The Reading Room

Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life : Inferno, Canto V: Be Discerning in Love

A Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy
Dante and Virgil leave Limbo and make their way into the second circle of Hell. This circle is smaller in size than the first (Dante’s Hell is shaped like an upside-down cone, so that each circle takes up less space than the one above it) but “so much greater in pain”, because the first circle of Hell was merely Limbo; the second circle is where the true punishments of Hell really begin.
Here Dante and Virgil see Minos, the former King of Crete, child of Zeus and Europa and Chief Justice of the Underworld. Minos—a king during his mortal life, now a monster in the afterlife—has a long, snakelike tail and snarls horribly. One by one the souls of the dead come before him to receive their judgment. He scrutinizes them, listens to their confessions, examines their sins, and renders his judgment by winding his tail: the number of times he winds his tail around the sinner is the circle of Hell to which the soul shall be sent. 
 Minos notices Dante and addresses him. Virgil, thinking that Minos is trying to dissuade Dante from his journey, declares to Minos that Dante’s journey through the Underworld has been “so willed where there is power to do / That which is willed,” and must not be impeded. 
 Dante now begins to hear the cries around him grow louder. He comes into a place that is devoid of light; he hears sounds that resemble the thundering of the ocean during a sea storm. A hellish hurricane is hurtling souls without cease, whirling them round and round, striking them, assaulting them. When the hurricane hurtles them toward the edge of a cliff, they shriek, cry out even more, and curse the wind as well as God.
 Dante understands that these sinners are the “carnal malefactors”—those guilty of the sins of lust and overindulgence in carnal pleasures—who let their appetites overwhelm their reason. They are being driven on relentlessly by the hurricane—up, down, sideways, in every which way—with no hope for rest or comfort, without even hope for lesser pain. 
Here in Canto V we and Dante finally witness the first punishments in Inferno for genuine sinners. The principles of punishment in Dante’s Hell follow the contrapasso (eye-for-an-eye) model: every punishment is designed to precisely fit the crime. We have seen this principle already—recall Canto III, in which those who were neutral in their lives, standing for nothing and not taking a side in the struggle between good and evil, were condemned to chase after a banner which stood for nothing. Now that we are in Hell proper, encountering genuine sinners—the further we progress through Hell, the more egregious will be the sinners whom we shall see—we can expect the severity of the punishments to increase accordingly. 
 The first kind of sin that is punished in Hell is the sin of lust. It is punished in one of the uppermost regions of Hell, indicating that it is one of the least egregious sins. This is because Dante knows that lust is often a key ingredient in love (which is a virtue). Lust leads to love, which leads to marriage, children, and the perpetuation of the species—and the continuation of the human story. Lust is to the planet what yeast is to dough; without it there would be no living beings, just as without yeast in flour dough cannot rise to become bread. “Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko famously said—and so too is lust. It may not literally make the world go round, but it is what allows the human (as well as most of the animal world) to continue as we know it.
Thus, for Dante, lust cannot be punished as severely as other sins. Nonetheless, because it is a sin when it is carried to excess, it must be punished. What is fascinating about Dante’s depiction of the punishment of the lustful, though, is that this sin is not punished in the way that we might expect it to be. When one of the most notoriously lustful characters in literary history, Moliere’s Don Juan, finally receives his comeuppance, he is swallowed by fire and taken down to Hell in flames. Ixion, the King of Thessaly in Greek mythology, was similarly punished for his lust (in his case, for his inappropriate desire for Zeus’s wife) by being fixed for eternity to a wheel of fire. This is probably the way we would envision the sin of lust being punished—in a hot, fiery, sweltering manner that parallels the passions which incited the sin. Dante’s Inferno, though, does not punish those who are guilty of lust with fire and flames but rather with fierce winds and battering hurricanes. Why?
For Dante, the emotions of fiery passion are part of the “Lust is good” narrative—one should have this kind of heated desire for one’s partner. Lust becomes a sin not when it burns like fire but when it is out of control like a hurricane. Controlled, directed desire for one’s partner is good. Uninhibited desire, which blows one every which way and causes a person to make rash and reckless decisions on its account, is when lust crosses the border between legitimate desire and illegitimate depravity. 
 The problem, though, for Dante—and for us—is that sometimes it is very hard to tell which kind of lust is possessing us. As we shall see in the next section of this canto, there have been many people—including the famous lustful historical figures we shall next meet—who are punished among the sinful lustful but whose lust was also bound up with people they legitimately and lawfully loved. Even so, we meet such individuals in Dante’s Hell because in their lust for the people they loved they let themselves be blown and battered about by its winds. Rather than controlling and harnessing their lust, they let their lust control them, losing their love and themselves in the process. 
 Samuel Johnson famously said that second marriages epitomize the triumph of hope over experience. Dante would not entirely agree with Johnson, but he would very much accord with Johnson’s implicit admonition that we should not abandon our reason in the pursuit of love. We should be passionate in love, and we should even burn with desire for our partners, but we should be extremely careful to not be blown off course—away from our responsibilities, our friends, our communities, our life missions and our good judgment—in love. Lust is good; letting it thrash you and smack you and whip you around like a stick stuck in a cyclone is not.