Day to day Dante: BBC News – “US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid”

**First of all, a trigger warning, as I discuss the issue of child abuse in this post.**
This is slightly old news now, but this post has been languishing as a draft for quite some time and it’s part of an ongoing trend in day to day language, so I thought I’d polish it up and put it on display! This story (BBC News – US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid) caught my attention because the US Attorney overseeing the case said:

“I believe if Dante were alive today and rewriting the Inferno that the lowest places in hell would be reserved for those who commit cruelty to our animals and to our children.”

Initially, I want to say that I find the direct correlation of child abuse and cruelty to animals to be insensitive and wildly disproportionate. While I do believe that animal cruelty is a significant problem, and that animals should never be put through unnecessary suffering, such cruelty is of a very different order to the abuse of children. I also find it odd that anyone would believe that violence against children would not be punished in Dante’s Inferno, for reasons you’ll see below. I did find this statement to a press conference interesting, though, for a couple of other reasons: firstly for the fact that Dante’s concept of Hell is still such a touchstone for modern conceptions of how evil-doing should be punished (“There’s a special circle in hell reserved for x-offence” is a commonplace); and secondly because it got me wondering about how we would or could apply Dante’s categories for some contemporary crimes.

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

Of course, if we’re going to apply Dante’s categories in a modern world, the first challenge is whether we bring his sense of sin up to date too. And if we are updating them, to what? To broadly acceptable modern mores? To the contemporary pronouncements of the Catholic Church?

I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be the latter. While developing his poetic identity as prophetic poet, a teller of divine truths, a decidedly Christian writer, Dante was not shy of kicking against the pricks of many ecclesiastical (and particularly papal) norms. A classic example of his nonconformity is his inclusion of excommunicated souls in Purgatory, souls whom the Church firmly declared were going to hell are granted passage to heaven by dint of personal repentance, despite the statements of the Church.

This isn’t to say that Dante would have been liberal minded. He condemned homosexuality, non-procreative sex and extra-marital sex, any non-Christian religion (or philosophical heresy), forgery, gluttony, un-managed anger, false prophesy, prostitution and pimping, the list goes on… He even put his own teacher in hell (but who hasn’t felt like doing that at least once during their school days?!).

He was innovative though (and might find some common ground with the current pope) as, in Dante’s version of Purgatory, heterosexual and homosexual lust are repented on the same terrace – repented, that is, on the way to heaven. This may not seem like a huge deal, and indeed, it is actively retrograde for a modern context, but in 13th Century Italy, it was kind of a big deal. ‘It doesn’t matter who you get overly steamy with’, Dante essentially tells us, ‘ as long as you repent and turn to God before you die, you’ll get to Heaven’. This isn’t a million miles away from Pope Francis’ statement that ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’ and, like Dante, this Pope seems liberal in some things and definitely conservative in others (e.g. recent papal pronouncements on abortion).

Anyway, to get back on track, would child and animal abusers find a place in Dante’s Inferno?

Before answering this question it’s worth remembering that, in the Inferno, motivation matters. The why can be as important as the what of a sin. A suicide (usually found in the 7th circle, among the violent against themselves) can be found among the lustful if they killed themselves for love/lust. This is what happens with Dido, who killed herself when her beloved Aeneas left her.

Now, as I mentioned before, it strikes me as odd that a speaker today would assume that violence against children is not covered by the Inferno. When it comes to animal cruelty I think the question make more sense, and while there are huge differences in the magnitude of these crimes, they would, arguably, be punished in the same place and there is already a circle set aside for the perpetrators of such offences. In fact, there might be three.

So, what are these three possible circles?

  1. The fifth circle, Anger: If you are violent towards a child or harm  an animal through uncontrolled anger then you could wind up here, mired in the Styx, where Dante saw the damned souls who ‘struck each other with their hands, / their heads, their chests and feet, / and tore each other with their teeth’. (VII, 112-114)*.
  2. The seventh circle, Violence: In the subsection of the first section of this circle, the sinners are submerged in Phlegethon,
    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    ‘the river of blood that scalds / those who by violence do injury to others’ (XII, 47-48). They’re also watched over by the Minotaur (who looked a little different for a medieval audience than he does for us, as you can seen from the picture on the right) and guarded by an army of centaurs. It contains a space for those who commit sexual violence, ‘violence against nature’, which I think should (and quite possibly would) be reclassified in modern context as sexual assault and child sexual abuse. With the previous caveats that I in no way consider the abuse of children and cruelty to animals to be similar orders of crime, I do think that today the idea of animals as others to whom gratuitous violence is wrongfully done has traction. Even for a medieval christian, the idea that all of creation was sacred could justify the placement of those who are cruel to animals in this particular circle.

  3. The ninth circle, Cocytus, treachery: This is the deepest circle, and while it may seem an odd choice for these 21st century sinners, it actually encompasses any breach of trust in a family or against a guest. Dante also explicitly considers violence against family members, specifically children, and guests as a manifestation of this kind of treachery. Count Ugolino is damned for killing and eating his own children when imprisoned with them and starved (XXXIII, 43-75), and Fra Alberigo ends up in the ninth circle for hiring assassins to kill his dinner guests (XXXIII, 118-120). It’s easy to see how other forms of child abuse would fall into this category, especially by family members, teachers, and others in positions of authority and care over children, in loco parentis, is after all in the place of a parent. Again, if we take the crime of cruelty animals, particularly pets,  there is certainly an argument to be made that they are either family or guests in our homes and thus cruelty towards them makes us traitors to the bonds of family or perverters of the role of host.

Dante often makes space for wildly varying levels of criminality (or sin, in his logic) within the same circle of hell and this is what I think we can do in this case. While taking issue with the Attorney’s blithe association of child abuse and animal cruelty, I do think it casts an interesting light on modern models of crime and ‘sin’ and a cultural memory of systematic punishment which seems to have become embodied in Dante’s Inferno.

* All quotations from Dante Alighieri, the Inferno, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2002.

One comment

  1. davidjabowe · February 7, 2014

    I’ve just had a thought – there’s an apt ‘contrapasso’ (the fitting of the punishment to the crime) in finding those who are cruel to animals among the violent in Phlegethon. Those sinners are kept in their place by violent centaurs, so half man/half animal creatures would be overseeing the punishment of those who were inhumane to animals.

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