When Dante’s Charon, the ferryman of the dead, declares to the wicked souls gathered upon the shores of the Acheron that they must give up all hope to look upon the skies again, they do something that strikes to the emptiness at the heart of all evil:
Bestemmiavano Dio e lor parenti,
l’umana spezie e ’l loco e ’l tempo e ’l seme
di lor semenza e di lor nascimenti.
[They] hurled blasphemy at God and at their parents,
at the whole human race, the place, the time
and the seed of their begetting and their birth.
— Inferno 3.100-102
Attend closely to what Dante shows us here, for the Florentine never wastes a word, and the breathless universality of the curse offers a moment of high drama and acute theological and human insight. Notice that the curse seems to descend or to contract—from God and the vastness of the human race down to the instantaneous moment of a man’s coming to be; even the seed itself (in Italian, “the seed of their seeding”).
But the curse’s aim has not actually shifted from God at all. For Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds; and that the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die before it can bring forth much fruit. It was in just so small a seed that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
St. Augustine, considering the creation of the world, suggested that God might have implanted in matter the seeds of things, the rationes seminales, the seminal presence of his providential design. It is hard to believe that Dante did not have some such idea in mind, whether or not he derived it directly from Augustine. To curse the seed, then, is to curse God in the very smallness and sweetness of the world of space and time. It is to curse all that partakes in being, even the dust from whence we have come and to which we return.
I believe this curse helps illustrate the justice of hell and how man, though finite, can reject love in the root, in the smallest of the seeds. The doctrine of hell, of course, embarrasses modern man, who would like dearly to reduce it to its more flagrant depictions in medieval art, in order to dismiss it—while ignoring the profound un-reality to which, in their analyses of evil, the great medieval thinkers would advert.
Who chooses hell for whom?
We say, glibly, that God would not punish man for so slight a trespass (the words of Milton’s serpent), whatever the trespass may be; meaning not that the love of God overwhelms all our evil but that God is as dull and bored as we sinners are. He will shrug and say, “Well, that’s good enough, I suppose,” and admit us to the spa. We would not punish anyone eternally; but then, we do not love infinitely; we are not holy. So we imagine God after our likeness: a big brother or a bully, as the case may be, a Mr. Zeus, but not God.
But hell is the inverted hollow of our capacity for God. If we are open to the infinite and the everlasting, then we also are “open” to the false infinity and eternity of nothingness. We can utter, by the set of our hearts, the curse that pulls us up by the root, lest we acknowledge that we depend for every moment of our existence upon him whose essence it is to exist. We can choose to dwell in the unreality of evil. We may cast ourselves upon the waters, where the creative Spirit of God hovers, or we may cast ourselves into the abyss that is waste and void, in Hebrew tohu w’bohu, words otherwise used in Scripture only to describe the unreality of idols.
Thomas Aquinas compares deadly sin to an injury that destroys sight in its principle, its foundation. If we drive a nail into our eye, it is not the same as if we throw dust in it; the dust hurts but does not destroy the principle of sight. The nail does. The difference is one of kind, not degree. To gouge out the eye is not only to will not to see: It is to will never again to see; it is to seize eternal blindness. Nothing we do then will restore the vision. Only a miracle of God will suffice.
The sinners who curse when they hear Charon’s words would prefer that nothing in the world exist rather than face their damnation. But the mortal sin is itself a choice for nothing. Some people say they do not believe in God because there is too much evil in the world; never do the same people say that there is too much evil in the mirror. They wish not to see. Men hate the light, says St. John, because their deeds are evil (cf. John 3:19). I do not mean to suggest that they imagine a universe without God so that they can sin the more easily. I mean rather that the mortal sin itself implies already a choice for a universe as if there were no God. Instead of the seed that is the kingdom of God, the seed of love, they choose the un-seed, the principle of emptiness. It is an infinite choice. Saint Thomas is instructive:
It is just that he who has sinned against God in his own eternity should be punished in God’s eternity. A man is said to have sinned in his own eternity, not only by continual sinning throughout his life, but also because, from the very fact that he fixes his end in sin, he has the will to sin everlastingly. That is why Gregory [the Great] says that “the wicked would wish to live without end, that they might abide in their sins forever” (Summa Theologica, prima secundae, q. 87, art. 5; emphasis added).
The will to have no will
Dante portrays this will-to-sin, which is a will-to-unreality, a will-to-unbeing, in two striking similes that follow the curse of the damned:
Charon the demon, eyes of fiery coal,
signals them all to get into the boat—
smacks with his oar the soul that lags behind.
As in the fall when leaves are lifted off,
one drops—another—till the naked branch
sees all its garment lying on the earth,
So the bad seed of Adam one by one
toss themselves from the shore at Charon’s sign,
as hawks returning to the master’s call (109-117).
Are they compelled to enter the boat, or not? Charon is but one ferryman to their crowd of sinners. What is surprising here is not that the occasional sinner needs the thwack of the oar to his back or head—another means by which the oar is used for getting souls from one shore to the other—but that they do not all need it. In some mysterious fashion, the souls “agree” to go to hell. They have fixed their wills upon it.
But Dante portrays that fixity not as resolution but as emptiness, as if they have willed no longer to have a will at all. Hence the sad inevitability of the leaves falling from the tree in autumn: A gentle breeze suffices to detach the dead leaf from the branch and send it floating to the earth. Hence also the subhuman bondage of the falcon, trained by the prospect of prey to return to the call of the falconer. The sinners are il mal seme d’Adamo, “the evil seed of Adam,”but seed detached from any principle of life, and what grows from such seed is futility. That is why, as Virgil explains it, they can both hate and love the futility they have chosen:
My gracious Teacher spoke to me: “My son,
all souls that die beneath the wrath of God
from every nation here collect in one,
And they are prompt to cross the river, for
Justice Divine so goads and spurs them on,
that what they fear turns into their desire” (121-126).
Is hell then a place of refuge for the wicked? In a qualified sense, yes. Consider the cries of the wicked kings of the earth when the sixth seal in heaven is broken: They “hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb’” (Rev. 6:15-16). The wrath of the Lamb? A strange and suggestive image, that, when elsewhere we read that the heavenly city “has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
What is righteous wrath if not a pure and unswerving love for what is good and holy? The mother who holds her child in her arms and gazes into the beauty of its face will go through fire to protect it from harm; the blaze of her love is the blaze of her anger. The fire that the blessed experience as glory and love is the fire that the wicked hate and fear. They would not be seeds fostered by the warmth of the sun.
Not heat but cold
That may help explain the sheer deadness of Dante’s vision of hell and his choice to associate it rather with forms of coldness than with heat. If we consider the expansiveness of fire and the magnanimity it naturally suggests, then all of hell seems a cold contraction, a perverse “sprouting” downward and inward, collapsing the personality into an infinitesimally small kernel of selfishness.
There are, to be sure, some mightily memorable personalities in hell, but they are like pillars in ruin, standing out the more prominently because what surrounds them is generally so flat and barren. Take the souls of the opportunists, who gave themselves over to nothing in life but their own petty selves, and who therefore do not “merit” being flung to a lower ring of hell, where something of their identities might flicker on. Instead they race continually after an empty banner in the vestibule of hell. Virgil can hardly endure to spend a few words on them:
The world allows no rumor of them now.
Mercy and justice hold them in contempt.
Let’s say no more about them. Look, and pass (49-51).
So too the souls of the avaricious, who gave their hearts over to the hoarding of dust. When Dante, noticing how many of them bear the cleric’s tonsure, says that he might well recognize a few, Virgil corrects him:
Forget it, it’s an empty thought.
The nothing-knowing life that made them foul
dims them beyond all recognition now (7.52-54).
They are submerged beneath naming, beneath personality.
It is why, too, Dante constructs his hell as a funnel, growing more and more cramped until at the bottom there is only ice—the inversion of the unchangeableness of the ever-creating God, of him who says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Of course, Dante, knowing as did everybody that the world was round, almost had to funnel the circles of hell, just to cause them to converge or collapse upon a single point, both climactic (in that it expresses most clearly the nothingness of evil) and anticlimactic (in that it does not actually scale any height but slumps into speechless imbecility). Still, it surprises most people who encounter Dante for the first time that ice, not fire, is assigned the punishment for the traitors, the worst of all sinners. Why ice?
First, it is because ice does not do anything. It is Dante’s physical correlative for complete inaction. It is also a symbol of bondage. Fire may purify, fire may dance, fire may leap; but ice grips and locks. Ice also characterizes the cold of a heart dedicated to evil. Such a heart cannot enjoy the feast of the Sabbath; it cannot be on fire with joy. Therefore its “Sabbath” is to remain forever fixed in refusal. That is the meaning of the act that causes the ice.
Separation from being itself
Dante sees Satan at the bottom of hell, fixed in ice up to his waist, flapping his enormous bat-wings eternally and raising the gale that reduces the river Cocytus to the very ice that prevents his wings from lifting him a single inch from his self-forged bonds. Every flap of those wings is a lie. Satan, rejecting the Word of God, does not speak, but his wings speak for him, and say, “I rise by my own power; I exist by my own power.” Rather than acknowledge that his existence comes from God, rather than root himself in the ground of being, Satan chooses the unreality of the lie. He prefers nonexistence to obedience. He prefers the ice of a fixed will-to-evil to the fire of love. For God is love, and “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).
We should see, then, an underlying identity connecting the first sinners we meet in Dante’s hell to Satan, the last. To choose as one’s principle of life the unreality of evil is to choose an eternal and infinite separation from being itself. So the speechlessness of the opportunists, and their futile race after the empty banner, is like the speechlessness of Satan and the futile beating of his wings. They are broader than any sail on a ship at sea, says Dante (34.48), but the only result of their motion is immobility. The implicit message of Satan’s “flight” from reality into self is that he should prefer not to exist at all rather than to exist as contingent upon him whose name is I AM; and that is but the curse of the sinners on the shores of the Acheron.
We can say something similar of all the varieties of sinners between the rim of hell and the pit. The sowers of discord experience in their persons the divisions they wrought on earth, as they are slashed by the sword of a demon while they traverse their petty ring, world without end; the wounds “heal” by the time they approach the demon again, and again they suffer slashing. The impostors and confidence men, who on earth for their profit instigated in others a desire for wealth on the cheap, suffer the bite of an endless itch. Bloodthirsty tyrants must stand in the boiling river Phlegethon. The sullen—who surrendered to the spiritual sludge of sloth—gargle out their hymn of misery from beneath the sluggish waves of the Styx. It is not so much that the punishment is appropriate for the sin as that it is the sin itself, willed infinitely, is repeated forever.
Our choice: the Word or the lie
The question remains: Can man so resist the love of God as to turn it, for his purposes and in his experience of it, into a fixed hatred? A few of the early Christian writers believed that God, stronger than death, would pull from the pit of hell even those who hated him worst; His love would finally prove irresistible. Origen taught something along those lines; St. Gregory of Nyssa comes within a hair’s breadth of claiming it as a necessity. That would transform hell into purgatory while preserving it as the place that Jesus warns us against, the “everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). I have never been able to find strong scriptural warrant for such optimism. If it is so, however, then it is surely an example of superabundant grace, not a requirement of justice.
Let me suggest otherwise. Imagine a man who has devoted himself to producing pornography, to the utter degradation of the human person in his or her sexual beauty. Imagine that man attending a wedding of a virgin man and a virgin woman, with all the guests as innocent and as pure as they. Why, he would loathe even the merry bodiliness of their jests! The more lovely they appear, the brighter their glory, the more would he feel it as loathsome, hypocritical, childish. His flesh would prick with contempt. He would seek his shop as a refuge.
Or imagine a man who has sold his soul for money, invited to a party. The guests are of modest means but conspicuously careless; they give with an exuberance that embarrasses him. Every openhanded present would be, to him, as if someone had stung him with a needle. He would seek his counting shop as a refuge. We must not suppose that the faithless and the wicked are always wrong when they tell us that, if heaven exists, they would not want to go there. Hymns are interminably dull for those who have not the heart to sing them.
But maybe Dante can assist us here again. The names of Christ and Mary are never uttered in his hell. It’s too easy to say that they are not worthy of being uttered there. That’s true, but not true enough. Dante places Mary and Christ at the very beginning of the possibility of repentance, which is also the possibility of giving oneself up to God completely—letting the kingdom of God be the seed planted in our hearts. For on the mountain of Purgatory, just as the realm of atonement begins, Dante sees a moving and speaking sculpture, a living work of art, in the wall of the mountain. It is of Mary, at the moment of the annunciation:
And in her pose was stamped the spoken word,
exactly as a seal in molten wax:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
At which moment the world is changed utterly: The Word is made flesh. A seed is planted, but not without Mary’s consent, Mary’s love. She takes into herself the smallest of the seeds, the God who made the world from nothing. So, in an analogous manner, does sinful man, when he turns to the source of his being. He welcomes Christ into his heart. He becomes a new creation, which is also the old creation made shining and new.
To sin the deadly sin is to do more than ignore this moment, to live as if it had never happened. It is to take within oneself the “seed” of nothing, not the Word through whom all things are made, but the lie into which all things are unmade. If man can do the former, can he not also do the latter?