Are you Active or Contemplative? Dante’s Third Dream Explained

Leah picks flowers while Rachel is lost in her thoughts.

“In mystical writings […] the two wives of Jacob are frequently interpreted as allegories respectively of the Active and the Contemplative life; and this is the function they fulfill in Dante’s third dream.”

Dorothy Sayers

Dante’s third and final dream in Purgatory happens right after he passes through the final Cornice and goes through the cleansing fire. In his dream, he meets Leah and Rachel: the two wives of Jacob, later known as Israel.

Again, we’re tempted to think in terms of sexism. Yet another man comparing two women and of course the woman who’s active is the one who gets the attention. Except this is not the case.

In the first place, Dante has already passed through the final purging fires. What Leah and Rachel here represent are two ways of approaching a new life. In Paradise, we get to see how those choices play out.

What is an Active Life?

For Dante, an active life would have been the same as it would be for us. While he didn’t have to worry about posting to Instagram, Dante did have to worry about being sufficiently active in the local life of whatever town he was in.

Dante was writing poetry, engaging in diplomacy on behalf of he various benefactors, debating topics on art, culture, religion and politics with friends and colleagues. It would have been no different than what we have to do: go to work, find time for the gym, volunteer on the weekends, and stay in touch with family.

In short, it would have been every bit as exhausting. Although Dante didn’t have the disadvantage of having electricity and the internet so he could actually get away from everything a little more easily.

Leah as Allegorical Activity

In the dream, Leah is wandering in the fields and meadows gathering flowers. She is out in the world, but only sees exactly what is before her. In the biblical narrative, she is the wife who bears the most children–seven to be exact.

Seven children? She would have had to be active to keep up with them all.

Allegorically, she doesn’t sit in one place for too long. She cannot. This represents the need in our lives to tend to the the matters of life itself.

We can’t all sit around and think all the time. Bills have to be paid, food has to be prepared, laundry done, businesses run, etc.

The Contemplative Life

Contemplation involves what we would now consider self-reflection and meditation. It’s taking a step back, assessing ourselves and taking the time we need to realign ourselves with our values, our emotions, and our true selves.

For Dante, this was the period of time where he studied philosophy and theology. We know for certain he read Thomas Aquinas among other prominent scholars of the day. In fact, the reason his allegory is so complicated is thanks to his studies.

But contemplation doesn’t just stop with our formal education. It’s ongoing. Without it, we become prey to all sort of problems, like imposter syndrome, depression, and burn-out.

Rachel as the Contemplative Life

In Dante’s dream, Rachel sits at her mirror and reflects. Now, you might be tempted to think of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. While that’s an interesting point of comparison, it doesn’t quite ring true.

The Lady of Shallot dies when she leaves her life of contemplation. Dante’s dream is about two different facets of life.

In Rachel’s biblical narrative, she only bears Jacob two children. But, she was the one Jacob loved and worked hard to win. And it’s one of her children who has the gift of prophetic dreams. Allegorically, she represents a smaller portion of life, but one which has the most fulfillment.

Isn’t that true in real life, though? It’s the time spent developing our inner lives that brings us the most fulfillment. If we focus too hard on the active portions of life, we miss other things. We miss looking ahead to the future and imagining what life could hold for us.

We miss knowing who and what we are on a deeper, more intimate level.

Blending the Active and the Contemplative

Ultimately, it takes both Leah and Rachel to create the Israelites. Without Leah’s children, they wouldn’t have been so numerous. Without Rachel’s children, they would have all perished from famine. Together, they birthed a legend.

Life requires both halves to be whole. We cannot just live in the moment or for the hustle. We also cannot just live tucked away from everything with only our thoughts. Not in this life, at least.

The two require one another working together. We have to work, socialize, and network so that we can have the moments to think about what we’ve seen. But we also need the time to reflect so we don’t lose ourselves.

The balance must be maintained. And balance is what Dante finally discovers in Paradise.

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