By Christopher Zehnder
A profound tension between the movements of the heart and the demands of reason marks Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. This tension is felt in passages describing the pity Dante feels for the damned in Hell. Should Dante feel such pity? In one passage in Canto XX of the Inferno, the answer to this question seems to be a definite no. Dante has passed into the Fourth Bolgia of the fraudulent, where the shades of fortune tellers and diviners appear to him “hideously distorted,” their faces so twisted on their necks that “the tears that burst from their eyes ran down the cleft of the buttocks.” Seeing “the image of our humanity distorted,” Dante is overcome with weeping, for which Virgil rebukes him.
“Still? Still like the other fools,” says the stern Mantuan poet, the personification of reason:
“… There is no place
for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?”
To Virgil, Dante’s fault is nothing small. He is not merely guilty of some little weakness but of the impiety of questioning God’s justice. Virgil does not say how Dante should respond to the sufferings of the damned. Should he rejoice at their sufferings or simply look on with indifference? Yet, it seems, for Virgil, pity has no place in Hell.
Virgil’s rebuke would seem to settle the question of the propriety of feeling pity for the damned. But only a few lines before Virgil’s rebuke, Dante appeals to the reader for understanding:
Reader, so may God grant you to understand
my poem and profit from it, ask yourself
how could I check my tears…
This is not the only place in the Inferno where Dante feels pity for the damned, nor where Virgil at least seems to countenance a more rigorous response. Yet, no where else does Virgil rebuke Dante for his pity; indeed, elsewhere in Hell, the Master not only commends attitudes consonant with pity but himself seemingly acts out of pity for the suffering souls.
That we may profit from Dante’s verse, it behoves us to seek a resolution to the dilemma — whether Dante’s responses of pity toward those suffering justly by God’s will were always or never proper. Or, perhaps they were proper sometimes but, other times, not? The question of pity here, however, resolves itself into a larger question. One may feel other emotions that seemingly suggest a desire contrary to God’s will — sorrow, for instance, when a loved one dies or fear in the face of certain suffering, or a longing to escape it. Thus, we are led to ask a broader question — do we show impiety when, in the face of God’s certain providence, we feel anything else but joy, or, at least, indifference?
To answer this question with the goal, hopefully, of understanding the Divine Comedy better by answering it, we shall examine what Thomas Aquinas teaches about the proper relation of the passions to the will, and of both to reason. We shall ask whether Aquinas’ account resolves the dilemma posed by the Divine Comedy. We shall also look at an account of the relation of the emotions to the intellect and the will given by the 20th century philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, as a possible way of understanding the problem posed by Virgil’s stern “how dare you” and Dante’s plaintive “how could I not?”