God placed in the human soul an irascible appetite that is ordered to self-preservation and the avoidance of evil. When this God-given passion goes awry, the human soul becomes wrathful. In this sixteenth canto Dante finds himself among the souls who wrestled with wrath during their lives and are suffering order’s return to their passions.
As the poet ascends to this portion of the mountain of purgation, a thick, dark cloud that obscures nearly all vision surrounds him. The cloud represents the darkening of the intellect that follows a fit of wrath. From within the cloud Dante hears the solemn chanting of the Agnus Dei by those wounded by their wrath. These souls who were entangled in the knot of anger are now being unbound through the intercession of the meek and humble Lamb, pierced for their sins and the sins of the whole world.
Out of the darkness a recovering rage-sufferer, Mark the Lombard, greets the pilgrims and gives them directions on how to proceed in the obscurity of this circle. After exchanging these practicalities, Dante asks a question that occupies the rest of the canto. He is disturbed by the state of things in the world, by the fact “that the whole world has become one bare desert stretch despoiled of every virtue.” [lines 58-59]. He asks the Lombard to shed some light on the origin of this tragic condition, be it fortune or the stars or some other cause.
Mark refuses to attribute the evil in the world to some impersonal cause or abstract origin. Both cosmic forces and the wheel of fortune steal away the dignity of the human person, who is created with a rational appetite, a free will. It is misuse of this freedom, the source of man’s dignity and of his potential downfall, that is the source of the disorder in the world. As the penitent Lombard says in lines 82-83: “Thus if this present world has gone askew, look to yourselves, in yourselves lies the cause.”
Dante here teaches a truth that we find in the Catechism (CCC 1730): “Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” The human person comes into this world with the ability to choose. The One who creates men invests them with a God-like power of freedom.
God has ordered all men from the beginning towards the good, towards those things that bring them true joy. However, it is possible for men and women to choose the lesser good instead of the higher. The poet describes this subtle corruption well: “Innocently she tastes the savor of some lesser good, then chases it, deceived.” [lines 91-92] The created world is full of the good, the true, and the beautiful. All things are good in their proper place, but evil arises when free agents mistake lower goods like pleasure, wealth, power, or fame, for their ultimate good. This disorder in the soul leads to the disorder in society.
Thus, within all free agents is the potential to fall into error about what is the true good, the authentic source of their happiness. This is the reason that human beings need law. Left to one’s own devices it is almost certain that the human person will get distracted by the lower order goods that he encounters. The law serves to “rein or direct the love” [line 93]. The law is a gift. The law is a mercy. It serves to educate the members of the human community to direct and orient themselves both individually and socially towards those goods that are ultimate. The law teaches men to love the common good, not just themselves.
Here Dante is challenging what many of us think about law. Most modern Americans are antinomians, which is to say, they are against the nomos, the Greek word for law. We do not like law. Law is seen as a limit or a barrier to our freedom. Not so for the most Christian of poets. He is convinced that law—natural, civil, ecclesial—is a help, not a hindrance, to our happiness and our true freedom. The limits that law imposes are the conditions of our authentic freedom.
For example, almost no one becomes excellent in some field of human activity without working within the laws of the discipline. A boy does not come into the world swinging a golf club like Jordan Speith. A child does not innately know how to play a Brandenburg concerto. No one can dominate the game of chess like Bobby Fischer without first learning how each piece can move on a board. Golf, music, chess all have rules. They have laws that govern them, and only by knowing and abiding by the laws of these activities does a person achieve excellence. Without the laws you would have lost balls, screeching strings, and confused pawns. In the same way, human life and relationships have certain laws that must be known and followed in order to experience excellence in human living. If the laws are disregarded or unacknowledged, you get evil, pain, suffering, unhappiness.
Law, like Purgatory, teaches us to be free. This freedom is more than just the choice of what I want, when I want it, and how I want it. It is the freedom of excellence, the freedom that brings authentic happiness to the individual and the community. It is indeed a share in the freedom of God, the Author of our freedom. This freedom is the goal of the journey up the mountain of purgatory. Purgatory is about no longer being enslaved by our own thirst for autonomy and self-determination, but rather becoming liberated by the wise restraints of the law. In paradise the soul will not be free to choose between different goods; instead it will be free to drink from the fountain of goodness, truth, and beauty. It will be free to be happy, satisfied, and fulfilled.
This is the lesson at the heart of Canto 16. It is a truth that had been forgotten in the political and ecclesial world of 14th century Italy, to which Dante alludes in the latter half of the Canto. It has significance as well for 21st century global citizens. Laws that lead men to the good remain, for all time, a gift, a mercy from God. We should pray for our leaders—civil and ecclesial—that they might learn and live this truth, and lead us wisely toward the freedom for which we are made.
Fr. Christopher Seiler is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He completed his theological studies in Rome at the Pontifical Lateran University. He is the associate pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in St. Louis City and teaches Dogmatic Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.