Monday, July 20, 2009

Dante's Inferno and the Justice of God

For some light pleasure reading lately (in all my copious spare time since I never seem to blog anymore), I’ve been working my way through Anthony Esolen’s recent translation of Dante’s Inferno. Having thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Esolen’s articles in Touchstone magazine over the years (this is one of my favorites), I jumped at this chance to hear this eloquent traditional Catholic retell a medieval classic. With this edition fully illustrated by none other than Gustave Dore, what’s not to like?

Well, there is Hell, which I suppose is precisely the point. Dante’s depiction of Hell is none other than sin unmasked, where the damned receive “poetic justice”. Here they suffer not so much “for” their sins as “by” them. Those who couldn’t control their lustful desires now whirl through the air in a ferocious but aimless tornado. Those whose divisive influence split families and nations now find their own bodies sliced apart. In one of the most memorable images to me, the lukewarm in life are abandoned to the abyss between Heaven and Hell; neither will take them.

The doctrine of Hell is more unpopular and incomprehensible to people today than in past centuries. The objections are obvious and forceful. What could a person (even Hitler) ever accomplish in a few short years to actually deserve eternal torment? This insistence on measured justice resonates with my own soul, but I fear hidden within our laxity is a trivialization of the lives we live and the people we become. There are no insignificant moments or choices - for all we know with modern science, the only real meaning in the entire universe lies within them. And what a universe is man! Somehow I know that there truly is a sense in which the slightest impiety to God or callousness to a neighbor from such a magnificent creature must merit everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. There is an ironic dignity to Hell - that the heart of man really is infinite, and thus accomplishes heights of good and depths of evil beyond the tepid expectations of modern culture. I revere humanity too much to be a universalist.

But there is something that deeply troubles me about the Inferno, and yes, even about Dr. Esolen’s commentary. We begin to get hints of it in Dr. Esolen’s introduction:
Now it is one thing to analyze what justice is: the giving of each his due (as Dante, following Aristotle, would have said), or the treating of everyone identically (as with less complexity and a shakier hold on human affairs we ourselves would say). It is another thing to hunger and thirst for justice, and to put the expression of one’s hunger and thirst under such severe artistic restraints that their well-directed force causes one’s readers to hunger and thirst for justice too.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”, and thus St. Thomas Aquinas said that one of the pleasures of heaven is seeing the punishment of the damned. Therefore, a true hunger and thirst for justice is a hunger for Hell. Taking a cue, I think, from the scripture’s language about the divine wisdom, Dante inscribes these famous words on the gates of Hell:
I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way into eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost.
Justice caused my high architect to move:
divine omnipotence created me,
the highest wisdom and the primal love.
Before me there were no created things
but those that last forever - as do I.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.
Before all worlds, God made Hell, and saw that it was good? Here I’m beginning to squirm - there is something about all this that doesn’t seem quite right. Is not Hell the very stronghold whose gates the Church was to knock down? Dante pays lip service to Christ’s descent into Hell, but here he only skims the surface to pull the Old Testament saints from Limbo. After all, if Hell ain’t broke, Jesus don’t need to fix it.

If Hell is the justice of God we should long for, what should our attitude be toward the damned? If Dante is to be any guide, we are to suppress our natural weakness of mercy and look upon them with the cold satisfaction that justice is being done. After all, are we more merciful than God? Over and over again, Dante is encouraged to harden his heart toward those in Hell, that his heart may reflect the heart of God.

There is a passage early on in the Inferno, where Dante observes a formerly arrogant ruler wallowing in a sea of filth with countless others. The man tries to grab the boat Dante and Virgil ride, and is shoved back into the muck.
“Teacher, I’ve got a hankering,” said I,
“to see them dunk that spirit in this swill
before we leave the lake and disembark.”
And he replied, “You will enjoy your fill
before the farther beach comes into sight.
Such a desire is good to satisfy.”
Good to satisfy indeed. For Dante’s logic seems inexorable to me:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ But I say to you, love the saints and hate the damned, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he exalts the good to paradise and condemns the evil to perdition.
The Jewish martyrs in the book of Maccabees hurled insults at their tormentors, looking forward for the day when God, in his justice, would avenge their blood. But Jesus prayed for their forgiveness, as did St. Stephen following in his footsteps. Is the love and mercy of God something temporary - a matter of economy for the present dispensation while we see through a glass darkly? May it never be!

The problem with Dante’s justice in the Inferno is that it doesn’t see beyond justice as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, or “the giving of each his due”. The justice we are to long for in Christ is a higher justice than this - not of equality or retribution, but of restoration. For the Lord himself says:
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
Did Abraham content himself with the justice of God when he heard the news about Sodom? Did Moses when it was announced that Israel would be destroyed? No, my soul, there must be no satisfaction with Hell. I said at the outset that I am not a universalist - I reject any trite doctrine that says all will be saved. But I absolutely hope that all may be saved; I pray that all may be saved; I hunger and thirst, not for everyone to receive their due, but for all things to be made new.

In closing, I’ll see Dante’s St. Thomas Aquinas, and raise him St. John Chrysostom on Hell and its just claim upon men in taking its due:
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Good to see you back!

I haven't read Dante (yet)... C.S. Lewis suggests that those in Hell choose it eternally for themselves... Perhaps the tortures and fires are what throws us off in understanding why anyone wouldn't choose it for more than one second, when it may well be a logical extension of the choices we make for a whole lifetime.

I don't know how far Dante and Lewis are apart on that score - Dante does seem to be saying that Hell is simply sin unmasked - our own choices and nature made clear to us. My issue with Dante (so far - I do need to read the entire comedy before I make blanket statements) is more of our response to it. I don't know - perhaps there is a point where someone passes beyond pity in their own efforts to make their lives miserable. I know there are people who leech off of mercy and mercy becomes enabling. Perhaps Hell is the ultimate extension of that sort of behavior. But it feels really dangerous for a soul to suppress mercy.

One of the really interesting things Esolen brings up is how little fire there is in Dante's Hell. That's because the ontological meaning of fire is connected to the presence of God - he is the consuming fire, and so only those committing sins specifically against God are punished with fire. The implication I think is that Heaven would be more painful for the damned than Hell (which Lewis depicts in The Great Divorce).

Ah, I've missed your posts. Thanks for this excellent one on Dante. I'm about to launch a book group to read through the Divine Comedy, something I've been wanting to do for years. I look forward to more reflections from you as you make your way through Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Thanks! I definitely recommend you try out Esolen's version.

It's good to see you back -- and still wrestling with light reading. :-)

Alas, I have nothing intelligent to add... but thanks for raising some important questions.

Hi! I followed you here from a comment on Father Stephen's blog.

Dorothy Sayers has an interesting interpretation of this problem. She stresses the allegorical nature of the Comedy at such points and sees the Dante-the-character as reflecting the soul's judgment of itself. "Thus Francesca calls forth that say easy pity which betrayed her to lust; Ciacco, the perfunctory pity which is all that the egotist can spare for his neighbours..." etc. (Note for VIII.45 in her translation.) So Dante is just modeling the self-judgment and choice of each soul to itself (fulfilling the literary function of a Greek chorus) and at the same time judging and reputing such vices as they exist within his own soul (didactic lesson). Now, given Dante's Thomism and Aquinas' belief that one of the pleasures of heaven is seeing the torment of the damned, this may be too charitable of a reading--but given my fondness for the Comedy, I want to give him every doubt.

One major difference I've found between Dante and Orthodox theology is that Heaven and Hell are not created places. God is everywhere and fills all things. In Dante, God is not present in hell. In Orthodoxy, God's presence/energy is experienced as hell.

I still really enjoy Dante, and his genius, though.

I got here via your comment on Davidson's Sci Fi Catholic. I was asking about readers' opinions of a good translation of The Divine Comedy there, so thank you! When I get a chance, I will reread your article: it looks quite helpful for understanding the work.

I thought St Chrysostom's homily an apt response to Aquinas. I would also emphasise Steve's point, and, finally, point out this wonderful article by Bishop (now Archbishop) Hilarion of the Moscow Patriarchate.

I too am very interested in Esolen's Dante. I did a little post on the translator here.

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