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Dante's Inferno, The Divine Comedy: Purgatory, Explication of Canto XVIII - What is the Sin of Love

Updated on December 5, 2015

Purgatory, Canto XVIII: The Sin of Love

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Canto XVIII, Virgil is explaining the mortal sin of love to the Pilgrim, who contemplates the context of love as both an internal and external force. At first, the Pilgrim is satisfied with Virgil’s lecture; however, he begins to question the definition of love, seeking an answer to the “the source of every virtue, every vice” (XVIII. 15). For the Pilgrim, love is an intangible concept that seems to be founded in virtue and purity, and tainting love with the filth of sin challenges the Pilgrim’s perception and “brings more uncertainty” (42). With that said, a close look will be taken into the words of Virgil through an explication of the Canto XVIII to define love and examine the contextual foundation for interpreting this level of Purgatory as written by Dante.

The standard concept of love presents mutual feelings of compassion and physical interest as a rewarding and satisfying experience, often transitioning into either traditional or non-traditional roles of exclusion, which offers the opportunity for the expansion of the family line. There are no literal rules, per se, into how one must demonstrate love to another; however, there are archetypal concepts that suggest guidelines for the eternal commitment of a person and their significant other. However, Dante presents love as a mortal sin, as an obsessive force. And though it comes from an external aspect and has the potential for goodness, men do not understand its true power and will pervert it; unless they first contextualize “the noble power…/Freedom of Will” (XVIII. 73-74). This assumes that love cannot be pure under the banner of free will; meaning that because all humans have free will, loving another cannot make them love the other back. And though there are certainly instances of mutual love, of building a relationship and forming a mutual bond with another, love becomes a sin in this level of Purgatory because “the soul at birth, created quick to love, / will move toward anything that pleases it, / as soon as pleasure causes it to move” (19-21).

Moreover, love, then, is a construct that every human is capable of achieving, especially if they have not been tainted by the darkness of life, and more especially when they are young because they have not yet lost the innocence and the purity of being a child. Virgil considers this an “error of the blind who lead the blind,” (18) in that love is not necessarily something that can be taught, which leaves a massive margin for error as the human grows and interacts with potential love interests.

There must also be a line for the difference between lust and love; with the notable exception that lust can often turn into the much deeper emotional feeling of genuine love. Virgil explains that there is an initial image of a possible love, which “[forces] the mind to be attentive to it; / and if attentive, it inclines toward this, / that inclination is love” (24-26). In this regard, people are capable of viewing an interest and growing to feel deeper levels of compassion, aside from the first instance of physical attraction.

Indeed, the soul is at the mercy of love’s emotions, “not resting till the thing loved is enjoyed” (33). In this, there is no escape from love until there is a conclusion or signal for closure. A person cannot live in unrequited love because “just as fire’s flames always rise up, / inspired by its own nature to ascend, / seeking to be in its own element, / just so, the captive soul begins its quest, / the spiritual movement of its love” (28-32) until that flame is either extinguished or fanned with an eternal recognition.

However, at this moment, the Pilgrim is confused by the nature of love and the contradiction that love could be an eternal sin. He asks, “how can you praise / or blame it for its love of good or bad?” (44-45), questioning why a virtuous compassion could engender one of the greatest sins. As before Virgil had related the concept of love to ‘the blind leading the blind,’ this concern by the Pilgrim highlights a footnote added by Mark Musa which explains that the Epicureans believed that love was a purely righteous action, and that the purity of love released those capable of love from being sinners. Therefore, Virgil’s contradiction establishes a branch from love that separates the pure form of mutual love and the unrequited state of love. Love, under this explanation, is a construct that cannot be sought are hold mutually exclusive ideologies that can lead a soul into either damnation or a peaceful conclusion.

Although, Virgil also explains that “the primal will / is neither laudable nor blamable” (59-60), allowing for the act of love and the want of love as an honorable desire which “winnows out the good love from the bad” (66). At this point, Virgil alludes to Plato and Aristotle (inserted by Musa), providing context for the ethical foundation of man’s free will and the “[assumption] that every love that burns / in you arises through necessity; / you still have power to restrain such love” (70-72). However, it is not necessarily that unrequited love equals an evil resolution; it is that the soul cannot force the mutual act of love upon another, resulting in an evil undercurrent that can transform the human into a twisted and deformed soul, tarnished by the possibility of love and the destruction of that possibility.

As the Pilgrim becomes satisfied with Virgil’s explanation, his mind begins to wander and suddenly a crush of souls rush across their path, “spurred in their race by good will and just love” (96). These souls are crying out about their passions, citing the purest forms of love as seen in the Virgin Mary and Caesar as they explain that “time is love… / strive to do good, that grace may bloom again” (104-105). The introduction of these figures presents a scenario in which righteous actions can prevent the punishment of the bad sort of love. However, this “passage” (114) must be attained by the will of the soul, and cannot be guided by the hand of another. More, the souls rush past, leaving the parting words, “all of those / for whom the Red Sea’s waters opened wide / were dead before the Jordan saw their heirs;” (133-135, meaning that those who sought to escape from Egypt, as Musa explains, but who did not take initiative in their path, and “who found the task too difficult / to keep on striving with Anchises’ son, / gave themselves up to an inglorious life” (136-138).

As the Pilgrim watches, the souls finally leave, and he begins to drift into a state of dreaming. At this point, the Pilgrim has become exhausted with all that he has learned; however, he has come to finite conclusions about the power, both pure and destructive at the same time, of love. In the Introduction, Musa writes of Dante’s life and explains that Dante met and fell in love with Beatrice at a very early age. He loved her with an intense passion that she did not return, to the point that “his emotional attachment to Beatrice brought him to idealize her more and more as the guide of his thoughts and feelings, as the one who would lead him toward the inner perfection that is the ideal of every noble mind” (Introduction, xi).

For Dante, Beatrice was the ultimate love, and was so much an obsession for him that no other woman would ever again enter his heart. The sin of love, as written in Canto XVIII comes full circle to this story of the young Dante. Indeed, Dante “praises his lady as a model of virtue and courtesy, a miraculous gift given to earth by god to ennoble and enrich all those who appreciate her qualities” (Introduction, xi). No other woman can ever be as good as Beatrice; and further, no other woman can reach that spark in his heart that consumes his passion.

Ultimately, love can be a force for good or a force for evil; the construct is provided through the free will of the soul and the path taken to achieve a mutual love or be struck down by an unrequited love. Virgil’s presentation of love is as a choice that must be made through free will, though the soul must press towards righteous actions and avoid taking the darker path. The concept instills a personal journey through the pleasures of love; however, the nature of love holds a dangerous outcome for the soul who is incapable of understanding the purest form or who rushes to a concluded outcome that wasn’t mutual. For Dante (and the Pigrim), this love was both all-consuming and worthy of the crushing pain that is Purgatory because it is a sin; when one loves another they cannot force the return of that love. And in the end, that unrequited love reaps greater pain than the actualized love would ever cause.

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