Chapter 5: The Lustful
Dante and Virgil descended, and they saw Minos, judge of the souls of the damned. Minos is a judge who never errs, but Minos is a monster. He has a long tail, and after he hears a sinner confess his or her sins he wraps his tail around himself to indicate in which Circle of Hell the sinner will be punished. If Minos wraps his tail around himself three times, the sinner will eternally be punished in Circle 3. He then uses his tail to hurl the sinner down closer to where the sinner belongs.
Seeing Dante, Minos said to him, “You have come to an eternal place of pain. Be careful here. Enter carefully, and while you are here, be careful whom you trust. Do not allow anyone to fool you.”
Ever cautious, Virgil thought, Charon the ferryman tried to keep Dante out of the Inferno. Everything that Minos says is wise, but I don’t want him to scare Dante — Dante must travel through the Inferno.
Virgil said to Minos, “Don’t try to keep Dante from descending further. This journey is according to the will of the Supreme Emperor. That is all you need to know.”
Virgil and Dante passed by Minos, and they began to hear cries in the air. They reached a place of darkness and a storm. The tempestuous winds blow, and as they blow, the sinners caught in its grasp go high or low and from side to side with no control over their speed or position. The tempestuous winds blow them around Circle 2, and whenever they come to the place nearest to Minos, the sinners curse God.
Here in Circle 2 the sinners who are guilty of lust are condemned to eternal torment. These sinners ignored reason and did not control their lust.
Here we see the first of four Circles that punish the incontinent, Virgil thought. These incontinent sinners gave up the good of intellect in order to give rein to their passion for sin. Instead of using reason to control themselves, they gave up control over themselves and engaged — enthusiastically — in sin.
Here we see a contrapasso. These sinners did not want to control themselves and their lust, and here they are not in control of themselves. They do not decide where to go; the tempest winds blow them around the Circle. The sinners control nothing.
Dante saw many souls, and he asked Virgil, “Who are some of the souls whom I see being blown by the wind?”
Virgil replied, “Semiramis, an Assyrian queen of Babylon, was known for her lechery. She had the laws changed so she could marry her own son.
“Dido is also here. As you know, she had an affair with Aeneas, and when he left her in order to pursue his destiny, she committed suicide.”
Virgil thought, Dido could have appeared in a lower Circle — the Circle devoted to punishing the suicides — but Minos the judge felt that it was more appropriate for her to be punished here. Minos is the perfect judge. The Supreme Emperor chose him, and neither the Supreme Emperor nor Minos makes mistakes.
Virgil continued, “Paris and Helen of Troy are here. Paris ran off with Helen, the wife of Menelaus. Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon and a Greek army followed the pair to Troy, where the Trojan War was fought to get Helen back for Menelaus.
“Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, is also here. He fell in love with Polyxena, a daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the Trojan King and Queen, and he agreed to switch sides from the Greeks to the Trojans in order to marry her. However, at the wedding Paris treacherously killed him.
“You also see Cleopatra here. The Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra had love affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.”
Virgil thought, Like Dido, Cleopatra committed suicide — she allowed a poisonous snake to bite her — and so Minos could have sentenced her to a lower Circle in Hell, but lust was the greatest of her sins, so Minos sentenced her to eternal punishment in Circle 2.
Dante then said, “Virgil, I see two souls whom I would like to talk to in particular.”
“If you would like to talk to them, you can,” Virgil replied. “When they come close, call to them and they will come to you.”
When the two souls came close, Dante said, “Souls, if it is not forbidden, please speak to us.”
The two souls, male and female, like two doves leaving a flock, left the other souls and descended toward Dante and Virgil.
“O living creature,” said the female, addressing Dante.
I know you, Virgil thought. You are Francesca da Rimini, and you are eloquent and charming. Still, you are where you belong. I know that, and I wish that Dante knew that, but he is still naïve because it is early in his journey.
If Dante were older and wiser, he would wonder why you called him “O living creature.” Dante is a living human being, not a creature. He is not an animal. Why are you referring to him as something that is less than human? I know why.
The sin of incontinence is about rejecting one’s humanity. We are humans, not animals, yet humans can rut without having recourse to reason first. Instead of making use of their intellect and free will, the incontinent sinners ignore those things. A human being can use intellect to figure out how much and what kind of sex to engage in, and a continent person uses his or her free will to resist illicit sex and to engage only in consensual and legitimate sex, but an incontinent person ignores his or her humanity and acts like an animal that is incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong.
A human being can use intellect to know that adultery should be avoided and a human being can use free will to resist the temptation of adultery, but Francesca ignored her own humanity and succumbed to the temptation of committing adultery.
By committing adultery, Francesca did not recognize her own humanity, and by calling Dante a “living creature” rather than a human being, she is not recognizing his humanity.
Reason was not in control of Francesca while she was alive — desire was.
Francesca continued, “You are so gracious and you are so kind. I am honored that you have made your way here to pay us a social call.”
Virgil thought, Why do you think that Dante is paying you a social call? Dante is not in the Inferno specifically to pay a visit to you. He is in the Inferno to discover what he must do to stay out of the Inferno after he is dead. Dante woke up in the dark wood of error, and this journey he is taking is intended to save his soul.
You think it is all about you, don’t you, Francesca? Like many other sinners in the Inferno, you think that you are the center of the universe.
Francesca continued, “If only we were friends with the King of Kings, we would request of Him that he be with you.”
Virgil thought, And why do you say ‘if only we were friends with the King of Kings’? Don’t you know where you are, Francesca? You are in the Inferno, suffering eternal torment. You will never leave here. Being damned for eternity is not like a little social quarrel that can be fixed with a few eloquent and charming words.
Francesca continued, “Love conquered this one and made him want the beauty of my body. Love conquered me and made me delight in him who never leaves me. Love led us to be murdered suddenly. The one who murdered us will end up deep in Hell, in Caina.”
Interesting, Virgil thought. You are like most of the sinners in the Inferno. You don’t blame yourself. Right now, you are blaming Love. Love — so you think — excuses you from the responsibility of using your reason to figure out right from wrong.
But you don’t really believe that, do you, Francesca? If Love excuses you for committing adultery, that person who murdered you would be excused because he loved you. I know your story, Francesca. I know how you died.
And why are you referring to your partner in sin — the one by your side whom you committed adultery with — as “this one” instead of by his name? I know his name; it is Paolo. You can’t stand him now, can you, Francesca? Every time you look at him, you are reminded of why you are in the Inferno. That is part of your eternal punishment, isn’t it, Francesca?
Dante was silent for a while, and then Virgil asked him, “What are you thinking about?”
Dante sighed and said, “These two loved each other so much.”
Wrong answer, Virgil thought. Those two sinned, those two did not repent, and those two are exactly where they belong.
Then Dante turned to the two sinners and said to Francesca, “I pity you because of the torment you are suffering. But how did love lead you to commit the act that got you here?”
Francesca replied, “Remembering the happiness of the past will only increase the unhappiness of the present, but I will tell you. We were reading the tale of Lancelot and his love for the Queen. We were alone, for no one ever suspected us. We read about Lancelot kissing the lips he longed for, and this one by my side kissed me. The book we read was our Galehot. We closed the book, and that day we read no more.”
I can’t believe that Dante is falling for this rubbish, Virgil thought. He doesn’t know that Francesca is spinning him. She is telling only part of the story. She is leaving out all of the parts that would instantly condemn her. For example, she is leaving out of her story these important facts: 1) She and Paolo are married, but not to each other, 2) She is Paolo’s sister-in-law, and 3) Her husband found her and his brother in bed together, and he killed them both.
In addition, once again Francesca is blaming not herself, but something else. Previously, she blamed Love. Now she is blaming a book: a book about the love of Sir Lancelot for Queen Guinevere. But what kind of love was that? It was an adulterous love. Queen Guinevere was married to King Arthur, and Sir Lancelot had taken an oath to be loyal to the King. And what happened as a result of that adulterous love affair? War broke out, King Arthur was mortally wounded, and Camelot fell as a center of civilization with the result that England fell back into the Dark Ages.
That book was your Galehot, you say. Galehot was the go-between for Lancelot and Guinevere; he was no one you should want to know.
Plus, you did not read that book correctly. That book warns against adultery. Nothing good came out of the adulterous love affair of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. If you had read that book as the moral warning it is, instead of as the pornography you took it to be, you would not have committed adultery and you would not now be here.
You say, “We closed the book, and that day we read no more.” Limbo has a library, and I have read a sentence much like that before in the Confessions of Saint Augustine. Paolo’s name means Paul, and Saint Augustine was converted to Christianity by reading the work of Saint Paul. Like Francesca and Paolo, Augustine read a book. Augustine’s book was by Saint Paul, who told him to turn to Christ. Augustine did that. Augustine wrote, “No further would I read; nor needed I.” Instead of reading further, Augustine converted to Christianity. Augustine’s reading led him to turn to God, but Francesca and Paolo’s reading turned them away from God.
Hearing Francesca’s final words, Dante fainted out of pity for her and Paolo.
Dante, Virgil thought, you are still naïve, and you have allowed yourself to be scammed. God does not make mistakes. Francesca and Paolo are here because they deserve to be here. Exactly the same thing is true of every other sinner in the Inferno. Other sinners will try to scam you, and I hope that you wise up soon.
You are supposed to learn from these encounters, Dante. You are supposed to learn to take responsibility for your actions and not blame other people and things. You are supposed to learn that you have reason to help you decide what is right and what is wrong. You are supposed to learn that you have free will, which you can use to choose to do what is right and to avoid doing what is wrong. If you are going to stay out of the Inferno, these are some of the things you must learn. I can’t learn them for you.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here: