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A Lesson on Sex – from Dante

When I teach Dante’s Inferno, it often happens that students are surprised to find that Lust is the first real circle (after the Limbo of the virtuous pagans) in his medieval Hell. Which is to say, it’s the lightest of sins for which people are eternally damned. The real rogues – the evil counselors, sowers of discord, and traitors to lawful rulers and to God Himself are much further down and suffer far worse punishments. The Lustful are blown around in a relentless wind like birds or leaves in a tempest, an image of their untethered and unruly emotions.

And to make matters worse (for the students first encountering the text), Dante the pilgrim/character in the poem (we always have to remember he’s not necessarily the same Dante as the Dante who is doing the writing) seems half sympathetic to a pair of adulterous lovers – the famous Paolo and Francesca – as they recount their plight. She was married to a brute of a husband (and perhaps was offered marriage under false pretenses that it would be another person as well). And he is so courteous and refined. If there had been a medieval equivalent of our modern “discernment” regime, these two would have been perfect candidates for accompaniment and mercy.

But as we (students and I) start to read the text more carefully, some other features begin to emerge. For example, the Canto (Inferno V) where the two adulterers tell their story begins with Dante (and his guide Virgil) meeting Minos, judge of the underworld, who tells them: “O you who come to this abode of pain. . .beware how you come in and whom you trust. Don’t let the easy entrance fool you.”

Virgil, a smart pagan, thinks Minos is just trying to block their way. But that’s not what he said or did. He’s warning them about infernal deception, especially how easy it is to find yourself entangled in it. It may, thus, be something that even Virgil’s pagan wisdom doesn’t see clearly on its own. And since what follows is two adulterers presenting a touching and almost beautiful picture of their sin, maybe the pagan poet, for all his wisdom, is not the best guide in this particular case.

Because what follows needs a different framework to be understood properly. The two souls come at Dante’s bidding out of the violent wind, like two doves coming to their nest, he says. And Francesca addresses Dante:

O living creature, gracious and kind,
  that come through somber air to visit us
  who stained the world with blood,
if the King of the universe were our friend
  we would pray that He might give you peace,
  since you show pity for our grievous plight.

Francesca di Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil by Ary Scheffer, c. 1855 [Louvre, Paris]

How gentle. And courtly. And delicate. And how great a contrast with their brutal murder by a jealous husband. But also, how subtly strange: “If the King of the universe were our friend. . .” Francesca seems to think that God should be like one of the worldly members of the court at a castle, sympathetic to their situation and willing to indulge them because their love is so cultivated and understandable.

It’s all love, love, love:

  Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,
seized this man with the fair form taken from me.
The way of it afflicts me still.
  Love, which absolves no one beloved from loving,
seized me so strongly with his charm that,
as you see, it has not left me yet.
  Love brought us to one death.
Caïna waits for him who quenched our lives.

Dante gets drawn into this fantasy until he faints and wakes up further down in Hell.

I’ve found that once students get the bigger picture of what’s going on here, they recognize the seductiveness that Dante has reproduced – but also the lesson that he teaches by not presenting it overtly. Many people, as we know from daily life, are misled by what they think is love because it has the capacity to present itself as right even when it’s wrong.

Most of us won’t be tempted to betray a ruler or steal from a bank, even assuming we were in a position to do so. But lust turns one of our prime human qualities – our spontaneous affections towards other people – into a tool for diverting us from our high calling as human persons. It’s the most understandable of sins, in its way, because it counterfeits the real interpersonal love of the Trinity and the ordered love we should have for God and one another. In other words, it’s not just that it touches the root of our affections. It’s subtle, and that’s all the more reason why we need to be wary of what we’re entering into and who we trust. It’s easy to be deceived and – to judge by divorces and family breakups – it happens a lot.

It happened a lot in Dante’s time, too, if not quite so openly or as celebrated as it seems to be today. And those medieval thinkers and poets, those great geniuses who were able to see how concrete instances fit into larger patterns of vice and virtue, were themselves subtle – and realistic. They didn’t make temptations to lust look horrifying like the devilish practices seen further down in Hell. They made them appear as they are, tempting – and clever at concocting rationalizations.

“If the King of the universe were our friend. . .” We seem to say that to ourselves, in our own modern idiom, about many things, as if the fault were God’s. And it were an excuse.

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.