Penitence, Purgation, and Human Flourishing in Dante and Dostoevsky

Many great thinkers of the Western Tradition have emphasized the direct correlation between human sin (i.e., non-virtuous living) and human happiness. These thinkers did not define happiness as maximal pleasure and minimal pain; rather, the understood it as a state of flourishing, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. In order to achieve eudaimonia, they argued, is to live virtuously—in accordance with The Good. Virtuous living is to function properly as a human being, while non-virtuous living is detrimental to our very essence, our souls.

We know firsthand that no one lives a life of perfect virtue; we experience moral failure daily. Christian writers of the Tradition openly acknowledged human sinfulness and the need for a Redeemer. However, they also recognized that to flourish in this life, our response to our own sin is key. Two examples of this idea can be found in Dante’s Purgatorio (the second part of the Divine Comedy) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazof.

In the Purgatorio and The Brothers K, we encounter a common theme: the idea that sin is an obstacle in the pursuit of happiness. Put another way, sin is one root cause of a soul’s failure to flourish. Dante and, more subtly, Dostoevsky, both illustrate the necessity of penitence and purgation; they show us that a failure to recognize, mourn, and eliminate sin has the effect of impeding one’s progress towards a higher, happier state of existence. Moreover, both Dante and Dostoevsky imply that the pursuit of human happiness is the same thing as the quest for godliness. 

In Canto 27 of the Purgatorio, an angel appears to Dante and his escorts and urges them onward into the dreadful flames of Purgatory saying, “Holy souls, you cannot move ahead unless the fire has stung you first” (27.10-11). Virgil (Dante’s guide) assures Dante that the refining fire will be painful, yet will not kill him, and encourages him to “put down, your every fear; turn toward the fire, and enter, confident!” (27.31-32). After hesitating, Dante plunges into the burning agony, but, as Virgil promised, comes out the other side unscathed.

The next leg of Dante’s journey through Purgatory (Canto 28) takes him through an ancient forest where he encounters a fair woman gathering flowers in the primordial Garden. She reveals to Dante that the Highest Good created mankind to be and to do good, but that man exchanged “frank laughter and sweet sport for lamentation and for anxiousness” (28.94-96). Dante weeps in anguish, and the fair lady, who turns out to be his beloved Beatrice, says that the measure of his sorrow must match his sin (31.108), that penitence is paid by lament of one’s sin (30.145). Dante then confesses his sin saying, “Mere appearances turned me aside with their false loveliness” (31.34-35); he expresses deep remorse for his failures. By the end of Purgatorio, Dante is fully sanctified, free of the vestiges of his earthly sin, “pure and prepared to climb unto the stars” (33.145). Thus, in the Purgatorio, we see that penitence and purgation were necessary actions in Dante’s progress upwards towards God, the Highest Good.

In Book II, Chapter 4 of The Brothers Karamazof, we encounter a conversation between a “sentimental society lady” and a clerical elder. The lady tearfully confesses to the elder that she is far from happy because she lives in a state of persistent fear caused by uncertainty about the afterlife; she says, “The thought of the life beyond the grave distracts me to anguish, to terror…Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely anyone else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly — deadly!” As a spiritual remedy for her plight, the elder prescribes a life of active love: “Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbour, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul.”

When the lady proceeds to lament her terrible inability to love others with purity of heart because of how much she despises their common ungratefulness, the elder replies,

It is enough that you are distressed at it. Do what you can, and it will be reckoned unto you…If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself.

In other words, a penitent heart, a desire to turn away from sinfulness, and efforts towards goodness are part of the spiritual progress that will bring her increased peace and contentment. Thus, Dostoevsky, through the words of the elder, communicates the same idea observed in Dante’s Purgatorio: that the pursuit of happiness, understood as human flourishing, involves the biblical command to live in obedience to God and to acknowledge, mourn, and repent of the inevitable failures along the path of sanctification.

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