Just Dessert

Upon entering the Sixth Circle, Dante and Virgil come across tombs “kindled all of them to glowing heat” (IX 119). When I think of a heretic, I envision an intellectual who has forsaken his people’s principles. However, it seems that the heresy of these folk is much more specific.

Dante naturally inquires of Virgil regarding the cries. Virgil explains that these cries belong to the arch-heretics. Moreover, each tomb is crowded with these souls. They are left to cry endlessly until they are ultimately judged in the Valley of Jehosaphat. While Dante and Virgil are speaking, one soul in particular interrupts them: Farinata. With encouragement form Virgil, Dante speaks to this soul. With a brief interruption from Cavalcante de Cavalcanti, we get a glimpse into the specific punishment of the heretics.

Farinata identifies Dante as a Tuscan by means of his accent. While discussing their ancestral history, another shade by the name of Cavalcante de Cavalcanti pops up. Dante explains, “He looked around me, just as if he longed to see if I had come with someone else” (55-56). Cavalcante inquires after his son. He is stunned by Dante’s specific diction of “your Guido did disdain” (63). Cavalcante understands from this that his son is already dead. And so he retreats back, not to show himself again. We will return to this briefly.

Further in the Farinata’s conversation with Dante, he predicts Dante’s impeding exile from Florence. Dante notices that Farinata has the ability to prophesy that which will occur, but is unable to contextualize the present. The living says to the dead, “It seems, if I hear right, that you can see beforehand that which time is carrying, but you’re denied the sight of present things” (97-99). Farinata’s response elucidates exactly the punishment of the heretics: “We see, even as men who are farsighted, those things…that are remote from us; the Highest Lord allots us that much light. But when events draw near or are, our minds are useless; were we not informed by other, we should know nothing of your human state. So you can understand how our awareness will die completely at the moment when the portal of the future has been shut” (100-108). To complete the idea, Dante requests that Farinata convey to Cavalcante de Cavalcanti that his son is, in fact, still alive.

It seems that the heretics got their just dessert. For the Epicureans, it was claiming to understand the immortality (or lack there of) of the soul. Consequently, they are deprived of any ability to understand the world as it is. The same is true of all heretics. Further, as Farinata explains, after the Last Judgement, these souls will know absolutely nothing. For abusing their ability to think and comprehend for falsehood, they are damned to eternal ignorance.

Additionally, one can suggest that this is the natural consequence of heresy. It is not that these souls have gotten what they deserve, per se. Rather, the truth lies with the order of the world: if you abuse knowledge, knowledge will be taken from you. This does seem similar to the other explanation, though it seems there is nuance to be found. Further investigation is required!

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One Response to Just Dessert

  1. m.hilbert says:

    Allow me to add a small investigation. Perhaps Dante could say this punishment is natural, but by doing so, he condemns curiosity. One of the most condemning judgements is that of our minds, saying that not only our actions, but our thoughts and most private beliefs can be sin. All sinful thoughts are not treated equally, however. Denying Dante’s god will land you in a meadow. Not believing in soul’s immortality, on the other hand, traps you in a flaming tomb. It seems ignorance is not punished so strongly; it is assumed that good non-Christians would be Christian had they only been shown the way. Heretics got their chance. There is clearly thought behind the hierarchy of Hell, but it cannot be called fair.

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