“[He] has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
“Treachery gnaws treachery, and so inevitably. […] The City is [in] every way
–Charles Williams (The Figure of Beatrice)
The moral economy of Dante’s Inferno can confuse first timers. It’s not just the profound spectacle of punishments that puzzles the mind, but also the prioritizing of some sins over—or rather under—others. The sins that occupy the topmost of hell’s spiraling corridors are still sins and (sans redemption) are worthy of damnation, yet they are not the worst evils.
For example, the first true sin of hell proper is Lust, with the lustful caught in endless whirlwinds that whip them about like dead leaves. The lesson is not too hard to exposit: the lustful heart is the restless and reckless heart, setting no roots, making no commitments, fluttering unceasingly from one person’s body to the next, hopelessly yet deliberately dissatisfied. So Lust is the horror of willed homelessness, the destruction of all relation and communion, because it is (ultimately) the destruction of love.
What is less apparent—or perhaps harder to swallow—is that Lust is first of the sins of hell proper. It is still damnable and yet somehow not the worst, or rather it is the least of the worst.
The average American religious sensibility, formed by strong Puritan roots, typically balks at such a suggestion. Lust (which encompasses a plethora of sexual sins) seems to be the sin of our age, even worse than Pride, for Pride might attempt some form of respectability in public. After all, it has its vanity to maintain.
Lust, however, seems unabashed in our culture: not only in the hyper-sexualization of persons and things, but also in consumer culture at large. As Inferno makes clear, Lust is only the doorway to Gluttony (the love of stuff), Greed (the love of the stuff that acquires more stuff), and finally Wrath (the total frustration of your inordinate desires). Treat persons as objects long enough, and soon you’ll only love objects, which can only end in the lonely misery and despair of the self-centered life.
So the Puritan point is taken, and Inferno doesn’t disagree. It simply adds this addendum: Lust is the doorway, but it is still only the doorway. There is a house with many rooms beyond, with evils far deeper, subtle as serpent-craft, all the more deadly for being so subtle.
Plunging to the depths of Inferno, Dante and Virgil reach the bottom third of hell where the worst of the worst reside. This is the region of Fraud, where the intellect, torn fully from its adoration of God, turns towards willful deception of others in the name of its own self-interest. It is the use of reason that results in the negation of reason, for our minds are meant to search and acquire truth as an act of worship to the God who is Truth and in whose Image we have been made. Fraud is the antithesis of reason.
The first stop in this region is the eighth circle, where the Liars reside. It is a strange and complex circle, constructed of ten ditches set in ever-narrowing concentric rings. A lightless solar system with tighter and tighter orbits, it begins with seducers and ends with counterfeiters and conmen.
The meaning of this elaborate (and narratively long) image was expounded by Dorothy Sayers—Oxford scholar and friend of the Inklings—in her translation of Inferno. Upon reaching the end of the eighth circle, she writes in her notes,
“[This is] the image of the corrupt heart which acknowledges no obligation to keep faith with its fellow men. [It is] the image of a diseased society in the last stages of its mortal sickness and already necrosing. Every value it has is false; it alternates between a deadly lethargy and a raving insanity. [The circle] began with the sale of the sexual relationship, and went on to the sale of Church and State; now [at its bottom] the very money is itself corrupted, every affirmation has become perjury, and every identity a lie….”
The lustful, the ones who let themselves be swept away by inordinate desires, are not nearly as pitiful and horrifying as this. The lustful soul was caught in an endless whirlwind. The lying soul—no longer a soul but merely a lie—is a diseased soul, putrid and deformed, wallowing in its own filth, spreading its contagion to those it resents.
As Lust was the doorway to Gluttony, Greed, and Wrath, so Lying is the doorway to the final evil. The eighth circle gives way to the ninth, and the diseased horrors of the liars give way to the frigid horrors of the traitors. For Inferno, this is the final pit of that long moral descent that began with treating people as mere objects of your own pleasure and ends with all loyalties and bonds of love dissolved. So the sick heart becomes the frozen heart—a dead heart—and now there is no one it will not betray, whether family or country, guests or benefactors.
So the final evil, evil worked out to its logical and inevitable calamity, is the betrayal of the benefactor, i.e., the betrayal of the one who gave you more than you deserved, inviting you in as a guest to their house, and rather than repaying them with gratitude and service, you chose instead to steal, kill, and destroy. That is the evil of which Lust is the door and yet is more evil than Lust. It is the satanic personified, and so at the bottom of Inferno we see Satan himself, the ultimate traitor of the ultimate Benefactor, trapped in an icy prison of his own continual making.
Of course, one important message of all this horror is the Gospel. Even in the gloom of hell, Dante the character takes note of strange breaches between the circles, as though some great force plowed through every barrier, even to the very depths of the ninth circle. Virgil does not know who it was, only that some “mighty spirit” came down not long after his own death and plunged to the depths only to rise again.
Virgil died in 19 BC, so he unknowingly witnessed the theologically controversial yet interesting notion of the Harrowing of Hell, where (according to tradition) Christ descended into the pit and took the very keys of death and hell from the fists of Satan.
For Dante the author, the Harrowing serves an evangelistic function in his story: there is no depth Christ cannot reach, even to the uttermost of betrayal. Les Miserables (both the book and musical) exemplified the same idea: Val Jean can steal all the silver he wants from the beneficent Bishop; he will still, in the end, be offered redeeming grace instead of deserved punishment.
There is, however, another important message: the worst of evils often does not look very evil at all. Far from some corrosive image (like Dorian Gray’s picture), they can wear all the right clothes and say all the right things and, ostensibly, do all the right things. This may be the deeper meaning behind Paul’s assertion that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (II Cor. 11:14), for why wouldn’t Satan so disguise himself? The ultimate traitor is the father of lies. Fraud is the medium of his trade, like wood is the medium of a carpenter.
Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Wrath are all damnable sins, as are Lying and Treachery; yet Dante argued—and argued rather vividly—that the latter are even more insidious threats to our souls and our society. We would do well to remember that, especially with the current state of our socio-political order and discourse. As tribalism increases, and a zero sum ‘us-vs-them’ ethos displaces moral principles, it’s far too easy for persons on all sides—including conservative Christians—to have itching ears. As such, it’s far too easy for political hucksters and tricksters—wearing their best suits and perhaps even (mis)quoting Jesus—to have their way with us.
There’s more that could be said on that, but let’s end with this: in the American republic, our elected officials are not our lords and masters. On the contrary, we are their benefactors. They have been given their places of prestige because we the people allowed them to. They are guests in our house, because this country is our house. The White House is our house. The Governor’s Mansion is our house. The mayor’s house is our house. All the halls of governmental power our halls in our house.
We ought, therefore, to be more wary of traitors in our midst: of smooth operators with slick tongues, of opportunists ready to capitalize on the fears and concerns of the citizenry, of wily political animals who know how to ride the wave of an issue straight into a place of power and then either do nothing about it or the very opposite of what they promised. Such sin may not seem, on the surface, as shocking as someone caught in sexual sin, but it is sin all the same. Indeed, it is sin as wide as the mouth of hell, as deep as Satan himself.
About the Author
Jonathan received both his MA and MFA from the University of Memphis, where he is currently a PhD candidate. He teaches at the Center for Western Studies, is a native Memphian, and an avid lover of both great literature and animated movies. He has written for The CiRCE Institute and has been published in The Chesterton Review. He is fond of pie.