Canto 11 is key to understanding how the Inferno is organized, which is to say, how Dante classifies sin. This canto explains the logic of Hell.
To summarize there are three parts to Hell:
1. Upper Hell: where Sins of Incontinence are punished (e.g., Lust, Gluttony, Greed & Prodigality, Wrath; Heresy is a strange sin that, in Dante, marks the transition between Incontinence and Violence).
2. Middle Hell: Sins of Violence are dealt with here, e.g., violence against one’s neighbor, violence against oneself (suicide), and violence against God.
3. Lower Hell: where you find Sins of Fraud punished. These are the worst sins, in Dante’s conception, because they must involve premeditation — that is, they involve wholly turning the mind toward evil, and having it corrupt the will. These are not sins of passion, which, as Dante sees it, are more understandable. These are sins that strike at the essence of what it separates man from beast: our reason. Worse, fraud “severs the bond of love” that unites people in society, Virgil teaches, and makes living peaceably together impossible. This is why traitors are in the deepest pit:
“Every evil deed despised in Heaven
has as its end injustice.
This is important. What does it mean to say that every sin is rooted in injustice? A just order is an order in which everything is where it is supposed to be, doing what it is supposed to be doing. To sin is to introduce disharmony into the system. It is to insist that justice is really unjust, as long as it doesn’t satisfy the individual’s passion. As you know from our having read Purgatorio and Paradiso, the entire universe runs on Love, in Dante’s view. Sin, therefore, can be thought of as like a blood clot that disrupts the smooth flow of Love. Or like rocks in a river that obstruct the flow. The popular conception of sin is that it breaks a rule or a law, and that is true, or at least not false. But that doesn’t account for the depths of Dante’s vision. For him, sin is a metaphysical phenomenon. If you don’t grasp that, you don’t grasp Dante.
His journey through Hell is not meant to instruct us as to how unrepentant sinners literally will spend the afterlife (though Dante no doubt believed in a literal Hell). Rather, the mode of their punishment is meant to teach us something essential about their sin, and how it corrupted the soul and offended against justice. He could have each set of sinners sitting in the same fiery pit, but that would not only be boring in terms of drama, it would also teach us nothing about sin other than it’s a bad thing. It matters that the Lustful are tossed and turned on a raging tempest. It matters that Gluttons live for eternity with their faces down in stinking muck.
The poet’s explanation (via Virgil) of why usury is a sin helps us see where he’s coming from. Today, the idea of usury as sinful has all but disappeared, except in the case of high-interest “payday loans” (which our legislatures, even in Red States like my own, and in the face of clergy protest, protect under law). Virgil Why, asks Dante, does it offend against “God’s goodness”? An interesting answer from Virgil, one that combines Aristotle with Christian exegesis:
‘Philosophy, for one who understands her,
observes,’ he said, ‘and not in one place only,
how nature takes her course
‘from heavenly intellect and its operation.
And, if you study well your Physics,
you will find, after not too many pages,
‘that human toil, as far as it is able,
follows nature, as the pupil does his master,
so that it is God’s grandchild, as it were.
‘By toil and nature, if you remember Genesis,
near the beginning, it is man’s lot
to earn his bread and prosper.
The usurer, who takes another path,
scorns nature in herself and in her follower,
and elsewhere sets his hopes.’
The usurer — one who makes his daily bread from moneylending — doesn’t work for his living, and produces and therefore violates the natural order. Genesis tells us that we are supposed to create things, but the usurer creates nothing. He’s getting away with something. His is almost an artistic crime. Given that Florence had become and was becoming a powerhouse in Europe on the basis of its having invented modern banking, it’s interesting to consider that Dante believed the basis of his city’s prosperity was fundamentally sinful, because it violated the God-given natural order.
(Note well that you don’t have to agree with Dante’s medieval view on usury to consider what it has to teach us about the Dantean vision of sin, redemption, and justice.)
To make sure you get the point, I offer this clarifying passage from Peter Leithart, excerpted from his Commedia study Ascent To Love:
The central question for Dante is how one has used his will, his power of choice. Men can misuse their power of choice in one of three ways. Sinners in the vestibule have not used their will at all, and therefore they are outside Hell. Circles two through five house sinners who did not sin out of ill will but out of incontinence, an inability to control their desires. Though the things they sought in life were good, their desire for this good was too strong. Thus, these circles punish sins of lust, gluttony, greed and wrath; that is the order from higher to lower. Lust is an excessive desire for carnal love, which is a good thing in itself but should not become an idol. Gluttony is an excessive desire for food and drink. Greed, an excessive love of money, can manifest itself in two ways. A man who hoards money is greedy, but a man who is careless in spending money is also hoping for happiness from material wealth. Finally, wrath is an excessive desire for the good of vengeance and justice.
… All sins displease God, but Virgil tells Dante that God is least displeased with sins of incontinence. Therefore, the incontinent have their place outside the city of Dis. The sins that are punished most severely are those that arise from a malicious will. Among sins of malice, sins of fraud are more serious than sins of force. The rationale for organizing the sins of malice in this way is that man alone can act fraudulently and deceptively, while animals can act violently. Fraud is a distinctively human evil, and evil that defaces in a particularly serious way the image of God in man. Further, Dante believes that the most serious sins are those that are most disruptive of social and political order. Following Aristotle, Dante assumes that man is a social being and the city is the highest point of civilization. Thus, sins that affect the city are more serious and more severely punished.
Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s line quoted above from the Hollander translation, is perhaps more revealing:
All malice meriting the hate of God
Has, for its end, injustice.
As Esolen explains, “malice” is a philosophical term implying the deliberate embrace of evil. The sins of incontinence are a failure to control the natural passions. Two kinds of malice: violence, which turns men into animals (who can be violent), and fraud, which is a singularly human kind of malice. It does the most to offend God, because it defiles the part of us that is most like God.
Finally on this point, I want to show you a passage from Peter S. Hawkins’s essay collection Dante’s Testaments. This is from an essay on how St. Augustine’s thought influenced Dante’s moral vision:
Abel chose God, not himself, as his good; in so doing, he fixed on the only object of desire that others can share without rivalry or fear of loss. Not only can they share such a love, they can actually increase it by doing so. Less can become more, and living partnership can be, not a compromise of power, but a source.
… Augustine turns a cause of strife into the source of concord; he shows how one heart can be made out of many. What he also does, of course, is stand the values of the earthly city upside down. Pointing past the obsession with lesser goods that characterizes the children of Cain, he upholds the possessio bonitatis as itself the highest good. It alone is the source of real power, power that is not lessened with sharing but that indeed must be shared to be possessed at all. The prizing of this love of goodness above everything else makes concord instead of antagonism, abundance instead of want – and all because the end of such desire is divine and thus infinite. To share true love is in fact to multiply it. This discovery makes it possible to imagine a new order of civitas entirely, one in which partnership … is not only possible but necessary.
Sinners choose themselves over God. The righteous choose God, which is to say, Love, and if they choose truly, they make things better for all. They will deny themselves rather than deny the good. All the problems of divided Florence, and divided Italy, and indeed our strife-filled world, begin with individuals choosing something other than God as their ultimate end. And to choose anything other than God is, at bottom, to choose yourself. We go to elaborate lengths to conceal this fact from ourselves, rationalizing our sins by saying they were inevitable, or the fault of others. But in every case, there is an element of consent to do evil present.
To be sure, it is up to God alone to judge the degree to which an individual soul consented to a particular sin, and what exculpatory circumstances may be present. It is only important here for us to recognize that, as the Bible says, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And if all have sinned, all are in need of repentance and God’s mercy. That is the bottom line. You can make it into Heaven (via Purgatory) if you show the slightest sign of repentance, even in your dying breath. But no one who dies without expressing sorrow for their sins and asking for God’s mercy can hope to see God in the afterlife.
We move on. Canto 12 is a transition canto, in which Dante and Virgil make their way toward “the river of blood that scalds those who by violence do injury to others.” In these circles they encounter the nonhuman creatures who populate the realm of the violent. These beasts — the Minotaur, who guards the realm, Centaurs, and Harpies — are half-human, half-animal. This teaches us that sins of violence involve both our minds and our bodies. Esolen’s commentary:
Violence is about the only sin that modern man still recognizes, and fitfully at that. That is because sin, which is to trespass upon the rights of God, has collapsed into coercion, which is to trespass upon the rights of the almighty individual will. We must strain to consider it violent if two men freely decide to kill each other, and we are on the verge of forgetting how to formulate any sort of argument against suicide. But for Dante, as for most philosophers, religious teachers, and poets before him and after him, the wickedness of violence is seen less in what it does to others than in what it does to the violent, not as a consequence but in the very act. To kill, rape, maim, and pillage is to be as heartless and ferocious as a tiger. It is unworthy of man. For the Christian, it violates the rights of God (as all sin does), for it turns the created world into an arena of destruction.
This brings to mind an Iraq war veteran I know. He served in combat there. He cannot speak of the things he did there. Literally, he can’t; it’s too painful. There is no reason to believe that he did anything illegal, but war is war. His wife told me that the pain he carried home, a pain the source of which even she doesn’t know in detail, is so great that he cannot bring himself to enter church. He seems to believe that the violence he committed, though legal, so defiled him that he is unacceptable to God. His pain is overwhelming.
It does no good to tell this poor soul that he bears no ultimate fault for doing a soldier’s duty in war. He might believe that as a matter of legality. But in his bones, he feels the essence of the sin of violence. This is why the Orthodox Christians require soldiers to undergo confession, a rite of cleansing, after returning from the battlefield. Even if they fought in a just war, all war is violence, and requires repentance. A necessary evil is still evil. We cannot shed blood without getting it on our hands. We cannot strike another with our fists without, in some sense, striking ourselves. As Wendell Berry wrote about modern warfare, “You cannot kill your enemy’s women and children without offering your own women and children to the selfsame possibility.”
Canto 13 opens with Dante and Virgil in a dark wood. The language Dante uses to describe this hellish arbor directly recalls the language he used to describe the dark wood in which he found himself back in the world, in the poem’s beginning. Going through this wood, Dante hears lamentation, and can’t figure out where it is coming from. Virgil counsels the pilgrim to pay attention to what is about to happen. This is why Virgil is such a good authority and guide; he has passed this way before, and knows the territory. Dante:
Then I stretched out my hand
And plucked a twig from a tall thorn-bush,
And its stem cried out: ‘Why do you break me?’
When it ran dark with blood
It cried again: ‘Why do you tear me?
Are you completely without pity?”
This talking shrub is Pier della Vigna, a great poet, was the chancellor of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor (and fellow denizen of Hell). Envious people in the imperial court gossiped about him, and framed him as a plotter. Frederick had Pier (a version of the name “Peter”) arrested, blinded, and imprisoned. He killed himself in prison, and he awakened in Hell, eventually incarnated there as a shrub. Here is Pier, to Dante, justifying his suicide:
“My mind, in scornful temper,
hoping by dying to escape from scorn,
made me, though just, against myself unjust.
“By this tree’s new-sprung roots I give my oath:
not once did I break faith
with my true lord, a man so worthy of honor.”
Pier also says:
“I am the one who held both keys
to Frederick’s heart, and I could turn them,
locking and unlocking, so discreetly…”
So, the suicide, one who has destroyed the body, the roots of its own earthly existence, lives for eternity as a plant — with consciousness, but unable to move. This is its torture for scorning the body: to live forever, and to have rationality, but to be denied the freedom of movement that is the body’s. To choose one’s own end instead of waiting for one’s natural end, as God intends, is wrong.
(It should be said that Dante’s view on suicide is not simplistic. In Purgatory, you will recall, we meet Cato the Younger, the virtuous Roman politician who killed himself as an act of protest rather than submit to the rule of Caesar. Dante views self-murder as blameworthy, but Cato’s rationale was not the same as Pier’s — and God, presumably, sees the difference, and punishes accordingly.)
Dante doesn’t waste any lines. Pier says he “held both keys to Frederick’s heart,” and that Frederick was his “true Lord.” This is a reference to St. Peter, the chief of the Apostles, the one to whom Jesus gave “the keys to the Kingdom” (the Angel near the base of Mount Purgatory is now the master of these two keys, as we see in Canto 9 of Purgatorio). Pier’s role in the Emperor’s life is the same as Peter’s was in the life of Jesus.
But Frederick turned against him, and Pier lost everything — his status and his liberty, and his eyesight. Pier’s “true lord” was a spiritually corrupt earthly sovereign; Pier had defied the Biblical admonition to “put not your trust in princes.” In the misery of his exile, Pier concluded that life was not worth living, and so he ended it. As Cook & Herzman point out in their lectures, Pier loved life when things were going well for him, but when fortune turned against him, he refused it.
This past week I was eating lunch in Baton Rouge when a friend I haven’t seen in a while passed the table and stopped to say hi. I asked her what she was reading these days, and she mentioned some serious theological books. My friend said that she and her husband are feeling acutely the need to understand their faith more deeply, so they can provide good answers for their growing children when the kids, one of who is a young teenager, start asking them. We got to talking about what a challenge that sort of thing is in our culture, and how so many Christian parents don’t take it seriously, figuring that these things will take care of themselves.
“Just the other day,” she said, “I was on an e-mail list sent out by a woman I know, and she was saying how she knows God is in her life because she has this blessing, and that blessing, and so on and so forth. You got the idea that she thinks she is one of the elect because she has all these material things. But what would happen to her faith if she lost it all? What does that kind of spirituality say to the person who has cancer?”
“What does that kind of spirituality say to the Christians who have everything taken from them, and have to run for their lives because ISIS is coming to kill them?” I said.
“Exactly,” she said. “We ought to be grateful for God’s blessings, but I just think that so many of us worship the things He gives us, and think we’re worshiping him. So when we get to the time of testing, our faith doesn’t last.”
I thought about that conversation this morning, reading about Pier’s fate. It’s as if he believed in a kind of Prosperity Gospel. Life was worth affirming as long as he was tight with the Emperor, but only then.
This has deep resonance with Dante’s fate. Remember, Dante too was a famous poet and a political leader at the time of his downfall and exile. He too was deprived of his status, his property, and his liberty (insofar as he wished to stay in Florence). The Commedia has no coincidences; the fate of Pier della Vigna could have been Dante’s fate. Surely Dante must have contemplated suicide, after having lost everything. When the poem begins, heaven has dispatched Virgil to rescue Dante, who is in danger of death. It is reasonable to assume by the context clues in this canto that Dante’s death would have been by his own hand, in despair over all his losses.
The Commedia is a poem about rebirth — about the way a man lost in his own sin and suffering found a way back to love, and life. Over and over, the lessons that the pilgrim learns on his journey is that to make anything other than unity with and service to God one’s highest object of devotion is to deviate from the straight path — a deviation that, over time, will lead one off the cliff and into Hell. The essence of life in Hell is to be deprived forever of the friendship and presence of God; this is the only thing the virtuous pagans and Muslims in Limbo lack. Pier had made the Emperor his god, and when he was cast out of the Emperor’s presence, he thought he was in Hell. Because he made a false idol of the Emperor, and finally embraced and affirmed the dark wood of his despair, he became the Dark Wood for all eternity.
For all their similarities, the difference between the Pier della Vigna and Dante Alighieri is that Dante made the Lord God his “true lord,” not a prince of this world.
Let’s also note, as Hollander does, that Pier puts his rhetorical gifts to work making himself out to be a noble, tragic figure — a sort of Cato the Younger. In fact, he was a pathetic sycophant who murdered himself because he couldn’t bear to live without the privileges he had once known as the Emperor’s right hand man.
For me, this was a great canto to read this morning. In Orthodox churches that follow the Old Calendar, today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Christians believe that through the humiliation, the pain, and the degradation of that instrument of torture came the redemption of the world. As I was reverencing the tender icon of the Virgin Mary and her infant Son, I thought, “And look at how it ended: with your Son nailed to a cross, and you having to stand there and watch it all.”
Three days later, He rose from the dead, and everything was made new again, just as He had told his mother He was doing as He dragged the Cross to Calvary. The lesson for Christians is clear: through pain, through suffering, through the loss of everything we love, even our lives if it comes to it, can come rebirth and renewal. If you don’t believe that the cross (symbolically speaking) can be a sign to us of victory over death, read Kara Tippetts’s blogs as she is spending her last days and weeks on this earth. She does not want to die and leave her husband and four children and all the good things of this world behind. But none of us will live forever. She joins her own passion to the Passion of the Christ, and look at the intensity of her life, even in death. Kara is in intense pain now; she wrote yesterday:
We shared the edges and the fog within which we all still struggle. We ended in prayer, and by the end my spine and my hip were screaming in such pain I had to leave the room. Tears were coming on their own as the pain was so great.
And yet, she staggers onward, rejoicing. Lift high the Cross, indeed.
This is what it means to die to oneself to gain oneself, to accept defeat to conquer. This is what Dante the pilgrim learns on his journey. This is what Pier della Vigna refused to accept.