The debate over free will has existed for centuries. Philosophers from every day and age have addressed the topic at length, providing their insight on what it truly means to be free. Dante Alighieri, in particular, brings forth an interesting concept in his Divine Comedy. He uses the stories of two women, Piccarda and Francesca, to show that will is two-fold; there is both an absolute will and a practical will. Though many have presented other dualist notions of will, few have lasted as long as his ideas have. Through the story of Malala Yousafzai, we can see that Dante’s ideas are still relevant and can be applied to the world today.
Dante first introduces his concept of “mixed will” in Cantos III and IV of his Paradiso. In Canto III, Dante meets a woman named Piccarda. She tells him about her life on earth. She was a nun who was forced to abandon her convent and to marry a tyrant against her will; therefore, she broke her vows to God and was placed in the lowest sphere of Heaven upon her death. This makes Dante wonder in Canto IV, “‘if the right intent is still there, how can another’s violence lessen my measure of worth?’”(Paradiso). To put the question another way, why do the actions of other people change where others are placed in the afterlife?
Beatrice tries to answer Dante. She tells him that “will cannot be overcome if it does not will to be” (Paradiso). The actions of others will not affect people if their will is strong enough. She offers the examples of Saint Lawrence, a martyr who was roasted on a gridiron, and Mucius Scaevola, a man who displayed the strength of the Roman people by plunging his hand into hot coals. Those men chose to use their will to face the violence that challenged them, unlike Piccarda. However, Piccarda said that she was forced to marry against her will, and Dante knows that spirits in heaven cannot lie. This leads to his confusion. How can both Piccarda and Beatrice be correct?
Beatrice explains that there are two separate definitions of will- the one given by Piccarda, absolute will, and the one given by her, practical will. She tells Dante, “absolute will does not consent to evil, but it does consent, in as much as it fears that, if it does not, it will encounter worse. So when Piccarda expresses this, she is speaking of the absolute will, and I of the practical will, so that, together, we both speak the truth” (Paradiso). Her statement gives rise to the term, “volontà mista” or “mixed will”. In Piccarda’s case, she allowed her practical will to be overcome, but not her absolute will. This is what permits her to have a spot in heaven. Although she broke her vows, the alternative would have been her death.
Another facet of Dante’s mixed will is uncovered through the story of Francesca in his Inferno. Similar to Piccarda, Francesca had to marry for political reasons, and her betrothal was arranged by her family. The man she was given to marry was Gianciotto Malatesta, an old and violent cripple. Her family and his family had fought for many years and the marriage between Francesca and Gianciotto was supposed to be a peace treaty of sorts. Unfortunately, Francesca fell in love with Paolo, Gianciotto’s younger brother. One day, when Francesca and Paolo were reading together, they gave into lust and kissed. Out of rage, Giancotto killed them before Francesca could repent. This lands Francesca a place in hell. Francesca believed that love made her perform her act of infidelity and denied that she had a personal choice in the matter. This can be seen by the personification of love in Canto V.
“Love, which is swiftly kindled in the noble heart,
seized this one for the lovely person that was taken
from me; and the manner still injures me.
Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in
return, seized me for his beauty so strongly that, as
you see, it still does not abandon me.
Love led us on to one death.”
Dante’s use of diction is incredibly important in this excerpt. The words “seized”, “pardons no one”, and “led,” suggest that love is all-powerful and that we, as humans, have no ability to resist its temptation. However, this is not true, as demonstrated by Francesca’s inclusion in one of the circles of hell. The phrase “it still does not abandon me” is also especially important. This shows that Francesca still follows her earthly bliss in hell. Her statement makes the audience believe that she would not have repented for her sin even if given the chance. This does not mean that we cannot sympathize with her as we do Piccarda. After hearing her story, Dante faints, suggesting that he knows how difficult it is to resist lust. Perhaps only those with a strong will would be able to withstand its allure. Francesca’s actions also had social and political ramifications. Her marriage was supposed to bridge together two families. By her actions, she not only impacts her life, but also the lives of others and others to come.
Ultimately, what does Francesca’s placement in hell mean for Dante’s definition of free will? It shows that Dante believed having free will means that we are morally responsible for our actions. In Francesca’s case, she allowed both her absolute and her practical will to be overcome by love. If she had had her affair with Paolo as a result of the violent actions of others, perhaps she would still have been able to receive a spot in heaven. However, her sin was all of her own doing. She ends up having to succumb herself to an “infernal whirlwind, which never rests” for the rest of eternity (Dante).
To see how Dante’s idea of a mixed will applies to today, we can examine the story of a modern day young woman, Malala Yousafzai. Malala Yousafzai is a teenager from Pakistan who, contrary to the desire of some people in her region, wrote about the importance of education for young women (Briquelet). She even went to school when the Taliban had forbidden it. Malala rose in fame and became a prominent face in the news. The Taliban began to slide death threats under her door and publish warnings in the newspapers (Reuters). One day, while riding home on a bus, a member of the Taliban shot her in the neck (Walsh). Perhaps, if Malala’s will weren’t as strong, she would have given up and would have stopped speaking her mind in favor of security. Instead, she refused to be swayed by the actions of others, even when those actions became violent. Unlike Piccarda and Francesca, Malala does not allow either of her wills to be overcome. Malala has gone on to receive the National Youth Peace Prize and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. More importantly, she has continued to express her support for the education of all without regard to those who try to stop her.
All three women have had different answers to an essential question: If free will is about having choices to do what we want, what does it mean if we cannot exercise our free will? Out of Piccarda, Francesca, and Malala, only Malala would say that there is always a way to exercise one’s will. Both Francesca and Piccarda allowed their wills to be conquered by outside forces thinking that they had no other choice. Although that would have been the easier path to take, Malala realizes that fear is not an adequate excuse to give up one’s beliefs and yield to the desires of people around you. Through Dante’s works, we can see that Malala Yousafzai alone is the only woman out of the three that truly knows what it is to be free.
Briquelet, Kate. “Malala Yousafzai’s Taliban-free hand.” New York Post. N.p., 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
Dante, Alighieri, Robert M. Durling, Ronald L. Martinez, and Robert Turner. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
“Paradiso Canto I:1-36 Dante’s Invocation.” Dante: The Divine Comedy. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
Reuters. “‘Radio Mullah’ Sent Hit Squad after Malala Yousafzai.” The Express Tribune. N.p., 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
Walsh, Declan. “Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights.” NYtimes.com. N.p., 12 Oct. 2012. Web.