For Dante, the Divine Comedy was the work of his whole life. During its creation, Dante pursued instructive goals; the Comedy contains a religious and ethical message. However, at the same time, this is a highly personal work, where Dante’s love for Beatrice becomes a saving blessing. Dante’s Comedy, therefore, is considered a classic literary work because the themes raised by the author in the book are eternal and have been of interest to people from time immemorial. The concept of freedom in Dante’s Comedy develops throughout the entire poem. In “Purgatory,” there is a conceptualization of the idea of freedom; in the third part of the work – in “Paradise,” freedom appears in its perfect form as worshipping of God.
The poem is divided into three parts – “Inferno,” “Purgatory,” and “Paradise” – each of which consists of 33 songs (34 songs in the first part “Inferno” as a symbol of disharmony). One of the central themes in “Purgatory” is that of freedom. Even though this topic is quite significant in Comedy, most of the heroes Dante meets on the way from Purgatory to Paradise look like they never knew the feeling of freedom. Some of them are emaciated to the bone; others have sewn eyelids and stones tied to their necks. However, the presence of such heroes only underlines the importance of freedom.
Dante himself is a hero seeking freedom, for whom life without this component is impossible. Freedom in Dante’s understanding manifests itself as the ability to make decisions. Different circumstances influence people’s decisions, but self-improvement and daily practice can reduce this influence. It is unacceptable to shift responsibility to the world if everything goes wrong. In “Purgatory,” this idea is demonstrated as follows, “Thus, if the present world has gone astray, / In you is the cause, in you, it’s to be sought” (Purgatorio 16.82-83). Dante believes that everyone must be responsible for his or her actions.
Indecisive people, according to Dante, are devoid of honor and worthy of punishment. Dante names those who always stay neutral “the ignavi”; their crime is that they waited until everything was decided. They never dared to have their idea but only did it to adapt to one of the strongest. Dante writes, “On good and evil, and free will, which though / It struggles in its first wars with the heavens, / Then conquers all if it has been well nourished” (Purgatorio 16.76-78). According to Dante, a person’s free will can overcome everything if it is properly nourished.
Dante’s freedom in the Comedy is presented as a combination of four elements. Its essence cannot be reduced to choosing between different decision strategies under the individual’s personal preferences. According to Dante, freedom can be comprehended as a discipline; daily adherence to habits allows one to shrink from particular desires. “Libero arbitrio” is what Beatrice calls the ability to restrain. One gains freedom in abstinence; such a person has a path, which is the path of goodness, of knowing God.
Freedom is understood as a social phenomenon; it is impossible to know true freedom outside of society – the second most crucial component of freedom. Free will is a gift from God — “those beings that have intellect — all these and none but these — received and do receive this gift” (Paradiso 5.23-24). People who leave society for knowledge and freedom risk dying alone. In “Inferno” XXVI, Dante’s Ulysses left his home searching for an uninhabited island and died because of the violation of the ban – he went beyond the ends of the earth. He was looking for freedom but believed that it could be found outside of people, which was his mistake. Thus, in “Purgatory,” the idea of the importance of the social component in freedom regains relevance.
In Purgatory, souls have to go through the process of redemption: the deliverance of the past moral restraints will allow them to find grace – the third component of freedom. Beatrice is the symbol of grace in the Divine Comedy. She became Dante’s mentor and helped him along his entire journey to heaven. In Paradise, he appears before his pure beloved Beatrice, who brings him to God – the personification of moral perfection. Since God is the expression of all that is good, a person becomes truly free when he desires good and does good deeds.
As Dante moves upward through Purgatory, changes occur, both external and internal. The images of sinful souls are becoming more and more human; the meaning of suffering is becoming more and more apparent. Dante becomes more morally susceptible to the changes taking place in Purgatory. Good at the beginning of the path is vague, but Dante is gradually approaching God, and therefore good, being, unite progressively, forming a stream of light. The following lines evidence the beginning of this process of moving towards Paradise, “When, for a moment, I’d withdrawn my eyes / That I might ask a question of my guide, / I saw that light again, larger, more bright” (Purgatorio 2.19-21). The closer the hero is to Paradise, the more complete his understanding of freedom becomes.
As noted above, for Dante, the purity of the soul and freedom are highly related concepts. In the indicated passage, the gradual increase in light energy is a metaphor for the gradual freeing of Dante’s sins. As he climbs the mountain, Dante becomes aware of the values lost by humanity, including the independence of conscience and will. Being Dante’s guide, Virgil realizes that on the way, Dante knew freedom, and therefore the hero no longer needs the teacher’s help. Virgil tells Dante not to wait for “no further word or sign” from him (Purgatorio 27.139-142). It can be concluded that at this stage, Dante’s soul has found freedom and completeness.
For Dante, personality is the riddle of man’s likeness to God, which must not be solved. Instead, it should be brought to life, where it will manifest itself in freedom, love, and creativity. A direct act of divine goodness creates man and, unlike earthly elements, created by indirect forces and subject to destruction, can be immortal. Dante is convinced that the human personality is of high value. One of the essential qualities of such a personality is will. The will in Dante’s worldview is paramount since the doctrine of sin and retribution, atonement, and retribution depends on the recognition of this principle. He considers that the will of man was made to be free, “For will, if it resists, is never spent, / But acts as nature acts when fire ascends, / Though force—a thousand times—tries to compel” (Paradiso 4.76-78). To interfere with the freedom of a person’s will is a mistake that cannot be allowed.
Dante becomes convinced that freedom can move personality for great deeds, and all people, since they have reason and virtue – to correct the world. With this thought in mind, his journey began; he was guided by a sense of responsibility for other people. Possessing tremendous willpower, he did not give up in the face of obstacles and managed to reach Paradise. Thus, Dante’s relationship between will and freedom is apparent, the will helps the hero to discern good, but it must be free from restrictions to be of the most significant benefit.
In “Paradise,” the concept of freedom does not undergo significant changes; Dante is increasingly convinced of the need to serve God as a way of gaining absolute freedom. To be free is to strive like water to the sea, to the will of God – which wants mercy. Dante writes, “…whoever would refuse to quench your thirst / With wine from his flask, would be no freer / Than water that does not flow toward the sea” (Paradiso 10.88-90). At the beginning of “Paradise,” next to the image of the sea of God’s will, Dante creates a hymn to freedom.
As noted above, Purgatory is where the soul is freed from sins, and Paradise is the space of primordial nobility, free from sins. In “Paradise,” freedom appears in its complete form – the form of serving God. Developing the characteristics of freedom indicated in “Purgatory,” Dante concludes with the highest goal for each person. Due to the awareness of responsibility for their actions and the constant movement towards goodness, a person gains grace. If people unite their efforts to do good deeds, then shared happiness will come, and everyone will find freedom.
There is a significant difference between these two worlds, and changes in Dante’s versification style accompany the process of moving from one place to another. The heroes and spaces encountered by Dante in Purgatory are different from those that the hero sees in Paradise. However, in the case of the concept of freedom, the essence of this phenomenon remains constant. Freedom, chosen as one of the critical motives in “Inferno,” then develops in “Purgatory.” This concept takes its most complete form in” Paradise”; Dante sees absolute freedom of man in serving God.
Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: A Verse Translation with Introds. & Commentary. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, University of California Press, 1980.