Home/Rod Dreher/Inferno, Cantos 8 & 9

Inferno, Cantos 8 & 9

I erred in the last entry, saying that Dante and Virgil had crossed the Styx and were standing at a tower. In fact, they don’t cross until Canto 8, when the infernal boatman Phlegyas ferries them across the boggy river into Lower Hell. This canto marks a shift in Dante’s perspective. As they make their way across the bog, a wrathful soul of one damned, a shade that gnaws at himself with his own teeth, rises from the mud to demand to know who the living traveler is.

Dante recognizes the man, and says:

“In weeping and in misery,

accursed spirit, may you stay.

I know you, for all your filth.”

Virgil is pleased with Dante’s reaction, and hugs and kisses him, then says:

“In the world this man was full of arrogance

Not one good deed adorns his memory.

That is why his shade is so enraged.


“How many now above who think themselves

great kings will lie here in the mud, like swine,

leaving behind nothing but ill repute!”

This is a statement about ultimate justice. Just as Jesus spoke about how in heaven, the first shall be last, Virgil says here that those on earth who were at the top of the social order, but who behaved monstrously, will find themselves punished for all eternity.

The damned soul who spited Dante was Filippo Argenti, a rich and powerful Florentine who was allied to the Black Guelphs, and whose brother was said to have sacked Dante’s house and stolen his possessions upon his exile. Filippo also had an explosive temper. So Dante sees one of his tormentors in life suffering in Hell for his evil deeds, and it brings him satisfaction. Why does the righteous pleasure Dante takes in the fate of this wretch please Virgil?

Because it aligns Dante’s will with divine justice, and is a sign of Dante’s own moral progress. Remember, the reason for the journey through Hell is to reawaken Dante’s own soul to the reality of sin. God wants him to see what it is, unveiled. Pity on the damned is the wrong emotion to have toward them, because in Hell, there is no chance of repentance. The damned know they deserve to be there; you’ll recall how they rushed forward to cross the Acheron into Hell.

But of course they are miserable there, and curse God and everything else. They do not ask for mercy, not only because mercy is impossible here, but because metaphysically, they have been perfected in the evil they chose on earth. That is, they don’t ask for mercy because they do not believe themselves to be truly guilty of anything. To clarify, they know that according to God’s law, they are supposed to be here, but they believe the law to be unjust. They are eternally bound to their own pride, their own egos. You must remember that these aren’t real people anymore — they have “lost the good of their intellect” — but rather one-dimensional zombie types. They appear to be fully human to Dante, but they have been flattened out by their sin. They are no longer real people, but flawless incarnations of particular sins.

So, when Dante reacts to Filippo Argenti as he does, Virgil celebrates it as a sign that Dante is coming back to life morally. As Esolen writes: “Had Dante failed to respond so, he might justly be taxed with sluggishness of soul — exactly the sin punished under the Stygian swamp.”

Some people find the Inferno, with its elaborate torments for the damned, to be excessively cruel and merciless. They react with horror to the justice it metes out, not to the sin that merited the justice. It ought to be remembered that Dante, the author, is using the Hell he created to make points about the horror of sin, and what it really means in this mortal life to give oneself over to sin. Think about a time in your own life when you saw someone get away with something terrible. In times like this, our only consolation may be in our faith that God sees what they did, and will have His justice, if not in this life, then in the next. The pilgrim’s journey through Hell is meant to shake him out of his laissez-faire moral stupor, and to make him understand the gravity of sin, and to grasp that this is the justice that awaits sinners on earth if they do not turn from their sin.

Another way to think of it is that the malformed wretches Dante encounters in Hell is what all of us on earth look like when we sin; their form in Hell is simply what they spiritually were on earth, absent the veil of the flesh. I’m reminded of a story told by one of the elders on Mount Athos, about a man who was a new Christian, and who asked an elder to pray to God for him to be able to see himself as he really was. The elder advised against this, but the convert persisted. So the elder complied, and God granted the elder his prayer. The vision traumatized the convert. He had had a pretty good opinion of himself, but when he was given a glimpse from God’s perspective, he saw himself as not unlike one of the wretched souls Dante encounters in the Inferno. The poor man had lots of repentance and purgation ahead of him, as do we all.

If we have grown soft and sentimental about injustice, it may be because so few of us experience it in a profound way. I’m thinking this morning of a story a local man told me a couple of years ago about his kinsman, the truth of which was confirmed by my father. The time was the 1930s or 1940s. Mr. Big was a landowner who had become rich by cannily wrenching land away from distressed people during the Great Depression. He was a hard, hard man. One day, he was walking down the street in a town not far from our own, and a passing black man refused to give Mr. Big the kind of deference he believe he was owed. So Mr. Big pulled out his pistol and shot the black man dead on the main street in town, in the middle of the day.

There was never any chance that Mr. Big would have to answer in court for the murder of that black man. Can you imagine what it must have been like for the dead man’s family to endure that? Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been a member of that black community, and to know that a white man has the liberty to murder you in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, and never have to justify himself in a court of law for his evil deed?

Or consider the story that this blog’s reader J.R. McFaul told in yesterday’s Losing Your Religion thread, about how injustice ripped his lifelong Catholic faith from him. Here’s that lengthy quote:

I was the one whose faith was torpedoed in church as our pastor revealed that he had “transgressed the boundaries of a youth” and was outraged that the bishop had removed him from ministry. The parishioners were equally outraged on his behalf.

I was an altar boy growing up. I served at daily mass in Latin, until high school and continued to serve when the mass was said in the vernacular. My parents and entire family were Catholic with first hand experience of anti-Catholic oppresion. I remember Kennedy’s addressing anti -Catholic bias in the 1962 election.

I attended Catholic grade school and high school with TREMENDOUS respect and love for the nuns and priests. We read Old and New Testaments, Patristics and Luther and Calvin in my religion classes. I knew I could only date Catholic girls from my high school because I knew I could only be married to a Catholic. When I asked a certain girl out, her mother simply wanted to know what parish I belonged to–from that, she could find out from her sources on the various women’s groups all she needed to know about me. I apparently passed inspection and, as virgins, we later married after my graduation from a US Service Academy.

As we transferred around the country, we became active members of each parish In time, children came. All children (all boys as it turned out) were baptized in the Church and enrolled in the parish school. Our family was well known by the priests in the parish.

My wife was killed just before her 40th birthday, and I was left to raise three boys 13, 10 and 3. The parish was my rock, my fortress and my salvation. The parish assigned me a “mentor” a husband whose wife had also been killed a year or two earlier. Next year, I was asked to mentor another young father whose wife had died. …

Three years after, I remarried. The wedding was conducted by the same priest that had said my wife’s funeral mass. We move our combined families to the next city over and we started attending the church that Bill Lobdell visited in March of 2002. I served as an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist and as Confirmation preparation class leader.

By 2002, I had been Catholic for 49 years. I knew nothing else. I lived and breathed Catholicism. I was aware [that a priest] in a nearby parish was criminally charged with child molestation. He was sentenced to 8 years. It appeared that the the church was properly handling those few instances of clerical sexual abuse that would inevitably come up now and then.

Then the revelation in 2002. Our priest was visibly angry that he had been removed from ministry for merely “transgressing the boundaries of a youth” a long time ago. He justifiably assumed that, since the bishop was well aware of this incident and several others over the years, that all was water under the bridge. The events in Boston had caused the bishop to change his policy. [Note: J.R. McFaul explained in an earlier post that the people in the parish rallied behind the priest; Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell later wrote that being in that same congregation as McFaul, and watching the congregation take the side of a priest they all knew to be an abuser, was part of what caused him to lose his faith. He was so horrified by the embrace of such squalor by the Christian congregation, and the injustice of it all, that it dealt a severe blow to his ability to believe. — RD]

Another priest was removed from the parish–two from the local high school where my sons attended. The priest who had said the funeral mass and married us was removed. All of this over a period of 6 years. As a lawyer, I could read the depositions of the bishops, the priests and the victims. It was very clear the there was a conspiracy a the highest episcopal levels to conceal a pattern of widespread clergy sex abuse. The bishops’ depositions were frequently perjurious. The priests and victims depositions were sickening to read.

The final straws were Maciel and Kansas City. I knew that the Pope and curia were aware of the problems and could be bribed to cover matters up. Bishops continued to obstruct justice and destroy evidence.

The Church was intricately involved with an organized criminal pedophile cartel. I was risking my children’s well-being by remaining.

I had to ask myself–any organization like Little League or Boy Scouts, may have a few nutcases and even criminals. How much corruption would I tolerate and still participate in the organization.

I turned the question around: “Is it hypothetically possible that the Catholic Church could do something that would be so corrupt that I couldn’t in good faith remain part of it?”

If the answer to that question was “No, I would always be part of the Church and no matter how monstrous it turned out to be, I could not leave,” then I would know what to do.

If, on the other hand, the answer was “Yes,” then I had to think whether the church had already become so corrupt that I must leave for my children’s safety. I concluded that Church was that corrupt and was not going to change.

It took about 10 years of repeated torpedoes to my faith before I concluded, after 58 years as a faithful Catholic, I could no longer in good faith be associated with such a corrupt enterprise.

It has been the most searingly difficult and painful decision of my life.

Do you see what happened here? Injustice drove this man from the Church. It had a lot to do with my leaving the Catholic fold too. I could not bear the weight of seeing so many evil men get away with the horrific crimes against children and innocent victims — in particular, the widespread tolerance of bishops for these crimes against children, but also, it must be said, the general lack of protest among the laity. I’m not saying my reaction, or Bill Lobdell’s, or J.R. McFaul’s, was correct, but I am saying that chronic injustice can be terribly corrosive to individual souls and to social order.

One more true story, this one told to me by a former Catholic priest who remained a faithful Catholic after he left the priesthood. He was idealistic and faithful. He was assigned in the early 1990s to a diocese in which many of the clergy were gay and sexually active. The bishop knew all about it, and didn’t do a thing. It ate away at this priest’s conscience to see so many of his fellow priests taking gay lovers, going to gay bars, and so forth. The man told me that he and four other priests he knew from his ordination class were heterosexual and took their vows of celibacy seriously. It was hard enough to live out celibacy in optimal conditions, but being taunted by their fellow priests, with the bishop’s collaboration, made it especially difficult.

The thing that broke him was a scandal within the diocesan seminary, in which a priest-professor sexually harassed seminarians. The man who told the story had done everything he could to help these seminarians and to bring the abuser to justice within the Church. The bishop convened an investigation that turned out to be a whitewash, the man said. The man, who was also a teacher at that seminary, knew that the seminarians were having to endure sexual harassment by this professor, and knew the toll it was taking on them. He also saw, without a shadow of a doubt, that the bishop was committed to protecting his own, especially within his gay clique.

It wasn’t long after that when the man lost his ability to function as a priest. The utter cynicism and injustice in that diocese wore him down. He told me that all five of his friends from his ordination class ended up leaving the priesthood over the chronic, systemic, widespread injustice within the system.

It will not surprise you to learn that that diocese was later uncovered as a major center of priest sexual abuse of children.

Think of that. Five priests lost to the Church because of the corrosive power of injustice. That bishop, who had it within his power to work justice on behalf of the oppressed, refused to do so. The best that can be said of him is that he was insensitive to the effects of sexual sin within the priesthood.

This is the kind of lassitude that Dante’s trip through Hell is meant to cure in the pilgrim’s soul. Later on the journey, in Purgatory, when he witnesses the effects of God’s grace on a soul that asks for mercy, he will understand how great that grace and mercy is, because he has seen firsthand what, exactly, God saves us from. To be clear: to be saved is not simply to be delivered from the punishment for unrepented sin; to be saved is to be delivered from sin itself, and its power.

Because most people who come to the Commedia only read the Inferno, it’s easy to understand why they may depart it thinking that Dante is a morbid soul. It’s not true. As those who follow his journey through Purgatory and Paradise know, his is a pilgrimage of being restored to wholeness. Dante is a man to whom great injustice was done. He was set up by the Pope, tried and convicted on false charges, had all his possessions taken from him, and was thrown out of his hometown forever. He was a devout Catholic who looked around him and saw a church that was hideously corrupt, led by a Pope who was a warlord. He observed a political order that was chaotic, ordered not by justice and the common good, but by self-interest and power. He knew what injustice was.

Here’s the thing: Dante learns on this journey that he does not stand outside of this world. He is implicated in the sins of others, and is himself a sinner, even as he is sinned against. What his walk through Hell teaches him are the wages of sin, which entail the fruits of injustice. If you are thinking that Dante the poet is sadistically enjoying condemning all these various sinners, you should be aware that in doing so, Dante is also condemning himself. This is all in Purgatorio.

And as much as Dante burns for justice, he learns, as he must, that it is folly to expect perfect justice in this world. I think of this passage from Doing Battle, the late literary critic Paul Fussell’s memoir of his service in World War II:

At dawn, I awoke, and what I now saw all all around me were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These were dozens of dead German boys in greenish gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing. If darkness had mercifully hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with staring open eyes and greenish white faces and hands like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands. One body was only a foot or so away from me, and I found myself fascinated by the stubble of his beard, which would have earned him a rebuke on a parade ground but not here, not anymore. Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of these forms, in the tradition of the Dying Gaul, and I was astonished to find that in a way I couldn’t understand, at first they struck me as awful but beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but horror. My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.

Dante learns over the course of his journey that this world will never be perfectly just, and the response that requires of him. I won’t get into that here, given that we’ve talked about it in our exploration of Purgatorio and Paradiso. What it’s important to understand as we go through Inferno is that it is necessary for Dante to observe the consequences of the sins of others, and the nature of the particular sins, in order to understand the gravity of his own guilt, and his own sinful dispositions. We should read it ourselves with an eye toward recognizing parts of ourselves in the damned in each circle.

The reason Virgil is teaching Dante not to pity the damned is because the time for hope, for mercy, and for pity was in the mortal life. To pity them in this place is to believe a lie. It is to be unjust. It is, metaphysically, to accept disorder.

OK, enough of that. We march on. The pilgrim and his master now approach the walled city of Dis, which is a citadel of Mordor. Dante:

“Master, I can clearly see its mosques

within the ramparts, glowing red

as if they’d just been taken from the fire.”

For Dante and his contemporaries, Islam was a grave and constant military threat. It was the enemy. If he had descended as a Westerner in the Cold War, he would have perceived Dis as a Kremlin, with walls made of iron, to indicate that beyond this point, all the sins punished in Hell are connected to a hardened will.

The demons will not grant them entrance. Virgil’s powers fail him for the first time on the journey. Virgil tells Dante not to worry, they’ll get in one way or another. But he’s clearly worried. These demons aren’t like the ones they’ve deal with so far:

“Yes, we must win this fight,’ [Virgil] began,

“or else. … Such help was promised us.

How long it seems to me till someone comes!”

As they wait, three hideous women appear

their waists encircled by green hydras.

Thin serpents and horned snakes entwined,

in place of hair, their savage brows.

These are the Furies, and they threaten to summon Medusa to turn Dante to stone. “Turn your back and keep your eyes shut,” Virgil orders. So afraid he is for Dante that Virgil puts his own hands over the pilgrim’s eyes to protect him from the coming of Medusa. The poet breaks briefly to tell readers to pay attention to the allegorical lesson here.

What is that lesson? This episode is about the limitations of intellect and the power of Reason. Virgil, the embodiment of reason, is up against a malign intelligence that is too great for his own considerable powers. He has to wait on divine assistance. But there’s more.

Yale’s Giuseppe Mazzotta has a fascinating gloss on the deeper meaning of this episode. He reminds us that Perseus was able to kill Medusa because Minerva gave him a shield so shiny that he could see Medusa’s by reflection, thus rendering him immune to her deadly gaze, which turns men to stone. Earlier in Dante’s life, Mazzotta says, he had written poems to the donna petra, or stone lady, a woman who would not return his love. This is the tormenting, pitiless figure Keats would call in his famous poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci. He feared that he would be paralyzed by his obsession with this woman. Mazzotta, on the relevance to this moment in the Inferno:

Dante is engaged in retrospection to an experience of his past, and that experience of his past is now ahead of him threatening him once again. What can he do? He has to cleanse himself, and he has to move beyond it.

This is a familiar feeling. I have mentioned before how I had a terrible habit as a student and as a young man in my 20s of always falling for women I couldn’t have, and pining away for them mordantly. The hours I spent back then making mix tapes and writing achingly emotional letters trying to woo them. It’s embarrassing to recall now, but in retrospect, it was a serious problem for me, one that didn’t begin to lift until reading this passage from Tolkien letter to his son named the demon, so to speak, allowing me to expel it:

[The chivalrous ideal] is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).

Yes, that was me, the incurable romantic: nurturing the exaggerated notion of true love as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation. No woman could possibly live up to that ideal. Men who cultivate that false image of women, and of love between a man and a woman, set themselves (and their partners) up for heartbreak. As Dante learns on the road to Paradise, to be made whole is to learn to see things as they truly are, shorn of illusions.

We lie to ourselves about how much power to resist the allure of the false image. St. Augustine’s thought and example had a powerful influence on Dante. Mazzotta cites a story from Augustine’s Confessions, summed up here by Anthony Esolen:

In the Confessions, Augustine describes what happened when his friend Alypius, a gentle soul, encountered for the first time the mass entertainment of his day, namely the spectacle of gladiatorial combat. Alypius was cajoled by several of his backslapping comrades to accompany them to the Coliseum. He refused at first, but then, trusting rather too much in his own will power, believed that as long as he didn’t look, nothing would harm him. As he sat there with his head in his hands, he suddenly heard a tremendous roar from the crowd. He had to look—one of the gladiators was at the point of putting his opponent to death. The spectacle was appalling, and for that very reason it was fascinating: there was flesh, and blood, and the rush of adrenalin, and a man’s very life hung in the balance. Alypius was hooked.

As Augustine wrote, his friend was, “overcome by curiosity, and as if prepared to despise and be superior to it whatsoever it were, even when seen, he opened his eyes and was stricken with a deeper wound in his soul than the [victim] was in his body.”

That’s a powerful warning. Think of that before you yield to temptation to watch pornography, or extremely violent movies. You think you can handle it, that you can keep an ironic distance from it, but images work at a level deeper than reason. When I was a professional film critic, watching between seven and 10 films per week, I thought I had a pretty good handle on how to watch gory or semi-pornographic movies without letting them harm my moral imagination. I did not realize until I left that job how dramatically I had been affected by the things I was watching. I would not have considered myself desensitized, because it seemed to me that I was much more sensitive and resistant to this material than my colleagues. But I didn’t realize how wrong I was until five or six months after changing jobs. It was like how I imagine a heavy smoker feels when his senses of taste and smell return. As a critic, I would sometimes take my wife to evening screenings, which, depending on the film, she might find difficult to take. I thought she was a creampuff. I realized later that she was right.

I didn’t want to become the kind of man who could watch the sort of things I routinely watched, and not flinch, and I sure didn’t want to become the kind of man who took pleasure in things that ought to have bothered me. As I’ve said here before, one of the best things she ever did for me was to challenge me early in our marriage about my habit of watching the Jerry Springer Show to laugh at the dolts confessing their trashy sins on TV, and getting into fistfights. I watched it ironically, see; that’s what I told myself anyway. She wasn’t having it. She said, “You don’t want to be that guy. You don’t want to be the guy who takes pleasure in watching people behave like animals.” Actually, I didn’t mind being that guy at all. But she showed me that I needed to grow up.

In a more serious vein, many times on this blog I’ve spoken of the hubris I had in ignoring Father Tom Doyle’s 2001 warning at the outset of my investigations into the clerical sex abuse situation. He told me to be very careful, because I would be heading into territory “darker than you can imagine.” I thought I could handle it. I could not. It unhorsed me. This material was of an evil that was beyond the ability of my reason to control. I didn’t seek it out for the sake of curiosity; I sought it out to do good. My motivations didn’t matter. The material I saw over time turned me to stone, so to speak. And there was nothing my reason could do about it.

As I said, this episode is about the finite powers of the intellect, and of Reason. What delivers Virgil and Dante from the Furies, and opens the gates of Dis to them, is an Angel sent from heaven — an infusion of divine grace that helps them overcome what they could not through reason. Onward they march into the infernal fortress city. Inside, they find a cemetery filled with red-hot tombs, open graves from which emanate the sound of ceaseless lamentation.

These, Virgil says, are the dwelling places of the Heretics. Next, we will meet one of the most unforgettable characters in the entire Commedia.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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