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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Stephen Smith On Dante’s Purgatorio

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HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week, and that means it’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. Many of you tune in only for this hour during the week. You should try the other 14, but I do understand why you do that. I am joined most of these weeks by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and you can read all about Hillsdale at You can subscribe to their free speech digest, Imprimus, while you’re there. It’s absolutely free. And you can take all their courses on the Constitution, on the progressives, and I believe our other guest today, Dr. Stephen Smith, member of the faculty at Hillsdale College, will have a new course on Dante which we talked about last week, and we’ll be talking about this week and next, coming up this week. Will that be posted next week, Dr. Smith?

SS: Yes.

HH: You said that with some hesitation.

LA: This is the week before finals, and everybody at Hillsdale College is strung out, including Steve Smith and Larry Arnn.

HH: And tentative. And tentative. That was a first… that was (laughing)

LA: Are you planning to get up tomorrow, Professor Smith? (pause) Yes. (laughing)

HH: I must say it is radio, and sometimes, you can see people, though. And so last week, we did two hours on Dante’s Inferno, and the reaction was really quite extraordinary. We’ve gotten lots of great reaction over the year and a half that we’ve been doing the Hillsdale Dialogues with Dr. Arnn and all of his colleagues there, and they’re all over at And you can get them all and enjoy all of them back to from the Iliad to the present. But last week was unique, and then the very next day, after we’d spent two hours talking about the first third of the Divine Comedy, the [Inferno], I got all sorts of emails and direct messages and tweets. Then Rod Dreher, who is a great American conservative, wrote in the Wall Street Journal an essay that people can just Google Dreher, which is D-R-E-H-E-R and Dante, and it will come up. It’s called The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s Divine Comedy. And I’m just curious, Dr. Smith, what did you make of that piece?

SS: Well, I think it’s a great testimony to the poem. I mean, so often we read books, and we don’t let them then move us or teach us, kind of keep them at arm’s distance. But it’s really hard to do with Dante. I mentioned last week the reader is a character in the Divine Comedy, so we really participate in the poem. And I think that’s why it has such a tremendous influence on folks when they really do read it, as that piece testifies.

HH: And Rod Dreher, Larry Arnn, I don’t know if he’s been a visitor to Hillsdale, he’s a very popular blogger, concluded by saying over Lent, I led my readers of my blog on a pilgrimage through Purgatory, one canto a day. To my delight, a number of them wrote afterward to say how much Dante had changed their life. One reader wrote to say she was a three decade smoker, and she quite while reading Purgatory over Lent, saying the poem helped her to think of her addiction as something she could be free of with God’s help. You know, that’s a very mundane, but a very practical illustration of what education does.

LA: Well, in that particular case, Hugh, it’s a little bit like going through Purgatory here on Earth, isn’t it?

HH: It is. I’ve done that. And she’s right. It is. I did that 18 years ago, and it wasn’t fun. But now you also cautioned, Dr. Smith, last week, don’t stop. Most people read the Inferno, and then they stop. And you don’t want them to stop. Would you review what the Inferno is, what the poem is in case someone just hasn’t managed to get there, yet, and go back and listen to last week’s two hours, and where we find Dante at the end of the Inferno and the beginning of the Purgatorio?

SS: Sure. So Dante begins on Good Friday lost in the dark wood. He and Virgil descend through Hell and kind of gain a complete experience of this place and of this state being cut off from God. At the end, you come to the bottom of the pit. It’s all ice, and Dante sees Satan, who has three heads, who’s devouring three traitors, and whose wings are beating pointlessly and fruitlessly for eternity. After that, Dante and Virgil have seen enough. They turn out of Hell. Really, actually, they sprint out of Hell after the turn, and they arrive on the shores of Mount Purgatorio on Easter Sunday morning.

HH: And so the key, though, theological question in here, he doesn’t imagine people getting out of Hell, though.

SS: No, no, it’s very unusual. Yeah, in fact, when they get to Purgatory, Mount Purgatorio is guarded by Cato, from classical antiquity. And when he sees Virgil and Dante, he says, you know, how did you get here? Did you break out? Are you some sort of escapees from the Inferno? And he assumes that they are lost souls when he sees them for the first time.

HH: Now Cato the younger, I assume?

SS: Yeah, the Cato who committed suicide rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar.

HH: Well, in my reading, I went back and looked at Plutarch’s Cato the Younger, and he was of, “Inflexible temper, unmoved by any passion, and firm in everything.” So why do we find him at the base of Mount Purgatorio?

SS: Well, he’s sort of the tough guy on Mount Purgatory. He guards the mountain. I’ve always thought if there’s a film version of Purgatorio, you’d want Clint Eastwood to play him or something. He’s very tough. And I think the reason Dante puts him there is because he was unwilling to, what Dante says is he gave up his life for freedom. And all of Purgatorio is about freedom. I mean, the key line in Canto 1 is Dante is here to seek his freedom. So the entire experience of this poem is about liberation for Dante, and freedom for Dante from all the trouble that he has.

HH: Well, of course, but the immediate question, and I don’t know if it’s answered in the poem, is that he did kill himself, and I mean, in real life, he killed himself rather than be captured by Marcus Antony and the others pursuing him. He killed himself…by Caesar, and he killed himself. And so why does he not end up in that part of Hell where the suicides are?

SS: Well, that’s a very mysterious detail. It’s the first challenging detail in the poem, and you’re asking just the right question. He’s actually got three problems. He’s classical, he’s a suicide, and he’s an enemy of Caesar. So that’s kind of three strikes for the Inferno – three different places he could be. But Dante places him as the guardian of the mountain. He saw in him the four cardinal virtues lived really well, and I think he saw in Cato’s suicide something like the death of Christ, believe it or not.

HH: You know, Larry Arnn, we did not cover Cato when we spent many weeks in Plutarch, because he’s something of a minor figure. He was not treacherous, though. He always opposed Caesar, openly and with everything. So he didn’t…

SS: That’s true.

HH: He didn’t, yeah, turn on him, so he’s not a betrayer.

LA: That’s right. Yeah, and that’s good. And you know, Cato emerges as, just as you say, he was an unfailingly candid man. Although he was a loser, he was admired through imperial Rome as a sign of the great virtues that had been lost and had to be struggled back to.

HH: Yeah, there are a lot of people on the political stage today who are Christian who would not be Cato, then. But I’ve got to think of Doc Coburn, who’s been the same inflexible complete and opposite, but very nice opponent of the President from the beginning to the end. And there are Cato-like people still around the country who are absolutely unmovable. But it’s in their political convictions.

LA: And it breeds trust, see? That’s the thing.

HH: Oh, interesting.

LA: You don’t, you don’t, if you are like Cato, there’s a way of telling the truth that makes everybody believe it is the truth, and it always involves telling it sometimes to your cost.

HH: He also asked, it raised to me the question about the reception to the Divine Comedy, Dr. Smith, at the time it was published, because obviously, pagans not in Hell presents a theological problem. Was there a theological debate about it when it occurred?

SS: Well, one early commentator said you know, about Dante’s treatment of the classical figures, here he writes as a poet, not a theologian, and so…

HH: Okay.

SS: So there’s that kind of reaction, yes.

HH: Okay, now let’s get to the opening canto of Purgatorio versus the opening canto of Inferno, their contrast.

SS: Yeah, well, when you open the first page of Purgatorio, it can be very refreshing. Here’s how it begins. My little ship of ingenuity now hoists her sails to speed through better waters leaving behind so pitiless a sea. Here, I will sing about that second round given to the human soul to purge its sin and grow worthy to climb to Paradise. Here rise to life again, dead poetry. So it opens on this positive note, a note of resurrection, and especially that last line – here let dead poetry rise to life again, it’s pretty wild if you think about it. We’re on the 35th canto of the Divine Comedy, and it says if he’s saying all of the Inferno, the experience of that, was the experience of dead poetry, poetry of the lost, and now something new is happening at the beginning of this poem.

HH: And Purgatorio is a mountain.

SS: It sure it. So on the shores of Mount Purgatorio, you find what are called the late repentants, so kind of 11th hour, 59th minute, 59th second converts and others. But when you get to the mountain itself, it’s a seven level mountain. And on the top of the mountain is the earthly paradise, Eden.

HH: And Thomas Merton wrote a book called The Seven Story Mountain, and I’m just curious. Do you think he drew on this for that?

SS: You know, I don’t know. I haven’t read that book, but it’s hard for me to see how he couldn’t have thought of it.

HH: Yeah, I can’t remember it. I read it years and years and years ago, Trappist Monk, very famous in the last century.

— – – – –

HH: The lawyers never ask questions they don’t know the answer to. I don’t know the answer to this, so I’m going to ask. Do either of you climb mountains?

LA: (laughing)

SS: (laughing) I have with pretty sad results just once.

HH: Okay, Dr. Arnn?

LA: No. Well, I used to ride bicycles and mountain bike up in the hills north of Claremont.

HH: Well, I’m going to say this at the risk of getting some hate mail, but mountain climbers tend to tell you about their adventures all the time. They’re very, very proud of their climbing of mountains, because it’s very, very hard and often dangerous. And if you get a mountain climber going, you’ll climb that mountain with him pretty much second by second. And so the idea of climbing a mountain to purge yourself of pride is to me a little contradictory, Dr. Smith.

SS: Well, he imagines, you know, the mountain, the entire mountain, terrace by terrace, you know, level by level. It’s an experience that purges the soul of whatever remains in the soul – kind of bad habits, dispositions. And so each terrace is curative. And so a soul will spend a certain amount of time on each terrace experiencing in their intellect and their imagination, experiencing it together with other souls. And when they are purged of that remaining disposition, they’re free.

HH: You know, what’s interesting is most people think of Purgatory, if they think about it at all, it’s kind of a waiting room.

SS: Yeah.

HH: And you’ve told me in your notes it’s a dynamic experience, according to Dante, that heals, reforms and reorders the person.

SS: Yes, very much so. I mean, C.S. Lewis in the 20th Century remarked that, or likened it to taking a shower before you see God, which I’ve always thought was a good way to put it. The Church’s position on it is that all who die in God’s grace are assured of their salvation. But after death, they undergo a purification so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter Heaven. So Dante affirms that, too. But his mountain is elaborate in a way, and it really works like a new education for the soul, a new formation for their intellect, for their imagination, for their habits. It’s really a dynamic experience.

HH: I think this is probably a great thing to teach the young, Dr. Arnn, particularly the first terrace of Purgatory, where they’re carrying all those heavy stones, because they’re very proud of their accomplishments, and they’ve got all this different stuff going. But do you wait until they’re, do they have to take that as a second or a third year student? You have to get them ready for this?

LA: We’ve lately made that more flexible, but most everybody reads Dante in the Great Books Course early. In fact, this year, we’re accusing ourselves of a weakening of our moral character, because we don’t make the freshmen take freshmen English and freshmen History, and some other elements in the core all at the same time as we used to do. And our body count is lower this year, and so they can spread it out over two or three years now if they want to. And you know, the core is actually bigger here than it used to be, and the requirements are more severe than they used to be. But they’re more flexible about when you do it. And you know, about this, by the way, there’s something to understand about the conception of Purgatory. It appeals to the sense of justice, because could you really meet the Perfect Being if you were not prepared? And nobody’s lived a spotless life, and you get to the bottom of Mount Purgatory by grace, not by works. But then you do need to be purged, the argument goes, of some things that are wrong with you. And Dante is at least as imaginative in describing the purgations that go along with the sins as he is describing the circles of Hell. I mean, it’s very powerful the way he does it.

HH: Now it is very, very powerful, but the pictorial descriptions of this mountain are also very beautiful. If people have a chance, they should go just Google up some of the representations. They’re terraces, and that’s very stunning, Dr. Smith.

SS: Yeah, I mean, it’s divided according to the seven deadly sins. So the idea is that you arrive in Purgatorio, you’re forgiven, you’ve repented. But you, as Larry said, you still have some work to do. You still have some lingering dispositions toward these deadly sins. And so the terraces are pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. And each one, it’s like its own artistic experience. They’re not the same. They’re different. So the proud are carrying boulders, they’re looking at beautiful images in marble, they’re praying together. The envious have their eyes sewn shut, because envy is a sort of screwed up way of looking at your neighbor, other people. And they’re leaning head to head and experiencing the terrace that way. Sloth, it’s one of the funnier ones. They are running, running, running, and in class, we like to joke this is the cross-country team of Mount Purgatorio. So each level has its own art and its own kind of experience. But the goal is to purge those bad remaining dispositions, and to confer to the new habits completely on the soul.

HH: But everyone is progressing up?

SS: Yes.

HH: And so you don’t get off the mountain. You don’t fall off of the mountain. Once you’re there, you’re going to just keep going. It might take you longer, right?

SS: Yeah, well, Dante and Virgil get close to the edge a few times and they get worried, but yeah, you’re on the terrace, you’re on your way up. The angel tells Dante when he enters the first terrace, whatever you do, don’t look back. That’s the only way to, you’ll have to start over again. So nobody looks back in the poem. The only one who’s in danger of that is Dante. One of my students just likened this to, believe it or not, raised his hand and said this is just like Super Mario Brothers.

LA: (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

SS: So don’t look back, Dante. Don’t look back.

LA: See, that’s part of Dante’s genius, to actually foresee.

HH: I neglected to add the contrast to his prophetic vision, the color is back, and people are happy, and you get to take a bath, and things are going well here.

SS: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, at the beginning of the first canto, Cato tells Dante and Virgil, you guys look like hell. You need to wash your face. And then the first thing Dante notices is the sapphire blue of the sky, and the stars. And so beauty and color, everything comes rushing back into the poem. And it’s just a beautiful, beautiful place. So the sense of beauty is very strong.

LA: But the purgations are strict and severe, some of them, right? So like you’re carrying this boulder, and you’re hunched over.

SS: Right.

LA: And in the beginning, until your pride lessens, you can’t really look up, right?

SS: That’s right.

LA: You’re weighed down and you’re walking show, and you’re carrying a heavy weight. And so you’re paying something.

SS: Yeah, well, that’s the thing. The poem combines kind of rigor and justice with beauty and aspiration. That’s what makes it so powerful. So yeah, the souls, the proud, they can see these images on the ground of proud souls. It’s like Dante saying they have to learn to see pride correctly.

HH: But at every step, they also get an example of the opposite, correct?

SS: Exactly.

— – – –

HH: Stepping back for a second, the mountain got formed in the most interesting way, Dr. Smith.

SS: Yes, so Satan was, when he fell from Heaven, he falls into the Earth all the way into the center of the Earth. And so he goes right down into there, into the ice in the middle. And on the other side, up pops Mount Purgatorio with Eden on top. So it’s really kind of an amazing little bit of invention from Dante. But the fall immediately creates the mountain why which man will rise to Heaven.

HH: Well, that’s the interesting part. No Satan, no escape from Hell, but I guess of course, no Satan, no Hell. He’s suggesting that Satan must have caused the garden of Eden incident as well. Of course, he did in the form of the snake, but it was man’s free will. But was the mountain there before the snake? I don’t know. I was just thinking about that, and thinking man, that’s got to be a couple of weeks of classes. Okay, back to the antidotes. Every time you find a sin on one of the terraces, for example, pride, Dante offers up contrary examples of how to get rid of it. Pride is contrasted with humility, and he draws, of course, quite a lot on the medieval Church’s love of Mary.

SS: That’s right. So every terrace is a different artistic experience, but they have things in common. And you always get an image through some means of the contrary virtue. So for pride, it’s Mary at the Annunciation, saying to the angel, Gabriel, be it done to me according to your word, so Mary forming her will from another’s will, that kind of humility, is the contrary virtue in that case. And every terrace is like that.

HH: Now there are three steps to get started. The first is a mirror, the second is a broken stone, and the third step is blood red. Why?

SS: So you get to the gate of Purgatory, there’s an angel sitting there, and he asks very simply to Dante and Virgil, what do you want? And they answer, and they go up to the gate. The first step is a mirror, and that’s where you see yourself, have some kind of clear vision of yourself. The second step is broken stone. And that seems to be an acknowledgement of brokenness by the penitent. And the third step is blood red, which folks usually associate with either shouldering the penance of the mountain or with Christ Himself. So that’s the progression up into the mountain on those three steps.

HH: Now I’m curious about Cato’s land, we’ll call it. Are they moving through? Are other people moving through on the way to the gate to Purgatory? Or are they stuck there in Cato’s land?

SS: No, no, they’re moving. And when you’re on the shores of Purgatorio, you’re past the Inferno, past it all, moving up eventually.

HH: And you stay there as long as your life was lived, right?

SS: That’s right.

HH: All right, so now let’s get onto these seven terraces if you can explain not only what they are in terms of their content, but what the process is for moving forward.

SS: Yeah, so you experience with Dante and Virgin and the penitents each of the terraces. So there’s always an intellectual component, an imaginative component, something about the body, the will. And through that experience, the soul is freed from that old disposition. At the end of each terrace, there is an angel, and there’s usually a rushing wind, and Dante, we forgot to mention this, he gets seven P’s carved on his forehead, one for each of the deadly sins. And at the end of each terrace, he gets a P wiped off and then he goes to the next level.

HH: And it makes perfect sense, allegorically. I’m just surprise, I’m really surprised it wasn’t taught. I never came across it. I’ve never read it until now, and that’s because, Dr. Arnn, it just seems to be very appropriately didactic.

LA: You mean the whole Purgatorio

HH: Right.

LA: Yeah, well, think of this, too. You skipped over something that I think is important and makes the same point. Steve, you just said you stay down there at the base of the mountain, for the late converts, for as long as they lived. And that appeals to the sense of justice. And we know from the parable of the vineyard owner paying everybody the same amount of money, although some of them didn’t work as long, that God doesn’t regard Himself as bound by that sense of justice. But here, it’s kind of restored, because some guy who lives in the service of Christ all his life gets to the bottom, and he gets to start the way up quicker, whereas the guy who didn’t live any of his life that way has got to stay down at the bottom that long. And so a lot of this stuff is, and the whole conception of Purgatory, by the way, is a sort of reconciliation with the natural sense of justice.

HH: Oh, interesting.

— – – – –

HH: Seven levels, but there are three terraces. Love is the key to every virtue and every vice. That is a little complex, Dr. Smith. Do you want to explain that?

SS: Sure, so in the middle of Purgatorio, it’s a seven story mountain. Virgil explains the mountain in terms of love. He says love is the source of every virtue and every vice in the human person. And he presents the human person as a lover. And he says lovers err in three different ways. They can love what’s wrong, they can love with too much strength, or they can love with not enough strength. And this actually explains the structure of Purgatorio. So pride, envy, wrath, that’s loving what’s wrong. Sloth, loving insufficiently, avarice, gluttony, lust, loving a good, a secondary good, but with too much love, such that it kind of becomes your god. So the mountain is going to correct each of these lovers. Every human being is a lover for Dante, fundamentally.

LA: Yeah, and also let me add, for the classic authors, right, the first line in Aristotle’s Ethics is every action seems to aim at some good, therefore it’s been beautifully said the good is that for which all things aim. And that means that people who are wrongful or unjust or unfaithful, they’re moved by love, too, but in the wrong way toward the wrong thing in the wrong amount, in some sense.

HH: So everyone driving around right now should be thinking what am I loving wrongly, or am I loving the wrong things, because eventually, if the Divine Comedy is correct in terms of its theology, you have to confront those disordered loves.

SS: Very much so. I mean, here’s what he says about each of the terraces. He says one man strives for excellence that he might put his neighbor down. It’s all he craves. That’s pride. One fears the rising of another man, fears to lose favor, honor, power, and learns to love to see his neighbor fail – envy. The last, seething under harm, gluts himself with vindictiveness and brings evil upon another by his arm – wrath. So those are the wrong ways of love. And then sloth, insufficient, and the others, excessive.

HH: And so when you get reordered, you pop on, you move on. And there’s night and day on the mountain. You cannot move at night.

SS: That’s right. Virgil and Dante meet a guy named Sordello earlier, and they learn the key principle. This guy puts his finger on the ground and makes a line, and he says do you see this line? If the sun set, you wouldn’t be able to even cross it. So no progress is possible on Mount Purgatorio without the sun. The sun is always in the first place, so God.

HH: Now the very last terrace is lust, and it’s interesting and it’s funny, and since it was the first level of Hell, it’s kind of surprising that it’s the last level of Purgatory, isn’t it?

SS: Yeah, I mean, the excessive lovers are closer to the top than the wrong lovers or the insufficient lovers. So he’s not saying lust is good or that avarice is good or gluttony, but he’s saying that if you’re going to desire something wrongfully, it might as well be a good thing. So they’re closer to the top. But Dante will get out of the terrace of lust, the last terrace, through a wall of fire. And this is probably the most dramatic moment in the Purgatorio. He literally has to walk through the wall of fire to get out of the mountain, to get off the last terrace. And he hears the beatitude being sung, “Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.” But he stops, and he’s really not too crazy about walking through a wall of fire.

HH: Well, who would? But he’s looking for Beatrice. We neglected that. That’s where he began this poem. He’s looking for Beatrice, and he summons the courage to plunge through. And what’s he find?

SS: Well, it’s worth a laugh for a moment. He won’t go, and Virgil, one of Virgil’s last ways he helps him is to say Dante, do you see this wall? It’s the only thing between you and Beatrice. And Dante, who wouldn’t move at the name of God, he wouldn’t move at the name of conscience, anything. He hears the name of Beatrice and he’s like oh, okay, I’ll go. So he makes his way through the fire, and Virgil has to help him by saying I can almost see her eyes. I can almost see her eyes. And Dante eventually gets through, and they find themselves on the other side, and they enter the earthly paradise.

HH: And the earthly paradise is Eden.

SS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful place. It’s nature in its unfallen glory, and this is where Dante will meet Beatrice.

HH: And so what’s going to find next?

SS: Well, he’s pretty excited, obviously, to see Beatrice. It turns out she’s not as excited to see him. In fact, her first line to him is how did you deign to climb the mountain? And she’s described as like an admiral, so not what Dante’s expecting. He’s kind of expecting the song of songs, and Eros and everything.

HH: He gets haughty.

SS: Yeah, he gets Beatrice instead, and she’s much more like an admiral.

HH: And so what’s he get?

SS: Well, so he arrives, and that’s the big surprise, is that Beatrice is not happy to see him. And she says you cannot go forward, Dante, without making a confession. And one of the surprises at the end is that Dante has somehow gotten to the top of the mountain without confessing. And this is going to be a big surprise to students. What does she mean? And so she sort of, question and answer, leads him to a moment of confession. And for Dante, it’s a very graphic moment. He weeps, he collapses, and it’s only after this confession that he rises up and the poem continues forward again.

HH: And he is given a mission.

SS: Yeah, so that’s the big things afterwards. You know, his tongue dies, he weeps, he falls down. And when he rises up, he’s reborn, kind of resurrected, and Beatrice gives him for the first time a kind of mission, something for his poetry to aim at, an end, a goal instead of maybe what you might have wondered about earlier, is this poem just about Dante, is it all about him? But she states that the poem will be for the world. And he, at this point, really begins to ascend.

HH: And what’s that mean, pro mundo?

SS: Well, she says write down what you see for the world that’s racing to death. So the world needs what Dante sees in the Divine Comedy. It needs the experience of this poem is what she’s saying.

HH: You know what’s interesting is that the visions of Fatima are given, according to those who have studied them, for the purpose that the world might see. It’s fascinating to me. We’ll pick up there and head into Paradiso next week with Dr. Stephen Smith, Dr. Larry Arnn, the former a professor, the latter the president of Hillsdale College. In the meantime, visit for all the many things that they give you for free, and it’s wonderful. Or if you want to go to get all the previous Hillsdale Dialogues, including the first two hours on Dante, go to

End of interview.


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