“O human race, why do you set your heart where sharing must be forbidden?” Guido del Duca asks in lines 85 through 87 of Canto 14 of Purgatorio, meaning, “Why do you desire office, power (where nepotism is forbidden), more than anything else?” This is of course an indictment of pride, envy, wrath, and any number of sins. But the primary moral crime of such desire is that it leads one away from love and kindness.
Virgil, asked in Canto 15 of Purgatorio for an explanation of this question, responds to the pilgrim that love and kindness garner the greatest heavenly rewards:
. . . The more [persons] say ‘our’ [conveying generosity] up there [on the surface of mortal Earth], the more good each one possesses, and the more charity burns in that cloister [that of “the highest sphere”, Paradise].” (Purgatorio, XV, 55-57)An abundance of love, therefore, yields the greatest divine reward(s), whereas a lack of love yields the greatest suffering. If we accept the idea that Hell and Heaven are metaphors for our own internal conditions, it is our own dispositions that create and maintain our afterlife realities. The extent to which we feel love is the extent to which we will be close to God after death, or the extent to which we will have to find it. Those in Hell who have given up hope never will.
Love is the guiding principle of the Christian God, “primal love” in fact (Inferno, III, 6), though of course His love allows the hopeless sinner to languish in Hell for all eternity, even after Judgment Day. After Judgment Day, the punishment in Hell becomes worse, as is indicated by the testimony of the suicide in Inferno Canto 13, lines 103-108:
Like the others, we will come for our remains, but not so that we may put them on again . . . here we will drag them, and through the sad wood our corpses will hang, each on the thornbush of the soul that harmed it.This can only be considered an increase in punishment after Judgment Day.
Love rewards itself, but is love a function of free will, nature, or nurture? Dante is not clear on this, though he seems to suggest it is a function of free will. We choose whether or not to be generous in our dealings with others. Our generosity, he says, will be returned to us many times over:
That infinite and ineffable Good which is up there runs to love just as a ray comes to a shining body.This is the first description in The Comedy of God’s love and how that love works. Dante makes it sound very appealing, and fair. But is it? How can we reward someone for feeling what he feels? Is anyone the origin of his own sentiments; i.e., do we choose what to feel? No. But we choose what to do, how to act. This, however, is not love. We may pretend to love by acting as lovers do. We may give a great deal not out of love but a desire to deceive. The reader of Dante is to assume that the divine power, the highest wisdom, is able to see through all such false attempts.
It gives itself according to the measure of the love it finds, so that however great is the charity that reaches out, by so much the eternal Worth grows upon it.
And the more people bend toward each other up there [on the mortal surface of Earth], the more there is to love well and the more love there is, and, like a mirror, each reflects it to the other. (Purgatorio, XV, 67-75)
The Lord, similarly, loves in mysterious ways. His love ranges from eternal torment to eternal bliss, all seemingly dependent on forces beyond one’s control. Is the Christian God mad, as Sean Davis argues? I think not. I find the Christian God described by Dante and the Roman Catholic Church to be merely malicious, and consciously so. He controls the entire afterlife. He created and runs Hell, without giving those in it the hope of redemption unless they find it on their own—there are no pointers or hints. He imposes penance in Purgatory upon those who have already lived and died—I know of no religion other than Catholicism that imposes conditions upon souls after death, though they may exist. (Hindus believe in reincarnation, in which case souls go through suffering in subsequent lives if they behaved badly in former ones, but those are subsequent lives, not souls in an afterlife.)
I was going to argue here that the Christian concept of Love is different from my own, but I have realized just now that it is not. Love, as tolerant as it is, requires good faith effort on the part of the loved one; love can be damaged, even destroyed, by evil behavior. This is true in Christianity as much as it is in my heart. If you cross me, I will love you less, as much as I may still love you. This is an important point, because it is upon this rationale that the entire system of the afterlife that Dante depicts rests. Punishments occur in proportion to, and accordance with, crimes. “Contrapasso” is the term for this fitting of punishment to crime. Rewards, too, occur in proportion to, and accordance with, good deeds.
Therefore, the policy of conditional love is comparable to my own—only the specific crimes and good deeds differ. I, for example, do not require that anyone place no other gods before me, or create no images of me. I am not jealous, though I like attention.