Major Themes: Freedom

In this section we shall examine:

  • why the notion of free will is so important to Dante
  • how freedom for Dante required discipline
  • why freedom for Dante involved community
  • how freedom relates to God for Dante.

If you had been told, before you read the Purgatorio, that one of the central tenets of Dante’s Purgatory was the idea of freedom, you may have been sceptical. This is, after all, a place where shades have their eyes sewn up with metal wire because they had been envious of other people; or where shades have to walk around a sweet-smelling tree, emaciated and starving, because they enjoyed food too much. What can freedom have to do with it?

Freedom, however, is introduced as a theme in the Purgatorio as early as Canto I. Cato challenges Virgil and Dante, questioning whether the divine law has been broken. Virgil appeals to Cato to allow him and Dante to continue on their journey, and describes Dante as somebody in search of liberty (70-72). One of the reasons why Cato was such an important figure for Dante was that he had preferred to die than to live without political freedom. And here Dante’s journey through the afterlife is described as a quest for freedom. But it is not at all clear, at this stage of the Purgatorio, what Purgatory has to do with freedom.  

Part of the problem is that the word ‘freedom’, as it tends to be used in modern life, has little to do with Dante’s understanding of freedom. One scholar of medieval thought has vividly described the modern understanding of freedom as being rather like finding oneself in a supermarket. When you are walking around a supermarket, you have the freedom to pick one brand of toothpaste over another. And indeed in many countries in the world today this type of freedom is often held to be an ultimate goal: the freedom to live where you want, to watch whatever television channel you want, to spend your money as you wish, and so on.

Dante would not wholly disagree with that idea of freedom. After all, in the Inferno he invents his own punishment - without precedent in Christian thought - for those who refuse to make a choice, who are neutral: the ignavi of Inferno III. He described them as ‘the sect of cowards’. So much does he despise their refusal to make a choice that - in a poem so largely occupied with naming and identifying individuals - these will remain ‘sanza ínfamia e sanza lodo’ [‘void alike of honour and ill-fame’(36). The ability to make a choice is also emphasised in Purgatorio XVI, where Marco Lombardo explains that human beings should not attribute responsibility for their actions to the stars. Marco emphasises that there would be no point in having a system of punishment and reward in the afterlife if humans did not have ‘libero arbitrio’ (71). In fact, human free will is perfectly capable of overcoming all things, provided it is properly nourished. 

But that is not to say that Dante would consider freedom simply to be the freedom to choose between various choices according to personal taste and preference, as in a supermarket. There are four elements in Dante’s understanding of freedom which we need to comprehend in order to understand exactly how freedom relates to the Purgatorio.

First, Dante believed that true freedom required some sort of discipline. The vices purged on each terrace are like habits which restrict individuals. (In this respect Dante followed Aristotle closely.) Once Dante has reached the top of Purgatory, he is crowned by Virgil, who says ‘libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio’ (XXVII, 140). His will is free, morally upright and whole - and it cannot be one of these things without the other two.  

In Purgatorio XVIII, Virgil says that Beatrice would call the ability to restrain certain desires as ‘lo libero arbitrio’ [‘freedom of the will’] (73-5); and he urges Dante to ask her about it when he finally meets her.

Second, Dante believed, in common with Aristotle, that human beings are social animals. They are meant to live together in community. Freedom outside community is therefore a false freedom. (Think of Ulysses in Inferno XXVI, whose burning desire to find out about the world leads him away from the community in which he lived (94-99). He freely follows his desire; but it leads him onto the open sea, in search of a land without people, and ultimately to death.) This helps us to understand why, in the Purgatorio, the souls gain freedom in community.  

Third, Dante believed that in order to be free from sin, and enter into the community of the Church, humans required grace. The prime instance of this was in the Incarnation. By dying on the Cross, and being resurrected, Christ freed mankind from the need for death and eternal damnation. This is why, in Purgatorio XXIII, Forese Donati describes how Christ ‘ne liberò con la sua vena’ (75): he freed humanity with the blood of his veins. (Notice also that for Forese Christ’s sacrifice was made freely: he was ‘lieto’, ‘glad’, when he made it.) In the Purgatorio, Dante does not present this grace as a magic formula for salvation (or ‘freedom’), however. The souls must undergo the processes of purgation to become free from their own moral limitations, as well as requiring God’s grace to be free.

Finally, for Dante, human freedom is unavoidably linked to the fact that we are created by God. In Purgatorio XVI, 85-90, Marco Lombardo describes the soul as being like a ‘fanciulla’, set in motion by its ‘lieto Fattore’. We do not, in Dante’s view, choose to be created by God, just as we do not choose to be born. For Dante, freedom, ultimately, consists in being able to give oneself to God in a union which is only fully described in the Paradiso. (In fact, in the Paradiso the distinctions between ‘God’ and ‘oneself’ and community comes to be somewhat blurred.) With this in mind, then, the words of the penitent proud, in their expanded version of the Lord’s Prayer in Canto XI, make more sense: ‘come del suo voler li angeli tuoi/fan sacrificio a te, cantando osanna,/così facciano li uomini deí suoi’ (10-12). They ask that human beings make a sacrifice of their will to God. This is not, however, a refusal of freedom, in Dante’s view. It is the ultimate act of freedom. Human beings, for Dante, can only make this act of freedom when they have acquired discipline, and joined with other human beings in community.  

© 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