By Belinda Brasley
In Canto 10, Dante and Virgil enter the sixth circle, which contains the heretics. According to the medieval way of thinking, a heretic was one who chose their own opinion over against the judgement of the Church. It might be helpful here to quote the current universal catechism of the Catholic Church. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same…” (CCC 2089). Now Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived in the third century before Christ. He denied the immateriality and immortality of the soul and held pleasure to be the highest good. But he was never baptized; he didn’t even live in the Christian era. So it is a little hard to see how he could be considered a heretic. We must conclude that Dante is probably not concerned so much with the historical Epicurus as with the sort of “epicureanism” that was popular with some of the baptized but intellectually skeptical citizens of his own 13th century Florence.
And it is freethinkers such as these that we meet in Canto 10. These “epicureans” are not necessarily libertines or hedonists, though. Rather, they are noble and powerful Florentines whose interests while they lived were focused solely on the events and affairs of the present world. They had no care for the world to come and were too proud to stoop to the common man’s faith in an immortal soul and an afterlife. Now that they are disembodied souls suffering forever in hell, they are ironically fated to eternally contemplate the error of their beliefs.
But do they take to heart their intellectual errors? Possibly not. It might seem that, instead of acknowledging the immortality of the soul and the reality of the afterlife, their minds are fixated on the same this-worldly concerns that preoccupied and distracted them while they were on earth. They continue to serve the same idols that got them in hell in the first place. This comes out very clearly in the two characters we meet in this canto—Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti.
Although these two shades were related to one another on earth through marriage and are now sharing the same tomb, they are so caught up in their own separate realities—the realities that absorbed them while they were on earth—that each seems completely unaware of the other’s conversation with Dante. Dante’s poetry successfully weaves the two conversations together, but this skillful weaving only serves to highlight how oblivious each speaker is to the other.
Both were men of great love. Farinata’s greatest glory was his love for Florence, a love that withstood every hatred and saved his beloved city. Cavalcante’s great love was for his brilliant and accomplished son. We see these two loves somehow woven together and yet totally separate from each other. Only Dante’s artistry can accomplish this. It is as if, because they never reached past this present world, these men’s loves are forever doomed to isolation and loneliness. There is something deeply tragic about both figures.
Farinata’s character is proud, powerful, and strong. He raises himself up, as though his upper body represents his total personality. This posture creates an image of strength and grandeur. This is precisely why his sigh of emotion moves us to sympathy in line 88. Dante’s conversation with Cavalcante is particularly poignant. Although Cavalcante has a premonition of his son’s future death, he can’t seem to see the present, and so he doesn’t know whether his son is alive or is already dead. Cavalcante almost willfully misconstrues Dante’s reply, jumping to the conclusion that his son is dead. When Dante doesn’t rush to correct him, Cavalcante falls back inside his tomb in a dramatic show of grief. Having cut himself off from speaking with Dante, his only current possible source of knowledge, he has condemned himself to misinformation that causes him pain.
Why can’t the shades in hell see the present while they can somehow see the future? This puzzles Dante. We too wonder about this. Near the end of the canto, Farinata clears things up for Dante and for us. Through a natural intellectual light of some sort, God permits the departed shades in hell to see the distant future events on earth. But as events draw nearer in time, they become less and less visible, until finally they disappear altogether. Is this not ironic? These epicureans, who believed only in the present and in what they could see and touch and love in the moment, have been cut off from the present altogether. The Epicureans’ attachment only to the present during their life on earth results in their blindness to the present in the afterlife. And of course it is only in the present that God exists. And it is to the vision of the eternal presence of God that man is destined. So their exile from and blindness to the present is also their exile from and blindness to God.
What about us? Are we overly attached to the here and the now, to what we can see and feel and love with our senses and our current knowledge? Do we ignore the things of eternity that might not currently be present to us? Although we might not formally subscribe to the epicurean creed, are we not easily tempted to inadvertently give it assent through a practical materialism that is focused only on “business as usual”? Might we too not be ‘heretics’ of the sort found in the burning city of Dis? Ultimately, it is only God’s mercy that can break through to us and wake us up to the broader cosmic drama in which our lives are situated. It is only God’s mercy that takes us out of our graves of unbelief and gives us the spirit of faith by which we can govern our lives with eternity before our eyes. This is the mercy that has enabled Dante to contemplate the afterlife and eternal things in his grand odyssey that is the Divine Comedy. And this is the mercy that allows us the reader to journey along with him beyond the present as pilgrims to the unseen and the eternal.
Mrs. Belinda Brasley is the Director of Disciple Formation at St. John the Evangelist in Spencerport, NY. She and her husband, Deacon John Brasley, have been involved with ministry to marriage, families, and teens for over twenty-five years.