Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 10

by John Stamps

“There is a circle in hell reserved for the people who stop reading Dante and never make it to canto 10.”[1] And there’s an even deeper circle reserved for Dante bloggers who don’t follow up on their commitments. So to keep me out of the evil ditch[2] slotted for the sloth­ful, I humbly submit to you my reflections on Canto 10.

These are the patriarchs of heresy,
he said, with all their followers, every sect.
More than you’d think lie packed into these tombs.
Heretics here are buried like with like,
and hot and less hot are their monuments.
And after he turned right, we took our path
between the tortures and the battlements.

Dante warns us that we would see horrendous punishments in the sixth circle of hell reserved for the “heresiarchs” who are packed into flaming tombs like overcooked sardines. So we enter the City of Dis and we turn right. I ponder who we might see.

I thought perhaps the notorious Marcion. He loathed with a perfect loathing the God revealed in the Old Testament. To sidestep the scandal of particularity — it’s the fault of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — he decided to create his own New Testament minus any mention at all of the Old Testament. He invented his own idiosyncratic Christianity without any mention of Jehovah of Hosts or the Hebrew Scriptures.[3] Borrowing an episode from the Simpsons, no punishment seems more fitting for Marcion and his followers than being forced to listen to Larry King read the Bible on tape for all eternity. “Hi, I’m Larry King. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . .” But his punishment isn’t all bad. “I love the Spurs. If you’re betting, they’re gonna win it all.”[4]

Or maybe Arius? No heresiarch is more scandalous. Jesus Christ the Son of God might be divine. He might even be a small-letter-g “god.” But he is not Capital-Letter-G God. When push came to theological shove, Arius argued that the Son of God was a created being like all other creatures. You might remember the infamous one-liner coined by Arius that so scan­da­lized St Athanasius and the Alexandrian faithful: “There was a time when the Son was not.” To propagate his unitarian heresy to the masses, Arius composed snappy fourth-century pop-tunes — thalia — sung by sailors, millers, and travelers. Accordingly, no con­trapasso would be more appropriate to him than listening to the Village People chanting the Nicene Creed to the tune of “YMCA,” world without end, amen.

But we’ll never know. Virgil and Dante didn’t encounter Pelagius, Nestorius, Eunomius, indeed, any of the infamous heretics who fill the pages of the Panarion of St Epiphanius of Salamis. I suppose they’re over on the left side of hell.

But when we enter the ruined city of Dis, Dante and Virgil turned right instead.[5] We get an eyeful and an earful from two Epicureans getting their eternal comeuppance, to settle a couple of local grudges. But let’s be patient with Dante. There is more here than meets the eye or the ear. He’s as puzzled as we are when he sees the damned in their flaming graves. Virgil explains patiently:

These will be bolted on the day of doom
when from the valley of Jehoshaphat
the souls bring back their bodies to the tomb.
On this side, in his cemetery, lies
that Epicurus with his followers who
put it that spirit dies when body dies.

In Dante’s Inferno, Epicurus becomes the premier archetype of a heresiarch, second to none. This literary choice makes considerable theological sense. If you recall your ancient philo­so­phy, Epicurus wasn’t a theoretical atheist but a practical one. The gods dwell contentedly and blissful in their heaven. We might be interested in what the gods are doing. But the gods are completely uninterested in us. The gods are immortal, but sadly, we humans are not. The gods exercise absolutely no providential care over the universe. We will all die and our bod­ies, indeed the entire universe, will dissolve back into the atoms from which we are made. The universe consists of nothing but swerving atoms, eternity, and the Void. Our bodies and souls, indeed, the entire physical universe, will eventually and completely disintegrate. Epi­cu­rus argued, if the gods are not interested in us, then we have no business being interested in them.

But if you deny God’s providence or your own personal immortality — the soul dies with the body — then all bets are off concerning foundational Christian beliefs. The Christian salva­tion story no longer yields any tolerable sense. As St Paul argues with the obdurate Corin­thian Christians, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:32) St Paul’s characterization of the Epicurean worldview would certainly raise the hackles of Epicurus — he was no party animal. But I think St Paul pretty accu­rately nails the theological consequences of following Epicurus. Dante then shows us the practical conse­quen­ces. Contrary to expectation, you can be deader than dead. These heretics are the deadest of the dead.

Dante introduces us to Farinata degli Uberti, the great Florentine general. Farinata hears someone speaking in the Tuscan dialect and he rises up from his flaming tomb to ask who it is. Dante describes his faux resurrection:

Look upon Farinata risen there!
His full height from the waist up you will see.
I had already fixed my eyes on his;
who raised himself with great chest and great brow,
surging as if he held all Hell in scorn.

Meet Farinata, the one person in the Inferno who is hardly aware that he is even there![6] Farinata can hardly be bothered by flames and a few devils poking sinners with pitchforks. He is too preoccupied with himself and with the fate of Florence. The great man — Dante calls him “a man of great soul” (magnanimo) — saved Florence from destruction by her enemies. But he bore bitter enmity against Dante’s family. It’s not just business, it’s per­sonal. His pride and arrogance knows no bounds. He whines:

If they have badly learned that art,
that wrings more pain for me then does this pit of fire.
Yet fifty times the moon will not re-burn —
that face of Hecate, the queen of Hell —
before you find how hard that is to learn.
As you hope to go back to the sweet world,
tell me, why are those people pitiless
against my side and every law they passed?

The dreadful fate of Farinata raises a question that I can’t answer to my satisfaction just yet — if souls in Purgatorio can shed their old vices and acquire new virtues, why can’t souls change in Inferno? Why is Farinata so stone-hearted, so obdurate? The best response I can come up with is that Farinata is “frozen.”[7] He might be broiling in Hell’s red-hot flames. But he is frozen in his “undying resentments.” He is obsessed with the smol­der­ing feud between Florence’s political factions, unto all eternity. Sinners like Farinata are weighed and found eternally wanting. His overweening pride has obliterated whatever genuine humanity he used to possess. Now he is just an endless loop of perpetual grievances.

But then a Florentine soul near and dear to Dante’s heart rises up to his knees and inter­rupts Farinata’s passionate speech. He’s Cavalcante Cavalcanti, the father of his best friend on Planet Earth, Guido Cavalcanti. If Dante was here, surely Guido wasn’t far behind.

Then next to him out of the lidless tomb
arose a shadow visible to the chin;
I think he must have risen to his knees.
He looked around me, searched, as if he longed
to see if someone else was there with me,
and when his little hope was doused, he wept…

The only hopes in Hell are false hopes. Cavalcante imagined Dante’s guide leading him through the Inferno was none other than his son Guido. That’s what a best friend does. He also imagined his son Guido was a greater poet than Dante.

If through this dungeon of the blind
you go by means of genius at its height,
where is my son? Why is he not with you?

The fame of his son was Cavalcante’s hope for immortality, not his own immortal soul. Cavalcante was wrong on all counts. Dante tries to explain but he fails miserably:

I haven’t come here on my own.
He who stands waiting leads me through this place
for one your Guido, maybe, held in scorn.

Cavalcante misunderstood the grammar of Dante’s words — the past tense “he held in scorn” versus the present tense “he holds in scorn.” His desperate and wretched hopes were instantly shattered when he thought Guido had died.

What do you mean?
You said ‘he held’ — isn’t he still alive?
Has the sweet sunlight ceased to strike his eyes?
And when he noticed I was hesitant
and didn’t answer him immediately,
he fell back, and he did not come out again.

Then Farinata simply resumes his tirade against his Florentine enemies. Farinata is com­pletely heartless. Dante pleads for him to tell Cavalcante that his son is still alive. But Farinata can only relate the latest infernal gossip about Frederick the Second and Pope Benedict X. No fellowship in hell exists. All you can see in Hell is your own pitiful self and nobody else. Dante the poet had intentionally withheld a crucial piece of Florentine back­story from us. Farinata’s cruelty knows no bounds, for it turns out that Cavalcante and he were in-laws. Cavalcante’s son had married Farinata’s daughter. They were related by marriage. They share a tomb and now they burn together in Hell’s flames in everlasting torments but they never speak to each other again. Infernal pride separates them for all eternity.

You will recollect that Dante’s Divine Comedy is an allegory, as Dorothy Sayers continues to remind us. We read Canto 10 — not as a horror show to shock and terrify us, which it most certainly does, if we read it on the level of the life-threatening letter — but as a school of the spirit meant to teach us how to prioritize our life. Dante takes us on a journey into the bowels of the Inferno — and into the depths of our hearts, our families, and our soci­ety. We keep returning to how disordered loves lead to disordered lives.

We are supposed to love our country and our family. God created us that way. The prob­lem is, what happens when these loves become disordered and we fail to love God as we should? Or for that matter, what happens when we fail to love our fellow human beings as we should? What happens if my own warped and misshapen love for the USA divides me from you? What happens if I love my family to the exclusion of my neighbor standing right before my very eyes? You think it can’t happen? Just ask the Rich Man in Hades if you ever get a chance (Luke 16:19-31).

The door to Hell creaks open wide when we love our tribe more than we love our fellow human beings. Of course, tribes can have different sizes. They could be a family tribe or a city tribe or a state tribe or a national tribe. And if you don’t think humans survive after death, your tribalism becomes lethal indeed. It is most tragic of all if you invest all your hopes and dreams — indeed, your whole life — into your tribe.

In 2021, we became frighteningly aware of how deadly disordered attachments to blood and soil — Blut und Boden, if you will — can be. And you’ll recall, Jesus Himself was no big fan of family values. He most certainly did not want us to focus on the family. The already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God takes radical precedence over own blood relatives and our nation:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his soul will lose it, and he who loses his soul for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

This is surely one of the most difficult things that our Lord Jesus ever said.[8] It bristles with difficulties. But he who has ears to hear, let him hear.

In the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), we are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. God — and only God — deserves that kind of unqualified love. All the other objects of our affections and attachments must be properly ordered. The tragedy of Farinata and Cavalcante is that they invested all their love in the-here-and-the-now, with nary a thought to the sheer possibility of an afterlife.

We must pour the love of our mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter, grandchildren, all extended family, and our shirt-tail relatives into the stone water jars of Cana, filled right up to the very brim as it were. If any human love just sits there — self-centered, self-serving, self-obsessed, and self-absorbed — it festers and becomes foul, brackish, stagnant, and dead. None of our loves can be simply taken “as is” into the Kingdom of God. The wedding feast must be transfigured. What is sick, dead, or dying must become resurrected into ζωὴ αἰώνιος, the heady wine of the Age to Come. But by God’s grace we can taste that powerful vintage even now. By the word of Jesus and the touch of His hand, flawed and mercenary human love can become God’s wine — rich, delicious, exhilarating, rounded, and vivifying — flowing abundantly unto life without end. God can transfigure the cruel words, the wounds we inflict on each other, the hurts that nobody deserves, into sump­tu­ous flagons of God’s ceaseless generosity. Come, let us drink together a new vintage from the fount of incorruption!

________________
[1] Alexander Anciman’s Recapping Dante: Canto 10, or Why We Are Doing This.
[2] A malebolge, if you want to know.
[3] Many 21st Christians still think we’d be better off without the Hebrew Scriptures but that’s another post for another time. I think it’s a disastrous theological move. The historic Christian faith becomes nothing more than an inoffensive religious philosophy. Or sheer mythology. Which is perhaps the whole point.
[4] Shamelessly stolen from The Simpsons episode, One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish.
[5] Mark Vernon in Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey (page 39) argues that you should always turn left in Hell, not right. Turning right can get you into serious trouble. “Leftward is the divinely sanctioned way through the labyrinth of hell. If you follow that direction, terrible things can happen, but ultimately nothing can go wrong.”
[6] Peter Leithart, Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Kindle edition, location 1584.
[7] Jason M. Baxter, A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy, pages 41-42.
[8] The dominical saying in Luke 14:26 is even more troublesome. And terrifying.

Bonus GIF: Are you in heaven or are you in . . . ?

This entry was posted in Dante, John Stamps. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 10

  1. TJF says:

    What is your interpretation of Lk 14:26?
    Tough rabbi talk not meant to be taken literally? Basically just reinforcing the sentiment from Mt?

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Whoa, this is a tough question, TJF! Next time, please lob me a softball to hit out of the park instead of a fast ball right at my head!
      To state the blatantly obvious, Jesus really doesn’t want us to “focus on the family.” Let the reader understand.
      But members of our family really can become idols to us. They can become serious stumbling-blocks to following Jesus. Who wants to disappoint their family members? This is no joke. Family members can cause us to compromise our fidelity (i.e. faithfulness) to God.
      This entire section in Luke’s Gospel exhorts us to count whatever cost it will cost us to follow Jesus. Jesus wants us to understand the implications of taking up our crosses and following Him. Richard Hays says Jesus “echoes” or “obliquely alludes to” the savage example of the sons of Levi. They show absolutely no mercy to those who worshipped the Golden Calf and committed the sin of of spiritual adultery. Moses blesses Levi in Deuteronomy 33:8-9 (LXX) for his single-hearted devotion to God’s covenant:
      “He who was saying to his father and his mother,
      “I have not seen you,”
      and he did not acknowledge his brothers
      and did not acknowledge his sons—
      he guarded your oracles
      and kept your covenant.”
      And if hyperbolic disregard of family isn’t enough, Jesus also wants us to hyperbolically renounce all our possessions.
      And with all such matters, we must wisely discern how to put these words into practice. It’s not a fine line between being a faithful disciple and being an arrogant dickhead or not caring for your family.

      Like

      • TJF says:

        Thank you John. I have often of late felt this way. I more and more see tribalism as one of the biggest perennial human problems. Very deep rooted defilement that is hard to overcome. I can see hyperbole as necessary to swing the pendulum the other way. But Aristotle was perhaps right that virtue lies in the mean. Thank you for your insight.

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          My favorite Christian ethicist is Stanley Hauerwas — even though I think he’d hate being labeled as an “ethicist.” He really wants to church to act like she’s seriously following the teachings of Jesus. But I was brought up short when Hauerwas was accused of turning the church into yet another “tribe.” That stung. I’m not sure the criticism of Hauerwas’s theology is fair. But how do we follow the rigorous teachings of Jesus while trying to reach out to the world in grace, peace, and truth?

          Like

      • JBG says:

        johnstamps2020: “ This entire section in Luke’s Gospel exhorts us to count whatever cost it will cost us to follow Jesus.”

        There is possibly another way of looking at this. Maybe he is not promoting a calculated disregard for the family as much as he is exhorting one to seek an egalitarian love for all of humanity. Treating every human being as though they are your immediate family would look a lot like “hate” for one’s own flesh and blood and even for oneself, in that there would be no preferential treatment.

        The question: is this possible? I think it is fairly safe to say that very few, if any, have ever reached this level of development and accomplished this feat of genuine universal love.

        In The Kingdom of Heaven is Within, Tolstoy addresses the story of humanity as the slow triumph over tribalism with the slow evolution of ever widening circles of inclusion. The endpoint being the moment when one regards al of humanity (all sentient life?) with the identical regard that one holds for their self.

        Liked by 1 person

        • JBG says:

          Corrigendum: Tolstoy’s book is entitled “The Kingdom of God is Within You.”

          It’s been a while since I read it but I loved it and recommend it wholeheartedly.

          Liked by 1 person

        • TJF says:

          Sounds good to me.

          Like

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          All of Luke 14 ends up challenging in the extreme. The parable of the Wedding Banquet (14:15-24) turns upside-down the exemptions of Holy War in Deuteronomy 20. If you’re testing out your field or engaged in marriage, the Levites give you a pass.
          “Is there any man here who is engaged to be married? That man should go back home. If he dies in the battle, another man will marry the woman he is engaged to.” Jesus flips this all upside-down. Are you testing your new oxen or checking out your new field or getting married? So what. The marriage feast of the Kingdom of God takes precedence, even over marriage. The Kingdom of God takes precedence over even extraordinary events, much less quotidian tasks. If and when Jesus calls us, there are no exemptions.

          Like

        • brian says:

          While there are those who interpret egalitarian in a spiritual manner — Belloc understands the French Revolution in this aspirational sense — I am inclined to read the dominant form of egalitarianism as an ideological distortion. (Cf. Philippe Beneton’s Equality By Default for a trenchant critique.) Further, while it is easy to indulge robust condemnation of tribalism and also easy to find examples of it’s sanguinary history, I think the filial identification of one’s own as “the dear” an intrinsic element in the relational identity of human beings. One should not seek to abrogate familial intimacy so much as to transform it into an eschatological expansion that recognizes Adam Kadmon, the entire human creaturehood, as essential to one’s personal identity — and this is something I believe Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy attempts to express in his reflections on language and the gospel in The Fruit of Lips. I don’t wish to anticipate John Stamps’ reflections. It does seem to me that as one progesses into the Paradiso, identity is increasingly perichoretic. So the admonishment of Luke 14 needs to be posed at this level. Matt. 10:29 is the counterbalance, emphasizing irreplaceable singularity over against those verses that expand the circle of concern beyond narrow endearments.

          Liked by 2 people

          • johnstamps2020 says:

            Speaking of the fruit of lips… I’m only 12 cantos into the Purgatorio. Its most charming feature so far is the joyful singing of the penitents as they make their way up the mountain. The penitents are joined together into bands. Nobody is isolated or alone!
            “He joined his palms together, raised them high
            as if he prayed, I have no other care,
            fixing his gaze upon the Eastern sky.
            “Thee before nightfall” so devotedly
            came from his lips, with notes so sweet, they made
            me move beyond my mind in ecstasy,
            while all the rest with sweet and pious love
            followed the soul in singing the whole hymn,
            holding their eyes upon the wheels above.” (8.10-18)

            And this:
            “Turning there, we heard
            “Blessed are the poor in spirit” sung so sweetly
            it cannot be described by any word.
            How different are these holes from those below.” (12.109-112)
            There is no community in the Inferno. But there is an abundance of community in Purgatorio.
            If you’re lost, you’re lost by yourself and you have only yourself to blame.
            But if you’re saved, you’re saved in community.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Joel says:

    As a Simpsons fan, I’m happy to see all the Simpsons homages. Someone should write a book about Matt Groening’s longstanding fascination with religion and God in his shows. Despite all critiques leveled against the commercial uses and abuses of superficial American religiosity, exemplified by Rev. Lovejoy and “Presbylutheran” First Church of Springfield, his shows, both the Simpsons and Futurama, have at least tried to ask – as far as the medium allows anyways – questions about religion, spirituality, and God, and even the cognitive dissonance of infernalism, best exemplified by everybody’s favorite but sometimes maddening Christian Ned Flanders, more than any other longstanding American sitcom I can think of, especially the early episodes of Classic Simpsons, my personal favorite in dealing with these topics being “Bart Sells His Soul” (Season 7, Episode 4).

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Joel, I thought long and hard about how to pull in Bart selling his soul to Milhouse for $5. I like Bart and his soul rowing away joyfully in a rowboat.
      But yeah, the Simpsons is the most thoughtfully religious show on TV.

      Like

  3. Jack H says:

    Excellent article. No doubt a lot worth pondering. But I do think the Epicureans were more “religious” than we perhaps give them credit for. They did indeed seem to believe that the gods are largely uncaring and that humans do not owe them worship. But it seems they did advocate that at least the “best of us” could in some sense imitate them by achieving a a state of Ataraxia. There is something analogous there to contemplative traditions that strive for apatheia, moksha, ninanna etc…

    Liked by 1 person

    • TJF says:

      I too think people can be too harsh on Epicureans. They are definitely mistaken in their metaphysics. But people can and have done a lot worse than sit around and garden and hang out with friends. It’s like a hobbit philosophy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • johnstamps2020 says:

        I wondered if the Epicureans “contrapasso” in the Inferno was being tormented off in a cemetery by themselves with their fellow Epicureans, in the same way that they philosophized off in their garden by themselves. Except there’s no friendship in the Inferno.

        Like

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Jack,
      Thank you for your kind words.
      One of the best things I did back in 2020 was plow through “De Rerum Natura” by Lucretius. One of the things that most fascinated me about the Epicureans is they were truly radical empiricists. We must trust our perceptions, no matter what. Reality is exactly as it appears to be. For example, how big is the sun or the stars?
      “The wheel of the sun and its heat cannot be much greater or less than is perceived by our senses … the shape also of the sun and its size must so truly be seen from the earth that you can add nothing at all to it and take nothing away.”
      Therefore the sun is about as big as a silver dollar and the stars are about as big as pin pricks.
      C.S. Lewis thought the arguments of Lucretius about the problem of evil and the disorder in the universe were the strongest and best that he knew of. Yikes!

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Tantalizing… Lewis says all sorts of interesting things about Lucretius, but where does he say that?

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          In “Surprised by Joy” on page 98, Lewis quotes Lucretius and then translates the Latin for us numbskulls:
          “Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratam
          Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa
          Had God designed the world, it would not be
          A world so frail and faulty as we see.”
          He called the Argument from Undesign the “strongest” of all the arguments for atheism!

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thanks – in chapter IV, I had forgotten that, and went looking in various more ‘scholarly’ (and Dante-related) places, which did, however, get me to reread the little piece on Lucretius (of uncertain date) first published in Image and Imagination: Essays and reviews (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pages 194-97, with endnotes on page 350-51, and leave me wishing I could read T. LaPrade, ‘Percipit Atque Horror: C.S. Lewis’s Lost Essay and Notes on Lucretius’, unpublished M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2010), which I have so far had no success in tracing online…

            “Several years before I read Lucretius I felt the force of his argument” Lewis recollects and contextualizes. I wonder in how far one could argue that was (in its way) informing Spirits in Bondage? All sorts of ‘Gnostic’ arguments seem something like variants of it…

            Liked by 1 person

          • johnstamps2020 says:

            I’ve got another C.S. Lewis quote in store for Canto 11.

            Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Your discussion of Farinata and Cavalcante – “They share a tomb and now they burn together in Hell’s flames in everlasting torments but they never speak to each other again. Infernal pride separates them for all eternity” – got me wondering if Lewis is consciously varying this in his treatment of “about a dozen Dwarfs” in chapter 13 of The Last Battle (though rereading it makes me wonder if he may also be alluding to Nietzsche’s “letzten Menschen” in Also sprach Zarathustra: “Man ist klug und weiss Alles, was geschehn ist: so hat man kein Ende zu spotten. Man zankt sich noch, aber man versöhnt sich bald – sonst verdirbt es den Magen.”).

            Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.