Canto 12: How Human Are You?

CentaurBy Nicholas Dube

Virgil and Dante, having acclimated themselves to the vile stench emanating from below, press onward down a rocky cliffside. Here they encounter the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull monster of Crete, who was infamous for his annual murder and subsequent meal of fourteen Athenian youths in the labyrinth. The beast gnaws himself in anger at the very sight of the poets, and Virgil stirs up the Minotaur’s anger even more by reminding him of his death at the hands of the hero Theseus. At this the Minotaur goes into a fit of rage and becomes too consumed by his own wrath to realize the pilgrim and his guide have slipped away.

Having escaped the Minotaur, Virgil and Dante approach a river of boiling blood, which encloses the inner woods and plain of the seventh circle. In the river are those who were violent against their neighbor or their neighbor’s possessions. A troop of centaurs approach, and three break off from the group to demand that the poets identify the torment to which they are assigned. Virgil speaks with their leader, Chiron (tutor of Achilles and renowned for his wisdom), and negotiates passage across the river Phlegethon. Chiron sends Nessus with the poets to take them to a ford. Along the way, Nessus points out a number of tyrants and murderers, and notes that robbers lie farther downriver. These souls are submerged at varying depths in the boiling blood, and any who attempt to rise higher than their prescribed depth are shot at with arrows by the centaurs. Here there are no sympathetic figures: among the immersed souls are Attila the Hun and Dionysius I of Syracuse, notorious for their violent methods and reigns. Traversing at a shallow crossing with Dante on his back, Nessus leaves the two on the other shore and returns to his company.

What lessons, then, may we draw from the plight of those violent against their neighbors? Violence harms because it results in some break of sacred bonds. Christ taught us that to love God, neighbor, and oneself was the summation of the law and the prophets (Mt 22:40). This first round of the seventh circle explores the break of the bond of love to one’s neighbor. While it may seem clear to most readers that murder, violent robbery, and destruction of property are wrong and to be avoided, these souls are lost because they saw violence as a means to their ends.

The initial appearance in this canto of the Minotaur is the beginning of an extended metaphor of the mixing of beast and man, continued with centaurs and, later, harpies. Violence, as Virgil suggested in the previous canto, is something both men and beasts can engage in. Dante saw reliance on emotion as animal-like, and the use of reason as a unique quality of man. We see this, for example, in his Convivio, at II.iv.4: “Therefore he who leaves behind reason, and uses instead only his senses, lives not as a man, but as a beast . . . ” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics Lib. I, lec. 1, “But if it should happen that one cannot partake in civil society because of his depravity, he is worse than a man and like a beast.”). But the tragedy of the violent is that they use their wrath and greed in conjunction with their reason, to consciously choose to inflict damage on person and property to get what they desire. Instead of suppressing or controlling their desires, they pursued them.

In times like these, where stories of terrible tragedy arrive daily from Syria and where groups of various faiths and politics seek to achieve their goals by violence and destruction, we are provided with too many examples of the sorts of sins punished here. But in the face of such enormity, it is easy to forget that there are lesser sins that, by way of extension, fall under the category of ‘murder’. And these too receive their just punishments. Christ, when speaking of murder, said “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. . .” (Mt 5:21–22). We may not ever actually strike our neighbors, be they neighbors proper, coworkers, or fellow drivers on the road, but even entertaining and stewing on the idea is un-Christian.

It may be difficult to keep this concept in mind, given today’s penchant for heroes or antiheroes who succeed through violence. We see this type all the time on television and in movies. We Catholics, though, have a duty to let go of feelings of anger or revenge, dwelling instead on good things (Phil 4:8). The Minotaur is sent into a fit of rage after being reminded of Theseus and clearly cannot move past his own emotions. We too teeter on the edge of this circle when we hold grudges and anger toward our neighbors, and would do well instead to remember our duty and move on. So perhaps the seventh circle is harder to avoid than we may have previously thought.

Therefore, the secret of this ring of the circle of violence is not just to recoil in horror at the depravity of violent murderers or bandits, but also to remember that it may be easier to fall into that way of thinking than we may at first suspect. As G.K. Chesterton’s character Father Brown says in the short story, The Secret of Flambeau, “There are two ways of renouncing the devil . . . .  One is to have a horror of him because he is so far off; and the other to have it because he is so near.”

Mr. Nicholas Dube is a third-year Harvard Law School student and graduate of Harvard College, with a degree in History and the Classics and a secondary concentration in Italian Studies. His experience with Dante includes study at the Carla Rossi Academy in Monsummano Terme, Italy, and attendance at academic conferences on the Divine Comedy.

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