Suicides in Dante’s Theology

Dante does some interesting things with suicides between the Inferno and the Purgatorio.

In Canto XIII of the Inferno, Dante describes those guilty of committing suicide (a mortal sin in Medieval theology) as being characterized by intense self pity. Transformed into thornbushes, they moan and groan and bewail their sorry state, trying to elicit pity from Dante. When the poet breaks off a twig from one of them, it cries:

“Why do you tear me?”
And then, when it had grown more dark with blood,
it asked again: “Why do you break me off?
Are you without all sentiment of pity?
We once were men and now are arid stumps:
your hand might well have shown us greater mercy
had we been nothing more than souls of serpents.”:”(Lines 33-39 of The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno, trans. Allen Mandebaum [New York, NY: Bantam Classic reissue, 2004], pg. 115.)”:

Dante’s response:

As from a sapling log that catches fire
along one of its ends, while at the other
it drips and hisses with escaping vapor,
so from that broken stump issued together
both words and blood; at which I let the branch
fall, and I stood like one who is afraid.:”(Lines 40-45, ibid.)”:

The interesting thing about this portrayal is, as my professors pointed out, that as a result of their intense self-pity, the suicides have no speech other than the shedding of their own blood. Feeling profoundly alone and cut off in the world, they feel that they cannot get anyone’s attention in any way other than taking their own lives – and then blaming others for hurting them. This no doubt has something to do with their being transformed into thornbushes, black, knotted and gnarled and poisonous briars which bear no fruit (Lines 1-6).

And yet, the very first person whom Dante meets in Purgatory (Canto I.23) is Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C.), the eminent Ancient Roman statesman who, upon realizing that Julius Caesar had succeeded in conquering the Republic, committed suicide. If suicide is a mortal sin, why does Cato get to be in Purgatory – which, of course, means that he will eventually wind up in Paradise? Cato is, to be sure, a preeminent example of Ancient Roman virtue, and in the Canto there appear four stars overhead symbolizing the Four Cardinal Virtues which he exemplified – Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. Yet, other virtuous pagans, such as Homer and Socrates and Plato and Euclid and Cicero (and Virgil himself) are confined to Limbo, forever cut off from God because, as Virgil puts it, “Not for the having – but not having – done,” for being “late in recognizing” the truth about God which they, above other pagans, ought to have seen.:”(Inferno IV; Purgatorio VII.22-36.)”: So again, why does Cato get to be in Purgatory? It seems like everything is going against him.

Well, in Purgatorio V we are told the story of Buonconte Montefeltro, who lived a whole life of wickedness and yet was saved at the literal end, as he was falling dead from battle wounds, by the shedding of a single repentant tear and a single mention of the Virgin Mary’s name. Modifying the purely Aristotelian notion of a state of virtue (or lack thereof), Dante the Christian recognizes that God’s grace can overcome a lifetime of sinful habits by saving even one who lacks nearly all virtue.

So God’s gratuitous salvific will, and the mystery of election (Cato, but not Socrates), may be what is behind the fact that Cato, a suicide, is in Purgatory, not Hell. Another factor, at least for Dante the poet, may be that Cato’s suicide was a principled act done in defense of liberty against a tyrant, and for very personal reasons Dante the poet is big on liberty and down on tyrants. As for the internal logic of the Divine Comedy as a whole, it was pointed out to me in the lecture for the week that in light of Inferno IV.52-61 and Purgatorio I.88, it may very well be that Cato was one of the numerous unnamed ones whom Christ carried off in the “harrowing of Hell,” when Jesus descended into Hell and carried off the captives (Apostle’s Creed; cf. I Pet. 3:19-20, 4:6).

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