Early in his pilgrimage through Hell, Dante (the character) is given a warning. It is a warning he does not heed and consequently a lesson he does not learn. If commentary on canto V of Inferno is any indication, it is also a lesson that we, the audience, have not learned and the consequences of this lesson-not-learned are reverberating throughout both the city of the world and of God.
Making his way from the first circle to the second, Dante and Virgil must pass by Minos, the infernal judge who determines which circle of Hell (and, consequently, which infernal punishment) the condemned will eternally suffer. He is Satan’s sorting hat.
Minos gives a warning to Dante: “O thou! who to this residence of woe approachest!… Look how thou enter here; beware in whom thou place thy trust. Let not the entrance broad deceive thee to thy harm.” Being that the place is Hell, this warning of Minos seems rather obvious. But the road to Hell is very wide and turns where it will to our delight. It takes every advantage it may to play upon our mind and our heart, to sway our thoughts, our emotions, and our will. It blinds us so that we only see ourselves, and, in the swaying of our being to its infernal end, we justify ourselves.
Like all things, Minos’s warning has a context. That context is the canto in which he speaks, Canto V. After receiving this warning from Minos (and dismissing it), Dante and Virgil continue to the second circle of Hell: those who gave themselves to lust. Immediately, Dante is put to the test concerning the warning he received. Entering into Hell proper (as opposed to Limbo), he first meets Francesca and Paolo being swept in a perpetual tempest, never to have any rest. They are uncontrollably carried away in this evil storm just as they were carried away by their lust. Before meeting Francesca and Paolo, Dante describes what he saw and heard. Among what he heard were “blasphemies ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven” from the souls being endlessly tossed. He said that their reason was swayed by lust. They blasphemy the One who is Truth. As Virgil points out specific people, Dante becomes filled with pity. Heroes of old such as Achilles, Paris, and Tristan are identified as those “whom love bereaved of life”. These great men and women of old were undone by lust. It is telling though that Dante does not say that lust bereaved them of life, but rather love, and before he speaks to any of these poor souls he already pities them and is drawn in pity to them.
Dante now calls out in “strong affection” to a man and woman he sees clinging to one another in their hell. His strong affection moves them to break free temporarily from the tempest and speak with him. As they come, Dante describes them as doves with strong wings returning home to their “sweet nest”. He is swept up in the pathos of what he sees and portrays them as something they are not, innocent. When they come to him Francesca tells him their tale of woe, and he is so moved by what he hears and sees that “through compassion fainting… [he] fell to the ground.”
Francesca was married to Gianciotto and caught by him in an affair with his more handsome brother, Paolo. In his rage, Gianciotto killed them both. It is easy to sympathize with Francesca. She was young, her marriage was arranged, and she was married to a man who was not pleasing to look upon nor (one may infer) treated her well. With Paolo, she was able to form true affection through mutual interest and time spent together. Theirs is a sad and pitiable story. But sadness and pity do not change what is, and it is in this that Dante (the character) fell into the trap of which he had been warned.
Francesca and Paolo may not have been malicious in what they did and they may be pitiable, but none of that rights the wrong they committed. It is not truly about the wrong committed though; it is that they died unrepentant. Remember, they, with all the other souls ceaselessly driven by that devilish wind, “blasphemy ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven.” They blasphemy against the Truth. They do not call God friend (line 90) and they do not pray for Dante’s peace (line 91). Thrice Francesca invokes love: “Love, that in a gentle heart is quickly learnt… Love, that denial takes from none beloved… Love brought us to one death.” (102-105; emphasis mine) Her thrice invocation of love is a blasphemy in and of itself. By “love” she really means lust and by it thrice insults the Holy Trinity, Who is Love. Their story is a lie, told with enough twisted truth as to elicit pity from their hearer. And Dante was ready to lend his heart before ever he heard their tale.
Michelangelo foreshadows this in his representation of Minos shown above. He depicts not only Minos but also points to Francesca and Paolo through the mutilation of Minos’s genitals, the organ of lust, by the serpent. In Francesca and Paolo, we see “the entrance broad.” We also see ones in whom Dante has placed his trust. He trusts them through the lending of his ear and the sympathy of his heart.
The sins of the flesh produce great heartache and elicit great sympathy from people. We often find pitiable (and rightly so) people who find themselves in difficult situations because of the swaying of their heart toward lust. One reason we find these circumstances so pitiable is because lust is not what truly underlies them; there is more that underlies the lust such as sadness, pain, and fear. Yet these do not excuse a pitiable situation. And people in those situations should be encouraged to rise heroically to the universal call of holiness, rather than given allowance out of pity.
G.K. Chesterton said, “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality.” When we look at the world and its progression now for generations, when we look at the issue currently sending shockwaves through the Roman Church – that being the possibility of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried – can we really doubt that Chesterton was right? We need to learn what Dante did not and heed, better than he, Minos’s warning.