We begin Canto XI by stepping onto the ledge of a pit and being assailed by a stench powerful enough to make us pause to accustom ourselves to it. We are standing behind the tomb of Pope Anastasius, the second of the five popes Dante envisions as being in hell—or heading that way. The first was Celestine V, who made ‘the Great Refusal’ by abdicating the papacy, an act which opened the door for Boniface VIII to take his place on Peter’s throne.
Unlike Celestine, who was canonized in 1313 by Clement V, Anastasius has received no canonization, and Ciardi notes that Anastasius is here because Dante believed that he had given communion to Photinus, a deacon of Thessalonica, who adhered to the Acacian heresy. The lesson to be learned is that it doesn’t matter how we deviate from the true road but that our consent in so doing is damnable, a point on which we’ll receive explicit instruction from Piccarda in Paradise’s sphere of the moon.
While we are pausing and resting, getting our senses used to the new intensity of stench, Virgil gives us a little lesson on the overall structure of hell. We already learned from the beasts in the Dark Wood that hell is divided into three parts (see Canto 1). The poets have just finished their tour of the bestial and incontinent hell of the she-wolf and are in a transition point through the bestial and violent hell of the lion to the fraudulent and malicious hell of the leopard. The circle they enter at the end of this canto is divided into three rounds—the first of which is the round of the violent against neighbor, the second of which is the round of the violent against self, and the third of which is the violent against God, Nature, and Art.
We can see from Virgil’s lesson that the road ahead is not mysterious—vice leads to vice. The structure of hell contains a lesson for us here. If we allow one kind of sin into our lives—that of looking upon another person as an object, which we saw in the second circle containing the lustful, that sin begins to have a ripple effect. That is, if we have already turned away from God toward the created thing, it is an easy follow-up move to turn away from the created person toward a created object.
Once we do this, the path to violence is laid out for us. We obsess over the object of our gaze, rage against those who hinder our pursuit of it, and deny any authority over it other than our own. If we are challenged, we seek to destroy those who stand in our way. We dominate others and treat them as expendable pawns in a large game that has as its goal the acquisition of what we want. We commandeer them as our servants and use them to bring us our coveted object. In this ‘great object grab’ we destroy meaningful relationships with people and with the good things of creation.
That’s the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth circles in a nutshell. Violence is what happens when we seek to satisfy more than the simple excesses of our appetites, and fraud is what happens when we seek to manipulate others to service those appetites. In the first case, we try to improve upon God’s design by destroying the necessary diversity of our communities for the purpose of acting according to our own will, and in the second we pervert our intellects and twist our consciences so that the worse appears to us to be the better cause.
Here’s some moral wisdom from a child. When my son Alexander was five years old, his litmus test to discern whether a group was good or bad was to ask whether the members of the group were nice to each other. By this, he meant “internally coherent.” Social groups whose members fight one another within the group are not viable communities, and we find in this insight an understanding of the nature of the 8th and 9th circles, the former of which denies, in John Ciardi’s translation, “the bond of love which all men have from Nature” while the latter denies “not only the Bond of Nature, but also the special trust added by bonds of friendship” and family.
In a world where all men are our brothers, we should all be nice in the sense of pursuing internal coherence vis-à-vis those within our group (and thereby save ourselves from the 9th pit) and those outside our group (and thereby save ourselves from the 8th pit). We can also work our way backwards through hell, correcting our disordered use of things, thereby establishing proper stewardship over our possessions, and of one another, thereby establishing proper relationships with other human persons. Dante provides an example of how this works in the ascent up Mount Purgatory. For now, though, we have a darker road to travel through the sewers of hell.
Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, OP, is a Lay Dominican of the Province of Saint Albert the Great, and serves as Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Through the Catholic Distance Learning Network, he sponsors the Digital Dante contest (www.digitaldante.org), which each year awards a Dante medallion to the person who submits the best digital interpretation of some aspect of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He lives in St. Louis, MO, with his wife, Dr. Stephanie Mahfood, and children, Alexander and Eva Ruth.