In the beginning of the eighth Canto, Dante and his guide, Virgil, find themselves at the bottom of a tall tower in hell. The tower’s purpose, they soon discover, is to signal the boatman of the River Styx—Phlegyas, the demonic guardian of the waterway. Those familiar with mythology will recognize Phlegyas as the son of Mars who set fire to Apollo’s temple at Delphi in retribution for Apollo’s rape of Phylegas’s daughter.
Phlegyas is none too happy about having to carry the poets across the river. Nonetheless, he reluctantly takes them aboard. In the midst of their crossing, Dante encounters a soul he knew on earth: Filippo Argenti.
On earth Argenti was arrogant and Virgil explains that “Many in life esteem themselves great men/ who then will wallow here like pigs in mud,/ leaving behind them their repulsive fame” [lines 46-48].
Dante’s response to Virgil’s explanation at first sounds a bit shocking. “Master, it certainly would make me happy to see him dunked deep in this slop just once before we leave this lake—it truly would” [lines 52-54]. On top of that, at the sight of Argenti being preyed upon by other occupants of hell, Dante says, “I thank my Lord and Praise Him for that sight” [line 60].
What are we to make of this seemingly harsh and judgmental language? In our contemporary culture, we can try so hard to accept people for who they are that we turn a blind eye to vice and sin. However, as Christians we are called to recognize sin for what it is and to reject it. While never presuming to judge the eternal fate of any given person we encounter in life, if we are to navigate our way through this world to eternal life, we do need to occasionally make judgement calls about sin. The virtue of prudence and a healthy self-love require this of us. It is, for example, always wrong to be arrogant, and we need to recognize this. In Dante’s situation, he learns that God has cast Argenti into the depths of hell because of his arrogance. Dante is thankful that he is able to recognize this sin for what it is and for what it does to the soul. Because he sees clearly its eternal consequences, he will be less likely to commit it in the future.
It is countercultural to regard as a blessing the opportunity to identify sin and vice through negative examples such as Filippo Argenti. It is even more countercultural to regard such an opportunity as a sign of God’s compassion and mercy for us. Yet, if we never call a spade a spade—whether it be about sins of pride, sexual sins or any other number of vices—how are we to consciously steer clear of choices that separate us from our Supreme Happiness who is God? It is God’s mercy that allows us the insight to see clearly what actions bring us into a closer relationship with Him and which ones damage our hearts and souls.
As the Canto ends, Dante and Virgil come upon the walls of the fiery city of Dis. Demons shriek at the poets, denying Dante entrance. He is terrified that Virgil might be separated from him and that he might be left alone without his guide—perhaps being lost in hell forever. It strikes me that his fear should be our own. We should quake at the thought of finding ourselves eternally lost in hell where God is absent and only evil reigns. Like Dante’s negative judgment on Argenti and his sin, this fear can be salutary.
Of course, since Dante is only a visitor in hell, Virgil is able to assure him that he will not be left alone in the underworld. Here is seen a brilliant literary device. Dante’s non-eternal stay in hell is a pedagogical experience that gives birth to a hope for an eternity in heaven. We can’t forget that it is God’s mercy that has led Dante down into the inferno. But along with Dante, we too—the readers of his poem—are merely visiting hell. It is an opportunity for us to contemplate the eternal consequences of sin through terrifying negative examples. But such fearful examples of God’s justice are instructive. They work to reorient us pilgrims toward eternal life. As such they are sources of hope and signs of God’s mercy.
Mrs. Caitlin Bootsma is the editor of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum as well as the Communications Director for Fuzati, a Catholic Marketing company. She lives in Richmond, VA with her husband and two sons.