In Msgr. Luigi Giussani’s landmark book, The Religious Sense, he tells of an unforgettable conversation he had with a young man, a budding atheist, who said to him:
“Listen, all that you are trying so forcefully to tell me is not worth as much as what I am about to tell you. You cannot deny that the true grandeur of man is represented by Dante’s Capaneus, that giant chained by God to hell, yet who cries to God, “I cannot free myself from these chains because you bind me here. You cannot, however, prevent me from blaspheming you, and so I blaspheme you.” This is the true grandeur of man.”
I must admit that there is something to the young man’s assertion. There is indeed something moving about the indomitable strength of will of Capaneus who resolutely maintains his obstinacy even in the face of God’s eternal torment. Referring to the Almighty, Capaneus says, “…though he wear out the others one by one…and hurl down endlessly with all the power of Heaven in his arm, small satisfaction would he win from me” [lines 52–57]. And whereas other denizens of this circle of Hell cower from their punishment, he faces it head-on—literally—suffering the awful rain of fire across his exposed face so as to be free to shake his fist at God.
I don’t think I’m alone in responding this way when the greatness possible to man is portrayed in a moving way in literature and the visual media. Even though such greatness be used to a bad end, there is still something eminently enchanting about it. All we have to do is quickly survey contemporary media to find any number of characters who do evil things but whom viewers enjoy watching for their prowess and sheer relentlessness (think perhaps of Frank Underwood on House of Cards, Don Draper of Mad Men, or the building hype surrounding Suicide Squad). And even our Lord Jesus Christ himself said in the Apocalypse, “Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Apoc 3:15-16).
As Christians, what should our reaction be to figures like Capaneus, living as we do in a society that increasingly worships anti-heroes? Certainly we cannot capitulate, we cannot endorse the evil actions of such people, regardless of how talented or beautiful or powerful they are. Nor can we turn to that inoffensive mediocrity, “lukewarmness”, which Christ rejected so firmly and which we read about in Canto 3. Our answer, then, might be along the lines of the one Giussani gave to that provocative young atheist who said that Capaneus represented the true greatness of man:
“After being unsettled for a few seconds, I said calmly, “But isn’t it even greater to love the infinite?” The young man left. After four months, he returned to say that for two weeks he had been receiving the sacraments because he had been “eaten away” all summer long by my response.” (p. 9)
People are always attracted to greatness, even when that greatness is grossly misdirected, especially when they do not understand its tragic consequences. (Thus Virgil says to Capaneus in lines 62-63, “Only your own rage could be fit torment for your sullen pride.”) But true greatness, the fullness of what it means to be great, is found in the lives of the saints. The many impressive feats that have been accomplished out of love for power or money all pale in comparison to the great deeds wrought by those who love God. And this greatness of the saints is what we will see when Dante finishes his long journey and enters Paradise. But in the meantime we are faced with a challenge: if people see greatness in the world rather than in the Church, they will undoubtedly follow these same worldly pursuits, and frankly I can’t blame them. It must be our task, therefore, to do great things for the love of God, and so show them what true greatness is.
Fr. Peter Mottola is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester. He holds a Master’s degree in Medieval Studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. where he is currently pursuing a Licentiate in Canon Law.