Seeing: the Light of Intellect and Desire to Ascend

– A little discussion on Dante’s Purgitorio 
Augustine teaches that believing is seeing, while Aquinas teaching that seeing is believing. The difference between these two philosophies is at once subtle and yet very distinct. Augustine’s concept relies on faith or what also could be called desire—the desire to draw near to God. If faith comes first, then it is a person’s desire that compels them to the truth of sight. However, Aquinas emphasizes sight or what could be called intellect—the truth about God. If sight comes first, then it is a person’s intellect that draws them to God and faith in him. In both instances, seeing is associated with intellect and belief is desire. Although Augustine’s view is more popular in modern circles, it is not the case with Dante. Dante uses the concept of seeing is believing in the Divine Comedy, employing it most effectively in Purgatorio as a means of describing the process of penitence “through lack or excess of light or distance, obliquity of vision, movement of the object of vision or its background, similarity of colour between the object and its background” (Rutledge 152). Light becomes synonymous with sight, and the higher up Dante climbs, the more light he sees and the more understanding he has. Dante uses three different elements of light and sight—the light of the stars and other natural light, the sight of the penitence, and the light of the angels—to reveal that seeing is the way to belief and desire.
To truly understand all of the uses of light in Purgatorio, it is necessary to explore the larger picture of the Divine Comedy and how it uses light. The three different sections of the Divine ComedyInferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso—are reflections of three different kinds of light as Scott explains:

[W]e learn from St. Thomas Aquinas that each of these three lights is natural to some order of existence. The first represents the vision of Truth attainable by the natural light of man’s intellect (philosophical contemplation); the second, the perception given by the light of Faith to the saints in this life; and the third, that contemplation of the glory and essence of God which is only to be enjoyed by the blessed in Heaven. (Scott 169)

As is seen in Inferno, man’s intellect devoid of God’s intellect is only darkness and despair. Those souls in Limbo can only contemplate the limits of their human understanding without the hope of receiving any truth. This is where Virgil suffers his eternity. The second type of light, the light of Faith through penitence, is slightly out of Virgil’s grasp as a guide but it is something he can still relate to because the suffering and the process is not unlike the philosophers pursuit. The advantage is that the saints have seen the light of God. The final light is beyond Virgil’s comprehension and since he did not know God while he lived he cannot know God know that he is dead. The contemplation of the divine truth requires a holy guide and Beatrice is that light for Dante.

Without the light of the guides, Dante would be lost in the dark wood. The light is the intellect which draws Dante out of himself and into the truth. He cannot ascend the mountain of Purgatory by himself or by his own sheer will power. His desire to ascend cannot compel him alone. Dante needs his desire to have sight and purpose. The intellect gives the desire or will purpose and direction. If the intellect is God’s intellect, it will cause a person to desire God and his good intellect as opposed to the dark meaningless intellect of man. Dante’s journey through Hell showed him the blindness of man’s intellect and man’s perverse desire. Dante’s climb through Purgatory is a reconciliation of man’s desire and intellect with God’s perfect intellect and will (Purgatorio i.4-6).

  • Hollander, Jean & Robert. Trans. Purgatorio. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
  • Scott, J. A. “Allegory in the Purgatorio.” Italica 37.3 (1960): 167-184. Web. JSTOR. 9 April 2011.
  • Rutledge, Monica. “Dante, the Body and Light.” Dante Studies 113 (1995): 151-165. Web. JSTOR. 9 April 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s