Love, Chaos, and the Order of Hell (Cantos XI-XII)
Any decent edition will help you make sense of the order of Hell as Dante envisions it and as Virgil describes it here, so I needn’t rehearse it except to remark on the fact that it is ordered at all. We might imagine Hell as fundamentally a chaos, the natural consequence of a soul distant from its creator and abandoned, at its own urging, to its own waywardness.
For Dante, however, this would be both artistically and spiritually poor thinking. As an allegorical poet, he seeks structures to support his spiritual theme, but as a medieval Christian thinker, he believes all of what is was created by a God who is himself a perfect order and whose works, then, reflect that order—even to the depths of Hell.
Contrast this with Virgil’s explanation of the landslide they descend to the seventh circle in Canto XII. He conjectures it was the result of the earthquake Hell felt when Christ visited it after the crucifixion:
When the deep, fetid valley began to shake
Everywhere, so that I thought the universe
Felt love; the force that has brought chaos back
Many times over, say some philosophers. (XII.34-7)
Here, Christ appears to cause disorder or chaos in Hell (a landslide) as the result of love, which Virgil attributes with bringing chaos “back.” Dante alludes here to the Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles that Love produces chaos and Strife order.
Yes: Love produces chaos. If that seems counter-intuitive to you, it did to me as well. That’s why I spent quite a bit of time trying to make sense of it.
We’re running up against an idea developed later by the Manichaeans, the notion that the universe exists in a perpetual dynamic of Good and Evil or Love and Strife, a notion we still find in popular action films and superhero stories. Even when Goodness/Love ultimately win, we’re rarely surprised by the final scene when the villain’s hand emerges from the rubble.
But Dante suggests something at once more confusing and more interesting. “Brought back” could mean “retrieved from” chaos or “brought chaos back.” The Italian in caòsso converso could mean the same depending on how you translate in, which can mean “in, to, or by.” According to Pinsky’s note, love represents for Empedocles a force of chaos while Strife (Hatred) represents order. I consulted Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy which explains that life for Empedocles is not possible under the total dominion of either Love or Strife but only in the dynamic diminishing of one and increasing of the other. Love in its dominion unites the four elements into an undifferentiated unity (the Sphere) that might be considered chaotic. Strife, by separating out the elements (toward the Whirl) actually makes some order possible by delineating the boundaries between things.
For further help, I looked into Mandelbaum’s and Esolen’s translations, but both simply refer to this philosophy without attempting to explain its relevance. Esolen translates the pertinent line, “Back to the chaos of its origin” (XII.43), supporting my second translation above.
Here’s where I arrived on this scene, then: Christ can be said to bring chaos to the order of Hell in the sense that love, on this view, disorders the world by breaking down or traversing the boundaries that we otherwise depend upon in order to differentiate things. That’s some intense allegory, right there, in an almost throw-away comment.
Suicide as Negation of Self and God (Canto XIII)
This year’s Timothy Series speaker, Frank Page, chose suicide as his theme for this series of lectures aimed at building up the pastorate, so it feels important to address this unpleasant canto. Page spoke with passion and theological seriousness about his adult daughter’s suicide after years of struggle with mental illness, arguing that he believed her act was certainly sinful but did not put her beyond Christ’s reach. He could not see that Christ could fail to have compassion for his Melissa’s mental illness, her profound mental and emotional brokenness.
I had to wrestle with this question in my own life when a friend committed suicide not long after I graduated college. I knew there had been life events that triggered his depression, but by all reports his depression developed into a full-fledged pathology. He did feel a species of despair, feeling far from the love of God, but he never to my knowledge denied God himself.
During his funeral I experienced one of a very few visions I believe I have ever been given from God. It’s a difficult image, but one expressing Christ’s profound love for my friend. Briefly, I saw my friend standing on a chair in the middle of a dark room with a spotlight on him. Above him hung a noose, which he placed his neck into and then stepped off the chair. As his body fell, I saw his soul, like a ghost, slipping out of it, and Christ appeared behind him and caught his soul and drew it to himself as a father catches a falling child. Just as Frank Page felt God comforting him about his daughter, I felt God comforting me, saying he knew my friend’s heart and could give him the peace he sought.
Dante takes the difficult orthodox Catholic position that suicide, as an expression of despair, negates one’s being, rejects the gift of existence and thus snubs God. No matter how good such persons in life, this final act condemns their souls to the distressing and poignant fate of being immobilized as trees, harassed by harpies, and having their rejected bodies hung from their limbs.
If my vision is trustworthy, as I believe it is, and if Frank Page has biblical justification, as I believe he does, then one need not believe that all suicides deserve a fate such as Dante describes. At the same time, this episode cautions me to take despair seriously. I understand it in context of what one might call the “heroic” tradition of suicide in which one views self-slaughter as a means of preserving honor or willfully rejecting pain. Suicide is seen as honorable in many honor-based cultures, but it is also treated as noble in some forms of Western thought. Goethe’s Werther, for instance, believed it a legitimate and heroic response to his frustrated love. More recently, the Economist shared a video documentary of a 24-year-old Belgian woman who was granted physician-assisted suicide because she felt she had exhausted her options for treating her depression.
The spirit of the age is tolerance and a broad interpretation of individual rights according to personal desire, largely divorced from moral thinking—beyond the injunction not to harm others (at least, not against their wills). As such, it’s not clear to me we have a common cultural means of judging this girl’s request immoral. We may also have a wizened concept of compassion such that we cannot see it coexisting with moral discernment; to prove that I feel for and with you, I must not tell you what you desire is wrong.
But Dante would insist that, however pitiable the girl’s circumstances, suicide represents a sinful rejection of God’s sovereignty over her life. I know some compassionate people who would argue suicide is even a “reasonable” response to her despair, but the hard truth is that this only makes sense if we accept despair as an interpretation of the world; it’s “reasonable” from her perspective, which is finite and individual. If life is suffering without hope, as some nihilists believe, then suicide is legitimate and even reasonable, but as Christians we cannot accept that view of reality and must not confuse our compassion for real suffering as evidence for the reasonableness of an action.
This is much the line that Dr. Page took, contrasting the popular view that life may not always be worth living with a Christian theology of the goodness of created being. Calling suicide a sin numbers it among the many other sins we each commit daily, and thus suicides are not so different than us in their need for redemption. We can have the compassion for them that we would wish for ourselves without foregoing our privilege of moral discernment.