Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 5

by John Stamps

Today in Canto 5 we actually step into Hell. No loitering in a castle garden engaged in quiet conversation with the virtuous damned. The second circle of Hell is The Infernal Real Deal.

The best part of the Inferno are the monsters we meet. If you remember your Harry Potter, one of my favorite characters is the Sorting Hat. It examines you and decides what Hogwart house you belong in—Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or (gulp) Slytherin.1 Minos is the sorting house of the Inferno. But there are no fun and games about Minos:

Horrible Minos grunts there like a bull,
weighs all the sins and sends the wicked down
according to how far he winds his tail.

If you didn’t willingly confess your sins to your priest on earth, you unwillingly end up confessing them to Minos, “the sin-connoisseur.” If Minos winds his tail around himself two times like some grotesque belt, you end up where we are now—the second circle, reserved for the lustful. If he belts himself three times, you’re headed into the circle of hell reserved for gluttons. And so it goes.2

Why are people condemned to the different circles in Hell, where Minos has placed them? We can point to the obvious vices the damned have fallen into – here it’s lust, next it’s gluttony, then it’s avarice, and so on, deeper and deeper into the Inferno. But there’s one rather startling explanation behind their condemnation—“they have lost the good of intellect.” (Canto 3.18) For Dante and the medievals, intellect wasn’t mere computation. They would have a difficult time understanding our obsession with bits and bytes beyond any possible count, a bad infinity of ones and zeros. Reason isn’t the accumulation of yet more and more information. But once we step away from our laptops for a minute, you and I also realize reasoning is more than just IQ. As we’ve learned over recent months, some incredibly smart people can believe some pretty stupid things. Red-hot passions influence how we think. And they distort the results we come up with. And don’t get me started about ideology-driven thinking, or the lack of “thinking” thereof. There is such a thing as “emotional IQ.” A STEM major won’t guarantee that you see into the inner meaning of things. In fact if you weren’t careful, you might have excluded them at the outset.

Canto 5 explores what happens to us when love breaks bad. Dante explores how lust consumes us.3 I won’t speak about the female species of the human race. A little below, we’ll hear Francesca da Rimini’s self-serving confessions, or rather, the rationalizations4 of her adultery. But certainly we men all too often think with our penises. Cognition tainted by horniness is not a pretty sight.5 When we fail to control our desire by a properly-formed intellect, the results are Hell. We’ve stepped into the Inferno and we don’t even know it. Dante’s descent into the Inferno is actually our own journey into the depths of our hearts, to see what lurks hidden there:

And when they fall before the ruined slope,
ah then the shrieking, the limits, the cries!
Then they hurled curses at the power of God.
I learned that such a torment was designed
for the damned were wicked in the flesh,
who made the reason subject to desire.

When we’ve lost the good of the intellect, our hungers become insatiable but we are never filled. We’ve lost the proper ordering of our loves—what St Augustine calls the ordo amoris. C.S. Lewis describes the right kind of love as “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”6 The best education doesn’t just shape our minds, it forms what we love, or rather, what we ought to love. But you and I simply don’t think in the way that Aristotle, Dante, and Lewis think is the right way to think. Love always wins, no matter how you love, no matter whom you love, and no matter whom you injure by your impulsive choices.

The cast of characters who inhabit this circle of Hell are fascinating. They did what they willed—they did what they desired without any consideration of consequence—and ended up damned. Let’s start with Semiramis, the “whorish wife” of Ninus. Dante tells us, “she altered lust to just by her decree.” Tony Esolen’s translation captures the nuance of the Italian quite nicely. She transmogrified what is licit (“licito”) into what is desired (“libito”). Shades of Sigmund Freud!

Dante sees Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan—all condemned to Hell because their loves were disordered. But the star of Canto 5 is Francesca da Rimini. Her confession charms us as it charmed Dante. Of course the problem with her charm is it bypasses our intellect. We must be wary of her. She portrays her adulterous love for Paolo as a transcendent passion that justifies her adultery:

Love that flames soonest in the gentle heart…
Love, which allows no loved one not to love,
seized me with such a strong delight in him
that, as you see, it will not leave me yet.
Love led us to one death.

And clearly Dante is charmed by her and inquires further:

But tell me, in the season of sweet sighs,
how did it happen, what made Love give way
that you should know the truth of your desires?

But again, listen to the bald facts. We mustn’t let pity overtake our reason. Francesca and her handsome brother-in-law—yes, Paolo is her husband’s brother—are reading to each other the not-so-innocent story of Guinevere and Lancelot.

We were alone and innocent and felt
No cause to fear.

Wrong. They had every reason to fear. One not-so-innocent kiss led to another and another and finally they ended up in each other’s arms, naked and not ashamed, although they should have been.

And we read no more that day.

No, you did not. But you should have.

Her husband, the brave but crippled Giovanni Maletesta, caught them in flagrante delicto (their affair lasted ten years, not simply one night of regret) and ran them through with his sword. And thus Francesca and Paolo are love-bound together, for all eternity, two spirits tossed about like doves caught in a whirlwind. Their spirits are completely out of control, all because they let their passions run amok. Pleasure overtook reason in directing the will, as Jane Kim instructs us in her most excellent 100 Days of Dante video.

When you’ve lost the good of the intellect and reason has become the slave of the passions7—or if you’ve been tutored by David Hume that reason ought to be the slave of the passions—the consequences are always fatal, whether you see them or not.

But I will add this caveat: if you can hear the stories of these poor damned souls without pity, then something else is wrong with your intellect.

Canto 6 deals with everybody’s favorite vice—gluttony.



[1] I shamelessly pilfered this analogy from the 100 Days of Dante video.
[2] You might be asking yourself, as I did, why wasn’t Minos in the first circle of Hell? Because his belt didn’t fit. The citizens there had no sins.
[3] A bard almost as profound as Dante expresses the problem of unchecked desire this way:

Well, I’m hot blooded, check it and see
I got a fever of a hundred and three
Come on baby, do you do more than dance?
I’m hot blooded, I’m hot blooded.

[4] I do mean “rationalization” in the classic Freudian sense. That is, “rationalization is a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner in the absence of a true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable—or even admirable and superior—by plausible means.” That sums up Francesca in a nutshell.
[5] From the Urban Dictionary. Every time I consult it, I realize how hopelessly out of touch I am.
[6] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
[7] Good God, what was David Hume thinking in his Treatise of Human Nature? (II.3.3) Yet nothing describes better the intellectual furniture of modern men and women.

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2 Responses to Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 5

  1. Enjoying this series tremendously! keep em coming 🙂 I’ve never done the dante deepdive and this is a great intro

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