Is it worth talking about Dante as a fair judge?
Dante is even-handed only in the sense that he damns a certain number of Guelphs – otherwise he’s not to be trusted. I was thinking about this because I had a talk this weekend with a friend of a scene in Purgatory where someone Dante thinks was pretty bad in life scraped in because of a moment-of-death conversion (I can’t find it now – it’ll wait). Some of the folks in Hell don’t seem to have been given a chance for repentance, even when they had the leisure for it – like Pope Celestine in Canto III – who, after all, lived for 10 months in imprisonment after making what Dante calls “il gran rifiuto.” Think he might have repented?
Similarly, Dante sometimes works with poor historical information, like here in Canto XI, when he damns Pope Anastasius as a Monophysite (one of the last of the Christological heresies of early Christianity). But then Dante was no historian – there’s a reason most of his characters are, more or less, current events. By the way, I’m not at all offended by the idea of a pope in hell (I like John Chrysostom’s quip, that hell is paved with priest’s skulls), but given the rules Dante sets up it seems unlikely – they have too many chances for sacramental confession. I have no particular doubt that Teddy Kennedy made a good end, for instance. He had a lot to confess, but so do I.
Dante’s got a job, though – he has to populate the rings of Hell.
Oh – a quick aside – I wonder why the Modern Library and Anthony Esolen titled the three books Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He may well have explained that in some front matter I missed, but it seems a little odd to stick to the Italian in one but not the other two. Maybe a pure marketing decision – name recognition for the first may really be that high?
OK – back to the rings of Hell. Now is a time to draw on the board again – Hell has order inside which chaos is confined. Look at the bottom right (Christ’s left) of the mosaic from the west wall of the cathedral at Torcello (one of the islands in the Venetian lagoon). Those boxes each contain a variety of the damned – I’d click to enlarge. Similarly, Virgil offers in Canto XI a quick explanation of the layout of the rings of Hell.
All the remaining sins have some element of force or fraud – we’re past the traditional Seven Deadly Sins and into something more offensive to God. The violent are neatly divided into those who have committed violence against their neighbors, against themselves, or against God. The lowest rings, though, are crimes of fraud. Or,
Since fraud’s a sin peculiar to mankind
God hates it more; and so the fraudulent
sink farther down, assailed by greater pain.
The Torcello mosaic and Dante go a long way to reminding us that the Middle Ages exulted in order. Whether they achieved it or not is another question – but any explanation of the history of ideas or the history of culture that presents some kind of change from disorder and darkness to balance and brightness because of some self-styled Renaissance is up against it – what can be more neurotically balanced than Aquinas? What vision of the Cosmos is more orderly than Ptolemy’s as elaborated by Muslims and medieval Christians? The philosophical movement that goes along with imitation natural landscapes is the Enlightenment, not the Scholastics – who preferred their horti to be conclusi.
Oh well – professors are always fighting yesterday’s battles. In fact, most of my students don’t seem to have a lot of cultural baggage about the Middle Ages. They haven’t really ingested any periodization at all. I should probably shut up and move on.