by John Stamps
Today we’re on a boat ride through the deep end of the cesspool known as the River Styx.
I am now doing something different in my own reading of Dante’s cantos. I bought an audio book and started listening to it.1 I am trying to “hear” the Divine Comedy for what it is – the greatest poetic work of the Western imagination.2 Yes, the Inferno is poetry—exceedingly intense poetry—and we must hear it and ponder it as such. We must listen to it as a poem, for the same reasons that we chant the Sacred Scriptures at church or Jewish readers “cantillate” the TaNaKh.3 We need to discern their deeper meanings in a different register than, for example, reading a history book to obtain information.
Let’s dive into this disgusting mess. Up to now, Dante the pilgrim hasn’t recognized a single soul in Circles 4 and 5. But now he spots an old foe, Filippo Argenti:
While we were racing over the dead pond,
before me rose a spirit full of slime —
and who are you, who come before your hour?
And I to him: I’ve come, but not to stay.
But who are you, made ugly by such filth?
“Look for yourself!” said he. “I’m one who weeps.”
And I to him: “Well, then, accursed spirit,
keep to your weeping and your misery!
I know you, fouled and mucked though you may be.”
Then he flung out both hands to grab the skiff —
at that my wary Teacher shoved him off,
Get out of here! run with the other dogs!
Canto 8 is tough to stomach. I won’t deny the sheer artistry of Dante Alighieri the poet as we descend into the Inferno. But the nasty vindictive attitude of Dante the exiled pilgrim against his old adversary from Florence, is … dare we say, it? … repugnant.
Is his response human? Yes, it is. The desire to settle old festering scores against our enemies is all too human. Virgil “the sea of all wisdom”—the symbol of human reason unaided by God’s grace—agrees. It’s all too reasonable to desire justice against people who have harmed us.
You will enjoy your fill
before the farther beach comes into sight.
Such a desire is good to satisfy.
But is it Christian? Let’s discuss that.
Dante is not writing another “summa” of theology. He’s not trying to replace St Thomas Aquinas. The Inferno is not a treatise on Stygian metaphysics. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we shrugged our shoulders at the theology and metaphysics underlying his Divine Comedia, indeed, driving every terza and rima. But perhaps a few surprises lie in store.
Let’s pick up some threads with Canto 8. Remember Dante the pilgrim finds himself lost in a dark wilderness. He is exiled from Florence and exiled from himself. He admits he had wandered “from the straight and true.” It is little wonder he is attacked by savage beasts—a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. These horrible beasts represent the various sins he sees punished in Circles 2-9 of the Inferno. Just to keep them all straight:4
- Lust — Circle 2
- Gluttony — Circle 3
- Greed — Circle 4
- Wrath — Circle 5
- Heresy — Circle 6
- Violence — Circle 7
- Fraud — Circle 8
- Treachery — Circle 9
But the careful reader soon realizes, wait a minute, these sins are Dante’s own; these punishments are Dante’s punishments. More than once, Dante is mistaken for one of those doomed to Hell. This isn’t mere poetry. It’s an autobiography of his psyche. Those nasty three beasts he encountered in Canto 1 afflict him in the Inferno. This is Dante’s own story, and that there is a deep connection between himself and what he sees externalized in the various circles of the Inferno. Dante the pilgrim is afflicted with the very wrath that he accuses Filippo Argenti of. The leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf are shredding Dante’s innards. We’re looking in a mirror at ourselves. We perceive our first hint about how to read Dante’s Inferno, not to point our finger in judgment at somebody else’s horrible sins. We read it for our own self-examination.
Soon after that I saw the mud-melee
rake him apart just as I could have wished—
for which I praise and thank God for this day.
“Get Filippo Argenti!” they all yelled,
and that short-tempered shade from florets turned
gnashing his teeth against his peevish self.
The circle of Hell reserved for the wrathful is nasty indeed. They turn on each other. But even worse, they chomp on themselves out of sheer self-hatred and loathing.
Dante gives us a second hint about how to read his poem. But you must pay attention and possess a reasonable grasp of the Gospel story.
Then round my neck he clasped me in his arms
and kissed my face and said, Indignant soul!
Blessed be she whose womb bore fruit in you!
Dante gets permission from Virgil to rejoice in vengeance on his enemies. But let’s not be so quick to jump to conclusions. Virgil echoes part of Luke 11:27-28 but the wrong part. To summarize, a woman in the multitudes following Jesus blurts out a blessing upon His mother: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”
Jesus immediately parries her blessing with his own counter blessing: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” If you’re Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or High Anglican, the response of Jesus is shocking. But it is not appropriate to bless the Mother of God until you have heard and obeyed the Word of God. And Virgil and Dante the pilgrim need to listen to Jesus. It is certainly not appropriate to curse your enemies and expect God’s sanction. Virgil’s endorsement of Dante’s wrath is not “daring.”5 It is badly misguided. Virgil and Dante both flunk Jesus 101: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
We can now offer up a more charitable reading of Canto 8. We need not read Dante as stupidly and literal as I do. Dante expected more of his readers. Dante allegorizes as easily as he breathes. But we moderns choke and gasp when we even come near the proximity of mystery.6 We’re not used to looking at deeper meanings. We are so stupidly literal. Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim break the fourth wall in the canto and they warn us how difficult it is to get un-lost and find ourselves again.
Consider, Reader, whether I was not
distressed on hearing those accursed words!
For I believed I would never return.
Dorothy Sayers understands how obtuse modern readers can be. So for those of us who are tone-deaf to allegory, she carefully outlines “Literally” and “Allegorically” in her notes.7
A thing means what it means. And you and I both know that in our hollowed-out, secularized, de-sanctified, and disenchanted universe, things don’t mean anything. So how would you expect us to find deeper meanings in the Bible, much less in Dante?8 In addition, throwing the rational mindset of St Thomas Aquinas on top of Dante’s allegorical poetry is a recipe for disaster. Especially his mal mot from the Summa Theologica: “Therefore the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked.”9
However, all hope is not lost. We moderns and postmoderns can learn to see things differently. We can start to see God’s hand in sanctifying space and time. We can begin to see deeper meanings in every single thing. It starts with baptizing our imaginations and then baptizing everything else. Dante invites us to such a pilgrimage. But we need to see ourselves as we truly are.
We don’t need to retrieve Plato or Aristotle to live in a cosmos shaped by God’s love and care. But we do need the sacraments, every single one of them. We need to hearken back to Holy Scripture. Listen to the deep Christian tradition. Go to church regularly. Honor the feast days. Keep the church’s fasting cycle. Eat the Eucharist. Go to confession. Hang up an icon somewhere in your home. Start reading some serious theology.10 Pray in the morning and evening and at every meal. Make the sign of the cross. Give alms regularly. And most important—love your enemies and pray for them. Even if they’re Trumpers or anti-vaxxers.
Developing a sacramental view of the cosmos—that is, looking at our world as God sees it—is not magic. It’s grace and it’s hard work.
Next, we travel with Dante and Virgil to the horrible city of Dis.
 The Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander translation, narrated by Dominic Hoffman. Dorothy Sayers exhorts us: “Here is beauty; make haste to learn Italian, so that you may read it for yourselves.” The Divine Comedy 1: Hell, page 64.
 Jason Baxter, A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy, page viii.
 TaNaKh is the conventional acronym of the Torah, Prophets, and the Wisdom literature that comprise the Hebrew Bible.
 Heresy is not incidental here to Dante the pilgrim’s inappropriate responses. Heretics mistake a partial truth for the whole truth. For example, obsess yourself with God’s wrath and you’ll miss the point of the love story that is the plotline of the Sacred Scriptures.
 Tony Esolen’s note, page 428.
 Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology is the single best book I know of to learn new habits of reading and thinking.
 The Divine Comedy 1: Hell, page 120.
 David Steinmetz’s classic article on the superiority of pre-critical exegesis summons us postmoderns to learn how to read the Bible as guided by the medievals. Why? Here is why. “The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermenéutica! theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting it will remain restricted—as it deserves to be—to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.“
 Question 94: The relations of the saints towards the damned in the Supplement to the Summa Theologica is riveting reading. If the Divine Comedy is the greatest poetic work of the Western imagination, this question is the Western theological imagination at its very worst.
 I suggest William J. Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation.