Thursday, May 7, 2015

Blogging through Hell (pt 8) - Violence Against God

After leaving the sorrowful wood made of the souls of the suicides, Dante and Virgil come to a barren wasteland, a desert which has the forest as its border. Not daring to enter such a treacherous terrain, our pilgrims hold-up on the edge of the forest and begin walking along the edge of the desert, searching for a suitable place to cross, just as they had to do with the Phlegethon -the boiling river of blood, in which the first sinners of this, the Seventh, Circle were punished. As those sinners had lived lives of violence against neighbors and as the suicides and profligates in the wood were violent against themselves or their possessions, the sinners punished in the desert, of which we'll meet three distinct kinds, were violent against God Himself.

dore desert fire
Many separate herds of naked souls I saw,
all weeping desperately...
And over all that sandland, a fall of slowly
raining broad flakes of fire showered steadily (XIV, 19-20; 28-29; Musa)
The first thing that comes to Dante's attention is one sinner, Capaneus (a pagan king who dared Jupiter to cast a thunderbolt at him and was dispatched quickly by the god for his impertinence), lying upon his back on the sand, but described by Dante as,
that mighty one who seems to heed not
The fire, and leith lowering and disdainful,
So that the rain seems not to ripen him? (XIV, 46-49)
Capaneus, in his disdain, reminds us immediately of Farinata degli Uberti who,
...uprose erect with breast and front
E'en as if Hell he had in great despite. (X, 35-36)
Some modern commentators have tried to suggest that these men, in their continued disdain for God and His Justice, have somehow "conquered Hell." Dante, through the words of Virgil addressed to Capaneus, has quite a different opinion,
My guide spoke back at him with cutting force,
   (I never heard his voice so strong before):
   "O Capaneus, since your blustering pride 
will not be stilled, you are made to suffer more:
   no torment other than your rage itself
   could punish your gnawing pride more perfectly." (XIV, 61-66; Musa)
It is the very unrepentant disdain for God, and for man, that is the worst punishment for Farinata and Capaneus. Such is true of all the sinners we've met thus far. Each and every one is permanently fixated on the sins that damned them in the first place and which cause their current, and enduring, misery. If any of them could but let go of their sin, they might fly to God's arms, but such is now impossible for them.

Capaneus, then, and all the sinners pinned eternally to their backs on the sands, represent the first of the three groups punished in this round of the Seventh Circle - the blasphemers, who do violence against God directly. These men offend against the virtue of religion, defined by St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theolgiae II:II:81:4,
Since virtue is directed to the good, wherever there is a special aspect of good, there must be a special virtue. Now the good to which religion is directed, is to give due honor to God. Again, honor is due to someone under the aspect of excellence: and to God a singular excellence is competent, since He infinitely surpasses all things and exceeds them in every way. Wherefore to Him is special honor due: even as in human affairs we see that different honor is due to different personal excellences, one kind of honor to a father, another to the king, and so on. Hence it is evident that religion is a special virtue.
After moving past Capaneus, and learning about the single source of Hell's four rivers, Dante and Virgil find a place to cross the desert and, as they do so, they meet the next group of violent sinners, the sodomites. These souls are allowed to wander about the desert, unlike the blasphemers, but if they stop they are forced to remain still on their backs for one-hundred years. The sodomites, like all the souls punished in the desert, sinned by committing violence against God, not directly, like Capaneus, but by violating nature, which was created by God (and is thus "God's child"). Dante meets several fellow Florentines among the sodomites, including a favorite teacher of his Ser Brunetto Latini, who Dante pays much respect to and from whom he learns more about his own misadventurous future.

Brunetto Latini Dore
Are you here, Ser Brunetto? (XV, 30)
As the Florentines race off across the desert, we come to the edge of Circle Seven with its precipitous fall. Dante and Virgil, it seems, have no way of descending into the next circle, but Virgil, familiar with this path from his previous journey, casts Dante's belt into the abyss to await aid from an unlikely source, the Geryon - another half-man, half-beast creature of which we've met so many in the Seventh Circle.

While Virgil awaits the coming of the monster, Dante meets the last group of violent sinners against God - the usurers. These shades, like their non-violent counterparts in Circle Four, are indistinguishable from one another, save for the bag of money, with their family's crest, tied about their neck. These souls, perhaps yet concerned only with their money, have little interest in speaking with Dante, who is quickly told, "now get thee gone!" (XVI, 67). Dante then returns to Virgil, who is already seated upon the back of Geryon, described as the perfect image of fraud (a prelude to the Eighth Circle). After bolstering his courage and climbing upon the monsters back, Dante begins the terrifying descent (compared to the ill-fated voyages of Phaeton and Icarus) into the next Circle.

It is interesting to note how our culture has lost, almost entirely, the sense of sin for most of the sins punished in the Seventh Circle - the Circle of the Violent. We've met, over the last two posts, six different types of violent offenders:
1. The Violent Against Neighbors (Highway robbers, tyrants, murders)
2. The Violent Against Themselves (Suicides)
3. The Violent Against Their Possessions (Profligate spenders)
4. The Violent Against God Directly (Blasphemers)
5. The Violent Against God's Child, Nature (Sodomites)
6. The Violent Against God's Grandchild, Human Work (Usurers)
 Most everyone, including moral relativists, would yet condemn the first group. Our society has, however, been systematically rejecting the notion that the other five groups here punished are sinners at all. In fact, we've witnessed an increasing tendency, whose apotheosis is "same sex marriage," to glorify these sins as if they were virtues. Suicide, violence against one's own life and body, is called "the right to die with dignity." Profligate spenders are routinely held up as "icons" of self-actualization. Blasphemy is common to the point where hearing the name of God, the name at which every knee shall one day bend (Phil 2:10), Jesus Christ, is common only when it is being used precisely as a blasphemous "swear word." Likewise with the name "God," which is heard less often with reverence than it is as an expression, often shortened to OMG, of shock or surprise. If these trends weren't bad enough, sodomy (seen, again, not as a sin, but as a "right") and usury (including "loan shark" practices, advertised openly on television) are becoming fundamental to our culture and economy. These sins, all of which are sins of violence against God, directly or indirectly, fester at the root of our culture, driving us away from God and into the awaiting arms of Satan. If there is but one Circle of Dante's Hell which every American needs study, this is the one. In fact these sins are so common, and so celebrated, it might do us all some good to review these sins and our attitudes to them.

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