Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Blogging through Hell (pt. 7) - The Fate of the Violent

Last time, we left our traveler's crouched behind a pope's tomb, discussing Aristotle and adjusting to the horrible smell that began to over-power them in Lower Hell. The smell, and the cacophony of ceaseless yells, screams, groans, and blasphemies is a background for this entire journey since we left Circle One (Limbo) long ago. We can imagine a haunted house with the sound track up as high as possible as a dim suggestion of what this journey sounds like. One of the features, then, of Hell is the horrible atmosphere through which we are traversing.

As you'll remember, the entire journey through the Inferno is to be completed within Holy Saturday of the great jubilee year, A.D. 1300. Vigil, mindful of this, goads Dante on toward a sharp descent into the Seventh Circle, where, we find, the violent are punished in three different mini-circles for six different expressions of violence (each punished differently). We'll look at the first three types of violent sinners today and the next three tomorrow.

First, however, Dante and Virgil have to get into the Seventh Circle. To do so means they must pass another guard drawn from ancient mythology who is a fitting representation of violence - the Minotaur.

there lay stretched out the infamy of Crete (XII, 12 Musa)

The Minotaur, half man, half beast, who once glutted himself upon the blood of Athenian boys and girls, falls immediately into a mindless rage at the mention, by Virgil, of Theseus (here called only by his title "the Duke of Athens" in verse 16) and begins bucking uncontrollably, providing just enough time for our pilgrims to descend the broken path and enter into the Circle of the Violent.

Dante, surprised by the destruction of that part of Hell's geography, asks his guide what could have caused such devastation. An Earthquake, caused by Christ's Harrowing of Hell (which also destroyed the gate at the entrance to Hell and led to the freeing of certain souls from Circle One) leveled this section of Hell's dividing wall. Christ's entrance into Hell, on Holy Saturday 1267 years before Dante's journey, was the major even in Hell's history, one which continues to have eternal, physical consequences. Virgil describes the event, from the perspective of a citizen of Hell and as a non-Christian to the best of his abilities,
Now will I have thee know, the other time
I here descended to the nether Hell,
This precipice had not yet fallen down. 
But truly, if I well discern, a little
Before His coming who the mighty spoil
Bore off from Dis, in the supernal circle, 
Upon all sides the deep and loathsome valley
Trembled so, that I thought the Universe
Was thrilled with love... (XII, 34-42)
Once down the destroyed path, which shifts under the weight of Dante's living feet, Dante is confronted with the first punishment for the unrepentant violent as he beholds the River Phlegethon, a river made of boiling blood. The sinners here, tyrants (e.g. Dionysius of Syracuse), warlords (e.g. Attila the Hun), murders, and highway robbers are here punished eternally for the blood they shed in life. The Phlegethon varies in depth, thus those shades who committed less atrocious acts of violence might be only ankle deep in its bloody waters, while Alexander the Great or Ezzelino da Romano find themselves completely submerged. Any attempt to rise out of the boiling blood is met with arrows slung from yet more half-men, half-beasts, the centaurs (who carried a reputation for bloodshed and violence in their own right).

Crossing over the Phlegethon, Dante and Virgil immediately find themselves in another "dark wood (cf. Canto One),"
   ...we were on our way into a forest
   that was not marked by any path at all. 
No green leaves, but rather black in color,
   no smooth branches, but twisted and entangled,
   no fruit, but thorns of poison bloomed instead. (XIII, 2-6, Musa)
The moment that a violent soul departs
the body it has torn itself away from...
it drops to the wood...
anywhere that fortune tosses it.
There... it...
soon springs into a sapling, then a wild tree (XIII, 94-95, 97-100, Musa)
 Stunned that the screams of the damned fill the forest, with no one to be seen, Dante turns to his trusted guide who instructs him to break off a twig from the nearest tree and,
...its trunk cried, "Why dost thou mangle me?" 
After it had become embrowned with blood,
It recommenced its cry: "Why dost thou rend me?
Hast thou no spirit of pity whatsoever? 
Men once we were, and now are changed to trees;
Indeed, thy hand should be more pitiful,
Even if the souls of serpents we had been." (XIII, 33-39)
This, Dante learns, is the shade of Pier della Vigna, counsellor to Emperor Frederick II, stupor mundi ("wonder of the world"), who we learned from Farinata spends his eternity entombed for denying the immortality of the soul. Pier, who was a poet of the "Sicilian school," the primary Italian antecedent to Dante's dolce stil novo, was maligned to the Emperor and lost his position. Such despair enveloped him at the false accusations of disloyalty to his beloved emperor, and at his loss of position, that Pier took his own life. Thus, Dante learns that these tree-like souls are those who committed violence not against their neighbor, but against themselves.

Frederick II Condemns Pier della Vigna of Treason
Not for Dante, then, the ludicrous modern notion that someone can't harm themselves. In fact, everyone in Hell (and almost everyone in Purgatory and Paradise) has harmed themselves, as every sinful act ultimately harms the sinner more than anyone else. This might come as a shock to modern readers who assume anything consensual, anything chosen freely by the individual, is, ipso facto, good. Rather, like we learned with love (cf. part three of Blogging through Hell), choice is not, cannot, be a good in-and-of-itself. Choice, consent, is only good when the action chosen is good. Choosing evil over good is what constitutes sin, which is displeasing to God not because it harms God, nothing can, but because it harms us. Thus, suicide isn't damnable because God is angered that we dare "play God," but is sinful because it harms a human person - the suicide himself. Suicide, then, is no less worse than murder and is punished in the same circle of Hell, albeit in a different form from those who take their neighbor's blood. While bathing, forever, in a river of boiling blood is a fitting contrapasso for those who have made others bleed, losing the human shape they violently casted off in life, is a fitting eternal state for the suicides. Justice demands that these souls, and these souls alone in all of Dante's afterlife, will never regain their human bodies. Even after they rise again on the last day to receive their public judgment from Christ the King, they will not return to they human bodies, rather they will drag them back to Hell to be forever hung on their thorns.

Dante's conversation with Pier ends abruptly as two naked men, pursued by large, vicious dogs appear. The men, Arcolano di Squarcia Maconi and Giacomo da Santo Andrea, are profligates - wasteful spenders who violently spent away their possessions (Giacomo, for example, was known to throw money into a river and to burn his cottages for entertainment). The profligates punished here, as opposed the prodigal spenders punished in Circle Four above, were not just too weak to keep their spending in check (i.e. they weren't merely incontinent spenders), but were maliciously, violently wasteful of possessions that should have been used to succor the poor ("since you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me" - Mat 25:40).

After the dogs rip Giacomo apart, along with the suicide-turned-bush he's hiding behind, Dante, in an act of kindness, gathers up the shredded leaves of the unidentified Florentine suicide and learns more about Florence's fate, which, with its constant civil unrest and violence, is compared to a suicide.

Florence, today

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