Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul to waste
And I was 'round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
Not surprisingly, the Rolling Stones got it all wrong. This is not a man of wealth and taste and Lucifer is definitely not ‘pleased to meet you.’ Sorry, Mick and Keith, Dante definitely has no sympathy for the devil. Indeed, this portrayal of the bottom of Hell and the subsequent punishment has shocked readers for centuries. We've seen action, cursing, fire as rain, boiling tar, pitchforks used on sinners and sinners beating on each other. But here, as I mentioned earlier, is silence, stillness and no heat whatsoever. As we come closer to the center of all evil there are no longer any souls with whom one can speak. Evil, Dante the Poet tells us, becomes so self-absorbed and all consuming, that in fact, even to live and move and have our being is unacceptable.
Milton’s Lucifer [and of course Mick Jagger] appears as a tragic hero that refuses to serve in Heaven and so is an active, angry master in Hell. Dante has none of this. Evil, pure evil, is indeed represented here by Dante the Poet, and is shown as incapacitated by being itself. St. Augustine put forth the idea that evil is the antithesis of good, that Satan is the opposite of God. And we have here a hint of the tragedy of sin and also of lost opportunities, for Satan was one of the most beautiful of all of God’s creations. In that beauty there was the potential of great good and joy. Yet here Dante the Poet shows us the devolution, the turning inside out of the one who was given much by the Master, but wasted it all.
Isaiah 14:12–16 (NRSV)
12 How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
13 You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
on the heights of Zaphon;
14 I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,
I will make myself like the Most High.”
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the depths of the Pit.
16 Those who see you will stare at you,
and ponder over you:
“Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
who shook kingdoms…
So there is no love here and hence in Medieval Cosmology, there is no warmth here. Indeed, the blast of wind produced by Lucifer’s wings creates the frozen wasteland, just as the sun of God’s heaven produces loving warmth. Just being in this place of pure evil almost freezes Dante the Pilgrim too…
22 Then how faint and frozen I became,
23 reader, do not ask, for I do not write it,
24 since any words would fail to be enough.
25 It was not death, nor could one call it life.
26 Imagine, if you have the wit,
27 what I became, deprived of either state.
Just as free will can lead anyone astray from God’s gifts so too can free will lead a person back into the divine presence. Virgil tells Dante the Pilgrim that now is the time to gird one’s loins, for to stay any longer is indeed to be slowly denuded and frozen into non-being too. Unlike the other Cantos, there is no extended soliloquy here, no conversation at all. Virgil knows that the very vision of ‘Dis’ or the Evil One is all that is needed to show the harrowing and hollowing power of evil.
68 But night is rising in the sky. It is time
69 for us to leave, for we have seen it all.'
We have here a profound spiritual truth that rankles modern sensitivities: it is only in humbling oneself that one can increase in wisdom and love. It is only in going down that one can ultimately be raised. This is Gospel wisdom and apparent all through the New Testament. It is only in dying that we will live. This entire journey down into and through Hell was essential for Dante the Pilgrim to find his way once again out of the dark wood from whence he started. But it required, freely, surrender to God’s guidance and Dante the Poet's submission to a wise guide on the way. We see here that climbing down the very shanks of evil will bring one out to the place of new growth and hope. My fear is that we gaze far too long at the face and in the place of evil. Fascinated by it, enraged by it, we stop too long in the wrong place and become frozen in our spiritual journey and our journey toward individuation and maturity. Virgil knows this and spends far less time here than anyplace else in the Inferno. Take a good look, dude, and let’s get the hell out of here. NOW!
One can begin to defeat evil and the results of evil by active, intentional movement toward goodness and the light. The longer ones studies and reads and rails against the wrong actions of this world’s politicians and factional executions and human trafficking, the more at risk one is of becoming frozen in that place of hate. Better to know what is right and what is wrong, and then move into action to bring some small part of this creation into the light. We still have a great journey ahead of us with Dante and Virgil, but at this point, they knew indeed that to everything there is a season and a time under heaven. They journeyed down, they saw it all, and now is the time to move on.
Care to come with?