Dante’s “Divine Comedy” conveys timeless wisdom about the human person and the ugly reality of sin. This magnificent poem can help many of us overcome the sin of lust and escape the dark forest that in one way or another ensnares us all.

“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path.”[1] So begins the Divine Comedy, the story of Dante’s journey into Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and through Heaven. In the poem, Dante finds himself in a dark forest that is tangled, wild, and miserable. Having wandered off from the straight path, he is blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. These three beasts embody the three sins that caused Dante to become lost in the first place: The leopard represents lust, the lion pride, and the wolf avarice.

Here I will focus on the capital sin of lust as it is presented in the poem. Dante’s journey, as many readers may already know, is the journey of the human person’s pilgrimage to God. As a result, we can take away from the Divine Comedy timeless wisdom about the human person and the devastating consequences of sin. In the Divine Comedy, Dante descends into Inferno to see the sin of lust for the ugly whirlwind that it truly is. He then struggles up the mountain of Purgatory to overcome his lust and finally ascends into the purity and joy of Heaven.

Lust in the Inferno

Of three beasts that block his path, Dante sees the leopard of lust first.

Beyond the slope begins to rise
Sprang up a leopard, trim and very swift!
It was covered by a pelt of many spots.

And, everywhere I looked, the beast was there
blocking my way, so time and again
I was about to turn and go down.[2]

The capital sin of lust is something that Dante struggled with from the time he was young. The poet often wrote sonnets for the beautiful women he admired, even creating a list of the sixty most beautiful women in Florence.[3] It is no wonder that Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life, scolds the poet in the Purgatorio for lusting after other women when she died. As Beatrice scolds Dante, the poet claims that he feels like a “guilty child” facing his angry mother.[4] She is stern when informing Dante of the seriousness of his lust, referring to the “pretty girls” with whom he had a moral lapse after her death.[5]

Toward the beginning of Dante’s journey into Inferno, the pilgrim enters the circle of the lustful. Lust is the first capital sin presented in the poem not because it is the worst sin (as many Christians think of it now), but because it is the least bad sin for which people are damned. The more deeply wicked—such as the false counselors, the sowers of discord, and the traitors—are deeper in Hell and suffer more serious punishment.

However, we learn that the sins of the lustful are indeed something serious. Like leaves in a forest, the lustful are blown around—tossed back and forth, up and down—by a violent wind. As John Carroll writes, “the sin of lust usually grows into a wild hurricane of passion, before which reason is swept away like a straw.”[6] Indeed, the violent storm that tosses the lustful around represents the inner storm that swirls inside the lustful. It is worth noting that Dante also tells us that the lustful swirl around in darkness, perhaps representing the darkness in which the sins of our lust are so often committed.

After telling readers about the punishment of the lustful, Dante explains what lust is. “I learned that to this place of punishment / all those who sin in lust have been condemned, / those who make reason slave to appetite.”[7] As a form of concupiscence, lust is a desire of the lower appetite that is contrary to reason. In other words, the reason of the lustful is enslaved to their excessive desires. In contrast, the virtuous man is governed by the light of reason rather than by swirling desires. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, the sin of lust “consists in seeking venereal pleasure not in accordance with right reason.”[8] Indeed, the lustful of Dante’s Inferno put aside the light of reason in their earthly life to follow their appetites with regard to sexual pleasure.

Especially notable in the circle of the lustful is the encounter between Dante and Francesca, a woman who committed adultery with her brother-in-law Paolo. In a swirling fury of passion, Francesca let her attractions overpower her reason. When she tells Dante of her past life, she conveys herself as utterly overpowered by desire. She acts as if she had no free will when love captured her. Francesca tells Dante how it all began:

One day we read, to pass the time away,
of Lancelot, of how we fell in love;
we were alone, innocent of suspicion.

Time and again our eyes were brought together
By the book we read; our faces flushed and paled.
To the moment of one line alone we yielded:

it was when we read about those longed-for lips
now being kissed by such a famous lover,
that this one (who shall never leave my side)

then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.[9]

It was at this moment that love “seized” her. She explains:

Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,
seized this one for the beauty of my body,
torn from me, (How it happened still offends me!)

Love, that excuses no one loved from loving,
seized me so strongly with delight in him
that, as you see, he never leaves my side.

Love led us straight to sudden death together.[10]

Of course, Dante does not suggest that passion or desire are wrong. Instead, he suggests that passion and desire should always be governed by reason. Francesca and Paolo were caught in a fury of passion that swept them away. And so, they drift through eternity in an endless embrace, utterly enslaved to the disordered passion that culminated in the end of their earthly life.

It is interesting that Francesca claims that her lust began while reading Lancelot, a medieval book of romance. Perhaps Dante is suggesting that it is important to guard what we consume through our senses. The books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to, the images we see around us, and the conversations we have—all of these things can arouse lust. It is not just pornography that can swirl our passions. More radically, Dante is suggesting that what we consume through the senses impacts the imagination. If we wish to overcome lust, then we must first purify the imagination. And in order to purify our imagination, then it is necessary that we turn our gaze away from the false, perverse, and ugly that dominates so much of the popular culture and instead look upon the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Lust in the Purgatorio

The capital sins are presented in the Purgatorio in the following order: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. By reversing the order found in the Inferno, Dante implies that pride is the most serious of all capital sins and again that lust is the least bad. However, lust is still a sin and indeed a hindrance to sanctity. And so, some souls are damned because of their lust and others, although saved, must be purged of their lustful desires in Purgatory.

Toward the end of the Purgatorio in Canto XXVI, Dante notices two groups of souls who atone for their sins of lust. These two groups stand opposite of each other. They then go toward each other, exchange a kiss, and go the other way. They engage in a physical act, but it is not pursued with lust. Rather, they exchange what is akin to the “kiss of peace” spoken of by St. Paul. The souls kiss with orderliness, with good will, and in accordance with right reason. They do not swirl around in whirlwinds of lust but instead proceed to-and-fro in orderly lines.

When reading this canto, I am reminded of the often-mocked wisdom of Christianity on sex, dating, and marriage. Proper dating is indeed an orderly process. The kiss on the lips exchanged by the souls in the Purgatorio is a sign of affection, whereas the trembling and sexually stimulating kiss of Francesca and Paolo in the Inferno is a sign of lust. Perhaps we can draw from Dante that intimacy can and should be expressed chastely. Relatedly, the dating process is a time of mystery and self-restraint, and it results finally in an unveiling within the sacrament of marriage, wherein husband and wife give each other, body and spirit, to the other. Perhaps we should bring back some good old-fashioned courting as an alternative to the swirling whirlwind and confusing morass of the hookup culture. To say this, of course, incites bewilderment in our hyper-sexualized, lustful culture. But this insight, I believe, is consistent with Dante’s Divine Comedy, even if the poet himself did not have this in mind.

Dante sees other souls being purged by a fire. It is the Angel of Chastity who instructs these lustful souls that they must walk through the fire. The pilgrim Dante is filled with fear at the prospect of walking through the flames, which he knows he must do. Indeed, Dante knows that his desire must be transformed by the fire so that he can be elevated into Heaven. Erotic desire has the capacity more than any other to inspire us, but it can also be the desire that swirls us around and keeps us focused on the things of the world. When desire is transformed, suggests Dante, then it can help lead us to Heaven.

Dante is afraid of the pain that this final purgation in the fire will cause him. So attached to his lust, he is afraid of what will happen to him if he gives it up. Indeed, what will be left of him? Virgil tells Dante that the fire will be painful, but that it will not cause death. “Oh, my dear son, there may be pain here, but there is no death.”[11] It is worth noting that this is the same imagery that C.S. Lewis borrows in The Great Divorce. The famously depicted ghost, who has a red lizard representing lust on his shoulder, fears what will happen if his lust is allowed to die. The angel is flaming and, if he reaches his hand onto the ghost’s shoulder to destroy the lizard, will burn the ghost and cause pain. Just like Dante, he experiences great pain while overcoming his lust, but he does not die. The fire instead transforms him into an embodied man—a real human being rather than a ghost. And the lizard, furthermore, is transformed into a powerful stallion. Freed from lust, the man then mounts the stallion and rides off to the top of the mountain in triumph. “What is a lizard compared to a stallion?” Lewis asks. “Lust is a “poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.”[12] In a similar way, after Dante is purged by the fire, he is then ready to ascend to the top of Mount Purgatory to meet Beatrice, his guide through Heaven.

Freed from his lust, Dante is finally able to ascend through Heaven with Beatrice, the love of his life. He looks into her eyes, but unlike Francesco and Paolo they do not lock into a lustful and self-enclosed stare that leads to a worship of the flesh and passing things of the world. Instead, Dante sees reflected in her eyes the highest heavens above them. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it, Beatrice looks at God, and Dante looks at Beatrice. He then sees the highest heavens reflected in her mirror-like eyes. His desire is properly ordered and propels him through Heaven.[13]

I can recall just this about that moment:
as I was gazing at her there, I know
my heart was freed of every other longing,

for the Eternal joy was shining straight
into my Beatrice’s face, and back
came its reflection filling me with joy;

then, with a smile whose radiance dazzled me,
she said: “Now turn around and listen well,
not in my eyes alone is Paradise.”[14]

Once again, we are reminded that Dante does not believe desire is bad. To the contrary, when desire is properly ordered, it can grow and bring the person to wider horizons.

Overcoming Lust

Dante’s Divine Comedy, I believe, conveys timeless wisdom about the human person and the ugly reality of sin. Many of us, like Dante, have a swirling storm raging inside of us. Perhaps one way that we can calm this storm is by reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. This magnificent poem can help many of us overcome our sins and escape the dark forest that in one way or another ensnares us all. With Dante, we can delve into the Inferno of our souls to see our sins for what they really are. And then, also with Dante, we can struggle upward to overcome them. Finally, with our desire properly directed, we can be ready to ascend to the “Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”[15]

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Notes:

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (repr. New York: Penguin Books, 1971), I, 1-3.

[2] Ibid., I, 30-36.

[3] For more on the “list” of beautiful women, see Dante, La Vita Nuova (1294; repr., Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1973), 9.

[4] See Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio, trans. Mark Musa (repr. New York: Penguin Books, 1971), XXX, 79-81.

[5] Ibid., XXXI, 55-60.

[6] John Carroll, Exiles of Eternity: An Exposition of Dante’s Inferno, Issues 1-16 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903), 89.

[7] Dante, Inferno, V, 37-39.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 154. Article 1.

[9] Dante, Inferno, V 127-136.

[10] Dante, Inferno, V, 100-106.

[11] Dante, Purgatorio, XXVII 20-21.

[12] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco, California: Harper One, 2002), 525.

[13] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 3: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles (California: Ignatius Press, 1986), 63-64.

[14] Dante, Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Paradiso, trans. Mark Musa (repr. New York: Penguin Books, 1971), XVIII 13-21.

[15] Ibid., XXXIII 145.

The featured image is “Paolo and Francesca” (1870) by Amos Cassioli (1832–1891) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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