Why Does Dante Consider Sodomy Worse Than Homicide & Suicide?
New Oxford Review
Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, the most sublime religious poem the Christian West has produced in two thousand years, provides us to this day with profound insights into human nature. In the Inferno Dante provides us with a vivid, unforgettable image of what Christians have always believed about sodomites. He places them in the seventh circle of Hell, the fiery circle of the violent, far below the lustful heterosexuals of the second circle. Why this big separation? The answer is extremely important and revealing. Dante wants us to understand that homosexuals do not suffer in life from a deficiency of the will, as lustful heterosexuals do in failing to control their natural urges. Rather, they engage in a willful defiance of Nature. Indeed, Dante presents them as violent against Nature.
It is Dante’s geography that contains the central meaning of his great poem. So first, let us see the sinners who are found above the sodomites in his Inferno — that is to say, those punished for lesser offenses. The realm of the damned begins in the second circle of Hell (the first circle is Limbo — a place of rest where virtuous pagans remain unpunished, but are deprived of the vision of God). In the second circle, Dante discovers pairs of lustful heterosexuals who are tossed around like birds caught in a storm. From this circle down to the fifth one, he meets intemperate sinners, one after the other. They all yielded to their natural passions instead of exercising restraint, and so they are all punished by natural things: air, water, mud. The life they chose was below the dignity and calling of a human being, but they are in the circles of incontinence, not violence, because what they did was not malicious. Their penalty represents what they chose: They subjected their higher nature to their lower urges. And they died without repenting. So the whirlwind of passion into which lustful heterosexuals threw themselves in life now whips and drives them forever through the air in Hell; the swill into which the gluttons and drunkards sank envelops them without end; a pointless rage still drives the misers and spendthrifts to butt against each other, while the wrathful and sullen bear their grudges eternally in a muddy swamp. Dante, however, sees no devils and no hellfire afflicting these weak sinners, only natural torments.
After the circles of the incontinent, Dante comes to a wall surrounding the deeper circles of Hell, and this wall is guarded by devils. The sodomites are well below this wall. The point of Dante’s geography is that those who fall below the fifth circle did not just yield to natural passion, but were willfully rebellious against God’s order, like the fallen angels who are watching on the walls. After Dante passes the gate of Dis, the first whom he meets among the damned are those who insisted that there was nothing beyond the grave. Ironically, they asserted that everything ends with death, yet here they are in the sixth circle, each consciously fixed in his fiery grave. This sixth circle provides a transition to the lower circles. For to go further down into serious sin, it is necessary to delude oneself into believing that no eternal punishment awaits the unrepentant sinner after death.
Dante finds the sodomites at the bottom of the seventh circle, a circle that contains three rings. Again, his geography is very revealing. In the top ring of the seventh circle are those who killed for gain, whether in empire-building or in robbing travelers on the highway. Appropriately enough, mass murderers such as Alexander are up to their eyebrows in boiling blood, while common robbers are only ankle deep. Below them in the second ring are those who committed suicide because they lost money, reputation, or status. They are below the homicides, because they willfully violated the law of self-preservation, an even more basic law of Nature than love of neighbor. Since they set a lower value on their life than on worldly additions to it, they are now deprived of their human form and reduced to thorny trees oppressed by nightmarish Harpies.
But Dante places sodomy in the bottom-most ring of the seventh circle, below homicide and suicide, suggesting that this sin is an even worse form of violence. The implication here is that sodomy involves an even more thoroughgoing hostility to Nature than defying the laws of self-preservation or love of neighbor; that it is a culmination of violence in being destructive to neighbor, violating self-love, and at the same time undermining family and community. Note that the suicides in the first ring damned themselves alone, while the sodomites damned themselves with others. Therefore, sodomites must run in a band forever on the burning plain. The burning sands on which they run represent their sterility. With this detail Dante shows that the intimacies of sodomy lead to a lack of posterity and put an end to one’s family line. The sodomites, as represented by Dante’s friend Brunetto Latini, chose continuity through fame, not through children. Brunetto points out that the men in his company were all famous scholars and literary celebrities who raised themselves in the eyes of the world by their talents while they dragged one another down into Hell. Thus, they sum up the previous rings: They were violent both to others and themselves in that they destroyed their own souls and that of one another, and they were violent to family life by their choice of sterility. Thus, Dante reveals that sodomy has wide social ramifications that go beyond homicide and suicide. The sodomites are on the same burning sands as the blasphemers — those who are violent against God — because they were equally destructive of the community. Just as the blasphemers assaulted the faith of the people, so the sodomites assaulted family life, and both of these are foundations of the community, one spiritual and one natural. Now, the punishment for sin in the Inferno represents exactly what the sinner obstinately chose during life. So it is important to note that Dante sees the sodomites running in a company, not paired like the lustful heterosexuals of the second circle. He implies that sodomy involves not couples, but a large pool of sexual partners. And when Dante asks Brunetto about the most famous men in his company, it is the sodomite himself who speaks of his fellows with contempt as a “wretched mob” made “filthy in the world,” giving us a glimpse of the self-loathing and the contempt of sexual partners that accompanies this sin. Dante gives us an insight into sodomy when he reveals that these sinners cannot stand still for a minute (because of the burning sand), but must keep running perpetually. Besides their endless, compulsive running in circles, the sodomites suffer from another affliction with respect to their hands: While talking, Brunetto and his fellow sodomites constantly move their hands jerkily to brush off the flakes of fire that rain on them, like the fire in Sodom. These expressive details point to a compulsive, violent restlessness. For in the Inferno, the penalty holds a mirror to the sin itself, to show how it manifested itself in life. Dante indicates that sodomy involves perpetual motion and a bondage to a large group of like-minded sinners. One may easily deduce what Dante would say about same-sex “marriage.” He would call it a delusion, and any law establishing it a violence against Nature. For marriage involves a pair, is natural, is open to children and the future, and builds up community. But sodomy, as Dante shows in the Inferno, is forever restless and unrooted (same-sex “committed” partnerships almost always allow for outside sexual liaisons), involves partners bound in mutual contempt, and is inimical to the ultimate survival of families and societies. This is why Dante places sodomy so far below heterosexual lust, and even below the homicides and suicides, at the very bottom rung of the seventh circle of the “Violent.” Now, the sodomites of the seventh circle are consensual adults. So where would Dante place pedophiles and pederasts in the Inferno? Very likely, if he had included them, he would have put them far below the sodomites. After the circle of the violent, the poet comes to a great abyss which he must traverse to reach the lowest circles of fraud. The frauds are grouped in two circles: the simple frauds in the eighth, the compound frauds in the ninth. Both types of frauds misused their intelligence and premeditated evil words or deeds; but the compound frauds, such as Judas, are the lowest sinners of all, because besides being frauds, they violated a close bond or trust. It seems logical that Dante would place pedophiles and pederasts among the compound frauds in the ice of the ninth circle, not far from Satan, supposing of course that they remained unrepentant to the end. Their icy punishment would reflect how clear-sighted and cold-hearted they were. Dante does not see them as weak or hotly defiant against God and Nature. Rather, he sees them as highly perceptive and exercising a merciless contempt for others, tricking and manipulating them for their own sordid purposes. Pedophiles and pederasts belong with the sinners of the ninth circle in that they had to betray a sacred trust, such as the father-child bond or the host-guest relationship. And they also had to use fraud to entice one whose trust and innocence called for protection. Dante cuts through the cant, illusion, and glamour that surrounds sin in any age, but especially ours, and he holds up a mirror to damnable vice. Would that he were alive today.