Chapter 22: Sixth Ledge — Gluttony (Statius) (Purgatory)
Dante and Virgil and Statius had passed the angel, who had removed another P from the foreheads of Dante and Statius, and the three poets had begun climbing to the next ledge. The angel had said, “Blessed are they who thirst after righteousness,” leaving out the words “hunger and.”
Dante, now feeling lighter than he had at any time since he had started climbing up the mountain, easily followed Virgil and Statius.
Virgil said, “Love always kindles love, if the first love is virtuous and is clearly seen. You showed much love to me when you tried to kneel and embrace my knees, as was the custom of our times. Now let me tell you that when Juvenal, who lived at the same time as you, first entered Limbo, he told me of the great love you bore me. Since then, I have felt for you as much love as it is possible to feel for a person I had never seen. Our journey will now seem much shorter because we can enjoy each other’s company.
“But please tell me, if you will, how can it be that you were greedy? You have acquired much good sense, as can be seen from the diligence with which you educated yourself to write poetry.”
Statius smiled briefly, and then he said, “Your words show that you must really love me. Appearances can be misleading. Because you found me on this ledge and because all the sinners whom you have seen so far have apparently been guilty of greed, you assume that my sin was greed. Actually, I was far from greedy — too far! My sin, which I have been purging for thousands of months, was the opposite of greed: prodigality. Instead of valuing money too much, I valued the things that money can buy too much, and I spent all I had, and more.
“Extremes are evil. I should have learned from Aristotle’s mean between extremes earlier in my life. Keeping in mind Aristotle’s Golden Mean, we can understand that both extremes (too much and too little) are sins. When it comes to handling money, it is wrong to save every penny you make and never spend money on necessities, and it is wrong to spend every penny you make and every penny you can borrow on things that you don’t need. I was guilty of overspending.
“I learned to repent my sin from some lines that you, Virgil, wrote: “Accursed love for gold / To what extremes will you drive us?” You wrote about greed, but because I had studied Aristotle’s Golden Mean, I began to think about the opposite extreme, and so I realized that I had sinned, and I repented. If not for your lines, I would be in the Inferno. Instead, I repented that sin, and all of my other sins.
“In the Inferno, the avaricious and the prodigal are in the same place, but they are in conflict, slamming huge boulders against each other. Here in Purgatory we have cooperation rather than conflict, as the avaricious and the prodigal work together to purge their sins. But here in Purgatory, as in the Inferno, sinners who engaged in opposites can be found together.
“On Judgment Day, many will rise not knowing that prodigality is a vice, and not having repented that sin.
“I repented that sin, and I became a Christian, and so I have spent 500 years on this ledge among the greedy purging my sin of prodigality.”
Virgil said to Statius, “When you wrote the Thebaid, you gave no indication that you were a Christian. If it is true that you were not a Christian then, what caused you to become a Christian later?”
Statius replied, “Again, it was some verses that you had written that directed me to Christianity. First, you influenced me to become a poet and then you, although you were not a Christian, influenced me to become a Christian. You were like a traveler who holds a lantern behind him. The light does not help the traveler to see, but it does help the people behind him to see.
“Virgil, you wrote, ‘A new age is dawning, / Justice is returning, and the first age of Humankind, / And a new child comes from Heaven.’
“Christianity had arisen in the Roman Empire, and I listened to Christians, and what they said matched what you had prophesized. When the Roman Emperor Domitian persecuted the Christians, I wept as they suffered. During my lifetime, I helped the Christians. I also learned that theirs was the true faith. Before I had written the seventh book of the Thebaid, I had been baptized. But out of fear of the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian, I kept my Christianity secret. For many years, I pretended to be a pagan, and because of my lack of zeal I spent 400 years running with the slothful on the fourth ledge.
“Now, Virgil, please tell me, where is Terence, the Roman comic playwright?
“Where is Plautus, the Roman comic playwright?
“Where is Caecilius, the Roman comic playwright?
“Where is Varius, the Roman writer of tragedies and epics?
“All of these poets died before Jesus Christ appeared on earth. Are they in the Inferno? If so, in which circle are they?”
Virgil replied, “All of them, along with Persius, the Roman satirist, are with me, and with the Greek epic poet Homer, whom the Muses blessed more than any other poet, in Limbo, the first circle of the Inferno. We often talk about Parnassus, the mountain of the nine Muses. Also with us are the Greek tragedian Euripides, the Greek tragic poet Antiphon, the Greek lyric poet Simonides, and the Greek tragic poet Agathon.
“Also in Limbo are many people whom you wrote about: Antigone and Ismene, who are the daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta; Argia, the wife of Polynices; Hypsipyle, who conducted Kings such as Adrastus to a fountain when they needed water; and King Lycomedes’ daughter Deidamia, one of the young women among whom Achilles was hidden after his mother, Thetis, disguised him as a young woman.”
They had reached the ledge. They were silent as they stood on the ledge. The time was between 10 and 11 a.m., and Virgil said, “Let’s walk toward the right.”
Statius agreed, and they started walking. Dante listened closely as Virgil and Statius talked about poetry.
Soon, they came a tree that had fruit with a pleasant odor. The tree resembled an upside-side fir tree. Its branches grew wider toward the top, preventing any souls from climbing the tree. A stream of water also fell onto the tree.
Virgil and Statius drew closer to the tree, and a voice shouted, “You cannot eat this fruit, and you cannot drink this water.”
Then the voice coming from the tree shouted examples of temperance, the virtue that is opposed to gluttony:
“Mary was worried because the wine ran out at the wedding feast in Cana. Mary did not care about the wine for the alcohol’s sake, but she did care about the marriage being celebrated properly. She persuaded her son, Jesus, to perform his first miracle, turning water into wine.
“The ancient Roman women did not feel the need to drink wine; instead, they drank water.
“Because Daniel would not eat the food of King Nebuchadnezzar or drink the drink of the King, he was given prophetic powers.
“In Humankind’s earliest history, acorns served well as food and water served well as drink.
“John the Baptist lived in the desert, where he ate locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist prophesized the coming of the Messiah.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:
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