Passion and Compassion in Dante's Inferno
Dante’s first book of his Divine Comedy takes its reader through an imaginative journey through Hell. Each girone is a testimony to the corruption of the human heart, and gives the poet a chance to denounce the crimes of the political and religious leaders of his time. Most of the time, the reader will concur that the punishment is well deserved.
That is, until you reach the second circle, where “the carnal malefactors were condemned, who reason subjugate to appetite.” There he meets Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, a young couple condemned to eternal fire for their sin of adultery.
Francesca – a true person in Dante’s time – was married for political reasons to Gianciotto, a crippled and ill-mannered representative of the powerful Malatesta family, rulers of Rimini. His brother Paolo made the nuptial arrangements, thus coming in contact with Francesca. It was love at first sight, that continued after her wedding until it led them into an actual affair.
Alerted of this liaison, Gianciotto entered Francesca’s bedroom just in time to catch Paolo escaping, and killed them both.
It’s Francesca who tells the tale in moving details, blaming the power of love, which compels those who are loved to love in kind. At this point, Dante, who had embarked on his journey through hell with some feelings of satisfaction for rendered justice, is overwhelmed by new emotions “and fell, even as a dead body falls.”
This scene, which I first read when I was a pre-teen (the Divine Comedy was required reading in junior high), has remained imprinted in my mind. I often wondered how I would have responded. Some common and instinctive reactions might include a condemnation of the couple or a protest against a seemingly ruthless God. Dante did none of these: He fainted.
Condemning the sins of others is the easy way out. After all, why did those young people put themselves in that dangerous situation – not only being together, alone, in a bedroom, but also reading a romantic novel about an adulterous relation (the story of Lancelot and Guinevere)? What did they expect? We could go on a long discourse on the benefits of the newly dubbed “Mike Pence rule” or the dangers of romantic fiction. And we would feel pretty good about ourselves.
This is particularly true when the sin in question is one we wouldn’t normally be tempted to commit. A person who has never cared for pornography might look down on those who are addicted. But condemning others can also have a numbing effect on our own conscience regarding familiar sins.
As we tour the circles of hell that are now frequently shown on social media, we find that joining the chorus of outrage can distract us from uncomfortable reminders of our own falls. It might even provide relief, as if by condemning others we could somehow excuse ourselves. Sometimes we just do it absentmindedly, because everyone else is doing it.
John Calvin talked about this tendency in his Commentary to Matthew 7:1:
“We see how all flatter themselves, and every man passes a severe censure on others. This vice is attended by some strange enjoyment: for there is hardly any person who is not tickled with the desire of inquiring into other people’s faults. All acknowledge, indeed, that it is an intolerable evil, that those who overlook their own vices are so inveterate against their brethren. The Heathens, too, in ancient times, condemned it in many proverbs. Yet it has existed in all ages, and exists, too, in the present day. Nay, it is accompanied by another and a worse plague: for the greater part of men think that, when they condemn others, they acquire a greater liberty of sinning.”
There are many ways in which compassion can become self-righteous, but the most dangerous kind ends up asserting we are more righteous than God. Dante fainted out of compassion, partially because those two young lovers and their feelings seemed too beautiful to condemn. But he knew better than to blame God.
Feeling compassion for those who suffer punishment is human, particularly when their crimes seem, in some ways, justified, or at least understandable. Dante’s discomfort begins as soon as he recognizes familiar names among the swarm of sinners driven by the cold winds of this girone. Overwhelmed by pity, he describes himself as “bewildered.”
It's easy for us to excuse certain sins. We want God to judge the Nazis, the child molesters, the tycoons that make millions by exploiting others. But some sins, such as adultery, anger, or lying, can often be justified and even romanticized. This is not just a mark of our culture; it has been so since time immemorial. The book that triggered the adultery of Paolo and Francesca was a popular romanticized account of an adulterous relation. And Francesca, moved by Dante’s feelings of pity, brings up many justifications. She blames the book and its author, coupled with their naivety. “We were alone, and totally unsuspecting.”
Mostly, she blames the seemingly irresistible power of love: A “love that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize” and compels the other to love back. But, in the poem, it’s the damned who react to the punishment by blaspheming “against God’s goodness.” Dante simply faints.
Awe and True Compassion
What causes Dante to faint is not just compassion. It’s the conflict he experiences between feelings that were apparently beautiful and irresistible on one hand and the law of a God he knows to be just on the other. He also knows (as we see in other portions of his poetry) that true love doesn’t oppose God’s laws, nor overthrows reason.
In this context, fainting was the appropriate response. The realization of what sin can produce in the human heart - not only the despicable acts we readily abhor but also the acts that trigger our compassion – can leave us disoriented. So can the dreadful consequences of that sin. Even Jesus wept while witnessing, in his humanity, the devastation of death in his friends’ lives – the horror and agony that humans, through sin, had brought on themselves.
This realization should trigger both awe and compassion – the right kind of compassion, not a compassion that excuses, but a compassion that recognizes the power of sin, the weakness of our human nature, and the fact that only God’s grace can keep any of us from falling prey to the most appalling passions. As James Montgomery Boice wisely wrote in his commentary on Psalm 130,
“We need to know that God’s wrath is not an outmoded theological construct but a terrible and impending reality. We need to come out of our sad fantasy world and begin to tremble before the awesome holiness of our almighty Judge.”
Dante’s Divine Comedy is, of course, a work of fiction – even though its characters really existed. Ultimately, we don’t know how God worked in the lives of any of them. What we know is that God has provided the only answer to the devastating predicament that sin has produced in the world, and the same Jesus who wept over the tragedy of death has conquered death forever for all those who find refuge in Him.
Simonetta Carr is a mother of eight and a homeschool educator for twenty years. She has also worked as a freelance journalist and a translator of Christian works into Italian. Simonetta is the author of numerous books, including Weight of a Flame and the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series.
Podcast: "Christians and Lit"
"Of Fire Extinguishers and Temptation" by Donny Friederichsen
"Keeping Desire and Temptation in Their Place" by Richard Phillips
"What About B.O.B.s?" by Josh Irby
"George Herbert – Pastor and Poet" by Simonetta Carr
Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata by Simonetta Carr
Psalms, Volume 3: Psalms 107-150 by James Boice
 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, transl. by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Book 1 (Inferno), Canto V:40, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1001/1001-h/1001-h.htm#CantoV.
 Ibid, 138
 John Calvin, Calvin's Commentary on the Bible, Matthew 7, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/matthew-7.html
 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book 1 (Inferno), Canto V:72.
 Ibid, 100, my translation.
 Ibid, 129
 Ibid., 37, my translation
 James Montgomery Boice, “Tuesday: Luther's ‘Pauline Psalm’,” Think and Act Biblically, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, https://www.alliancenet.org/tab/tuesday-luthers-pauline-psalm