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  Miller  1  

Sarah  Miller  

Classical  British  Literature    

Dr.  Sharon  Coolidge  

3  November,  2013  


The  Necessity  of  Grace  


  In  The  Divine  Comedy,  Dante  embarks  upon  a  journey  from  a  state  of  

sinfulness  to  one  of  redemption.  His  experience  in  Hell  highlights  the  human  

proclivity  for  sin,  while  time  in  Purgatory  demonstrates  change  and  reparation—the  

purging  of  sinful  desires.  Finally,  Paradise  shows  fully  redeemed  humanity.  

However,  it  is  only  by  divine  grace  that  this  state  of  redemption  can  be  reached.  

Only  by  accepting  grace  in  a  posture  of  humility  can  one  attain  salvation  and  the  

perfect  alignment  of  human  will  with  divine  will.    

  Dante’s  journey  begins  in  Canto  II  when  he  accepts  the  grace  extended  to  him  

by  the  three  ladies,  Beatrice,  Lucia,  and  the  Virgin  Mary.  However,  Dante  first  

attempts  to  climb  the  hill  in  Canto  I  on  his  own,  stopping  short  when  he  is  ambushed  

by  the  three  animals  representing  sin.  While  Dante’s  intentions  are  good,  he  is  

exerting  his  free  will  apart  from  divine  grace.  Virtuous  actions  alone  do  not  merit  

salvation,  so  Dante  must  wait  for  grace  to  be  extended  to  him.  Dante’s  initial  

hesitation  to  accept  demonstrates  how  his  will  is  still  far  from  being  aligned  with  

God’s.  With  encouragement  from  Beatrice,  the  “Lady  of  Grace,”  Dante  finally  does  
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accept  the  grace  offered  to  him  by  the  three  ladies.  This  is  representative  of  the  

divine  grace  that  is  mercifully  extended  to  humanity  through  the  Holy  Trinity,  and  

the  freedom  humanity  has  in  choosing  to  receive  that  grace.    

As  Dante  and  Virgil  prepare  to  set  off  together,  Dante  says,  “Let  us  start,  for  

both  our  wills,  joined  now,  are  one  (139).”  While  Dante’s  will  is  not  yet  aligned  with  

that  of  the  Divine,  this  is  the  first  step  in  preparing  him  for  such  a  time.  It  is  

important  to  note  that  this  alignment  of  wills  is  not  compulsory.  It  is  in  the  humble  

acceptance  of  grace  that  Dante’s  heart  is  moved  to  begin  the  journey  that  will  lead  

him  to  salvation.  He  has  chosen  to  receive  grace,  and  thus  has  chosen  to  receive  


The  First  Circle  of  Hell,  called  Limbo,  shows  how  virtue,  without  grace,  is  not  

enough  for  salvation.  Like  Virgil,  the  shades  in  Limbo  have  never  sinned,  but  “their  

great  worth  alone  /  was  not  enough,  for  they  did  not  know  Baptism  (34-­‐35).”  While  

the  souls  in  Limbo  are  not  subjected  to  extreme  punishment  or  torture,  their  choice  

to  live  virtuously  is  essentially  meaningless  in  relation  to  eternity,  because  they  

never  knew  and  never  will  know  God.  The  honored  souls  of  the  sciences  and  arts  are  

further  testament  to  this:  they  represent  the  best  of  human  reason  and  virtue,  but  

out  of  the  context  of  God’s  will  and  apart  from  divine  grace,  they  are  still  fallen  souls.  

Because  they  have  chosen  not  to  accept  grace,  they  are  denied  salvation  and  must  

live  in  eternity  without  God’s  presence.    

There  is  no  place  further  from  God’s  divine  grace  and  will  than  the  depths  of  

Hell.  The  immobility  of  the  souls  frozen  in  ice  is  indicative  of  the  absolute  
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helplessness  of  humanity  apart  from  grace.  There  is  no  relief  from  their  punishment  

and  no  hope  for  salvation  because  they  have  chosen  to  reject  grace.  Satan,  who  also  

rejected  grace  and  acted  in  flagrant  defiance  of  God’s  will,  is  trapped  in  Hell  for  


While  Hell  is  a  place  of  eternal  damnation  for  those  who  have  rejected  grace,  

Purgatory  is  a  place  for  sinners  to  accept  that  grace  and,  through  redemption,  begin  

retraining  their  will  to  be  aligned  with  God’s.  Humble  and  repentant  souls  are  given  

the  opportunity  to  receive  grace  in  Purgatory.  Divine  grace  not  only  heals  the  soul,  

but  also  strengthens  the  will,  turning  one  from  a  desire  for  sin  to  a  desire  for  

righteousness.  This  process  of  humility  followed  by  grace  is  evident  in  the  two  

conditions  set  forth  for  Dante’s  entrance  into  Purgatory.  Dante  is  first  instructed  to  

replace  the  cord  around  his  waist  with  a  reed,  which  is  symbolic  of  humility  

replacing  his  former  self-­‐confidence.  Then,  his  face  is  washed  clean,  symbolizing  the  

renewal  and  restoration  that  occurs  when  grace  is  received.  Dante’s  choice  to  

humbly  accept  these  conditions—to  accept  grace—allows  him  entrance  to  

Purgatory  and  leads  him  one  step  closer  to  salvation.    

As  Dante’s  journey  through  Purgatory  continues,  it  becomes  increasingly  

clear  that  redemption  by  grace  is  the  only  means  to  salvation.  This  is  evident  when  

the  souls  climbing  the  mountain  are  unable  to  move  upwards  at  night.  Without  

light—without  grace—the  will  is  rendered  impotent.  While  the  souls  may  move  

downwards,  they  are  unable  to  move  up  the  mountain  and  closer  to  salvation,  
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because  their  wills  have  not  yet  been  retrained.  It  is  by  grace  alone  that  the  will  is  

strengthened  and  perfected,  and  it  is  by  grace  alone  that  salvation  is  reached.  

God’s  merciful  grace  continues  to  be  revealed  as  the  only  means  by  which  

Dante  will  reach  Paradise  and  salvation.  In  Canto  VIII,  a  soul  is  amazed  at  Dante’s  

very  presence  in  Purgatory.  He  calls  another  soul  to  come  and  “See  what  God’s  grace  

has  willed  (66).”  It  is  only  because  of  divine  grace  and  mercy  that  Dante  is  able  to  

pass  through  Purgatory.  The  two  angels  that  protect  Dante  and  the  souls  in  the  dark  

valley  are  another  example  of  this  divine  mercy  bringing  him  closer  to  salvation.  

Clad  in  green,  these  angels  symbolize  the  hope  of  salvation,  a  hope  that  is  possible  

only  by  grace.  The  angels  intercede  in  an  act  of  grace,  giving  hope  to  the  travelers  by  

protecting  them  from  the  serpent.  Similarly,  when  God  intercedes  by  extending  

grace  to  humanity,  there  is  hope  for  eternal  salvation.  The  saintly  lady  rousing  Dante  

from  his  fixation  on  a  dangerous  siren  and  Dante’s  dream  of  an  eagle  swooping  

down  and  depositing  him  at  the  gates  of  Paradise  are  additional  examples  of  such  

mercy.  It  is  through  these  acts  of  intercession  that  God  extends  grace  to  Dante,  

bringing  him  closer  to  redemption  in  Paradise.    

As  Dante  leaves  Purgatory  in  the  final  cantos,  he  experiences  the  redeeming  

power  of  grace  in  preparation  for  salvation.  Beatrice  prepares  Dante  by  first  

subjecting  him  to  harsh  judgment.  She  embodies  divine  judgment  as  well  as  divine  

grace,  grace  which  is  evident  when  she  leads  Dante  to  the  holy  river  Eunoe.  After  

drinking  from  the  river,  Dante’s  memory  of  past  good  deeds  is  restored  and  he  

emerges  feeling  reborn,  renewed,  immaculate.  This  renewal  of  memory  allows  him  
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to  be  freed  from  the  slavery  of  sin  so  that  he  may  focus  on  righteousness—his  will  

has  been  retrained.  Dante  is  “eager  to  rise,  now  ready  for  the  stars  (145).”  He  has  

been  redeemed  by  grace  and  is  finally  ready  to  enter  Paradise.  

By  grace,  Dante  has  reached  Paradise,  but  now  he  must  learn  that  true  

salvation  is  only  experienced  when  one’s  will  is  perfectly  aligned  with  God’s.  In  

Canto  III,  Piccarda  explains  that  each  soul  is  content  with  whichever  sphere  of  

Heaven  that  they  reside  in.  If  anyone  wished  to  be  higher  up,  then  their  will  would  

not  be  in  accordance  with  God’s.  In  Paradise,  there  is  no  will  but  that  which  is  one  

with  God’s.  Though  some  souls  may  be  higher  in  the  ranks  of  Heaven,  every  soul  

experiences  complete  bliss,  because  the  light  of  Grace  Supreme  shines  to  the  fullest  

capacity  of  each  sphere  to  receive  that  light.  Grace  is  being  extended  and  received,  

thus  leading  to  the  perfect  unity  of  human  and  divine  will.    

As  Dante  and  Beatrice  journey  through  Paradise  together,  she  continues  to  

prepare  him  through  divine  revelations  of  perfect  grace  and  love,  for  his  final  

entrance  into  the  presence  of  God.  In  Canto  XXIX,  Beatrice  uses  the  example  of  

Satan’s  fall  to  contrast  the  humility  of  the  angels.  It  was  only  by  God’s  enlightening  

grace  that  they  were  raised  to  their  place  in  Heaven,  and  it  is  only  by  grace  that  

Dante  will  reach  the  final  sphere  of  Heaven.    

At  last,  Dante  is  granted  the  grace  to  enter  into  the  presence  of  God.  Over  and  

over,  Dante  speaks  of  the  light  that  surrounds  him—Light  of  Truth,  Eternal  Light,  

Living  Light,  the  Great  Light.  It  is  the  light  of  divine  grace.  As  Dante  gazes  into  this  

circle  of  light,  he  yearns  to  know  how  man’s  image  could  conform  to  it,  how  man’s  
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will  could  be  perfectly  aligned  with  God’s.  In  a  “flash  of  understanding,”  a  flash  of  

light—of  grace,  Dante  understands.  It  is  here  that  Dante’s  will  is  finally  made  one  

with  the  Divine.  He  has  received  salvation.  Dante  says,  “I  felt  my  will  and  my  desire  

impelled  /  by  the  Love  that  moves  the  sun  and  the  other  stars  (144-­‐145).”  Not  only  

is  God  the  source  of  all  movement  towards  salvation,  He  is  the  Love  that  is  the  

source  of  redemptive  grace.  Because  of  this  great  love  for  creation,  God  extends  his  

merciful  grace,  and  those  who  humbly  receive  it  may  attain  salvation.