I spent the last month of summer in Hell.
This is not a comment on the weather in south Louisiana, where I live, though spending a day in this subtropical sauna would make you think so. Actually, I read Dante’s Inferno for the first time, making the harrowing pilgrimage through the descending circles of Hell with the poet and his faithful guide Virgil.
The Inferno is the first part of the medieval Italian poet’s trilogy detailing his imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. I figured the Inferno would be entertaining, if gruesome; that part of the epic poem is famous for the inventive tortures Dante designed for the damned. What I hadn’t counted on was how sophisticated is Dante’s view of sin and human nature. The Inferno might have been written 700 years ago, but it is as contemporary as today’s newspapers.
As Dante and Virgil enter the precincts of Hell, the Roman poet tells Dante that the damned want to cross Hell’s outer river and get what they know they deserve. At times in the poem, Virgil warns Dante against pitying the condemned, saying that to do so obscures the reality and gravity of their sin.
You see what Virgil means in Canto V, in which Dante visits the circle of Hell reserved for the lustful, whose punishment consists of being blown about by a strong wind forever. It is there that he meets Francesca, an adulteress bound for eternity to her lover Paolo; her husband, Paolo’s brother, murdered them after discovering their affair.
Francesca justifies herself to Dante by refusing to accept responsibility for her lustful act. She blames God for turning His back on her and Paolo. She says that they were seized by Love, and could not resist it – or each other. And she blames the alluring literature of romance for lighting the spark of their passion.
Dante, the character, finds himself overcome by “grief and pity” for the lovers’ fate, and collapses. It’s easy for us moderns to understand his feelings. Paolo and Francesca couldn’t help themselves, we may think; should they be condemned for all eternity because they followed their hearts?
Dante learns much later, though, one reason why he was wrong to have done so. Because free will is God’s greatest gift to man, honoring one’s freely made vows is critically important. God gives us reason and intellect with which to control our passions and direct them to a proper end. What Paolo and Francesca did was to abandon reason and yield to the passions, thereby throwing God’s gift away.
We are a long way from medieval Italy, but it’s not hard to look around modern America and find many examples of people abandoning reason to follow their own passion – and claiming, like Francesca, that they had no choice. An especially notorious example of this is the film director Woody Allen, who, in a Time magazine interview, justified betraying his longtime lover Mia Farrow with her daughter Soon-Yi Previn thus: “The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to those things.”
The Divine Comedy both affirms and denies this. Passion is, by definition, illogical, but how we deal with our passion has everything to do with the intellect, the quality that separates humans from animals. If we think of our feelings as a reliable guide to conduct, we will end up in Hell – if not a literal Hell, then the metaphorical Hell conceived by Dante: buffetted for eternity by a gale. If we yield to our passions, and tell ourselves we had no choice (“The heart wants what it wants”), we ultimately become prisoners of forces we cannot control.
This is what it means to choose Hell.
The eternal damnation of Paolo and Francesca is not simply Dante’s statement about the wages of the sin of lust. All of the Inferno’s denizens languish there because they either disabled their reason to allow their passions to run wild in Gluttony, in Greed, in Anger, and in other sins of incontinence, or they applied their reason to doing evil, such as the Flatterers, the Liars, and the various kinds of Traitors.
Once you begin to see the world as Dante did, you grasp how thoroughly our contemporary world has elevated passion to a virtue. “Listen to your heart,” we say, in contrast to the mind. The heroes of our stories are those who listened to their hearts, which we take to be the oracle of their true selves. Our emotional and spiritual lives become rootless, and we cannot hold our ground when the winds of passion overtake us.
There may have been more pleasant ways to spend the month of August than tramping around Hell with Dante and Virgil, but I am grateful for what I saw there. At the end of their pilgrimage, Virgil turns to the exhausted Dante and says, “Get to your feet, for the way is long and the road not easy.” So it is with all of us in the journey of our lives. Sometimes, we need to see how living by lies brings out the worst in us in order to renew our commitment to living in truth -- the only way we can be our best.
Rod Dreher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org