For Dante, hope is the one thing needful.

On the lowest terrace of Ante-Purgatory — that is, the lowest possible level for a soul whose ultimate destiny is salvation — Dante and Virgil meet Manfred of Sicily. According to the (perhaps unjust) accounts by which the poet Dante knew him, Manfred had been a moral monster, excommunicated by the Church and denied Christian burial. Among other enormities, he had allegedly murdered his own father, brother, and two nephews, and attempted the murder of a third nephew. In other words, he would ordinarily have been condemned to the very lowest Circle of Hell, to the realm of Caïna, as one guilty of treachery against his own kin.

Manfred, however, repented at the moment of death — or perhaps it was not even repentance in the usual sense of confession and contrition. He says simply “I gave myself back” (io mi rendei) to God.

After my body had been shattered by
two fatal blows, in tears, I then consigned
myself to Him who willingly forgives.

My sins were ghastly, but the Infinite
Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts
who ever would return, imploring It.

. . .

Despite the Church’s curse, there is no one
so lost that the eternal love cannot
return — as long as hope shows something green.

— Purgatorio iii. 118-23, 133-35 (Mandelbaum trans.)

The choice of words is highly significant: not “as long as he repents” or “as long as he dies with the name of Jesus on his lips” or anything like that, but “as long as hope shows something green” (mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde)Manfred died in the hope of salvation, and it was that — rather than repentance per se — which saved him.

(Contrast Dante’s Manfred with Byron’s character of the same name. The abbot implores the dying Manfred to “Give thy prayers to heaven —  / Pray — albeit in thought, — but die not thus,” but Manfred, having spurned the fiends, spurns God as well. His last words, as the abbot begs him again to make “but yet one prayer,” are “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die.”)

Manfred, the lowest of the saved, makes an interesting contrast with Virgil and the other virtuous pagans, the highest of the damned. The latter are “punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — and, as discussed in my previous post, one possible interpretation is that the “sin” for which the virtuous pagans are punished is also a lack of hope. Lacking the Christian revelation, they hoped for nothing higher than the Elysian Fields, and so that is all they receive. “I am Virgil,” the poet says later, in purgatory, “and I am deprived of Heaven for no fault other than my lack of faith.” Dante certainly seems to be portraying hope as the one deciding factor in the soul’s destiny. With it, even Manfred is salvable; without it, even Virgil is damned. That hope is the key distinction between purgatory and hell — between the suffering which saves and the suffering which does not — is reinforced by the inscription over the gates of hell, ending in the famous line “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

Having noticed this, I now find an emphasis on hope jumping out at me from many different parts of the Comedy. It is mentioned again and again in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante confronts the three beasts. The leopard “gave me good cause for hopefulness,” but “hope was hardly able to prevent the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.” Then, when the she-wolf appears, “I abandoned hope of ever climbing up that mountain slope.” And of course every cantica ends in the word “stars” — a traditional symbol of hope.

*

I am not yet ready to comment on Dante’s ideas regarding hope — I want to go through the whole Comedy again and spend some time digesting it — but I just wanted to point out an aspect of Dante that I had never noticed before.

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3 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature

3 responses to “For Dante, hope is the one thing needful.

  1. Interesting line of discussion – which sounds plausible (although I never have read Dante, and have no intention of doing so).

    Much of the trouble is that the meaning of a single word becomes narrowed in usage. Repentance is theologically identical with giving oneself to God, which is identical with hoping – since hope is based on the Lordship of God and atonement of Christ. By contrast, despair (lack of hope) entails belief that Satan rules, that *that* is the nature of reality – which entails rejecting God, and accepting the indestructibility of sins etc.

    But, I doubt whether this kind of explanation would have been regarded as acceptable to Dante, since I have not mentioned the church or the sacraments.

    It caused a lot of ultimately intractable problems for Christian theology when it was decided that salvation required the church.

    • Dante puts the pre-Christian Trojan hero Ripheus in paradise, so it appears that he did believe salvation was possible without the church or the sacraments. And of course Moses, Abraham, and various other Old Testament figures are in paradise as well.

      (The pagan Roman emperor Trajan also appears in Dante’s paradise, but this may be because of a legend that Pope Gregory I had raised Trajan from the dead and baptized him. So far as I know there is no corresponding legend regarding Ripheus.)

      • I wasn’t sufficiently precise – my point was that I suppose Dante would have been extremely harsh on a line of reasoning which said that if Trajan did not need the church and sacraments, then neither do I – once the church existed, it was supposed to become essential (at least to those who had heard of it, or had the chance of joining). To modern eyes this seems obviously flawed logic, or else evidence of a wicked ‘God’ – and it required ingenuity to make it not so.

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