The Structure of Dante's Afterword in La Divina Comedia

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Any discussion of the structure of Dante’s afterworld could come down to a list of what happens in each circle, terrace or sphere of the three cantiche that comprise the Divina Commedia. However, to describe that as the structure of the poem would be a misnomer and should probably more correctly be called the facade of the grand edifice that is the most famous construction of Italian literature. The workings behind the frontage and the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements will be the focus of this essay, rather than their specific manifestations at surface level. In this essay I hope to unearth the philosophical foundations which create the principles of the organisation of Dante’s afterworld which create an underlying symmetry across Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Michelino's fresco from Florence Cathedral, showing Dante holding his Divine Comedy at to the entrance to Hell with the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, spheres of Heaven and the City of Florence in the background.

One of the fundamental principles governing the organisation of Dante’s afterworld is incredibly simple and intuitive; that while moving through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, downwards is worse and upwards is better. Coupled with this is the amusingly literal and metaphorical notion of ‘gravity’; the deepest part of Hell is called the heaviest and the closer you are to the top of Mount Purgatory, the ‘lighter’ the sin. It is clear that the vertical organisation is important to Dante as he makes Virgil confirm it explicitly meaning that the moral significance of the physical structure of Hell is itself an explicit subject of the narrative of the poem. The natural assumption regarding justice is that it requires the worst sins to be punished most severely and the most virtuous or blessed actions to be rewarded most generously, however, if we were to rely entirely on Dante’s descriptions of sin and its opposite we would not be able to place sins in any order of gravity. This is because in discussing the sins and the punishments described, different people will be more or less horrified by the same things and our interpretations of Dante’s intentions will always be subjective and varied. The vertical hierarchy of the afterworld therefore creates, if not objectivity, a way to indicate Dante’s intended ideas of sinfulness and blessedness. Not only does this basic up/down or better/worse scale create a morally gradated understanding of all action, the collection of separate circles organised by individually identifiable sins in Hell is supplemented by a larger organisational structure where sins are grouped into geographical areas whose constituent sins are united by a common fundamental nature. Dante arranges geographical regions to show how different species of sin and virtue are related to each other thus illuminating their underlying natures. This is poetically liberating for Dante; by relying on the structure of the narrative to illustrate the hierarchy of sinful or virtuous actions as well as their common characteristics, he is free to focus on the characters and descriptions of events in the narrative and throwing the clearest light on the natures of the actions that we see in the poem. To be able to do this convincingly Dante must utilise abstract principles to create the simultaneously geographical and moral context in which individual events acquire meaning.

In Canto XI of Inferno, Virgil provides an explicit statement of Hell’s organisation stating that it is based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; up to this point we had been made aware by the narrative that distinctions between the circles of Hell were being made but not the organising principle behind them. Virgil also makes a distinction between incontinence and vice, stating that the sins of upper Hell share the former characteristic and the sins of lower Hell, the latter, because vice is worse than incontinence. To understand this terminology and how Hell is in fact organised it is necessary to delve into Aristotle’s writing in detail. The focus of the Ethics is not virtue, vice, sin, incontinence or continence, but happiness, which Aristotle defines as a person’s operation in accordance with complete virtue. The human soul or psyche performs three general distinguishable functions; nutrition, appetition and thought and as these parts of the soul often have conflicting desires, their perfect operation must also be driven by a plurality of dispositions. All motivation to action is drawn from these three parts of the soul and although the nutritive part has no virtues associated with it because it is not under conscious control, the other two do. The appetitive part of the soul is not rational itself though it is amenable to reason, which, as one might expect fully controls the intellectual part. Aristotle asserts therefore that there must be as many different virtues relating to the appetitive and intellectual parts of the soul as different jobs that they perform. The intellectual virtues are developed through learning and enquiry whereas the appetitive virtues are acquired through the development of habits to keep the appetite in check; a rudimentary example would be inculcating a habit to eat a regular meal three times a day preventing the desire to gluttonously overeat. A virtuous life for Aristotle is not simply performing virtuous acts; one would be hard pushed to label someone as virtuous for performing actions under the direction of another person or without the knowledge of the nature of the act or performing it accidentally. Virtue therefore requires autonomy and responsibility but also consistency, to perform acts in the manner in which a virtuous person would do them, consciously and habitually. The creation and maintenance of good habits is central to Aristotle’s understanding of a virtuous life. This proves problematic in Inferno for Theological reasons but suits Dante’s purposes in Purgatorio.

Similarly vice or malitia entails that vicious or malicious acts require the autonomous and consistent cultivation of evil habits and of performing malicious acts as a vicious person would perform them. True vice or virtue is neither intermittent or accidental. This is where the important distinction between vice and virtue and incontinence and continence can be made. The appetites of the truly virtuous person have been so mediated by positive habits that they propose worthy ends to the intellect to approve for pursuit; the intellect which has been habituated with prudence discovers virtuous ways to accomplish those ends. However, the continent person, is not in fact virtuous; the intellect knows the virtuous course but struggles against the badly habituated appetites in much the same way as the person determined to only eat three meals a day may struggle with the constant desire to snack and must keep themselves in check. As long as the rational intellect’s will triumphs over the appetites good actions will follow, but not virtuous ones, as virtuous actions depend on good habits. In the incontinent person, the appetites win, the dieting individual snacks in between meals and evil actions result but similarly these actions are not vicious ones, they are not performed maliciously, it just so happens that the intellect knows the virtuous path but fails to follow it. In this way we can see why Virgil calls vice worse than incontinence; evil actions still result from it but the individual is less blameworthy having only an evil appetite but not an evil intellect.

What also can be drawn from this understanding are problems that arise from applying these distinctions to the sins and sinners in Inferno. Firstly, it is easy to find examples where Virgil’s restriction of malizia to lower Hell makes the term far narrower than an Aristotelian understanding and there are many characters languishing in both upper and lower Hell who are guilty of vice and not just incontinence. In the ethics Aristotle discusses intemperance as a vice and in this category Dante would identify the lustful and the gluttonous. However it is possible to be incontinently lustful or gluttonous as well as viciously so; in the first case the guilty individual knows they should not indulge in certain activities but is unable to stop themselves and the latter indulges these habits thinking mistakenly that the desires induced by their bad habits are worthy of satiating. Dante places Cleopatra and Semiramis among the lustful and Ciacco with the gluttons in upper Hell and yet their sinful lives were pursued with intention without the shame or guilt felt by an incontinent. They followed their desires not because they could not control them but because they deemed them worthy of pursuit. Other evidence can be found where Dante’s understanding of malitia is in fact much broader than Aristotle might have intended. The significant criterion for vice in Aristotle’s understanding was the inculcation of bad habits which would induce consistent evil actions but in Dante’s lower Hell many of the sinners are damned there for one exceptional act of evil which is insufficient to point to an evil habituation. Neither Bertram de Born’s antagonisation of Henry II and his son nor Ugolino della Gherardesca’s betrayal of the city of Pisa can be said to point towards a pattern of behaviour and an Aristotelian understanding would not call these acts truly vicious. Vanni Fucci is a prime example of a misattributed vice having spent his entire life performing violent and evil actions that could be described as habitual, he is in fact dammed to Hell for a single burglary. Even Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the evilest of evil acts can only be seen as out of character from the biblical account of Judas Iscariot; his subsequent suicide would also suggest incontinence rather than vice.

Depiction of the decapitated Bertram de Born from Canto XXVIII by Gustave Doré

From this one can conclude that either Dante’s knowledge of Aristotle’s Ethics was lacking or his interpretation was one viewed through the lens of a medieval reading tempered by contemporary thought which is no longer widely accepted. There is a third conclusion that may be drawn from Dante’s application of Aristotle which is that there are fatal theological differences between an Aristotelean view and the Christian conception of sin which need reconciling. As we have discussed, Dante’s interpretation of the malitia is at times very restricted and in an Aristotelean sense virtue and vice are dispositions rather than actions. For example, being lustful or cowardly could be descriptions of a person’s character but when taken in an interpersonal context lustfulness could manifest as the act of adultery and cowardice as desertion. The sins change when they move from the personal to the interpersonal and negatively impact other people. It is clear that all the sins of lower Hell are identified with a specific sort of malitia, something akin to injustice which includes violence and fraud directed at others. Shifting the context in which action occurs is not a causal or incidental change, it alters the real character of the action. This means that the viciousness or virtuousness of an action varies in degree depending on whether performed in a personal or interpersonal context. This may explain the repetition of some sins in lower circles of Hell that have already been discovered in other circles inasmuch as the focus on the context of the act rather than the act itself renders unjust acts confusingly similar to those that may be the result of another vice or incontinence. This would seem to confirm Dante’s association of malitia with injustice as the sins of lower Hell take place in an interpersonal context.

In the lower three circles of Hell, Virgil introduces vicious actions of violence and fraud. This distinction is confusing however as it appears that the sins of the seventh circle ought to be characterised by violence and the eighth and ninth by fraud but this does not correspond to what we actually find. Many of the individuals of the final two circles are dammed not for fraudulent but violent actions; Mosca de Lamberti, Alessandro and Napoleone degli Alberti and Sassoli Mascherone are all being punished in the eighth circle for murder and in the furthest depths of Hell, Brutus’ and Cassius’ sin is being atoned for in Satan’s own jaws. The nature of these acts is different from those in the seventh circle; Virgil’s distinction is that the fraudulently vicious acts, whether violent or not, are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. The sinners of the final two circles are motivated to violence by some kind of gain or advantage; Brutus and Cassius murdered for political power and Mosca de Lamberti for honour. This is remarkably close to Aristotle in that an act of murder committed in a fit of rage is not properly vicious and is instead incontinent, whereas premeditated murder for personal gain is vicious and therefore worse. Being impelled to action by anger diminishes guilt for it and the motive behind an action has an influence on the degree of blameworthiness even when the consequences are the same. Equally, the sinners in the seventh circle will have committed unjust acts, but they might not be able to be called habitual actions because they sinned in a rage, neither can they be called properly unjust. The poetic descriptions of heat and fire in the seventh circle support the idea that a passionate motivation is behind the sinners actions as the punishment aptly fits the crime.

Dante’s distinction between acts whose motive is gain and all other acts is fundamentally a distinction between acts undertaken by calculation and thereby passion-free and those driven by passions. The medieval understanding of Aristotle partly pioneered by Aquinas makes some changes to the idea of the soul from Ethics and it is clear that Dante is aware of this school of thought from his attribution of justice to ‘the will’ in the Convivio and saying that injustice is the vice most hated. Virgil’s explanation for this is that both justice and injustice are most ‘proper’ to humans; all moral virtues and vices are unique to humans and not applicable to animals but they stem from the will, or the intellectual appetite which is the faculty most unique and prized in humans meaning that while justice is the most loved, injustice is the most hated by God. Questions of virtue and vice are irrelevant to Christian notions of salvation and damnation, as is an Aristotelean notion of habit that is dropped by Dante in Inferno but resurrected in Purgatorio.

Ascribing the sins to a particular appetite enabled Dante to to explain the nature of these sins and their gravity without being concerned by whether or not the actions arose from a habituation. Dante is able to use the idea that injustice is a vice of the will; acts committed by that same faculty, are the most severe on account of the uniquely human faculty that directs them. This theological trick also explains the ‘doubling’ of sins that occurs in Inferno as the presence of passion diminishes guilt.

Though using Aristotelean terminology the de facto organising principles of Hell are the three mediaeval appetites each of which is controllable by reason; the sins of the first five circles derive from the concupiscent appetite, called incontinenza, circles six and seven from the irascible appetite called forza and eight and nine from the corruption of the intellectual appetite or the will called frode. Using the three appetites to form the underlying organising principles of Hell also sidesteps the logical problems arising from the self awareness of the vicious and unjust person which would be untenable from a Christian perspective as a requirement for sin is also accountability which would not be possible with a truly aristotelean understanding of incontinence and vice. Reason must direct action for it to be moral, so the furthest an action’s source is from reason’s control, the less blameworthy or praiseworthy the action is. The sins that arise from the concupiscent appetite are the most difficult to control, being so far removed from reason and the closest to simple forms of pleasure, which is why sins arising from it are less grave and located in upper Hell. Though the irascible appetite is powerful it is closer to reason as it takes as its object arduous goals which are more removed from the biological and require more input from reason. Equally the sins arising from irascible appetite are more likely to involve injury to others rather than simply personal satisfaction and so can be violent and so are part of Virgil’s malizia. The gravest depths of Hell however are reserved for the sins of fraud, or the sins of the will committed in full knowledge of their sinfulness for calculated ends.

A brooding Lucifer from Canto XXXIV as depicted by Gustave Doré

The Christian understanding of the afterworld is one governed by divine justice; those who have abided by the rules will be saved and those who haven't will be punished. A basic tenet of such an understanding is that everyone must know what the moral rules or principles which govern their lives are, otherwise punishment and reward would be unjust. As many of the souls in Hell are pagans who lived before the time of Christ it would be unjust to judge them by a moral system as yet unknown to them. Thus it would follow that the nature of sin, what is good and what is evil should be comprehensible in natural or philosophical terms which do not rely upon Christian revelation. Dante’s use of the appetites as the structure of Hell relies on a wholly naturalistic explanation of action and therefore of sin which could be arrived at through reason by any human being at any point in history and cannot allow exemption based on ignorance. However, unlike Hell, Purgatory is a uniquely Christian theological idea, as indeed is the idea of forgiveness, which souls need to have received in order to be sent to Purgatory rather than Hell.

The philosophical structure to Inferno gives the impression that the other two cantiche will be underpinned by similar principles. In canto XVII of Purgatorio, Virgil divides the seven gironi or terraces according to the type of love present in the actions of the sinners in each. Three gironi consist of those who loved the wrong things, one of those who did not love good sufficiently and three of those who loved good things to excess. However, these three categories of sin are not pursued in the narrative with the same consistency and detail as in Inferno and the distribution of them finds no variety of topography; there are no rivers, walls or cities, each girone is simply separate from each other. As both Hell and Purgatory deal with the same subject, namely sin or peccato for which the letter ‘P’ is written on the forehead of Dante personaggio as well as the others we find there, we would expect the structure of both to mirror each other to some degree. However the seven named sins of Purgatory do not match up with the eight types of sin in Hell. The lack of symmetry here is understandable due to the differing taxonomic organising principles employed in the two realms. Purgatory is organised by what are commonly called the seven deadly sins, a unique Christian characterisation of sin. Unlike Hell where Dante must account for the presence of Pagans, no one who has not been baptised and died within the Christian faith will enter Purgatory. Parallels between the two realms Virgil explains have existed since the moment of their concomitant creation. As Satan fell from heaven the earth fled in fear of him creating both a hole that would become Hell and Mount Purgatory on the opposite side of the Earth. This twinned birth would also point to them having some kind of symmetrical relationship.

The same basic fundamental rules do apply in that as you move upwards the sins encountered become less severe and as you move downwards more so; as Dante personaggio’s direction of travel in Hell is downwards the worst sins are encountered last, in Purgatory, moving upwards they are encountered first giving a sense that the two realms are mirror images of each other. The play on words on weight (the gravity is sins) is maintained across the cantiche as Dante personaggio discovers a lightness that comes with the purgation of each sin and passing from one terrace to the next. The upper three terraces of Purgatory; avarice, gluttony and lust correspond exactly with the upper circles in Hell, but reversed to account for their severity. Homosexuality undergoes purgation as a type of lust, the ‘lightest’ of the sins found there, but is punished in Hell in the seventh circle as a sin of violence, and Hugh Capet’s description of his descendants' sins of murder and theft show that they come from avarice but his descendants are punished in Hell whereas he is purging his own avarice in the fifth girone. Dante’s use of identical terms for sins found in both realms that are then given differing treatment requires us to return to Aristotle.

In describing his descendants as exempla of his girone Hugh is pointing out that avarice is a motive for the actions that they committed, and they are dammed for the actions. Stealing Ponti, Normandy and Gascony was a violent act motivated by avarice. The avarice of Purgatory therefore refers to a disposition or state of character whereas the avarice of Hell denotes an act fully realised. The organising principle of Purgatory is the seven deadly sins which are not in fact sins but vices and so dispositions of character. These Seven Capital Vices as they would be known to Aristotle and Aquinas are not actions at all but habits. Habits are dispositions like all moral virtues and vices and are acquired by repeated action becoming settled and difficult to alter but they can be changed. Habits are the formative causes of action and are what are corrected in Purgatory. Bad or vicious habits are rehabilitated and virtuous ones inculcated at each level of Mount Purgatory focusing on a particular vice. In Purgatory we find those who can also be called the continent, because although they may be disposed to bad habits, they have never acted on them. We cannot predict with certainty what actions a poorly habituated person will take, nor can we deny an intimate relationship between habit and act because of the operation of reason, you can choose the path you take to satisfy the appetites. This being said, it would be unjust to blame someone for habits that could lead to sinful actions that they have not undertaken, or equally to praise them for virtuous actions they never carry out. Habits are driven and developed by appetite, just as we saw in Inferno. The three appetites, the concupiscent, irascible and intellectual appetite, the will, correspond to the three distinct areas of Purgatory that Virgil describes in reference to love. Virgil restates that every action, virtue and vice can be understood as an operation of love, which is in agreement with the Aristotelean principle that all action is the operation of the appetites to which love properly belongs. In this way the appetites categorise the vices in Purgatory just as they categorise the sins in Hell providing a symmetry between the two realms, the difference being that Hell punishes actions, and the sins are punished in accordance with the appetites that performed them, Purgatory on the other hand rehabilitates the vices in which actions originated rather than the acts themselves.

Cross Section of Hell, 1855 by Michelangelo Caetani

The completed nature of actions means that both Heaven and Hell are fixed in nature; the people encountered there have already fulfilled their potential and their natures and so become unchanging and perfect, either in blessedness or evil. Purgatory, unlike either Heaven or Hell is a place of change as bad habits are rectified and replaced with good habits to create a perfect state of character that can enter Heaven. In Hell, souls are stuck in one particular location, but souls in Purgatory can spend time in multiple terraces purging all the vices that encumber their entry to Heaven, receiving a beatitude when each one has been successfully rehabilitated into virtue. The vices are described as weights that prevent souls rising to Heaven or as piaghe or wounds that need to be healed. Omberto Aldobrandesco describes himself and his family as ‘sick’ with pride and so the process of purgation can be seen as a type of therapy for poorly habituated souls. The contrapasso which was seen in Inferno is also present in Purgatorio as an appropriate correction of dispositions rather than a punishment. Aldobrandesco’s therapy involves a humbling that he should have undergone while alive as he is forced to bow his neck by pulling a stone; he can then lose his disposition for pride by being inculcated with a habit of the opposition disposition.

As one ascends through the gironi of Purgatory one will encounter the most serious vices first, which mirror those in Hell as sins of the will, or intellectual appetite which are pride and envy; the vices associated with the irascible appetite, sloth and anger follow as they are seek arduous goods and finally in the lightest terraces of Purgatory we find the easily satiated vices of the concupiscent appetite; avarice, lust and gluttony. In being the furthest from reason, the concupiscent appetite is closest to biological and natural functions and so closest to what is naturally good; the defect associated with it therefore is in excess, not in the direction of its operation. The purgation these dispositions is to subject them to the opposite, a radical diet that restricts the ability to pursue the same ends to return them to moderation. By contrast the girone of those who loved too little experience the opposite; the slothful who were to reticent in their spiritual duties now rush to complete them; not pursuing a difficult good with sufficient energy is considered a defect of the irascible appetite. Anger is quenched in the water of peace, but not eradicated, merely tempered. On the surface this does not fit the pattern of the contrapasso of Purgatory but what is being rehabilitated in the vice of anger and of its disobedience to reason so that it can be mobilised for virtuous application. In the lower terraces of Purgatory vices associated with the will are purged by changing the direction of their operation as Virgil describes them of loving the wrong things. The proud are forced to bow their heads humbly and the envious are prevented from gazing on the good fortune of others.

The purpose of the souls’ purgation is to make them ready for a life in Heaven, but this requires the rehabilitation of the habits of appetites that hardly seem relevant to life in Paradiso. The sensitive appetites are intrinsically connected to the body and so cannot persist after death, as would be the conventional understanding and yet we have seen souls suffering or atoning with an obviously corporeal focus to their tribulations. Dante personaggio even remarks at the sight of the emaciated gluttons in Purgatorio as to how incorporeal beings can lose weight. Furthermore, the cardinal virtues which the souls undergoing purgation must develop in place of the capital vices pertaining to the sensitive appetites are redundant in Heaven. Statius’ explanation of the origin and nature of souls provides an answer to the paradox that this presents and Dante’s substitution of the beatitudes at each level of Purgatory prepare the souls for a life in Heaven.

Paradiso is the most fundamentally naturally allegorical cantica inasmuch as the literal narrative and the descriptions of events and places in the poem for figurative purposes is made an explicit part of the narrative. Beatrice explains to Dante personaggio that the souls in Paradiso live together in a single unified Heaven, that all the souls there are equally blessed and that the appearance of the spheres is merely a way for Dante’s human intellect to comprehend its structure. The souls have dispersed themselves throughout Heaven for explanatory purposes. As an allegorical image the order of the spheres shares the fundamental characteristics of the other two realms; as descent in Hell represents the increasing severity of sins and ascent in Purgatory the lessening seriousness of the vices, so in Heaven the ascent through the spheres towards God represents an increase in blessedness. This creates a paradox between what Beatrice asserts and the apparent organisation of Heaven for Dante personaggio’s benefit which emphasises differences in blessedness based on the location of the souls. Moreover, by the laws of divine justice, as we saw in Hell, the more severe the sin, the more serious the punishment, so too the more virtuous the soul in Heaven, the more blessed they ought to be.

Piccarda Donati draws attention to her own lowly station in Heaven, as does Justinian but neither being virtuous in justice feel envy towards the more blessed as they are more deserving of merit for their actions. Solomon explains that the amount of joy souls experience is proportional to the vision the souls have of God, so the closer they are, the more vision they have and therefore the more blessed. The brightness that Dante speaks of is a spatial metaphor for Paradiso, where those closest to God have the brightest eyes which reflect the light, love and joy they have received from God and so vision, brightness, closeness, blessedness and joy are all intertwined. As Beatrice makes clear, joy is proportional to apprehension of vision of God and so the greater capacity a soul has for seeing God the more joy it feels. The amount of joy a soul experiences depends on the soul’s capacity for the activity in which joy resides and so some who are more capable will inevitably receive more delight. This explains Heaven’s hierarchy and why no souls feel envious of others; it is because no soul can experience more joy than they are capable of and so each experiences it as perfectly as they can and cannot feel deprived of any more.

It is unclear from either Purgatorio or Paradiso where souls who have spent time in Purgatory end up. The most intuitive sense of justice would require than those who have spent little or no time in purgation to be higher up in Heaven and yet Piccarda Donati (whose date of death is unknown but could not have preceded her brother’s Farese’s known date of death by much time) must have arrived in Heaven with little to no time spent in Purgatory and yet she is in the outermost sphere. Statius’ had spent twelve hundred years in Purgatory by the time Dante personaggio encounters him but will presumably occupy the outermost sphere with Piccarda who is experiencing the lowest level of blessedness after living a life so pure as to require far less purgation. After all, even those souls who have spent time in Purgatory, irrespective of the time spent there will arrive in Heaven equally pure, so the order of Heaven and the distribution of reward it seems cannot be based on the sinlessness or piety of one’s life as it has been for Hell and Purgatory. Beatrice proffers an answer saying that the ‘stars’ under which souls are born imbue them with a certain formative aspect to their character which can be used for good or malice depending on the exercise of their free will. The souls are therefore arranged among the spheres in Heaven according to the celestial influences that define their character and their respective capacities. As all the souls in Heaven are effectively equally sinless this creates a starting point for an organisational structure in which souls are assigned merit in accordance with not how virtuous or holy they are but their capacity for virtue and how much they actualise it.

Although each of the cantiche of the Commedia end with the word stelle no mention of them in this capacity occurs before Paradiso. These nine celestial bodies which are the moon, the sun and the planets that had been discovered in the solar system at the time of Dante’s writing are moved by heavenly intelligences which are the angels. Angelologists have a common understanding of a ninefold order of angels and each order is assigned a celestial sphere and acts as its ‘intelligence’. Human’s therefore take their distinct characters from the angels which move the ‘stars’ they are born under and have an aspect of the divine within them. These nine orders of angels are subsequently organised into three ‘triads’ each consisting of three orders, matching the tripartite distinctions of the other two realms and in this case each representing a part of the Holy Trinity. As Beatrice has made us aware, all the souls reside together in the Empyrean in a unified Heaven and for Dante’s sake Heaven has been mirrored and spit up to clarify its structure in much the same way as white light through a prism is split into discrete colours. The lowest triad shares characteristics with the Holy Spirit, the middle triad with God the Son and highest triad with God the Father thus Heaven is organised as a reflection of the image of God.

This tripartite division also reflects the human appetites that have informed the previous two cantiche even if the angels themselves which mould human character do not possess the sensitive appetites, only the will. Statius’s earlier explanation of the origin of souls allows us to understand that the concupiscent and irascible appetites are in fact special functions of the will which persists after death. Dante draws his understanding of the angelic hierarchy from Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite who ascribes to them appetition and passions which function as qualities of actions in the same terms in which we speak about the human appetites. In this way the lowest three spheres of heaven which are characterised by the Holy Spirit are linked with the will insofar as the souls found there are exempla of human limitation which is why Dante describes them as being in the shadow of the Earth. Though the first three spheres are associated with the primary qualities of the Holy Spirit, the third will also be influenced by the secondary characteristics of the third triad relating to God the Sun and the irascible appetite, just as the fourth sphere will be influenced by the secondary qualities of the Holy Spirit and so on. This creates far more fluidity between the distinct spheres further alluding to the singular nature of Heaven. The spheres of the highest triad are related to God the Father and the concupiscent appetites in that they are the simplest and closest to the natural and immediate thus explaining its close proximity to God. These characterisations are unsurprisingly manifest in the souls we meet in each triad; those in the lowest spheres took their character through the operation of their wills, the middle spheres are full of active souls who pursuing arduous goods with superhuman zeal and the highest spheres demonstrate a uniquely intimate relationship with God.

In all three realms of the Commedia, we find the underlying narrative structure that follows the distinctions of the tripartite soul and its appetites. Punishment, purgation and reward are organised in accordance with this organising principle. The angels in Heaven, from which humans derive their characters operate in a way which mirrors these three appetites even if only as operations of the intellectual will, they nevertheless allow us to speak analogically in terms that enable Dante to comprehend Heaven. Because appetites are the power behind all action it makes it possible to develop a structure that distinguishes, good, evil, temporal and eternal by the appetites that initiate them and to draw conclusions about their operation. The poem demonstrates that by the exercise of our free will in regard to our characters and dispositions we can be judged as praiseworthy or blameworthy and be punished or rewarded accordingly. However to say that there is a human appetitive structure behind each realm is technically incorrect because as we have seen in Paradiso, the three appetite faculties arise from God and so all is made in fact, in his image to reflect his love and glory. Looking at the Trinity Dante sees a human image and does not understand why it can be there; he sees it backwards inasmuch as the Trinity is not imbued with our image, we are imbued with its and the human image he sees in God is actually the divine in human beings.



ALIGHIERI, D., 2015. Convivio, Trans. London: Forgotten Books

ALIGHIERI, D., 1996. Inferno, Trans. DURLING, R. Oxford: Oxford University Press

ALIGHIERI, D., 1996. Paradiso, Trans. DURLING, R. Oxford: Oxford University Press

ALIGHIERI, D., 1996. Purgatorio, Trans. DURLING, R. Oxford: Oxford University Press

BOSTOCK, D., 2006. Aristotle’s Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press

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