Of Hell and Logic

Note to Readers in the NYC area: Robert Royal will be speaking at 7:30 PM Wednesday evening (4/10/19) at the Columbia University Thomistic Institute on “Dante’s Augustinian and Thomistic World.” Full information is available by clicking here.

In 1294, Celestine V was elected pope, after an interregnum of two years without one, owing to a deadlock among the Cardinals. He resigned only five months later because, though he had founded and run the Celestines, an offshoot of the Benedictines, he felt himself inadequate to the papal office. In 1415, Pope Gregory XII “withdrew” in a somewhat different case – in order to prevent schism over the apostolic succession. Celestine’s, therefore, was the last pure resignation prior to that of Benedict XVI in 2013.

Most Dante scholars have believed over the centuries that Dante was referring to Celestine in Inferno Canto 3 (the place that contains souls who were so indifferent that they refused to choose God or anything else for eternity). He speaks of meeting one, without naming him, “who out of cowardice made the great refusal,” (che per viltade fece il gran rifiuto).

Dante thought this a profound betrayal of the Church, not least because Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII (a political schemer) was involved in Dante’s exile from Florence.

Boniface himself had a troubled life after that because of his constant efforts to expand papal powers. His famous Bull Unam Sanctam claimed authority over secular rulers, which led to his condemnation on a whole list of charges by French bishops. And French King Philip the Fair sent forces that captured and humiliated Boniface, an experience that contributed to his death.

Dante never tires of suggesting that Boniface, along with other corrupt popes, is headed for Hell. Boniface’s overreach may be one reason Dante argued for a division of powers between Church and Empire.

But there’s a scene involving Boniface – one of the funniest, in a bizarre way, in the whole of the  Divine Comedy– where Dante lays out several important points about papal powers, sin, and human destiny.

Way down in Hell among the Evil Counselors, Dante encounters Guido da Montefeltro. Guido was a wily “Machiavellian” before Machiavelli. He used all sorts of lies and tricks to gain military and political victories. Late in life, however, he realized he had to do penance for his sins and entered a Franciscan monastery.

Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to read great works of the imagination for practical or – God save us – political lessons. What we most need from creative works, say Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, especially in the current moment when we are so overwhelmed with daily controversy, is an opening of horizons, an entry into a new way of seeing ourselves and the world that reveals swaths of reality radically different from what we get from the TV and Internet. It’s not only young people these days who are losing the notion that other times were different (and not only worse) and may have something to teach us.


To begin with, an interesting thing about the Guido episode is that Dante finds Guido even deeper in Hell than the violent. There are debates about what this means. But in his other works Dante suggests something we moderns may find surprising, and may even resist: that lies and deception are worse than physical violence because they offend against the rational part of the human being, which is nobler and more in need of protection even than the body. In this view, to represent what is not so to others about a serious matter is an even greater offense against God’s order than physically attacking another person.

Dante traced that notion to suggestions in pagans like Aristotle and Cicero as well as in St. Thomas Aquinas.

In Guido’s case, however, there’s a further twist. After Guido had entered the monastery to do penance for his sins, Boniface VIII comes to him asking for a favor. Boniface is having trouble with a noble Roman family – the Colonnas – who have fled to the nearby town of Palestrina (where the famous composer was born two centuries later). He needs to take the town and eliminate the troublemakers.

Guido says, essentially, “I don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” Boniface says, look, “I’m the pope. Do me this one last favor and I’ll grant you absolution in advance.” “Can you do that?” “Yes, I’m the pope. I have the Keys to the Kingdom.”

So Guido proposes a stratagem: promise the Colonnas amnesty if they let you enter the city, but when you’re in control arrest them all. It works. The pope is happy. Guido goes back to his Franciscan monastery.

Later Guido dies: St. Francis of Assisi arrives to take him up to Heaven, but so does the Devil:

‘Francis – the moment that I died – came then
For me, but one of the black cherubim
Called to him, ‘Don’t take him! don’t cheat me!

‘He must come down to join my hirelings
Because he offered counsel full of fraud,
And ever since I’ve been after his scalp!

‘For you can’t pardon one who won’t repent,
And one cannot repent what one wills also:
The contradiction cannot be allowed.’

What the Devil means here that the law of non-contradiction – that something logically cannot be and not-be the same thing in the same way at the same time – does not allow someone to will to do something and not will it.

“O miserable me! how shaken I was
When he grabbed hold of me and cried, ‘Perhaps
You didn’t realize I was a logician!’”

We have to presume that Guido did not repent of his last treachery, perhaps believing that the pope had absolved him without his having to repent personally of a sin. But the truth is the truth. And even a pope cannot make an evil act good or dole out absolution when a soul has not turned away from such an act.

In any case, this bit of history allows us to see that even in those “superstitious” and priest-ridden Middle Ages, there were strong views about the limits of papal authority, especially when it came to changing teachings, playing loose with pardon, and denying reason and logic for earthly purposes.


*Image: The Struggle Between the Devil and St Francis of Assisi for the Soul of Guido da Montefeltro by Joseph Anton Koch, 1807-08 [British Museum, London]

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.