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Dante And The Perils Of Pity

In the past, I have written in this space about the French proverb, “To understand all is to forgive all.” It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it tells us that to have perfect understanding is to have perfect forgiveness … but on the other hand, it tells us that to give oneself […]

In the past, I have written in this space about the French proverb, “To understand all is to forgive all.” It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it tells us that to have perfect understanding is to have perfect forgiveness … but on the other hand, it tells us that to give oneself over to total sympathy is to lose sight of the reality of evil.

This is one of the hardest lessons the pilgrim Dante learns as he marches through Hell with Virgil. The reason for the infernal leg of Dante’s pilgrimage is to restore his awareness of the reality of sin as an objective reality. In Canto V, Dante swoons with pity for the condemned Francesca and Paolo, but that, as he will learn in time, is the inappropriate response. Virgil instructs Dante that he must learn not to pity the damned. Virgil is not teaching Dante to be hard-hearted; rather, he is teaching Dante to rightly order his emotions, because his own salvation depends on it.

It’s a subtle but crucial point. What Virgil (and Dante the poet) is saying is that for the damned, there is no hope. Their eternal fate is sealed. Nothing can be done about it. They have chosen their own fate. To pity them in that state is to doubt God’s justice. The damned, in fact, do not contend that they do not belong in Hell; they only deny their own personal responsibility for their fate. If Dante (the pilgrim) is to understand what sin means, he must resist pity. The damned often try to win Dante’s sympathy, a strategy that will not help them (they are beyond help), but can only seduce and potentially destroy Dante.

Consider the case of Brunetto Latini, Dante’s former teacher. Latini, a real-life figure (as most of those Dante meets along the way were), was Dante’s old teacher. The pilgrim is shocked to see his beloved master, who was like a father to him, and who was the parent of his (Dante’s) writing career, suffering in Hell. Latini is in the circle of Sodomites, but his sexual behavior never comes up in conversation with Dante, which is respectful, even affectionate. Brunetto tells his old student not to lose heart, for he is surely bound for fame:

And he [said] to me: ‘By following your star

you cannot fail to reach a glorious port,

if I saw clearly in the happy life.

Latini, a famous writer in his own right, again counsels his pupil, telling him that he is bound for glory if only he will believe in himself. The pilgrim, deeply moved by these words, responds:

‘If all my prayers were answered,’

I said to him, ‘You would not yet

Be banished from mankind.


‘For I remember well and now lament

the cherished, kind, paternal image of You

when, there in the world, from time to time,


‘You taught me how man makes himself immortal.

And how much gratitude I owe for that

My tongue, while I still live, must give report.

Dante is paying sincere homage to the man who taught him how to write, and who here, in Hell, is encouraging Dante to believe in himself and in his own talent. The pilgrim even goes so far as to doubt God’s judgment; such is his love and pity for Brunetto that he says he wouldn’t have put Brunetto in Hell.

But Brunetto is in Hell. God, who is all-just, cannot make mistakes. Where is the pilgrim’s mistake?

It lies both in his own pride, and in his filial piety toward his old master. Brunetto did, in fact, teach Dante how to write well, which Dante characterizes as learning how to make himself immortal. The word is critical here. For Brunetto, eternal life is fame; the writer, to achieve immortality, must write for the sake of fame. This orientation has earned Brunetto a place in Hell. Why? Consider that Brunetto is condemned to spend eternity walking in a scorched desert with fellow sodomites: an icon of sterility. What Dante the poet is telling the reader is that one’s creative gift comes to nothing — is sterile, not fruitful — if it is devoted to promoting oneself.

Follow your own star, Brunetto tells Dante. How many of us have been given the same advice, and would accept it as normal and healthy? Believe in yourself. This is a seductive lie, the poet shows us. The wise artist will not navigate by his own star, but by the stars set in the sky by God. To serve one’s own ego can only leave to sterility and damnation. For an artist to be a fruitful creator, he must serve higher truths, realities beyond his own self-interest. The greater the artist’s talent, the greater the temptation.

In this encounter, Brunetto tells his old student that if he had known how great Dante was going to be, he would have promoted his student even more back on earth. That sounds generous, but the truth is, Brunetto’s real game is promoting himself via Dante. He wants to ride on Dante’s coattails. As the Dante scholars Bill Cook and Ron Herzman explain, Brunetto is like the college professor who enjoys seeing his student succeed, for the sake of his own personal glory. The professor wants to get the phone call from Oprah, asking him to come on TV and talk about his connection to the great man who was his student. What Dante the pilgrim can’t fully appreciate at this stage in his journey is that Brunetto is a flatterer and a false counselor. To be clear, Brunetto is not consciously trying to mislead Dante; if he were, he would have been in the circle of False Counselors further down. But he really is misleading Dante, and Dante, in his vanity and in his pity, is opening himself up to sin.

Again, this is a subtle point, but a hugely important one. The journey through Hell is important to restore Dante’s understanding of how sin works, and how we fall victim to it. Remember, for Dante, all sin comes from a perversion of Love. In this case, Dante’s love for his old teacher, and his filial respect for his master’s authority, stand to trip Dante up.

Not everyone in Hell is pitiable, at least not to Dante, but those the pilgrim does pity are those whose sins the pilgrim can see himself committing: sins of lust, and the sin of pride leading to misuse of his creative gift.

Reflecting on this, I can easily see myself falling victim to the Brunetto fallacy. If I were to write a personal Inferno, I wouldn’t have had myself swoon from pity over a damned lustful person, but from a sinner damned for Gluttony. My weakness would have been to have had pity for a great gourmand, or perhaps a great chef, who gave himself over to the disordered love for good food and wine. Food and wine really are good things — as is Human Love, as is Creative Art. But if they are embraced in a disordered way, if we come to love them for themselves, and not as secondary to God, they can lead to our damnation.

Dante, man! Tolle, lege.