What does envy have to do with mercy? Dante shows us how by its very nature envy is diametrically opposed to mercy. If mercy desires to bestow kindness on the other because God has bestowed kindness on us, envy wishes to prevent kindness from reaching the other for fear that God’s loving-kindness is not sufficient for us all. The Envious need to learn that the good of the other doesn’t diminish the gifts that we receive from God, but rather increases them.
The central metaphor of this canto, as in several others, is that of the sun, which represents God’s love. The Envious, whose eyes are sewn shut like those of untamed falcons, are unable to see the sun for the duration of their time on this cornice. Dante explains why this is so:
“And as the sun is of no profit to the blind,
So Heaven’s light denies its bounty
To the shades in the place of which I speak…” [lines 67-69]
Although it may seem harsh for God to deny his radiance to the Envious, we are to understand that His light wouldn’t do them any good at this stage anyway. They need to learn the important lesson that God’s light, and therefore love, are sufficient for all, and that love given to others doesn’t take away from the love that we receive. Dante shows us the nature of the sin of envy as it is manifested in the Envious, who have still not been completely purged of this sin, when the pilgrim relates:
“As I went on, it seemed to me that seeing others,
Without my being seen, offended them…” [lines 73-74]
Absurd as it may seem, because they can’t see him, the Envious resent the fact that Dante can see them. Envy always resents the gifts that others have, because, due to their “scarcity mentality” (to borrow Stephen Covey’s term), they fear that God’s gifts are limited and that what others have diminishes what they have. The truth is that God will be happy to bestow the gift of His light upon the Envious once the blindness of sin has been purged from their hearts and they are able to see it.
This is the logic of mercy: bestowing mercy on others doesn’t take away from the mercy we receive from God; in fact, the precise opposite is true. In order to continue to receive God’s mercy, which is infinite, we need to show mercy to others so that our hearts will be soft enough to receive mercy from God. Refusing mercy to others blocks the flow of mercy in us such that it stagnates and dies. Believing that others have to be deprived of God’s mercy for us to be able to receive it is a fundamental lie from the deceiver.
Sapia of Siena, Dante’s chief interlocutor in this canto, fell for the lie when she prayed that her own townspeople would come to grief, presumably because she resented the status that they had and that she perceived herself as lacking. When they were defeated in battle, she rejoiced in what she saw as the “success” of her prayers. In the afterlife, she recognizes that in life she was unwise, for she “rejoiced much more at harm done others / than at [her] own good fortune.” [lines 110-111] By God’s grace, she repented at the end of her life, and was therefore able to enter purgatory rather than hell. The irony is that it is one of her own townspeople, a dweller of Siena named Pier Pettinaio, who through his prayers has hastened her journey up Mount Purgatory. When she thought the good of her fellow Sienese was antithetical to her own good, she wished them ill; but now that she has come to understand that their good and her good are inextricably intertwined, she is allowed to experience that reality through the benefit her compatriot is able to bestow on her through God’s gift of holiness to him. The principle that Fr. David Tedesche observed as operative in canto 2 of the Purgatorio, namely, “We’re all in this together,” proves to be the very antidote to the affliction of the Envious, the cure for their zero-sum-game mentality.
Dr. Christine Schintgen is assistant professor of literature at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada. She completed her doctorate in English literature at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include crime and prisons in Victorian literature, Dante, Dickens, and the relationship between faith and literature. She and her husband Michael enjoy living in a small town with their three children.