Leaving behind the sanguine River Phlegethon, Dante and his master arrive in a dark and twisted wood. In this second round of the Lion’s lair, Dante’s eyes are unable to immediately perceive the inhabitants of this infernal forest. The sounds of the horrible harpies—those mythical ministers of divine vengeance that bear the likeness of a woman and a vulture—greet the poet and his guide. Mixing with the cries of the harpies, the poet hears the woeful wailing of others who remain hidden.
To help ease his bewilderment, Virgil encourages Dante to break off a branch from one of the nearby trees. Much to his shock, the tree he touched begins to speak, reproving him for being so unkind as to mangle his branches. Virgil makes apology for the deed, insisting that only so doing could make Dante believe the strange truth about these trees. Within the wood of this wood dwell the souls of those who committed violence, not against others, but against themselves. This is the wood of the suicides, the place of unrest for those who spurned their own life—the first gift that God gives to each of us—and who resisted the most basic law of our nature: self-preservation (cf. St. Thomas, ST I.II.94.2).
The self-loathing soul with whom Dante converses is Pier della Vigna, who was himself a great poet and an imperial counselor. After being unjustly disgraced through the envious plots of others, he sought to “flee their scorn in death, [and] made me against myself, though just, unjust.” [lines 71-72] Having heard the sad tale of Pier’s despair and demise, Dante is so moved with grief that he is unable to question further this tree-trapped soul.
Not wanting to leave without a full account of the suicides’ situation, Virgil steps in and inquires if there is any hope that the souls bound by their branches will ever be free. It is here we learn of the greatest pain suffered by these souls. They will, like all the others, go to reclaim their bodies at the resurrection of the dead, but their fate is such that the unnatural separation they caused between matter and spirit is to persist for all eternity. Their bodies are doomed to hang forever from the thorns of their souls. As a convinced Thomist, Dante believes that the human person is only truly a “person” when his soul and his body are united. (cf. St. Thomas ST I.76.1) These poor souls who spurned the gift of life itself receive the tragic reward of never again being truly and fully “persons”—only mutilated beings rent apart.
Just as Signore della Vigna relates this horrid reality, the travelers are startled by the sounds of beasts running through the woods. There appear before them two naked spirits, clawed all over, and running at full gait, smashing the limbs of the suicides as they go. Behind them are the hounds of death, great black dogs traveling in a pack, seeking to tear these souls asunder. The two spirits represent those whom Esolen calls “the spoilers”. They are people who wasted away their goods, as Dorothy Sayers puts it, “for the sheer wanton lust of wreckage and disorder” (cf. Sayers’ Translation, note on Canto XIII). They belong to this round of the violent-against-self because they wound themselves by irrationally depriving themselves of the goods of creation.
The two figures who embody this vicious tendency are Lano of Siena and Jacomo di Sant’Andrea. Lano was part of a group of young men who sold all their land, then wasted away all their money in short order. Having lost all his wealth, he threw his own life away in a foolish battle. The other, Jacomo, was a Paduan who was known for skipping gold coins like pebbles in the Venetian lagoon and for burning down homes, his own and others’, just for the fun of it. Just as in their lives these two wreaked havoc on themselves and others, so here Jacomo’s attempt to escape the hounds of death ends in his own destruction and causes great damage to the tree of an unknown Florentine soul condemned to this sylvatic state for making “a gallows of [his] house” [line 151].
Having traversed this round of the Lion’s circle of hell, what lessons have we learned? The basic truth that Dante is illustrating for us is that self-hatred is not of God. If Christ commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt 22:39), proper self-love must be a foundation of our love for others. Now this does not mean that we should be self-indulgent or prideful, but we must learn to love ourselves as God loves us. We are called to see that our lives, no matter how occasionally dark or difficult, are a gift. We are called to believe the truth that life is always worth living.
There is a movement in enlightened western society that insists otherwise. Its adherents believe that at some point life loses its meaning and its purpose, and that we should have the “freedom” to end it—to “die with dignity,” in their perverse language. But that is to miss the point. We are not the masters of life and death, but merely its stewards, and we must love and respect each and every human life, beginning with our own. This canto is also an opportunity to remember to pray for those who are lonely, suffering, and close to despair. Even more, it is an invitation to carry out the act of mercy that is visiting the sick and lonely, perhaps by visiting a nursing home this week, comforting the residents and reminding them that they are loved and their lives are truly worth living.
Fr. Christopher Seiler is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He completed his theological studies in Rome at the Pontifical Lateran University. He is the associate pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in St. Louis City and teaches Dogmatic Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.