“The last state of that man becomes worse than the first” (Mt 12:45)
Canto 27 begins exactly where Canto 26 ended, at the conclusion of Ulysses’ story of his final voyage. Ulysses and Diomedes pass on and are followed by another flame-enwrapped soul who, recognizing the Lombard dialect Virgil used in dismissing Ulysses, asks news of his native Lombard region of Romagna. Although he is not named in the canto, this is Guido da Montefeltro. Dante answers him using heraldic and bestial images to suggest the violence that characterizes the ruling families of the region. Dante then asks Guido to tell him his story so that the world may “long see your name endure” [line 57]. Because T. S. Eliot used it as the epigraph to his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Guido’s response is one of the more famous passages from the Inferno:
‘If I believed that my response was heard
by anyone returning to the world,
this flame would stand and never stir again,
But since no man has ever come alive
out of this gulf of Hell, if I hear true,
I’ll answer, with no fear of infamy.’ [lines 61-64]
Though many of the souls Dante meets in Hell are anxious to have their memory revived and extended in the world of the living, such is not the case with Guido da Montefeltro. He preferred that people believed since he was buried in the Franciscan habit, his eternal reward is with St. Francis in heaven, rather than have his name bear the infamy of the truth, were his true end made known. (Ironically Dante is going to return to the world and publish abroad Guido’s story. Does Dante commit a form of fraud by not letting him know this?)
What is the specific infamy Guido fears might get out in the world above? Well, after having renounced his life as a man of arms and duplicitous strategies, and having repented and taken up the life of a Franciscan lay friar, Guido was nevertheless persuaded by Boniface VIII into providing fraudulent counsel. Boniface dragged Guido back to his old ways and thereby successfully drew him into negating his late conversion. It is true that Guido initially resisted Boniface’s request, but at last Guido finally gave in when the Pope assured him: ‘Let your heart not be troubled. In advance / I will absolve you. . . . / I hold the power to bar and unbar Heaven, / you know’ [lines 100-101, 103-104]. Guido replied,
‘Father, because you cleanse me of that sin
Into which I am falling—well, be long
on promises and short on keeping them.
This gains the triumph for your lofty throne.’ [lines 108-111]
Guido then revealed to Dante that when he died Saint Francis came for him, but a demon exclaimed,
‘Don’t cheat me now! Don’t carry him away!
This one belongs with all my slaves down there,
because he gave his counsel to defraud.
Since then I’ve itched to snatch him by the hair!
One who does not repent can’t be absolved,
nor can a man repent and will at once:
the law of contradiction rules it out.’ [lines 114-120]
As the demon grabbed Guido to take him to Hell, he added this jab, ‘Perhaps / you hadn’t thought that I was a logician’ [lines 122-123].
Let us recall that both Canto 26 and 27 take place in the 8th bolgia of the 8th Circle of Hell. The 8th Circle is reserved for those who have committed fraud against persons with whom they shared no special trust. And the 8th bolgia of the 8th Circle is for those who were fraudulent counselors. Their contrapasso is to be concealed in flames. When they speak, their voices are articulated by the flames rising from their fire-enveloped souls. How is this contrapasso an appropriate punishment for the sin?
First of all, Guido’s fraud is a sin of speech, and Our Lord has said, “On the day of judgment men will render account for every word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36-37). Furthermore, St. James, in his Epistle, writes, “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.” (Jas 3:5-6). St. James’s image of the tongue as a fire capable of great spiritual destruction, “set on fire by hell,” is a clear explanation of the contrapasso of the 8th bolgia.
The path to holiness includes countless stumbling blocks, and when we trip on one, we must pick ourselves up by contrition, confession and satisfaction, by which we obtain the Lord’s merciful forgiveness. This forgiveness can be experienced no matter how many times we trip and fall, even if it’s over the same block time and again. There may come a time in our spiritual progress when we seem to have finally overcome a habitual sin by divine grace. How we rejoice and thank God when that happens! Perhaps we then feel safe from sin like Guido da Montefeltro in his Franciscan habit. But we must beware.
Though we are not likely to be cajoled by someone like Boniface VIII with promise of absolution before the fact, temptation to that old sin may unexpectedly arise again. The desirability of the sin may grow on us, and we may be tempted with the idea that if we commit this sin we can always confess and be absolved again like we used to do. But how great a treason it would be if this sin then becomes committed more deliberately, and the mercy of God is merely taken for granted. In our earlier struggle against the sin, God might have been patient with us because of our weakness. But if we return to it after having overcome it, how can our return be done without an increased malice? In this latter case, the same sin becomes more vile and more dangerous to the soul, and Our Lord’s words are fulfilled, “the last state of that man becomes worse than the first” (cf. Mt. 12:45).
Dr. Robert Rice received his B.A. from U.C.L.A. and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. He was Associate Editor of the Middle English Dictionary at the University of Michigan, 1976-1981. He is now Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at Christendom College in Front Royal, VA. In addition to teaching in the English Lang. & Lit. Dept. for 32 years, he held the positions of Chairman of the English Language & Literature Dept. and Vice President for Academic Affairs. During that period he taught Dante’s Divine Comedy entire, as part of the core curriculum, numerous times.