Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Commedia Meditations: The Structure of Sin

Having left behind them the burning tombs of the heretics, Dante and Virgil gaze over a rocky embankment into the further depths of hell, and the rising stench momentarily overcomes Dante. The poets decide to shelter behind the tomb of Pope Anastasius II (suspected by Dante's medieval sources of heresy because of his giving communion to a deacon in communion with the church of Constantinople in the then-ongoing dispute over the two natures of Christ) while Dante adjusts to the fetid air of nether hell.

To pass the time, Virgil explains to Dante the organizational principle of hell.

"My son, within this ring of broken rocks,"
he then began, "there are three smaller circles;
like those that you are leaving, they range down.

"My son, within this ring of broken rocks,"
he then began, "there are three smaller circles;
like those that you are leaving, they range down.

Those circles are all full of cursed spirits;
so that your seeing of them may suffice,
learn now the how and why of their confinement.

Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven,
injustice is the end; and each such end
by force or fraud brings harm to other men.

However, fraud is man's peculiar vice;
God finds it more displeasing-and therefore,
the fraudulent are lower, suffering more.

The violent take all of the first circle;
but since one uses force against three persons,
that circle's built of three divided rings.

To God and to one's self and to one's neighbor-
I mean, to them or what is theirs-one can
do violence, as you shall now hear clearly.

Violent death and painful wounds may be
inflicted on one's neighbor; his possessions
may suffer ruin, fire, and extortion;

thus, murderers and those who strike in malice,
as well as plunderers and robbers-these,
in separated ranks, the first ring racks.

A man can set violent hands against
himself or his belongings; so within
the second ring repents, though uselessly,

whoever would deny himself your world,
gambling away, wasting his patrimony,
and weeping where he should instead be happy.

One can be violent against the Godhead,
one's heart denying and blaspheming Him
and scorning nature and the good in her;

so, with its sign, the smallest ring has sealed
both Sodom and Cahors and all of those
who speak in passionate contempt of God.

Now fraud, that eats away at every conscience,
is practiced by a man against another
who trusts in him, or one who has no trust.

This latter way seems only to cut off
the bond of love that nature forges; thus,
nestled within the second circle are:

hypocrisy and flattery, sorcerers,
and falsifiers, simony, and theft,
and barrators and panders and like trash.

But in the former way of fraud, not only
the love that nature forges is forgotten,
but added love that builds a special trust;

thus, in the tightest circle, where there is
the universe's center, seat of Dis,
all traitors are consumed eternally."
(Inf. XI, 16-66)

Dante asks, if the lower circles are condemned for violence and fraud respectively, what manner of sin it was that caused the damnation of those above, outside the walls of the City of Dis. Virgil explains that these are populated by sins of incontinence: goods taken out of measure and proportions, but lacking the full destructive and corrupting force of the sins below.

What is particularly interesting to note is that many sins may be found in all three regions of hell. For instance, we have the wrathful in upper hell, containing those whose passions turned to anger and often violence. In middle hell we will meet the violent, boiling in a river of blood, a punishment for those who were not only overcome by wrath, but allowed themselves to be ruled by hate and desire for violence. In the deepest reaches of hell we will meet traitors and kin slayers, those who through violent means broke faith with those to whom they owed the greatest duty.

Similarly, we find sexual sin at all levels of hell. In upper hell we meet the lustful, those overcome by passion, who allowed sexual desire (though still tempered by love) to rule their lives in place of morality. In middle hell, we will meet those who allowed themselves to be consumed by unnatural vices -- the most pervasive example of this in Dante's Florence was of course sodomy, but I think that in broader terms we might place all sexual activity which turns sexuality into a tool for power and self-gratification rather than affection. In lower hell, we find the panderers and seducers, those who have taken the sexual so far out of its natural place as to make it a destroying and corrupting force rather than one of love and affection.

A map can be a help in keeping track of Dante's schema. Two of the better maps of Inferno that I can find online may be founder here (the map show above right) and here. The best maps and diagrams that I have seen are those in Dorothy Sayers' translation of the Divine Comedy from Penguin. The map at the top of this post is from Botticelli's illustrations of the Commedia.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

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