mean of the other virtues, for the other virtues to exist in a soul, prudence must necessarily be there. Thus, justice as a virtue cannot exist in a man if he lacks prudence, for without it he cannot find the mean of the virtue of justice. With prudence treated in this sphere, therein is contained all the other cardinal virtues. Hence we encounter the likes of St. Thomas, Gratian, King Solomon, etc.
After this, the Fifth through Seventh Spheres deal with the cardinal virtues of fortitude, justice, and temperance respectively without a consideration of prudence proper (as that was taken care of in the Fourth Sphere). Again, these virtues are treated, but is done so positively without a consideration of their lack. The virtues are addressed as such as their privation have already been discussed. Her we have: Mars–fortitude, Jupiter–justice, Saturn–temperance.
Moving onto the Eighth Sphere, Dante treats of the three theological virtues. These virtues, unlike the infused moral virtues, are concerned directly with God while the cardinal virtues are concerned with the proximate end of human activities.(22) Therefore, in the hierarchy of heaven, Dante correctly places the theological virtues above the cardinal virtues. Further, he places the theological virtues in the proper hierarchy in relation to each other. Cantos XXIII and XXIV addresses faith. Canto XXV addresses hope. Cantos XXVI and XXVII address love or charity. Let us again reiterate St. Thomas and echoed by Dante: love (caritas) is the form of all the other virtues for the object of charity/love is the same as its end. Therefore, Dante places charity last among all of the virtues in the Divine Comedy for it is the highest.
But where does this leave us? How is the end realized? Let us look to the Primum Mobile
Its own motion unfactored, all things derive
their motions from this heaven as precisely
as ten is factored into two and five.
–Canto XXVII, lines 115-117
This is the realm of the First Moved –the realm of the angels themselves. Herein is the first motion. Now, whatever is moved is moved by another. As we cannot have an infinite regress, there needs be a first motion. This is it. Though this is an explanation of motion/change in the created order, it gives us an analogous look into the moral order, and Dante knows it which is another reason it is placed here just before the Empyrean. Again, moral actions are good actions; virtues are good habits; they receive their goodness from their end, the ultimate of which is God, which is their cause –again ultimately God. Therefore, the first motion in the soul toward the good, particularly those motions that result in actions or movements of the will that are “meritorious” or salvific, must originate in God as the unmoved First Mover, for He is the End and Cause. (This is where Pelagius fell.) But as God is the Ultimate Cause, He is the Ultimate End. Thus, the moral life lived according to that end brings us to Dante’s Empyrean.
All men want to be happy. But in what does their happiness –their true happiness–consist? Their happiness consists in the perfection of their being. But all created beings are beings by participation in that which is Being itself. Therefore, one’s perfection must come from that which is Being Itself. But as we are volitional creatures, we must be inclined toward that Being. God is Being Itself. It is necessary than for men to be inclined toward God, for the perfection of their being only occurs to the extent participated being is united to Being simply. As the object of the intellect is the “what it is” of a thing, which is the essence, the perfection of the intellect is in the contemplation of the Essence of the First Cause which is the same as its Being. Furthermore, the perfection of the will is to be moved by the intellect toward the good without constraint. Thus the perfection of the will is to be moved toward Goodness Itself, which is its Essence, which is its Being, which is God. Therefore, the unmitigated contemplation and adoration of God comprises man’s true happiness. This is want Dante depicts in the Empyrean. He summarizes it thusly:
There in Heaven, a lamp shines in whose light
the Creator is made visible to His creature,
whose one peace lies in having Him in sight.
–Canto XXX, lines 100-102
Conclusion and Reflection:
Beatitude: this is the “that for the sake of which” the moral order exists. This is the “that for the sake of which” man exists. Certainly the Divine Comedy has more to say than just a commentary on the moral order. Allegory upon allegory is contained in this masterpiece of poetry. Political commentaries, philosophical inquiries, theological contemplations, acts of devotion, and more are expressed by this Last of the Medieval. Yet, the focus of this exercise was more about the obvious: morality in Dante’s Divine Comedy. With great precision and consistency, Alighieri reflected the moral order as especially addressed by the Common Doctor, whom Dante revered, all the way from the beginnings of the Inferno to the culmination of the work with the Ultimate End in the Empyrean of the Paradiso
Charity/Love (of God) is the culminating virtue for Dante. It is so for Aquinas. It is so because it has been revealed; and it should give us great hope, for:
Eye has not seen,
nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him.
– 1 Cor. 2:9
Dante’s Divine Comedy has always been a work which I have revered…and feared. It is literally epic, not just in length (which was not the scary part), but in its scope or substance (that was the scary part). It was renowned for its allegorical layering, political polemics, and theological treatments…not to mention its poetic beauty. Particularly as it was a poem about the Last Things which culminated in a consideration of God Himself, I found the prospect of grasping such an artful treatment of the most Sublime Things intimidating. Poetry is just that -poetry- and therefore requires an ability to unpack metaphor; and, the metaphors are about God, the most important subject. Could I do it? And what would I focus upon?
As to the first question, I’ll let those of superior intellect and position judge that. As for the second, that was a bit easier. There are many things addressed in Dante’s epic; many subjects I could contemplate and focus my efforts on. In general, theology is my favorite subject. Naturally I leaned there. But what theology? Though in reality theology is one, it can be considered through multiple aspects: 1) dogmatic, 2) ascetic/mystical, or 3) moral. (People might dispute this division, but that is not my concern here.) Dogmatic theology is certainly treated in the poem, but not with as great a depth until one reaches the Paradiso (and I had to select my topic and complete the project before we were through the most of it). I would not touch ascetic/mystical theology, not because I am not interested in it, not because it is not in Dante’s work, but solely because I am not worthy to treat of such matters. The spiritual masters –the Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Dom Columba Marmion, Fr. Garrigou Lagrange, et. al.– they can treat of the subject, not me. That left me with moral theology.
Morality is the least interesting and the most poorly treated (not poorly with frequency, but poorly with quality) of the subjects. From pulpit to manuals, priests and theologians, from my personal experience mind you, moralize in such manner as to make the moral life the least inspiring thing to live. Christ’s yoke is sweet…these others embitter it, and, as a consequence, drive people away from the very end these ministers are trying to direct them to.i Ironic. Why, then, would I want to consider another moral treatment? Though I am already being moralized out my ears (with poorest possible effect), why would I want to contemplate morality some more? It is simple.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, I find, inspires one toward the moral life.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, like Christ, makes the yoke sweet. As such, it is medicinal…it is an antidote to the poison of inept moralizing that becomes like the clanging of brass to the ears of people who were previously well disposed to live a holy life. I delighted in the antidote and inspiration and wanted to contemplate it in detail. That is why I chose this for my semester project.
The learning here was not so much intellectual. Not that the intellect was not involved, but rather, the intellect through the medium of the poem seemed to work with the will. The truths Dante expressed were not new to me. But the mode of delivery, his poetry, stimulated that intellect to ponder more deeply and move the will to its proper end. That is the moral life. And Dante took us all the way.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov 1:7) And Dante begins there with the Inferno; but he does not remain there. Transitioning through the Purgatorio, Alighieri, in the Paradiso, culminates in Divine Love, the beginning and end of all our activity. His treatment therein is moving and inspiring and directs us to our Final End, reminding the reader what the reward of a moral life is –not so much the avoidance of hell as the attainment of Good/Bliss/Love/God.
So what did I learn? I re-learned that the treatment of morality or the moral life can be inspiring to live the moral life. In short, morality as a subject can be treated well, even if done so rarely. Is that a profound lesson? Probably not. But it was a necessary lesson.
How is this lesson to be applied in the future? This seems so practical, but, then again, morality is practical by its very nature: I see the Divine Comedy as a reference point, not in lessons of morality as such, but that morality can be treated well and in such a way that the End can be constantly viewed as the inspiration for perseverance. Again, this is not profound, but necessary the next time the brass starts clanging again. Was this the only lesson I learned? No. But it was the most striking for the present, so much so as to be a reference point in the future.
Pax et Bonum!
*Original post David’s Place Nov 2009
Copyright © 2012 David Schram All Rights Reserved
1 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-IIae, q.6, a.1.
2 ibid. q.18, a.1.
3 ibid. a.4.
4 vibid. q.71, a.6. (quoting St. Augustine’s Contra Faust. xxii, 27)
5 ibid. q.49, a.1. (quoting Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Bk. V, Ch. 20, 1022b10)
6 ibid. q.55, a.2 & 4.
7 Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Ch. 2, 1103b27-1104b3.
8 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-IIae, q.64, a.4.
9 ibid. q.62, a.4.
10 bid. II-IIae, q.23, a.8.
11 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inf., V, 39.
12 ibid. Ciardi’s (translator) notes for lines 37-48.
13 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-IIae, q.71, a.5.
14 ibid. II-IIae, q.153, a.4
15 ibid. q.84, a.2.
16 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Purg., XI, 119.
17 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 55, ad 20.
18 ibid. Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q.161, a.5, ad 2.
19 ibid. q.153, a.4.
20 ibid. q. 151, a.4.
21 ibid. a.1.
22 Fr. John Hardon, S.J. “Meaning of Virtue in Thomas Aquinas”.
23 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q.47, a.6.
24 iFr. John Hardon, S.J. “Meaning of Virtue in Thomas Aquinas”.
25 Aristotle. Physics, Book VII, Ch. 1, 241b24.
26 St. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, Lecture 9