Your own master

Your own master

In Brief

Thinking of religion and “free thought,” Haines speaks some very British words: "I should think you are able to free yourself. You are your own master, it seems to me." He no doubt intends something like the stirring conclusion to William Ernest Henley's Invictus: “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.” The rational, secular, rightthinking individual should be able to take charge of his life and purge his mind of claptrap like "that idea of a personal God." Ironically, though, the conjunction of freedom and self-mastery in Haines' words also evokes the doctrines of Catholicism, as embodied in another passage of The Divine Comedy.

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In Purgatorio 27, having entered the Earthly Paradise, Virgil tells Dante that all his arduous instruction and discipline has come to its end. He has brought the pilgrim to this point “with intellect and will skill.” Now Dante may follow his own pleasure:

Don’t wait any more for my word or signal;
Free, upright, and sound is your will,
And you would do wrong not to do as it counsels:
Therefore I crown and miter you over yourself.
                                                      (27.139-42, my trans.)

Dante has freed himself from sin and can reliably guide his own actions. All the souls climbing the mountain of Purgatory do this. Their exit from the final circle and return to the garden of Eden signifies the perfection of their corrupted wills—an ethical reconstitution that is a prerequisite for the intellectual contemplation of Paradise. They are liberated from sin, freed from the bondage of earth’s gravity, able to rise to the vision of God.

If Stephen hears echoes of Catholic doctrine in Haines’ words—and he probably does, given the fact that he has just been quoting from Dante himself—he must do so with a host of ironic reflections. The freedom promised by the Catholic Church means simply the ability to say Yes or No to God, and saying Yes means surrendering one’s will wholly to the divine will (as Dante’s Paradiso makes clear). Furthermore, freeing oneself from this total subjection, once it is in place, is much more difficult for an Irish Catholic than for someone nurtured by the tepid bosom of English Protestantism. Stephen is “a horrible example of free thought” because he lives every day tortured by his apostasy, crushed by the guilt he associates with his mother, trembling in fear before the God he disbelieves in.

The Dantean allusion, then, seems to undermine Haines' contention that "You are your own master," and Stephen responds by saying, "I am the servant of two masters . . . The imperial British state . . . And the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church." Nonetheless, Dante's words do proclaim freedom from precisely these two masters, State and Church: that is the meaning of "Therefore I crown and miter you over yourself." So Haines is ultimately giving Stephen good advice, and Stephen is trying to do something like what Haines recommends when, in Circe, he "taps his brow" and says, "in here it is I must kill the priest and the king."

JH 2011
Virgil's Last Words, one of 100 wood block prints that Salvador Dalí made to illustrate the Divine Comedy. Source: