Dante’s Divine Comedy begins on Holy Thursday. The pilgrim Dante’s journey through Hell takes place on Good Friday, the day Christians believe Jesus Christ entered the Inferno to free the captives. From my upcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life:
Here is the inscription over the archway leading into Hell:
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE CITY OF WOE,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO EVERLASTING PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY AMONG THE LOST.
JUSTICE MOVED MY MAKER ON HIGH.
DIVINE POWER MADE ME,
WISDOM SUPREME, AND PRIMAL LOVE.
BEFORE ME NOTHING WAS BUT THINGS ETERNAL,
AND ETERNAL, I ENDURE.
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
Dante tells Virgil he doesn’t understand what these words mean. Virgil says:
“Here you must banish all distrust,
here must all cowardice be slain.
“We have come to where I said
you would see the miserable sinners
who have lost the good of the intellect.”
In other words: Buck up, because you are going to see people here as they truly are, and it’s horrible. These are men and women who have no hope, because their eternal fates have already been decided. To have “lost the good of the intellect” means they are no longer reasoning creatures, but zombies, more or less. That is, they have become one with their sinfulness, and therefore one-dimensional. They have no hope because their condition will last forever.
What does it mean to say that “love” made this horrible place? It is the love that will not force itself upon a man, but rather one that will give him for eternity what he chooses in the temporal life. As we will see, all it takes to avoid Hell is to say a single word asking for God’s mercy, even in your dying breath. And we learn that God, in His mysterious justice, even let some non-Christians into Paradise. Hell is for those who will not have God, those who made a final, remorseless choice for their own passions over unity with and submission to their Creator. Satan’s sin was to rebel against God. The root of all sin is this fundamental pride, a pride that prefers the Self, with all its disordered passions, to God. God is loving, but God is also just; in His love, He will give us what we choose.
The reason Dante must first go down before he can ascend is that he has to become re-awakened to the true horror of sin — that is, to be scared straight. The torments he will observe all have meaning; they are not random acts of cruelty. They represent the ultimate out-working of the particular passions the damned chose over God. Divine justice means that you gain for all eternity what you loved more than God, or, to put a fine point on it, what aspects of your Self that you loved more than you loved God. The journey downward, then, is in truth a journey of introspection for Dante. It symbolizes his personal pilgrimage into the dark recesses of his own heart.
You can read the whole thing when the book is released on Tuesday. Pre-order it from Amazon and it should be in your mailbox the day it comes out, if you hurry.
Today, Orthodox Christians celebrate Good Friday, or what we call “Great and Holy Friday.” The weight of sin is heaviest on our minds today. I’m reading right now David Brooks’s great new book The Road to Character — also to be released on Tuesday — and finding a lot of overlap with my Dante book. David’s section about the reality of sin is a good way to think about the pilgrim Dante’s road through Hell. Excerpt:
The final reason sin is a necessary part of our mental furniture is that without it, the whole method of character building dissolves. From time immemorial, people have achieved glory by achieving great external things, but they have built character by struggling against their internal sins. People become solid, stable, and worthy of self-respect because they have defeated or at least struggled with their own demons. If you take away the concept of sin, then you take away the thing the good person struggles against.
This is the best way to approach reading the Inferno: not as a guidebook to the horrible tortures awaiting the damned in the afterlife, but as a taxonomy of sin. The pilgrim Dante has become numb to the reality of sin in his own heart; he has to see what sin has done to souls who have become possessed by particular ones. The poet has devised ingenious punishments for those sins, punishments that reveal the nature of the sin itself, and in turn provoke reflection on how that sin manifests itself in the reader’s life.
It’s uncanny how effective this method is in getting you to think about how you have wandered off the straight path, the road to character. The Inferno is extremely vivid and terrifying, but that is the point: Dante wants to shake you out of your torpor, and free you from your bondage to destructive passions. Reading the Commedia gave me a different perspective on how sin works. Again, from How Dante Can Save Your Life:
In astronomy, a black hole is a star whose gravity has become so strong it has collapsed in on itself. Nothing can escape it, not even light. At the center of the funnel-shaped black hole is a singularity, a point of infinite density and infinite gravity, which allows nothing, not even time, to escape its death grip. The outer rim of the black hole, called the event horizon, is the border of eternity: anything that crosses it will never be seen or heard from again. Eventually the object will reach the singularity and be annihilated.
Obviously Dante knew nothing of black holes. But the black hole model gave me a handle on the way Dante constructs his afterlife. Standing at the gates of hell, Virgil and the pilgrim are at the Inferno’s event horizon. There is no escape from this hole, which spirals to the center of the earth. At the bottom, in the point of the universe that in medieval cosmology is farthest away from God, dwells Satan, whose angelic name, Lucifer, means “light-bearer.”
The Bible calls Lucifer the “morning star” and tells of his rebellion against God, his fall from heaven, and exile into hell. Think of pride as a spiritual form of gravity. With Lucifer, the first rebel—that is, the first created being to choose his own will over God’s—his immense pride collapsed on itself and formed the black hole we call hell. All the souls in hell are small versions of black holes: they were so given over to gratifying themselves that love—symbolized by light—could barely escape the gravity of their egos.
When death carries them across the event horizon into the afterlife, they fall into the Luciferian abyss and are spiritually annihilated. To lose “the good of the intellect” means to lose the ability to perceive God and share in his love, which is what ultimately makes us human. Their personal gravity, so to speak, is so great that here in their eternity, blinded by the absence of divine light, they cannot see beyond themselves.
For Christians, Jesus Christ went into the black hole of death, and conquered its gravity. He changed everything. We believe this really happened. Yet even if you don’t believe any of it, Dante’s Inferno is a staggeringly powerful metaphor for the human heart corrupted by ego.
UPDATE: I forgot the other day to link to this podcast interview I did with David Kern of the CiRCE Institute. Check it out.