Toward the end of The Inferno we have had a series of Cantos linked together by theme, people, sins and lessons. We have the same here. It is helpful to hold these two Cantos together and review both of them, allowing each to shed light on the other. I will do that briefly and, yet again, encourage anyone reading this blog to please spend time in the primary material and the notes that attend your particular translation. Be patient with this journey with Dante the Pilgrim and the Poet maintaining a steadfast trust in Dante as your guide. In the end, you will be rewarded in ways you could not expect.
We have interesting parallel lives here in Cantos XXVI and XXVII: two men of astounding intellect and leadership, two men in the same circle of hell who led others into battle and used every kind of trick to win those battles [as in the use of the Trojan Horse by Odysseus / Ulysses]. Here in Canto XXVII we have one who seems to still miss the life of fierce competiveness and combat, the winning of every battle at any cost, destroying one’s enemies along with one’s own integrity. In fact, Guido da Montefeltro seems rather proud of this part of his life. When he speaks with Dante the Pilgrim, one gets the sense of his crowing about how good he was at being ‘foxy’ and finding ways to defeat all opponents.
73 'While I still kept the form in flesh and bones
74 my mother gave me, my deeds were not
75 a lion's but the actions of a fox.
76 'Cunning stratagems and covert schemes,
77 I knew them all, and was so skilled in them
78 my fame rang out to the far confines of the earth.
And yet, these two men in these two Cantos made decisions in their old age that led them to this place in Hell. I think there is an assumption here that age leads to wisdom and maturity, spiritual growth and care for community. Ulysses and Guido however increased in manipulation and deceit and self-importance, causing death to other innocents who happened to follow them or be in their way. Ulysses wanted more and more knowledge of vice [mentioned first] and virtue. Arriving home with family and nation expecting him to show them his growth and maturity in virtue and leadership, Ulysses instead fired up the desires of his aged followers and led them into the unknown and ultimately, to their death. He left behind the community he was supposed to nurture and guide. Guido da Montefeltro in the next Canto was at a similar crossroad of life and he mentions this to Dante the Pilgrim:
79 'When I saw I had reached that stage of life
80 when all men ought to think
81 of lowering sail and coiling up the ropes,
82 'I grew displeased with what had pleased me once.
83 Repentant and shriven, I became a friar.
84 And woe is me! it would have served.
And yet he was neither repentant nor shriven in old age. Guido becomes a follower of St. Francis of Assisi, a friar who is supposed to be humble, nonviolent, poor and a lover of the poor. Yet as soon as Pope Boniface VIII shows up and offers him a way to sin using the same kind of ‘foxy’ strategy, and to get away with it, including built-in absolution, he leaps at the chance. If he wants to use the metaphor of life as a sea-voyage, rather than using the remaining time to get right with God and prepare for the eternal voyage of the soul, he ignores all that and launches yet again into the immediate gratification of complicity with temporal power. One comes to the conclusion that to put off love of God and love of neighbor until the very last moment is risky business indeed.
In fact, I have the feeling that even in trying to become a monk in the first place Guido was attempting to ‘out-fox’ God Himself. Let’s revisit the same set of lines above, this time using Musa’s translation rather than Hollander’s. It is, I think, very telling:
79 When I saw that the time of life had come for me,
80 as it must come for every man,
81 to lower the sails and gather in the lines,
82 things I once found pleasure in then grieved me;
83 repentant and confessed, I took the vows a monk takes.
84 And, oh, to think it could have worked!
One has the sense that he has not changed at all, there is no repentance or confession but only manipulation and deceit, for as soon as the opportunity arises he yet again contrives a frightful deception which results in the massacre of Christians in order that the Pope can attain property for the Vatican, or even for his own personal family estates. [Check your translation notes on this war by the Pope and the expansion of the Papal States.]
The Best Theologian Of Them All
In the Middle Ages, popes were called the "Vicarius Christi", The Vicar of Christ. Francis of Assisi submitted to the "Vicarius Christi" of his day, Pope Innocent III in forming the Franciscan Order. And yet, here, we find that Pope Boniface VIII uses theological language only to achieve his own ends while the devil sent to collect the soul of Guido da Montefeltro schools St. Francis of Assisi and Boniface in the proper meaning of repentance and absolution. Both Guido and Boniface have used the terms repentance and absolution, yet neither truly know what their true Christian meaning. Boniface offers forgiveness and absolution BEFORE the sin is committed. This is total nonsense. Repentance assumes and requires a past sin that was committed and a broken heart that grieves over the past action and promises before God to not do it again. Absolution before the act negates the entire premise of repentance. Hence, Boniface states:
100 'And then he spoke again: "Let not your heart mistrust:
101 I absolve you here and now if you will teach me
102 how I can bring Praeneste to the ground.
And Guido responds:
108 And so I said: "Father, since you cleanse me
109 '"of the sin that I must even now commit:
110 Promising much with scant observance
111 will seal your triumph on the lofty throne."
Both feel they have outwitted God just as they outwitted the poor Christians who, believing the promises of Boniface and gave up their city and were therefore imprisoned and or slaughtered as soon as their city gates were opened. Yet, they did not fool Satan. As Francis came to collect Guido’s soul upon his death, one of the messengers for Satan shows up and, logically, proves that in fact, Guido da Montefeltro belongs down below.
112 'The moment I was dead, Francis came for me.
113 But one of the dark Cherubim cried out:
114 "No, wrong me not by bearing that one off.
115 '"He must come down to serve among my minions
116 because he gave that fraudulent advice.
117 From then till now I've dogged his footsteps.
118 '"One may not be absolved without repentance,
119 nor repent and wish to sin concurrently --
120 a simple contradiction not allowed."
121 'Oh, wretch that I am, how I shuddered
122 when he seized me and said: "Perhaps
123 you didn't reckon I'd be versed in logic."
The Devil’s Apprentice knows his Medieval Scholastic Theology from Aquinas and even quotes it back to them. Wonderful. I often wonder how many times I or others assume we can pull one over on God or even try to fool ourselves merely to justify doing that which, ultimately, we know is wrong, wrong, wrong.
The more I have studied the Commedia through the years, the more I am impressed by the hidden parallel lessons that are here for Dante the Poet, for at the time he is writing this, Dante himself is in exile from his beloved Florence as a direct result of Boniface VIII’s intervention in their politics. Many, many would and did blame Boniface for their exile or destruction, and yet here we see in subtle and profound ways Dante reminding himself that in the final analysis, it all comes down to owning our own decisions and complicity in our own final state of affairs. Guido da Montefeltro blames Pope Boniface VIII and yet it is his own fault. When reading this I find Dante reminding himself that in fact, he must be wise and humble and acknowledge his own part in his own fall from Grace, requiring God to save himself, Dante the Poet, and being fully repentant in the truest sense.