Dante: On Lust
Imagine if Dante had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in his power to do both of those things, what might he say to us? How would he advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from his experience and from his timeless epic might he choose to pass down to us?
I find it interesting, if a bit troubling, that so many Christians who live in your age think that lust is the worst sin of all. It is not.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a grave sin, one that separates us from God and from ourselves, but it is by no means the worst. As I journeyed through the inferno, I learned that hell is broken into two main sections: upper hell, where the sins of incontinence are punished, and lower hell, where those guilty of violence and fraud reside.
God punishes the sins of incontinence—lust, gluttony, miserliness, prodigality, wrath, and sloth—with far less severity, for they all represent an excess of something that is good. It is both seemly and right to feel love and even erotic passion, but when such feelings are taken to an improper extreme or directed toward an improper object, they grow twisted and perverse and morph into the sin of lust.
Likewise, though God intends for us to eat, to save, to spend, to feel righteous anger, and to rest, we must avoid turning any of those actions into idols. If we make our belly or our possessions or our extravagance or our indignation or our ambivalence into gods, they will turn against us and shrivel the good fruit we might otherwise have borne. We will have done significant damage, but most of that damage will have been directed toward ourselves rather than toward others.
The self-inflicted nature of incontinence makes it a sad and wasteful kind of sin, but it also makes it a less severe type of sin. Those trapped in the sins of incontinence will often see the futility of the lives they are living and seek to escape. There is still deep within them a spark of humanity that remembers the joy of lawful sex or proper feasting or prudent stewardship or cheerful giving or noble rage or stoic calm.
Such is not the case with the sinners who fill the circles of lower hell. They are malicious to the core and have sacrificed any real joy for the promise of winning, of getting their own way. They set out to hurt others or at least to use them for their own pleasure and advancement. They barricade their hearts against the pleas of fellowship, mercy, or love.
Beware, my friends of the future, of crossing the line from incontinence to malice. In my journey, that line was marked by a massive wall that surrounded and enclosed lower hell and that was guarded by those wretched angels who rebelled against God and fell. All who dwell within those walls live in the City of Dis, a city that makes Sodom seem pure, Egypt humble, Babylon righteous, and Carthage charitable in comparison.
To give way to lust is a bad thing, but it is less bad than the sin of the pimp, who profits off illicit sexuality and manipulates prostitutes as though they were inanimate coins to be bought and sold. Avoid gluttony, but it is better to be a glutton than an ascetic, self-righteous hypocrite who thinks himself holy and above reproach because he moderates the food he eats.
Neither hoard nor waste, but either is preferable to the traitor who plays upon men’s weaknesses to swindle them out of their money. Wrath and sloth are sins, but they are better than the sins of the warlord, who unleashes his violence on thousands of innocent victims, or the suicide, who so gives in to despair that he feels justified in robbing from God what is his prerogative alone.
Normally, I would end my letter here, convinced that I had fulfilled my duty of cautioning your age against its peculiar and besetting sins. But I have noticed something strange about your age that compels me to write further.
As I wrote earlier, you are convinced that the worst sin is lust. And yet, at the same time, you praise and champion sex as the great liberator, as the action that sets us free and brings the greatest meaning to our lives. My friends, on this issue you are most grievously and dangerously wrong. Lust may be a lesser sin than violence or treachery, but that does not mean it is harmless or can be brushed off as a minor indiscretion.
I must confess that there was a time when I myself shared your modern view. Like you, I allowed the beauty of romance to cloud my eyes from the real harm that lust does to the soul. That cloud was lifted in the second circle of hell when I met the doomed and damned lovers, Paolo and Francesca.
Francesca told me her story so sweetly and courteously that I was moved to tears. Indeed, I’m embarrassed to admit that when I heard it, and when I saw Paolo weep at its telling, I fainted away in a fit of sadness and remorse.
You who live in a world where sex has been “liberated,” do not be fooled as I was by Francesca’s genteel justification for her adulterous affair with Paolo. Though she was married, she spent an evening beside Paolo, reading together the romance of those most famous adulterous lovers, Lancelot and Guinevere. The more they read, the more their eyes were drawn toward each other, until, in imitation of Arthur’s wife and chief knight, they gave in to their lust and consummated their affair.
After I woke from my swoon and thought back on Francesca’s tale, I saw what my tears of sympathy had caused me to overlook. Francesca had tried to convince me, as she had already succeeded in convincing herself, that she was in love with Paolo, but the real lover she wanted was not Paolo but Lancelot.
Or, to be more precise, what she was really in love with was love itself. Francesca was not a lover, but a narcissist. It was finally her own self, not another’s, that she was in love with. Paolo was just the body that helped her to realize her self-centered fantasy.
Believe me, my friends, there is nothing free about illicit sex. In giving in to its allure, we think we are moving out of ourselves toward the one we say we love. Alas, it is more often the case that we are turning inward toward our own inflated ego.
Louis Markos (amazon.com/author/louismarkos), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; he is the author of 22 books, including From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition, From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith, and The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes.