Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 12, Circle 7, Ring 1 – Beware Boiling Blood

Canto 12

As Dante and Virgil descend the cliffs shattered by Christ’s harrowing visit, we discover that Virgil has not been down this way since just before that time. This means it’s been about 1,300 years since Virgil last made this trek! The landscape here is in disarray, and Dante mentions Love and Chaos in its description.

On all sides, the steep and filthy valley had trembled so, I thought the universe felt love (by which, as some believe, the world has often been converted into chaos)

This odd-sounding reference seems to refer to Empedocles and his belief that four basic elements (earth, air, wind, and fire) comprised the entire world (Aristotle included aether which had no qualities and was incapable of these elemental changes. This “fifth element” – the quintessence – was even more fundamental to the makeup of the universe than its constituent elements ).  In addition to these four elements were two equal yet conflicting principles: Love and Chaos (love being the principle of unification and chaos being the principle of division). These two principles were the explanation for the various combinations of the four elements into the various things we see around us. The balance of love and chaos made the world’s existence possible, for if either got the upper hand then there would either be no diversity or no order (both are necessary for life). This basic idea continued to form the rule of science science until modern times.(NOTE: such an idea may at first seem silly when set next to our advanced theories, but from a purely observational science it is perfectly reasonable.  When you add fire to wood what is left over? Earth. So what is wood really except earth and water – united yet separable by fire? And when you consider the periodic chart – isn’t it just combinations of even fewer, smaller, “elements”?). Perhaps as Christ’s love entered the Inferno to set the captive faithful free, this chaos was the necessary balancing result.

To reach the next circle they must first get passed the Minotaur. As one source pointed out, “Almost everything about the Minotaur’s story–from his creation to his demise–contains some form of violence.” The Minotaur’s life began when King Minos’ wife lusted after a bull and had a fake cow made to disguise herself. The bull mated with her and the Minotaur (half bull / half human) was conceived (No paternity test needed for that birth! Ewwww!). King Minos imprisoned the Minotaur in a labyrinth where he sent seven Athenian boys and  girls each year to be killed in order to punish the Athenians for the death of his own son. Eventually Theseus killed the Minotaur. This creature, then, is a fitting guardian of the circle of violence.

He bit himself like one whom fury devastates within.

The Minotaur is so full of rage that he willingly attacks himself when provoked (which allows the poets to pass unharmed). This line reminded me of J. Budziszewski’s idea of the revenge of conscience, where a person’s evil acts result in more and often greater evil as the conscience seeks its own revenge on the evildoer himself.

If the law written on the heart can be repressed, then we cannot count on it to restrain us from doing wrong; that much is obvious. I have made the more paradoxical claim that repressing it hurls us into further wrong. Holding conscience down doesn’t deprive it of its force; it merely distorts and redirects that force. . . .  the knowledge of guilt always produces certain objective needs, which make their own demand for satisfaction irrespective of the state of the feelings. These needs include confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification. Now when guilt is acknowledged, the guilty deed can be repented so that these four needs can be genuinely satisfied. But when the guilty knowledge is suppressed, they can only be displaced. That is what generates the impulse to further wrong.

This idea also seems to reflect in Dante’s description of the violent:

beside the piercing cries of those who boiled. . . .  Here they lament their ruthless crimes;

It is easy, given the graphic scenery and actions, to see the suffering of the Inferno as inflicted from without. Yet here those boiling in blood for their violence are said to be lamenting their crimes. Someo0ne literally boiling in blood is probably going to have a difficult time thinking of anything besides the pain he is in. Like similar instances, the damned seem to be more aware of why they are suffering than the specific, physical vision Dante gives to it. More than once in this canto it is pointed out that Dante’s physicality is unusual. I think this supports the idea that these shades are suffering more form internal torment than outward torture.

When the poets reach the boiling blood they discover more hybrid creatures in the form of Centaurs (half human / half horse).  Centaurs are known for their uncouth, violent behavior. In classical stories they liked to go to weddings, get drunk, and attempt to carry off the bride-to-be. (It’s difficult to imagine such lustful behavior in our enlightened times, of course). Specifically they meet Nessus, who is  selected to carry Dante across the river. This is somewhat ironic for Nessus was killed by Hercules (with a poisoned arrow!) for trying to rape his wife Deianira while carrying her across a river. The second is Chiron, the tutor of both Hercules and Achilles (the fiercest of warriors) who was also a healer; the third is Pholus. Chiron and Pholus were both accidentally killed by Hercules in a minor battle (it is worthy of note that the guardians do not necessarily seem to be suffering in the Inferno).

The half-beast and half-human creatures we encounter in this canto both represent violence (as would be required to produce such things) and are violent themselves. Perfect inhabitants of the circle of violence.

Dante references a few ancient tyrants without much comment. Then De Montfort (“Within God’s bosom, he impaled the heart that still drips blood upon the Thames”), Attila the Hun, Pyrrhus and Sextus Pompeius, and finally two Italians who preyed on travellers. Unlike other circles, Dante seems less interested in the shades he sees than by the creatures guarding them. He speaks with no shades but listens to the Centaurs with interest.  As one writer surmised,

Perhaps the intellectual content of violence is so low that it fails to spark Dante’s imagination: tyranny, vengeance, and  murder for gain are simple wrongs. . . . Here in the circle where we would place Hitler and many other instigators of the mass killing of innocents, there is no true individuality. And that itself may be a subtle implicit comment, expressing the banality of this violence, its sameness, its lack of uniqueness except in terms of numbers and barbarity.

The banality of evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt to describe the thesis that “the great evils in history . . . were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.” According to Edward S. Herman, “This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as ‘the way things are done.”

Dante and Virgil unceremoniously cross this river of blood at a shallow spot (the depth changes as it winds through the inferno, thus allowing for different levels of suffering based on the levels of violence in the shade’s lives) and prepare to move on to the next ring.