In Canto 20, Dante and Virgil descend to the fourth ditch of Malebolge, where the diviners and fortune tellers are tortured. Dante is at first overwhelmed by their punishment, their heads twisted so fully that their tears flow down their backs. He weeps for them, begging the reader to imagine being in his position without shedding a tear [line 19]. Yet Virgil rebukes Dante for feeling pity over them. How can we understand Virgil’s seeming cruelty and lack of pity here?
In line 27, Virgil says to Dante, “Are you even yet among the other fools?” This is an allusion to a gospel passage. After travelling with Christ for a long time, his disciples still don’t understand the meaning of his parables. He responds, “Are you also yet without understanding?” (cf. Mt 15:15-16; Mk 7:17-18). It is as if Dante’s journey hitherto through Hell has been a mysterious parable, and Virgil is frustrated at Dante’s failure to understand it.
Then in line 28, Virgil says, “Here pity lives when it is altogether dead.” This is a clever line. The medieval Italian word here translated as ‘pity’ is pietà which can mean both “piety” and “pity”. It is being used in both senses here. In effect, Virgil is saying, “When it comes to the question of the suffering of the damned, the pious thing to do is to mortify our pity.” Why should we do this, though? Lines 29-30 give us the answer: “Who is more impious than he who sorrows at God’s judgment?” Virgil is saying to Dante, “The sufferings of the damned appear to be horrible beyond all proportion. But in truth they are just. You must acquiesce to God’s judgment, regardless of your feelings of pity.” So the issue here is the truth of God’s judgment.
In the supplement to the third part of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas addresses the question, “Whether the blessed pity the unhappiness of the damned?” He explains there the difference between pity as a raw emotion, and pity as a virtue governed by reason. This side of heaven, it is always possible for a sinner to turn from his sinful ways and be saved. It is therefore reasonable and thus virtuous to pity sinners on earth. But in hell, it is too late for sinners. Thus any sort of pity shown them would not be in accord with a rational assessment of the truth of their eternal fate and would therefore be mere sentimentalism. And because the judgment of the blessed is always in accord with truth, they do not pity the damned (see S.T. III, Suppl., question 94, article 2).
“OK,” the contemporary reader is apt to say, “Even if there is a difference between the raw emotion of pity and pity as governed by reason, isn’t this to beg the question? Is it in fact really reasonable that the damned can never get out of hell?”
The more fundamental issue here is no doubt the problem of an eternal hell. This side of heaven, our intellects can’t see how an eternal hell can be reconciled with God’s justice. This is a mystery almost as profound as the mystery of the Trinity. But because the blessed in heaven behold immediately the mystery of the Trinity, their intellects can see clearly how God’s justice is in no way threatened by the suffering of the damned. Their lower passions, including pity, are in subjection to this intellectual vision. And thus they might appear to be cruel to us who do not see what they see. As for us here on earth, the challenge of piety is to live our lives by faith and to let faith inform our reason. Our reason then in turn sets the marching orders for our emotions. The difference between the blessed and us, then, is not truth and reason nor the need to subject our emotions to truth and reason. The difference is faith. We need it. They don’t. Thus we come full circle back to mystery, and this is why Virgil begins his rebuke of Dante by implicitly comparing Dante’s odyssey to a mysterious parable.
This approach to things is still not likely to satisfy us. We today are especially impatient with the idea of mystery. But note that it is precisely their discontentment with mystery that has gotten the diviners and fortune tellers thrown in hell. Discontent with the mysterious veil hanging over the future, they have laid violent hands upon it in an attempt to remove it. Through occult powers, they have attempted “to make God’s judgment yield to human force” [line 30].
Remember what originally drew forth Dante’s tears. In the inverted forms of the diviners, he saw “our human image…gone awry and twisted” [lines 22-23]. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God and share in God’s work of creation as true co-workers in cooperation with the divine (CCC 307, 364). Such responsibility requires commitment but it also requires humility. In the face of the unknown, we need courage but we also need humility and trust in God. It is not difficult to see how we could become prey to those who would seek to give easy answers or clear paths on a difficult journey. The sinners in the fourth ditch have manipulated those who are weak, benefitted from the fear of the unknown, and capitalized on the desire to control the future instead of co-create it in humble cooperation with God. Dante sympathizes with them due to the wretched twisting of their human form, yet misses that they had themselves twisted what it means to be human.
The warning for us is to avoid any short-circuiting of our role as humble co-workers with God. In the face of the mystery of life, the path ahead of us is not always clear or easy. We must prayerfully discern how God wants us move forward. But as ourselves created, we co-create with a God who sees more paths forward than we could ever imagine, and in that knowledge, there is a peace and a certain kind of power.
Dr. Shannon Loughlin has worked in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 16 years and currently serves as the Diocesan Liaison for Parish and Campus Services. She has a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and a Masters in Pastoral Ministry, both from Duquesne University. Her undergraduate work was at SUNY Geneseo.