Major Themes: Virtue, Vice and Sin

One of the central themes which the Purgatorio raises is that of the nature of sin, vice and virtue. This theme is particularly striking as we move from the Inferno to the Purgatorio. Like the souls of Hell, the souls Dante encounters in Purgatorio have all, in some sense, sinned; and they are all, in some sense, being punished for their sins. But from the first lines of this cantica we know we are in very different territory.  

Think back to the Inferno, and the discussion of sin which Virgil presents in Canto XI. There, sin is an action which offends God. But the term ‘vice’, or ‘vitium’, in medieval thought, had a rather different meaning. Rather than emphasising actions, ‘vitium’ refers to an individual’s flaw. In other words, sin refers to the act itself; vice, on the other hand, refers to the tendency to act wrongly. It would be possible to have a natural tendency towards one failing, without ever actually succumbing to it and committing the sin itself.

The roots of the notion of vice go back to the Classical tradition. Aristotle held the view that vice was a tendency within an individual; he also believed that an individual’s vices could be corrected or worsened through repeated behaviour.

Repeated bad behaviour made an individual more prone to further bad behaviour. But the converse was also the case. True, according to Aristotle, some extremes of vice could never be corrected. It was possible, however, for an individual to remove some of the less serious vices. The individual should, through reason, recognise the nature of vice and virtue; once that recognition has been made, through practice, the old habits of vice can be broken, and new virtuous habits established. 

How did this Aristotelian idea tie in with medieval Christian conceptions of virtue, vice and sin? As ever, we have to remember that the Christian tradition did not hold a single view on this. Opinions differed. For instance, Augustine, in contrast to Aristotle, did not believe that human reason on its own was capable of truth; any attempt to break habits of vice which did not count on God’s help was bound to fail. This was because Original Sin had corrupted humanity’s reason so thoroughly, that only through Christ could virtue be achieved. Reason, without Christ, was worthless.

But as medieval theologians re-discovered Aristotle, there was some re-evaluation of the possible role of human reason. Although no theologians suggested that salvation was possible through reason alone, scholastic thinkers did begin to suggest that human reason could take the individual some way towards cultivating moral virtue.  

What was Dante’s view? We know from Canto IV of the Inferno, where we meet the pagans in Limbo, ‘gente di molto valore’ [‘many persons of the greatest worth’ (Inferno IV, 44), that it is not enough simply to be free from ‘difetti’ to be saved. It was necessary to believe in Christ, to accept that in the Crucifixion and resurrection he had redeemed original sin, and to repent of one’s sins.

All of the souls in Purgatory, then, have repented of their sins, and have been forgiven. Indeed, they are now incapable of sinning, and are in a permanent state of grace. However, they still carry their vice with them; before they can ‘salire al ciel’, they must purge themselves of it. In other words, Dante brings the conception of vice, as a habit of behaviour, to the heart of his description of Purgatory.

In Canto XVII, Virgil describes some of the reasons for the divisions of vices in Purgatorio. Compared with his explanation of the sins punished in Hell of Inferno XI, which focused largely on the ways in which the sins offended God, this passage is concerned with the vices as habits of behaviour. In other words, Virgil is accounting for the psychology of vices, rather than the effects of sin.

Virgil divides the vices into two broad categories: there are those on the terraces below where he and Dante are standing (remember that they have just entered the fourth terrace), and those above them. What is the reason for this division? It may help you to keep in mind that the description of the different vices is carried in the following lines:  

  • Pride (115-117).
  • Envy (118-120).
  • Wrath (121-124).
  • Sloth (130-132).
  • Avarice/gluttony/lust (138-139).


On each terrace, the vice being purged is paired with a virtue. This makes sense, in the light of our discussion of vice: for in the Aristotelian view, improvement involves acquiring new habits, as well as losing old ones. These virtues are shown in a number of ways. Two of the most obvious ways are:

  • the use of exempla: images or narratives which exemplify a particular virtue
  • the singing or reciting of the Beatitudes: these are taken from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.3-12):

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven… "

Many of the examples of virtues come from the life of the Virgin Mary; in fact, on each terrace examples are given from her life. She is referred to as an example in X, 34-45; XIII, 28; XV, 85-92; XVIII, 100; XX, 1-24; XXII, 142-44; XXV, 128. All these examples can be found in a few short sections of the Bible: the first three chapters of the Gospel of Luke, and the second chapter of the Gospel of John (verses 1-11).  

The Annunciation is the first and last example; on the Terrace of Pride, and on the Terrace of Lust. How is the Annunciation an example of both humility (correcting pride) and chastity (correcting lust)? The wedding at Cana, where Jesus converted water into wine, is the other example presented twice, as an example of compassion (it is Mary’s pointing out to Jesus that there is a shortage of wine that leads Jesus to perform the miracle) and of abstinence (Mary’s concern for others took precedence over her own desire to eat and drink). The wedding at Cana was an important event, because in converting water into wine, Jesus prefigured his own Crucifixion, which was made present in the rituals of the Church through the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the central moment in the liturgy.

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame