COUNTER CULTURAL REALITY
Yet there is also a moral reasoning for the placement of each sin, and not just the painful surroundings of the individual circles. The further away from the center of Hell where Satan is to be found, the less severe is the sin being punished. Lust is in one of the first circles while heresy is in circle 6 far below, because in Medieval Christian theology heresy is a far worse crime that lust. Even within the circles as we shall soon see, there is a ranking of least bad to far worse as one is placed closer to the center of Hell and the great Evil One: Satan. That makes sense even to those of us in the 21st century. That is, it makes sense until we come to Circle 7: the Violent, and here everything is exactly upside down and inside out for 21st century sensitivities and moralities. This is one of the most counter-cultural perspectives in the entire Commedia: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Dante the Poet has placed the sins which in his worldview go from the least to the greatest sin of violence. If you have [hopefully] been reading the primary material along with the notes provided by the editors and translators, you will know that the sins of violence are basically found in three formats according to against whom the violence is committed: 1-violence to others 2-violence to oneself or 3-violence against God. And these are ranked in this order with the least offensive leading to the most offensive.
And yet, and yet, surely some of you have noticed that this is not how we view things in the 21st century. Look closely now: the first, least sin is violence against others and their property. This means that murderers, even if they are in a river of blood, are not as sinful as those who believe wrongly [heretics] or those who extort money from others [usurers]. To be crudely ESPN-esque we should count them down, from last to first according to Dante.
According to Dante’s world, the loss of life was to be expected, hence murder and even suicide are less sinful than the loss of faith, community and trust. Yes, of course murder and suicide were bad. That is presumed to be a fact. But here we see Dante punishing more harshly those who use others without killing them. Even blasphemy is seen as using God’s Name without any of the respect due to God. The issue of Sodomy was not based in a homophobic response as it is for some in the 21st century, nor was it seen even simply as a doctrinal denial or from sincere Christian belief. Rather this was about using others merely for one’s own desire, without any shared fruit (bearing life together) as a result of the union. Hence, usage that diminishes the other, whether from nature or faith or profit or empty, fleeting pleasure, is seen as a far greater sin than the act of a moment in anger or despair, like murder or suicide. To turn all of creation or our community of faith or our family and friends into a self-referent resource to serve only our needs or fill our pockets or feel that they all OWE US is seen by Dante the Poet to be the worst of the worst in the circle of violence.
Hence, the arrival of a fair-faced fraud such as Geryon is entirely appropriate as the ultimate in evil, the one who stinks up all of creation. Virgil begins this last Canto in the circle of the Violent with this quote:
1 'Behold the beast with pointed tail, that leaps
2 past mountains, shatters walls and weapons!
3 Behold the one whose stench afflicts the world!'
He then tells Dante the Pilgrim to go and learn from the Usurers, the worst of the worst, who only have eyes for the money purses that hang around their necks. What might this tell our culture and priorities that seem to be take precedence over all else? They cannot be bothered to communicate at any level other than anger, greed and a brutish competitiveness that robs others and themselves of their very humanity. The one who finally speaks to Dante the Pilgrim is less human than the bush who spouted blood and spoke with him earlier.
70 'Among these Florentines, I come from Padua.
71 Many a time they deafen me with shouting:
72 "May the sovereign knight come soon,
73 '"who brings the pouch with three goats on it!"'
74 Then he twisted his mouth and stuck out his tongue
75 like an ox that licks its nose.
76 And I, fearing my delay might anger him
77 who had warned me to make my stay brief,
78 turned back and left those weary souls.
I will not fall into the old sin of casting the first stone toward others, but we all must be sure that faith, integrity and community are nurtured and cared for first and foremost in our journey through life. Else, we may look back with a fine, fat portfolio and yet with no one to share it. Instead, we may find ourselves running across the burning sands of life, trying to put out fires, alone in a crowd.