In the circle of the Heretics, Dante only deals with one sort of heretic: the Epicureans, who denied the immortality of the soul, teaching instead that all that is for us exists in this world, and should be enjoyed. It is fitting, then, that they dwell eternally in a grave, as that is what they expected out of the afterlife. In this exquisite canto, Dante doesn’t render the two Epicureans he meets as hedonists. Rather, they are a pair of refined grandi — great men of Florence. Had they been mere hedonists, Dante might have placed them in the circles where sins of the flesh are punished. Theirs is an intellectual sin, which puts the confrontation in a different light.

As Dante and Virgil make their way through the open tombs of fire, a nobleman rises out of his grave, and addresses Dante in a rather pompous tone:

“O Tuscan, you who speak with modest grace,

alive and traveling through the city of fire,

may it please you to pause here in this place.

 

Your speech and accent make it clear to me

you were born in the noble fatherland

I may have punished once too bitterly.”

This is Farinata degli Uberti, a magnificent bastard who led the Ghibelline faction in Florence for much of the 13th century. He betrayed Guelph-led Florence to her Ghibelline enemies in Siena, but when the victorious Sienese wanted to destroy the city, Farinata refused to let them. They compromised by leveling all the homes of the leading Guelph families. Later, when the Guelphs came back into power, they repaid the Uberti by demolishing their mansions.

Here is how Dante describes Farinata’s appearance here:

I already fixed my eyes on his;

who raised himself with great chest and great brow,

surging as if he held all Hell in scorn.

 

And with his prompt and spirited hand my guide

pushed me toward him among the sepulchers,

saying, “Make sure each word you utter counts.”

Surging as if he held all Hell in scorn. This Farinata is a haughty aristocrat. The portrait Dante paints of him in just a few lines is indelible. Read on:

At the foot of his tomb I stood, and he

looked at me for a little, till he asked,

with some disdain, “Who were your family?”

See what’s happening here? Farinata is living for all eternity in Hell, and the first thing he wants to know is whether or not this extraordinary visitor from the mortal life is good enough to deign to converse with. Farinata is keeping up appearances; he still believes that distinctions he held on earth matter here in Hell. And why not, given that he believed that the earthly life was the only one that mattered?

After Dante answers him, Farinata says they were “bold enemies” of his, and he twice threw them out of Florence. Dante, who, remember, is making this pilgrimage through the afterlife in the year 1300, when the Guelphs again ruled Florence without challenge, throws shade back on Farinata, telling him that his people have not learned the art of holding on to power.

Suddenly, another head pops out of the tomb to interrupt this political parley. That heretic appears to be on his knees in the tomb.

He looked around me, searched, as if he longed

to see if someone else was there with me,

and when his little hope was doused, he wept

This man is Cavalcante de Cavalcanti, an Epicurean philosopher, merchant banker, and leader of the Florentine Guelphs. He is the father of Guido Cavalcanti, a poet who had been Dante’s best friend (and who would die in the summer of 1300, in an exile in which Dante, as a city leader, had a no doubt reluctant part). Cavalcante is looking for his son. He says to the pilgrim:

If through this dungeon of the blind

you go by means of genius at its height,

where is my son? Why is he not with you?”

The old man misunderstands Dante’s response, and takes it to mean that his son has died. Instantly he collapses back into the tomb.

Then Farinata:

that man of great soul, never turned his neck,

or bent his trunk, or changed his countenance,

But went on speaking as he had at first.

How about that! Farinata holds Cavalcante, his tomb-mate, in such disdain he carries on as if the pathetic exchange between Dante and the grieving father had not happened. These two enemies from the mortal life spend eternity living side by side in a sepulchre, and refuse to acknowledge each other’s existence. It’s even worse because in life, Guido, Cavalcante’s son, had married Beatrice degli Uberti, Farinata’s daughter, to resolve a dispute between the two families. So these men are related by a bond of marriage.

None of that matters. You would think that here in the afterlife, they would find a commonality in their shared fate. That perhaps the passage of time, and their shared condition as damned souls, as Tuscans, as Florentines, as Epicureans, would be enough to heal those stark divisions. Even John McCain, himself a very proud and angry man, lived long enough to reconcile with the same people with whom he once warred, and who tortured him in prison:

I’ve made friendships with people who were once my enemies. I’ve become fond of a place I once detested. I am pleased that America and Vietnam have made so much progress in building a productive, mutually beneficial relationship in the wreckage of a war that was a tragedy for both our peoples.

There is no grace in either man. All Farinata cares about is his family, his political party, and his personal status back in Tuscany. All Cavalcante cares about is his son’s status as a poetic genius. They cannot care about anything else, because they believed that the mortal life was all that existed, and that the point of that life was to enjoy the things that gave them pleasure: poetry, politics, and so forth. They insisted on those divisions, even though their warfare contributed to death and dying in Florence. Dante’s exile — and for that matter, Guido Cavalcanti’s — came because too many Florentines and Tuscans insisted that their divisions were more important than what they had in common.

What Dante the poet says here is that their heretical belief that life on earth is all that exists led them to embrace with passion the things of this world — and that, in turn, led to their blind and destructive egotism. This had dramatic consequences for their communities: their families, their city, their region, and their church. Dante is moving toward a vision of cosmic harmony, but first he has to see the consequences of division, of people being so passionate about the things they loved in the world that they made life for everyone a living hell. There was no such thing as common ground, or a common vision, nor did it even occur to them that some things are more important than temporal gain. Their insistence that this day, and this life, is the only thing that exists led them to destroy the tomorrows of their fellow citizens.

Farinata doesn’t understand why the Florentines living at the time hate him and his family. Dante explains that he and the Sienese-backed forces he led turned the River Arbia red with Guelph blood at the Battle of Montaperti, which led to the Ghibelline takeover of Florence. Over 10,000 Guelphs died in that battle (versus only 600 Ghibellines), and it resulted in the exile of many Florentine Guelphs, and the annihilation of their homes by the vengeful Ghibellines. This happened only 40 years before Dante meets Farinata in Hell; it should not come as a surprise that the Guelphs in Florence hold the family of the man who led the armies that ruined them in contempt. He sold them all out!

For his part, Farinata believes that they ought to all be grateful to him for preventing the Sienese from leveling Florence entirely. Truly, the man’s ego knows no bounds. Herzman & Cook point out that there is no magnanimity in this gesture; the victorious Farinata wanted to rule over Florence, but if there were no Florence left, there would have been no spoils for him to gather.

Farinata thinks of himself as a great man. He came from a prominent family, he was a serious thinker, and he led his party to victory on the field of battle. Yet there he is in Hell — and in his arrogance, he refuses to recognize it. He did everything right by his own philosophy. He loved what he should have loved, and loved them in the way he should have loved them. No wonder he scorns Hell. Still, all his accomplishments on earth passed away, within a generation. (And, as he will prophesy to Dante, his own political accomplishments in Guelph-led Florence will soon turn to dust as well.)

Herzman & Cook add that one way to think of the sin of heresy is mistaking one part of the truth for the whole truth. In this sense, the heresy of Farinata and Cavalcante includes believing that truth consisted in their all-consuming love for family, party, status, and so forth. The thing is, there is nothing wrong with loving your family, your party, your city and your creed. The error comes in believing that these are ultimate ends. To let this disorder reign in one’s heart inevitably results in disorder in the family, in the community, in the city, in the country, everywhere — because everything is connected. Could this be why Jesus said to call your brother a fool puts you in danger of the fires of Hell?

This was incredibly helpful for me in trying to untie the knot that bound me after my return to my Louisiana home. The divisions between my Louisiana family and me that had been there for most of my life proved impossible to bridge. I couldn’t figure this out. I had no doubt that my sister loved me, though she didn’t much like me, nor did I doubt that my dad loved me, though he disapproved of me. And I loved them. So why the struggle?

It was, I think, because all of us put far more value on the good things of this world than we ought to have done. Family is important, but it’s not the most important thing. Community is important, but it’s not the most important thing. Philosophy (by which I mean worldview) is important, but it’s not the most important thing. I could not ever hope to fit in as I wanted to because they considered me to be selfish and unloving for not loving as they loved — that is, for not sharing their particular view of what it meant to be devoted to family, to place, and so forth. In their view, if I loved as I ought to love, I never would have left, and I would have the same vision of the good as they do.

I deeply believe they were, and are, wrong about this. The thing is, I had grown up in this family culture, and had internalized its values. Deep down, I accepted this critique, even though I have spent all my adult life fighting against it on the surface. Much of this is in Little Way — in the part where my niece Hannah reveals to me that her late mother and my father had raised her and her sisters to think bad of me for having left home, and for believing the things I do and living the way I do. What I hadn’t counted on is this state of things existing even after my sister’s death. It is the immovable object. And crashing hard against it on my re-entry very nearly broke me.

Reading Dante — this canto in particular, but also the entire Commedia — helped me to see things I couldn’t see. It had not occurred to me that disordered love could be so destructive, at least not in this way. How could you love the idea of family too much, and the idea of place too much? It’s not hate, so how could it be wrong?

I saw how it could be wrong. I saw that the insistence on the primacy of these divisions, on treating them as fundamental, unalterable facts of life that gave life meaning and structure, could refuse grace, and, tragically, ensure that these divisions become permanent.

I had done all I could to bridge the chasm. There was literally nothing more that I could do. This wrecked me.

What I could do, and what I did, was this: recognize the extent to which in my heart of hearts, I had always accepted this judgment, and oriented my own interior life around it. The division existed tangibly in the world, and because of that, it existed in my soul as well. It came between God and me, and made me think that God loved me, but He couldn’t possibly approve of me, no matter what I did. My spiritual life, I came to see, had been for many years oriented around appeasing a God whom I was constantly failing in my duties regarding faith and morals.

Once Dante unmasked this within me, I saw that I had made false idols of Family and Place. It’s not that loving Family and loving Place are bad things — they are, in fact, good things — but that they are only good relative to the ultimate good, who is God. Once I gained that understanding, through the graces that came through prayer and confession (and therapy), I was able to renounce these idols, by which I mean I was able to rightly order them.

I remember the afternoon I was sick with the mononucleosis brought on by my intense anxiety over all of shi, and lying in bed, reading the Commedia. I put the book down and began to pray with all these things in mind. Suddenly, I felt a presence in the room with me, and an inexplicable physical sensation washing over my body. I knew instantly that God loved me, and I knew also that He always had, and would. This conviction had, in that mystical moment, been set in my heart like a foundation stone. It would be the basis on which I would build my new life.

Dante, the poet, had been passionately involved in artistic and political disputes in his day. And they had nearly destroyed him. As you know if you’ve read Purgatorio, he confesses to Beatrice that the source of all the confusion that led him to the dark wood in the middle of the journey of our life was his placing “false delights” — art, romantic love, party politics — above the things of eternity, above all God. From my analysis of Purgatorio 31:

Beatrice teaches Dante that nothing mortal lasts, and to place one’s hopes in things of the world, even in the “highest beauty,” is to lash oneself to the passions, and ultimately to damnation. Art cannot save you. Sexual pleasure cannot save you. Intellectual delight cannot save you, nor can power, nor can riches, nor can patriotism, nor filial piety, nor anything you love more than you love God. Every soul in Hell loved something or someone (perhaps themselves) in a way so disordered that it drew them straight to Hell. We are all on that path if we love the world more than we love God, and the Good. If we first love God, though, we can love the world through Him; only He is Absolute. When our love is rightly ordered, then, all the world becomes an icon, through which the glory of God shines.

Take a lesson, says Beatrice: Everything that you treat as God that is not God will lead you into a dark wood — and, if you persist until death, to eternal separation from the One you rejected in life.

Dante the poet learned this in the bitterness of his exile. Dante the pilgrim learned this on the arduous pilgrimage to Paradise. And so, thanks to the wisdom, beauty, and integrity of his witness, did I.

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