Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 9

by John Stamps

Today’s reflections on Dante are just in time for Halloween.1 We stand before the iron walls of the hellish city of Dis. This is the Devil’s city. We can’t figure out how to gain entrance. Our journey has come to a complete stop. We’re at a bitter impasse with the forces of evil. Fallen angels mock us. The Furies threaten to paralyze us and turn us into stone. We find ourselves at our wits’ end. Human reason, skill, and wisdom are powerless before evil’s power.

How did we get into such a mess?

Canto 9 concludes a weird story arc that started with the last line of Canto 7 and ends here. We flash back to how Phlegyas ferried Virgil and Dante across the fetid swamp of Styx. We have just navigated down the second of the four rivers of the Inferno. The ferryman of hell transports us right to the iron walls of Dis. We are headed down into a dark funnel. We passed through Upper Hell. There reside the damned souls of gluttons, lustful, and the greedy. Now we stand at the entrance of Lower Hell, into the city of Dis. “Dis” is what Virgil calls the lord of the underworld from Roman mythology. But you, me, and Dante, we call him Satan, the Devil. We will meet him in person in Canto 34.20 — “Behold there, Dis!” This is his city or what is left of it.

This offers us a good opportunity to reflect on evil. We’re in Hell after all.

Virgil is renowned as a poet, and his words possess power, even in the underworld. He is variously called maestro, duca, signore, and dottore. The gatekeepers of the rings of hell — Minos, Cerberus, Charon — show him amazing deference. He speaks with genuine spiritual authority and not as the other poets. Yet his authority has clear limits. The iron gates of Dis and the multitude of its keepers baffle and disconcert him. The devils mocked us in Canto 8. How dare we enter into their fiefdom?

More closely then they played their mighty scorn
and said, “You come alone, and let him go
who was so hot to come into this reign.
Let him go back alone on his mad way!
Let him try, if he can. For you who’ve led
him down so dark a country here — you’ll stay.”

Then they slammed the iron gates of Lower Hell in our faces.

We next encounter the ancient Furies. They spin out the length of our lives on their fearful loom and then they shear them off with their scissors. They threaten to cut our own life short:

Megara is the Fury on the left;
she is Alecto wailing on the right;
Tisiphone is in the center. That was all.
And each one clawed her nails to cleave her chest,
beat her breasts with her palms and shrieked so loud
I flinched, and to the poet’s side I pressed.
“Medusa, come! Let’s turn this one to stone!”
they cried together, staring down at us.
“We blundered, letting Theseus get away.”

The “fount of all wisdom” (Canto 8.7) is confounded in the presence of radical evil. The cultured despisers of religion might scoff at Jesus of Nazareth. But they are not so quick to dismiss evil. Even Immanuel Kant recognized radical evil.2 These fallen angels are baffling to natural human reason. Why would any rational creature willingly choose evil?

O you whose intellect see clear and whole,
gaze on the doctrine that is hidden here
beneath the unfamiliar verses’ veil.

St Paul warns us, there is a deep mystery of iniquity. (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8) There is much to chew on here. We are not beyond good and evil. We now encounter a qualitatively different stage of evil in Cantos 8-9. The fallen angels are not Ciacco, Filippo Argenti, or Francesca da Rimini. These are the angels who rebelled against God.3 Virgil does not know how to deal with them.

Virgil can easily dispatch Plutus and Phlegyas. But he is out of his depths when confronting the demonic forces revealed in the Christian tradition.

I shall win this contest.

No, Virgil, you won’t. Not without God’s intervention. Virgil tries to calm Dante’s fears as best he can.

Who are these here to block my going down
to the houses of pain? But you — to me —
ignore my anger. No dismay. They’ll bustle
to fight it, but I’ll have the victory.
This insolence of theirs is nothing new.
They showed it once at a less secret gate,
whose locks and bars stand broken even now.
On it are etched those words of death you saw.
Already someone’s coming down the slope,
passing through all the rings without a guide —
One who will breach the city gates for us.

Get ready for spiritual warfare. A pentecostal wind announces the arrival of a great spiritual power: “A sound like the sound of a violent wind.” A great spiritual siege is about to erupt against the malevolent forces of darkness. Canto 9 has all the earmarks of a 14th-century Frank E. Peretti novel.

But after all the poetic build-up and suspense, the denouement is underwhelming, indeed comical. God sends us an anonymous angel. No St Michael equipped with a flaming sword making a dramatic cameo appearance. If there is such a thing as a plain ordinary vanilla angel, this is him.

How full of scorn did he appear to me!
Came to the gate, and with a little wand
opened it. . . .
Then he turned back along the filthy road
without a word to us, as if he were
someone with other business on his mind.

Our angel is clearly irritated that he was volunteered to perform this task. But being a good angel, he does what he’s told. Our angel doesn’t wield a flaming sword. He doesn’t even get to wield a cudgel or a shillelagh. He holds a wand — a little tiny wand! Harry Potter would be embarrassed by such a wimpy wand. But the angel merely pushes open the gate with his verghetta, and Dante informs us: “there was nothing to resist.” All the warnings by the demons and the Furies were one-hundred-and-ten percent bluster and bluff. Virgil and Dante enter the iron walls of Dis completely unopposed.

Dante presents a mystery here that is much, much deeper than the mystery of iniquity. Tony Esolen summarizes:

It is a strange paradox that the prince of this world is powerless; stranger still that the most powerless creature of all is the prince of this world. . . . From the eternal vantage, not only is evil weak, but it has already failed utterly, and in hopeless ignorance and incorrigibility it continues to fail utterly.4

We Christians need not fear the prince of this world. Satan is a con artist with all his flimflamming exposed. Hell had been already harrowed once by Christus Victor. It needs no second assault. The angel’s little wand isn’t even a very good mopping up operation. The prince of darkness is a humiliated tyrant.

The anti-climax of Canto 9 offers us an excellent opportunity to ponder Christology 101. When Jesus our Lord winds down His public ministry and begins His solemn march to His crucifixion, He triumphantly informs the crowds in John 12:31-33:

“Now is the judgment of this world,
now shall the ruler of this world be cast out;
and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
He said this to show by what death he was to die.

What do we see when we look at the crucifixion of Jesus? Remember, appearances can be deceiving. We stand here at the threshold of revelation. Let us walk through the door and see what we can see. First, the world did not condemn Him. Instead, His cross is His throne. Behold, the King of Glory! The crucified God judges the world from His throne of humiliated glory (or glorious humiliation), and He brings us into His light and truth. If this God be for us . . .

Second, how St John deals with the demonic isn’t what you would expect after reading the Synoptic Gospels. The crucifixion of Jesus is the only exorcism in the Gospel of John. Satan and all the forces of darkness did not shove Jesus out of the cosmos. Instead, Jesus performed the mother of all exorcisms — He cast out the prince of this world. His crucifixion is His victory.

Third, at first glance His horrible death repels and disgusts us. We avert our eyes. But look again. The Cross in fact is God’s tractor beam dragging all of us back to Him.5 His goodness, justice, truth, and beauty attracts us to Him.6 This is St John at his most sweepingly universal. God so loved the world, after all. (John 3:16)

We come to realize that the only real power that the Devil possesses any more is lying. Jesus warns us, “He is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) If you believe the lies of a pathological liar, his power is great indeed. Just ask any victim of Bernie Madoff. We see how the demons bluster, bluff, and threaten us. But we know their only power is deceit and deception. If you buy the lies of the demons, their power is terrifying. But Dante shows us they are annoying croaking frogs and nothing more. The power of lies is when you are hoodwinked by them. Money, power, and possessions will make you happy. The ends justify the means. Yielding to temptation is only human. You should always insist on getting your own way. The one who dies with the most toys wins. And so on.

We must be discerning here — yeah verily, we must be wise as serpents! — and not naive. Our Lord Jesus is no beautiful soul pandering to the fantasies of hopeless romantics. One of the great mysteries of life is that we are exposed to evil, tragedy, and suffering without any say-so on our part. The cost of discipleship is each one of us must carry our own cross, just as Jesus carried His own cross (John 19:17) But let us not despair. Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life. Though we die, yet shall we live. Eternal life begins now. Even now we partake of God’s eternal life. Even now Jesus offers us a taste of His resurrected life in this life. It is not the whole eschatological enchilada. But it is a genuine appetizer. He whets our appetites for the Messianic Banquet to come. In media res where we find ourselves lost in a dark wood, Jesus encourages us to soldier on bravely:

These things I have spoken unto you,
that in me ye might have peace.
In the world ye shall have tribulation:

But be of good cheer;
I have overcome the world.
(John 16:33)

Footnotes

[1] Well, sort of.
[2] Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, “So we can call this ground a natural propensity to evil, and, since it must nevertheless always come about through one’s own fault, we can even further call it a radical innate evil in human nature (not any the less brought upon us by ourselves).” (p. 56) Kant goes so far as to declare that the history of human freedom begins in evil.
[3] There is much mischievous speculation about these fallen angels. Patristic tradition conjectures that one-third of the angelic assembly rebelled against their Creator. And another chunk of the patristic tradition (for example, St Augustine) argues the human elect will replenish the ranks of the fallen angels, one human per one fallen angel. (Enchiridion IX.28-30) The exact number of the elect is kept secret from us.
[4] Tony Esolen’s note in Dante, Inferno, pp. 428-429.
[5] Ἑλκύσω from ἕλκω, to ‘pull, drag, draw.’ (Bauer-Danker-Ardnt-Gingrich) The same word and imagery is found in John 21:11 when St Peter drags (εἵλκυσεν) the net filled with 183 fish to the shore. This is another mystery to be explored at another time.
[6] The transcendentals are convertible to each other. Where we discern truth, justice, or goodness, we also find beauty. Jesus’ crucifixion perfectly instantiates the beauty of God.

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2 Responses to Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 9

  1. TJF says:

    That has to be my favorite passage (jn 16:33). Always gives me goosebumps and relaxes me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      You get extra credit for persevering to the end of the article! Yes, it’s one of my favorites as well. I like that Jesus has “nike-d” (νενίκηκα) the world!

      Like

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