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Friday, March 20, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 27 Evil Counselors)

As we continue our journey down through the deeper levels of Hell we find that good and evil are getting harder and harder to distinguish.  The simple sins (lust, gluttony, anger, laziness) are far behind us.  Now we’re in a region where sins are more complex because they all involve fraud or malice.  What’s right and what’s wrong starts getting a little fuzzy.  Fraud and malice are much harder to detect than the simpler sins of lust and gluttony.  And we saw in Canto 26 how flowery speeches can persuade even good people to do things that are wrong.  That’s what Odysseus did and that’s why he’s in Hell.  Canto 27 echoes that same theme only with different characters in a different situation. Dante meets an ex-soldier (Guido da Montefeltro) in lower Hell who says, “I was a man of arms and then a friar, believing with the cord (the monk’s habit) to make amends; and surely my belief would have come true were it not for that High Priest (the Pope) his soul be damned! who put me back among my early sins.”  Guido made a living on earth as a mercenary soldier and he was good at it.  As he put it, “my actions were not those of a lion, but those of a fox; the wiles and covert paths, I knew them all.”  In other words, he was very good at deception and was most valuable when brute military force wouldn’t work.  The Pope knew of his exploits and wanted to make use of his military skills.

Guido was reluctant to return to his old ways.  He had forsaken military life and taken up the life of a monk for the salvation of his soul.  Now the Pope was tempting Guido to give up his peaceful ways.  “His lofty papal seat, his sacred vows were no concern to him, nor was the cord I wore… this one sought me out as his physician to cure his burning fever caused by pride.  He asked me to advise him.”  Here was the situation.  Some enemies of the Pope sought safety in the fortified refuge of Palestrina.  To get at them the Pope needed to level Palestrina and he wanted Guido’s help.  Here was the problem.  “The Prince of the New Pharisees (the Pope) chose to wage war upon the Lateran instead of fighting Saracens (Muslims) or Jews, for all his enemies were Christian souls.”  The “Lateran” weren’t enemies, they were fellow Christians.  Guido was reluctant to help kill other Christians, even if it was the Pope himself requesting it.  “I was silent, for his words were drunken.  Then he spoke again: Fear not, I tell you: the sin you will commit, it is forgiven.  Now you will teach me how I can level Palestrina to the ground.  Mine is the power, as you cannot deny, to lock and unlock heaven.”

So Guido helped the Pope level Palestrina to the ground.  Later, Guido says, “Saint Francis came to get me when I died, but one of the black Cherubim cried out: ‘Don’t touch him, don’t cheat me of what is mine! He must come down to join my other servants for the evil counsel he gave.’”  Wait a minute.  Wasn’t Guido already absolved from sin by the Pope  when he revealed how to defeat Palestrina?  Here’s the problem.  The Pope said, “the sin you will commit, it is forgiven.”  That one word (will) is what doomed Guido.  The black Cherubim explains why.  ‘From then to now I have been ready at his hair, because one cannot be absolved unless repentant, nor can one both repent and will a thing at the same time; one is canceled out by the other!’  Guido’s mistake was not thinking through his act of repentance.  Someone can be forgiven a sin they’ve already committed, if they’re truly repentant; but not for a sin before they’ve even committed it.  That’s not true repentance and black Cherubim are smart.  You can’t fool them.  This one told Guido, “Perhaps you never stopped to think that I might be somewhat of a logician!”


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