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Abbot of St. Zeno. Canto 18.113-29;
Examples of Zeal and Sloth. Canto 18.97-102, 130-8;
Moral Structure of Purgatory. Canto 17.91-139;
Dream of Witch / Siren. Canto 19.7-33
Study Questions

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Abbot of St. Zeno. Canto 18.113-29
Abbot of Slothful Penitents Icon  Slothful Penitents (Abbot Of St. Zeno) Icon
Sloth (technically called accidia) describes a lax (or tepid) love and pursuit of what is good and virtuous. To correct themselves of this fault, the slothful now show great vigor in running around the terrace, shouting famous examples of slothful behavior and its contrary virtue (decisive zeal) as they go along. One such hurrying soul is the "abbot in St. Zeno," of whom little is known besides what he says to Dante (18.113-29): he was the abbot of the church of St. Zeno in Verona at the time of Frederick Barbarossa (12th century), and he predicts that Alberto della Scala (father of Dante's benefactor, Can Grande) will regret the decision to select his depraved and deformed son Giuseppe as abbot of the church, a position he held from 1291 to 1314.
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Examples of Zeal and Sloth. Canto 18.97-102, 130-8
Shouting Examples Of Zeal Icon
Exemplary cases of zeal are shouted by two weeping spirits out in front of their fellow penitents on the fourth terrace (18.97-102). Following the visit of the angel Gabriel (the "annunciation"), Mary rushes to the mountain village of Juda, home to Elizabeth and Zachary. Elizabeth is herself pregnant, this conception at an advanced age also having been announced by Gabriel, and her child, the future John the Baptist, leaps in his mother's womb as she is greeted by Mary (Luke 1:39-42). Julius Caesar is the second figure praised here for his fervor: eager to move on to the next battle, Caesar accelerates his progress westward into Spain (Ilerda, today known as Lérida, in Catalonia) by leaving behind forces under Brutus' command to complete the military operations in Marseille (Lucan, Pharsalia 3.453-5). Lucan, whose poem recounts the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, compares Caesar to a thunderbolt (1.151-4). As seen in his damnation of Caesar's assassins, Dante clearly approves of Caesar's military campaigns and eventual dictatorship as part of providential history.
The balancing examples of sloth, or insufficient commitment and determination, are announced by two penitents at the back of the pack (18.130-8). They first lament that many of Moses' followers, beneficiaries of divine intervention in their exodus from Egypt (e.g., parting the waters of the Red Sea: Exodus 14:21-31), nonetheless later perish at God's hand and thus fail to reach the promised land due to various manifestations of incredulity, resistance, and transgression (Exodus 32:7-35; Numbers 14, 16, 20-1). Moses, who summarizes many of these instances in Deuteronomy 1:26-46, is himself shown by God the final destination but also prevented from arriving there (Deut. 34:1-5). The second example of sloth is recounted in Virgil's Aeneid (5.700-54): Trojans who stayed behind in Sicily, to settle there and found a city, rather than endure additional hardships with Aeneas on his fated voyage to Italy, where he will lay the foundation for the Roman empire. On the counsel of his aged friend Nautes and the spirit of Anchises, his dead father, Aeneas allows those who have lost their ships, men and women weary of the journey, and others weak and afraid of new dangers to put an end to their wandering (seven years since the fall of Troy). Dante here concurs with Virgil's judgment that these individuals lack the will and courage required to achieve fame and glory (Aen. 5.751; Purg. 18.138).
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Moral Structure of Purgatory. Canto 17.91-139
After they have climbed to the terrace of sloth, the central location within Purgatory proper, Virgil explains to Dante the moral structure of the mountain, the rationale for arranging and distinguishing among the seven capital sins. Love, Virgil says, is the "seed" of all human acts, both sinful and virtuous (17.103-5): insufficient or lax love of the good defines the sin of sloth purged on the current terrace; love directed toward an evil object or goal explains the suffering of spirits on the three terraces below (pride, envy, wrath); excessive love of what is inherently good underpins the sins of the final three terraces, soon to be visited (17.97-102, 112-39). Because Dante's structure here in Purgatory, as it was for circles 2-5 of Hell, is based on the capital sins, spirits will purge themselves of avarice, gluttony, and lust on the remaining three terraces. Dante's order therefore follows the model established by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) and made canonical in the later Middle Ages by such authorities as Hugh of St. Victor and Thomas Aquinas. The Middle Ages provides an (old) Italian acronym, siiaagl, for this arrangement of the seven sins: superbia (pride), invidia (envy), ira (wrath), accidia (sloth), avarizia (avarice), gola (gluttony), lussuria (lust).
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Dream of Witch / Siren. Canto 19.7-33
Dante's second dream, perhaps even more strongly than most dreams, encourages a psychoanalytical interpretation. He first sees a woman who is deformed (twisted feet, crippled hands), cross-eyed, sallow, and babbling; Dante's gaze then transforms her into a vision of loveliness with a beautiful singing voice. Identifying herself as the siren who bewitches sailors, she boasts of having diverted Ulysses from his voyage (19.19-24). At this point another woman, holy in appearance, forcefully intervenes by calling to account Virgil, who immediately rips open the siren's dress, thus revealing a belly that emits a noxious odor.
It is common in medieval literature to represent the internal conflicts within an individual's psyche or conscience as an external battle of spirits, a genre known as psychomachia that Dante himself uses to great effect in his earlier work, the autobiographical Vita Nuova. The external actors in Dante's dreams also constitute the psyche in Freudian terms: the siren / witch as the object of Dante's unconscious desire (id), the holy woman as the restraining authority (superego), and Virgil as the "managing" ego. Consistent with the dream's emphasis on desire and false appearances, Virgil maps this "ancient witch" onto the sins of the next three terraces (19.58-60), all characterized by excessive desire for lesser, secondary goods (17.133-9).
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"mi venne in sogno una femmina balba" (19.7)
a mumbling woman appeared to me in a dream
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Study Questions
1. What is the significance of Virgil's claim that love is the source of both good and evil acts (17.103-5)?
2. Explain the logical relationship between sloth and the way shades purge themselves of this sin on the fourth terrace (canto 18).
3. What is the significance of sloth's placement at the center of Purgatory's moral structure (as the fourth of the seven terraces)?
4. Virgil interprets Dante's second dream (19.7-33)--in which a deformed, stammering woman is transformed into a beautiful siren--as an indication of the sins purged on the final three terraces (19.58-60). How does this dream compare with, and perhaps relate to, Dante's first dream (9.19-33)?
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