Taking Dante’s Hell seriously

Seven-hundred years on, the first part of the Divine Comedy continues to express a very human sense of justice.

Why we still take Dante’s Hell seriously

Imagine Hell were real, and you were condemned to suffer eternity there. Just for the sake of argument, where exactly do you think you would end up? We’ll assume you haven’t done anything truly monstrous. Not yet. So would you join the lustful? The gluttonous? If you feel strongly about the non-existence of Hell and turn out to be badly mistaken, maybe you’ll burn with the other heretics. Or is it something worse than that? Are you capable of complicity in unspeakable horrors? Could you betray a sacred trust?…

These are the questions facing DCI Alexander, the protagonist of my new novel, Gehenna, which is inspired by the literary work that did more than any other to shape the way we imagine Hell, whether we believe in it or not. And 2020, among other minor distinctions, is the 700th anniversary year of the completion of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which he famously recounts his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, guided by the Latin poet Virgil.

Starting with a midlife crisis, and taking its author on a metaphorical as well as literal journey, Dante’s Hell in particular seemed a suitably enduring foundation for a new literary exploration of morality, justice and the human soul. Like most fictional detectives – and like all human beings – DCI Alexander is flawed in various ways, and while he encounters Hell through the prism of Glasgow at the turn of the 21st century rather than Florence at the turn of the 14th – the Divine Comedy begins on Good Friday, 1300 – he sees something of himself in some of the characters first imagined by Dante.

Those characters have made a lasting impression on generations of readers, along with the sheer poetry of the Comedy, even in translation from Dante’s native Florentine dialect. Perhaps that’s because, as well as writing in the everyday vernacular rather than the prestige language of Latin, Dante peopled the afterlife with many of his own contemporaries, as well as more celebrated figures from history and mythology. The result is that all are portrayed as realistic individuals, in graphic and often gory detail.

Indeed, while the ‘Comedy’ is named in the older sense of ‘not a tragedy’, and does have a happy ending in Paradise, of the three parts of the poem, it is Hell that is most read and most loved. And the fate of those whom Dante encounters there – punished with ingeniously poetic justice for their defining sins – is often tragic. (And, just to complicate things, often funny, too.) The Comedy is often discussed in the context of emerging Renaissance humanism, but that should not be taken to imply a rosy view of human nature. Far from it. So what explains the enduring appeal of a seven-centuries-old imagining of eternal damnation?

Morality then and now

When Dante was writing, he could take it for granted that his readers were good – or not-so-good – Christians. The core teachings of the Roman Catholic Church were almost universally accepted throughout Europe. And while Dante consigned more than one pope to Hell, that was for betraying the Christian faith and church. Individual churchmen could be as corrupt and wicked as the rest of us, but Christian morality was taken as given. In contrast, 21st-century readers are likely to find some of the punishments described by Dante harsh or simply unfair, and the moral system underlying them frankly baffling.

In fact, that system is not strictly Christian, either. It owes more to Aristotle, who – while a major influence on medieval Christian theology – died three-and-a-half centuries before Christ. Virgil missed out more narrowly, but he was also a pagan, and chosen to guide Dante not because he was a theological authority but because he was a great poet. Today, the Divine Comedy continues to be valued as literature, not as theology or indeed moral philosophy. And a literary take does not have to take the theology all that seriously. Whether Christian or Aristotelian, or both, it’s easy to patronise it as a quaint relic from less enlightened times.

The influential American pastor and author Tim Keller describes talking to someone who was not scared by Dante-esque talk of the fires of Hell because it all seemed so far-fetched and silly. Keller read him some lines from CS Lewis, perhaps the foremost populariser of Christian orthodoxy in the 20th century. In this account:

‘[Hell] begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.’

Keller’s interlocutor had to admit: ‘Now that scares me to death.’

The quotation is from Lewis’s short novel The Great Divorce, whose protagonist has a dream vision of a place where the dead must choose between Hell and salvation. The words are spoken by George MacDonald, the Christian fantasy author Lewis regarded as his master, and who guides his protagonist much as Aristotle did Dante.

MacDonald had complicated feelings about Hell, but his subjective, psychological account of damnation is actually not so different from Dante’s. The sinners Dante speaks to in Hell have in a sense become their sins. The adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca, having lost all self-control, are driven helplessly around the second circle by a raging wind. In the sixth circle, the proud heretic Farinata remains as obsessed in death as he was in life with the worldly, sectarian politics of Florence, seemingly oblivious to his true situation in a flaming tomb. Further down, the counterfeiter Master Adam is consumed by desire for revenge against those he falsely blames for his own crimes.

To some degree, even those who do not believe in eternal punishment for sin can surely recognise the propensity of some human beings to trap themselves in the worst of their own natures, so even their mortal lives become a kind of Hell on Earth. Throw in eternity, and Hell itself is not so far-fetched. Nevertheless, modern sensibilities are offended by the idea that someone else ultimately decides what is right or wrong – especially when it comes to religious morality that conflicts directly with our own beliefs.

What about the sodomites?

An obvious challenge for anyone reimagining Dante’s Hell today is ‘what do you do about the sodomites?’ In Dante’s account, they are tormented by burning sand that falls from the sky and lies all around them so they have no relief. Why? Even disregarding political correctness, for many if not most of us in the modern West, it takes a genuine leap of imagination to understand why homosexuality should be considered morally wrong. And it has to be said that reading Dante does not particularly help.

When Dante encounters the sodomites in the seventh circle of Hell, there is a striking lack of disapproval on his part. Far from condemning those he meets, he is gushing in his praise of his old friend and teacher Brunetto Latini, and even cloyingly sycophantic towards the preening Florentine nobles who come next. Moreover, no explicit reference is made to the sin of sodomy. Some have even suggested it cannot really be what is punished here, that something more subtle is going on, but Virgil has already made it clear earlier in the poem that in this circle Dante will see those punished for the sins of ‘Sodom and Cahors’. Whatever we make of the Bible verses from which the association derives – and in which rape seems rather more to the point – in Dante’s world, Sodom was a byword for homosexuality, just as the French city of Cahors was for usury.

Significantly, while Dante asks Virgil to explain exactly what’s so wrong with usury, he does not bother to question the wrongness of homosexuality. He seems instead to take it for granted without feeling at all strongly about it. Some speculate that he had homosexual inclinations of his own, but if so he did not seem to doubt they were sinful. To understand why, we do better to go back to that earlier section in which Virgil explains the geography of Hell. ‘Sodomy’ is punished along with usury and blasphemy in the final subcircle of the seventh circle of Hell, all of which is for violent sinners. The first two subcircles are for violence against others and violence against oneself. The last is for violence against God.

Of course, you cannot physically harm God, so blasphemy is the most direct form of ‘violence’ available – at least in the more capacious sense of violation or effrontery. Then there is showing contempt for God’s creation, the natural order he has ordained. How does usury do violence to nature? In answer to Dante’s question, Virgil refers to Aristotle’s Physics, which teaches that human art and industry must follow nature (working in harmony with natural processes), and that the usurer puts his hope in something else, thereby despising nature and those who follow it.

The sin is more viscerally captured in the demeanour of the usurers themselves, who carry moneybags emblazoned with heraldic animals – evoking both pagan symbolism and modern corporate logos – and who snort derisively at Dante. Whatever we think of the ethics of interest in principle, these usurers exult in their own deviousness, like mafiosi sneering at the conformism of the working man. For what it’s worth, I make much more of this in Gehenna than Dante did in the Comedy.

And sodomy? Few of us today are satisfied by the claim that homosexuality is wrong because it is deemed ‘unnatural’. Where is the animus to make it ‘violent’? While Dante gives us little to work with, my hunch is that the historic objection to homosexuality stems in part from a (mostly) misplaced suspicion that the appeal is precisely its transgressiveness. In that case, it would be wrong in the same way many of us feel something like sexual exhibitionism is wrong. It is not that people are simply following their own sexual inclinations: they are deriving a thrill from rubbing up against the very taboo they affect to disdain.

A funny if gross example is provided, albeit not for this purpose, by the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt argues that people of different political dispositions make judgements with reference to different ‘moral palates’, with liberals limiting themselves to harm and fairness, while conservatives also feel strongly about things like deference to authority and respect for the sacred. Asked what they think about someone who uses a dead chicken for sexual gratification and then cooks and eats it, liberals are inclined to shrug. As long as he paid for the chicken and didn’t trick someone else into eating it, no serious moral issues are even raised. Conservatives are more likely to condemn the act as morally as well as physically repugnant.

While Haidt sees it as revealing a clash of worldviews, in this case, I think the conservatives are objectively right. The act described, while superficially harmless, can only be intended to be disgusting and perverse for the sake of it. I mean, in the name of all we value as human beings, what else was the guy thinking? But the liberal instinct is not entirely misplaced. An overly hasty assumption that something we find disgusting can only appeal to someone else for that very reason prevents us from imagining that others might genuinely feel differently about it, with or without the added frisson of taboo-busting. Even for straight people, that some others just are attracted to people of the same sex is plausible in a way the chicken thing is just not. (In passing, though, we might question whether it’s true that liberals don’t do sacred at all. What if we added that the chicken were chlorinated? Now, that would be disgusting!)

If disapproval of homosexuality historically had to do with its (mis-)identification with deliberate perversity, this latter sin seems to me to accord more precisely with the moral system set out by Dante. It is a kind of violence against all that is sacred. So in Gehenna, I replaced the Florentine nobles with the Marquis de Sade and his followers. And I explore pornography as a kind of exulting in transgression, something that would not exist except for taboos around sex and except for a certain notion of human dignity, and that diminishes the humanity of all those involved.

Prioritising the soul

Of course, whatever psychological effects pornography might have on the eternal soul – the kind of thing CS Lewis had in mind – in secular terms, it seems a trivial offence at worst. DCI Alexander will surely be speaking for many modern readers of Dante when he objects that the moral system underlying Hell seems hopelessly out of kilter with how most of us understand morality. After all, by this stage we are two sub-circles deeper into Hell than where he saw Hitler boiling in a river of blood with the other tyrants and murderers (those guilty of violence against others). Surely Hitler should be near or at the very centre of Hell? But, no, next up come fraudsters of various kinds.

After finding Lady Macbeth among the soothsayers and their patrons, and asking what this has to do with fraud – not to mention why it’s worse than murder – DCI Alexander has to be warned to stop thinking in terms of criminal charges. The law is only roughly correlated with moral judgement, leaving many heinous sins outside its remit. And nor is the scale of the consequences of a sin a reliable guide to how and where it will be punished. The crucial factor is how certain actions lock us into a way of being that is less than fully human.

The three kinds of violence sit in the middle of Aristotle’s system and of Dante’s Hell. Before them come sins of incontinence: natural passions taken too far. Lust, gluttony, greed and wastefulness, wrath and sullenness are punished in the outer reaches of Hell. The first sin to be punished within the central citadel of Dis is heresy, which might be seen as a kind of intellectual incontinence.

Of course, heresy is another ‘sin’ we are inclined today to view more favourably. It is those who seek to punish heresy that we dislike, and with good reason. But, returning to the more psychological approach discussed above, is there anything worse than someone fixated on a dogma like a dog with a bone, and convinced it’s a brilliantly original idea? No doubt it’s a condition that’s easier to spot in others than in ourselves. After showing him a variety of heretical sects burning together in their shared sepulchres, DCI Alexander’s guide points to ‘a vast field covered in individual but identical flaming tombs spreading off into the distance as far as the eye could see. “Those ones imagined themselves to be free thinkers.”’

After heresy comes deliberate malice. First is violence as discussed, with the three categories – against others, self and God – perhaps in increasing order of deliberateness. And then fraud, which of course is deliberate by definition. The fraudulent sinners are themselves divided between those who deceived people with no particular reason to trust them and those who betrayed a particular trust. Traitors are the worst sinners of all.

This is perhaps the most explicitly Christian idea in Dante’s Hell, because at the very pit of Hell, it is Judas Iscariot who is chewed eternally in the mouth of Satan. Brutus and Cassius are chewed in Satan’s other two mouths for betraying Caesar (Dante was a great believer in the idea of a Christian empire modelled on Rome), but this political treachery undoubtedly takes its moral weight from the parallel with the ultimate betrayal. The name ‘Christ’ does not appear in Dante’s Hell, but its absence screams from every page.

As it happens, DCI Alexander has a degree in theology, but he thinks of Christianity in much the same way he thinks of classical mythology. It’s a cultural resource he carries with him rather than a faith to live by – or indeed to understand Hell by. Having reached Satan’s pit, he does not even identify Judas, who is after all head first in the Devil’s mouth. Nevertheless, while Christianity teaches there is no salvation apart from Christ, it does not say there is no understanding Hell.

Poetic justice

If we resist the temptation to dismiss Hell as a mere fable invented to keep the credulous lower orders in line – especially by smugly assuming its moral system is merely irrational – then we can begin to understand it. Even if we regard it as a myth, we can see that in its own terms Hell is not the creation of a capricious (and capriciously homophobic) deity, but the imaginative expression of a very human sense of justice.

In the case of Dante’s Hell, the punishments, however cruel, generally follow the rule of contrapasso or counter-suffering — you reap what you sow. This is loosely conceived, and some examples are more satisfying than others, but usually the poetic justice is unmistakable: the schismatics are literally split down the middle; the soothsayers have their necks twisted so they can only see behind them; the hypocrites wear heavy robes so they are crushed by the weight of their own pretence. In a sense, sinners spend eternity simply being what they have made of themselves, ‘the grumble itself going on forever like a machine’.

This kind of justice is aesthetic as much as it is ethical, which is why it lends itself to poetry and stories. Not quite ready for Dante, DCI Alexander’s young daughter Morgan is very taken with the story of the boy who cried wolf. Having at first assumed the villagers ignored the boy’s cries as a punishment for lying, she is delighted to realise the punishment is not conscious or deliberate: it is agentless contrapasso, merely the logical outcome of the boy’s actions. This is the kind of justice we could expect not of a capricious deity but of a (poetically) indifferent universe. And while we can appreciate its poetry, it is not – if we are wise – the kind of justice we want for ourselves.

Intuitively, we prefer the idea of a judge who might have a little discretion to play with. This explains the enduring appeal of Purgatory, the subject of the second part of the Comedy. In Purgatory, the sinful but not damnable dead suffer temporary punishments to iron out their imperfections and prepare them for Paradise. It is a very reasonable compromise, all things considered. But while belief in Purgatory was affirmed by the Catholic Church, there is no support for the idea in the Bible, so it was dispensed with by the Protestant reformers. Still, the idea is hard to shake. The bestselling Left Behind series of novels essentially peddle a kind of Purgatory for Protestants: non-Christians and bad Christians, who are not taken up into Heaven in the Rapture, have a second chance to accept Christ even as the Antichrist wreaks havoc on Earth.

More generally, we like to think a reasonable deity would acknowledge our flaws but also see the good in us. Think of how even some avowed atheists use phrases like, ‘any God worth believing in…’. Some even seem to think Jesus himself is a soft, non-judgemental alternative to the God of the Old Testament, causing them to condemn judgy Christians for being ‘not very Christian’. In fact, as those Christians often retort, in the Bible Jesus repeatedly warns of Hell – or as he usually refers to it, Gehenna. Jesus does not downplay sin or let sinners off the hook. The core teaching of Christianity is that his loving and merciful side truly emerges when he suffers an agonising death on our behalf, not because we don’t deserve it, but because we do. Be grateful or be offended, but make no mistake.

So the Christian tradition of forgiveness in imitation of Christ is premised on condemnation as much as it is on mercy. After all, if there is nothing to condemn, what is there to forgive? Modern secular culture can take issue with particular judgements, dismissing certain ‘sins’ as not morally wrong at all, but to do so is to engage in moral judgement, not to leave it behind. Moral judgement is not the invention of religion, but an essential part of being human.

And that includes moral judgement of ourselves. When Dante’s Hell is funny, it is usually because we recognise ourselves either in the sinners depicted or in Dante’s often befuddled or self-incriminating response to what he sees. At one point, he is enjoying the vulgar trash talk between two fraudsters so much that Virgil has to rebuke him, forcing him to confront his own capacity for awfulness, before commending him for at least feeling ashamed of himself when pulled up.

In Gehenna, I have tried to reimagine moments like that as well as finding contemporary analogues for some of Dante’s most memorable imagery. I am not planning sequels based on Purgatory or Paradise, however. For DCI Alexander, a detailed tour of Hell is enough to spark a reconsideration of the kind of person he wants to be here on Earth.

Buy Gehenna from Amazon (UK).

This essay was first published on spiked.

Picture by: Salico, published under a creative-commons license.